The Great (second series) – Channel 4

Standard

This really is a load of rubbish, and yet it’s strangely watchable, because it’s so bad!   I was going to say that it was like a very crude Carry On film; but Carry On films are funny, and this is just stupid.   They’ve deliberately got all the history of Catherine the Great’s life wrong, even things which could have been got right without altering the script, e.g. Catherine’s husband being Peter’s grandson (they’ve said that he’s Peter’s son).

At the start of the second series, Catherine has succeeded in overthrowing Peter – but she’s expecting their heir, who was actually born several years earlier.  And the set-up in this bonkers programme is that Catherine rules part of the palace, but Peter and his supporters are holed up in one wing.  No-one seems concerned with such trivial matters as running the Russian Empire or foreign policy.   Peter has a number of lookalikes, who keep getting shot, and there’s a lot of arguing over food.  And dead bodies are hanging around.  And at one point there was a crocodile running round the court.

It’s so bad.  It’s terrible.  And yet it’s worth watching just to marvel at how bad it is!

Advertisement

The Crimean Circle by David Kushner

Standard

This, as the title suggests, is set during the Crimean War.   It isn’t by a British author, and so it’s not the usual fare: there is nary a mention of Florence Nightingale, our characters watch the Charge of the Light Brigade and wonder what on earth’s going on (although, it has to be said, most of the British Army did as well, and they’re involved in the defence of Sebastopol, not in besieging it (I can’t get used to “Sevastopil”, sorry).

Crimea (I’m a British historian, OK, I can’t get used to “Krym”) is obviously much in the news at the moment.  People in the UK will, until 2014, have known it largely from the war of the 1850s.  It was a war in which Britain should never have got involved, but which was strangely popular here, and made a big impact on our culture – Florence Nightingale’s work, obviously, the Cardwell Army Reforms and the Tennyson poem, but also the use of the words “balaclava” and “cardigan”, and all those little urban roads with names like Inkerman Street and Balaclava Terrace.

None of that has got anything to do with this book: I’m just being Anglocentric.  Ahem.  The book is by an American author and is subtitled “A Russian Jewish Tale of the Crimean War”, which is certainly a different take on it.   Incidentally, our hero, Iosif Hirschcovich Cymerman/Zimmerman comes from Kremenets, in what’s now Ukraine, and would probably have been thought of then as Russian Poland, but, to be fair, most people would say “Russian” to mean “the Russian Empire”.

The point of the book is to highlight the issue of the forcible conscription into the Russian army of quotas from minority religious and ethnic groups, rather like the devshirme system in the Ottoman Empire.   This applied to Jews, Karaites, Old Believers, Roma people, various indigenous peoples and, after the 1830 Uprising, Catholic Poles.  With most groups, boys were conscripted at 18.  With Jews and Karaites, boys were conscripted at 12 in theory, and sometimes from as young as 8, and sent to cantonist schools.  It’s not something which is ever spoken about very much.  I think that the memory of the devshirme system still lingers in Greece, over 200 years after independence, but no-one talks about forcible conscription amongst minorities in the Russian Army.  There’s one vague reference to it early on in Maisie Mosco’s Almonds and Raisins, in which we’re told that Abraham Sandberg’s brother (who is never mentioned again) fell victim to it, but I can’t think of any other novel which even mentions it, and not even academic books say much about it.

So it’s an interesting and neglected topic: I just wish that a) the author had checked a few basic facts more carefully and b) the story had been a bit more realistic.  It’s a self-published novel, so it possibly wasn’t edited by a third party, but that doesn’t excuse some of the really silly errors which it contains.  And it’s not exactly very likely that our guy would have saved the Tsarevich’s life, been given a fortune by a count whose life he’d also saved, and then been invited to appear in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, is it?!

We’re told that Kremenets had been under Russian rule since 1756.  Oh, come on.  The Polish partitions took place in 1772, 1793 (the correct date for Volhynia … and I’m talking about the historic province, so it’s OK for me to say “Volhynia” rather than “Volyn”!) and 1795.  The significance of 1756 was the Diplomatic Revolution and the start of the Seven Years’ War.  You can check that sort of thing on Google or Wikipedia in a matter of seconds.  There was also a reference to Job’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt.  I do not claim to be an expert on the Bible, but Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt is surely fairly basic general knowledge.  And referring to Ekaterinburg as Sverdlovsk, the name it was only given 70 years after the book was set, really was very poor.

Oh, and I also wish that the author had used the normal system of transliterating from Yiddish, rather than that awful alternative system which I don’t think anyone outside American academia can follow – khay instead of che etc.  Even Google can’t follow it.  I tried Googling a sample word using the normal transliteration and the alternative version, and Google didn’t recognise the latter.  So there!!  There were some issues with the quality of English, as well.  Maybe that was just with the Kindle version, but other errors were with the actual text – such as “two centuries ago” rather than “two millennia ago” (placing Judah the Maccabee in the 17th century!).

All right, all right, enough moaning.  What about the actual story?  I seem to have had a lot more to say about the historical background and the historical errors than I have about the story itself.   There was a bit about Cymerman’s early life, but the rest of was about his life in the army, first in Kyiv and then en route to and at the scenes of the fighting.  A number of other people also played a significant role in the book, including a brutal Ukrainian sergeant, a Jew who’d converted to Orthodoxy but said that he was only pretending to make life in the army easier for himself, and a lot of young lads who’d been taken from an orphanage in order to fill the quota from their area.  Oh, and a dog.  The dog had quite a big role.

TBH, I didn’t find the actual book that interesting.  I appreciate that the point was to show how awful life is, but there’s really only so much you can read about digging latrines and burying bodies, which was what they spent most of their time doing.  And there was a lot about weapons and battle tactics, which I know that a lot of people enjoy reading about, and which will probably really appeal to fans of Bernard Cornwell and Edward Marston, but which just wasn’t for me.

Books about the Romanovs are for me though, so I was quite chuffed when our pal Iosif rand his mates saved the Tsarevich’s life at Balaclava – the Tsarevich having apparently decided to make a surprise appearance at the battle, as you do.  But it wasn’t exactly very realistic, and I’d thought that the book was trying to give a realistic portrayal of these young men’s lives.  Also, the author showed the Tsarevich’s friends referring to him as “Alex”.  Excuse me?   I’m not sure that even his close friends would have used a diminutive of his name, but, if they had, it would have been “Sasha”.  Have you ever met a Russian known as “Alex”?!

Having saved the Tsarevich’s life, Iosif just happened to meet up with Tolstoy.  And then we learned – there was a bit of a dual timeline, with one of Iosif’s descendants meeting up with a British aristocrat and telling her his family history, and it transpiring that her ancestor had given Iosif his watch after the Charge of the Light Brigade – that Iosif ended up living in Missouri, had a run in with Quantrill’s Raiders, and turned down an invitation to join Buffalo Bill Cody’s show.

Sadly more realistically, Iosif’s fiancee Sima was raped by a soldier – and one of supposedly their own side, a Russian soldier.  As has happened in so many wars of the past and as is happening in Ukraine now, men rape women as some sort of particularly sick way of making war.  It’s quite rightly considered a war crime now, but that’s only happened quite recently.

Continuing with the story, Iosif was imprisoned for attacking Sima’s rapist, but he was later released, and he and Sima were married, and joined some of his comrades in a grand reception given by Alexander, now the Tsar, in St Petersburg, and received large sums of money both from the Tsar and from the family of a count whose life Iosif had also saved.   And there’s a sequel, which presumably covers the move to America.

The author is apparently a prize-winning journalist who’s also written non-fiction books.  I think this was his first foray into fiction, so maybe allowances should be made for that!   Full marks for the choice of topic, very average marks for the actual book!

 

The Tsarina’s Daughter by Ellen Alpsten

Standard

I’ve been waiting for decades to find a novel featuring the Tsarina Elizabeth as the main character, rather than as a minor character in a book centred on Peter the Great or Catherine the Great, so thank you to Ellen Alpsten for writing this, and thank you to Amazon for making it available on a 99p Kindle download.

However, it was quite an odd book: it couldn’t quite seem to make up its mind what it wanted to be.  Much of it was a historical novel, which was what I wanted, but there was a very odd fantasy (a nod to Game of Thrones?) passage about Elizabeth wandering into the mysterious Golosov Ravine and being attacked by evil spirits, quite a lot of very slushy romantic/sexual passages, and one bit, about Elizabeth making sweet bread with salt instead of sugar, which read as if it’d been written by Laura Ingalls Wilder or Elinor M Brent-Dyer and really did *not* seem to belong in a book about 18th century Romanovs.

All in all, it was a good read, though.  The Age of the Empresses is a fascinating period, but people just tend to jump from Peter the Great to Catherine the Great and ignore everyone in between.  However, Ellen Alpsten’s previous book focused on Catherine I, Elizabeth’s mother, and much of this book covered the reign of Anna Ivanovna.  It ended when Elizabeth deposed Anna Leopoldovna, Anna Ivanovna’s niece and regent for Ivan VI, but I think there’s a third book to come, which will cover Elizabeth’s own reign.  It’s fascinating that all these women ruled the vast Russian Empire in a man’s world.  And, indeed, that they all had lovers – in Anna Leopoldovna’s case, lovers of both genders – , which would have been considered very shocking at most European courts, but wasn’t in Russia.

Some of the lesser characters had been merged together, to keep the cast list down, but the author did explain that.  And Praskovia Ivanovna, the third surviving daughter of Ivan V, wasn’t mentioned at all, but, again, I suppose the author was trying to keep the number of characters down to levels she felt were manageable.  My one big gripe in terms of historical accuracy or inaccuracy was that the book suggested that Ivan V wasn’t actually the father of any of his daughters, which isn’t something that’s generally believed.

It even gave that as the reason why Elizabeth launched her coup, which I didn’t get at all. She launched her coup because she wanted to rule, and because the two Annas made a mess of things and were seen as allowing a German takeover of the court and causing great suffering amongst the Russian people.  Why not just stick with that?  Anna Ivanovna was absolutely vilified here, which is very much the Russian view and not always the international view; but the book was written from Elizabeth’s viewpoint, in the first person, so that fitted.

Despite the odd mishmash of styles, I did really enjoy this, and am looking forward to reading the third book in the series.  As I said, it’s wonderful to find books focusing on the women who ruled Russia in the period between the two “great” reigns.  Elizabeth made a huge contribution to Russian history, and indeed to European history, and she doesn’t deserve to be neglected in the way that she often is.  It really does annoy me how practically every book and TV programme on 18th century Russia just jumps from Peter the Great to Catherine the Great!  Well done to Ellen Alpsten for breaking that trend!

The Witches of St Petersburg by Imogen Edwards-Jones

Standard

Well, on the plus side, it was high time that someone wrote a novel about the “Montenegrin princesses”, Stana (Anastasia) and Militsa, daughters of the King of Montenegro, wives of Russian Grand Dukes, and instrumental in introducing the Tsarina Alexandra to “Monsieur Philippe” and then to Rasputin.  On the minus side, most of this particular novel is nonsense, and that’s made worse by the fact that the author claims in an afterword that it’s largely based on fact.  As a work of fiction, it’s quite entertaining.  As a work which claims to be a relatively accurate piece of historical fiction, it’s a disgrace!   According to Ms Edwards-Jones, Nicholas and Alexandra had a fifth daughter, who was taken away and adopted; Alexandra and Militsa were having some sort of affair; and Militsa was the one who shot Rasputin.  I’ve never heard such rubbish.

She also seems to have a rather vivid and possibly rather warped imagination – some of the stuff about Rasputin’s carry-ons is admittedly probably true, but the idea that the Tsar and Tsarina indulged in public naked capers and that Stana and Militsa tried to create spells with miscarried foetuses is distasteful, to say the least.   And this silly idea that the Khlysty (a religious sect) indulged in all manner of orgies was made up back in Peter the Great’s time in order to discredit them.  Over the years, a lot of unpleasant stories have been made up about different religious groups.  It’s hardly very responsible of authors to propagate them.  And some of it was just plain bonkers.  Monsieur Philippe had a magic hat which made him invisible when he wore it?!  I thought this was meant to be a historical novel, not a children’s fantasy book.

Philippa Gregory’s claims about Woodville witchcraft are bad enough, but at least the Woodvilles, having died over half a millennium ago, aren’t likely to be hurt by them.  Stana and Militsa both died within living memory.  I really do dislike this trend of making up all sorts of rubbish about people who are either still alive or who may still have immediate relatives and friends living.   The book contains some ridiculous errors, as well.  There was no change of dynasty in Montenegro following an assassination.  That was in Serbia.  Wrong country!   Montenegro is not primarily Roman Catholic: it is primarily Montenegrin Orthodox.  And why do so many people make a mess of Russian names?

This was my book for the Facebook group reading challenge, which was to read a book about witches, but I freely admit that I wanted to read it because it was about Imperial Russia, and already had it on my TBR pile when the “challenge” about witches was posted.   I also have to admit that I’ve rather enjoyed ripping it to shreds, just because it annoyed me so much!

But what a shame.  These two women are not particularly well-known, but they should be, because they did play an important role at the court of “Nicky and Alix”, and it was partly through their influence that Alix – poor woman, desperate to produce a son and heir, and then, when he arrived, desperate to keep him safe because of his haemophilia – became involved with Rasputin.  That certainly played a part in the fall of the Romanov dynasty, and the communist takeover of Russia has had a huge influence, to put it very mildly, on world events ever since.  This could have been an excellent and very important book … but, as it was, I’m not really sure what the author was playing at with it.

 

The Slaughterman’s Daughter by Yaniv Iczkovits

Standard

This award-winning book has been described as “Quentin Tarantino meets Fiddler on the Roof”.  It’s not quite like that, but it’s certainly different.  Marks for setting a book in the Russian Empire in the late 19th century without it being centred on St Petersburg (I love St Petersburg dearly, but most people didn’t actually live there) and marks for writing a Jewish historical novel which isn’t about the Holocaust.  But it’s a bit weird, and there isn’t really much of a plot.

The theme, if there is one, is running away from it all.  If you go back a few generations, a lot of families have got a story of Uncle A who ran off (as opposed to emigrating in an orderly, planned kind of way) to America, or Cousin B who ran off to Australia, or someone who mysteriously disappeared from the records and was never spoken about, often leaving a spouse and children behind.  And it’s practically always a man.  In this book, it’s a woman.

Rather than St Petersburg, we’re in Motal, which (thank you, Wikipedia) was a “shtetl”, a small village with a mainly Jewish population (like Anatevka in Fiddler on the Roof), in Belarus.  Well, it was in Russian Poland at that time, then in Poland between the wars, then Belarus.  And we have a Manchester link here 😉 , because it was the birthplace of Chaim Weizmann, the future first president of Israel, who spent three decades living in Manchester.  I know that people needed to know that.  All books should have Manchester links.  Obviously.

Motal has a problem with husbands running off.  This is a double problem, partly because it leaves families without their breadwinners, and partly because, under Jewish law, deserted wives are unable to remarry, even after many years, unless their husbands are either definitely known to be dead or else provide a written document of divorce.  There are a lot of minor characters, and all the men, for some reason, have double-barrelled first names, so it’s all rather confusing; but the main point is that the husband of one Mende does a runner, and Mende’s sister, one Fanny, decides to run off to find him.

Fanny is regarded as a bit strange anyway, because, as the title of the book indicates, she’s the daughter of a ritual slaughterer (i.e. someone who slaughters animals for food in accordance with the laws about kosher meat), and, unusually for a woman, she learnt the slaughtering trade too. And she gets involved in various adventures with men who’ve all left their villages due to being conscripted into the army.  The Russian Empire, like the Ottoman Empire, required different demographic groups to provide a certain number of boys for military service, where, if they weren’t members of the state religion, they’d be put under pressure to convert.   Fairly early on, she gets attacked by bandits, and kills them with the ritual slaughter knife which she carries around.  Then she gets chased by members of the secret police, who seem to have come out of a Carry On film.

It’s a very strange book, and, as someone who prefers “ordinary” historical fiction, I wouldn’t normally read something like this.  However, as I said, it’s very difficult to find books that are set in the Russian Empire but aren’t about aristocrats or revolutionaries in St Petersburg.  And it did make some interesting points about wanting to escape life in a small village, especially under the many legal restrictions that the population’s under.

The main problem with it is that anyone who’s not familiar with the background is going to find it incredibly difficult to follow.  I do actually like it when books assume that the reader knows the background and don’t patronise me by explaining it.  However, I do accept that not everyone has studied Eastern European history and culture, and that the average Anglophone reader may not be familiar with the Pale of Settlement, the Polish partitions, the Khmelnytsky Massacres (big gold star for using the transliterated Ukrainian version of the evil Khmelnytsky’s name, because people sometimes use the Polish version and that really annoys me) or the use of the nickname “Iron Tsar” for Nicholas I.  There are also a lot of Yiddish and Hebrew words, and references to some religious practices which are now only followed by ultra-Orthodox communities and which most people will not have come across.

A glossary would have been useful.  Give people a chance, eh?   Especially in the light of the Black Lives Matter protests, a lot of people are trying to broaden their reading horizons by choosing some books about different cultures, but I can imagine some readers being rather put off by the use of a lot of terms with which they aren’t familiar, without any explanatory notes.  Yes, I know there’s Google, but even so!

Anyway, if you fancy something different, this is certainly different!  But it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste.  If you read it and don’t get something, please let me know, because I absolutely love giving people lectures on 19th century Eastern European history, but I have terrible trouble getting anyone to listen 😁!

 

Russia Vs The World – Channel 5

Standard

What on earth was this rubbish?  I’d been looking forward to it, seeing as it promised to tell “the epic story of Russia and how a millennia [sic] of explosive drama ….” but it was just awful.

It started by jumping from Grand Prince Vladimir of Kievan Rus to Ivan The Terrible, and ignoring the five centuries in between.  Hey, let’s make a programme about “the epic story of England”, and jump from William the Conqueror to Elizabeth I.   And that was just the start.  A small sample of things which it totally failed to mention – the Mongol invasions, the Battle on the Neva, the Time of Troubles, the Schism, the Table of Ranks, the Pugachev Rebellion, the Napoleonic Wars, the Decembrists, the Crimean War, the liberation of the serfs.  It did however mention James Bond, Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, Rasputin, Vladimir Putin going scuba diving, Boris Yeltsin’s drinking habits and Roman Abramovich.

Then it concluded by saying that Russia had come full circle from Grand Prince Vladimir to Vladimir Putin.  Presumably apart from Vladimir Putin not being a Russian Orthodox saint, and Grand Prince Vladimir neither being interested in scuba diving nor having spies who went to watch Arsenal.

Seriously, Channel 5?  I thought you’d got your act together with history programmes, but what on earth was this?

I think it was just meant to be Cold War-esque propaganda making out that Russia is the Big Baddie.  I don’t want to see stuff like that.  We’re supposed to have moved on from those days, and I don’t want to see any sort of propaganda on British TV.  Out of two hours, about twenty minutes was spent on pre-revolutionary Russia.  Then even the Civil War was pretty much skipped over, and it was on to Stalin, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Chernobyl, the fall of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin sitting on a tank, and then loads and loads about Vladimir Putin.

The argument seemed to be that Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Catherine the Great (apart from Vladimir and Nicholas II, every other monarch was completely ignored) were dictators (Catherine would not be impressed with that at all) who paved the way for Putin.  Well, that’s logical, isn’t it?  Three monarchs in 500 years.  You might as well say that Henry VIII, George IV and Victoria are the reason that Boris Johnson could do with losing a few pounds (on which score I sympathise with them).  You could look at any country’s history and pick three monarchs in 500 years, and claim that they somehow typify the country’s leadership.  Then it completely contradicted itself, by saying that it was actually the KGB in charge, not Putin.

Not impressed.  We don’t need this sort of programme on TV.  And, if you say you’re going to talk about a millennium of Russian history, even if you don’t seem to know that the correct word is “millennium” rather than “millennia”, then please, er, do so.

Tsarina by Ellen Alpsten

Standard

In 1986, there was an absolutely superb TV mini-series about Peter the Great.  They don’t make programmes like that any more!   I found the story of his second wife, Martha Skavronskaya/Marta Skowronska, the peasant girl who ended up becoming Tsarina Catherine I, Empress of all the Russias, fascinating.  So, 34 years later, I was so excited to find out that someone’d written a novel about her that I splashed out on the hardback version as soon as it became available.  And I really did enjoy it.  I’ve got a few quibbles about historical accuracy but, as no-one really knows that much about Marta/Catherine’s early life, it’d hard to criticise too much.  However, what the book *didn’t* do was what it said on the tin.  It was subtitled “the most powerful woman history ever forgot” – but it didn’t cover her time as tsarina regnant.  It finished when Peter died, apart from a couple of pages covering Catherine’s death two years later.  Why write a book about the incredibly story of an illiterate peasant girl becoming Empress of all the Russias but not show her actually, er, *being* Empress?!  Very entertaining book, but what a strange ending.

I think of her as Martha Skavronskaya, but that’s the Russified version of her name.  She was originally Marta Skowronska.  Annoyingly, the book calls her Marta Skowronski, which is incorrect: that’s the masculine form of her name.  In all the confusion in the Baltic between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Swedish Empire and what became the Russian Empire, no-one’s very clear about her history, although the name’s Polish.   She was born in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, somehow ended up as a maidservant in the home of a Lutheran pastor in what’s now Latvia, was married off to a Swedish soldier and, when Russian troops occupied the area during the Great Northern War,  somehow (there are a lot of “somehows”!) came to be part of the Russian camp, went back to Moscow with the soldiers, became part of the household of Peter’s best mate Menshikov, and was then noticed by Peter and became his mistress.

Ellen Alpsten’s come up with a very lurid tale in which Marta was an illegitimate child brought up by a brutish father and wicked stepmother, sold to a landowner who raped all his maidservants, murdered the landowner, ran off to Latvia with the money she’d stolen from his household, was taken in by the pastor whilst starving on the streets, had an affair with the pastor’s son, was married off to the Swedish soldier, and was then raped by Russian troops whilst trying to get to her husband’s deathbed and was taken to the Russian camp by a general who took pity on her.  As no-one actually knows the truth of it all, it’s hard to criticise an author for making up stories, but she should have said in the afterword that she’d made it up.  It’s very annoying when authors don’t do that.

After that, things are pretty well-documented, or at least the subject of well-known and widely-accepted stories (like the one about Catherine’s lover, whose head Peter had pickled in a jar), and the book sticks fairly well to the known facts. Some bits are exaggerated – there are stories that Catherine had Peter’s baby son by his mistress Maria Cantemir poisoned, but I’m not sure where the story included here, about Catherine having Maria infected with smallpox, came from! – and there are a few careless errors (Peter’s mistress Anna Mons and her brother, Catherine’s probable lover William Mons, are described as being German when they were actually Dutch) – but there are no major inaccuracies.

It’s coarse, brutish and vulgar, but it was!  The Most Drunken Synod and all that!  And it sometimes seems as if half the book’s about Catherine’s pregnancies, but she did have twelve pregnancies – but, sadly, only two children who survived to adulthood.  Her fascinating daughter Elizabeth’s bad reputation is exaggerated a bit, as well!  It was nice to see Elizabeth as a young girl: I’m used to seeing her as the bossy aunt-in-law in books about Catherine II.

There’s a lot about the Great Northern War and the Russo-Turkish War, and a lot about court intrigue, but there’s not much about domestic politics.  The Tsarevich’s links with the Old Believers are not even mentioned.  Nor is the Table of Ranks.  And there’s very little about things like Peter introducing Western dress.  But, OK, it’s not a textbook, and the ins and outs of the Table of Ranks possibly wouldn’t be that interesting to the general reader.  And it kept me gripped all the way through.  Admittedly, a book about Imperial Russia would have to be really bad not to keep me gripped, but this wasn’t bad at all.  It was just so strange that it didn’t cover Catherine’s time as ruling tsarina.

The reign of the empresses is fascinating in general, but Catherine I’s case is particularly fascinating.  Catherine II was born a princess, albeit a very minor one.  Catherine I was a peasant girl who never even learned to read and write.  And she has been largely forgotten … although so has the Empress Anna; and even the Empress Elizabeth isn’t as well-known as she should be, overshadowed by Catherine II.  It was wonderful to find a book about her, but so very odd that it didn’t actually cover her reign.

The Romanov Empress by C W Gortner

Standard

This book, about Minnie, Dagmar of Denmark, Empress Maria Feodorovna of Russia, wife of Alexander III and mother of Nicholas II, is a very entertaining read; and, for people unfamiliar with this period of Russian history, it’s probably quite informative.  Unfortunately, it contained a number of very basic factual errors, which, given the generally high quality of the writing, were disappointing.  OK, they didn’t really affect the story, but I’m very picky about Romanov history and they grated on me!   Annoying errors aside, it was an enjoyable book.  So much attention is paid to Nicholas and Alexandra that Minnie is usually just seen in terms of her son’s reign: it was good to read a book in which she was the central figure.

It wasn’t a long book, and it didn’t say much about her childhood.  That was a shame, really, because her birth family are fascinating: her father, a fairly obscure prince, became King of Denmark through a claim on his wife’s side, and the “Grandfather of Europe” through his descendants’ marriages and his second son becoming King of Greece.  But, OK, it wasn’t meant to be about her early life.  Most of her five siblings didn’t feature much, but there was a lot about her close relationship with her sister Alix, Queen Alexandra of Great Britain and Ireland.  The book actually started with Alix’s marriage to the Prince of Wales.  We then saw Minnie’s engagement to the Tsarevich Nicholas, and, after his death, her marriage – with some reluctance on both sides – to his brother Sasha, the future Alexander III.

“Sasha” is a very difficult figure to write about.  He and Minnie were happy together, he seems to have had a reasonably good relationship with his children – less so with his siblings, but that was because he was an early advocate of what Prince Charles would call “a slimmed-down monarchy” –  and he was often described by royals from Britain and elsewhere as genial “Uncle Sasha”, the gentle giant.  And he managed to avoid getting involved in any major wars, despite the tensions of the time.  It’s also a little unfair how he’s seen as the great repressor in contrast to his father, the “Tsar Liberator”.  Alexander II was certainly far more liberal than his son, but he moved away from that after the 1863-4 Polish Uprising.

But Alexander III was repressive.  Much of that was a reaction to his father’s assassination, in 1881, but his refusal to agree to a constitution set Russia a lot further along the road to revolution.  And there’s the huge issue of the May Laws and the pogroms.  They weren’t the big international news then that they were in Nicholas II’s reign, but what went on was horrific.  There was also repression against … well, pretty much anyone else who didn’t tick all three boxes of being Russian, Orthodox, and Russian-speaking.  This was a book about a woman’s life, not a textbook, so I didn’t expect too much detail about political issues, and the issues were raised, not ignored, but I thought there should have been more about them.  That’s just my opinion.  And the famine of the early 1890s was pretty much ignored.

The book was much better on family matters, though.  And it’s pretty difficult to keep up with all those Romanovs, and all the British, Danish, Greek and German relations abroad, and the marriages and divorces and children – the author did well there!   We also got a good picture of Minnie’s charity work, and her popularity with the Russian people.

Alexander III died in his 40s.  The events of Nicholas II’s reign are very well-known, but still tend to be sensationalised: I was pleased to find that the author stuck to the facts and resisted the temptation to include some of the stranger stories.  We did not see any claims that Minnie was plotting to depose her eldest son.  What we did see was a lot about her difficult relationship with her daughter-in-law Alix and, increasingly, with Nicholas.  Again, it’s difficult – you have to sympathise with Alix over her anxiety about her son Alexei’s haemophilia, and her desperation to do anything to help him; but Minnie and everyone else could see the damage that was being done to the monarchy by its association with Rasputin.

This was a book about Minnie, so we saw it from her viewpoint – but I think most of us see it from her viewpoint anyway.  Nicholas should have agreed to far wider and deeper political reforms than he did.  “Our Friend” should have been given his marching orders.  The young Grand Duchesses should have been brought out into society.  The First World War was badly mismanaged.  But she could have shown Alix a bit more sympathy, and their difficult relationship did come across well here, as well as the fast-moving political and social events of the time.

We were also shown all the issues within the wider Romanov family – Minnie’s other children, and Sasha’s brothers and their families.  I love all this stuff, so I know all about who married and divorced whom!  If you don’t, you will hopefully enjoy finding out – it was all going on!

It was disappointing, though, that the book pretty much ended with the October Revolution, and did end with the famous evacuation of Minnie and numerous others from the Crimea (sorry, “Crimea”.  But no, I will not say “Krym”!) on a British warship.  Having thought throughout how nice it was to read a book that was about Minnie as Minnie, not just as Nicholas II’s mother, it was rather annoying that we didn’t hear anything, apart from a brief afterword, about the remaining ten yeas of her life.  Her story did not end when she left Russia.

Again, it’s difficult … there’s this image of her as a rather tragic and rather batty old woman, refusing to face up to the fact that her sons, Alix, the young Grand Duchesses, Alix and so many others had been murdered.  I don’t know how you’d write about that, because she wasn’t a batty old woman.  C W Gortner handled it well, as far as he went, saying that she felt she’d be betraying them if she acknowledged that they were dead … but then her cut her story short.

So that was a shame.  And, as I said, there were some very annoying errors.  Minnie’s name was usually spelt “Minny”, not “Minnie” as it as in this, but, OK, that could be excused.  I prefer “Minnie” as well: “Minny” looks wrong to me.   Her nephew George, our King George V, was called “George” by his relatives in this, when he was always known as “Georgie”.  Pobedonostsev’s name was repeatedly spelt as “Pobedononstsev”.  Minnie’s son Michael got married in Vienna: this said that he got married in Paris.  OK, these weren’t major errors, but they were annoying.  More seriously, Minnie’s daughter-in-law, Alix of Hesse, was referred to as “Alexandra” before her conversion and marriage.  That’s a common error, but her given name was Alix.  It wasn’t short for Alexandra: it was her full first name, an alternative spelling of Alice.  Using the masculine version of Russian surnames for women is inexcusable.  As for saying that Prussia occupied Bosnia and Herzegovina after the Russo-Turkish War … how can you mix up Prussia and Austria-Hungary?!  Especially given the significance of Sarajevo coming under Austro-Hungarian control.  That sort of carelessness is just annoying.

OK, I’m being picky!  Moaning aside, I really enjoyed this.  It was exactly what I needed – Russian history and royal gossip are very good for me!   Recommended!

Catherine the Great – Sky Atlantic

Standard

At least the naked men in Sanditon weren’t running around brandishing scimitars.  What on earth are the people who wrote the scripts for this on?  Oh dear!  Back in 1986, there was a superb TV mini-series about Peter the Great.  I’ve been reading about 18th century Russia ever since.  The first holiday I paid for with my own money was a trip to Russia. I went for every Russian history module available at university. I picked the winner in the 1997 Grand National because of Catherine the Great (seriously)*.  My friend at university had a teddy bear called Pugachev.  So I was really looking forward to this,  But, sadly, it was more akin to Versailles, The Borgias and The Tudors, although admittedly without the wild historical inaccuracies, than to the brilliant series that got me hooked on 18th century Russia when I was 11.  It’s one of those series that’s mesmerising because it’s just so bad, but I was so much hoping it was going to be … well, good.  And it isn’t.

Ballrooms and bedrooms are fine up to an extent, but could they not have got a bit more history in?!  And, whilst Helen Mirren looks absolutely wonderful for 74, she was playing a woman who was only 33 at the start of the series!  Everyone else had been aged up to match (apart from Nikita Panin, who’d bizarrely been aged down), so, instead of an array of handsome, dashing young Orlovs, we got a group of blokes who’d been made to look like the cast of Last of the Summer Wine in colourful costumes.  Still at least they wore costumes.  Potemkin ran around stark naked (what is this obsession with bare backsides on TV this year?) whilst wielding a scimitar.  I wouldn’t have thought that was a very sensible idea, TBH.

And could they not even have checked basic facts?  They called the Empress Elizabeth Catherine’s mother-in-law.  No!!  She was Catherine’s husband’s auntie.  Or basic terminology?  “Serfdom” and “slavery” are not interchangeable terms.  I knew it was bad news when the programme started by helpfully informing us that we were in “St Petersburg, Russia”.  Did they expect that viewers might think we were in St Petersburg, Florida?!   Mind you, if we were, it would at least explain why not one person has addressed anyone else by their first name plus patronymic.  It’s Russia, OK.  Patronymics.  We need patronymics.

I want to write a long essay about all sorts of aspects of Catherine’s reign, but they’ve hardly even been mentioned.  We got a rather odd version of … well, I’m not actually sure if it was meant to be the Nakhaz or not, because it seemed to be too early for it, but I think it was.  Anyway, it only mentioned serfs, and completely ignored all Catherine’s plans for the other social estates.  The First Polish Partition’s been ignored completely.  The Russo-Turkish war has been mentioned, but only really in relation to various blokes arguing over who’s better than whom.  There has, to be fair, been quite a lot of talk about the Pugachevschina, but it annoyed me because Catherine just seemed to be going “Oh dear, this seems to be quite serious,” and asking Potemkin what to do.  And it’s failed to make the point that it put Catherine off making further reforms.

On the positive side, at least it hasn’t gone for the popular, prurient image of Catherine as someone who spent all her time chasing one man after another, and it’s made it clear that she was genuinely in love with her “main” lovers.  It hasn’t even suggested that Peter might not have been Paul’s father.  And I assume that they are not going to include the ridiculous horse story.  But it has shown an awful lot of scenes of Catherine gossiping with Praskovia Bruce, balls with men wearing dresses and women wearing breeches (which was actually more Elizabeth’s thing than Catherine’s, apparently because Elizabeth looked good in breeches and knew it), and men having playground “I’m more important than you so ner” arguments, rather than anything serious.  OK, I know it’s not supposed to be a documentary, but I did expect there to be a bit more about the actual events.

And, strangely, seeing as it quite clearly isn’t aimed at serious historians, there hasn’t been much explanation of what’s going on.  Much as I dislike programmes which treat you as if you’re stupid, this is not a part of history with which most Anglophone viewers are going to be familiar, and it jumped right in with Catherine visiting the former Ivan VI in prison without even giving his name, never mind explaining that Elizabeth had deposed him and Peter had been (his aunt) Elizabeth’s heir.  Also, putting the R or the N in “Catherine” backwards might work for a meerkat advert or a sign at a football match, but it just looks silly in a period drama.

The costumes are great.  The sets are great.  But precious little else about this is great.  I quite like the way they’ve shown Catherine’s sense of humour, and her comments about women in power, but the lines are written for an older woman with a lot of life experience, and that just wasn’t Catherine in the 1760s and early 1770s.  It feels as if they wanted Helen Mirren and wrote the part for her, instead of writing about Catherine.  And I appreciate that royal period dramas are going to focus on the court and the personal life of the monarch, rather than on what was going on in the country at the time, but there needs to be a balance and this was skewed way too far in favour of ballrooms and bedrooms.  Bleurgh.  I’ve been waiting 33 years for another mini-series based in 18th century Russia, and the wait really hasn’t been worth it!

 

*Just in case anyone is actually reading this, and wondered, when teenage Sophie/Catherine first went to Russia, she became pally with Count Gyllenborg, the Swedish ambassador.  I picked Lord Gyllene for the 1997 Grand National because the name sounded a bit like Gyllenborg.  All right, I’m weird.  But he won!

 

The Summer Queen by Margaret Pemberton

Standard

I feel vaguely guilty for having enjoyed this, because it was mostly just a lot of historical royal gossip. Maybe I’m being a bit of an academic snob here, because I never feel guilty about reading historical royal gossip when it’s in academic book format – Theo Aronson’s written loads of books like that, and so have Carolly Erickson and various other people, and I assume that Margaret Pemberton’s been reading some of them!  Or maybe it’s because I feel vaguely uncomfortable about reading fictionalised accounts of the lives of people who seem so close: the book runs from 1879 to 1918, but some of the main characters were still around as recently as the 1950s. I haven’t got Netflix, so I didn’t watch The Crown!  Anyway, I did enjoy it – and I suppose it wasn’t all fluffy stuff, because it covered the build-up to the First World War and the Russian Revolution, focusing mainly on Princess May of Teck, later Queen Mary, Princess Alix of Hesse, later the Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, and Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany, later Kaiser Wilhelm II.

There are an awful lot of cousins, who have relationships with and marry each other. If you’re used to royal family trees, it will make perfect sense. If not, you might get confused! It’s all been said umpteen times before, but it’s still entertaining. I’m not sure what the King of Norway would make of the suggestion that his grandmother, the then Princess Maud, had a full-blown affair with Prince Francis of Teck: it’s known that she was interested in him, but I’m not sure about the rest. And I’m not convinced that Princess May had always been in love with the Duke of Clarence. He comes across as a very romantic figure here, but, whilst the rumours that he was Jack the Ripper are more than a bit OTT, a romantic figure he was not! But I quite like the idea that Ella of Hesse went into her marriage with Grand Duke Sergei knowing full well that it was a lavender marriage, and actively chose that because it was the nearest she could, at that point, get to being a nun … rather than finding out after the ring was on the finger, as her sister-in-law Victoria Melita of Edinburgh did.

I’ve heard it all a million times before, but it’s still quite fascinating how there were all these cousins and second cousins marrying each other. Or not marrying each other, in the cases of Maud and Francis, “Eddy” (the Duke of Clarence) and Alix, Wilhelm and Ella, etc etc.

What about the three main figures? The book revolves around the fictional and possibly rather silly idea that May, Wilhelm and Alix recognised each other as “Kindred Spirits”, all being outsiders for one reason or another, and swore an oath of friendship. The blurb on the front cover says “Her broken oath would cast an empire into turmoil” … and I don’t actually know to what that’s supposed to refer! It makes no sense whatsoever. Does it mean something to do with Alix and Wilhelm’s supposed childhood friendship? And who’s “The Summer Queen”? Queen Victoria? May? That doesn’t make much sense either. Anyway, I think all the “oath” stuff is best ignored: it just seems to be there to try to justify the focus on three different people, and link them together.

Alix’s story has been told in both academic books and fiction umpteen times, and is therefore very well-known, but she seems remote in this book. We don’t really get a sense of her concerns about changing her religion, her fears for her haemophiliac son’s health, or what was going on with Rasputin. The book also suggests that it was Wilhelm who convinced her to marry Nicholas, which doesn’t make much sense either but is presumably to tie in with the “kindred spirit” idea.

Queen Mary’s story, on the other hand, has rarely been told. She’s usually seen as the epitome of dignity, and, because of that, as being a bit cold, so it was nice to see a book reminding us of her difficult childhood, as the descendant of a morganatic marriage, and the time her family spent living in Italy and the freedom she enjoyed there, as well as how difficult it must have been for her when the Duke of Clarence died. She comes across really well here.  I’m glad about that.  She’s an admirable figure who coped well with some very difficult times.

“Willy” comes across well too. He’s such a hate figure in the English-speaking world, because of the First World War, and also the appalling way in which he treated his mother. If Queen Mary is seen as the epitome of dignity, he’s seen as the epitome of Prussian militarism – but the author is quite sympathetic to him, reminding the reader of all the horrific treatments he was subjected to in order to try to cure the damage done to his arm by a difficult birth. He certainly didn’t have it easy, but I’m not sure why the author’s quite so sympathetic towards someone who was undoubtedly very militaristic, and had some very unpleasant attitudes. She shows him as being an Anglophile, when he was anything but, and ignores some of his extremist views. On a more positive note, she touches on the interesting Harden-Eulenberg affair, when his closest friend and advisor fell from power amid a lot of talk about homosexuality, then a taboo subject in the German Empire.  It’s something that’s increasingly attracting attention from historians of the period, many of whom link its effect on the Kaiser to an increase in militarism.

There’s the odd blunder – notably saying that the previous Queen Mary had been Mary Tudor! – and the author annoying refers to “England” rather than “Britain” all the way through, but it’s generally accurate.  In fact, it generally reads as if it most of it was taken from books by Theo Aronson or Justin Vovk, and fictionalised, but maybe I’m doing the author a disservice there.  Even though a lot of the subject matter is pretty “heavy”, especially that relating to Russia, the story’s fairly light, and it’s not a bad choice for holiday reading.  Something about it vaguely annoyed me, but I think that was just because it felt weird that the lives of people who lived so recently, and whose lives, at least in the cases of May and Wilhelm, are well within living memory, had been turned into easy reading.  And, as I’ve said, that’s probably just me being an academic snob!   Given that I knew all the factual royal gossip in this already, I am clearly a total hypocrite … 😉 .  And I did really enjoy it!