Russia in the Age of Alexander II, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky

Article excerpt

Walter G. Moss. Russia in the Age of Alexander II, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, London: Anthem Press, 2002. iii, 295 pp. Illustrations. Bibliography. Index. £18.95, paper.

Walter G. Moss, already the author of a solid two-volume survey of Russian history, has written an unconventional textbook on one of its most important and dramatic episodes, the period from the Crimean War to Alexander II's assassination. The book is a collective biography that interweaves the life of the Emperor with the lives of a small group of his most prominent contemporaries and adversaries: revolutionaries Herzen, Bakunin, and Perovskaya; writers Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy; and historian/intellectuals Sergei Soloviev and his son Vladimir. The book focuses primarily on the personalities rather than the historical events of the period; the Great Reforms, economic and social changes, diplomatic realignments and military encounters appear only as a rather sketchy backdrop to the biographical dramas. Moss prefers description to analysis, and employs a lively, anecdotal style in order to bring his subjects to life. At the same time, the book is grounded in historical, literary and biographical scholarship, and Moss displays impressive knowledge of the period.

Developed out of Moss's own course on "Russia in the Age of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky," the book at first seemed ideal for the course I regularly teach on "Dostoevsky's Russia." But my experience with it was mixed and, in the end, disappointing. Paying equal attention to their private as well as their public lives, Moss manages to convey a large amount of biographical information about his subjects. Readers obtain considerable information about their physical appearance, habits, illnesses, romances, sex lives, and immediate milieu, be it the Winter Palace, Yasnaya Polyana, Herzen's London or Dostoevsky's Dresden. In the words of one of my students, the book is both "informative" and "playful." But in his effort (for reasons he does not explain) to illuminate their "foolish, dogmatic, and impractical" as well as their "courageous and noble" characteristics (p. iii), Moss overemphasizes his subjects' foibles and private tribulations. At the same time, their motives and goals are rarely the subject of investigation or even speculation.

Moss does not explore, for example, why Perovskaya became a terrorist, or Herzen and Bakunin, sons of privilege, embraced revolution while Dostoevsky rejected it. …