Russia's People of Empire: Life Stories from Eurasia, 1500 to the Present

Russia's People of Empire: Life Stories from Eurasia, 1500 to the Present

Russia's People of Empire: Life Stories from Eurasia, 1500 to the Present

Russia's People of Empire: Life Stories from Eurasia, 1500 to the Present


A fundamental dimension of the Russian historical experience has been the diversity of its people and cultures, religions and languages, landscapes and economies. For six centuries this diversity was contained within the sprawling territories of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, and it persists today in the entwined states and societies of the former USSR. Russia's People of Empire explores this enduring multicultural world through life stories of 31 individuals-famous and obscure, high born and low, men and women-that illuminate the cross-cultural exchanges at work from the late 1500s to post-Soviet Russia. Working on the scale of a single life, these microhistories shed new light on the multicultural character of the Russian Empire, which both shaped individuals' lives and in turn was shaped by them.


Stephen M. norris and Willar D. Sunderland

“You are mistaken, my dear grandmamma,” Alix wrote in 1900. “Russia is not England. Here we do not need to earn the love of the people. the Russian people revere their Tsars as divine beings, from whom all charity and fortune derive.” the grandmother in question was no ordinary one: she was Queen Victoria. and by the time she wrote the letter, Princess Alix had adopted a new name and a new country: she was Empress Alexandra of Russia.

The selected passage reveals several aspects of Alexandra’s personality. Born in the German state of Hesse-Darmstadt, Princess Alix grew up an ardent Anglophile. Influenced by her English mother, Alice, and grandmother, Queen Victoria, Alix adored English culture and regularly visited the country. This German attachment to Englishness remained with her for the rest of her life. After meeting and falling in love with the future Nicholas ii, tsar of Russia, Alix changed her name to the Russian “Alexandra” and converted to Russian Orthodoxy, but she retained her love for all things British. She and Nicholas spoke and wrote to each other in English; they read English literature together; they decorated their house and garden in the English style.

While Alexandra remained “English” in her temperament and worldview, her marriage and religious conversion added a “Russian” element to her persona. She became a zealous convert to Orthodoxy and a firm supporter of the Russian autocratic system, as her letter to Victoria indicates. Alexandra frequently admonished her husband to be strong, making comparisons to such iron-willed rulers of the past as Peter the Great or Ivan the Terrible. She wanted her “Nicky” to embrace a mystical idea of autocratic power that she thought defined the Russian way. Famously, the last ball the royal couple hosted at the Winter Palace in 1903 required everyone to dress in the costumes of the seventeenth century. Nicholas and Alexandra judged the event an unqualified success and even considered requiring seventeenth-century attire at court thereafter.

When not organizing costume balls, Alexandra was acting as Nicholas’s righthand woman and his strongest advocate of the Russian imperial system. During World War I, she urged him to be “the Samoderzh. [autocrat] without wh. Russia Cannot exist” and to “show to all, that you are the Master & your will shall be obeyed—the . . .

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