It is a pleasure both to read and to review a good book. W. Bruce Lincoln has made the last years of Imperial Russia his particular turf, and the current volume about Russia in World War I, “Passage Through Armageddon,” is a sequel to his excellent treatment of the years just before the Great War, entitled “In War’s Dark Shadow.” In both books, his story moves along and reads well.
The human tragedy of the Eastern Front is eloquently described. There are raw recruits “churned into gruel” by German heavy guns as they stand in support trenches “to wait unarmed till casualties in the firing line should make rifles available.” In the great retreat of 1915, the peasants are “torn away from their homes. . . . Their stores of food and . . . even their houses . . . burned before their very eyes . . . . Senior officers’ mistresses, their furniture, even their pets” take precedence over the refugees.
There are myriad vignettes. Russian Minister of Defense Aleksandr Protopopov is depicted as missing the key government meeting in Petrograd on the eve of the February, 1917, Revolution: “He spent the entire evening trying to contact Rasputin’s ghost in order to ask its advice.” There is the vision on the day before the storming of the Winter Palace of aged, distinguished Petrograd City Councillors and cabinet ministers armed with umbrellas, marching toward revolutionary soldiers and sailors. They dare the Red Guards to shoot them in cold blood: “We will go forward! What can you do?” A sailor roars in response: “We will spank you.” Apparently this rejoinder destroys the heroic aura of those pillars of the old regime: “There, in the chilling rain, the march ended.”
There is the picture of Lenin in 1918, months after he had seized power, on his way to a holiday party for orphans in suburban Moscow: “He was waylaid by bandits who seized his car and left him, his sister, his driver, and his bodyguard to make their way as best they could on foot.” There is also a nice description of the Bolshevik delegates to the Brest Litovsk peace negotiations of early 1918: Remembering on the way to the railroad station that they had forgotten to include a representative of “rural toilers,” they spied “a bent figure in a typical peasant’s black homespun coat and knapsack trudging down a side street . . . ‘Come with us to meet with the enemy at Brest!’ ” And so the Russian delegation was made complete.
By chance, this reviewer had occasion to read Robert K. Massie’s multimillion-copy best seller, “Nicholas and Alexandra,” only a few weeks before reading Lincoln’s “Passage Through Armageddon.” The subject matter of the two books is much the same, and comparisons between them are interesting. Massie is less harsh and more compassionate toward the czar and his consort than Lincoln is. This may be, as Massie explains in his book, because he and his wife themselves experienced the anguish of rearing a hemophiliac son. Lincoln, in contrast, is unsparing when he points out that Nicholas II called Jews “zhidy” (kikes), Japanese “monkeys,” and reacted to the burning in 1906 of thousands of politically suspect peasants’ farms with these words: “This really tickles me.” Lincoln points out that special trains were requisitioned every week during World War I “to bring fresh flowers from the far-away Crimea for the Empress Alexandra’s boudoir.” He twice quotes Alexandra urging Nicholas to take stern measures because “Russia loves to feel the whip.”
As between Massie and Lincoln, which is closer to a true characterization of the sovereigns? The answer would seem to be that Massie is more forgiving, while Lincoln’s assessment is probably closer to the mark.
Both Massie and Lincoln devote several pages to a blow-by-blow description of the murder of Rasputin. For two first-class scholars, whose main sources are the accounts of two of the murderers (Prince Felix Yusupov and Duma leader Vladimir Purishkevich) it is surprising how many minor discrepancies there are between their descriptions of the events that transpired when Rasputin came to Yusupov’s palace on the fateful night. Massie has him sitting down in the house’s basement hideaway and almost immediately gobbling two poisoned cakes, and then asking for and swallowing two glasses of Madeira laced with cyanide. Lincoln has Rasputin refusing cakes, Yusupov pressing a glass of poisoned Madeira on him, and Rasputin only later helping himself to one single cake. Both accounts are in agreement, of course, that all this poison had no effect on Rasputin whatever. Massie has Yusupov then playing his guitar for Rasputin for two-and-a-half hours. Lincoln has Yusupov waiting some terrible minutes, rushing upstairs, consulting his accomplices, rushing down, and then playing his guitar. Among many other discrepancies, Massie says Rasputin’s body was not found for three days, while Lincoln says the autopsy was performed on the day following Rasputin’s death.
Massie’s account is more vivid than Lincoln’s, but they are both colorful enough. Why, however, are there so many discrepancies? Yusupov was the only witness to the scene in the basement, and he describes it in detail in his book “Rasputin.” Massie’s account is considerably closer to the one in “Rasputin” than Lincoln’s. Massie’s description of the scene in the courtyard is also closer than Lincoln’s to Purishkevich’s own account in “Comment J’ai Tue Raspoutine.” Besides, varied sources support Massie in his assertion that it took the Petrograd police several days to recover the corpse. The police search has been made easier by the fact that, in their haste, the assassins had left one of Rasputin’s boots on the ice near the hole.
Lincoln makes a few other errors. He has Trotsky resigning as commissar of foreign affairs before the final Brest-Litovsk treaty negotiations in a razzle-dazzle deception play, while George Kennan in his masterful “Russia Leaves the War” describes Trotsky as “sulking” when his advocacy of a strong front against the Germans was overridden. Most scholars agree with Kennan. Lincoln would also have been well advised to omit his Epilogue, which seems to fall between stools, either anticipating too much of the post-revolutionary civil war or addressing too little of it. The epilogue ends, oddly, with what appears to be an assertion that the Bolshevik Revolution brought the death of Russia. Perhaps Lincoln means the Russia of the centuries, but even that may not be altogether true. But these are minor complaints. On balance, Lincoln has written a fine book.