I was recommended The Last Czars by a coworker, of all people. Upon learning that I studied Russian history, he said to me the following: “Oh, I love Russian history. I love Nicholas, Alexandra, Rasputin, the revolution — that’s my favorite period. Have you seen The Last Czars? I think it captures that period really well.”
With all due respect to my coworker, I am saddened that The Last Czars is what passes for Russian history in our society. The thing is, there’s Russian history, and then there’s Romanov hagiography. Russian history, like all history, recognizes the sheer complexity surrounding every event and every person it studies and sheds light on those nuances. Think Yuri Slezkine’s House of Government. Without even reading it, you can see its approach to a complex period in Russian history. It takes as its starting point a house (as the title says) and the loyal Bolsheviks who lived in it. Then, it uses documents to trace their lives and illuminate their context. Ultimately, Slezkine leverages evidence to construct an argument about the subtle but powerful ways Communism changed people’s relationships to each other. That’s what a work of history does: It makes an argument using specific evidence and reasoning that takes into account context.
Sure, The Last Czar isn’t pure history. But consider HBO’s Chernobyl. Chernobyl makes no pretenses to documentary, yet even Russian audiences praise its attention to historical and emotional detail. It examines a contentious historical event through the lenses of individuals, individuals with highly varied career paths and personal values. Some, like Masha Gessen, have criticized its portrayal of the Soviet system. But even the criticism has to rise to Chernobyl’s level of thoughtful construction. Gessen’s argument is specific, thorough, and deliberately presented, just like the show itself.
Unfortunately, The Last Czars has all the nuance of, well, a gunshot. Let’s start with Nicholas’ abdication scene — or scenes, rather, because the directors drag out Nicholas’ anguish over fifteen minutes. First, a generic General figure informs Nicholas that they want him to resign in favor of Alexei. The camera fixes on Nicholas’ stoically sad gaze. His voice breaks as he tells the general about Alexei’s hemophilia and how “surely we have a right to keep him for ourselves.” Then, Nicholas goes home, finds his wife weeping, and embraces her. Then, because we’re still not done milking the viewer’s pity, Nicholas sees Alexei, upon which he breaks down and falls to his knees while his son hugs him. “I’m so sorry,” Nicholas weeps.
It would be one thing if this were a soap opera. But The Last Czars is far from a soap opera. It markets itself as a “docuseries”, lending itself the air of objectivity. It even brings along real historians for the ride. Then it deploys scenes like Nicholas’ abdication scene(s). Any viewer with a heart can only come away with one conclusion: You should feel sorry for Nicholas and Alexandra, because they were just doing their best for the kids’ sake. And if you disagree? Then you’re as heartless as the Bolsheviks. This is not a levelheaded assessment of Nicholas’ reign. This is a manipulative way to shield the Romanovs from criticism. It’s a fact that Nicholas led his country into not one but two wars that cumulatively killed over a million people. One historian pointed out his tolerance of anti-Semitism. But no one’s going to bring that up now, are they?
Everyone not a Romanov or Bolshevik is an afterthought. I don’t pity the Romanovs much, but I do pity the audience, because the year 1917 alone contains an ocean of stories, most of which are far more exciting than the Romanovs. “Aristocrat with no murdering experience tries to assassinate Rasputin”? That sounds like the premise of a screwball comedy or psychological thriller, not twenty minutes tacked to the end of an episode. Meanwhile, the real-life Kerensky wishes he could have been the Romanovs’ personal guard (as The Last Czars portrays him). Instead, he had to manage every emergency the Provisional Government faced. And it was an emergency a minute — runaway inflation, food shortages, the disastrous war inherited from Nicholas, land reform, the Petrograd Soviet, party politics, not to mention an attempted coup. It was like a Russian West Wing.
The people who get the shortest shrift of all from The Last Czars are ordinary people. “It’s not the people I’m worried about,” Alexandra says in episode 1, and that might as well be the show’s artistic statement. In its narrow-minded focus on the Romanovs, The Last Czars lumps the entire imperial population into one “people,” who only exist to inconvenience the tsar. In doing so, it neglects stories that are just as, if not more deserving of attention. Stories of peasants, many of whom become refugees because of the war. Stories of workers, some of whom the Bolsheviks radicalize, but some of whom just want to feed the kids. Aristocratic women, working women, women taking university courses. Priests, students, journalists, merchants, Jewish socialists, Ukrainian nationalists, pan-Muslim parties… the list goes on and on.
The Last Czars turns the mosaic of Russian history into black and white. It casts Russian history as a fight between the good guys (the Romanovs) and the bad guys (the Bolsheviks) — a fight that the bad guys won. It thereby perpetuates an insidious narrative: that Russia almost became a Western “civilized” nation but failed, instead falling to beastly Communist “others.” Not only is The Last Czars is a disgrace to Russian history, it is unoriginal and harmful. With no offense to my coworker, I hope that he never recommends The Last Czars to anyone else.
Those who want to actually understand the period 1905-17 may start with the following books:
17 Myths of the Revolution
Resilience: Life Stories of Centenarians Born in the Year of Revolution
On the Tragedy of One Family... and an Entire People
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