thought to the fact that Russian literature and art were arguably their greatest treasure. History, however, has confirmed the connection between control of the cultural process and stability: the more involvement by a Russian ruler with the culture, the stronger the regime.

In an autocratic state, which Russia was, personal relations between monarchs and the cultural elite inevitably took on greater significance. The rulers listened closely to the counsel of Gavrila Derzhavin, Nikolai Karamzin, and Vassily Zhukovsky—even though their advice often irritated them.

Nicholas I called Alexander Pushkin “the wisest man in Russia” and tried to direct his work, albeit with mixed success. Ivan Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches are rumored to have given emotional impetus to Alexander II’s decision to emancipate the serfs. Alexander III read Fedor Dostoevsky’s novels avidly, loved the music of Peter Tchaikovsky, and collected the paintings of the Wanderers, whom he supported as truly national artists.

Created under the aegis of Nicholas I, the ideological slogan “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality” became an effective tool for cultural and political control for many years. The unwillingness or inability of the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II, to modernize the cultural policy of his predecessors was, I believe, one of the essential causes of the collapse of autocracy in Russia.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson observed, there is no history, only biography. In this book I describe the relations between the Romanovs and “their” writers, poets, composers, and artists as the interaction of living people—gifted, ambitious, vain, impatient, capricious. Both sides clearly imagined themselves onstage, under the floodlights of world history, and acted accordingly.

Victor Shklovsky, one of the fathers of Russian formalism and biographer of Leo Tolstoy, told me in a conversation in Moscow in 1974 that his circle believed that personal dealings with major creative figures (and Shklovsky had known, among others, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Sergei Eisenstein, and Boris Pasternak) help you better understand the great writers of the past.2

When you see for yourself how the private emotions and public statements of cultural leaders correlate, Shklovsky maintained, you can make sounder judgments about the diaries, letters, and reminiscences of years past. Comparing the giants of yore with people you knew, you have greater focus in your perception of the legendary figures (for all the conditionality of such parallels), who are then no longer never-erring cardboard “geniuses” but real characters capable—as we all are—of making terrible mistakes and glaringly unjust statements.

I had many opportunities to see the wisdom of the old paradoxalist Shklovsky’s idea. Personal contact with Anna Akhmatova, Dmitri Shostakovich, George Balanchine, and Joseph Brodsky helped me, I hope, to research and interpret historical materials on Russian culture in a less prejudiced way.

Shklovsky’s hypothesis applies even more to Russia’s leaders. Traditionally they have been considered to be “rulers from God,” in the words of Ivan the Terrible. Only members of the inner circle or specially selected and vetted “representatives of the people” could have access to them. What were the chances of a Russian Jewish intellectual like me looking the tsar in the eye, even for a second? None.

In Soviet times, the leaders of Russia managed to retain that aura of inaccessible omnipotence for a long time. Joseph Stalin was extremely successful in this regard (having learned much—especially in the sphere of cultural politics—from Nicholas I). His successors gradually lost that political capital.

There were so many jokes about Nikita Khrushchev in the last years of his reign. And yet … I remember the excitement I felt in September 1964 in Leningrad when, as a twenty-year-old conservatory student, I found myself in the crowd surrounding Khrushchev (security in those days was rather lax) as he entered the Kirov Theater on Teatralnaya Square with President Sukarno of Indonesia.

Khrushchev (who would be ousted by Leonid Brezhnev in a few weeks) passed by me just half a step away, smiling broadly; his face, contrary to what I read later about his depressed mood in those days, radiated energy and confidence. I was struck by the contrast between his tanned face and his snow-white short-cropped hair around a large bald spot: it literally glowed in Leningrad’s unusually bright autumnal sun, creating the effect of a halo.

Perestroika unexpectedly made contact with Russian leaders more possible, even for outsiders like me. I was lucky: living in America, I could “look into the eyes” (if not the souls) of a past, a future, and an acting president of Russia (respectively Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, and Vladimir Putin) on their visits to New York.

I intersected with some of their closest comrades-in-arms or most prominent opponents (Yegor Ligachev, Alexander Yakovlev, Anatoly Sobchak, Vladimir Yakovlev, Yegor Gaidar, Grigory Yavlinsky, Boris Nemtsov). Sometimes it was merely a quick question and answer, on other occasions a longer conversation. Each meeting added a new and precious insight into the psychology of the political elite, reinforcing my image of national leaders (professional politicians) as a special—in both good ways and bad—human breed, living within its own moral and emotional realm.

The various aspects of the interaction of one such specific group (that is, the Romanov dynasty and their “inner circle”) with another special stratum (the Russian cultural elite) have attracted the attention of many remarkable people, whose writing and opinions have served as a guiding light for me.

I will name only a few here. They are Sergei Averintsev, Naum Berkovsky, Isaiah Berlin, James H. Billington, Andrei Bitov, Kornei Chukovsky, Leonid Dolgopolov, Natan Eidelman, Boris Eikhenbaum, Joseph Frank, Boris Gasparov, Lidia Ginzburg, Yakov Gordin, Lev Gumilev, Roman Jakobson, Vadim Kozhinov, Jay Leyda, Dmitri Likhachev, Lev Loseff, Martin Malia, Irina Paperno, Boris Paramonov, Richard Pipes, Dmitri Sarabyanov, Viktor Shklovsky, Andrei Sinyavsky, Valery Sokolov, Georgy Sviridov, Dmitri Svyatopolk-Mirsky (D. S. Mirsky), Elizabeth Valkenier, Igor Volgin, Richard S. Wortman, Daniel Zhitomirsky, and Andrei Zorin.

I am particularly grateful to those of the above mentioned who shared their views with me in unforgettable personal conversations.

The informed reader will see that this short list nevertheless encompasses a wide ideological spectrum: it includes liberals and conservatives, Marxists and anticommunists, nationalists and cosmopolites. Their ideas stimulated my work. I have always tried to be free of the ideological constraints that to this day hinder an unprejudiced study and evaluation of the political aspects of the treasure house that is Russian culture.

I am most grateful to Grisha and Alexandra Bruskin, Oleg and Tatiana Rudnik, Vagrich and Irina Bakhchanyan, Alexander and Irina Genis, Alexander and Irene Kolchinsky, Valery Golovitsev, and Yevgeny Zubkov for their support during the writing of this book. The illustrations were, as always, the responsibility of my wife, Marianna. The present book is once again the result of close and deeply satisfying collaboration with my translator, Antonina W. Bouis, and my editor at Knopf, Ashbel Green, whose ideas and suggestions were of immense help.



The First Romanovs:

From Tsar Mikhail to Peter I

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