Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
— Winston Churchill
Regular readers of Running Iron Report know that we consider the Russian Revolution to be a fulcrum of modern history. Taken not as a discreet event but as a part of the great convulsion of the First World War and a precursor event of the Second World War, the fall of the Romanovs and the rise of the Bolsheviks was an explosion that created the blast crater we all continue to live in.
Thus, you will find your correspondent most intrigued by the new Netflix limited series, The Last Czars.
It’s a hybrid of documentary and drama, which is a format I respond to, since it is analogous to my own approach to historical storytelling: Mix the drama with some analysis and you’ve got a cocktail that goes to my head like an ice-cold shot of vodka.
Readers will recall that I thoroughly enjoyed the hallucinatory Trotsky. It may seem sketchy to find entertainment in the travails of that tortured realm, but dammit, how can you not be entertained? This is the stuff out of which the most fantastical tales might be wrought. The history is tremendously significant — but we should not be so sober-sided that we pretend to dismiss its fascination as pure human drama. No game of thrones could be more lurid and strange than the story of the Romanovs — right from their ascension in 1612 and all the way through 1917.
Peter the Great’s 1697-’98 Grand Embassy to the capitals of Europe looked like an early 1970s Led Zeppelin tour — though I’m not aware that Led Zep got up to any dwarf tossing.
And has there ever been a stranger figure than Rasputin, the priapic peasant monk who insinuated himself into the Romanovs’ circle by means of his mysterious ability to alleviate the painful symptoms of the young heir Alexei’s hemophilia?
Some of the commonalities between Russia and the United States fall right into my personal wheelhouse: Both nations are continent-spanning empires with wild hinterlands. For both, the Fur Trade was an early economic driver and impetus to exploration. The stark differences in political tradition are equally fascinating in their contrasts: Russia’s heritage is autocratic and aristocratic/oligarchical, while the American political culture has always been republican with a tendency toward our own oligarchical accretions of economic/political power. Russia’s history is, of course, unbelievably sanguinary; savage as our own history may be, it has nothing on the tale of the Bear.
If I had a whole separate lifetime for scholarly pursuits, I might well devote it to plumbing the riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. As it stands, I must content myself merely to enjoy the spectacle.