Sunday, September 1, 2002

The Crown and the Crucible: Czarist Russia

After reading Judith Pella's recent Written on the Wind, I was curious to read more of the author's work, especially about Russia -- a prominent feature in this new "Daughters of Fortune" series. "The Russians" is a seven-volume series featuring Pella's earlier writings about of Russia. Written by Michael Phillips and Judith Pella, this series begins with The Crown and the Crucible, in 1870s St. Petersburg. Through two teenage girls, one of nobility and one peasant, the authors explore the world of Czarist Russia.

Sixteen-year-old Anna Yevnovna, peasant from a small village, must leave her home to work in the city. She soon finds herself hired as personal maid to the spoiled 15-year-old Katrina Fedorcenko. Yet through their experiences together, both girls grow to maturity and greater understanding of the world around them.

Russia under the Czars is an uncertain place, amidst changing times. The current Czar, Alexander II, is portrayed as weak and indecisive -- the latest of the rich heritage of the Romanov dynasty and its greater past rulers. Yet, we learn, even in pre-Socialist Russia people had to guard their words, lest they offend the Czar; and censorship of the press did not originate with the later Soviet Union. Tragic political events of the late 1870s, though, would pave the way for events of the next 40 years, culminating in the Russian Revolution. Thus, we see a glimpse of the nation's underlying problems. Through an interesting story about Anna and Katrina and their families, the authors introduce a wealth of information about Russia's history, culture, and politics. An introductory section (about 30 pages) tells Russia's history back to its beginnings, and maps show the Russian Empire of this time.

Yet it is the people themselves, and a strong story, that conveys the sense of Russia far more than a dry history text could. We meet Anna's humble, Christian father, of the old peasant world -- in contrast to Anna's younger brother Paul, angry, discontent, and anxious to change the world, meeting with other pre-revolutionaries. Among the nobility we see the spoiled, self-centered Katrina who takes her sheltered life for granted, contrasted with her poetic, sensitive older brother Sergei. Yet even the wealthy have their hardships; due to recent reforms, including the serfs' (peasants) liberation from slavery, sons of nobility must fight Russia's wars alongside lower classes of men. Their fathers, though close associates of the Czar, live in fear of the Czar's temper and moodiness, never sure of where they stand or of who might politically back-stab them.

The Crown and the Crucible is an excellent beginning to a 7-part saga about the people of Russia in an uncertain, tumultuous period of history, with great historical background and interesting characters.

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