It is a measure of Edward Crankshaw's originality that a book subtitled "Russia's Drift to Revolution 1825-1917" ends several years short of 1917. As he puts it, the dynasty was finished. All the hoopla and rigmarole about Kadets, arrivals at Finland Stations and harangues to the workers were an encore. The play had ended.
No historian writing in English about pre-Communist Russia can evade the question, what if? Crankshaw's answer is, Communism was the continuation of tsarism under other management. The labor camps were not invented in the 1920s, the Russification of the non-Slav minorities was not Marxist, the failure of agriculture had already been accomplished, the secret police had already organized and created all the tools they ever would.
He does not speculate in the other direction. It may be that the Mongol conquest had ruined Russia before the Russians ever got a crack at doing it. I tend to think so, following what I take to be one thread of the argument of James Billington in "The Icon and the Axe." However that may be, and it is certainly arguable, Crankshaw starts with the first Russian government, in which the boyars chose to hand over power to an autocrat.
It might have been different, but once started down that road, Crankshaw sees no real opportunity to change course. A change in outlook occurred, however, about 1825. Until that time, revolt had been frequent, but always from the lower depths. Under the stimulus of the Enlightenment, the educated classes began to doubt the divinity of tsardom.
(By educated classes, Crankshaw means solely the secular part, who were, at least in principle, open to western ideas. He has next to nothing to say about the church, which is a bit odd considering that Orthodoxy was part of the arrogation by the throne of autocratic power. In effect, in the 1820s, the educated classes were all army officers.)
The Decembrist revolt may or may not have ruined one opening for a tsar to give up some part of autocratic power. Crankshaw is not quite clear; he seems to think that Alexander I was a solipsist who would have turned into an unvarying autocrat anyway.
For half a century after 1825, there was no terror or organized subversion. This period is the most interesting in "The Shadow of the Winter Palace," as Crankshaw traces the creeping modernism that infected a growing new class. In 1825, there had been only serfs and nobles. By 1870 there were workers, university students, newspapermen, most of the modern types except perhaps accountants. It seems doubtful anybody in Russia ever had a clue about where the national account stood.
Crankshaw saves his worst disdain for Nicholas II and Alexandra. Alexandra, oversexed and under brained, was the worst sort of mate for Nicholas, although Crankshaw judges him unfit to govern in every sense. Alexandra added the ingredients that changed a sordid story into a sordid, bizarre story.
There's a great deal to chew over in this fat tome. A few remarks deserve to be singled out.
"The workings of the autocracy ensured that the people subjected to it over the ages could not exist without it."
"The very name by which they were to be known, the intelligentsia, had no counterpart in any other land." (But I would add, a similar situation -- without the name for it -- existed in China and, perhaps to a degree, is Islamic countries; and to lesser degree in most of Latin America.)
"It was only by virtue of her mastery of Poland that Russia could feel European."
"The direct threat to the autocracy came not from the convinced revolutionaries (of Alexander II's time) on the one hand or from the increasingly hard-driven peasantry on the other. It came from the disorientated, disenfranchised, politically superfluous members of the new bourgeoisie, the men whose talents should have been enlisted for the business of government but who were cast out and as it were disowned."