Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Nonfiction in Brief

RUSSIA'S RULERS UNDER THE OLD REGIME by Dominic Lieven (Yale University Press: $35; 407 pp.)

August 27, 1989|SONJA BOLLE

This meticulously researched book describes the Russian ruling elite in the reign of Russia's last czar, Nicholas II. It seeks to answer the question: What kind of men governed Russia in the Empire's last years? Dominic Lieven focuses on the 215 men appointed to Nicholas' State Council, analyzing statistical data, their education and careers and their ideas about politics.

Lieven discovers that one-third of the State Council members were "pure" Russian aristocracy, with noble ancestors reaching into the 16th Century. At the time of Peter the Great in the 17th Century, there was an influx of foreigners into the government. Lieven traces the German ancestry of certain members of the ruling elite by searching church records and discovering whose family was Protestant and whose Russian Orthodox.

Having "attempted with due statistical solemnity to pin-point the social status of all members of the State Council," Lieven recognizes the individual differences within his group, and etches these with great clarity. He gives personal anecdotes of State Council members: Semyonov once crawled on the ground in full-dress senatorial uniform "in order to look at a painting by a Dutch master from the best possible angle"; Andrei Saburov led a crusade to rescue prostitutes; "Gramophone" Kokostov was so named because he loved the sound of his own "loud, well-rounded phrases."

Education rather than class in the strict sense defined the ruling elite, Lieven argues. The Romanovs founded both the Lycee and the School of Law (reputedly where idle youths were sent), and retained close ties with these schools, which produced many members of the ruling body. Young men were expected to become fluent in French and while in the Lycee, all wore an old-fashioned uniform with a tricorn hat and a sword symbolizing the aristocracy.

Although he does not directly address the question of the elite's role in the revolutionary period, Lieven offers a basis for understanding the men who were unseated in the fall of the old regime. "In a way that was genuinely tragic," Lieven writes, "the higher the ideals, the humanity and the level of culture of the members of the ruling elite, the further removed they were in many ways from the demagogic techniques which might have made the mobilization of mass support more feasible."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|