Monthly Archives: October 2016

The Last Tsar

The Last Tsar the Life and Death of Nicholas IIThe Last Tsar the Life and Death of Nicholas II by Edvard Radzinsky

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wrote in an earlier review about the apocalypse that the Russian revolution must have been to Christians who lived through it, those who had come of age in a self-consciously, imperially Christian nation finding themselves citizens of an atheistic regime in active and open revolt against the structures of the faith. But what about the ruling family themselves, the Romanovs? This book is a portrait of the life of the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II, focusing on the tragedy of his final months and his ultimate execution, along with his family, at the hands of the Bolsheviks.

Radzinsky is apparently one of Russia’s most well-known playwrights and has written multiple volumes of popular history, of which this is one. He has given the book a strange format: we get glimpses of the author working through the archives of the royal family and various local Soviet archives (many recently declassified) as he pieces together his story. We also see old soldiers or Soviet officials coming out as glasnost takes hold, sharing with the author their recollections or letters of what happened in those final days. Overlaid on this background is the historical narrative itself, episodic to the point of being fragmentary and dramatized by the playwright’s eye. Knowing how the story ends, everything is foreshadowed by the conclusion, and ominous forebodings are read backward into the first days of the Tsar’s reign and even further, into his courtship and childhood. Radzinsky also often adds his speculations and reflections to the documentary material as the story is being told, giving a view of matters that if accurate still seems sensationalized.

The events of the book though are dramatic enough on their own, and my primary frustration was not the author’s style so much as the book’s lack of scope. It was apparently written for those who already knew Soviet history and who were trying to fill a very specific hole: what exactly happened to the Tsar, his wife, their daughters, and the heir in those chaotic last days. It was written for a Russian audience during a time in which new information was coming to light, but it meant much of the background was assumed.

This was especially apparent in the book’s first half, before the scope collapsed down to the Tsar’s family in their last house of imprisonment. Before this, documenting the last days of the Tsar’s reign, the casual Western reader is faced with a farrago of names unfamiliar and events for which he or she doesn’t have the context. I was still left clueless as to how exactly the Russian forces dissolved along the German front during the First World War and how Russian society turned up-side-down so quickly that the autocrat and commander in chief became a criminal and prisoner in his own palace. The Bolshevik Revolution was a tide that swept him and his family– and an entire social structure– away, and though we are treated to the surreal reversals (the disappearing guards, the palace that becomes a prison) through the eyes of the Tsar’s journals, the broader context is never outlined. For a reader already familiar with Russian history, the tight focus would be fine. For me, it meant I was as lost as Nicholas for much of the work.

The second half, once the old world had been swept away, was an easier read in this respect, and the foreboding and foreshadowing language the author used at times to the point of distraction during his survey of the Tsar’s reign now falls away as Radzinsky can focus on the grim details of their final imprisonment. He has the preoccupations of a playwright here as well: outlining their final setting like a stage, fussing with getting the characters of the final assassins outlined and pinned down, spinning out speculations and motives in the final political maneuverings before the royal family’s deaths. He is deeply sympathetic to the Romanovs, presenting their final attitudes as ones of stoic, Christian resolution and even– especially in the case of Nicholas– self-sacrifice and martyrdom for the greater good of his nation.

My fear was that with the sensationalism of earlier portions of the work, Radzinsky would focus too much on the grisly detail of their execution, but here he takes a circumspect, investigative approach. This was especially interesting in his exploration of events following the execution, as he works with records and clues to reconstruct their burial and reports on subsequent investigations regarding the recovery of the bodies. He lingers as well on the legends that sprang up regarding the possible survival of one of the daughters and the heir, Alexei Romanov, himself. The legends are easy to entertain (though they’ve since been disproven), because the entire story is told through the long, shadowy lens of decades of secrecy and Soviet rule. In some ways, this may be the most effective aspect of the book: illustrating not simply the nature of the regicide itself but the effort it took to piece together the details so long after the fact.

Mysterion

Mysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian FaithMysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian Faith by Donald S. Crankshaw

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I was interviewing for a place in the graduate program for the history and philosophy of science at Notre Dame, there was a dinner attended by prospective students and a few professors. We had all gone through the interviews and met several of the faculty, and one of the senior professors at the meal that night asked if we had any remaining questions. I had one: I wanted to know about the relationship between the program and the university’s Catholic identity. “What does it mean,” I asked, “that this program is at a Catholic school?”

The professor seemed to appreciate the question. He paused for a minute, and then he gave what I thought was a great response. He said something like, “It means that we take religion seriously. It means we don’t discount it as a significant factor in history.” It did not mean that everyone I took a class from would be a Catholic or a Christian, and it did not mean that Christianity would be the dominant theme in every (or even very many) lecture. (Though it did mean there would be a crucifix hiding somewhere in every room.) But I appreciated his answer, and I thought it largely accurate.

Mysterion is a new anthology of science fiction and fantasy (featuring one of my stories) that takes a similar approach to Christianity. It is not a collection of stories by Christian authors, nor is it a collection of what I would consider “Christian fiction” (fiction written from a Christian perspective with the intention of inspiring or instructing or converting).

Rather, Mysterion is a collection of stories that take religion seriously as a feature of the world in which the fiction lives. The editors, as they explain in their introduction, recognize that Christianity is a big, messy, dynamic, fruitful thing, and one that, as the title of the anthology suggests, still harbors a multitude of mysteries. Rather than tidy, systematic modes of thought or practice, this anthology suggests (and I think the editors were trying to show) that Christianity—as a living, ancient tradition—can be a starting point for good fiction, and likewise good fiction can be an effective lens for examining and even questioning such a tradition.

If the common thread in each of these stories is some form of serious engagement with Christianity, this still leaves for an incredibly broad sweep of approaches, from the brutal (James Beamon’s “A Lack of Charity”) and the grim (Mike Baretta’s “The Physics of Faith”) to the straightforwardly inspirational (Laurel Amberdine’s “Ascension”) or the subtly powerful and historical grounded (Sarah Ellen Rogers’ “Horologium”). The pieces in here represent everything from hard science fiction to humorous fantasy to surrealist and (I’m excluding my own, though you can read a nice review of it here) are for the most part strong and stirring, asking deep questions and sounding some interesting depths.

Whether or not your own background or perspective is informed by the Christian faith, if you’re a fan of the likes of Lewis and Tolkien, some of these themes will be familiar. If you’ve ventured in the deeper waters of Swanwick, Wolfe, or Lafferty, you may have a few additional signposts for this voyage. But the stories stand on their own, regardless of the context of faith. None of them need a grounding in Christianity to work, in other words. For these stories, with the exception of one or two, the faith angle is not the only angle.

The anthology is lovely as a book as well. The volume is solid, weighty, and impeccably edited. I didn’t catch a single typo on my read-through. There’s a helpful short bio for each author in case you’re interested in searching out more of their work, as well as a thoughtful introduction by the editors. The cover art doesn’t seem to correlate with any specific story but rather with an overall aspect of the theme: narrow is the doorway and rough is the path that leads Elsewhere. (Look closely at the rune on the top of that doorway.)

I won’t go through each of the stories, as that would obviously spoil some of the fun of diving into them yourself, but I will offer some highlights. The volume opens with a strong piece by Daniel Southwell entitled “The Monastic,” about a religious hermit on an island in the midst of Lake Superior and of some of the ancient things that still linger there. “Forlorn,” by Bret Carter is a great ghost story with a unique telling that builds toward a satisfying twist.

“Golgotha” by David Tallerman, along with “This Far Gethsemane” by G. Scott Huggins, may have been my two favorite pieces in the volume. “Golgotha” tells the story of an earnest missionary’s encounter with a pagan deity who is more than witchcraft and rumors. It is told in the language of the day with a voice of a sympathetic narrator who provides a balance between the puritanical rigidity of the missionary and the stark reality of what he encounters. And it asks an interesting question about the cost of proselytizing, about what things are lost and what are gained with Christianity and civilization, but from a perspective other than simple post-colonialism. Rather, what if it’s the old god himself asking these questions?

“This Far Gethsemane” reminded me the most of any story in this volume of golden-age science fiction with the trope of introducing a new species and then using it to explore interesting questions about our own. In this case, the trope is pulled off expertly as Huggins tells the story of a human grad student horrified to find that missionaries have already arrived at the planet where she is doing her studies and moreover that some of the local lifeforms have accepted this religion. Even worse, some of them are willing to take the tenants of Christianity to their logical conclusion, even when it flies in the face of their own biology.

There were several good pieces here, and I could easily add to this list F. R. Michaels’ whimsically disturbing “Cutio,” Rachael K. Jones’ haunting “St. Roomba’s Gospel” (a reprint of a story first published in Diabolical Plots), Joanna Michal Hoyt’s timely historical piece “Cracked Reflections” and two I’ve already mentioned, the grimly apocalyptic (and effective) “The Physics of Faith” by Mike Barretta, which would have left a dusty taste in the mouth of one finishing the volume if it weren’t the lovely “Horologium” by Sarah Ellen Rodgers, which was an excellent piece to finish on, leaving one pondering the mystical and historical roots of devotion as well as its costs.

Mysterion is a collection of stories that take Christianity seriously, and as such explores the implications (and not simply the positive implications) of the faith. Whether or not that aspect of the anthology is compelling to you, the stories succeed in showcasing a variety of voices and offering a satisfying read. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy, one for your local library, one for your pastor, and one for all your friends.