Few modern histories are rife with more mystery and tragedy than that of Russia. The country is fertile ground for intrigue and upheaval: traditionally, its leaders have been intractable, unstable, one way or another defective; its population rural, provincial, oppressed; its bureaucracy enormous, convoluted, opaque; its record-keeping uneven, censorial, and subject to the deleterious effects of the archaic Julian calendar system. When, in 1922, a woman came forward and shocked the world by claiming to be Anastasia Romanov¨missing daughter of the murdered Tsar Nicholas II¨ it took 72 years of inquisitions, grave exhumations, and finally, DNA testing, to prove that she had been, in fact, just a Polish mental patient with delusions of grandeur.
In Imperial Legend, author Alexis S. Troubetzkoy presents us with an equally compelling riddle of decidedly less apocryphal origins. Could it be that Tsar Alexander I¨ a robust, accomplished, popular, and progressive monarch who had liberated Europe from the scourge of Napoleon's armies¨faked his own death to become a wandering holy man in the wilds of Siberia? The evidence seems strong that he did.
From a genetic standpoint, the tsar's greatness was never a foregone conclusion. Alexander's grandfather was Peter III, a mentally deficient and physically repellent individual who delighted in torturing small animals and who, even in adulthood, was unable to sleep without his doll clutched next to him in bed. (He was eventually poisoned, although court records heap posthumous shame upon an ignoble life by pointing to "habitual hemorrhoidal attacks, together with violent colic" as the causes of death.) Alexander's father, Paul, was subject to extreme paranoia and capable of almost Caligulan cruelty. His erratic foreign policies brought him to the brink of war with Britain, while the routine floggings and banishments he inflicted upon his courtiers and soldiers provoked hatred towards him throughout the empire.
A 24-year-old Alexander was thrust into power in the spring of 1801, after conspirators from the highest levels of government broke into Paul's chambers and beat, strangled, and stomped on the tsar so savagely that his corpse was rendered almost unrecognizable. Once he had weathered the initial trauma of his father's violent death, the young Alexander became an effective and well-liked ruler. He was "the very picture of regal bearing," unfailingly courteous, by all accounts, "strikingly handsome, and possessed of a most affable charm." (Throughout his years on the throne, he would exploit these qualities to captivate other statesman and monarchs, and to indulge in unrestricted carnal adventuring with legions of female admirers¨despite being married.)
During his reign, Alexander repealed some of his father's more draconian laws and made reparations to Britain for past grievances. He streamlined the imperial bureaucracy and contemplated the emancipation of Russia's serfs and the framing of a constitution. It was only the vehement resistance to such reform by the Russian aristocracy that scuttled his plans. (The author makes the important point that had a constitution been enacted, Alexander might have pre-empted the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and set the stage for a very different 20th century.) Regardless, the most impressive aspect of Alexander's legacy was his defeat of Napoleon's invading army¨"probably the greatest military force assembled up to that time." In 1812, Russian troops, working in concert with their country's merciless winter, annihilated 450,000 French soldiers, and chased the frostbitten, starving, and sickly survivors from the scorched remains of Moscow to the border of Prussia. Two years later, a victorious Alexander and his allies marched through the streets of Paris and forced Napoleon, that "insufferable Corsican," into exile on the island of Elba.
In the latter portions of his book, Troubetzkoy turns away from martial history and chronicles Alexander's losing battle with his conscience. He argues that Alexander frequently suffered through bouts of guilt and spiritual malaise stemming from his role in his father's death. He was often heard to remark on the burdens of rulership and expressed a desire to abdicate. He "turned into an inveterate traveler" inside his own country and beyond its borders, visiting monasteries, Russian Quakers, anyone, it seemed, who "bore a divine message or offered the gift of revelation." He increasingly bestowed his powers and duties on subordinates. And then, in 1825, at the relatively young age of 48, he died, felled by malaria in the small port town of Taganrog.
The author notes the sudden appearance of Feodor Kuzmich in Siberia eleven years after Alexander's "death"¨a man with a closely guarded past who wandered the wilderness for three decades, instructing peasant children in "grammar, history, geography, and religious knowledge," and offering "sympathetic counsel" to anyone who sought him out. As Troubetzkoy argues, Kuzmich bore too strong a physical resemblance to Alexander¨beard and simple robes notwithstanding¨and was too educated and imperious a person to escape suspicion. He was a prolific letter writer, sending and receiving curious packages all the time, and was sometimes seen in clandestine meetings with strange guests, including a hussar in full military garb who kissed him on the hand. Troubetzkoy's contention is that, on the night of his tragic passing, with the help of a few close confidants, the tsar stole away on a private yacht and travelled to Palestine while a decoy cadaver was prepared to return to St. Petersburg. Alexander, determined to atone for the sins of his youth, had evidently resolved to adopt an ascetic and devoutly religious life away from the pressures of the throne.
Troubetzkoy has done much digging to amass proof of Alexander's grand deception: purposefully vague autopsy reports, telling diary entries, missing documents from the Taganrog Port Authority, encoded imperial communiques, accounts of grave tampering and disinterred remains. The book's appeal, however, comes not from the author's erudition and convincing case-building so much as from his storytelling prowess. The cast of characters¨philandering monarchs, scheming sycophants, sadistic cult members, corpulent, one-eyed generals¨all serve to make this history as absorbing and escapist fun as any fiction. Even Troubetzkoy's childhood tutor, credited with first sowing a curiosity about the imperial legend in his young pupil, is described as an "awesome Methuselah" with a "prodigious memory" and "fathomless knowledge." While Troubetzkoy's language and assessments seem hyperbolic at times, he can certainly be forgiven; they are born of a life-long enthusiasm for his subject that serves the reader well for nearly 300 pages. Would that all history books were as thoroughly and lovingly well-crafted as this one. ˛