Empire of the Tsars is a well-made doco, but a people’s history is needed

Empire of the Tsars is hosted by Lucy Worsley.

Empire of the Tsars: Romanov Russia
Three part series presented by Lucy Worsley
Available on SBS On Demand until October 10

This three-part series examines the history of Russia’s most famous royal family, the Romanovs. This is a useful introduction to a topic for those wanting to know more about the conditions that led to the 1917 Russian Revolution.

The Romanovs rose to power in 1613 after the collapse of the previous Rurik dynasty that ruled Russia for 700 years. The tsars were absolute monarchs with enormous power.

In the first episode, host Lucy Worsley concentrates mostly on Peter I, who went to war with Sweden and established St Petersburg. This gave Russia naval access to the Baltic Sea. He ruthlessly executed 1000 guards who rebelled against him.

The second episode focuses on Catherine II, who admired the European enlightenment philosophers. She made some modernising reforms but kept serfdom intact, resulting in new violent uprisings.

After Catherine’s death, her grandson Alexander I defeated Napoleon’s invasion. With the Russian army entering Paris, the Romanovs had reached the peak of their power.

The final episode starts with the growing clamour for reform and revolution in the 19th century. Alexander II abolished serfdom in 1861, but was later assassinated by members of the People’s Will movement.

Alexander III reacted by suppressing civil liberties and reversing earlier reforms. The older brother of VI Lenin, who led the 1917 revolution, was executed for a plot to assassinate Alexander III.

The last tsar, Nicholas II, fell into superstition as Romanov rule was fatally weakened. Nicholas II was assassinated in 1918, not long after the Bolshevik revolution.

This is an intelligent series, well made without being too flashy. It gives a good beginner’s guide to 300 years of Russian history.

But the series is told almost entirely from the perspective of the Romanov family. This is not a history told from the perspective of ordinary Russians, many of whom rebelled against a horribly unequal system.

Without this viewpoint, it’s difficult to properly understand how it all came crashing down, and how it relates to the parallel situation the world faces today. A series based on a ‘people’s history’ of Russia is needed.


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