Book Review: An Englishman in the Court of the Tsar

An Englishman in the Court of the Tsar: The Spiritual Journey of Charles Sydney Gibbs (Benagh, Christine. Conciliar Press 2000) is exactly the kind of book one might expect it to be, given the title. It is a well researched and decently written account of the last days of the Russian monarchy, at least partly through the eyes of Mr. Gibbs, who was English tutor to the royal children for some time and followed them after the abdication of Nicholas II whenever permitted. Unfortunately, Ms. Benagh falls very often and very hard into that ever present temptation of historians: to make her story not so much a story as a collection of names and dates and happenings. She also falls fairly hard into the pitfall of religious writers: she’s a bit too vocal in her admiration of the piety of her subjects, especially the Romonovs, without any of the difficult, numinous beauty that might convince her reader to believe in it. I found that I believed her without much caring. After the first third or so she focuses much of her energy on describing the conditions of the Revolution in the way of a history textbook: in this year so and so took this many men on such and such a train to defeat this other fellow, but there were intrigues and it got stopped in such a place by these other fellows until this month of that year. The dates are especially annoying; the chronology is fairly important because of all the various forces doing different things and offset by months or years, but unless the reader is inclined to remember all these dates or develop a time line, simply telling what they are is not much of a help. Nevertheless, I am now somewhat less ignorant than I was about the state of Russia between WWI and WWII, which is a benefit.

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