Everyone knows about the revolution in Russia in 1917 in which the Bolsheviks ousted the Romanovs, the Russian royal family, but in fact plots to seize power from the ruling elite had been taking place for decades. 'To Kill a Tsar' is fiction but it is based on the various attempts of a revolutionary party, 'The People's Will', to kill Tsar Aleksander II in the 1880s.
Central to the story is Frederick Hadfield, a young Anglo Russian doctor who works partly in a military hospital, and partly ministering to the medical needs of the wealthy ex-pat British contingent in St. Petersburg as well as some influential Russians. At a party a left leaning friend from his student days in Zurich introduces Frederick to Anna, who subsequently asks Frederick to volunteer his services at a Sunday clinic for some of the city's poorest people. The doctor is reluctant and his acceptance of the request is more to do with his growing feelings for Anna than it is a sense of duty or an act of charity.
Anna is a member of 'The People's Will', a revolutionary party that has already made several very bold but unsuccessful attempts to assassinate the Tsar. Anna explains to Frederick that the party organises the clinics because the members believe that it is a route into the working classes and that in time they can spread their message more widely and gain support. While Frederick is not unsympathetic to the goals of Anna and her comrades, he does not believe in the use of violence to effect change, but he can't disentangle himself from this alluring woman. Frederick risks bringing himself to the attention of the secret police by being connected with Anna; not only would this be disastrous for his career and damaging to his connections, the methods of the secret police are notoriously brutal and the likely punishment for those found participating in political terrorism is execution.
When Anna becomes more and more distant Frederick starts to wonder what she is up to and after some discreet investigating he realises that The People's Will may be about to launch their most dramatic attempt yet to kill the Tsar. If he goes to the police he risks losing Anna; even if she is not killed or imprisoned she will reject him for the betrayal. By simply saying nothing he not only betrays his own moral beliefs, he fails to stop death and injury; as a doctor this goes against his oath. Will Frederick remain silent? Will the authorities uncover the plot and stop it before the plan is executed?
'To Kill a Tsar' is a gripping read. The dramatic opening hooked me instantly and, though the place alternates between slow and threatening and brisk and exciting, I never lost interest. The author, Andrew Williams, formerly a television journalist with the BBC, evokes the sights, sounds and attitudes of nineteenth century Russia with some wonderfully descriptive writing making not only St. Petersburg but also rural Russia jump off the pages. A blend of historical fiction, romance and political thriller, this novel reminded me of 'Dr. Zhivago' and generally Williams captures a strong sense of Russianness that is reminiscent of the great Russian morality novels.
The People's Will operated in Russia for around two years and during that time it caused major headaches for the authorities; though their attempts to assassinate the Tsar were repeatedly unsuccessful, they did cause death and injury and often it was only through bad luck that they failed. The revolutionaries played a game of cat and mouse with the secret police and though many of their number were arrested and exiled or executed, a core membership continued to work on the grand plan. Williams tries to reflect this dogged persistence but this does become a little tiring in the second half of the novel as the reader is subject to a continual merry -go-round of plotting, police work, arrests and interrogations. Similarly the now she's there, now she's gone nature of Frederick and Anna's relationship becomes drawn out and tedious, with their liaisons following a predictable course that serve only to add more pages to the book with no real impact on the story.
he romance between Frederick and Anna is the crux of the story because it is the link between the revolutionaries and the system they are trying to put an end to. If this were an entirely fictional story this might work better but I found that the romantic element dominates the story at the loss of focus on the more interesting real life figures involved in the movement. I never really 'got' why Frederick remained besotted with Anna; there is no passion in the relationship and it seems unlikely that Frederick could fall for this cold woman.
What Williams does well is presenting both sides of the story and in doing so he gets the reader to consider these questions of morality, not just concerned with what Frederick should do with the information he has, but the use of violence to achieve noble political ends and the use of state sponsored terror to counteract that. You can read this as a simple thriller with a romantic subplot but Williams even handed telling of the story, taking in the points of views of not only the revolutionaries and Frederick, but also key members of the secret police, British diplomats and the international press, highlights the stark contrasts that the story is based around - poverty and wealth, morality and passion, and rationality and idealism.
Using the age old theme of an impossible romance to bridge the gap between two sides of a story doesn't quite work in this case but it didn't affect my enjoyment too much. As an historical thriller 'To Kill a Tsar' is exciting and thought provoking; Williams has struck on an excellent aspect of the Russian revolutionary movement for the subject of this compelling novel and paints an authentic and colourful picture of Russia.
If you've read and enjoyed the novels of Boris Akunin, you'd most likely enjoy this. It's not brilliant in every aspect but it's worth a read if you enjoy historical thrillers.