"Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar." By Edvard Radzinsky. Free Press. 462 Pages. $35
Before Mikhail Gorbachev and his reforms that brought an end to the Soviet Union, there was Czar Alexander II, who freed Russia's 23 million serfs, introduced trial by jury, ended the whipping of army recruits and first introduced "glasnost."
And long before al-Qaida, there was the People's Will, whose bombers assassinated Alexander, Russia's Czar Liberator.
In "Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar," Edvard Radzinsky tells how one of history's first terrorist organizations thwarted Russia's great chance for democracy in the mid-19th century.
Radzinsky, whose best-seller "The Last Czar" told the tragic story of Nicholas II, combed archives and diaries to write this pulsating narrative of Alexander's life, fluidly translated by Antonina W. Bouis.
"Alexander II was a reformer of a new kind for Russia - a two-faced Janus, one head looking forward while the other looked back longingly. Mikhail Gorbachev was this kind of reformer," he writes.
Like Gorbachev, Alexander II dictated change from above with frank, open discussion. "Glasnost and thaw would be key concepts, and they would be inherited by all later Russian perestroikas," Radzinsky says.
The reformer came to the throne in 1855 upon the death of his father, the martinet Nicholas I. He took power in the midst of the Crimean War as British artillery was reducing the Black Sea fortress of Sevastopol to rubble. Russia lacked steamships, long-distance rifles and rapid-fire artillery.
Alexander ended the war, agreeing to an onerous treaty and began tackling the empire's many ills. With the emancipation manifesto of Feb. 19, 1861, he freed Russia's serfs. No longer could their masters buy, sell or even gamble them away at cards.
He introduced jury trials, giving Russia a judicial system equal to any in Europe. He reformed the army, banning flogging and mandating conscription for all classes. He initiated limited local self-government.
The emancipator softened anti-Jewish laws, letting Jews hold government posts. He eased censorship, opening the way for a Russian Renaissance, with Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky writing their great novels and the chemist Dmitri Mendeleyev publishing his Periodic Table of Elements,
Liberals thought the reforms did not go far enough, conservatives were unhappy there were any reforms, while Russia's new angry young people - terrorists - decided they had to kill the czar to give history a push toward a revolution, certain the people would rise up in revolution on the death of the autocrat.
After five tries, including blowing up the wrong car on the czar's train and planting a bomb in the palace that killed 10 guards, a bomber finally attacked Alexander on March 1, 1881, on a St. Petersburg street, leaving him bleeding and dying on the snowy pavement.
Only hours earlier, the czar had signed off on his final reform - an embryonic constitution to permit elections of representatives who would participate in making Russia's laws.
The new czar, Alexander III, judged the idea mad and shelved it.
"At a historic crossroads Russia (once again) took the wrong path," Radzinsky writes. The new rulers "would freeze Russia for decades. The nationalist party triumphed with strict censorship and anti-Semitism."
A reader looking for explanations for why reforms in Russia falter or for a primer on terrorism will find both in Radzinsky's majestic look at late 19th- century imperial Russia.
Americans might remember Alexander II for selling them Alaska for $7.2 million in 1867 - "for which Russia still has not forgiven" him, Radzinsky writes. But the book's subtitle sums up his overall assessment: "The Last Great Czar."