Four Stars. Open your eyes to a vibrant, violent turning point in world history. In America, a fierce revolution has been won against the greatest superpower of the 18th Century. Former enemies reconcile and set out to build the greatest nation in history. In France a weak, indecisive king is soon overcome by a revolution that initially dreams of repeating the American Revolution but turns into a horror story. In Russia, a minor princess from an obscure German family morphs into an iron-fisted Tsarina, expanding her empire at every turn. In the parlance of today, we’d say Catherine the Great “ruled like a girl”! She’s awesome when you compare her to other monarchs in history.
Why the heck should we care about some sissy French king about to lose his head? Well King Louis XVI ensured America could win the Revolutionary War, in the process bankrupting France and setting the stage for the French Revolution. Who the heck cares or even knows about this Russian guy, Potemkin? Catherine the Great and her best bud, Potemkin, are raising hell and expanding the empire at the expense of the Turks. And really, nothing happened in America after the revolution until the War of 1812 right? Weak America is surviving among powerful forces by sheer wit and luck. It is a giant game of Risk played out for real. We probably studied all these events in isolation in our history classes but Winik connects them all in a mostly interesting and believable way.
Winik’s thesis is the world of the 1790’s was far more interconnected that we commonly believe. The eighteenth century was stitched together in ways we can scarcely grasp, even by today’s standards. The great nations of the day and their leaders were all intimately tied together, watching one another, marveling at one another and reacting to one another—whether from the bustle of French salons in Paris to the young American capital in Philadelphia, from the luxury of St. Petersburg to candlelight dinners in Monticello and Mount Vernon, from the splendor of Vienna to the mysteries of the seraglio in Constantinople. Political figures of the day, great philosophers, ardent rebels and revolutionaries, all freely crossed and recrossed borders, switched allegiances, spoke in foreign tongues and fought for foreign causes with great relish and shared dreams beyond their national boundaries with an alacrity that has little parallel in the modern world.
Winik succeeds in portraying that world, how fluid it was and how some extremely interesting characters get around and cause trouble. We see John Paul Jones of “I have not yet begun to fight” fame take command of Russian ships on the Black Sea. Potemkin leads the empress to Crimea, along the way we learn the genesis of the “Potemkin villages” some of which have grown into major cities. The specter of France, starting a revolution that had such high hopes and then becomes a blood bath is central to the entire story. I love a book that shows me a new perspective. The Great Upheaval does that and it makes some figures so much more real and appealing. If you are looking to spend some time reading history, this would be a great starting point. Here we see “the greatest generation of American talent in history”, Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin, Adams, and Madison. But we are also introduced in a new way to interesting people, places and events like Thaddeus Kosciuszko, Charlotte Corday, Marat, Robespierre, Danton, Napoleon, Thomas Paine, Marquis de Lafayette, Suvorov, siege of Ismail, Sultan Selim III, Pugachev, Shays, and Whiskey rebellions, Poland carved up between Prussia and Russia, the seraglio, Marie Antoinette, Rousseau, Voltaire, and many others.
This book illustrates how amazing America is by showing how “America’s own rebellions and heated disputes were absorbed into a political process rather than resolved by the guillotine and assassination…” We marvel at how the founders started out on a path to what we are today: “What the Americans lacked was perspective—the very idea of a loyal opposition did not exist, nor did the notion of an orderly transfer of power from one party to the next”. At the time, the Americans are watching the terrible results of the party factions in France, devolving into a blood bath of unimaginable savagery. Would the same happen in the U.S. if we had political parties?
Intriguing or horrifying stories:
The newspaper war of 1792: “The brutal tone of these newspapers meant that anything could be said, anything alleged, without any recourse. Monstrous portraits were sketched and unsubstantiated gossip peddled…“ The Great Moderate of our times, Bill O’Reilly constantly rails against the anonymity of the internet today but he would be immensely pissed off at how unfair and partisan the media was back then.
The French took no prisoners, literally. In Nantes, we see “republican baptisms”. The head of the revolutionary force decides: “trials are a waste of time and ordered his aides to fill barges with anywhere from 2000 to 4800 people and sink them in the Loire River…priests, women and children and the elderly hands and feet are bound” The French taught the Germans and Russians well how to mass murder. “In the Vendee, 200 elderly forced to dig a large pit and drop to their knees; they were summarily shot…30 women and children buried alive” when they attempt to escape.
Overly dramatic at times, such as when he discusses the mood in America during the summer of 1798 when war with France loomed: “Too often when men smiled, it was a vulpine smile, a smile of menace and malice, a cynical smile flashed by men who more than anything relished revenge” supposedly captures the animosity between the factions for and against declaring war.
Stretching a comparison out of all reasonable bounds: The horrendous Alien and Sedition Acts are compared to Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese in WWII – ok, I’ll buy that. But then he also compares the Acts to the Patriot Act—get real, not even close. But he has to be the good Northeast liberal NY Times guy and get a BDS moment in.
Washington’s second term and John Adams’ term to 1800 felt rushed and without the explanations/scene setting that he does so well everywhere else. The last 6th of the book seemed flat and uninspired— that is where the overly dramatic often occurred to the detriment of the overall narrative.
The fanatical anti-Catholic, anti-priest pogroms in France are never explained or given context. They just occur. I wanted to know why.
Connecting the events in America, France and Russia gets strained at times. He jumps around in time and ties events together tenuously at times. The Pugachev Rebellion is interesting but impact on this narrative not really there. And why not a few MAPS please! I don’t know off the top of my head, the road from St Petersburg to the Crimean Peninsula or where Ismail is or the Vendee…give us a map or two for context.
Overall, I was mostly fascinated by this book. I sure wish school history had been this interesting, maybe we all would have a better sense of how we relate to our predecessors and take lessons from their struggles and apply to today. Of course, if school materials were made interesting, Jay Leno’s Man in the Street segments wouldn’t work because the people walking around would have a clue.