"A library book, I imagine, is a happy book." Cornelia Funke

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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Wicked History: Russian Rulers

Wicked History Series: Russia

I have been curious about Scholastic’s Wicked History series, and my Russia project gave me the perfect opportunity to dive into some of the books. I find them interesting and yes, I am learning history as I read. I was surprised to look them up on Scholastic’s site and see them recommended for a range from 6-12th grades. Each biography is short at around 130 pages, and reads quickly. There are illustrations throughout, as well as a photo or drawing section, mid book. Some pictures are reused during the course of the book. A map of the land at the time of the subject is offered for reference. Each book usually has a “Wicked Web” that shows the subject’s family, allies and enemies, a “Timeline of Terror” and when needed, a summary of why the person might be considered evil. They also include a glossary, suggestions for further reading and an Author’s Note. The books’ covers are attention grabbing, with a caricature of the subject and across them is graffitied a derogatory accusation such as “wicked,” “despot,” etc.

Ivan the Terrible: Tsar of Death (Wicked History) Ivan the Terrible: Tsar of Death by Sean Price.

To today’s readers, Tsar Ivan IV certainly seems to have been a crazy and evil man. Price tells us that Ivan was admired for building the Russian empire and redefining what it meant to be a Russian ruler, but he also killed thousands of people and did horrible deeds. We are introduced to Ivan during his planned massacre of his own city of Novgorod. He apparently enjoyed torturing and murdering both animals and people. Ivan had an awful childhood, becoming orphaned at age seven and being a puppet ruler, torn between noble families vying for power. When Ivan took the throne as an adult, he married a woman that he loved, who helped to control his cruel side. After she died, he went on to reduce Russian peasants to serfs and eventually murder his own son and heir. This title is full of details of his many other gory crimes. Interestingly, Ivan considered himself deeply religious and he did repent and ask for forgiveness before he died.

 Catherine the Great: Empress of Russia (Wicked History) Catherine the Great: Empress of Russia (Wicked History) by Zu Vincent.

Catherine’s tale starts as she is seizing the throne from her childish, apparently unintelligent husband, Tsar Peter III. Then, Vincent flashes back to when Catherine was a young woman called Sophie, who lived in Germany and had an ambitious mother, who raised her daughter to marry into royalty. She describes the lonely years that Catherine spent living with Empress Elizabeth, who didn’t trust her, and Peter, who didn’t love her. She came into power with the support of much of Russia, and had great plans for her country. She accomplished some important things, such as expanding the Russian Empire and improving her country’s educational system. Catherine also was scandalous because she took plenty of lovers, bearing three children by different men while she was with Peter, and failing to remarry after his death. She was bright, powerful and free-willed, making a perfect subject for a Wicked History biography.

Grigory Rasputin: Holy Man or Mad Monk? (Wicked History) Grigory Rasputin: Holy Man or Mad Monk? by Enid A. Goldberg.

Goldberg begins Rasputin’s story in the midst of his murder, to hook the reader’s interest before backtracking to his peasant’s childhood and them telling the rest of his tale in chronological order. She shows us Rasputin the “saint” who could supposedly heal sick animals and people, who had visions of God and also his “sinner” side, who drank, seduced women and was power hungry. Readers also learn about Rasputin’s relationship with Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra and their family and how he had so much influence over the royal couple and Russia in turn. Goldberg uses sensational chapter headings such as “Death! When Grigory was eight he was scarred for life” “Miserable Worms: Rasputin’s enemies gain strength,” and “Drunken Nights: Rasputin begins to spin out of control,” which are in keeping with the series flashy, high interest approach.

Joseph Stalin (Wicked History) Joseph Stalin by Sean McCollum.

Readers will be interested to know that although Stalin was a teenage thug and gang leader, he was also intelligent, did well in school and went to seminary with intention to become a priest. But soon he became intrigued with Marxism and the idea of revolution. He was kicked out of seminary and joined the Russian Social-Democratic workers party. He became a gangster for Lenin and in spite of repeatedly being banished to Siberia, he went on to participate in the Russian Revolution. Stalin helped to force communism on the Russian people and beat his rivals, taking control of the country. Although he industrialized Russia, he terrorized the Russian people, forcing them onto collective farms, sending them to labor colonies and murdering them outright. He also starved millions of Ukrainians by taking the grain that they produced and selling it to other countries. Stalin’s wickedness speaks for itself.

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