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Russia: Land of the Tsars (2003) – DVD Review

Russia: Land of the Tsars DVD


Edited by Mark Fason
Written by Don Campbell
Narrated by Edward Herrmann


  • Timeline of the Tsars of Russia
  • Three bonus episodes of A&E’s Biography: Ivan the Terrible: Might and Madness, Peter the Great: The Tyrant Reformer, Rasputin: The Mad Monk

Released by: A&E.
Rating: NR
Region: 1
Anamorphic: N/A; appears in its original 1.33:1 format.

My Advice: Rent it if you’re a history buff, own it if you’re a Russian history buff.

Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Putin. Russia in its Soviet and post-Soviet eras was characterized by its strong leaders and their effect, good or bad, on the country and its people. If this is looked at strictly from a political perspective, it seems odd that communism and democracy, systems that emphasize the power of the masses rather than the power of one, would consistently spawn such rulers. But from a historical perspective, this seems quite normal. Russia throughout its history has always had the power centralized with its king, or tsar, and many of those tsars have defended that pejorative with death and fear. From their beginnings as Moscow merchant princes dealing with the Golden Horde to their battling and scheming to make Russia a European Great Power to finding themselves executed by the orders of Lenin, Russia: Land of the Tsars covers their millennium-long story.

[ad#longpost]It may be a good thing that ex-KGB agent Putin is running Russia, because after watching this, I see that you need to be a ruthless bastard to succeed in the top spot over there. Tsars (Russian for caesar) Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Catherine the Great waged successful wars and brought back important prizes, and worked to bring Russia closer to Europe. They also executed anyone who would take away their absolute power, from scheming nobles to serfs who merely wanted freedom. That seems to be the main thrust of this documentary: that it is better to be feared than loved as a ruler. You can almost see Machiavelli nodding in approval.

We are supplied with plenty of tales of torture and sex to keep us entertained while learning about important battles and governmental reforms. The presentation is pretty standard: historical reenactments, the experts or “talking heads,” and location shots of the scenery, both natural and architectural. It’s conventional, but it’s professionally done and the subject matter is quite interesting. It is annoying that when the reenactments feature a historical figure, they oh-so-cleverly arrange the shot so they don’t show the face. It’s a little insulting to think that the viewer would be that put off by seeing someone who doesn’t look exactly like Peter the Great on screen. And I imagine the actor can’t be all that happy either.

Like The Quiet American provided for Vietnam as a bonus, there is a timeline of the major “highlights” of Tsarist Russia. There could be more detail in it, but there’s a lot of history to cover so I figure brevity was necessary. The second disc also has three Biography episodes that feature Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Rasputin. It’s good to remember that the show used to cover historical figures before it became an all-out celebrity fest. These episodes manage to be entertaining as well as educational, like the rest of Russia: Land of the Tsars. If you are any sort of history buff, this box set is worth at least a rental.