If it weren’t real life, it would make for an award winning, haunting, and epic, sweeping tale of one of the world’s most expansive, wealthiest, and oldest dynasties struck down. But, it was real life–a life people either know nothing to very little about or, like me, are enthralled by the Shakespearean tragedy of the fall of the Romanov dynasty in what was tsarist Russia. Not quite 100 years ago, the Provisional Government swept St. Petersburg in a revolution and, on a train stopped on the tracks before he could get back to the capital city, Nicholas II, tsar of all the Russias abdicated his 300 year old throne for himself and for his young son, Alexei.
Robert K. Massie’s book, Nicholas and Alexandra was first published in 1966 and is a look at the intimate and official relationship between the last tsar and his wife, the empress and between the imperial couple and the Russian people. The Pulitzer Prize winning author and historian presents their adult lives in vivid detail from the intricacies of court life (The Russian court spoke English and French, officially) and the events, letters, and perspectives of Nicholas and Alexandra’s contemporaries that led to the unraveling of a powerful ruling family.
When it was written during the Communist regime of the Soviet Union, it was during a time when the Soviet government sought to keep any and all information about the Romanovs from public inspection and conversation. It wasn’t until the fall of the Communist government in Moscow that the successors of the regime sought to find the truth and make amends for the tragic murders that happened in the city of Ekaterinberg, under the direct orders of Lenin.
But, before Lenin’s return to Russia for the second revolution that sealed the fate of the Romanovs, there was the imperial family. Nicholas II was an ill-suited man to become tsar. His weaknesses and his passivity stood in marked relief from the man he succeeded, his father, Tsar Alexander III. A man of physically towering strength who was rumored to bend spoons at the dinner table, Alexander thought Nicholas too mild mannered and thinking himself young and invincible, he kept Nicholas from receiving the proper training and immersion in his future role as tsar. Unfortunately for Nicholas and for Russia, Alexander III was struck down at the age of 49 with nephritis. His unprepared and unmarried son became emperor as Nicholas II, in 1894.
Equally unprepared and, frankly, ill-suited to become empress, the German princess, Alix of Hesse, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, hastily married the love of her life, Nicholas, and found herself tsarina of a vast, unfamiliar empire where she was rivaled by her own mother-in-law, the very popular and still young and vibrant Dowager Empress Maria whose sister was Queen Alexandra, queen consort to King Edward VII of England. Both Alexander III and Empress Maria were opposed to the idea of Nicholas and Alix marrying. In letters exchanged between members of the family, Maria worried about Alix’s moody temperament and shyness as obstacles to the vigorous and demanding court life she would have to endure in St. Petersburg. As time went on after Alexander III relented to his son’s love struck need for Alix, the concerns of both Maria and Alexander would prove fatally prescient. Nevertheless, Nicholas and Alix married after Alix accepted Russian Orthodoxy as her official faith and changed her name to Alexandra.
The marriage of Nicholas and Alexandra was certainly a love match, uncommon for their stations and for the era. The imperial couple shared a bed and the empress insisted on closely rearing and taking care of her own children–both unconventional aspects of their lives in the culture. After four daughters (Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia) Alexandra finally gave birth to a son, Alexei, in 1904. And that birth was the beginning of the end of the Romanov dynasty. In Massie’s book, the fall of the government and everything that took place from the birth of Alexei up until the abdication of Nicholas II in 1917, stemmed from the maddening secret that was kept from the Russian people about the heir to the throne. Alexei was born with hemophilia.
From Alexandra’s desperation in protecting the illness of her only son we are introduced to the infamous Rasputin. He held the imperial couple in his sway as they became unswervingly convinced that Rasputin and Rasputin alone could bring their son back from the brink of death. Rasputin’s mere presence during a bleeding attack could calm the young tsarevich into recovery. The book examines the double life Rasputin lived–representing himself as a faithful and holy vessel at court while, in private, embarking on a life of sexual perversion and debauchery, the tales of which, when presented to Alexandra, were brushed aside in disbelief. As the empress depended more and more upon Rasputin, the monk began to insinuate himself into the composition of the Russian government. When Nicholas II was at the front during the beginning of what was to become the First World War, he left Alexandra, for all intents and purposes, in charge of the government with the power to appoint and dismiss ministers.
Massie’s research for the book includes volumes of letters during this time between Nicholas and Alexandra about the appointments and dismissals of dozens of government ministers. What is remarkably disturbing is the determination of Alexandra in the appointment of ministers favorable to Rasputin and the immediate dismissals of those ministers who were suspicious of and even contemptuous of Rasputin’s hold over the imperial family. Referring to Rasputin as “Our Friend,” Alexandra exhorts and manipulates Nicholas letter by letter into getting rid of Rasputin’s detractors in the government. Never popular to begin with, Alexandra, a German by birth, is despised by the government and by the Russian people as they become aware of her power. With Nicholas away from St. Petersburg and with the savagely weakened government appointed entirely by Alexandra, revolutionaries find it easy to overrun the capital. In the hours of the birth of the Russian revolution, Nicholas is alerted to the desperate situation in St. Petersburg and begged to return to restore order and to give in to demands by the revolutionaries for a constitution and a representative government limiting the autocratic powers of the tsar.
Of course, we know that Nicholas never had the chance to meet the demands of the revolutionaries or to bend with the times in developing a constitutional monarchy. His insistence on upholding the autocratic power is wildly at variance with his desire to pursue a quiet life of simplicity. Throughout the book, I was frustrated with the realization that had Nicholas consented to calls to strengthen the parliamentary movement in Russia and to cede absolute power, he could have spent his life without the burdens of a job for which he was woefully unprepared. He could have been the head of state and led a life of relative leisure while elected ministers ran the government.
The book shows the humble humanity of the imperial family after their fall from power. Alexandra, for all her many disastrous faults as empress, is revealed to be, at base, a frightened mother desperate to keep her son alive by any means. Despite her unsuitability for the social demands of her station, her fervent patriotism and love for Russia becomes clear through her letters to family and friends and with her documented discussions with the soldiers who kept her and her family prisoners until their deaths. Although she alone is responsible for the mystery and suspicion around her reputation with the Russian people, her very own status as empress kept her removed from the very people who misunderstood her impossible predicaments.
The Romanovs might very well have escaped Soviet Russia. The Dowager Empress Maria and her daughters, Grand Duchesses Xenia and Olga escaped to the Crimea and eventually to England. Massie’s book details the doomed expectations that Nicholas and Alexandra had that their cousin, King George V, would send a ship for them to bring them into exile in Europe. George V’s government, fearful that having the Romanovs in England would cause an upheaval that could endanger Edward’s own crown, first extended and then rescinded their offer to give refuge to Nicholas, Alexandra, and their children. France also refused. None of this was ever known to Nicholas or Alexandra as they kept hope up until their very last day that help would come. In July, 1918, just days from possible rescue from the advancing White Army favorable to the monarchists, Lenin, fearing that the imperial family would continue to be a rallying point for counterrevolutionaries, ordered the executions of not just Nicholas but of his wife and their children, including the 13 year old heir, Alexei. They were shot, stabbed by bayonets, burned, and their remains dumped down a mine shaft in the forest outside Ekaterinburg.
The Soviets at first denied murdering Alexandra and the children. Official word in the press directly after the assassinations declared that Nicholas had been executed but that his family were being kept in a safe place in Siberia. Eventually, the truth came out after the surviving members of the Romanov family searched, in vain, for the rest of the imperial family.
Massie reissued Nicholas and Alexandra in 2000 after the fall of the Soviet Union to new possibilities, questions, and verdicts on the Romanov family and the Soviet regime. What appears most upsetting is that the 70 year long Soviet regime proved itself time and again more brutal and destructive of the Russian people, economy, and place on the world stage than the entire 300 year period of Romanov imperial rule that spawned the revolution in the first place. What remains are ashes, literally and figuratively in the lives of the young princesses and the young prince in the blooming young adulthoods of their lives with vibrant, charming, and inquisitive personalities that would never see their potential on the world stage. What remains are the unanswered questions and the unfulfilled possibilities in the political education and evolution of a young tsar and his beautiful wife coming to terms with the sweeping social changes of the early twentieth century.
In the time since the fall of communism in Russia, there have been supporters for a restoration of the monarchy and enough competing pretenders to the empty throne exist in the Romanov descendants scattered throughout Europe. But the sheer brutality of the deaths of the imperial family and the staggering political and economic upending of the Russian state during the Soviet regime are still too close in the historical lens to bring the idea of restoring the monarchy in a constitutional form to any conventional reality. The Russian government, since the fall of the regime, have given proper burial to the remains of all the members of the imperial family and have even sent for and interred the remains of Dowager Empress Maria from her native Denmark where she died in exile next to her husband in Russia by special agreement between Denmark and Russia. In the meantime, the haunting tragedy of Nicholas and Alexandra, first masterfully documented and told with tantalizing narration by Robert Massie brings back all the mystery, the intrigue, and the lost opportunities–the stuff of epic movies and novels. What keeps us coming back is that it was all true. And if such a story as theirs can be true, the possibilities are as varied and the questions as endless as time itself.
For those interested in riveting biography and in an examination in detail of the fall of the Russian empire in the midst of the sweeping changes brought about by the First World War, Nicholas and Alexandra is part romance novel, part historical document, and above all, a breathtaking rendering of the account of one of history’s most tragic love stories.
NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA. By Robert K. Massie. Publisher: Random House. 640 pp. This book is also available on Kindle and Nook.
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