After having read and reviewed Robert K. Massie’s books Peter the Great: His Life and World (Modern Library) and Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, I recently finished the remaining two books in the series: Nicholas and Alexandra (Modern Library) and The Romanovs: The Final Chapter (Modern Library). In this article, I will briefly review the last two books.
The first book detailed the lives of Nicholas and Alexandra. As I began reading, I had an uncomfortable sense of foreboding. I knew that their lives ended in tragedy with their assassinations in Ekaterinburg in 1918. So, as I read through the book, I knew that all the events led to one unfortunate conclusion.
As I read through all these biographies, I tended to identify with the characters. When I read about Peter the Great, I traveled back in time and was with him during his accomplishments and festivities. Along with him, I suffered his defeats and celebrated his victories. Similarly with Catherine the Great, I suffered along with her during her hardships, especially at the beginning of her career, and then I celebrated her accomplishments during her reign.
Reading about Nicholas and Alexandra, my feelings were much different, because instead of a leader who overcame his challenges, this story was about a leader and his family who eventually succumbed to their challenges. Moreover, in the prior biographies, I romanticized about a period in time where there were few conveniences. During the times of Peter and Catherine, horses were used for travel and letters for communication. In Nicholas’s reign, trains, cars, and planes began to complement and replace horses. Electricity was commonly used, with the added benefit of better night lighting. And, the telegraph was used for fast communication. Some of the romanticism of earlier life was replaced by the common familiarity of more modern conveniences.
I was also struck by the recency of the era of Nicholas and Alexandra. Reaching back into history, it’s as if my fingertips are almost able to touch some of those who knew or saw Nicholas and Alexandra. For example, George Balanchine, one of the twentieth century’s most prolific and famous choreographers and well-known choreographer for the New York City Ballet, performed as a young child before the royal couple. I was already alive when Balanchine died in 1983, which is not that long ago. Most of the prominent characters, however, were adults during Nicholas’s reign and died earlier, before I was born.
Nicholas’s life was filled with challenges that he was never able to overcome. His father, Alexander III, died too young at age forty-nine, long before he had an opportunity to teach his young, inexperienced, twenty-six year old son Nicholas II all that he needed to know and understand to govern Russia. Nicholas married Alexandra, a woman that he truly loved from Germany. Together they had four beautiful daughters, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia, followed by one son, Alexei. Unfortunately, Alexandra carried a gene that led to Alexei being cursed with hemophilia, a disease that prevents from the blood from clotting in a regular and timely fashion.
Prior to reading this book, I had no clue about this awful disease. For small children during that period, this disease was especially cruel. While ordinary kids often got bumps and bruises that quickly healed, hemophiliacs suffered a much worse fate when bruised. Their blood didn’t clot easily. Instead, the unconstrained bleeding led to internal swelling that affected their joints, often immobilizing limbs. Hemophiliac kids cried out in extreme pain, begging their parents to help them, yet there was nothing that could be done. For young Alexei, he sometimes spent long periods unable to walk.
During Alexei’s painful periods, Alexandra took solace from a man named Rasputin. Rasputin was an enigmatic, Janus-faced peasant who showed the Romanovs a religious, caring side of his personality, while he showed others his more eccentric and aggressive personality. When he was with the Romanovs, he was able to provide Alexandra with often prophetic words of wisdom that comforted her as she cared for her son. More important, however, was that he was able to calm everyone, which helped Alexei when the doctors were powerless to help. The significance of remaining calm was that Alexei had a better chance that his blood would clot and stop the internal hemorrhaging. Because Alexei often got better, Alexandra saw Rasputin as a savior, her conduit to God.
Switching away from Nicholas the sovereign to Nicholas the husband and father, I found striking differences between Nicholas and his predecessors Peter and Catherine. Nicholas was very much a family man. During his marriage with his wife, they exchanged over six hundred letters, and their letters remained warm, loving and intimate throughout their marriage. He cared deeply and passionately about his children, perhaps with special attention to Alexei because of his illness and because of his special role as heir. My impressions of Peter and Catherine is that for each of them, their greatest loves were their roles as sovereigns while families and romantic partners came a close second.
Just focusing on Nicholas, I have two trains of thoughts. First, he was a weak leader, most probably because he went from having no particular roles or responsibilities prior to his father’s death to assuming the role as sovereign of Russia in only a heartbeat. Very few could make such a dramatic transition successfully. Moreover, others claim that he was indecisive and unable to stick to his decisions. As a result of being an indecisive and weak leader, events seemed to shape his destiny. And second, as a person, he was charming, extremely considerate, man who cared deeply about his faith, family, and country. I was left with the impression that Nicholas was a likeable person who found all the stars aligned against himself. As a leader and as a person, he simply had too many unfortunate circumstances to overcome.
At the end of the book, I read about the tragic events that took place at Ekaterinburg’s Ipatiev House, which was called The House of Special Purpose. On 17 July 1918, Nicholas carried his son from upstairs to the cellar, where he and his son along with his wife and four daughters and three others—Trupp, valet; Demidova, Alexandra’s maid; and Kharitonov, cook—were executed. After the execution, the bodies were hastily buried near one of Ekaterinburg’s mine sites.
The first book Nicholas and Alexandra was written at about 1967, when the Soviet Union still ruled Russia. At that time, some information was unavailable. The second book The Romanovs: The Final Chapter was written in 1995, a few years after the break-up of the Soviet Union, when more information was discovered and became available.
The Second book, The Romanovs: The Final Chapter is divided into three main parts. First, I learned greater detail of their execution. The book discussed discovery of the bones of the deceased. Once the bones were discovered, there was considerable confusion among scientists and competing claims between government entities. There were Russian, American, and British scientists who all worked, though not always harmoniously, toward identifying the remains. And, both Moscow and Ekaterinburg claimed rights to the remains. After the book was published, I learned that Moscow eventually won and that the remains were interred at St. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg on 17 July 1998, eighty years after the executions. And, I believe that all remains, including those of the servants, are together.
The first part also goes into the DNA science and government squabbling in great detail. I just wanted to know the conclusions.
The second part of the book discusses a Polish woman who represented herself as Anastasia, one of Nicholas’s daughters. Once again, the book goes into considerable detail about her life and those that interacted with her in trying to assess her claim of being Anastasia. In the end, I learned that she was a peasant woman from Poland. As she had been in sanatoriums, she might have been mentally ill and sincerely believed that she was Anastasia. Again, I had little interest in all the details. All I wanted to know was the conclusion.
And the last part of the book discussed where some of the still living Romanovs are now. Some are living in obscurity while I others have achieved prominence in their fields.
Robert K. Massie is a superb historian and author. With all the rich detail packed into each book, I can only begin to fully appreciate all his efforts to research and chronicle the lives of the Romanov dynasty. What an incredible reading journey I have enjoyed.