Year of First Publication: 1967
Year of Publication for This Edition: 2011
Number of Pages: 613
Publisher: Random House
Sub-Genres: Biography, history
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It appears that my interest in Russia is starting to come full-circle. First it was their literature, then their language, and now their history. Olive, one of the most enthusiastic Russophile bloggers I’ve seen yet, highly recommended the work of Robert Massie—and this book in particular—to anyone who is just beginning to study Russian history.
It turned out to be a great recommendation: despite having little prior knowledge of Russian history before the Soviet era, I didn’t find this book at all intimidating or inaccessible. Massie’s almost lyrical prose makes it an even greater pleasure to read. From the very first paragraph, his gifts as a narrator are evident:
From the Baltic city of St. Petersburg, built on a river marsh in a far northern corner of the empire, the Tsar ruled Russia. So immense were the Tsar’s dominions that, as night began to fall along their western borders, day already was breaking on their Pacific coast. Between these distant frontiers lay a continent, one sixth of the land surface of the globe. Through the depths of Russia’s winters, millions of tall pine trees stood silent under heavy snows. In the summer, clusters of white-trunked birch trees rustled their silvery leaves in the slanting rays of the afternoon sun. Rivers, wide and flat, flowed peacefully through the grassy plains of European Russia toward a limitless southern horizon. Eastward, in Siberia, even mightier rivers rolled north to the Arctic, sweeping through forests where no human had ever been, and across desolate marshes of frozen tundra.
While this is a traditional biography, narrating its subjects’ entire lives from their births to their deaths, the main focus of the story for Massie consists in three things: the love story between Nicholas and Alexandra, the tragedy of their son Alexei’s hemophilia, and the toll that the disease took not just on the family but on the entire country. On those damaged genes, Massie pins nothing less than the downfall of tsarist Russia and the rise of Lenin. If Alexei hadn’t been so sick, Alexandra would not have embraced the so-called “holy man” Rasputin and would not have given him so much power in the government. Without Rasputin’s influence, Massie goes on, Nicholas and Alexandra would not have made so many of the decisions that ultimately led to even Nicholas’s closest friends and advisers begging him to abdicate.
Am I convinced that Alexei’s disease was the beginning of the end for a family seemingly marked for tragedy? Yes. Am I convinced that the Romanovs would not have fallen without Rasputin’s being there? Not really. As this book plainly shows, Nicholas was, in many other respects, a very good man—he just wasn’t a good leader. Thoroughly schooled in the ways of autocratic imperialism by his father before him, he preoccupied himself with a number of ill-advised overseas conflicts, meanwhile the Russian people were starving and his nation’s industry was struggling. When his people demanded the civil rights afforded to the citizens of most Western nations, he responded alternately with force and with half-hearted concessions which only served to inflame both sides. All this to say that Nicholas II’s Russia had plenty of problems and was already teetering close to the edge of revolution before Rasputin got there. Nevertheless, Massie is right to conclude that Rasputin’s interference in the government—particularly during the critical years of World War I, when the people already doubted the allegiances of their German-born queen—was the last straw.
Elsewhere in the book, I wonder if Massie wasn’t a little overeager to protect his subjects from criticism, particularly when it comes to issues involving the Jews. He makes no mention, for instance, of the fact that anti-Jewish persecution greatly increased during Nicholas’s reign, or that, although he did relax some of the restrictions put on Jews by previous tsars, he also added a few of his own. It is unfortunate that Nicholas, noted by his contemporaries for his kindness and generosity, should succumb to the prejudices of his day on this particular point, but it is a fact, one that Massie seems to overlook.
In spite of those shortcomings, Nicholas and Alexandra is still a captivating book. Whatever their failings as leaders might have been, Nicholas and Alexandra were both fascinating people, and in some ways, even admirable people. Alexandra especially awed me with her strength and dignity. As Massie describes so poignantly, the struggle to cope with Alexei’s hemophilia nearly broke her, but even when she was at her lowest, she never gave way to despair. When she herself became plagued by poor health and exhaustion, she still found ways to help others and to make herself useful to them. During World War I, for example, she, along with her two oldest daughters Olga and Tatiana, trained as nurses with the Red Cross. There was the Empress of the All the Russias, changing bandages, administering medicine to delirious soldiers, and disposing of amputated limbs. Even at the very end, when she and her family had been under arrest for over a year and it was becoming obvious that they would not in fact be brought to England as promised, she was the one comforting her friends, assuring them that God was watching over them.
And her strength of character could be matched by her husband as well. My favorite story about him is probably the one where, after spending six months as a prisoner in his own home, he invited his and his family’s guards to share Easter dinner with them: he thought that, on Easter of all days, he should embrace his fellow Christians, whoever they happened to be. Stories like this convince me that, despite his failures and prejudices as a leader, he was still at heart a very good sort of man.
Really, though, that’s what makes the book worth reading in the first place: the complexity of these individuals, as well as of the times they lived through. The whole massive drama that they took part in. This was only my first taste of Russian royal history, but I will certainly be back for more.