“Nicholas and Alexandra,” by Robert K. Massie, Random House, 532 pages, $20.
This massive history of Nicholas Romanov, Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, Alexandra, and their family takes us back to the late 1890s, then forward to 1918 when it all came to an inglorious end after 23 years of autocratic reign.
Russia was not unusual in allowing the Emperor-Tsar to rule single-handedly. All of Europe was led by monarchs thought to have been ordained by God, absolute rulers. Revolution or revision was necessary.
Gregory Rasputin, supposedly a monk and holy man, was dirty, lewd and a womanizer. He was called to the side of Alexis, the Tsarevich and only son of Nicholas and Alexandra (four older daughters) when the boy was thought to be dying of hemophilia, and after a cursory examination declared, “The little one will not die./I Alexis did indeed recover, and that rascal Rasputin gained immense power with Alexandra, who thought him a saint capable of miracles.”
A minor revolution in 1905 was put down by Russian troops, but the idea of rulership shared with representatives of the people was growing.
Goaded by Rasputin, Alexandra strongly supported an autocratic monarchy, and her less strong-willed husband was convinced. The Duma (Congress or Parliament) was formed, but power remained in the hands of the Tsar.
The nobility finally had their fill of Rasputin. They poisoned him, shot him, bludgeoned him and forced this physically powerful man through a hole chopped into the ice and into the icy water below. At his autopsy, the cause of death was found to be drowning.
Discontent among the peasants and nobility grew. The First World War supervened, and Russia suffered terribly from a lack of food and fuel.
Finally, even Nicholas knew that his rulership was at an end, and he abdicated, first in favor of his invalid son, then in favor of his brother, Grand Duke Michael.
The Romanov family was confined to one city after another, and finally the decision was made to kill them.
In a tiny basement room, the entire family was shot to death: Nicholas, Alexandra, Alexis and his four sisters — Olga, Fatima, Maria and Anastasia — and their servants. The rumor that Anastasia survived is not true.
This huge tome is exquisitely written, with many splendid pictures in the middle, and my only serious criticism is that the author appears to have felt the need to tell us absolutely everything he knows about this period of history and the people in it.
He could have left out lots of details about the minor players, and I helped him by frequently reading only the first line of each paragraph that seemed peripheral to the main history. The author made that easy by sensibly writing a summary sentence as the first line of each paragraph.
Lenin and Trotsky led the way to the conversion from monarchy to Bolshevism and Communism. Stalin inherited the revolution (1918) ...”and for 30 years ruled Russia more cruelly than any Tsar since Ivan the Terrible”.