This is a really good historical book I recently finished reading. I get the impression that few people really know much about the demise of the Russian Tsar Nicholas 2 some time after the October Revolution and they probably are vaguely aware of the story through the ‘Ra ra Rasputin’ Boney M song and they may of heard of Princess Anastasia through all the conspiracy theories. Those with a deeper understanding of the time around the Russian Revolution have probably watched ‘Doctor Zhivago’………
This book is really about the events leading up to the removal of the Tsar from power and then the long period of captivity along with the rest of his immediate Romanov Family. If that was all the book was about it might not have been all that great but in fact it goes much much wider than this and without doubt that is what I liked about it.
My knowledge of the Russian Revolution was extremely patchy before reading this book and I know a lot more now and would definitely consider reading more stuff about this time if I trip over something suitable. Maybe a book about Lenin would be a good read although there is the risk that if you pick the wrong book you might get a very biased view. From the account in this book it really confirms my understanding that Lenin was actually a very ruthless sort and extremely devious in making sure that he was never near or never could be linked to the scene of his many crimes.
The author stresses that a key element of this book is to look at the reading material the Tsar was devouring during his years in captivity and to extract insights about how his thinking was evolving over the time and whether it gave any insights into events that were happening. To be honest I am not convinced that the book really does this in depth and I felt that the bits that specifically cover this idea are really just tacked on at the end of a chapter or something. Perhaps the books the Tsar was reading helped to give Robert Service useful guidance to explain various holes in the story but I am not sure how much this was the case. Without doubt there are bits where this did help such as the Tsar’s blatant anti-Semitism which was very much evident in his reading material as well. Having said that, such Jew hatred was very common at that time across much of Europe. It also comes across that the Tsar had a very militaristic view of history and Russia’s place in the world as he saw it and he was very much living in the past.
One thing I did find difficult was all the Russian names of the countless characters who are involved in the story of the Russian Revolution and the tale of how the fate of the Romanovs played out. I got to the stage where I was just sort of reading every name of an Official or an Apparatchik etc. as a generic ‘Russian Name’ and I could not distinguish one from another !! There are paragraphs and perhaps even sentences where you are introduced to 3 new Russian Names and they all begin with a ‘K’ and are of similar length !! For true scholars and experts in Russian History it might be something easy to cope with but for 99.999999999% of the population I suspect it is difficult. There were a few key characters who crop up over and over in the book and you sort of get used to realising who they are but quite often they end up dead (murdered) and you get introduced to yet new persons in the complex story.
The period of captivity really had 3 stages which took place in different locations and each time they were moved the conditions of their imprisonment got steadily worse. At first when the Tsar stood down he and his family were held at Tsarskoe Selo which is just outside St Petersburg (Petrograd) and the conditions here were really just limited by their lack of freedom but at least they had a team of staff which waited on them like they had in the past and they had food that was only something average Russians could dream of and the kids could play in the garden and the Tsar kept himself busy chopping wood and doing chores outside etc. At this time he got on well with many of the Soldiers who were guarding him although there were occasional incidents that caused conflict like when the Prince Alexei had a toy pistol or something and the Guards thought he had a real weapon !!
The book goes into quite a bit of detail about the trouble of the Prince who had the common inherited Royal problem of haemophilia. This was where ‘The Mad Monk’ Rasputin comes into the story as he was the only ‘physician’ who could give Alexei relief and calm him. This made Rasputin very much a favourite of the Tsarina Alexandra and she comes across as a very awkward and stroppy woman who had a pretty unpleasant demeanor and talked down to everyone. This made her quite unpopular with the Russian people in general and the Guards in the various places of confinement did not warm to her at all. It seems that Nicholas and Alexandra had a very strong relationship though and are believed to have been very much in love.
After Tsarskoe Selo, the Romanovs were moved to the very distant town of Tobolsk which is into Siberia and it sounds like a right dump !! The positive thing for the Tsar and his family are that they were out of the way here and many people in the Town were quite supportive of them but the downside was that they were put in a smaller house and their Food etc. was much worse (although it was still way better than what the Russian people were managing to find to eat) and there were without doubt more problems with the Guards who were mostly new and were from the Russian Army who had returned from the War with Japan and were not big fans of the Monarchy. They were fortunate though in that the men in charge of their ‘Prison’ were mostly courteous and reasonable although there were some petty disagreements and restraints etc. They were able to go to Church occasionally and this was a big highlight for the Family who were very religious and to a large extent this seems to have been a big factor in helping them get through what must have really been a pretty miserable time.
I have mixed feelings with regards to how the Tsar and Tsarina were treated and their ultimate fate because there is no doubt that the Tsar did have some tendencies towards authoritarianism and high-handedness although I suspect much of it was down to incompetence as much as anything else. It is clear the Tsarina was a bit of a cow but of course that doesn’t mean she deserved an unpleasant ending and what must have been a mind-numbing and worrying captivity for a couple of years. However, I feel extremely sorry for the kids and I have seen film footage on many documentaries which has them playing and stuff and there is a particularly famous piece of footage of them on Kaiser Bill’s yacht. I find that haunting.
There were something like 4 girls and 1 boy and the imprisonment must have been awful and it must have been really difficult for the Tsar and Tsarina to keep the Family sane and to keep them occupied and in good spirits. That sides of things doesn’t really come over from the book (perhaps other authors have covered this) and it just has odd snippets about things they were doing and they did have a Tutor who attended to them and that must have been a big help.
Anyway, overall I found this an excellent book and well worth reading. As I mentioned earlier, the sort of USP of the book in that it was to look at the reading material of the Tsar whilst in captivity doesn’t seem to really get much focus and it feels like it is tacked on as an afterthought at the end of several chapters (I can’t help thinking the author lobbed this aspect in for marketing purposes !!). It is an easy read though (apart from all those names !!) and I found it highly engaging and really was a book that I wanted to keep reading to find out what happened next. Without doubt it has hugely increased my knowledge of that highly important part of history and I must dig out Doctor Zhivago again…..
PS. I forgot to add that if you skip over to the ‘Non-Finance Books’ page you can find a link to a copy of ‘The Last of the Tsars’ on Amazon.
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