The Last Tsar the Life and Death of Nicholas II by Edvard Radzinsky
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I wrote in an earlier review about the apocalypse that the Russian revolution must have been to Christians who lived through it, those who had come of age in a self-consciously, imperially Christian nation finding themselves citizens of an atheistic regime in active and open revolt against the structures of the faith. But what about the ruling family themselves, the Romanovs? This book is a portrait of the life of the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II, focusing on the tragedy of his final months and his ultimate execution, along with his family, at the hands of the Bolsheviks.
Radzinsky is apparently one of Russia’s most well-known playwrights and has written multiple volumes of popular history, of which this is one. He has given the book a strange format: we get glimpses of the author working through the archives of the royal family and various local Soviet archives (many recently declassified) as he pieces together his story. We also see old soldiers or Soviet officials coming out as glasnost takes hold, sharing with the author their recollections or letters of what happened in those final days. Overlaid on this background is the historical narrative itself, episodic to the point of being fragmentary and dramatized by the playwright’s eye. Knowing how the story ends, everything is foreshadowed by the conclusion, and ominous forebodings are read backward into the first days of the Tsar’s reign and even further, into his courtship and childhood. Radzinsky also often adds his speculations and reflections to the documentary material as the story is being told, giving a view of matters that if accurate still seems sensationalized.
The events of the book though are dramatic enough on their own, and my primary frustration was not the author’s style so much as the book’s lack of scope. It was apparently written for those who already knew Soviet history and who were trying to fill a very specific hole: what exactly happened to the Tsar, his wife, their daughters, and the heir in those chaotic last days. It was written for a Russian audience during a time in which new information was coming to light, but it meant much of the background was assumed.
This was especially apparent in the book’s first half, before the scope collapsed down to the Tsar’s family in their last house of imprisonment. Before this, documenting the last days of the Tsar’s reign, the casual Western reader is faced with a farrago of names unfamiliar and events for which he or she doesn’t have the context. I was still left clueless as to how exactly the Russian forces dissolved along the German front during the First World War and how Russian society turned up-side-down so quickly that the autocrat and commander in chief became a criminal and prisoner in his own palace. The Bolshevik Revolution was a tide that swept him and his family– and an entire social structure– away, and though we are treated to the surreal reversals (the disappearing guards, the palace that becomes a prison) through the eyes of the Tsar’s journals, the broader context is never outlined. For a reader already familiar with Russian history, the tight focus would be fine. For me, it meant I was as lost as Nicholas for much of the work.
The second half, once the old world had been swept away, was an easier read in this respect, and the foreboding and foreshadowing language the author used at times to the point of distraction during his survey of the Tsar’s reign now falls away as Radzinsky can focus on the grim details of their final imprisonment. He has the preoccupations of a playwright here as well: outlining their final setting like a stage, fussing with getting the characters of the final assassins outlined and pinned down, spinning out speculations and motives in the final political maneuverings before the royal family’s deaths. He is deeply sympathetic to the Romanovs, presenting their final attitudes as ones of stoic, Christian resolution and even– especially in the case of Nicholas– self-sacrifice and martyrdom for the greater good of his nation.
My fear was that with the sensationalism of earlier portions of the work, Radzinsky would focus too much on the grisly detail of their execution, but here he takes a circumspect, investigative approach. This was especially interesting in his exploration of events following the execution, as he works with records and clues to reconstruct their burial and reports on subsequent investigations regarding the recovery of the bodies. He lingers as well on the legends that sprang up regarding the possible survival of one of the daughters and the heir, Alexei Romanov, himself. The legends are easy to entertain (though they’ve since been disproven), because the entire story is told through the long, shadowy lens of decades of secrecy and Soviet rule. In some ways, this may be the most effective aspect of the book: illustrating not simply the nature of the regicide itself but the effort it took to piece together the details so long after the fact.