Once upon a time, there was a gentle prince who fell in love with a handsome, practical princess. His father, the king, was a great and powerful man who ruled his massive kingdom with an iron fist, as his family has done for nearly 300 years. The king was so strong both he and his people expected his reign to last forever. Because of this he never took the time to teach the prince how to be the king. The prince was free to court his princess. This made him very happy.
When the king died unexpectedly his crown was forced upon his son’s head. Never mind that the new king would much rather spend time with his wife and their five children; four beautiful daughters and one tragic son. It was now his responsibility and his alone to govern a kingdom that covered 1/6 of the Earth’s surface.
The people of the kingdom were unhappy with their king. People were starving. When they tried to air their grievances the imperial army crushed them. The king, unable to face these harsh realities, lived with his family in a world of glittering palaces, opulent parties, and golden carriages. Each year at Easter he presented his beloved wife a jeweled egg.
Unfortunately, the walls of their crystal palace could not keep their young son – the heir to the throne – safe. His disease, hemophilia, was deadly and mysterious. No doctor could control it, driving the queen to desperation. She turned to the one place she could find solace, her faith.
She allowed into her life a man of God. He could ease the little prince’s suffering; could bring him back from the brink of death with nothing more than a prayer or even a telegram. Nothing else mattered to the queen, the kingdom, her reputation, and especially those who knew this man to be unholy. These people she, with the blessing of the king, systematically removed from their influential positions.
This alleged holy man was very careful to hide his real face from the queen. He was a lecherous man, scheming to get ahead; happily using the wealth and influence that came with being part of the queen’s trusted inner circle. The queen refused to believe these filthy accusations. In doing so she slowly turned the kingdom against her.
The people were turning against their king as well. Involved in a brutal and unpopular war the people began to gather and whisper, asking if maybe it was time for the king to step down. A charismatic young man was eager to provide them with an answer. Yes, the king must die so that they can be free.
In an effort to assuage his people the king stepped down from the throne. But by then it was too late. The royal family was imprisoned by revolutionaries and murdered. Their bodies were defiled, hidden in a mass grave not to be discovered for nearly one hundred years.
At this point, you will have figured out that this is not a spectacular original fairy tale I made up. It is in fact the story of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, the Romanovs of Imperial Russia. Hopefully, the line about bejeweled Easter eggs tipped you off. This is the true story told by Robert K. Massie in his 1967 book “Nicholas and Alexandra.”
Massie, like Sebastian Junger and Erik Larson, has the ability to take history, non-fiction, and turn it into the best novel you’ve ever read. There are even photographs in the middle. Everyone loves a picture book, right?
“Nicholas and Alexandra” reads like a historical romance and the book is impeccably researched. Massie uses extensive primary sources like the letters and diary entries of the Tsar and Tsaritsa to make a pivotal point in history immediately accessible.
For those of you with only a passing knowledge of Tsar Nicholas and the Russian Revolution let me tell you that this is only part of the story. I studied history in college and the most fascinating part of it was learning everything that happened prior to the first gunshot. The Revolution was simply the tail end of an enormous sinking beast.
“Nicholas and Alexandra”, like all tragic stories, brings to mind a million “what ifs” that only lead to more “what ifs.” If Russia hadn’t lost face during the Bosnian Crisis would they have felt so strongly when it came to supporting Serbia after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand? After all, their support was born of pride rather than necessity. It was that support that led directly to the outbreak of World War I. (That and about 10,000 other fucked up international alliances.) If WWI hadn’t started would the Russian Revolution have turned out the way it did? If WWI hadn’t started would WWII have happened? (My theory is no.) Did the entire course of world history rest on the shoulders of Tsar Nicholas? Signs point to yes. Since I’m not Harry Turtledove I cannot answer these questions.
There is no doubt that the people of Russia were fucked by their rulers and had been so for approximately 900 years. There is also no doubt Nicholas handled his reign abominably, like worse than you could ever imagine. One example is when he fired the commander-in-chief of the army (who was actually doing a pretty good job holding off the Kaiser, even though Russia was riding into battle on horseback, armed with sabers) because he thought he could do a better job. (Not true.) Since he was the Tsar and the Tsar doesn’t have a vice-Tsar, Nicholas left Alexandra in charge of running the country. Together she and Rasputin fired every single minister that saw Rasputin as the filthy charlatan he was and replaced them with Rasputin’s drinking/whoring buddies. Needless to say, angry mobs soon became bloodthirsty mobs.
Here’s where I found myself saying, “Yeah, things were really bad and definitely had to change, but did the Reds really have to gun down the entire family?” Well, they certainly thought so. Not only were the Tsar and especially the Tsaritsa hated by the proletariat; the White Russians, monarchists who supported the Tsar, were organizing their factions to march against the Reds. The Reds, who were actually pretty weak at the time, felt they had no choice but to execute the Romanovs so that the whites wouldn’t have anyone to rally around. Even exiling the family to England wasn’t good enough. As long as the Romanovs were alive the Whites would never rest.
As it turns out exiling the family to England wasn’t really an option. King George V, the cousin of both Nicholas and Alexandra, (You can look it up but I guarantee it will make your head spin. Queen Victoria spread the issue to every corner of Europe) refused to allow them into the country because he feared the Revolution would come to the UK. George felt the presence of the Romanovs would be inappropriate. Real nice, George. Real nice.
“Nicholas and Alexandra” brings both sides of the story into stark relief. On one hand, you have a gentle man who, while completely impotent as a ruler, was happiest spending time with his close and loving family. Alexandra was, frankly, out of her goddam mind. But you know what? Women with terminally ill children should be cut a little slack. Although not so much slack that they can sabotage an already weak government on the orders of Rasputin.
I found myself trying to rationalize things like, “Ok, perhaps it was necessary to kill the Tsar.” The French sure as hell made short work of Louis VXI, so that’s not without precedent. Alexandra did her fair share of fucking stuff up as well. Maybe it wasn’t necessary to kill her, but I can understand why they would want to. See Marie Antoinette. Sadly, Tsarevich Alexis also had to die. Never mind that he would have died young regardless, a good revolutionary can’t kill the king and leave the prince waiting in the wings.
But the girls, the Grand Duchesses, did they have to die too? That just seems cruel; though I was quite surprised that during the family’s months of incarceration at the hands of the Bolsheviks, none of the girls were violated in any way. Well, every cloud…
Today my liberal white girl guilt tells me that I should side with the workers. After the Revolution Russian literacy rates skyrocketed. Everyone was equal, in theory; swords into plowshares at its very best. But we know now how all that worked out. The people of Russia went on to be just as thoroughly fucked by the Soviets as they were by the Tsar, even more, so it seems because the Tsar was simply unqualified and out of touch. Stalin made the suppression of the people the jewel in his political crown. And the pogroms, my God the pogroms.
Then came Perestroika. Things were looking good, right? We got the Yeltsin dance. Russia joined Eurovision. Sky’s the limit! Hold on, did the government just assassinate a journalist for accusing the government of assassinating another journalist? Nothing shady there. Perhaps the blood of the Russian people spilled over centuries, has effectively sown the land with salt. Whatever manages to grow will always be corrupt.
The story of Nicholas and Alexandra as told by Robert K. Massie is brutal, bloody history turned into a fairy tale. But as we all know there is no such thing as happily ever after. It’s easy to see why the fascination with the Romanovs has lived on, spurred in no small part by the publication of Massie’s book in the 1960s. Just like the Titanic, theirs was a world of glittering, priceless excess built on the backs of the poor. An unsinkable monolith made all the worse by the fact that no matter how many times we revisit it, it always turns out the same.
Erin Lady Byrne (firstname.lastname@example.org) can be found on Twitter @ErinLadyByrne, talking about nectarines and Don Rickles.