Top positive review
Cannot recommend this special treat highly enough!
16 October 2014
Five decades after its publication, this book still glows of those hallmarks that would later earn American author and historian Robert K. Massie a Pulitzer Prize. His interest in this last handful of ruling Romanovs was triggered by his son having haemophilia, as had Tsar Nicholas II's son, Tsarevich Alexei. The author's love of his subject sparkles from start to finish.
Massie's immaculate detail and empathic biographical style is on a par with that of the great Lady Antonia Fraser, who not until two years later penned her definitive Mary, Queen of Scots (1969). This extraordinary craftsmanship alone is worth the five stars I rated it with.
With access now to material still classified in 1967, today's reader might be forgiven for dismissing parts of this work as outdated and incomplete propaganda, notably penned by an American during his country's Cold War with Russia. And yet, penned by a man who would devote most of his life to studying Russia's Imperial family, we sense this book's accuracy and personal impartiality. The nowadays obvious information gaps made no difference to me, as a novice reader of this time and place. I learnt from what was there, remaining captivated and enthralled throughout.
Its lack of political bias is admirable. Sure, Massie paints vividly the ugliness of rabid Bolshevist extremism over the towering bloodline autocracy it usurped, but his compassionate treatment of that toppled autocracy is generous for a writer from the democratic thinking U S of A.
The international lead up to World War I is insightful and informative. There would surely be no neutral way of depicting Germany's almost deranged Kaiser Wilhelm II in the context of this history, but thankfully he is no central player in this biography.
I came to like and understand the human side of these misunderstood historical figures, the Romanovs, otherwise passed down to us under bitter revolutionary prejudice as personifications of an icily detached, staunchly autocratic elite. Their abominable treatment at the hands of Russia's revolutionaries is truly heart wrenching.
Tsar Nicholas we see as a mild mannered man, perhaps weak in certain areas of rulership, but a good, kind, decent husband, father and son. It has been all too easy for anti-imperialism to downplay the sheer enormity of his empire and the lifelong commitment he inherited then handed over when facing defeat. He believed he was doing what was right for Russia. For all his Imperial droopiness, sincerity, integrity and likeability are his redeeming qualities. This cousin of King George V of the United Kingdom was a gentle, pious man who lived for his family and country.
I felt deeply for Nicholas's wife, the unpopular and ostracised (German born) Alexandra Feodorovna (Alix of Hesse), another cousin of King George V of the United Kingdom and granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Their children are beautifully, poignantly drawn, especially their only son, Alexei, without whose tragic hereditary illness (probably passed down from Queen Victoria) there would have been no Rasputin in this picture and perhaps therefore no violent rulership overthrow, so possibly no Bolshevist state.
The 'holy' yet sinister Rasputin is an enigmatic character shrouded in mystique and debauchery, but not without usefulness or heart. He will always intrigue readers, as will poor Alexandra's desperate support for him, the only person seemingly able to keep her tiny boy from death by bleeding. That contentious relationship between the Tsarina and the hard living peasant priest was callously used an excuse to trigger the almost inevitable revolution.
This book was the basis of a 1971 Academy Award-winning film of the same title, starring Janet Suzman and Michael Jayston, with greats like Michael Redgrave, Laurence Olivier, Timothy West and Roy Dotrice, featuring Fiona Fullerton as Anastasia with the wondrous Irene Worth as the Dowager Empress Maria. While the film has become stylistically dated, Massie's book remains untainted by the passage of almost fifty years.
I intend to read it again someday, which is the highest compliment I can give any book. Before i do that, I feel compelled to read Massie's 1995 update and elaboration of this work, The Romanovs: The Final Chapter, written when the Soviet Union fell and records of the Romanovs were released. I somehow doubt, however, that for all its newer material, that follow up work could have come even close to his original, in sheer quality and readability.
As an ardent devotee of the historical biography genre, I cannot recommend this special treat highly enough to my reading peers.