from Vol. 1, Num. 4, Fall 1992
The Last Tsar : The Life and Death of Nicholas II by Edward Radzinsky
(Marian Schwartz, trans.). New York: doubleday, 1992. 462 pages,
illus., appendix, biblio. index.
Reviewed by Eric Denham
Alexei Nikolaevich, the tsarevich, located in the Gulag? One of
the grand duchesses alive after the massacre at Ekaterinberg? Those
possibilities are raised in this book. The author, a prominent
playwright originally trained as a historian, bases these hypotheses
on 25 years of research including interviews, perusal of official
Soviet/Russian state documents, and access to the diaries, letters,
personal papers and photographs of the imperial family.
Nicholas began keeping his diary on 1 March 1881, the day before
the assassination of his grandfather, Alexander II. Nicholas was a
punctilious reporter and continued his daily entries through wars,
revolution, arrest and Siberian exile.
Both Nicholas and the Empress Alexandra were related to most of
the royal houses of Europe in some way or other, but Nicholas' father,
the truly autocratic Tsar Alexander III, was opposed to his son's
choice of a German bride. Nicholas, who was to know few triumphs as a
sovereign, stood up to his imposing father and Alexander at last
consented -- a personal victory for Nicholas that was to prove tragic
for his empire.
Throughout the book, Nicholas is depicted as a weak individual.
He stood in awe of his uncles, all forceful men of imposing stature,
and was intimidated by his widowed mother. His brother michael was
the parental favorite and at the time of Alexander's death there was a
rumor that Nicholas would yield his birthright to him.
Nicholas took over a country at an uncertain point in its
development. His grandfather had undertaken to reform and modernize
Russia, while his father had done his best to put the brakes on all
change during his reign. These changes in direction left both
liberals and conservatives unsatisfied; the throne Nicholas inherited
sat on a powder keg he could never defuse.
The last tsar's reign was a series of mishaps, beginning with his
coronation. At a reception for the populace after the ceremony a
rumor started that there were not enough food or gifts for the
multitude. several thousand were trampled in the resulting melee.
While upset by this tragedy, Nicholas compounded it by attending a
ball hosted by the French ambassador that evening.
Russia's humiliation at the hands of the Japanese in the 1904-5
war reinforced Nicholas' profound conviction that such calamities were
the will of God. during this period, the author hints at the
existence of a camarilla [ital. for cmarilla] that hoped Grand Duke
Nicholas Nikolaevich would assume the throne if his nephew foundered.
the grand duke remained a loyal subject while Count Sergei Witte's
policy of reasonable concessions and stern repression eventually ended
the crisis. The tsar agreed to initiate reforms and granted a limited
form of constitution.
Alexandra was obsessed with the need to produce a male heir to
the throne, Her first four children, however, were daughters; this
led her, and to some extent Nicholas also, into the realm of religious
mysticism. The imperial couple were introduced to seances, trips to
holy shrines and several "mystics" of questionable character.
The tsarevich so ardently desired was born in 1904 and was named
Alexei. The birth was a cause for celebration throughout Russian even
in the midst of the Russo-Japanese War. But Alexei had hemophilia.
This affliction became a state secret, and the heavy demands of caring
for their easily-injured son did much to isolate the imperial family
from Russian society. The periods of excruciating agony the young
tsarevich frequently suffered caused the empress to turn to anyone who
offered a hope of caring, or at least alleviating, the disease. The
most famous of these was, of course, the sinister Rasputin.
The cast of characters that streams across the pages of the
latter part of Radzinsky's book provides a fascinating look at the
last months of the tsar's live. V.I. Lenin, exiled in Switzerland,
wasn't sure if he would see a change in his lifetime. Once the
Bolsheviks were in power, Leon Trotsky wanted to put on a show trial
of the former tsar and his family. Individuals responsible for the
execution of the imperial family are shown as crass thugs and
incompetents. Finally, the British royal family does not come off
well for desertion of a relative.
The story of the young woman who alleged herself to be Anastasia,
the surviving daughter of the tsar, is well known. Like others who
have investigated the story, Radzinsky believes she was sincere but
confused. The case of Alexei's possible survival is more interesting.
an institutionalized individual is found after World War II who seems
to have intimate knowledge of the Romanov court and is thought by some
to be the heir to the throne. After examination by physicians he is
returned to a clinic and his status as a ward of the state.
Nicholas is shown as a loving husband, a doting father, a weak
tsar and a failed autocrat. In personality he would have made a fine
country squire, but history placed him on the throne of all the
Russias. Given the time and place, could anyone have done better?