The fall

Robert K. Massie's Nicholas and Alexandra is an incredible book. A hugely readable account of the fall of the House of Romanov. It reads just like a novel, and that's perhaps hardly surprising as it features a cast worthy of any Russian blockbuster - the fabulously wealthy, the mad and the evil, those who are hungry for power, and those that wish they didn't have it.

The readability and humanity of the book probably comes from Massie's own background. His interest in the Romanovs was triggered by a very personal event - Massie's son was born with Haemophilia. As a concerned father Massie did a lot of research into the illness, and became interested in historical incidences of Haemophilia - it was known for example in Ancient Egypt, and provision for it is even made in the Talmud. It was to have a devastating effect in the twentieth century, Queen Victoria had all unknowingly passed on the mutant gene to many of the royal families of Europe, although, ironically, the direct line of the British royal family were to stay clear of it. It has been suggested that Haemophilia may have led to the downfall of the Spanish royal family in the run-up to the Civil War, but where it was to have its most devastating effect was in Russia.

Ironically at one time the Tsarina Alexandra nearly married into the British royal family (she was Queen Victoria's favourite grand-daughter), if this had happened, who knows how history would have changed - would Russia still be governed by a Tsar? Would Britain have become a republic, and if it had followed the same course as Russia did, what would the end result of World War I have been? - perhaps most of Europe would still be royal, there would have been no Nazis, and perhaps a stalemate in the Spanish Civil War.

Nicholas and Alexandra were a nice couple. If you'd met them at a party you would have probably quite liked them, but their hopes for the future were blown apart when their only son began to suffer excruciatingly from Haemophilia. Alexandra turned in despair to anyone who could help, and this unfortunately turned out to be "the mad monk" Rasputin. The family might have survived that if it hadn't been for the First World War during which Russia suffered devastating losses, and while the Tsar stayed with his army Alexandra was left to run Russia guided by Rasputin. The end was calamity for the regime, and ultimately for the people of Russia too.

What I really got from this book was a much wider knowledge of the First World War and the politics behind it than I'd ever got before; and a better knowledge of the state of Russia before the war. As much of the story tends to be told from the Royalist point of view, it's not altogether unbiased, and certainly the change from a pro-Tsar Russia to the Russia that would kill its Tsar does come as a bit of a shock. You are told of the individual events that combine to lead up to the fall, but there's no real sense of the general feeling of the population up to the time of the Provisional Government.

This I think is partly because Massie, in common with many biographers, has fallen, at least a little, in love with his subjects. However this is not altogether a bad thing. I had never felt that I was particularly pro-Tsar, but I did have a much greater sympathy and understanding at the end of the volume. Nicholas and Alexandra were those oddest of people who seemed to inspire both great devotion and revulsion. The deaths of the children I did find especially poignant - they were completely pointless deaths, none of the girls would ever have become rulers of Russia. It was purely in Trotsky's words (repeated by Robert Bolt in the film of Doctor Zhivago) so that there would be no retreat from the path that the Bolsheviks had set Russia to follow.

A moving, generally accurate (in spite of being written over 40 years ago) and eminently readable account, I'd recommend it to anyone wanting to know more about the events leading to the Russian Revolution, but try and read something from the non-royalist side too.


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