The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia. By Candace Fleming. Schwartz & Wade. $18.99.
They are saints now, canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church, but in their lifetimes they were reviled, their fall celebrated, their ignominious deaths either unremarked or deemed an occasion for joy. They were the last Romanovs, the final rulers of Imperial Russia, the victims of vicious Bolshevik murder in the waning days of World War I.
Although it proved not to be “the war to end war,” World War I was the war that ended empires: at its conclusion, the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires were gone, and so was Russia’s. The fall of Russia and its Romanov rulers was particularly dramatic: the last czar, Nicholas II, had been the wealthiest monarch in the world, and the holdings of the czars were so fabled, so extensive, so celebrated, that in their operetta Patience, Gilbert and Sullivan dealt with a matter of impossibility by comparison: “Get at the wealth of the czar (if you can).”
But the end of the Romanovs had been coming for quite some time before Nicholas was shot dead, along with his entire family and their household servants, in July 1918. The assassination of Alexander II in 1881 was a major precipitating factor. A reformist who emancipated the serfs, abolished capital punishment and promoted local self-government, Alexander was murdered by radical revolutionaries for whom his reforms did not go nearly far enough or fast enough: he was killed by a bomb in the fifth attempt on his life. This convinced his son, Alexander III, that reforms would never satisfy extremists, and he cracked down on dissent – hard. The result was a solidifying of opposition to his rule and to the czars in general. Alexander’s son, Nicholas II, would reap the proverbial whirlwind: lacking forcefulness and a hard edge, unable to contain the worker unrest that manifested itself in major strikes in 1905, Nicholas vacillated, signing the October Manifesto granting increased rights but then cracking down brutally on protests in a wave of terror that resulted in more than 20,000 executions.
“Promises Made, and Promises Broken,” reads the subhead of one part of one chapter in Candace Fleming’s The Family Romanov, and those five words say a great deal about the entire story told here in simplified but nevertheless highly detailed form. The last czar earned the name “Bloody Nicholas” through the depredations of his secret police and soldiers. But his story is more complicated than the name would suggest. Fleming delves into the ins and outs of a long-ago time, and into family matters ranging from Nicholas’ son’s hemophilia to the curious relationship between the czar’s family and self-proclaimed “holy man” Gregory Rasputin. The family tragedy – and it surely was a tragedy on a family level, whatever one may think of the social and political currents against which it played out – is at the heart of Fleming’s book, but she tells it within the context of a world changing far too fast for the old autocrats to keep up, a world where people such as Vladimir Ulyanov, always known by his chosen name Lenin, would control the future as czarist days receded rapidly into the past. Indeed, in some ways, the fall of the Romanovs seems only a matter of time: the very first item in Fleming’s 32 pages of photos and other visual material, a graphic showing the approximate breakdown of Russia’s social classes at the start of the 20th century, indicates that 1.5% of people were nobility or state officials, while 84% were peasants. Surely it was only a matter of time before the vast, vast majority rose up and demanded its rights in a nation from whose riches the lower classes had always been excluded.
And perhaps the destruction of the Romanovs was indeed inevitable, although the specific method of cold-blooded murder of the entire family in the name of Communism remains shocking even today. Fleming nevertheless manages to show the positives as well as the many negatives of the last czar and his family. Nicholas even attains something approaching nobility in his reaction to Lenin’s decision – for his own self-preservation – to sign a peace treaty with Germany that gave up Poland, Finland, the Baltic states, Ukraine and the Crimea: 32% of Russia’s land, 54% of its factories and 89% of its coal mines. Nicholas may have been on the wrong side of history; for all his religious piety (the basis of his and his family’s eventual canonization), and he may never have had either the sensitivity or the administrative skill to be an effective ruler, much less to control a land as huge, sprawling and complex as Russia. But his successors scarcely did better for the Russian population than Nicholas had. Lenin died in 1924 and was succeeded by the incredibly brutal and vicious mass murderer, Stalin, whose brand of Communism “ruled by repression, fear, and iron-fisted control” and lasted 67 years. The Romanovs, both for better and for worse, had ruled for more than 300.
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