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Russian Hearts are Strange

Review of “The Romanovs: The Final Chapter,” by Robert Massie, and “The Fall of the Romanovs: Political Dreams and Personal Struggles in a Time of Revolution,” by Mark Steinberg and Vladimir Khrustalev

The Romanovs: The Final Chapter, by Robert K. Massie

As Communism began to wear thin in the mid-Eighties, many Russians looked back to the tsarist period as grander and more Russian than the Jewish-Germanic system under which they had most recently suffered. Indoctrinated with anti-tsarist sentiment, they broke free by turning pro-tsarist. In fact, the Romanovs were in general dutiful, hard-working and determined to do as much good for Russia as they were capable of. But their deification – Nicholas will probably be canonised before the year is out – is also absurd: the Romanovs were in general inept, remote, narrow-minded, anti-semitic, intolerant, repressive and irresponsible.

While Russian revisionist history of the last decade has finally acknowledged the harm done by Stalin and his successors, Western revisionist history has been freed of its language of paranoia. What the Russians dutifully celebrated for seventy years, they can now deplore: what we anxiously condemned, we can now accept; we are ready to treat the Romanovs less romantically just at the time when the Russians are sentimentalising them. Right-wingers in Russia talk about restoring the monarchy and crowds cheer the pretenders to the throne when they make their occasional visits to the Volga. In February, the long-delayed state funeral of Nicholas and his family was postponed again. But the preparations were quite spectacular; and when the event finally takes place, it will establish the parameters for the church-state politics of a country newly churched. In the West, the Romanovs have become hazy, known as much for the ice-cream sundae that bears their name as for the achievements and failures of their reign. They tend to be preferred to the dowdy Habsburgs and Hohenzollerns who fell just after them, so nostalgia for the orderly world of kings and queens and emperors and empresses falls on their narrow shoulders.

The Fall of the Romanovs, by Mark Steinberg and Vladimir Khrustalev

Mark Steinberg and Vladimir Khrustalev’s Fall of the Romanovs is a collection of documents from the very end of the tsarist period which tells the story of Nicholas’s last days. Robert Massie’s The Romanovs: The Final Chapter tells what happened to the Romanovs after they died. Massie’s book is a movie, big on atmosphere and set pieces, while Steinberg and Khrustalev’s book is a book, as dense with information as an old Britannica. Massie alludes briefly to documents that are included in the Steinberg/Khrustalev book, while Steinberg comments on Massie’s earlier work, rather astutely, in his fourth footnote, and the two volumes taken together make a nice pair; but the subject with which Steinberg and Khrustalev have occupied themselves is important and moving, while the subject to which Massie has turned is at best lightweight. For the historian, if not for the spiritualist, the acts of the living here exceed the acts of the dead.

The flames of Western sentiment about the last tsar have been much fanned by Massie, and especially by his account of the Tsar and his family in Nicholas and Alexandra. Although his version of events obsessively overemphasises the significance of the Tsarevich’s haemophilia and of Rasputin, it leaves you half in love with the Romanovs, clear about the ways in which they brought about their own demise, yet sad that it should have happened. The Romanovs: The Final Chapter is an engaging book and it is written with Massie’s customary verve, but it is not as good as Nicholas and Alexandra, in large part because the themes are so much smaller.