The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II
Nicholas and Alexandra: The Family Albums
At a dinner after an art exhibition opening in the mid-1970s, I was seated next to an elderly woman, and told in a whisper that she was ninety but had all her wits about her. We started talking and the conversation turned to Nicholas II. The old woman, as it turned out, had once been something like a lady-in-waiting at the court. She sighed: “Everyone always says he was such a tyrant… But why, really? They always served such fresh cream at table.”
This sort of slightly mad logic is increasingly popular in the Russia of 1992. Every day the myth gains ground: before the Revolution life was marvelous (for everyone); after 1917 no one ever saw fresh cream except for members of the Politburo—who were all as old as Methuselah by the time they had crawled to the collective throne and were no longer able to digest anything but mineral water. One woman I know swore to me that at the beginning of the century her grandfather, a simple worker, a typesetter, drank up most of his weekly pay in the inns, and with the leftover change was still able to buy gold rings with emeralds to appease his wife. The peasants were swimming in grain. The proletariat breakfasted on caviar. The gendarmes were polite, the traders were honest, priests were pious. Why was all this so? Because we had the Tsar. Cream, emeralds, church chimes, Fabergé Easter eggs, honest and enlightened merchants, upright women, clear streams filled with sturgeon …
Cloudy images of a Russian paradise, a Golden Age, torment our present daydreamers, provoking acute attacks of nostalgia for what probably never existed: revolutions don’t happen in paradise. But reality is offensive: the green glades of silky grasses that beckon seductively from afar turn out to be littered with tin cans and cigarette butts on closer inspection. Better to reject reality and love your dream, to concoct a fairy tale about a kind, concerned Tsar, his well-fed, grateful people and their mutual affection. It seems that Nicholas II belonged to this type of dreamer; he convinced himself that the simple people were good and adored the Tsar, and that the crowd was being stirred up by troublemakers who should be caught and punished. Driven by this delusion, he managed to destroy himself, his family, the country, the empire, the people, and the cream of the nation for several generations into the bargain.
When I was a child there was a popular joke about Nicholas II being posthumously awarded the Order of the October Revolution, “for creating a revolutionary situation in the country.” Was he professionally incompetent? Or was the autocracy doomed? Or was the doom of the autocracy destined to be embodied in the incompetence of this man, who neither wanted nor knew how to rule, but only loved to stroll, chop wood, and take photographs? These three views, the human, historical, and mystical, respectively, each have their supporters, and their arguments have never been and never…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.