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 will be resolved. Nonetheless, everything about Nicholas II’s life continues to excite the imagination of writers and readers around the world: the strange, Oblomov-like passivity of this quiet, blue-eyed family man, his submissiveness to fate combined with a suicidal obstinacy and egotism, the fateful family and historical circumstances (an imperious, hysterical spouse, a sickly heir; war with Japan, war with Germany) and, of course, the terrible end in the cellar of a house in the Urals. The more fairytale motifs and mythological clichés that can be detected in the story of the last Russian Tsar, the more enthusiastically writers set pen to paper and the more avidly readers grab their books from the shelves.
Edvard Radzinsky’s The Last Tsar, a book about the life and death of Nicholas II, has become a best seller in the US. In the 1970s Radzinsky studied at the Historical Archives Institute in Moscow and later went on to become a successful playwright. The playwright in Radzinsky clearly defeated and trampled the professional historian. In this sense the entire book is a battlefield for the author’s two careers: if the playwright erects a triumphal arch, the historian raises only a few paltry molehills. Not only does the book have no footnotes, but the bibliography seems merely an ornamental twist, a modernist caryatid that doesn’t trouble itself with holding up weight, but is simply there to gladden the passerby.
Doubleday, the publisher, followed the author’s lead: the book opens with a map that is no more useful than a decorative arabesque. St. Petersburg (renamed Petrograd in 1914 and Leningrad in 1924) peacefully coexists with Kuibyshev (which was Samara until 1935), and in place of the Arctic Ocean we find the Atlantic. On this map the Amur River flows in a circle, and another river, unknown to geographers, boldly joins the Black Sea with the Caspian; Russia and Siberia are divided by a border, Sweden and Finland are not, and so on. (Russia is, of course, a fantastical country, but not to that extent.)
From the first pages of this book Radzinsky declares his distrust of all witnesses: “Participants are, after all, biased,” he writes, and even supports this view with a proverbial saying, “he lies like an eyewitness.” He therefore dismisses all—all!—the statements of eyewitnesses on the circumstances surrounding the Tsar’s death. He discards the work done by others and wants to do everything himself, to find voluntary rather than forced testimony by the participants in the execution. This isn’t easy: wherever you go, everyone lies. I sympathize with the author’s difficulties. But lying, perhaps humankind’s primary weakness, is precisely what historians must overcome through their meticulous work, which is not unlike that of the criminal investigator.
Of course, it’s probably harder to discover the truth in Russia than anywhere else. In what other country will the conservators of archives look you straight in the eye, assure you that the documents you need do not exist at all, and then—how capricious is human nature!—secretly break all the rules and risk their jobs to bring you the “nonexistent” documents around by the back stairs, as happened to Radzinsky himself. Having satisfied your curiosity, they automatically induct you into the circle of the initiated, the liars. From now on you will be bound by the round robin of a double standard. You, too, will lie to newcomers, uninitiated seekers of the truth; if you let something slip, you betray the people who entrusted the secret to you. The lie becomes the guarantee of your good behavior. Such is Russia: it’s hardly surprising that our playwrights are much better than our historians.
Bound by vows of silence, moving through a world of whispers and stolen documents, Radzinsky was unable to carry on his research openly for many years, and when he could (parts of his book were published in the Moscow weekly Ogonek in 1989), it turned out that almost everything had already been done by others. As a result of his research on the circumstances surrounding the Tsar’s death, Radzinsky turned up what was already known—that is, that we don’t know anything for certain. It seems that a group of eleven or twelve men, led by the Bolshevik Yakov Yurovsky, shot eleven people in a cellar: the Tsar’s family, three servants, and a doctor. Some of the victims simply refused to die immediately: the bullets bounced off their bodies and flew around the room, so they were finished off with bayonets. Then the corpses were taken into the forest, undressed, and robbed. It turned out that the women’s corsets were stuffed with diamonds, which is why the bullets rebounded. The bodies were buried, then reburied in another place the next day, and for some reason two of them were burned. When the White Army seized Ekaterinburg a week later, an investigation was conducted, but the grave was not found. A grave thought to be that of the royal family was discovered in recent years, and was opened twice: in 1979 and again in 1991 (remains from this grave are now being examined by scientists in England). At least two bodies were missing. What does this mean? Were they the ones burned? Or did some survive?
From a dramatic point of view, Radzinsky’s book is marvelously constructed. We all know the end of the story, but those who would like to relive it from the beginning can now have it served up under a delectable sauce of bad omens and sinister portents. The action unfolds to the rustle of the Tsar’s diaries, known for their vacuity and a triviality that seems almost indecent in an autocrat. Nicholas strolled, drank tea…strolled, drank tea…Faced with the danger of sudden death, his perplexed cry echoes loudly in this context. “What, what?” was all he had to say when, during his trip to Japan, in 1891, a mad policeman suddenly attacked him and struck him on the head with a saber. “What, what?” he asked in bewilderment on hearing the death sentence, just moments before the bullet pierced him in the cellar of the Ipatiev house in 1918. (“That’s what!” his murderer Yurovsky cried out in irritation, and then fired. Indeed, how else could one respond? From 1896, when he ascended the throne, or perhaps even earlier, in 1881 when his grandfather, Alexander III, was killed by terrorists, Nicholas repeatedly received unambiguous signals: look reality in the face, something must be changed, otherwise things will end badly. But he never understood.)
Objects also resound in Radzinsky’s book, with an echo that, far from diminishing, inevitably rises to a crescendo. When, still a bachelor, the young Nicholas receives the long-awaited acceptance of his beautiful intended and gives her a diamond brooch as a token of his love, Radzinsky’s experienced hand stops the frame on that distant, sparkling April day, and, tearing through the curtain of the future, shows us the burned remnants of this very brooch, retrieved from the filthy campfire where the clothes of the dead Empress were burned.
The mystical motif of the Tsar’s unlucky number seventeen is likewise struck in melancholy chords: On January 17, 1895, Nicholas gives his first important speech as a monarch; his voice breaks and he suddenly shouts, frightening an old noble, who drops the traditional gift of bread and salt—a bad omen. On October 17, 1905—seventeen years to the day after the crash of the Tsar’s train in Borki when the entire family almost died—he is forced to sign a manifesto granting Russia a constitution, a very unpleasant moment for the Tsar’s pride; Rasputin was murdered on December 17, 1916 (he had promised Nicholas that with his death both the Tsar and the country would perish, which did in fact happen). The year 1917 brought the February and October revolutions; and finally, on July 17, 1918, the Tsar was executed. The mysticism of numbers and omens is historically meaningless but pleasing to the philistine—for example, the ceremonial cannon shot fired during the 1905 Epiphany celebrations, just days before Bloody Sunday, turned out to contain live ammunition and miraculously wounded not the Tsar but a namesake, the gendarme Romanov. All these gothic trappings facilitate the creation of tension in the book. One need not dwell on the well-known story of Rasputin—only a very lazy writer would fail to make use of that. The narrative is adorned with other delightful details as well: the Empress, mistress of one sixth of the world’s surface, used to sell her old, unfashionable clothes to second-hand clothes buyers, but would remove the mother-of-pearl buttons, replacing them with bone or glass.