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.
Toward the finale, the tension rises, and it is impossible to put the book down. The author skillfully slows the action, prolonging the denouement and tormenting the reader with a blow-by-blow account of the royal family’s last journey: the bloody truck makes its way at night through forest and swamp, laden with corpses…or did it carry half-living people? (Yes or no? Yes or no?) Radzinsky deftly breaks the story at the right place in order to project the reader years ahead and show a tantalizingly indistinct picture: an elderly denizen of the Gulag, a patient in a psychiatric hospital, who assures everyone that he is the Tsarevich Alexis, that he managed to escape. He looks like portraits of Nicholas II, is a hemophiliac, and suffers from cryptorchidism, as did the royal heir. He answers all questions about the Tsar’s family correctly and without hesitation. The doctors are stumped. Cured, he again dissolves into the abyss of the Gulag, carrying his secret with him.
Then there’s the servant girl Demidova, the one who reportedly covered her head with a pillow and squealed when she was shot, who was stuck with a bayonet, whose corpse was burned on the edge of the mine. According to a story Radzinsky tells, Demidova, it seems, lived until World War II (but how, one asks?), never left the apartment where she was hidden by her brother, and was said to scream at night …
Could any of them really have escaped execution? I don’t know, I don’t know, Radzinsky seems to say, while dropping more and more hints that anything might have happened, that the KGB knows far more than it’s willing to tell, that the murderers Pyotr Ermakov and Yakov Yurovsky may have been bound by a terrible secret. They came up two corpses short and afraid of being held responsible, could have staged anything at all: for instance, the burning of two corpses (an action that does in fact seem pointless). Hence the lies and confusion in their stories: they burned all of them, no, just Alexis and the Empress…no, Alexis and Demidova—no, no, Alexis and another woman…perhaps Anastasia?
The main preserver, bearer, and revealer of secrets in the book turns out to be a man Radzinsky calls his “mysterious guest,” an old Cheka agent whose work gave him access to archives and information unavailable to others, who at one time personally knew one of the murderers and has long been interested in the royal family’s fate. The reader is asked to take Radzinsky’s word for it that this old man really exists. In keeping with the rules of the detective story genre, he appears at the book’s end; nameless and tittering, he offers his version of events. His version is neatly set forth and quite plausible—but no more so than other versions.
Despite the literariness of this character, we are prepared to believe in both the old man and his theory. According to him, during the bloody truck’s last journey, following the execution, one of the guards discovered that two of the victims were still alive, and saved them, hiding the poor unfortunates. As if in indirect evidence of such a possibility, the old man refers to vague information that the wife of the truck’s driver, herself a Bolshevik, left her husband, and a few years later, when dying, sent to tell him that she forgave him. From this murky “fact” the conclusion is drawn that the driver could have confessed to his revolutionarily inclined wife that he had saved or helped to save two of the victims—and that this galled her. We are also supposed to be overwhelmed by the fact that the driver’s young son was named Alexis, as was the Tsarevich.
Anything could have happened, so why not this version? In the West, beginning in the 1920s, various men and women turned up claiming to be the Tsar’s children. The most famous and unfortunate figure among them was Anna Anderson, whom many recognized as Anastasia (and others categorically denounced as an imposter). The investigation dragged on for years. Two trials in Germany were not able to give an official answer—positive or negative—to the enigma. However, expert handwriting analysis (independently conducted on two occasions) and study of evidence on the shape of her ear (a procedure which some criminologists consider as reliable as fingerprints, but which is less well known to the public), among other things, led specialists to conclude that Anna Anderson was indeed Anastasia. For those interested, I can recommend Peter Kurth’s Anastasia: The Riddle of Anna Anderson, a conscientiously documented, clear, and entertaining book.1
Radzinsky includes Kurth’s book in his bibliography, and appears to paraphrase a couple of pages from it. But his account is so cloudy that my suspicions were aroused. This turned out to be useful: I read Kurth’s book. My conclusion: the proverb “He lies like an eyewitness” must be applied to Radzinsky himself. Either he never actually read Kurth’s book (and thus deceives the reader when he dismisses the serious documents that Kurth cites), or he read it and didn’t know what to do about the existence of this evidence. Skepticism regarding Anna Anderson or even the possibility of the princess’s escape is more than understandable; but it would seem that the testimony of German experts during the trials is too serious a matter to be simply disregarded, especially since Radzinsky goes on to childishly tickle the reader’s imagination with the story of the errant wife of the truck driver (who died without saying anything at all to anyone). The impression arises that Radzinsky, experienced playwright that he is, knows that “unsolved mysteries,” mystical numbers, and bad omens—the inventory of a myth-maker—are more exciting than sober analysis and scientific expertise, that “an elevated deceit is dearer to us than a host of lowly truths,” as Pushkin said. An ominous, anonymous old man, a secret police agent, pulled out of a hat at the right moment, makes a better story than German specialists with their boring facts.
But any complaints regarding Radzinsky pale against what can be said about the luxurious photograph album with commentary by Prince Michael of Greece, a distant relative of the Tsar. The very genre of Radzinsky’s work allows for a certain indulgence in fantasy and emotional coloring, but in his own way he is as honest and conscientious as an Impressionist who depicts a cathedral in fog as many tiny colored points. Prince Michael opts for the tactics of a mad Dadaist: he draws a horse and captions it a chicken. The material that he ravages is priceless: photographs from the family albums of the Tsar and excerpts from the family’s diaries located in former Soviet archives. Most of the photos were taken by the family members themselves: the Tsar and his children were all amateur photographers, and we often see the Tsarevnas with cameras in hand.
Some of the photographs are magnificent, others so-so, and this makes them even more touching. The family members eat, drink, laugh, read, jump, lie in bed ill, play with the dog, ride horses, embrace dirty village children, flirt, study, make faces, and play tennis. They wade in streams, rolling up their pants and lifting their skirts. They lounge on the beach. Swing on swings. And when you know that this cheerful, pretty girl will be run through by a dull bayonet, that this co-quettish young woman will be doused with acid and thrown into an icy mine, that this shy child will be heckled in her last days by drunken guards who will make her leave the door to the toilet open and comment on her actions with taunting jeers—you begin to feel the tragedy of this unique family, which allowed itself to be carefree, as if it were like any other family.
What, you ask, is more precise than a photograph? What could be simpler than quoting a document? Why, human fantasy, a passion for mythification, a love of fairy tales and stereo-types! The peculiarities of this book begin before the book does. The caption to the photograph on the frontispiece reads: “During a voyage on the Imperial yacht, Standart, Alexis, wearing a cap belonging to one of the sailors, plays in the water with an old teapot.” It is indeed Alexis we see in the photograph, but the four-year-old is clearly wearing his own, specially made sailor’s cap, and he’s not holding a teapot but a child’s watering can. For all the Tsar’s personal “modesty”—on which Prince Michael insists to the point of absurdity—I feel sure that the Russian Emperor could afford to have a hat made for his sick son, and didn’t have to borrow a cap from one of his subjects. (A myth comes into play: the unpretentiousness of the royal family.)
On the first page of the text, Prince Michael assures us that he was one of the first to be shown these photographs by the Russian archivists. But Radzinsky examined them twenty years earlier, and notes that surprisingly, like Nicholas and Alexandra’s diaries, they had not been classified. (Another myth: the KGB is supposedly all powerful and omnipresent.) Prince Michael ends his preface with a conceit that is perhaps pretty but inaccurate: he says that the Tsar’s last diary entry was made just hours before the execution, and read, “God save Russia.” In fact, however, as we know from a reproduction of the last page of this diary in Radzinsky’s book, the Tsar’s diary stops three days before his death and the last entry says: “Weather is warm and pleasant. We have no news from the outside.” (The myth: the sensitive Tsar had a subtle intimation of his death, but was more concerned for the country than for himself.)
Having warmed up, the Prince abandons himself to fantasy: as he has it, the Crimea is part of the Mediterranean, and Alexis was named in honor of the first Romanov Tsar, although the first Romanov Tsar was Mikhail (Michael) and not Alexis. If the name of the mountain Ai-Petri does indeed mean Saint Peter, it might befit the Prince of Greece to know that it is in Greek and not Tatar. If the Prince sees flowers on a hat he writes that it is a feather hat; if the family is sitting on a mattress the Prince sees grass and moss. He calls leafy bushes pine; flowering branches are poplar. He turns measles, a rather dangerous illness, into the mumps, and Peter II, who died as a fifteen-year-old boy, into the husband of Catherine the Great. He dislikes Anna Vyrubova, the Empress’s close friend, implying that her friendship with the Empress had ulterior motives and picks on her whenever possible. With plebeian snobbism he contrasts the Empress’s “elegant outfit” with the “disgraceful furbelows” of her subject, though the greatest contrast is between the figures of the two women: the Empress was slim while Vyrubova was overweight. Whenever he sees a photograph of the royal family wading in the water, he inevitably informs us that the water is “bitter cold,” “frozen,” or “freezing” (and in so doing emphasizes the myth of the Russian Emperor’s spartan character).
I have to say that this talk about freezing water drove me over the brink. The obstinate stereotype that in Russia it is never anything but cold is one that I come across almost every day. It might be forgivable in inhabitants of equatorial climes, but it isn’t in Europeans, and certainly not in the authors of luxury albums who boast of kinship ties with the Russian imperial family. I’ve studied the origins of this myth as far as possible. It seems to have begun with Ambrogio Contarini, who visited Moscow in 1476–1477. Contarini writes that “this country is remarkable for its incredible cold, such that for nine months of the year people stay in their homes.” Sigismund Herberstein, who was in Moscovia in 1526, echoes him. “The cold is sometimes so extreme there that the earth cracks, and at such times water poured into the air and spittle from the mouth freeze before reaching the ground.”
I too love fairy tales, but I would like to remind the tale-tellers that we are now living in the twentieth century, and that the global climate has changed. In Holland, for instance, it’s no longer possible to skate on the canals, despite all the pictures we’ve seen. Moscow is not Siberia, and has had a normal, moderate mid-European climate for centuries. The Gulf of Finland, where my home town of St. Petersburg is located, gets quite warm, even hot, in the summer. Since the gulf is something like a shallow, sheltered puddle, in which even two-year-olds bathe, the Russian emperor was not obliged to “train” in order to wade in this lukewarm soup.
Beginning with inaccuracy and myth, the book ends with inaccuracy and myth: the last photograph shows Alexis with a dog, which purportedly shared the boy’s terrible fate. In fact, though this is only a dog, and though the Bolsheviks were unarguably monsters, they didn’t murder this particular dog. The dog in the photograph was rather large, while it is known that the dog that was shot was small enough to be held in a sleeve. The lap dog’s corpse was found—along with a woman’s finger, pearl earring, and other things—by the White Army investigators in 1919.
Prince Michael of Greece was asked to do a simple job: write a few words to accompany clear, straightforward photographs. The task was facilitated by the fact that in a number of cases the diary entries and letters explained the meaning of the photographs. The Tsarevich writes, for example: “Papa was still asleep. I went to his bed with a pillow …” In the picture we see the Tsarevich with this very pillow on his head. He’s showing off for the camera. The Prince pointlessly asks, “Why is he wearing this strange fabric as a kind of turban?”
These useless captions might seem hysterically funny. But I’m not laughing. I find it endlessly, nauseatingly sad and offensive that a peasant child named Bolyus who is shown in one photograph is listed in the index as a “pet,” that the place names, landscape, climate, history, and geography of my country are carelessly treated, as if it were some distant, unseen Herodotean land inhabited by dogheaded beings. It irks me that the workers of Russian archives and Western publishing companies imagine that a distant royal relative is, by right of birth, a more suitable author than a prosaic but common-sense historian, and thus that his shamelessly crude job doesn’t need checking.2 The increasingly popular myth of the autocracy’s mystique inevitably turns into ordinary social racism. Although this is another story altogether, the Russian Orthodox Church, adding the royal family to the roster of saints, preferred, as if mocking Christian teaching, not to pay any attention to the modest, truly loyal, and worthy people who worked for the family: Doctor Botkin, the cook Kharitonov, the servants Trupp and Demidova, who were shot because they didn’t flee, and didn’t betray their masters, but remained faithful to them to the end.
At present in Russia it is fashionable to hold that our misfortunes of the last seventy years are retribution for the murder of the Tsar, who served such fresh cream. Repentance can, of course, be a useful thing. But only if we don’t forget that all these years the Tsar’s bones have lain in a pit mixed in with those of the people who got the cream, warmed it, served it, and then cleared the monarch’s leftovers from the table. The bones of those who, unlike their “modest and charming” lord and “always elegant” lady decided to carry out their professional duty, as they understood it.
Whether or not the Tsar is to blame for the people’s fate, or the other way around, after death they were finally united in a communal grave, and deserve at the very least that the truth be told. And if you can’t manage that—then, according to Russian custom, you should take off your hat and be silent.
—Translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell
December 17, 1992
Little, Brown, 1983. ↩
In contrast, see Before the Revolution: St. Petersburg In Photographs 1890–1914 (Abrams, 1992), a fascinating collection of photodocuments on the life of prerevolutionary St. Petersburg which has an absorbing preface and foreword by, respectively, historians James Billington and Dimitri Likhachov, and is accompanied by interesting, informative, and accurate historical commentary. The royal family is unlucky, however: the only mistake I found in this otherwise marvelous album is a captain misidentifying all the Tsar’s daughters. ↩