Russian hearts are strange

Andrew Solomon

  • The Romanovs: The Final Chapter by Robert Massie
    Cape, 308 pp, £17.99, November 1995, ISBN 0 224 04192 4
  • The Fall of the Romanovs: Political Dreams and Personal Struggles in a Time of Revolution by Mark Steinberg and Vladimir Khrustalev
    Yale, 444 pp, £18.50, November 1995, ISBN 0 300 06557 4

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.

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.

After the Romanovs disappeared in 1918, there was a web of mystery around them. It was not until 1926 that Moscow acknowledged that the Tsar had been executed, and it was only in 1978 that one Alexander Avdonin, an eccentric geologist from Siberia, finally located what proved to be the remains of the Imperial family. The first part of Massie’s book tells the story of the various searches before Avdonin’s, of Avdonin’s discovery, of the excavation of the bones in July 1991, and of what has happened to them since then. The bones were authenticated, accepted, written off as inauthentic, authenticated again; they were tested by Russian scientists, British scientists, American scientists; they were organised into skeletons and then pulled apart. The state accepted and challenged and accepted and challenged the identification; the Church accepted and challenged it; the world challenged and accepted it. It is not easy to make a pile of skeletons into characters as vivid as those Massie presents. He is also wonderfully attuned to the spectacular inefficiency of anything that happens in Russia, and uses the story of the Romanov bones as a powerful vehicle to describe Western frustration (his own and many others’) with post-Soviet society. Sometimes, however, his descriptions of the tedious intricacies of Russian bureaucracy begin to imitate their subject.

Massie then discusses the pretenders, all the people who claimed during the middle part of this century to be survivors of the Ekaterinburg massacre: a parade of deluded people drunk on self-aggrandisement, shrieking for attention. Massie throws them up into the air like so many clay pigeons, watches the arc of their flight, and shoots them to pieces just as they near the earth. The story of Anna Anderson, the most plausible of the pretenders, fully discredited only when her blood samples were posthumously tested for DNA matches, is especially good fun. What is nauseating is the eagerness of a substantial section of the Western public to believe these people.

Finally, Massie deals with the surviving members of the family, mostly cousins of the last tsar. Some current Romanovs seem a sensible lot: moderate, industrious, scholarly and remote from the idea of a restored monarchy in Russia. The Grand Duchess Maria, however, who calls herself the curatrix of the Russian throne, sounds perfectly awful – officious and egomaniacal and strangely unattuned to any but the grandest aspect of her family’s history. Having written so vividly of Nicholas and Alexandra thirty years ago, Massie now seems rather overexcited about the research that has allowed him to hang out endlessly with these princes of the blood.

In fact, it’s often hard to tell whether this is a book of political history or florid gossip. The heightened rhetoric that Massie uses so effectively to refract the magnificent events of Nicholas and Alexandra tends to undercut the small drama of the situations he is describing here. Much of the time, he sounds like a Thirties newsreel. Speaking of Ekaterinburg, he writes: ‘Unhappily, all these good things – wealth, fame, civic pride – continue to be shadowed by a single grim event ... the city was forced to confront the fact that it is and always will be famous throughout the world not for its minerals or its industry but for what happened here on the night of 16-17 July 1918.’ Later in the book: ‘One can only sympathise with Nicholas II, overwhelmed by the political problems of ruling an empire and also afflicted by marital upheavals in the extended Imperial family.’ He writes of the Tsar not with the deference that Tolstoy mustered for both Napoleon and Kutuzov, but with the self-important air of a man describing colleagues whose failures he understands clearly, having cleverly avoided them himself.

The Fall of the Romanovs is without question the most illuminating volume I have seen on the circumstances surrounding the Romanovs’ demise. In the late Eighties, Vladimir Khrustalev, a historian-archivist at the Central State Archive of the October Revolution, began going through the newly declassified files on the Romanovs. He selected and transcribed important documents of every kind, annotating his selections with information from other documents. In 1993, Mark Steinberg began working with Khrustalev, revising the selections, dividing them into chapters, and using external information to write an Introduction to the book and introductions to each chapter, as well as extensive notes and a long glossary. This material has been supplemented with photographs from the archive.

The book has been edited with meticulous care and the documents (with the exception of Alexandra’s letters, which were written in English, more or less) translated skilfully. Steinberg’s view is that Nicholas, though weak and preoccupied, fell not because he governed ineffectually, but because the principles according to which he governed (ineffectually) were the wrong ones. Nicholas’s demise was the inevitable result of his tragic belief in tsarist autocracy. Steinberg suggests that paternalistic absolutism could probably not have contained the movement toward liberalisation even in the hands of a stronger figure than Nicholas. He does not reflect on the fact that, within twenty years of the Romanov murder, a Georgian peasant who subscribed to an even more absolute notion of autocracy succeeded where Nicholas had failed.

The variety of the documents Steinberg and Khrustalev present is very rich. We have letters and diaries written not only by Nicholas and Alexandra, but also by the people around them and by those who influenced them. There are the texts of proclamations from the Duma, excerpts from Kerensky’s speeches, deciphered telegrams sent between commissars, newspaper reports, protocols and so on. Reading the Tsar and Tsarina’s correspondence and diaries is not like reading Nicholas and Alexandra. Alexandra is preoccupied with what reads now as cutesy spiritualism and neurotic moralism; she is at once high-minded and small-minded. We get an onslaught of information about the children’s temperatures and endless pages of love-talk to Nicholas, her ‘own precious one’ and ‘precious, beloved treasure’ and ‘beloved, Soul of my Soul, my own wee one’ whom she wished to ‘kiss ... without end, with tender true devotion, burning love’ since she ‘miss[es] your sweet kisses – yes, beloved One, you know how to give them – oh! how naughtily!’ She descends to rock bottom, however, when she starts to give advice: ‘only my Love be firm, show the master hand, its what the Russian needs ... how many have told me – “we want to feel the whip” – its strange but such is the Salve [Slav] nature ... Russian hearts are strange & not tender ... And for the ministers you are such a strength & guide.’ For the ministers, Nicholas was nothing of the kind; and to have at least acknowledged the concerns of the liberals would have stood to his advantage.

Compared with Alexandra’s gushing, Nicholas seems stiff and unimaginative and rather dim, albeit vigorous and genial. He writes to his wife in February 1917: ‘I went yesterday to the virgin’s image & prayed hard for you my Love, for the dear children & our country, also for Ania. Tell her that I saw her broach fastened to the image and rubbed it with my nose while kissing!’ Steinberg notes in his Introduction that Nicholas’s idea of the divine interfered with his ability to govern; he denied rights to the Jews because ‘an inner voice more and more firmly repeats to me not to accept this decision. To date, my conscience has never deceived me ... I know you also believe that “the heart of the tsar is in the hands of God.” So be it’. In late February 1917, Nicholas writes in his diary: ‘Disorders in Petrograd began a few days ago. To my sorrow, troops also began to take part. It is such a horrible feeling to be so far away and to receive fragments of bad news! I spent a short time with the report. Took an afternoon walk along the highway to Orsha. The weather stayed sunny.’

Nicholas’s obsession with physical activity (over mental) takes on a rhythm as dependable as Alexandra’s discussion of the children’s health. Pages and pages of his diary after the abdication are devoted to chronicling the chopping-up of trees. For example, 28 June 1917: ‘Worked at the same place; cut down three firs’; 6 July: ‘In the daytime, we worked well in the forest – we chopped down and sawed up four firs’; 11 July: ‘After breakfast, we worked well in the same place; cut down two firs – we’re nearly up to sixty sawed-up trees.’

Read closely, though, the documents of the Imperial family are in many instances quietly touching. Nicholas and Alexandra were clearly bewildered that their good intentions went so completely awry, and they brought a naive but staunch dignity to their loss of power. In Nicholas’s diary of 3 March 1917, when everything pointed to the end, he wrote: ‘The day was sunny and frosty. Talked with people close to me about yesterday’s events. Read a lot about Julius Caesar. At 8:20 arrived in Mogilev.’ On 8 March 1917, the day after his abdication, his entry concludes: ‘I left Mogilev; a touching crowd of people saw me off. Four members of the Duma are co-travellers in my train! I’ve left for Orsha and Vitebsk. The weather is frosty and windy. It’s miserable, painful and depressing.’ At the end of a long excerpt from the diary of Archpriest Afanasy Belaev, who tended to the Romanovs during part of their captivity in Tsarskoe Selo before they were shipped off to Ekaterinburg, comes this: ‘For a few minutes the conversation continued about family life. Incidentally, Her Majesty said: “I was misunderstood. I only wanted to do good.”’ And even this, from Alexandra’s diary the day the family was killed, is touching for its implacable domesticity: ‘Grey morning, later lovely sunshine. Baby has a slight cold. All went out ½ hour in the morning ... Played bezique with N.’

The documents of the Revolution and its supporters are by contrast startlingly harsh. On 2 March 1917, in the minutes of the first session of the Council of Ministers of the Provisional Government, one finds: ‘On the question of the future fate of the members of the former imperial family, minister of foreign affairs [P.N. Miliukov] reported that the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies asserted the necessity of evicting them beyond the borders of the Russian sate.’ In a telegram from the soldiers of the Nikolaevsky Maritime Battery, on 21 May 1917, comes: ‘We ask for the immediate transfer of Nicholas, Alexandra and their family to the Peter and Paul Fortress in order to institute strict surveillance and to prosecute all those sympathetic to the Romanovs as traitors to the freedom of the Russian state. Friendship with Nicholas, just like fraternisation at the front, is fatal for the motherland.’ Another telegram (in its entirety), from Tobolsk to the VTsIK: ‘The detachment resolved to remove the epaulettes from the former emperor and former heir. We ask that this be sanctioned on paper. Chairman of the committee, Martveev. Commander of the detachment, Kobylinsky.’ And finally, a telegram of 17 July 1918 to the Secretary to the Sovnarkom: ‘Inform Sverdlov that the entire family suffered the same fate as its head. Officially the family will die during evacuation. Beloborodov.’

Unlike many historians overexcited by previously unpublished materials, Steinberg keeps the texts he has acquired in perspective. In his Introduction he writes: ‘The official cloak of secrecy behind which many documents were concealed cannot be taken as proof of their truthfulness – a truism often forgotten in the enthusiasm that has followed the opening of the Soviet archives. Secrets and truths are not identical.’ It is this considered viewpoint that distinguishes the book. Although the selection of documents is influenced by Steinberg’s bias and, doubtless, by Khrustalev’s, the material is also allowed to speak for itself. It includes many personal accounts of the same episodes, written contemporaneously, but they are not repetitive, and by comparing them one can come to what seems very likely to be the truth.