It seems that every other year, a new book about the Romanovs. Some are serious, well researched histories; some seem to twist the facts to fit the author's pet theories. Some seem to eschew the facts entirely, in favour of the wild romance of the author's own fantasies! And all this plethora give wildly varying interpretations of the personalities of the main actors in this major real-life drama - unless one is, oneself, an expert in the field, it is hard to know who to believe.
Many of the secondary protagonists have written their own accounts of the events leading up to the Russian Revolution: Grand Duke Alexander & Prince Yusupov amongst others. But all these memoirs have the disadvantage of having been written many years after the events: however honest the author is trying to be, his view is coloured by the benefit of hindsight - and many succumb to the natural instinct to present themselves in a good light, with their own actions 'the only thing that could possibly have been done'.
This book cuts through the confusion by presenting the main protagonists, and many of the minor ones IN THEIR OWN WORDS, in letters written CONTEMPORARY TO THE EVENTS THAT THEY DESCRIBE. Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko ave carried out an incredible task to search through literally thousands of letters, producing a collection that cover the life of the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, from his childhood to his final days.
Of course, an overly selective bias by the editors, could slant the interpretation of the evidence - but, here, the sheer volume of material prevents any such effect. The reader is allowed to form their own opinion from the material, with the minimum of commentary. At over 600 pages, this is certainly not a skimpy buffet, but a rich, sumptuous feast!
Size, professionalism, detail... I might be making this sound a worthy, but difficult, read. It certainly is not - I found it utterly engrossing! And the reason for this is the charm and warmth of the intimate correspondence provided.
For this is above all a love story - and one that deserves the title Andrei Maysunas tells us was their first choice for this book: "The Goat's Song" (a reference to the literal meaning of the word "tragedy"). For this is Tragedy of epic proportions - the love story of a devoted husband and family man and his adoring wife, whose lives are blighted by the heartbreak of their severely ill only son, and their desperate attempts to keep his illness secret. The tragedy is of a man who selflessly sacrifices his personal happiness out of a sense of duty and a real love for his people, whilst at the same time so misled by the advisors around him, and his own personal limitations, that almost every decision he makes unwittingly alienates them further.
Then around this personal tragedy unfolds the greater tragedy, as Russia spirals inexorably towards the chaos of revolution - one that ends in the violent death of almost all those whose letters are included here. We see the thoughtful fuming with frustration as they see decisions made which they think foolish and disastrous, whilst others instead obsess about the minutiae of court protocol, with incredible insensitivity.
It is the minutiae - the human detail - that gives a real insight into this vanished world. This is a remarkable evocation of period and place, even for a reader not particularly interested in the personalities of this doomed royal family. So, for example, we find a nobleman castigating himself for his repeated trips to the bathhouse - bizarre, until we realise that the purpose of these trips are the seduction of the boy attendants. (About his wife & sons, we read almost nothing.) The paintings of the Tsar's wedding look magnificent - now we realise that the reason the dresses of all the guests blend into a sea of white, silver & gold is not an artistic convention, but the result of court etiquette, which specified the materials that had to be used for Court Dress - resulting in expense on an unimaginable scale! This contrasts poignantly with the poverty that resulted in people being crushed to death at the distribution of food to commemorate the event.
This book answered many questions that I had, and many more that I had not thought to ask. It is a stirling demonstration that scholarship need not be dry, and that the truth can be as passionate as any literary fiction.