I've always been interested in the Romanovs, the last rulers of Imperial Russia, and I will usually pick up anything new that has been written about them. One author that has been providing new insights and information about the last Tsar and his family has been Greg King, who has authored three previous works on the Imperial family.
This time, instead of looking just at the personal lives, he recreates the world of magnificent palaces, grand spectacles, weddings, coronations, christenings and funerals, that the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and his family lived in and their lives in surroundings that were sumptuous, to say the very least. Greg King begins his journey with an overview of the Imperial family, but also the people of the court, from ministers and ladies-in-waiting, right down to the maids, footmen, chefs and nursemaids that cared for the Imperial children.
From there, we see that these people populated palaces of immense splendour, starting with the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Tsarskoye Selo -- The Tsar's Village -- Peterhof, and the palaces in Moscow. A brief history of who built the palaces, what they were used for, and how they were decorated and arranged by Alexandra, along with quite a few ancedotes about them makes for interesting reading. Far from living in grand rooms decorated with gilt and malachite, both Nicholas and Alexandra preferred a rather bourgoisie style, of homey, chintz style, and heavily cluttered, and the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo was more like an English manor than the home of the man who ruled more than a sixth of the globe.
Possessions, of course, filled these palaces, and King takes a look at not just the artistry of Faberge eggs and jewelry by Cartier, but also how the Russian Court dressed and influenced fashion, from the wily tricks of the most famous dressmaker in St. Petersburg -- But I always cut my prices for you, Your Majesty! -- to the private trains that transported the Imperial family from one palace to another, and the two yachts that they used, as well as some rare photographs of the interiors.
A tsar does much more than just merely sign decrees and pack revolutionaries off to Siberia, and the next section goes into the details of the ceremonial lives of the Imperial family -- from religious and military pageantry and reviews, to the intricate planning and details of births, marriages and funerals, along with the coronation ceremonies that marked Nicholas II's ascension to the throne. The the marriage of Nicholas and Alexandra, christening of the long-awaited Tsarevich Alexei, and the funeral of Tsar Alexander III form the backdrop of these ceremonies.
Finally, there are the pleasures that the Romanovs enjoyed. From Imperial balls and the 'Season' that lasted yearly from New Years to the begining of Lent, St. Petersburg's aristocracy, State visits to other countries, and the lush palaces of the Crimea, King goes into fine detail, but refrains from bogging down the reader with unneccesary trivia.
In fact, this massive book of nearly 600 pages moves quite firmly, forming a narrative from memoirs, the family's own diaries and letters, and the massive photographic and film records that were left after the Revolution of 1917. King does not cover the events that occured after the start of World War One, only the declaration of war in 1914, and the later exile and execution of the Romanovs is only hinted at.
At first glance, this may only sound like a pegean of praise and adoration for the last Tsar and his family, but King weaves in the mistakes and blunders that Nicholas and his wife made that would send them from the popularity that they enjoyed in the early years of the reign to the sinister influences of Rasputin, to the self-imposed isolation and dislike that would eventually lead to the Revolution. Much of what King wrote about in his previous biography about Alexandra is brought up, from her extreme shyness and hateur, and her compulsive need to be in control. King refrains from making any judgements, but allows the major players in this tragedy to speak for themselves.
Along with the vivid descriptions, King includes several appendices that have maps of Imperial estates, St. Petersburg, the floor plans of palaces, the structure and organization of the Imperial court, and a genealogical chart of the Romanovs. There are also extensive notes, bibliographies, and an index.
Several inserts of colour photographs are included, and throughout the text, there are quite a few black and white photos. Unfortunately, while many of the photos are of objects and places not usually seen in books on the Romanovs, the quality of the photos leave much to be desired. They tend to be out of focus, blurry, and just plain shoddy reproduction. This is the greatest drawback of the book, and lowers the otherwise excellent quality.
For those who want to know the details of the last Romanovs, and see how they actually lived and moved in their lives, this is an excellent resource, full of entertaining stories, quite a few prophetic moments, and ultimately, an overall pall of oncoming doom. It makes a good ancillary text to the more standard biographies about the Romanovs by Massie, King and Vorres, and for fans of royalty, it's one that is not to be missed.