Top critical review
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Alternating irritation to delight
on 13 April 2017
There is good and there is bad in this celebrated work of an author known for his interest in russian history.
The bad is, basically, his appalling anti-german bias, clearly distorting his presentation of facts, and some gross inaccuracies.
It looks like mr. Massie had suffered some severe outrage from Imperial Germany and the Kaiser himself, as he can not help putting both in an otherwise inexplicable bad light. He clearly overplays Germany (and Kaiser Wilhelm’s) influence in russian politics to the point to blame Berlin for the catastrophic russian involvement in the russo-japanese war. This is ludicrous, as any scholar in russian history knows that russian entanglement in asian and far-eastern affairs can be traced well before both Nicholas and Wilhelm’s birth. On the other hand, when having to discuss with the far more fateful french alliance, that put Russia against their traditional German allies and directed St.Petersburg politics on a collision course with both Germany and Austria over the Balcans, he scarcely devotes one single statement to this eventful volte-face. He even went so far as to vilify Wilhelm for his “evil-looking spike helmet“, a depiction more likely to be hosted in a wartime pamphlet than in a well-pondered history book.
Even less excusable are some later speculations made with the patent effort to downplay, and even libel the German effort to rescue the imperial family as aimed to use Nicholas as a pawn in securing the Brest-Litovsk Treaty gains (such an unlikely thesis I am encountering here for the first time, after a life in reading about russo-german relations). When such claims can not be seriously advanced, as when the germans tried to rescue Alexandra's sister, then a nun in a Moscow nunnery, they are simply not credited very much. Appallingly, when having to deal with the far more serious betrayal of the same allies, that lost all interest in the Romanovs’ fate after Nicholas was no longer a valuable actor on the political stage, and that sealed his and his family's fate, the assessment is inesplicably blurred, if any.
Also, he is not at all sympathetic with the figure of Rasputin, and, at times, he indulges in judgements not really fair-balanced, although usually restrained to his influence in political affairs (something still hotly debated among his biographers).
As for the inaccuracies, they are usually less relevant compared to the aforementioned fabrications. I just mention the confusion made about the name change Petersburg-Petrograd (at p.267, paperback edition, it is said tit took place on August 31, 1914, but, at p.279, the city is already referred to as “Petrograd“ on August 13th, 1914), and, when describing the Brusilov Offensive of 1916, p.339, he says that it forced the austrians to stop their successful offensive at Caporetto. The Author simply confuses the austrian „Strafexpedition“ of that year, with the Caporetto offensive of 1917, one year later.
Furthermore, at p.500, the former Prime Minister Ivan Goremykin is said to have been strangled at the hands of a Petrograd’s mob, while he actually died in Sochi, in a robbery raid, according to Wikipedia.
All this said, I will not deny that the book is well written with a good talent for depiction of people, situations and places. It is an enthralling read and I enjoyed often being shown the private life of the imperial family, about which it can be easily considered a valuable goldmine of facts and information. It is also a colourful account of the most hectic years of a society on the verge of catastrophe, and, at times, it gives the thrills asi f I was reading a great novel.
After much weighing those conflicting features, I have been still undecided if I was to give 3 or 4 stars. The fair score would have been something in between, but, as it is supposed to be a history book, in the non-fiction category, the drawbacks take a ssaqpecial, negative value, so I have to give 3. It is an intriguing read anyway for anybody interested in the fall of the Romanovs and in their tragic destiny, but not to be used in order to understand the politics and the origins of the Revolution.