Nicholas & Alexandra: The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty is the seminal work of Robert K. Massie in regards to his research and study of the Romanov Dynasty, of which he has devoted the majority of his research career. Massie is a graduate of Yale and Oxford Universities, he is the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, and his additional works include Peter the Great: His Life and World, Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, and his conclusive follow-up to Nicholas & Alexandra, The Romanovs: The Final Chapter.
Massie unfolds for us, in a fashion similar to a master storyteller, the tragic end of the House of Romanov, the last Russian imperial dynasty. Although Massie admits that the rise and fall of a 300 year old empire is subject to numerous causes, speculative as well as concrete, he ultimately attributes the collapse of the House of Romanov to the hardships the family faced from having to deal with the condition of the tsarevitch Alexei, hemophilia.
The saga begins with Nicholas II inheriting the throne of Russia after his father suddenly passes away. Although Nicholas was a great student who excelled in every area of study, his lifestyle after the completion of his schooling was very lax, resulting in a very timid, untrained, and inexperienced young man assuming the title of Tsar. Shortly after his father’s death, Nicholas II was wed to Alix of Hesse, and he was thrust into the administrative responsibilities of running a country. Wanting to keep with the tradition kept by his forefathers, Nicholas and Alexandra were eager to give birth to a son that would someday inherit the throne. After giving birth to four daughters, they began to despair that they would have no suitable heir. Finally, a son was born unto them, Alexei. The Romanov’s excitement was soon diminished, however, upon discovering that Alexei suffered from an incurable blood disease, hemophilia, inherited from Empress Alexandra. This caused Nicholas to withdraw from his duties as Tsar and concentrate on caring for his family. After a particularly traumatic fall, Alexei was bedridden with severe internal bleeding and the doctor’s prognosis was dire. In desperation, Alexandra sent for a mystic rumored to possess miraculous powers of healing named Rasputin. Upon heeding Rasputin’s advice, Alexei’s condition dramatically improved overnight, causing the Empress to develop a particular fondness for Rasputin, which allowed him to gain much influence over her as well as Nicholas. During this time WWI is being fought, and at the behest of Rasputin, Nicholas went to assist his soldiers on the front line, leaving the administrative responsibilities of ruling Russia in Empress Alexandra’s hands. This transition of power created a situation where Rasputin, because of his influence over the Empress, acted as a sort of unofficial regent to the throne. A series of war defeats and poor decisions made by Alexandra eventually led to the abdication of the Romanov family, their imprisonment, and their subsequent murder by the Bolsheviks.
In regards to Massie’s intent with the writing of this book, he was extremely successful in fulfilling his purpose, which he says was to “discover and explain” (Massie, x). Being published in 1967, the vast majority of information related to the Romanov Dynasty was locked away and unreleased by the Soviet Union. This, however, does not seem to have discouraged Massie from his endeavor, instead he turned to personal journals and correspondence of the Romanov’s. Although the basic facts, dates, and events associated with the fall of the Romanov Dynasty were readily available in history books, it is Massie’s interpretation of these journals and correspondence that allows him to interweave into this narrative the answers to the “why” questions regarding the actions and decisions of the Romanov’s. What Massie produces because of this is a much more solid and precise interpretation of these events, leading the reader to understand that history does not happen in a vacuum, and that there were many emotional, spiritual, and other underlying factors involved in the events that played out. The great amount of detail Massie gives to explaining and defending his analysis of these intimate details is staggering. In a sense, this amount of attention to fine details gives the reader a stronger sense of understanding as well as bolsters Massie’s authority in this subject. However, this also acts as a double-edged sword. There are instances in the book where it can be argued that too much detail is given and it only serves to slow the pace of the narrative. For instance, the large amount of words devoted to describing the clothes worn by the Romanov’s and the attendants of their wedding and coronation and other events are simply unneeded for Massie to get his point across. Passages like this are strewn all throughout the first part of this book and come across as nothing more than meaningless filler. They detract from the main plot that Massie has been building, potentially causing the reader to become distracted and lose track of the author’s main point. It is this reader’s opinion that the pace of the narrative, as well as the attentiveness and interest of the reader, would have been benefitted by the reduction of the length of some of these descriptive passages, if not their complete omission.
No review would be complete without the mentioning of a particular bias Massie has towards this subject. Massie’s son, along with Nicholas II’s, also suffers from hemophilia. This causes two important distinctions in Massie’s treatment of this subject compared to other accounts. First, Massie’s interpretation of Nicholas II’s character is much more sympathetic than most others. Whereas most prior analyses of Nicholas II’s shortcomings as a ruler attributed them to his lack of experience and ambition, Massie paints a different picture for us—one that shows a Tsar that is pulled away from his empirical duties by a deep concern for his family and desire to care for his son; a Nicholas that, as one anonymous person said, “was more interested in being a good man, rather than a good leader.” Second, Massie’s experience with the disease causes him to place a much larger focus on the effect it had on the Tsar than most other historians would. Alexei’s hemophilia, what would be considered a mere footnote in most other treatments of this chronicle, takes an almost starring role in the narrative that Massie develops. In fact, as mentioned earlier, the role that hemophilia played in the fall of the Romanov dynasty is the main point that is considered and elaborated on by Massie. Kerensky once said, “If there had been no Rasputin, there would have been no Lenin,” to which Massie adds that “if there had been no hemophilia, there would have been no Rasputin” (Massie 561).
Overall, Nicholas & Alexandra is a masterpiece. It is a very enjoyable, intriguing, insightful, and fascinating read about an era of history that most people, including the author of this review, have probably not been introduced to before. Although there is overwhelming detail in some instances, it does not detract enough from the book to make it unworthy of such a claim.
Also published on Medium.