Reading Romanovs

Or more specifically reading histories of three of the Romanovs as set out by Robert Massie.  I tend to do when heading to a new place of major interest I go on a reading marathon so for the St Petersburg visit I turned to one of the more unorthodox historical writers, Robert K. Massie.  Massie’s style is a trifle baroque and loaded – some have thought overloaded – with details of recorded events, historical documents and often intriguingly gossipy tidbits that make his subjects come alive.

Though the Catherine Palace was named after Peter the Great’s second wife  the stamp of Catherine II is all over it.  This beautifully dressed mannequin in one of the palace rooms is clothed to resemble the Empress as she appears in the painting that dominates the room – the one difference is that the entire ensemble is made of paper!

I sometimes do things a bit backward and it was the case of putting several Imperial carts before a few Regal horses when reading about the Romanov clan. I started with Massie’s most recent book devoted to the Empress Catherine II – or Kate the Great as she was known in private circles. And Massie lets us in on her private circles more than most writers; he reveals the complex character of the Princess from a minor German family who became both famous and infamous in her time and on down to ours.  He dispels many of the myths surrounding her, particularly the stories of her voracious sex drive – stories that may well have been the result of her less than amiable relationship with her son Peter as well as her break with many of the philosophies of the Enlightenment that she had espoused in the initial years of her reign.  One story that is total discredited is the famous Potemkin villages myth – now acknowledged as an attempt to malign her favourite (and possibly her husband) Grigory Potemkin.  Massie sub-titles his book Portrait of a Woman and he gives us exactly that: a complex provocative and captivating woman who still fascinates 300 years after her death.

Dominating the centre of St Petersburg The Bronze Horseman is Catherine the Great’s
homage to her predecessor Peter. A triumph of bronze casting it is a marvellously subtle
piece of propaganda meant to establish her legitimacy as a Romanov.  French sculptor
Etienne Maurice Falconet showed the Tsar as a Roman Emperor – the Great Reformer
fearlessly leading Russia forward.  
This contemporary statue of Peter the Great in the Peter and Paul Fortress
is by the Russian sculptor Mikhail Shemiakin and has caused much
controversy in the past decade. Shemiakin expressed the desire to show
the “alter ego” of a great reformer who was also a cruel and ruthless man.

Massie’s earlier work – in both the writing and the ruler viewed – is the story of the equally complex Peter the Great.  Peter was a man and ruler who, perhaps more than anyone of his time, revealed the struggle between the old and the new.  Curious, enlightened, progressive, loyal to his friends and deeply in love with his second wife Catherine, he was also cruel, unbending and confirmed in the belief of the autocracy of the Tsar.  Peter, as revealed by Massie, was a man both fascinating and dangerous to be around. The chapter on the arrest, imprisonment, torture and beating to death of Alexei, his son by his first unloved wife, is particularly chilling and we are spared none of the dreaful details of the fillicide of the gentle Tsarevich.  Though a long haul at over 900 pages Massie’s style and eye for  unusual details make it highly readible and again he is true to his sub-title – we are told the story of the life of  Pyotr Alexeyevich Romanov but also fo the World around him.

As with the stories of the two people most associated with St Petersburg when it came to reading Massie’s two books on the last of the Romanov Tsars and his family I did things the wrong way around and frankly wish I hadn’t.  The Romanovs – the Final Chapter outlines the horrible deaths of Nicholas, Alexandra, their five children and faithful attendants.  Equally as horribly it tells of the in-fighting by both relations and historical anthropologists over what remained of their bodies after shooting, bayonetting, kicking, sulfuric acid, fire and burial in swampy land.  The pure cold-hearted nature of so much of it is almost as stomach turning as their assasination itself.  The in-fighting continued until just recently when the remains of Nicholas, Alexandria, three of the Grand Duchesses, Doctor Botkin and three retainers were finally laid to rest in 1979 in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in the fortress of that name in St Petersburg.  A recent discovery and DNA testing has confirmed the finding of the remains of Tsarvich Alexi and his sister Maria.  There are plans to have them interred with their family in the traditional burial place of the Romanovs within the next year.  In the meantime the entire family has been deemed saints and “passion bearers” by the Orthodox church both inside and outside Russia – though their canonization was hotly debated by many theologians who perhaps with a less than Christ-like forgiveness railed against Nicholas for the fall of the monarchy and the church.  Nevertheless most churches in Russia now have an icon written to depict the family as Saints of the church.  And many of the churches outside Russia have followed suit – the most beautiful I saw was at the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Tallin.  Though I would have very much liked to have a photograph of it, cameras were forbidden in the Cathedral and there were no postcards available as the icon was a recent one.

I find that having read The Final Chapter has coloured my reading of Massie’s first popular history – Nicholas and Alexandra.  When it was  published in 1967 the author was accused of being both a romanticist of and apologist for a weak monarch and his wife; the movie adaptation in 1971 did little to dispell that image. Of course most people picking up the book would have some knowledge of the deaths of the Tsar and his family but having read the full horror has, for me at least, put a slant on things that allows me to give Nicholas and Alexandra, and Massie, some benefit of the doubt.  Born of personal experience Massie writes with  authority on the trials of parents of a hemophiliac – his son Bob Massie, the American priest, politician and social activist was born with severe classic hemophilia.  Does it colour his view of the Tsar and his wife – it could not be otherwise but it also gives their story a more human edge.  They hid the Tsarvich’s condition from the world and you have to wonder how it could have been handled differently – do you tell the people that their future Tsar has a disabilitating and ultimately (at the time) fatal disease?  Along comes a man (Rasputin) who through some power seems to stop the horrible suffering of a child and brings some peace of mind to sleepless nights – do you accept him, warts and all, for the good he can do you and your beloved child or reject him?  All interesting questions which Massie posses and has left at least this reader wondering.  

The Last of the Romanovs – Nicholas and Alexandra (centre) surrounded by their children the Tsarvich Alexis and left to right, Anastasia, Olga, Tatyana and Maria.

In his 1999 introduction to the reissue of Nicholas and Alexandra Massie writes:

Today, at the beginning of a new century, discussion fades away over the institution of autocracy and the political mistakes of the last Tsar, while horror and compassion remain fresh over the manner in which Nicholas and his family were killed.  During the months before they died, this husband, wife and five children behaved with exceptional courage and dignity.  In the end, this is what has redeemed them in national and historical memory.

Robert K. Massie
Nicholas and Alexandra
Ballyntane Books – September 1999

The Last of the Romanovs have finally found rest with their ancestors in the Catherine Chapel of the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul at the Peter and Paul Fortress.  Buried along with them are Alouzy Tropp, the Tzar’s valet; Eugene Botkin, the royal physician; Ivan Kharitonov, a cook; Anna Demidova, a lady-in-waiting who stayed with the family and were assassinated with them. The chapel has been left unfinished awaiting the internment of the Tsarvich Alexis and his sister Maria the last two family members to be identified.  Buried along with

14 August – 1888: An audio recording of Arthur Sullivan‘s “The Lost Chord“, one of the first recordings of music ever made, is played during a press conference introducing Thomas Edison’s phonograph in London, England.

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