Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 806
Massie counterbalances the drama of Russian imperial society with the tragedy of the royal family of Nicholas, Alexandra, their four daughters (Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia), and the sickly Alexis. Thus, Massie encourages readers to examine Russia’s crisis as a human and personal drama.
Readers are reminded of the close ties of Nicholas and Alexandra to their blood relatives among the royalty of Germany and England. Indeed, the photograph of Nicholas with the future George V of England shows a remarkable resemblance. Nicholas is depicted as a ruler whose natural inclination to ignore hard realities can be traced to a difficult childhood under his father, Alexander III. An illustration of this trait and an ominous harbinger of later troubles is the description of what took place on the czar’s official coronation day in 1896. Crowds of people gathering for the celebration in the old capital of Moscow were caught in a riot that resulted in many deaths. Instead of acknowledging the tragedy, Nicholas proceeded with his evening banquet and ball as if nothing unusual had occurred. The empress, too, is described as insecure, attributable in part to her need to demonstrate attachment for her adopted culture. Nevertheless, the czar was not only a devoted father and loyal son of the Russian Orthodox church but also a loving husband. Massie quotes from the poignant “Nicky-Sunny” letters of the royal couple when Nicholas was at the front lines during World War I.
Yet little did Nicholas understand his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm, and his letters to the German ruler surely seem naïve. Once the die was cast in the summer of 1914, however, Nicholas displayed uncharacteristic firmness and courage, but these were not enough to overcome mistakes in judgment and failing supply lines. As patriotism turned to cynicism and despair, malcontents surprised even the radicals by toppling the old regime in February, 1917. A temporary government placed the members of the royal family under house arrest, and Bolsheviks killed them in July, 1918.
The Russian Revolution was an ignominious fall from the glorious three hundredth celebration of the Romanov dynasty in 1913. Massie describes well the conflicting emotions of Nicholas during his last year. Many hopes were entertained that foreign governments would grant asylum for the czar and his family, but all negotiations failed. The author sympathetically recounts the last days before their executions.
Although Massie provides a compelling story, some analysts think that he over-emphasizes the importance of Alexis’ hemophilia and the influence of Rasputin. Russia was a backward nation that was trying to catch up with the West without abandoning its own traditions—a very difficult task made more so by the weaknesses in the czar’s own personality, which Massie acknowledges. Lacking a vision, Nicholas responded only to pressure, so that when a representative assembly, the Duma, was finally established in 1906, the bonds between the public and the czar were already ruptured. Neither trusted the other; each side wanted to capture the other’s power.
If the author understates the larger issues, then he nevertheless suggests them in discussions of other personalities. He tells the story of Sergei Witte, a minister who tried to convert the empire into an industrial force before it met the challenges of world power politics. His effort was too late to save Russia from the Japanese war machine in 19041905. Radicals turned increasingly to violence as they killed trusted leaders such as Count V. K. Plehve in 1904, Grand Duke Sergei in the revolutionary year 1905, and Peter Stolypin in 1911. Forced to concede the creation of the duma and the establishment of constitutional liberties after 1905, Nicholas faced new rivals for power, such as liberal politician Paul Miliukov. Besieged by radicals and liberals alike, he turned for support to the ultranationalists in matters of foreign policy, minority issues, and religious affairs.
Massie ignores Nicholas’ support for the Black Hundreds, the notorious anti-Semitic organization in the empire (the czar was an honorary member). Most of his friends came from the archreactionaries who favored the religious persecution of minorities, pogroms against the Jews, the Russianization of Finns and Poles, and expansion eastward at the expense of the Asians and westward over other Slavs.
All these programs reduced the affection for the royal family and for the traditional father-figure czar. Here was the basic cause of the revolution, as this bond was breaking before Rasputin came to court. Nevertheless, Massie’s treatment of the royal family’s loyalty to this alleged holy man adds greatly to one’s understanding of the psychological dimensions of the collapse of the old society. Meanwhile, the Bolshevik success was partly attributable to Lenin’s personality: to his self-reliance at a time when the public yearned for a strong, not a vacillating, leader; to his singlemindedness; and to his skill at manipulating others. In short, he possessed all the qualities that Czar Nicholas II lacked.
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