Since my high school years, I have been enthralled with the story of Nicholas and Alexandra Romanov and their tragic story. Every year or so, I need a Romanov-fix, and Helen Rappaport provided just that with her new book, The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg. There is much to like in this book, but also, a few detractions.
There are hundreds and hundreds of books on the last tsar and his family. Many of them just rehash the same information, over and over again. Rappaport tries to give a more in-depth look at the last 14 days that the Romanovs were in captivity in Ekaterinburg. She gives just enough background for those who may not know the entire story. Some of her descriptions and observations are first-rate. In describing Nicholas, "how had this devout, insistently dull and dogmatic little man, whose primary interest was family life, come to be demonised as the repository of all that was corrupt, reactionary and despotic about the Romanov dynasty?" When the family was descending into the basement of the Ipatiev House on that July evening, she writes "Twenty-three steps--one for every year of Nicholas's disastrous reign--now led him and his family to their collective fate." I especially liked learning more about the city of Ekaterinburg, as well as Woodrow Wilson's dilemma about aiding Russia. Rappaport's research in this respect is well done.
But what bothered me about The Last Days of the Romanovs is that there are no endnotes. There were so many times that I would read a new fact--something I had never heard before. My first instinct was to see where it came from so that I could learn more. The author gives her reasons for not including endnotes in her "Notes on Sources", but I don't agree with them. I'm not sure about the accuracy of the Index. I went to find Boris Yeltsin (she spells it Eltsin) and couldn't find him anywhere. Yet, he is mentioned on page 219. Finally, there are some minor mistakes throughout this book. One example involves Nicholas and Alexandra arriving in Ekaterburg, "It was Passion Week and the bells--the beautiful bells that had so beguiled Anton Checkov--were ringing out across the city." Three weeks later, the rest of their children joined them. "But the closely interdependent family unit was once more reunited and what greater joy could there be than for it to be during Passion Week--the most sacred festival in the Orthodox calendar." Passion Week is Passion Week. It is not three weeks long.
I enjoyed The Last Days of the Romanovs and I will add it to my extensive collection of Romanov books (now numbering over 100). But I thought Rappaport could have made this a better book.
on October 5, 2009
With every turn of the calendar, I see the release of yet another book on the last monarch of Russia, Tsar Nicholas II, and his family, hit the bookstores. And nearly all of them have something 'new' to say on the execution of the family, and their servants, on a warm summer night in July 1918, in the city of Ekaterinburg.
This time, the focus is on the doomed family's final days of life, with each day being chronicled by a chapter in Helen Rappaport's The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg. It's a nice twist, but rather crammed, as the author, a historian specializing in Russian history, explores each member of the family in turn. Of course, there is Nicholas, the father, and once ruler of the largest empire the world had seen. By the opening chapter, he had abdicated from the throne as unrest swept Russia from the terrible results of entering the first World War. Suffering from effects of stress and confinement, the only thing that seems to be holding him together is his family and the endless smoking of cigarettes. Alexandra, his German-born, but English-trained and speaking wife, is next, herself suffering from the effects of poor overall health and constant fretting over her youngest child. Rappaport makes much of Alexandra's mental state and possibility of menopause, and conveniently forgets how devastating physical ailments alone can make a person -- Alexandra suffered since a teenager from the results of sciatica.
The daughters, Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, are as most writers do, lumped into a single mass. While it is a given that the four daughters thought of themselves as a group -- they would sign notes and make presents as 'OTMA' -- they were very much individualists as well. While the author does give several tantalizing hints of who they were as people, there's not too much that's new here either. And finally, among the family, there is Alexey, the youngest and only son, who was the pivot around whom everyone in the family turned. His inherited illness of hemophilia keeps him weak and bedridden, but it also brought a great deal of insight. But he was also spoiled and indulged by his doting family, and it was the fear that death would suddenly strike that caused his domineering mother to fall under the spell of Rasputin which helped to accelerate the downfall of the monarchy.
Together with the last of their servants, the family struggles to fill time, and watch helplessly as their possessions, rations, and dignity are chipped away. The commandant of their final home in Ekaterinburg -- the sinisterly named "House of Special Purpose" -- Yurovsky is on a mission of his own, to follow the orders of the local Soviet and wait for instructions from Moscow as to what is to be done with the family. In the meantime, rumours are flying as to where the Tsar and his family are, and even if they are still alive. In the meantime, White Army forces -- those opposed to Soviet rule in Russia -- are closing in on the city, and with them, the possibility of rescue for the Romanovs...
While Ms. Rappaport goes over a trail that has been well combed before by many authors, she is still able to put in a surprise or two. One of them was a Russian woman by the name of Maria Bochkareva, who had, amazingly, become an officer in an all-woman's brigade of soldiers during the war, and now had gone to America to implore for American intervention in Russia in the form of troops and armaments. Her encounters with President Woodrow Wilson are interesting to read, but there's little to go on either. The author explores conspiracies to rescue the family, the travails of living in a dark, closed up house, and makes a few mistakes along the way, especially towards the end of the book.
And as nearly all writers on the Romanovs indulge in, there are the murders themselves, here dwelt on in loving, gory detail. At times I found myself getting physically nauseated by the author's descriptions, and that, coupled with her tendency to try and figure out the psychological states of her subjects. One that found very annoying was that Maria, the third daughter of the family, was being shunned because she had gotten too friendly with one of the guards, and had been caught being physically intimate with him. 'Proof' of this was given in that unlike her siblings and mother, she was not wearing a corset that had been sewn with jewels between the stays on the night of the execution -- hence Maria would have been cut down quickly in the hail of bullets and bayonets. The fact is, Maria was with her parents in Ekaterinburg when they had been separated from the rest of the family for a brief time, and so, her sisters had not been able to stitch the priceless jewelry into her clothing when their mother had sent them the message to do so. Worst still, Rappaport has the jewels being hidden in camisoles, rather than the corsets. It's tiny mistake, but a telling one, as there is a great deal of difference between the two sorts of garments.
Sadly, the best part of the book is at the end, where there is a brief discussion on the discovery of the Romanov remains at the end of the twentieth century, and the more recent discovery of the graves of the two missing Romanov children -- this only occurring in 2007, with DNA results still outstanding as of this writing -- and the modern 'industry' that the discoveries have brought to the city of Ekaterinburg in much needed tourist dollars. It's interesting, but other writers have done far better with the same material, and in a much more sympathetic style.
While I can not fault the author for her research -- she cites an immense number of books and articles in her bibliography -- I didn't much care for her alternate style of treating them as near imbelic idiots or whingers. Even the most neurotic of them all, Alexandra, deserves better than what she gets in this story.
As a curiosity to those who find the Romanovs a fascinating subject -- I confess that I am one of them -- this might be worth an evening's read, but overall, it still doesn't match up to early works about the novels. Even Robert Alexander's novel <a href="[...]>The Kitchen Boy</a> is better than this, and the book that started the modern interest about the Romanovs in the West, Robert Massie's Nicholas and Alexandra, and the follow-up The Romanovs: The Final Chapter are still the best place to start.
This has two inserts of black and white photographs, an extensive bibliography and index, but nothing really new is being presented here. It feels more that this is another historian cashing in on the Romanovs, and without little connection to the subject. That's too bad, and in all honesty I can only give this a three star rating.
Somewhat recommended, but not with enthusiasm.
Helen Rappaport has found a new and intriguing way to examine a subject which has now been exhaustively covered from many angles: the final imprisonment and assassination of Tsar Nicholas II and his family in 1918. Inquiries into the deaths of the Romanovs began just weeks after they occurred and have continued, with varying degrees of scholarly rigor, ever since. Rappaport's contribution ranks as one of the most thorough and also most interesting.
Rappaport chose to structure her book as a day to day coverage of the last two weeks of the life of the Imperial Family in Ekaterinburg. Each chapter covers the sad, monotonous details of the imprisoned family's routine, branching out to discuss the Bolsheviks' deliberations over their fate, the activities of various royal relatives and other conspirators who hoped to rescue the family, and the daily lives of the ordinary inhabitants of Ekaterinburg who were coping with excesses of the new revolutionary regime. Fascinating psychological and medical studies of the Tsar, the Empress, and their children are provided, helping us to see them as real human beings, not just symbols. The final chapters which cover the assassinations and burials of the family are unavoidably graphic and gruesome.
Rappaport provides an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources. Its unfortunate that she did not use footnotes, as there is much fascinating information here that might be difficult to trace to its original source. But that's the only flaw I see to this fine work, which allows its readers to feel deep pity for a man who was a poor tsar but a loving husband and father; a troubled woman whose love for her husband, children and country helped doom them all; and four pleasant young girls and their sickly brother whose only crime was being born royal in the wrong country at the wrong time.
I've been a devotee of Russian history and of the last Romanovs since first reading Robert K. Massie's Nicholas and Alexandra at the age of 13 nearly forty years ago. Rappaport's book provides new details on the last days of the Imperial Family and those who contributed to their fate, and deserves a place beside other serious, authoritative works on the subject.
on July 29, 2009
I bought this book because I had very little knowledge about the Romanovs or Russian history in general. So, umlike a number of other readers and reviewers, I did not compare Helen Rappaport's book with, I am told, many other publications about the Romanovs. I read Last Days of the Romanovs without being confused with any past efforts or any questions of, "Why this Book". The "Why" for me was pretty pedestrian:the book looked interesting and it was offered at Amazon at a fair price.
I was not disappointed and have rated the book accordingly. Through very substantial research and site visitation Ms. Rappaport has produced a highly readable, exciting and thoroughly infomative book about the last days of the Romanovs. Last Days spends the appropriate amount of time developing the political and human side of circumstances surrounding the period. Each of the family members as well as the key principals at the murder scene were developed during the first 180 pages; this brought the reader to a very sympathetic state with regard to each of the family members. A significant amount was also written about the Russian, German and other European political situations in order to allow the reader to understand the geopolitics and various motives that brought about the murder of the royal family. Additionally, Ms. Rappaport's careful explanation concerning the family ties of European royalty was helpful in order to understand the current family dynamics in play.
All of the above moves the reader to the the early morning dark hours of 17 July 1918. The last 50 pages of the book are written boldly; the iodine smell of blood and the stink of fear, vodka, violence and madness leap off the pages. There can be no disappointment for the want of detail developed from eye witnesses. The Tsar, Tsaritsa, four teenage & early 20's daughters, and the teenage hemophiliac son as well as the family doctor are violently murdered in a fit of chaos by gunshot and bayonet.
This is a well written book with a number of brilliant literary flourishes. The heart pounding scenes are written heroically.
on January 18, 2010
I looked forward to reading this book on the Romanovs, expecting that it might shed new light on those last days in Ekaterinburg. Unfortunately, this was not the book I had hoped for.
First, the prose is workmanlike at best and not terribly compelling. But what bothered me more than that was the lack of notes and the writer's continual insertion of biased comments which I doubted could be proved. There were many details in here that were so astounding (Nicholas smoked henbane? An extremely toxic plant? Really?) I immediately wanted to know where she'd found this information, but of course, there were no notes, so I had no idea what sort of source these things came from. Then there were the small things that couldn't possibly be known, but showed bias: that Nicholas's gaze was often empty and dull, that Alexandra suffered from hysteria (a dubious premise indeed, given the fact that Freud's definition of hysteria has been discredited, and while it is possible the author simply wanted to draw attention to some other contemporary events--ie. Freud--this is not at all clear from the way in which it is presented). We are also told that both Nicholas and Alexandra took a number of narcotics, which is interesting, but without any sort of notes, I begin to wonder what to believe. Another small example of bias: Nicholas is said to been unable to use his favorite drugs, so then resorted to the strongest narcotic of all: prayer. The writer's dismissal of the Romanov's religious beliefs is a bit grating, and shows more of the author's personal beliefs than it does shed light on the family.
True, these are all small things, but so many of them, so early on, made me mistrust the author, and thus mistrust the book overall. Which is a pity, as it could have been a much better book.
This book is a fascinating combination of true-crime reporting and historical biography, made possible by some pretty impressive research work. For obvious reasons, the Soviet state did its best to hide the truth about what really happened to the imperial family, where, and when. They did so not only by destroying the evidence, but by actively promoting disinformation, false or mistaken "eyewitnesses," and even taking advantage of the claims of "Anna Anderson," all of which still bedevil attempts to get to the bottom of these events.
Much of the virtue of this book is described in the Note on Sources at the end, where Helen Rappaport describes her use of Soviet and Russian sources, many of which have not only never been available in the West, but in fact have seldom attracted notice beyond Ekaterinburg/Sverdlovsk. Although I admit to not being up to speed on all the literature on this topic, it's hard to believe there could be as complete or as thorough an investigation of the murder of the Romanovs, making use of these resources, available in English. That makes this essential reading for anyone with an interest in the Russian dynasty, in the red revolution, or in the dynamics of early Soviet government.
Though the Romanov family's final days, and ultimate slaughter, are of course the focus of this book, the book also contains well-done biographical portraits of the Tsar, Tsaritsa, the four grand duchesses, and the Tsarevich Alexey that remind us the family's destruction was not only a political act but a crime against individuals (the family plus their retainers, eleven souls in total). That all makes for a book that is notable, not only for its research, but also for its storytelling. I definitely recommend it.