44 of 48 people found the following review helpful
on August 16, 2007
More often than not, when I read a book on the last rulers of Russia, the Romanovs, there's a part of me that tends to react with some disgruntlement. If it is a novel, it's with a a lot of unhappiness at times; lately there seems to be quite a few novels that pursue the very unlikely possibility that someone survived the Ekaterinburg massacre.
But scholar Wendy Slater has delved into what has actually remained from that time, using the autobiographical accounts from the executioners, various rumors and wild stories, the works of writers, and the bones themselves. But what makes this different from most of the works on the Romanovs that are available is that it remains a dispassionate work, looking at what there is, and refusing to give in to the temptation to romanticize the story.
Slater pieces together the various stories from the accounts that the guards in the Ipatiev house gave to both the White armies that took Ekaterinburg a few days after the massacre, and those who survived the Revolution. The account is slightly fictionalized to preserve a narrative flow, but she is careful not to add or subtract anything. What emerges is a story that both answers questions and evokes a chilling finality. This is not a timid story, and the violence quoitent is quite high, so not for the highly sensitive.
The story now moves to the late 1970's, and when several people got together, and decided to figure out what really happened. They put together what clues they had, tramped out into the woods, and started digging -- and found three skulls and some bones. They kept their secret for a while, made castings, and then quietly returned the bones to their resting place. It was after all, the time of the Soviets, and not quite the time to state that grave of the last tsar of Russia and his family had been found. But a few years later, politics had changed, and an offical team along with the original discoverers were brought in, and this time the entire grave was opened and the bones removed to figure out what had happened. How the remains were identified, and a mystery that is still unfolding, are the topics of this chapter, along with some heavy scholarly infighting.
The many deaths of Nicholas II
Slater discusses some of her reasons for writing this book, now that she has the two major sets of clues in hand. Instead of just merely going after 'what really happened,' she takes the more interesting route of how the past is interpeted and seen. Many of the stories here I had never heard of before, and it was an entirely new angle of historical research.
One of the more wild stories that roamed through the Soviet Union was that the head of Nicholas II (and sometimes that of the Empress as well) were taken to Moscow for the delectation of Communist leaders before being destroyed. Besides these rather lurid accounts, there are also the questions of why the Tsar and his entire family and remaining servants were so brutally murdered. Some say that it was a ritualized killing, but the truth is far more ordinary -- it was common practice for both the Communists and the Whites to 'dispose' of any political prisoners before they left a city.
With the offical acknowledgement of the grave, the story of there being survivors among the Tsar's children got a new lease on life. Several accounts of how Alexei and one of his sisters had survived the massacre, rescued by those still loyal to a tsarist Russia, were published, and the mystery of where two of the bodies are is still fueling fictional potboilers. Besides being wildly improvable, Slater goes into some deeper thoughts as to why these myths persist; I suspect that there is a deeply seated need in the human psyche that when we hear of some dreadful tragedy that somehow, we hope that someone has managed to survive, despite all of the logic to the contrary. As of this writing, a major earthquake has struck the country of Peru, and in the mountains of Utah, they're looking for trapped coal miners -- even in the face of desperate odds, we still hope that someone is alive. And the images of Nicholas II's children, all between the ages of 13 and 22 at the time of their murder, stir a feeling of dispair -- how could any one murder children, and if people are capable of that, then what does that say about humanity?
Nicholas II and his family were deeply religious, and so given their piety and the massacre, it's hardly surprising that they've become venerated as saints, and were offically canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church. Along with some images of the icons that have been created, Slater includes several stories about how these images just might be creating miracles.
Lastly, Slater looks at the uses of photography of the Imperial family, and how it was used during the reign of Nicholas II, and afterwards. Unlike the formal, stiff photography that most monarchies used to depict an image of strength, power and tradition, Nicholas II also wasn't shy about how he used a sentimental streak of human nature, showing himself, his wife, and their children as images of cozy domestication. In some of the letters that have survived, he and Alexandra discuss how this or that photo may make a suitable postcard, to raise funds for charity, or to inspire loyalty. Of course, the use of photography to manipulate public sentiment is still a viable tradition today.
Conclusion: Miscalculating History
Slater sums up her ideas in this brief chapter, and helps to make the rather murky stories and myths that we have about the last tsar and his family a bit more clear.
Along with these essays, there is an introduction, extensive footnotes, bibliography and sources, and an index to pinpoint just what you're looking for. The pictures that are included are rather grainy and in black and white; only a few of them were new to me.
I have to say that this is one of the better scholarly works on the Romanovs that I've seen in the past years. Slater comes down rather heavily on the more romanticized, especially gushing, tributes that have been published in the last few years. To be honest, this book needed to be written, if only to put some of the more outlandish ideas to rest, once and for all -- although that is rather doubtful.
Slater's writing is careful, meticulous and thorough. While this is certainly not light reading, and I would not recommend it for anyone but those who take their history seriously, it is one of the better books out there at the moment on Tsarist Russia. Just make certain that you have something a bit lighter to read after you get finished with this, as the subject matter is extremely depressing.
Four stars overall.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
This book was a bit pricey considering it isn't very long and only contains a few pictures, but it was a pretty decent read. It explores not only the death of Nicholas and his family, but the conspiracy theories that abounded after the murders. It addresses the doubt surrounding the discovery of the remains, the possibility of survivors, pretenders who have come out of the woodwork in subsequent years, the miracles of Romanov icons, and all other variety of conflicting rumors that have thrived over the last 90 years. Slater makes an interesting point in her conclusion, which emphasizes Nicholas's role as a martyr. Unlike Charles I of England and Louis XVI of France who were tried and executed publicly in the midst of Revolution, Nicholas was secretly shot in the middle of nowhere, there was no evidence of the executions other than the safely guarded testimony of participants, and their remains were not found for decades, leaving vast speculation amongst Russian people and portraying the Bolsheviks in a negative light.
This is a heavy piece of history but contains great sources and a unique perspective. I recommend to anyone who wants a deeper understanding of the brutality that took place in Soviet Russia in 1918.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on October 26, 2009
"The Many Deaths of Tsar Nicholas ii: Relics, Remains & the Romanovs" is a fascinating read.
Wendy Slater has approached the familiar story by analyzing its cultural impact in terms of product - the many myths of survivors, the photographs, icons, veneration of the family as martyrs & so on. This is incredibly fascinating. Firstly she discusses the many accounts of the last days & the murders, giving a rounded & very clear allover summation.
She follows through the discovery of the remains, the survivor myths, the identification of the bones & the cultural impacts of all this, particularly in Russia.
Slater writes powerfully & without excess sentiment. You feel the horror of the deaths all the more in her scholarly presentation. Her extensive knowledge is used apropriately to advance her viewpoint without a single extraneous detail being given.
For me a very interesting part of the book is her discussion of the Tsar's manipulation of publicity in the form of photographs of his attractive family.
This really is a book to read & re-read, a good corrective to the over sentamentalized portrayals of the Romanov tragedy that are all too common.