“If there had been no Rasputin, there would have been no Lenin.” This quote from Kerensky really struck me from the beginning of the book. What an incredible what if in history to add to the list, and there are many in this novel alone. Massie did a fantastic job tracing the origins of the Russian Revolution throughout the book and chronicling the Revolutions devastating effects. Now this books is pretty old, published in 1967, so it doesn’t contain any current news about DNA testing on the remains found during the 1990s and 2000s, but it does thoroughly chronicle the history of the Romanov family from Ivan the Terrible all the way to Nicholas II.
The best part of the book for me was how real and relatable Massie made the royal family. Nicholas II was an unprepared Tsar who was never intended to be Tsar in the first place. The death of his elder brother to tuberculosis and the sudden death of his father forced him to take and uphold a position he had never been prepared for. To compound this, his wife Alexandra, or Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt, was an overwhelming force on Nicholas and he often deferred to her when he shouldn’t have. Alix’s faith and belief in Holy Men, and her shy reticent nature, were the first big strike against the autocracy in Russia. But viewed through a different lens, Alexandra becomes a concerned mother willing to do anything to protect her son who was born with hemophilia, a genetic disease passed down from Queen Victoria, Alix’s aunt.
Massie, in my opinion, really drives home the point, almost too much at times, that Alexei’s hemophilia brought Rasputin to the palace which was the deadly blow to the autocracy. It was Alexei’s hemophilia that brought Rasputin to the Alexander Palace and, despite disbelief from the doctors there, whatever he did to help Alexei worked. The author suggests that it was part hypnotism and part confidence that Rasputin had himself that he transferred to the Tsarevich to calm the child enough so that his blood could then begin clotting. And seemingly miraculously, Alexei would then begin to get better after Rasputin’s visit causing Alexandra to believe in everything the Holy Man did and said.
Rasputin himself is such an overwhelming interesting character. He charmed nearly everyone he met and even when his lecherous ways got out of control he was able to slip out of bad situations immediately. Nothing ever really stuck to him until the end. While I was reading, Rasputin actually reminded me a lot of Charles Manson, perhaps the Rasputin of modern times. Both were able to establish followings of well educated and wealthy individuals and got them to do basically whatever they wanted. But more than that, each brought about the end of an era, and the end of innocence in their respective places. Rasputin took so much control of Alexandra that when Nicholas left for the front lines to coordinate the army, he left Alexandra in charge who did whatever Rasputin told her to do. Some of his ideas were actually on point but others were just to show his power over the royal. This is when Rasputin’s enemies began to chant that he be executed so that his power of the autocracy could be removed.
The one thing about Rasputin that really struck me was how crazy accurate some of his predictions were. He prophesied that if one of the royal family killed him the Tsar and all of his immediate family would be murdered within two years, and that’s exactly what happened. Perhaps just an accurate guess or could it have been something more? We’ll never know.
The further I got into the novel the more ominous the tone. We all know what happens at the end to the Romanovs but I was still hoping that somehow history could rewrite itself. The thing that shocked me most was the animosity Europe and America showed to the Romanovs. King George V of England refused to rescue the royal family because he didn’t want to become unpopular in the country, as did France. Even Woodrow Wilson was over the moon when the Tsar abdicated. Perhaps if some of the extended family of the Romanovs could have looked beyond themselves the family would have survived, and perhaps not.
For anyone interested in Russian history and the Romanov family I would definitely recommend this book. It was dense at times but always fascinating. Massie kept me turning the pages late into the night.
Stay tuned for the next installment in Book Battle 2015. Happy reading!