Mystery at the heart of a doomed dynasty
History: The Last of The Tsars: Nicholas II and the Russian Revolution, Robert Service, Macmillan, hbk, 400 pages, €20.99
A new book offers a dramatic and rounded account of the last 16 months in the life of Tsar Nicholas II, often remembered as either a cruel tyrant or loyal family man, writes JP O'Malley.
On July 17, 1918, Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia, and the entire Romanov imperial family were being held captive in Ipatiev House in the city of Ekaterinburg. At 2am, the Bolshevik authorities instructed the family to proceed to the tiny cellar at the bottom of the building.
When the emperor, his wife Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna and their five children finally arrived downstairs, all hell broke loose. The brutal massacre of the imperial family - by firing squad - was hugely symbolic.
It set down a bloody marker for the reign of terror that became normalised under the auspices of a ruthless totalitarian-communist regime: firstly under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin from 1917 to 1924, and then under Joseph Stalin, who ruled the Soviet Union from Lenin's death until 1953.
Shortly after the infamous murder that fateful July night nearly 100 years ago, the bodies of the Romanovs were heaped into a lorry and driven out of Ekaterinburg. Petrol was poured over their bodies and a match was lit. The remains were then moved to a nearby mineshaft where they were covered in sulphuric acid.
At around 9am that morning, an urgent coded telegram relaying the news was sent to Moscow to Lenin's aid, Vladimir Gorbunov.
The official Bolshevik line being told to the Russian people at the time was that Nicholas had been murdered. The rest of the family, meanwhile, were not to be mentioned in the narrative. The details were kept sketchy and vague.
Then certain individuals even began popping up in public, in places like Siberia, claiming to be members of the Romanov dynasty.
In The Last of the Tsars, British historian Robert Service asks two pertinent questions relating to this dark episode in 20th-century Russian history: who exactly gave the orders to assassinate the Romanov family in such ruthless circumstances? And just what kind of man was Nicholas II?
As Service recalls here, right up to the point before the gruesome murders of the Romanovs, official Bolshevik policy was still focused on having a public show trial for the tsar in Moscow.
But the lines between Bolshevik officialdom and the private thoughts of revolutionary figures like Lenin and Trotsky- as Service shows - were extremely murky.
Indeed, while there is still no concrete evidence that Lenin directly ordered the death of Nicholas and his family, Service dismisses claims that the Urals leadership presiding over the imperial family in Ipatiev House at the time acted alone. Moreover, the historian says the Soviet Central Executive Committee records were purposely kept clear to absolve the leadership in Moscow of any connection with the killings.
There has already been a plethora of books written on the Romanovs.
Most of these, however, tend to focus on the rather strange relationship the tsar and his wife had with the spiritual mystic and bearded prophet Grigory Rasputin in the years leading up to their imprisonment and death. Rasputin was also murdered, in December 1916.
Other books on this subject - as is to be expected - tend to focus on the gruesome details of the Romanov's last hours.
Service, too, dedicates ample time here to this subject: particularly in the last few chapters. But he also spends a considerable amount of ink dissecting the last 16 months of the tsar's life in captivity.
We learn, for example, of the Tsar's reading habits; his penchant for daily exercise and the outdoors; his private diary entries, which don't give very much away; his relationship with his wife and his children, and his thoughts on Russia's place in the wider world as the country was going through unprecedented revolutionary change.
As the historian is keen to point out here - like the life of Lenin, too - the story most Russians are told when it comes to the last tsar is clouded in mythology, ideological bias, rumour, censorship, and gossip.
Service, backed up with new archival evidence and original primary documents - available only recently for the first time - seeks to portray a more complex and nuanced picture of a narrative that hitherto has been ridiculously oversimplified.
To his admirers and to loyal monarchists, Nicholas was seen as a loving husband and devoted father. In this rather one-dimensional view, his supporters say he did his very best for Russia against the tide of malignant revolutionaries who made him abdicate from the throne following the February 1917 Revolution.
To his detractors, however, Nicholas was seen as a stubborn, reactionary tyrant, whose actions destabilised the country and destroyed opportunities to avoid the catastrophe of what later became the Soviet Union.
Neither of these extreme views, however, Service convincingly argues throughout this narrative, give us a grounded or sound historical analysis.
Ever the historian of balance, fact, and compelling attention to detail, Service offers the reader a more evenly rounded recollection of these historical events. Proving, beyond doubt, that while the tsar was certainly capable of warmth and affection to his family; in power and out of it, he was also a nationalist extremist, a deluded nostalgist, and a virulent anti-Semite.
From February to November 1917, Nicholas was held captive under the more moderate supervision of the Provisional Government, and then under the harsher conditions of the Bolsheviks, from November 1917 to July 1918.
And yet Nicholas, and indeed his wife Alexandra, never gave even a moment's thought as to why they might have actually fallen from power in the first place.
Like Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI before the French Revolution, the Romanovs felt they had a God-given right to rule with an authoritarian iron fist, treating their subjects with contempt in the process. And so, ultimately, they paid the price with their lives for their own folly, hubris and myopia.
As Service reiterates throughout this book, rather than accepting that the Russian masses and peasants had a legitimate and just cause to ask for more economic and social rights in their day-to-day-lives, the Romanovs sought to blame alien forces that had deceived and manipulated their former subjects.
The Last of the Tsars is an intriguing analysis of the complex relationship between a dying monarchy, a revolutionary government, and a quest for absolute power. The book also confirms Service as one of the greatest authorities on 20th-century Russian history in the English-speaking world today.