Book review: Last Days of the Romanovs, by Helen Rappaport
Russian historian Helen Rappaport writes a tightly focused, streamlined account of the last two weeks that the family of Nicholas Romanov was alive, held captive at the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg in Siberia, a building known by its very Soviet name as the “House of Special Purpose”. 100 years ago last month, the Romanov family and several of their servants, 11 people in all, were brutally executed in the cellar of the Ipatiev House, their bodies first thrown down a mineshaft before being ultimately buried or burned in the nearby Koptyaki Forest.
After introducing the setting and before getting to what’s known of those last days, Rappaport inserts a few chapters providing some brief portraits of the family and some of their servants who’d followed them into exile. These are brief but telling enough to capture much of what made these personalities what they were and explaining their behavior and mindsets in exile, even without a reader having much background in Romanov history. At the same time, they’re not so detailed or repetitive to lose a reader who does have that familiarity.
These include background on why Nicholas was disliked as a ruler, forced as he was into a position he never really wanted and more consumed with his family life than politics, including his worries over Alexey’s (his and Alexandra’s only son and heir to the throne) hemophilia, which was kept secret from the Russian people. Rappaport summarizes Nicholas’s unpopularity brilliantly, capturing what it was about both his leadership skills (or lack thereof) and personality that rubbed the Russians the wrong way:
Traditionally Russians had long since seemed to respond best to ‘a touch of madness or magic in their rulers’, and Nicholas had neither.
At the point of their exile, Lenin and the Bolsheviks were in charge, and the Romanov family was seen as a potential rallying point for the Whites. As the Romanovs languished in the Ipatiev House, the Czech Whites were closing in, and the atmosphere everywhere was tense as the family hoped this would be their salvation, or that one of many haphazard, half-baked plots to rescue them would materialize in combination with the Czechs’ advance. Meanwhile the Bolsheviks grew increasingly anxious about the same, with the Romanovs’ freedom seen as both symbolism for the opposition and a very real threat to their political power.
It’s all much more complicated than this, but Rappaport keeps it simple and relevant, which makes this such an excellent book to read to get a just-the-facts idea of what happened and why. It’s very accessible and informative.
The bulk of the book, aside from the personality sketches of those imprisoned in the house, describes what those last weeks were like, as the guardianship of the prisoners changed and the noose increasingly tightened, their freedoms became further restricted, and all of the measures they took, insufficient though they were, to cope.
Their world was now far too small; all that was left to them was the meticulous daily habit of writing their diaries.
Rappaport is deft at making the claustrophobic atmosphere the Romanovs endured felt, in painstaking detail and description, with lines like this. It’s hard to imagine a family of seven who’d ruled over the largest country on earth being confined to a few rooms on one floor of a house, guns trained on them from outside and from the windows above. Whatever Nicholas and Alexandra’s personal and professional faults and failings, their world was a vast and sprawling one. To picture living like this, with only short bursts of activity walking in a small yard for a few minutes a day and constant monitoring, only their religious devotion, some crafting and diary writing allowed, is surreal to comprehend.
Then there’s the scene of the execution. I’m an avid reader/watcher of true crime and nonfiction in general that happens to portray graphic scenes, so I consider myself able to tolerate reading about murder and violence. But the description of how this went down, even though I already knew most of it, was excruciating to read. I had to pause and pick up again countless times to get through it, and it’s haunting. However terrible you think this scene must have been, it was worse.
The entire operation of the execution itself went disastrously, as the guards forming the firing squad, cleaning the basement room, and attempting to dispose of the bodies were completely drunk, nervous and stressed – all of which was made worse by the bloody turn the killings took, when many of the victims didn’t die quickly or easily. The grand duchesses had jewels sewn into their bodices, which deflected bullets, and the guards’ drunkenness and smoke from the gunfire distorted their aim, leading to many of those in the cellar being bayoneted to death. This isn’t even touching on the incompetency of their disposal methods, as Rappaport writes, “It was now clear that the greatest moment in Russian revolutionary history was on the brink of being turned into farce.”
Rappaport answers a lot of questions that I’ve had here. One was to do with Rasputin – even today the popular consensus is that no one is really sure how Rasputin was able to help the Tsarevich Alexey when he was gravely ill from hemophilia (this mysterious ability being the reason why Rasputin’s presence in their inner circle, a point of much contention among advisors, politicians and the Russian public, was tolerated). I’d read elsewhere it was because Rasputin always ordered the doctors to leave him alone during a fit or illness, thus ensuring he wasn’t given medications that might’ve been worsening the condition instead of alleviating it.
But Rappaport goes further, postulating that Rasputin was able to help by calming Alexey, almost to a hypnotic state, and regulating his breathing, which would’ve slowed his heart rate and pumped his blood slower, thus not exacerbating his condition. Suddenly what had always been a strange mystery made so much logical sense.
I’ve also always wondered who really gave the order for their execution, because no paper trail or explicit account of it exists (purposely). She clears that up as best as history allows too:
When it came to ordering any draconian measures, Lenin was a coward. He always operated with extreme caution, his favored method being to issue such instructions in coded telegrams (insisting that the original and even the telegraph ribbon on which it was sent be destroyed.) … it is more than likely too that he often gave verbal instructions via his trusted right-hand man Sverdlov … Ekaterinburg would carry out the necessary liquidation and, in the absence of documentation to prove otherwise, would also carry the blame in the eyes of the world. Within the new Soviet Russia, the kudos for this historic act of national vengeance would be enormous.
In other words, it was probably Lenin, but he cunningly made sure the blood would never be traceably on his hands, as well as assuring his political standing.
Twenty-three steps – one for every year of Nicholas’s disastrous reign – now led him and his family to their collective fate.
Rappaport is a brilliant, thorough historian, able to weave in so much detail, emotion and atmosphere – thanks in large part to the Romanovs’ extensive diaries. This book was published in 2009, a time when their last remains – Maria and Alexey’s bodies purposely burned and buried away from the others to sow confusion and help avoid identification – had been recently unearthed and identified. So the persistent myth of anyone escaping the massacre is put to rest here, as well as many others dispelled in favor of meticulously researched historical truth. Rappaport is no-nonsense in her handling of the myths and legends about the family and especially the heavily obfuscated stories surrounding the end of their dynasty, but the truth is more fascinating anyway.
I finally dug this off my shelf when the July anniversary came around, and it also helped me decide not to read her most recent, The Race to Save the Romanovs. Excellent as this book was, the weakest parts were her forays into these doomed plots, often involving Nicholas’s cousin George in England, and various cousin-drama stories from around Europe, where this sprawling extended family held power in multiple countries. They were just not interesting to read about. It did make me very glad that fickle, jealous, melodramatic monarchies don’t hold this kind of power in Europe anymore.
Detailed but accessible and captivating, tightly structured account of the Romanov dynasty’s end – its lead-up, before, the tension-filled final days, and what transpired on the site and the long process of discovery, identification and myth long after they were gone. 4/5
The Last Days of the Romanovs:
Tragedy at Ekaterinburg
by Helen Rappaport
published 2009 by St. Martin’s Press
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