Nicholas and Alexandra

For years I’ve been seeing Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie at flea markets and tag sales. It sold a bajillion copies and got made into a movie, which I haven’t seen but plan to. I finally decided to read it.

You’ve probably already read it, but if you haven’t, it’s a real treat. A big fat book and you’re sorry when it’s over. And you shouldn’t have any trouble finding a copy.

It tells the tale of the last of the Romanovs, which, in the words of the Saturday Review blurb, “no novelist would dare invent.”

Massie is my kind of historian. He presents a wealth of detail that helps you get to know the characters as people. Queen Victoria, Rasputin, Kaiser Wilhelm, Witte, Kerensky, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin — they’re all here and I’m learning a lot about them that I never learned in history books because it’s, well, personal.

In this way he reminds me of Barbara Tuchman, and that’s the highest compliment I can bestow on any historian. Like JFK, I’m a big fan of Tuchman, especially The Guns of August and The First Salute.

The wealth of detail allows one to play the part of Chief Inspector Maigret, the inductive detective, who mulls over waves of seemingly irrelevant details, finds something that just doesn’t fit, and figures the whole thing out.

“Aha!” you say. “On his world tour as a young man Nicholas was attacked in Japan by a fanatic with a sword and barely survived a glancing blow to the head which left a lifelong scar. This must have led to Russia’s disastrous war with Japan…”

But then the young tsarevich Alexis is born and turns out to have hemophilia (like Massie’s son) and the holy profligate Rasputin is able to control the little lad’s bleeding (all seem to agree on this point) and gets a grip on the royal family, and it all gets so wild that any generalization of any kind just seems so simplistic and irresponsible. It happened the way it happened and like the Saturday Review says, no novelist would dare invent it.

At the climax Rasputin ingests enough arsenic to kill a team of oxen, gets shot fifteen times, and finally dies of drowning when he is wrapped in a carpet and thrown in the Neva River. And the largest empire in the world is convulsed by war and revolution. You couldn’t make this stuff up, and Massie does a great job of presenting it in all its complexity.