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  • E.G. Maladroit

'The Last of the Tsars' - Overwhelmingly Average?

Robert Service’s book on the downfall of Nicholas II, ‘The Last of the Tsars’, is a study of the last year and a half of the Tsar and the royal family’s lives. It is, in Robert Service’s usual way, detailed and clearly written – but it does not completely stand up to the standard of his other work. Whilst it achieves painting a realistic and believable picture of the last Tsar – folding to neither traditional extreme of deeming him a stupid coward, or a perfectly intentioned family man – it fails to achieve any sense of particularly enlightening content, and instead assumes all the qualities of a perfectly average biography.

I first read the book last summer, and spent a few days reading it in solid chunks to get through it all – it is not quite enthralling enough to be completable in average spaces of reading throughout the day. It was interesting enough, being my first real look into the imperial side of the Russian revolution, rather than through my usual lens of Stalin or Lenin, but it was still somewhat of a struggle to complete. With hindsight the writing style is considerably more dry and average than Service’s longer books, like that on Trotsky, and it felt like I learned minimally more than I could already gleam from other accounts of the Russian revolution – making the title’s inclusion of ‘and the Russian revolution’ feel a bit unearned. This means I would not at all recommend it as a way to get into the Russian revolution, as it is a narrow and slightly one-note.

As is aforementioned, Service does create an apt and fitting illustration of Nicholas that comes to life in all aspects. He exposes the great sadness that Nicholas was so entranced by the idea of his divine autocracy that despite his own unhappiness at having to rule he felt he had to do so with as tight a control as possible – a trait that ended up finishing him off. Nicholas seems pious, a man of god – and the descriptions of his interactions with his Jailor and guards show him to have an incredible sense of dignity and politeness. However, Service equally emphasises the way Nicholas would act as if a coward – alienating all his officials by ignoring their advice, despite accepting it to their faces, and how he would revert to his wife (considered a ‘German outsider’), forcing anyone on his side to resent him. Finally, it is somewhat refreshing to read about a Tsar who was actually faithful to his wife – though Alexandra does not come off well in Service’s characterisation of her. It is a masterful portrayal that saves a lot of the book – one can genuinely identify with Nicholas despite his propensity for monumental failure and idiocy.

Similarly, it was enjoyable to have a focus and fleshing out of Nicholas’ Jailers and guards, who so many like to portray as ‘psychopaths’ (cough cough, Amis) due to some’s seeming inability to understand the danger the royal family posed and the fact that they were acting on orders. Pankratov and Yakovlev are turned into interesting figures of strong personality and comparison here, despite being looked over in many other descriptions of the royal family’s tragedy, and the book really prospers in this respect. It was interesting to see the foreign aspect of the imprisonment also - that our own King George V denied them sanctuary in England, and the covering up of the murder was an interesting addition.

On top of these positives, Service does somehow create an interesting narrative even around the Family’s seemingly stagnant time in imprisonment – despite thinking I would have to massively skim-read the sections about their average day-to-day, he illustrates an enjoyable portrait of their lives that almost feels like reading ‘Pride and Prejudice’, or ‘Jane Eyre’ – a big Victorian family, slightly demoted from great wealth, trying to survive middle-class life. The only difference is the overwhelming sense of doom!

Probably the most problematic aspect of the book is one I barely registered when reading it – so was glad to have gleamed from Amazon reviews (surprisingly useful for once)! This aspect is that of incorrect information, predominantly around the way the Romanovs were buried – Service describes them as all down a mineshaft when it’s fairly common knowledge that they were moved between shallow graves and odd places in the woods. This is not an overwhelming issue, of course, but is good to be aware of. I did see another comment that criticized the characterisation of Alexandra as particularly modest, despite her actual inclination towards dressing lavishly, but as no great Romanov scholar I cannot attest to the truth of this – and it seems a bit of a nit-pick.

Overall, the book is perfectly average. I feel no strong disinclination towards it and enjoyed it to a certain extent. However, I would equally warn that it should hold no priority in your reading list and lacks any strong merit. I was glad to have bought a second-hand version – though it is a perfectly reasonable price. Robert Service is an excellent historian who I greatly enjoy – and that probably has increased my bias against the book, as it is perfectly acceptable, but coming from him it just seemed to fall a little flat. For people interested in the Romanov tragedy, and enjoy the slightly more domestic and emotional side of history, it is certainly a relevant and interesting read and a good insight into the family and their demise.


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