Sunday, April 26, 2009

Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg

A romance, a family saga, a murder mystery, and a political thriller - all of these descriptions aptly fit the story of the last Russian Tsar Nicolas Romanov and his family. Many novelists and historians have written about the family, the individual members, the time period, and even the tragic love story between Nicholas and Alexandra. Like many historical tales, the lives and deaths of the Romanovs are shrouded in myth, mystery and legend.

Helen Rappaport’s new book :

Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg tells the story of Russia’s royal family at Ipatiev House in July 1918 - the last residence they occupied and where they spent their final hours. It is different not only in tone from other books, but also in the specifics it addresses. She takes great effort to individualize the family members and to remind us that while royal they were people with hopes, fears and dreams. Sheltered and protected all of their lives, removed from the everyday world and hardships of ordinary Russians the family is caught in a frightening situation without the normal trappings of their wealth and privilege. While ruling Russia the Romanov’s preferred to live simply but by virtue of their rank were entitled to opulent surroundings of their own choosing. When held by the Bolsheviks the family had no choice in their lodgings nor did they have access to their prized personal belongings or usual complement of staff.

 Taken from their palatial homes and with hopes of being exiled the family instead are captives in five gloomy rooms. Alexy,  heir to the throne has a fatal, painful disease and his four sisters spend their teen (or naive 20's) years ( not in happy youthful exuberance but in fear and with no chance to explore relationships with the opposite sex (one exception is noted in this book). Born a royal, the Tsarina is ill and perhaps a bit of a hypochondriac she is completely devastated, fearful and unprepared by the turn of events. The Tsar, always a simple and kind man who prefers exercise to affairs of state is beginning to realize that his family will not be rescued.

 Eyewitness accounts and a new look at the hierarchy for implementing the death penalty for the Tsar and also for the entire family is exposed by Rappaport. She also delineates why the family was included in the death sentence. Anyone who has read or seen anything about the Romanov family knows that the basement killings in July 1918 were brutal, but nothing compares to the vivid writing in this book. Nothing.

 But, as horrible as the deaths may have been, it is the daily life of the Romanov’s during their time in Ekaterinburg that brings heartbreak to the reader. All the windows in their rooms were sealed so there was no light from windows – nor any chance of a cool breeze. Royal dignity was displayed when even small joys were taken such as the Tsar’s daily newspaper.

 Nicholas believed he was chosen by God to rule Russia. His flaw is perhaps thinking he knew what his people wanted and needed when in reality he did not nor could he understand the suffering in his country. The deaths of the Romanov family are a Russian tragedy as well. A tragedy, however, that now seems to have closure with the identification of the remains of the bodies. Rappaport’s book does an excellent job of tracing the culpability of their deaths something that has long been in question.

 The research efforts that went into writing this book are very apparent. The way the research is used, however, is where the author distinguishes herself as a writer. Rappaport tells the story of the Romanovs last days as a reporter but with an historian’s eye and heart. Facts are meshed with personalities to provide a full complement of the actual events at Ekaterinburg. This story has been told before in bits and pieces but never the ending and never so fully and perhaps never so well.