The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming (2014)
fascination with Russia, I knew only a little about the Romanov family and the era in which they lived before reading Candace Fleming's new book. I knew that they were an unusual family, that the heir to the throne was a hemophiliac, that they hung out with some weirdypants named Rasputin, and that they were all killed. But I was pretty vague on the details.
The Family Romanov takes us inside palace walls to meet the people whose family ruled Russia for three hundred years, and also describes the civil unrest that ultimately resulted in overthrowing the tsar and murdering the entire royal family. Fleming brings the story to life so vividly that you can easily imagine you are there, which is actually pretty uncomfortable at times. We spend most of the book getting to know this family and then they are all brutally murdered.
Of course it's also the story of the common people, far removed from the royal family. Although the book primarily focuses on the Romanovs, Fleming has included snippets from the lives of peasants and workers, describing their hardscrabble lives. The contrast with the aristocrats is almost startling. The thing is, the Romanovs were so freaking isolated they had no idea what life was like for the majority of people in Russia. The very idea that they had so much control and so little knowledge is pretty horrifying.
In fact, many things about the Romanov family were sort of alarming when you consider how powerful they were. First of all, they were incredibly isolated. Nicholas and Alexandra really liked to spend as much time as possible far away from everyone else. Even when revolution was happening, they just didn't quite...get it. Nicholas was completely ignorant of the conditions endured by workers and when they organized and took to the streets, he ordered soldiers to fire on them, killing hundreds and wounding many more on a day that came to be known as Bloody Sunday. He didn't realize this action was part of a larger, growing movement and ignored warnings from his advisors and even from the great writer Lev Tolstoy. Later on, he continued to treat uprisings as misbehavior that needed to be corrected. It didn't help his cause at all.
The Romanovs kept their children isolated too. The girls primarily relied on each other for companionship. Alexei is another whole kettle of fish entirely. The long-awaited heir to the throne was a hemophiliac, which meant that the slightest injury could be fatal. This kid wasn't allowed to run, ride a bike, or play in any active way. Can you imagine what that would do to the kid's psyche? No wonder he was so abominably behaved. Mind you, I don't think he deserved to be murdered (especially at the age of 14) but this is not someone who should ever be in charge of anything. Plus, he was barely educated. He and his sisters had some tutors, but their education was pretty half-assed, focusing primarily on learning languages. (Which is useful, don't get me wrong, but it's not nearly enough.)
And then there's the whole codependent friendship with Rasputin. Oh my god, that guy! He was basically a crazy religious fanatic who left his wife and kids to became a wandering, non-bathing mystic. Alexandra was convinced he helped heal Alexei of some serious injuries and she came to rely heavily on him and believed everything he said. He basically manipulated the Romanovs by convincing them he had a direct line to God, and they did whatever he advised. He played a pretty big role in the family's increasing unpopularity and eventual downfall. He had quite a following, too. He also had enemies, and was eventually murdered. Pretty much everyone in this book was eventually murdered.
This book is fascinating and almost unbelievable and is written in a really cool font. (Seriously, I love the font used for the all the chapter headings.) There are a lot of pictures too, which always make things feel more real. I read most of it in one sitting. I just could not put it down.
I really want this author to write a sequel. Near the end she talks about Lenin's rule and his concern that one autocracy had been traded for another, and his fear that Joseph Stalin might come to power. Which of course is what happened, and I would very much like to hear that story as this author would present it. She also wrote Amelia Lost, a fascinating account of the life and disappearance of Amelia Earhart, which I wrote about here. I will definitely be seeking out more books by Candace Fleming in the future, though this one may be the most perfect intersection of her talent and my interests possible. Until she writes that book about Stalin, of course.