- - Wednesday, April 4, 2012

By Virginia Rounding
St. Martin’s Press, $29.99, 368 pages, illustrated

The story of the last czar and czarina of Russia has been told so many times that you might think that it had grown a bit tired. After all, it’s now been nearly a century since they were slaughtered, along with their five children and a few retainers, in a grim cellar in the provincial city of Ekaterinburg. Yet authors continue to find new slants, new takes, on this old story.

More than 40 years ago, Robert K. Massie’s “Nicholas and Alexandra” focused on the hereditary disease hemophilia, which she had passed on to their only son and heir, Alexei, bringing a lot of badly needed attention to this affliction as well as reinvigorating the saga of Russia’s last royal rulers.

As may be seen from its more intimate title - not to mention its subtitle - Virginia Rounding’s account of the doomed pair takes a more up-close-and-personal approach. Which is not to say that she ignores Nicky and Alix’s political role - he as autocrat and she wielding considerable influence.

As a biographer of Catherine the Great, Ms. Rounding has a profound understanding of Russia and of the role its royal family has played in the course of its history, and this book evokes superbly its pre-Revolutionary society and polity. But this functions in her plan mainly as context for the story of these two individuals whose position embedded their undeniably happy marriage in a tragic history. For this really is a love story, one which surmounted obstacles that were very real to them and continued to grow in good times and in bad.

First and foremost standing in the way of their union was religion. Alix was a fervent Lutheran, but in order to marry the heir to the Russian throne, she had to convert to the Russian Orthodox church. The account of her struggles with this, the strength of her love eventually surmounting her scruples, adds a lot to the reader’s understanding of this complex woman, so often misrepresented.

She eventually found in her new church a vessel for her strong faith: She was actually making the sign of the cross as she was shot in the head and killed. Ms. Rounding’s account of Alix’s religious life in palatial surroundings and in the bare rooms that saw her last days proves that this was no mere rote gesture.

Indeed, she has chosen to lard her text with Orthodox dogma establishing Nicky and Alix posthumously as saints in their church. Ms. Rounding is nothing if not protean in her approach. If religious liturgy doesn’t appeal to some readers, they will find her actually subjecting the pair to modern psychological testing. Again, some might find this startling, but there is something to be said for applying rigorous methodology to character evaluation.

Hemophilia, with its burden of guilt for the mother who has passed it on to her child and has to witness the agonizing suffering that comes with the disease, certainly gets its share of attention in these pages. But Ms. Rounding spends a great deal of time evaluating Alix’s health, examining the question of just how ill she really was and the hypochondria of which she has so often been accused.

The author concludes, among other insights, that Alix suffered from porphyria, another hereditary disease found in the British royal family, most notably in King George III (Alix’s great-great grandfather). And when it comes to Nicky, she demonstrates that he was far from being the diffident, wife-dominated weakling of legend.

Virginia Rounding has not only succeeded in making sure that even the most seasoned and well-read on this subject will be unable to dismiss “Nicky and Alix” as old wine in a new bottle. More than that, she has brought them to life in flesh and blood perhaps better than any previous writer on the subject. This is partly a result of her skill in rooting out and quoting commentary on them by those who knew them well and put their impressions down in letters and diaries. But she has a knack for building on these insights with her own, and so has produced a more rounded portrait than we have ever had before.

Martin Rubin, a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif., regularly reviews books for the Wall Street Journal.

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