- - Sunday, August 6, 2017


It is nearly a century since Nicholas II, Czar of All the Russias until his abdication in March 1917, was murdered along with his wife, four daughters, hemophiliac son, his doctor and assorted servants in the cellar of a house in Ekaterinburg, a city east of the Ural mountains.

But if ever there was a story that will not die, this is it. And for very good reasons. It is not only in its quiddity a horrendous crime, but has tentacles connecting its past and its future with the turbulent times in which it was only one of concurrent monstrosities perpetrated by the brutish Bolsheviks, who had just clawed their way to power.

British author and television documentary producer Andrew Cook is eminently qualified to explore the many facets of this terrible tale, chilling in so many ways, that it can still send shivers down one’s spine.

His knowledge of detail is matched by his equally wide-ranging attunement to historical and geopolitical crosscurrents, allowing him to spin a tale of hypocrisy, hard-heartedness, cruelty and mercilessness made all the more heartrending by the might-have-beens, the near escapes, the pathetic attempts at protection that backfired.

No wonder that Czarina Alexandra, more introspective, intelligent, and educated than her hapless husband, was haunted by the fate of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution a century and a quarter earlier.

There are so many congruences between the fates of the doomed royal couples, from the unsuccessful attempts at flight to being used as pawns by their own countries’ governments and foreign powers ruled by close relatives, that to borrow a phrase ironically from the originator of Nicholas and Alexandra’s undoing, Karl Marx, a specter was haunting them.

If the hapless Russian royals emerge not merely as victims and martyrs but as true patriots, the same cannot be said for some of their nearest and dearest. And no one comes out worse in this sorry tale than British King George V, first cousin to both Nicholas and Alexandra.

The British and French governments wished to bring their recently deposed ally and his family to safe exile and Alexander Kerensky, who had replaced the czar, worked tirelessly to bring this about.

But ironically, the biggest stumbling block came from Buckingham Palace, which kept thwarting the efforts of Prime Minister Lloyd George and his administration from rescuing the Russian royal kinfolk. Their reasons range from the sordid — who would pay for their upkeep — to the pusillanimous, the latter being all too graphically illustrated by what Mr. Cook writes and then goes on to quote:

“The King’s temper had now risen to a crescendo of anxiety; the problem had assumed enormous, threatening proportions in his mind. His querulous voice could be heard over [his Private Secretary] Stamfordham’s shoulder:

“‘The King wishes me to write again on the subject of my letter of this morning. He must beg you to represent to the Prime Minister that from all he reads and hears in the press, the residence in this country of an Ex-Emperor and Empress would be strongly resented by the public and would undoubtedly compromise the position of the King and Queen, from whom it is generally supposed the invitation has emanated..the opposition to the Emperor and Empress coming here is so strong that we must be allowed to withdraw from the consent previously given to the Russian government’s proposal.’”

Can there be a more striking example of brutal Realpolitik canceling out any vestige of family feeling, let alone common decency and mercy? It makes the crocodile tears shed by King George nauseating to read about, especially in light of his getting the government to take the blame for what was his — and most definitely not theirs — abandonment of his relatives to their ghastly fate.

Ironically, it was another cousin of the Imperial couple, their adversary Kaiser Wilhelm, who wanted to rescue them and, writes Mr. Cook, “the Bolsheviks were aware that they had a bargaining tool.[but the czar] “fumed about Kaiser Wilhelm having — by deigning to negotiate with the Bolsheviks — betrayed the monarchical principle[and] ‘I would rather die in Russia than be saved by the Germans,’ Alexandra wrote.”

What a topsy-turvy world where your allies and close relatives consign you to a dreadful fate and your enemies are willing to save you, albeit for their own reasons.

Mr. Cook puts all this in fine historical context, from the lie perpetrated within the Soviet Union for decades that only the czar had been executed, his family being allowed to live happily in exile, to the final forensic proof only a decade ago of the whole family’s bodies being buried since 1918. A sorry tale all round, but one vividly told in all its twists and turns in these pages.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, California.

• • •

By Andrew Cook
Amberley/IPG, $13.95, 256 pages, illustrated

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