Friday, June 2, 2017
The Last of the Tsars by Robert Service is published by Macmillan
The Last of the Tsars: Nicholas II and the Russian Revolution by Robert Service – review
The prolific historian’s account of the doomed Romanovs is rich in drama
Nicholas II and his family in Tobolsk, in January 1918, during their period in captivity. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Russia always struggles with its memories of 1917. The current leadership is wary of revisiting a world in which anyone with any cash risked an unpleasant death. It is as well that Nicholas II was made a saint in 2000. In this centenary year, his story, shorn of all the awkward facts, is safer and has mass appeal. No one forgets the princesses and little dog, the tsarevich bolt upright on his father’s lap. Then come the shots – so many – and those bloodstains black against the grainy image of a cellar wall.
With romance of this kind in prospect, Robert Service has written a timely and important book. The Romanovs are a new interest for this prolific historian, whose habitual subjects have been Bolsheviks such as Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky. A few years ago, however, Service came across some long-forgotten documents in the archives of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, California. They related to an early anti-Bolshevik inquiry into the tsar’s death and they were compelling enough to send him out in search of more. The story that he makes of them may be familiar, but he brings to it rare clarity and common sense. His book is a fast-paced account of the last 16 months of the tsar’s life; brief, sharp, but laced with well-judged feeling for the dramas of the time.
Service takes pains over his tsar, presenting a fastidious Nicholas, a nervous man of simple tastes who liked to dine on beetroot soup, not stuffed peacocks and caviar. He constantly put duty first, but lacked the flexibility of mind to steer his country in a crisis, let alone the first world war. “His actions,” Service concludes, “were those of a ruler who always thought he was right.” That stubbornness would blind him to his people’s suffering and growing rage. Even as he signed his abdication papers he dreamed that his future might resemble an extended Crimean holiday, complete with family and faithful staff. When guards refused to shake his proffered hand, the shock must have been rude indeed. Now under house arrest near Petrograd, the princesses were horrified as soldiers in the palace grounds took pot shots at their goats.
The British had a plan to rescue him in the first weeks brokered by their ambassador, Sir George Buchanan. Three months later, when George V withdrew his asylum invitation on personal and diplomatic grounds, both he and Buchanan were blamed for throwing the tsar to the wolves. But Service argues that the scheme was always doomed. Whatever Buchanan might say, the Petrograd Soviet, the workers’ talking shop that ran the railways and ports, would never have let Nicholas the Bloody go. No one could guarantee the discipline of Petrograd-based troops, either. Even in the eight months before Lenin’s Bolsheviks took power, there was a risk that some disgruntled soldier might just murder the ex-tsar. In August 1917, the leader of the provisional government, Alexander Kerensky, had Nicholas and his family moved to safety in the Siberian town of Tobolsk. Their new place of detention was the former governor’s residence, now to be known as Freedom House.
It was a far cry from the longed-for Crimean palace. The news took days to get there, too, and all of it was bad. November brought tales of a Bolshevik coup in Petrograd, followed in January by the dissolution of the elected constituent assembly. The latter’s displaced leaders fled to the Volga, from where they launched an armed campaign to retake power. Meanwhile, Lenin approved the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, ceding large swaths of his inherited empire to Germany. Russia was poised for civil war, and nowhere was considered safe. Sketching this context with deft, precise strokes, Service explains why Nicholas had to be moved to the Urals stronghold of Ekaterinburg, already famous for its active, experienced Bolshevik leadership. Unfortunately, these people’s very commitment to international revolution made them dangerous hosts for Nicholas.
You feel a new respect for thugs as Service describes the logistics of transporting the tsar across a landscape bristling with assassins or persuading clusters of suspicious troops to guard a family they loathed. Lenin’s government had moved to Moscow, and planned to bring the tsar there for a public trial. But Ekaterinburg’s Bolsheviks were never happy with delays, and several times came close to executing their captive themselves. The balance almost tipped when rumours spread that Lenin might use the Romanovs as exchange pawns with Germany. Then came news of an unstoppable anti-Bolshevik military advance.
As this net tightened around the city, the decision to execute Nicholas was taken in Ekaterinburg. What Service shows, however, citing Russian research from the 1990s, is that the Kremlin sanctioned the killings. Lenin deliberately avoided incriminating paper trails, but he approved the general plan. As soon as Moscow’s clearance came, a hand-picked communist firing squad, armed with Nagant revolvers, shot the entire family. The sound was masked by lorry engines running in the street.
The murders were appalling, but Service’s true subject is Nicholas himself. He concedes that the man was a good father, but finds no happy surprises among his library notes. In seclusion, the ex-tsar got around to reading War and Peace, but he preferred material that pandered to his blinkered view of sovereignty and his shameless antisemitism. This gave him solace in uncertain times, but even he might still have questioned why he chose to face the future with a backward-looking gaze. As Service concludes, “he barely altered a single one of his underlying assumptions”. In any age of rapid change, there is a lesson there.