Wednesday, October 26, 2016

A Life for the Tsar by Greg King and Janet Ashton

Yea, I know I have been remiss in reviewing several of the books in my pile - and I know a certain publisher is not happy with me right now.  I got caught up in several things, including school (I am a university librarian and the fall semester started in late August,) but the biggest reason for the delay was the Washington Nationals.   I am a season plan holder (since 2005) and I go to about 50 games a year.  (I have a half season -40 games - plan).    In September, I went to all but two of the 18 games of the last two home stands, and when the team was on the road, I watched from my couch, counting down until we clinched the National League East Championship.   Then the playoffs ... yea, you know what happened .... we did not make to the National League Championships.   Next year ...

I also "acquired" a nasty upper respiratory infection ... which took several weeks to dissipate, although my nose and ears are still a bit stuffed.    At long last, I am able to sit down and write a few reviews.

A young American woman, Kate Koon, on a visit to Russia provided a prescient observation following the coronation of Nicholas and Alexandra.  She wrote "It is said that never again will Russia have such  coronation festivities, for the people cannot stand the expense, and surely nowhere else in the world could there be a  greater magnificence."

Koon had no idea that Nicholas II's Coronation would be the last.  Not because of cost, but revolution that was presaged by the tragedy that followed the Coronation.

I also want to use the word "magnificence" to describe Greg King and Janet Ashton's A Life for the Tsar  Triumph and Tragedy of Emperor Nicholas II (Eurohistory:$48.95).  This is the best book I have ever read on the Nicholas II.

Acclaimed biographers and historians Greg King and Janet Ashton put their heads and their pens together and have come up with a monumental history of the events of the Coronation and the Khodynka Massacre.   There were so many witnesses, so many observers, all of whom offer a divergent view of the Coronation and the the massacre that followed.

The early chapters offer a prelude of Russian history - of Alexander III's final days and his death and his eldest son, Nicholas II's, accession to the throne.   This is followed by the detailed preparation for the elaborate and deeply religious Coronation Service.

What makes this book so special is the depth and breath of sources consulted --- just take a glance at the bibliography and the End Notes ... yes, End Notes (cited sources).  Hooray.

This is the ultimate complete history of one particular event in Nicholas II's life (and the tragedy that followed) as King and Ashton examine all sides, all angles of the Coronation - the reactions and historical views of the guests, of the royal family themselves,  political figures from all sides, and international witnesses.

It is accurate to say that "Moscow swelled with excitement, but  the man at the center of the spectacle was filled with dread."  This is no understatement.  Putting aside possible nerves for what would be an overwhelming experience for anyone,  Nicholas was a man wracked by personal doubt, and most certainly unprepared for position as Emperor of all the Russias.   An arranged marriage may have been more appropriate  -- a woman with personality and determination to help guide Nicholas through the vicissitudes of his reign.   He married Princess Alix of Hesse and By Rhine for love, and not because he thought she would be the right sort of consort that he really needed.  It is not a surprise that he did not realize that Alix was unprepared to be the Empress of all the Russias.  Others, including the Dowager Empress, did see it, but none had the real ability to deal with Alix's myriad of physical and mental issues.

The Dowager Empress tried to put on a brave face.  Other members of the family commented on her sadness, the deep emotion that she felt, knowing that her son and his wife were ill prepared for their new roles

The deeply religious and symbolic Coronation Service was long and tiring, not only for the participants, but also for the observers.  The service was followed by several gala events, where Nicholas and Alexandra had to remain on show.   There were more events the next day, including a gathering of hundreds of thousands of Nicholas' subjects, gathering at the Khodynka Meadow, outside the palace.  Nicholas and Alexandra were expected to attend the festive occasion.

While the Emperor and Empress were at the Bolshoi,  the crowd at the Meadow continued to swell, and tensions began to surface Khodynka.  Far too many rumors  about gifts from the emperor led to the growing crowds.  The police were unwilling to maintain the peace. Many fled. As souvenirs were handed out crowds moved toward the booths, and then came "a wave of human dominoes."

All told, nearly 1400 men, women and children were killed  Another 1300 were injured.  Nicholas' uncle, Grand Duke Serge Alexandrovitch, was the Governor-General of Moscow.  There would be huge consequences for Serge and his chief of police, and both tried to downplay the tragedy.  Their view: "Accidents often happen in large crowds."

Nicholas and Alexandra were scheduled to attend a ball that night, but after learning of the tragedy, they wanted to back out and cancel their appearance.   It did not take long for Nicholas' Minister of Foreign Affairs to point out that Nicholas could provoke a diplomatic incident if he failed to show up at the ball.    Nicholas' four uncles, Vladimir, Alexei, Paul and Sergei, all badgered their nephew "into submission.   Alexandra's sister, Ella, who was married to Grand Duke Serge, took her husband's side and told Alix that the ball was of "political importance."

The Dowager Empress Marie and other members of the Imperial Family believed that Nicholas and Alexandra should not attend the ball,  One cousin, Grand Duke Nicholas Mikhailovich offered a warning to Nicholas that "the blood of those five thousand men, women, and children will forever remain a blot on your reign."

But it was the uncles, led by Serge, who won the day. The celebrations would  continue. None of the four men could accept that this was a bad decision.

The tragedy would leave a huge black mark on Nicholas' reign.

A Life for the Tsar is an amazing book.   The authors have been meticulous in their research, peeling away at the layers of this story, focusing not only on the Coronation itself, but also on the social, political, religious, and familial aspects of the events.

Greg King and Janet Ashton have hit a home run with A Life for the Tsar, and they hit it out of the park.  This is a terrific, well-written book, brimming over with history, with details, with facts.  The coronation and the Khodynka Meadow tragedy ensured that Nicholas' reign would not be successful.   If you are planning to give yourself a Christmas present,  this should be your gift.  Why wait for Christmas.  Get it now.  Seriously.   I have read a lot of books on the Romanov, and I will state categorically that this is one of the best in the Romanov canon ... and oh,  I forgot ... the illustrations and photographs (several hundred) are also good.