The Romanovs Laid to Rest : THE LAST TSAR: The Life and Death of Nicholas II By Edvard Radzinsky . Translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz (Doubleday: $25; 438 pp.)

"The sunrise that saw us off was beautiful," wrote Tsar Nicholas II in his diary on the morning in 1917 when he and his family were forced to leave their beloved home at Tsarskoe Selo. The entire family stood looking out the windows of the train at the magnificent house, now lit by the rising sun. Soon the house, and its lovely gardens, vanished, and the world of Tsarist Russia was swamped by one of history's most powerful waves.

The story of the last tsar and his charming wife Alexandra (whose grandmother was Queen Victoria) is well known. But until very recently knowledge of their tragic end has been maddeningly unspecific. Rumors about what happened to the Romanovs in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution have circulated for decades, and the Soviet government did little to clarify. Was the whole family murdered? Who killed them? Were the bodies destroyed? Did anyone escape?

The mystery surrounding Nicholas II and his family has long fascinated the Russian playwright Edvard Radzinsky. He began work on this book 25 years ago while a student in Moscow, and he has performed an astonishing job of detection. The result of his labors, "The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II," created a major sensation in Russia. (Radzinsky is immensely famous in his own country, and his work is frequently performed there and abroad.)

One of the myriad benefits of glasnost has been the opening of various archives for the first time, and Radzinsky has managed to get his hands on some essential documents. Primary among them is the diary of Nicholas II himself. "Nicholas kept a diary for thirty-six years without interruption," Radzinsky tells us. "He began it at the age of fourteen, in 1882, in the place at Gatchina, and ended it as a fifty-year-old prisoner in Ekaterinburg." The 50 notebooks he left behind are filled with his neat handwriting and provide a tersely eloquent record of his life and times. Nicholas was, Radzinsky notes, "a taciturn, retiring man," but there is poetry in his prose.

Here, for instance, is a passage from Nov. 25, 1914. The Tsar is on his way to the Caucasus, moving through Cossack villages by train. He writes home to Alexandra:

"We are passing through picturesque country which is new to me. . . . I sat for a long time at the open door of the carriage and breathed in the warm fresh air with delight. At each station the platforms are crowded with people, especially children...they are charming with their tiny papakha (fur caps) on their heads. . . . The country of the Cossacks is magnificent and rich: a large number of orchards. They are beginning to be wealthy, above all they have an inconceivably high number of small infants. All future subjects. This all fills me with joy and faith in God's mercy; I must look forward in peace and confidence to what lies in store for Russia."

One reads that last line and sighs, knowing what in fact did lie in store for Russia.

The most riveting and original part of "The Last Tsar" begins in Chapter 9, "The Prisoner's Siberian Diary." "Thank God we are saved and together," the chapter opens. From this moment on the reader squirms as the tsar and his beloved family are lied to, pumped up, frightened, flattered, vilified and--finally--murdered with extreme savagery. Radzinsky quotes the diaries of Nicholas and others and provides a running commentary of his own that both interprets the action and shapes the narrative pace.

We know the tsar and his family extremely well by the time they are hauled off to Siberia. Nicholas in particular is followed from adolescence on, beginning with the bloody assassination of his grandfather, Alexander II, in 1881. This terrorist act catapulted Alexander III to the throne, and Nicholas became the heir apparent at the age of 13. Soon he begins to keep a diary, and we gain intimate access to this sensitive, if terribly blinkered, young man.

We also rather quickly meet Alexandra--"Alix H.," as she is often referred to by Nicholas. The love story of Nicholas and Alexandra has been told and retold, as has the bizarre infatuation of Nicholas for Rasputin, the Siberian peasant turned monk who is ultimately murdered in a swirl of intrigue. The private joys and griefs of the royal family take place against the rush of history, which Radzinsky brings to life with uncanny force and mediates with considerable shrewdness. Writing about Bloody Sunday, for instance, one of many preludes to the full-dress revolution of 1917, Radzinsky notes: "Russians love a good plot--camarillas, Masons, whatever--where in fact there is usually just plain sloppiness. Someone mistrusted someone else; someone failed to warn someone else. So someone decided to take out more insurance, called up the troops and removed the tsar from Petersburg. Great and terrible events in Russia are usually due to someone's stupidity or laziness."

The great and terrible event that took place in July of 1918--the murder of the Romanovs--was, however, not "due to someone's stupidity or laziness." The author has dug up the exact orders for the executions, and he links them inexorably with Lenin himself. Radzinsky notes: "July is a bad month for revolutionaries. In France, Robespierre was executed in July; in Russia, five eminent Decembrists, who had revolted against Nicholas I, were hanged in July. And now in July the hour of vengeance had come. Vengeance against the son and grandson of the man who had once killed Lenin's brother. The revolutionaries' age-old hunt for Russian tsars was drawing to a close."

In a poignant juxtaposition, Radzinsky quotes the Decree of the Ural Executive Committee of the Soviet of Worker, Peasant and Red Army Deputies to execute the tsar for "countless bloody crimes" just before he quotes the last pathetic entry in the tsar's diary, which ends: "Weather is warm and pleasant. We have no news from the outside."

The tsar and his family were herded into a damp basement room at night, where they were told they would be photographed because the Russian people needed proof that they were alive and well and still hadn't fled the country. They evidently believed this--or disbelieved the possibility that they would be shot. The preparations by the executioners had been meticulous, and a truck was waiting to remove the bodies. (The graves have recently been uncovered in Siberia, where the assassinations took place.) The orders for the execution were summarily read to the family, and Nicholas, stunned, asked that they be repeated. They were, but he could just not believe it. Nor could the family, who merely gasped. Soon the firing squad entered and opened fire.

Radzinsky assembles a melange of quotations from people who were actually there, stitching the narrative with own taut prose. "So the tsar was down," he writes, "felled by the first shots, felled by them all. The tsaritsa was down, too, killed in her chair, and the swarthy servant Trupp, who collapsed right after his master. And Botkin and the cook Kharitonov. But the girls were still alive." Indeed, the killing of the girls was hideously botched. Their corsets were studded with diamonds, so the bullets kept ricocheting off them, bouncing around the room. The tsar's son, too, was still alive. One of the executioners later recalled: "The blood was gushing out . . . the heir was still alive--and moaning." The firing continued, then bayonets were used--dull bayonets.

What is clear from the accounts that Radzinsky has miraculously gathered, often by interviewing ancient witnesses or their children, is that no one survived this slaughter. Radzinsky goes into the story of Anastasia, the woman who claimed to be the surviving daughter of this massacre, carefully, and it seems certain by the end that this poor woman was no Romanov.

In all, "The Last Tsar" is an irresistibly readable book. Edvard Radzinsky has done a remarkable job of historical reconstruction, and he has shaped a complex narrative which, in its sweep and particularity, recalls many of the great Russian novels of the 19th Century.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
58°