Sunday, September 27, 2015

Part II: The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming

Part Three: The Storm Breaks

Part Three focuses on the events leading up to the collapse of the Romanov dynasty in 1917 and beginnings of the Russian Revolution. The period from 1914 until March 1917 was characterized by the gradual economic collapse of Russia, the inability of Nicholas to govern Russia and to understand the effect war would have on his country, the increasing influence of Rasputin on Alexandra and therefore on Nicholas, and the disintegration of loyalty to Nicholas II by the Russian people.

In 1914, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were murdered by a Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip. Forty million non-German and Hungarian ethnic groups made up a significant part of the empire and each wanted their own state including Serbia. The murder destabilized all of Europe because of a complex set of defense agreements. Austria-Hungary was determined to punish Serbia by declaring war on the region. War on Serbia meant Russia entered the war on Serbia's side, and this also brought in France which had a treaty with Russia, as well as England which had a treaty with France. On Austria-Hungary's side was Germany which declared war on Russia. This led Tsar Nicholas II of Russia to reluctantly declare war on Germany (which was ruled by his cousin!)Like other nations, the people of Russia believed the war would last no more than six months. With the crops ready to harvest, thousands of peasants answered their tsar's call to war.

Despite Russia suffering heavy losses to the Germans, the war stalled with neither Russia nor the German or Austrian armies gaining new ground. Nicholas had no idea how ill prepared Russia was for war. Believing the war would be over quickly, no plans were made to manufacture guns or ammunition. Not only that but troops lacked such basic supplies like winter clothing and boots.

By May1915, the war was a colossal disaster for Russia; they not only lost the ground gained early in the war, but also all of Russian Poland. Soldiers who weren't killed deserted. The people turned against anything and anyone German, including the German empress, Alexandra.

Lacking any military experience and against the advice of his ministers, Nicholas decided to take command of the Russian army. He left the day to day governing of Russia to Alexandra - and Rasputin. As expected, nothing changed for Russia: men continued to die at the front, troops were poorly outfitted and there were food shortages and strikes at home. From 1915 to 1916, Rasputin controlled the government through Alexandra. Those government ministers who stood in Rasputin's way of leading a debauched lifestyle, were replaced at the suggest of the starets. The result was a weak and ineffective government made up of incompetent, indecisive men. One man, Prince Felix Yusupov decided to take matters into his own hands. Yusupov along with Vladimir Purishkevich, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich and Dr. Stanislaw Lazovert, formulated a plan that resulted in the murder of Rasputin. The Russian people rejoiced when they learned of his death, but Alexandra and the grand duchesses were horrified.

By January 1917, food shortages were common, prices soared and thousands were unemployed. Nicholas was incapable of acting, instead continuing to allow Alexandra to run the country. The tsar's cousin, Sandro (Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich) attempted unsuccessfully to advise both Nicholas and Alexandra to replace the ministers appointed on the advice of Rasputin and to allow Nicholas to rule without Alexandra's interference. Both were rejected outright and Nicholas ordered his own troops to quell the revolt. At first they obeyed but then took the side of the people. On March 12 the citizens and soldiers seized the Fortress, freed prisoners, looted shops and burned police stations and government buildings. Duma president, Rodzianko telegramed Nicholas begging him to save Russia. Nicholas did not bother to read it. The government ministers unable to make Nicholas understand what was happened walked away. Alexander Kerensky convinced the Duma to become the head of government and set up a Provisional Government. Their goal was to set up a democratic government. At the same time, the workers and soldiers set up a Petrograd Soviet which also included railway workers and bankers. The two organizations decided to work together. Nicholas was unaware that he was no longer the leader of Russia.

Alexandra was warned to leave Tsarskoe Selo with the children by Rodzianko, but three of them, Olga, Tatiana and Alexei were too sick with measles to be moved. At first the empress and her family were protected by a battalion but by March 15 these soldiers deserted them, along with many of the palace's staff.

Nicholas meanwhile was delayed in returning to Tsarskoe Selo because his train was repeatedly diverted as the revolutionaries continued to block the tracks. When Nicholas learned of the desertion of the palace soldiers he decided to give the people what they wanted. However, Rodzianko informed the tsar his offer was no too little too late. He then decided to abdicate, first in favour of his son Alexei and then in favour of his brother Grand Duke Michael. However, the people were furious when they learned of this development forcing Michael to abdicate when his safety could not be guaranteed. Three hundred years of Romanov rule had come to an end.

Part Four: Final Days

This section details the revolution's spiral into anarchy and communism and focuses on the fate of Tsar Nicholas II and his family.

Nicholas finally returned to Tsarskoe Selo. Vladimir Lenin returned to Russia on April 16, 1917. Lenin immediately set to work to try to overthrow the Provisional Government. The Petrograd Soviet were not yet onside. He was not in favour of a republic nor a democracy. The Provisional Government was ineffective and it refused to withdraw from the war with Germany after promising the people, Russia would act only to defend itself. This deceit angered the people.

Meanwhile the Provisional Government had to decide what to do with the Romanovs. King George V refused to take the family because of pressure from Britons who saw Empress Alexandra as a German and therefore an enemy. Kerensky decided to move the family, in a train disguised as a Japanese Red Cross train, to Tobolsk, Siberia. There they stayed in the mansion of the governor and were still treated with respect by the citizens of Tobolsk.

By October, 1917, a second revolution took place - the Provisional Government surrendered quietly and the soviets came to power. Lenin brought huge changes to Russia - private ownership of land became illegal, estates were confiscated and the land divided up and given to peasants, private homes were seized and the contents taken, banks nationalized, private industries and manufacturing was nationalized,  and all property of the Russian Orthodox Church was seized. Not everyone liked Lenin and former soldiers, nobles, and tsarist officers formed the White Movement. The army formed by these men was joined by those who had lost their property and members of the Russian Orthodox Church. Their intent was to take back Russia, make it a democracy and rescue the tsar.

With formation of the White Army, Lenin and the other soviets feared the possibility that Nicholas would reclaim his throne. This could not be allowed to happen so Lenin sent Vasily Yakovlev to move Nicholas and his family. Because Alexei was ill, Nicholas, accompanied by Alexandra and Marie were taken to Ekaterinburg to a house which the soviets named, "the House of Special Purpose". Three weeks later the three grand duchesses and Alexei arrived to find their parents living in five rooms with white washed walls. Their imprisonment was overseen by Commandant Alexander Avdeev, a staunch Bolshevik. The many young and inexperienced soldiers guarding the royal family developed a sort of friendly relationship with the grand duchesses. But when the Bolshevik authorities discovered this they called in Yakov Yurovsky, who hated the royal family. Yurovsky replaced the young soldiers with battle-hardened ones who were fully committed to the revolution.

With the approach of the White Army, the Bolsheviks knew that Ekaterinburg would likely fall and the Romanovs would be rescued. The only solution was to execute the entire family. Lenin opposed this; he believed the tsar should be put on trial for his crimes and would likely be executed but he was not willing to murder Alexandra and the children. However, officials in Ekaterinburg felt very differently. Yurovsky began to plan for the execution of the Romanovs.

Church of All Saints
built on the site where
the Romanovs were executed.
Whether or not Lenin finally authorized the execution is not known. In the early morning hours of July 17, 1918, the entire Romanov family was executed in the basement of Ipatiev House - the house with a special purpose. When the White Army captured Ekaterinburg, they did not find the royal family. Instead they found an empty house and in the basement, a room with many bullet holes and traces of blood. The Bolshevik officials in Ekaterinburg publicly admitted to executing Nicholas but not the rest of the royal family.

Fleming details the immediate events after the execution of the Romanovs and briefly describes the end of Lenin's rule and the seizing of power by the brutal Joseph Stalin in the decades afterwards. Also detailed is the forensic investigation into the deaths of the family, the recovery of their remains and the bestowing of sainthood on the family. Fleming also discusses the Orthodox Russian church's investigation as to whether the murder of the Romanov family could be considered martyrdom.


The Family Romanov is incredibly interesting and a must-read for those interested in history and in Russia. Fleming wanted "to discover the true story of what happened to Russia's last imperial family...I needed to find the answers to the question that kept nagging me: How did this happen? How did this rich, splendidly privileged, and, yes, beautiful family related by blood or marriage to almost every royal house in Europe end up in that Siberian cellar? Something had gone terribly wrong. But what? What forces were at work? What personalities? And was there really nothing Nicholas or Alexandra could have done to change their fate?"

As Fleming notes, The Family Romanov is book that tells three stories: "The first is an intimate look at the Romanovs...The second follows the sweep of revolution from the workers' strikes of 1905 to Lenin's rise to power in November 1917. And the the personal stories of the men and women whose struggle for a better life directly affected the course of the Romanov's lives."

That Fleming has done an enormous amount of detailed research is abundantly apparent. Even more apparent is that she has distilled that information down to a readable, engaging book for young adults and adults alike, while providing a sense of life in Russia at the turn of the 20th century. Fleming succeeds in realistically portraying the Romanov family, presenting their good qualities as well as their weaknesses, separating myth from fact. This is especially apparent with Tsar Nicholas II, a man who probably should never have succeeded his father to the throne. The story is a terrible tragedy especially brought home by the photograph of the skeletal remains of the family.

The Family Romanov includes an extensive bibliography, notes and suggestions for online resources that are worth noting. Worth looking into is the Alexander Palace Time Machine website.

Book Details:

The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming
New York: Schwartz & Wade Books, an imprint of Random House Children's Books     2014
292 pp.

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