In this much buzzed about nonfiction account of the final days of Russia’s autocracy, Candace Fleming brilliantly uses primary sources to give the reader many different facets of the story: a personal portrait of the lives and death of Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra and their five children; firsthand accounts from the bottom of the social structure, both rural and industrial; and an overview of the events that led up to the Russian Revolution and its immediate aftermath.
The main focus is an inside account of the Imperial family – they were prodigious letter writers and diary keepers. Fleming makes clear how inadequate Nicholas was for the role of autocratic ruler of Russia: there is the illuminating Nero-esque image of Nicholas ignoring a desperate telegram sent to him describing the riots and slaughter in Petrograd, and spending the evening playing dominoes. But more than not being especially bright or talented, Nicholas believed he had the God-given right to rule his vast Empire and did so with a passivity and willful obliviousness that squandered the goodwill the population felt towards the Tsar, leading not just to his and his family’s executions but to the disaster of Communist Russia.
Fleming weaves in the contrast between the opulence of the aristocracy and the utter misery of the peasants and the factory workers, and then leads the reader through the confluence of events, both major and minor, that led to demonstrations, riots and rebellion. For example, Alexandra’s, and to a lesser extent Nicholas’s infatuation with the ‘holy man’ Rasputin is given a lot of play, and the author clearly believes he was a corrupt charlatan, whose advice and manipulation led to a weakened government at a time when men of talent might have averted catastrophe.
The final section of the book movingly focuses on the last days of the Romanovs as they’re shuffled around from one location to the next, until finally, in the House of Special Purpose in Ekaterinburg, one Bolshevik, apparently without Lenin’s approval, planned and carried out their executions.
There are two sections of nicely reproduced photographs, and back matter includes notes for the many quotations woven into the text, extensive print and online sources and an author’s note on her research process.
Though I was pretty familiar with the history covered here, I’m assuming it would be new to most teen and middle grade readers. I think the decision to focus on the family drives the narrative along and narrows this vast slab of history into a riveting story. At the same time, Fleming is scrupulous in her accuracy and in modeling historical writing, while constructing a compelling argument that, sadly, the Romanovs had a major hand in their own downfall and that of their country.