Nicholas II -- Emperor of all the Russias by Dominic Lieven - review by Julian Fellowes

Julian Fellowes

It’s Tough at the Top

Nicholas II -- Emperor of all the Russias


John Murray 283pp £19.99

There is nothing wrong with this straightforward account of the reign of the last of the Romanov rulers, except that it is not the book Dominic Lieven appears to believe he has written.

We are told in the author’s preface that he has ‘tried to challenge some traditional views of Nicholas and his regime’ in a praiseworthy effort to ‘say something genuinely interesting and new’. I must confess that if I was asked what there was in this text that was ‘interesting and new’, I should reply ‘almost nothing’. Certainly nothing to support the author’s intention of making us re-evaluate the Emperor as a ruler. If anything, despite Lieven’s oft-repeated mantra ‘Nicholas II was not stupid’, the facts recounted here seem to indicate that he was even more of a bird-brain than I had previously suspected, with a refusal to face facts that makes Marie Antoinette look like a political analyst.

In the first paragraph of Chapter One we are told that ‘among his contemporaries in the 1870s only two men faced an inheritance as awesome as his own’. These turn out to be Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria and the young Emperor of China. What about the German Crown Prince, one asks oneself, or the Crown Prince of Japan, or the heir to the Ottoman throne (beside whose inheritance the Romanov crown must have looked like a doddle)? In the subsequent text, the ‘comparative approach’ takes the form of lengthy references to, and even analyses of, the problems faced (principally) by the last Shah of Iran and the court of Japan. Some of these I found quite interesting in themselves but I cannot say that they ever seemed to shed much light on the difficulties besetting the Tsar, except perhaps to confirm what we had already suspected: namely, that it’s tough at the top.

That said, there is a good deal to recommend Lieven’s work to those who like to trace the reasons for history’s bouleversements in their minutiae. The style is dense, requiring frequent returns to the top of the paragraph to have another go, and I found myself at times wondering why, for instance, the Liberal/ Conservative Krivoshein was unacceptable in 1916 as Minister of Internal Affairs while the Octobrist /Liberal Protopopov was not only acceptable but recklessly defended by the Empress. But these tangled moments aside, the story unfolds cogently enough.

Despite its title, the book is not a biography as such. Rather, it is the political history of the last reign, and the characters and relationships of the Imperial Family are only glimpsed through their response to the events swirling around them. Perhaps that is why the Tsar himself appears less attractive than in, say, Robert K Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra. Whatever talent and charm Nicholas may have had, it seems to have been exclusively reserved for his private life. Partly because of his admiration for his father, the bull-like Alexander III, partly because of a passive, fatalistic streak which undermined all his decision-making, the Tsar put his faith in a changeless endorsement of autocracy – a system of government which was not only out of date by the start of his reign but which even his friends recognised he was uniquely unfitted for.

It is possible to sympathise with the terror of the twenty-six-year-old Grand Duke suddenly thrust upon the throne in 1894 by the unexpected death of his father. But if he was not adequately prepared for his role in some ways, he had the advantage, shared by few of his royal contemporaries, of a tranquil and loving childhood which should have stood him in good stead. Alas, the early manifestations of a fatal combination of stubbornness and lack of political instinct were to be confirmed and reconfirmed as the reign progressed. He quickly acquired a reputation for duplicity, apparently authenticated here by various quotations from Nicholas himself: ‘Why are you always quarrelling?’ he asked one of his ministers. ‘I always agree with everyone about everything and then do things my own way.’ Can we wonder at the attitude of S N Buklov, Nicholas’s Minister of Communications? ‘God preserve you from relying on the Emperor even for a second on any matter,’ he muttered to a colleague. ‘He is incapable of supporting anyone over anything.’ By 1905 the Grand Marshal of the Court, Count Paul Beckendorff, was writing that the Tsar was ‘ridiculous’, that he was ‘beginning to annoy everyone’ and, worse, that ‘there is something absurd in any and every monarchy’. Worrying sentiments indeed when voiced by one of the principal servants of the crown.

At this point of the book the Tsar seems to be losing the support even of his biggest fan, Dominic Lieven. ‘The disastrous and unnecessary war with Japan was more Nicholas’s fault than anybody else’s,’ he writes sternly.

It was the Tsar’s misfortune that his wife, who might have been expected to exercise a moderating force in all this, was as utterly devoid of instinct and talent as he was. ‘She has a will of iron linked to not much brain and no knowledge,’ wrote Count Beckendorff, who after all knew the couple pretty well and it is hard, at least on the evidence put forward by Lieven, to argue with him. The Empress Alexandra, with her mystical (and, as it turned out, mythical) belief in the union between Tsar and peasant, with her foetid religiosity and her haughty rejection of the natural supporters of the throne, apparently never ceased giving her worthless advice. ‘Be Peter the Great, Ivan the Terrible, Emperor Paul – crush them all under you!’ she would urge her weak and vacillating husband and another series of ludicrous decisions would be handed down to the bewildered ministers.

Of course, it is, as they say, easy to criticise and one forgives a good deal when reading of the family’s dignity as they faced the petty cruelties of their revolutionary captors. What sort of men were these, who refused to let the Grand Duchesses go to the lavatory unaccompanied by a guard? Or confiscated the Tsarevitch’s toys? Or, worse, who would later give proud accounts of the execution of the Tsar’s daughters – as Ermakov used to do at the Soviet children’s summer camps in the 1930s? Lieven is not a psychological analyst and we are left, for the most part, simply to marvel at man’s cruelty to man. Not least to wonder at the savagery visited on the heads of the hapless Russian people by the Tsar’s successors. Finally that must remain the only real defence of the chaotic inefficiency of Tsarist rule: it was so much less awful than what came after, particularly for those very peasants and workers who might reasonably have hoped for some improvement in their wretched lot.

A curious footnote: Lieven does produce one note of genuine novelty. In narrating the execution and disposal of the bodies, the author inserts a previously (to my knowledge) unrecorded fact: ‘Just in case the Whites should discover the corpses, the bodies of Aleksei and one of the women were burned and buried separately.’ This unquestionably ‘new’ piece of research is presumably designed to offset last year’s discovery of the bones of the family, from which those of the Tsarevitch and one of the Grand Duchesses are missing. It is a patently absurd assertion. Had the Whites found the bodies, they would have easily identified them and the absence of two victims would have spawned all sorts of Pimpernel-like theories – the very last thing the authorities would have wanted at that time. Nor does Lieven refer to the eyewitness account of one of the guards, Piotr Voikov, an odd omission in the light of the recent find. Voikov stated that the Chief Executioner, Yurovsky, ‘approached the macabre heap of human remains – heads, trunks, legs, arms – and rummaged for a full quarter of an hour. Then he said “I think there is something wrong.” The next day I asked Yurovsky what he had meant by what he said. He replied that he had failed to locate the head with the bayonet thrust, the head of the youngest Grand Duchess.’ Of course today the question of anyone surviving that bloody cellar in Ekaterinberg is purely academic. But Lieven’s papering-over of this newest crack in the official version is yet another illustration of the by now apparently Pavlovian response among the world’s intelligentsia to any questioning of the fate of Anastasia . . .

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