Book Review: The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg by Helen Rappaport

Tragedy at Ekaterinburg by Helen Rappaport

Book Review by Bud Gundy

The assassination of the Romanov family is one of those tales that ushers a person into adulthood, a shocking revelation that forever warps your sense of justice and hardens the edges of the world around you.  The visual is too terrible to not leave scars: the former Tsar surrounded by his wife, his frail son, his four daughters and a handful of remaining loyal servants lined up against the wall and gunned down.

The reality was far worse than I ever imagined.

Over the years, I’ve read several books about the fate of the Romanovs, my favorite being, The Education of a Princess by Marie, Grand Duchess of Russia. She was the Tsar’s cousin, and published her memoirs in 1930.  A photograph in the front pages shows a melancholy woman looking off with a vacant stare, a fitting visage for one of the few Romanovs to escape Russia with her life.  An engrossing story of a pampered girl who grew into a sharply insightful woman, she was frank about the lost intellectual opportunities that she squandered early in life, and her perspective on the fall of the Romanov throne was enriched with a familial take - especially the Tsaritsa Alexandra's disastrous obsession with the mystic Rasputin.  Her escape from Russia was a dramatic and heart-stopping account.

Helen Rappaport’s The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg filled in many details for me about the Imperial family’s final days, replaying their last 11 days with a careful and incisive eye for enlightening moments.  It also gives brief and comprehensible overviews of the political and military forces at work, no small feat given the mind-boggling number of actors in this story.  By clearing away much of the ancillary information, Rappaport makes the political intrigue easier to navigate.  Even those alive during that period must have found the sheer number of conflicting forces a whirlwind of confusion, and I admired the way she dealt with these issues forcefully, without resorting to the easy solution of giving us a highly romanticized and poignant family tale instead.

But poignancy abounds, most especially in her descriptions of the four Arch Duchesses.  I’ve seen newsreel footage of the Tsar’s daughters, and they looked for all the world like the refined and stiffly formal girls you would expect them to be, which is also how Tsarist propaganda portrayed them.  But Rappaport gives them life, and you discover how the girls, isolated first by their positions, then by the health demands of their mother and brother and finally by their imprisonment, turned to each other, and inward, for the strength to rise each day. 

The most memorable scene in the book comes the day before their brutal murders, when the Soviet functionary in charge of the household sent local peasant women to clean the family rooms, to give the royals a sense of normalcy and routine and deflect any suspicion of imminent doom.  Cheerfully, the daughters helped the women move furniture and pitched in with the cleaning, managing a few brief, whispered comments because conversation was forbidden – a rule enforced by lurking Soviet guards.

Rappaport also gives us the essential history of the Tsar and Tsaritsa, enough for us to get a sense of their personalities and the influences that shaped the way they looked at the world.  The young Alexy, heir to the misbegotten throne so ill-managed by his hapless father, also comes to life but sadly as a gravely ill and frustrated child who was also spoiled by the scraping attention his hemophilia demanded of his family and minders.  I was thankful that Rappaport did not dwell on Alexandra’s obsession with Rasputin, whose supposedly magical powers made her a fanatical devotee in a desperate hope for a miracle to cure her son.  While Rasputin is a fascinating character, he is such an obvious megalomaniac that I find his particular role in the story to be tiresome.  Why give so much attention to a man who would be happy to let the world burn if it brought him more notice?

As I described above, the family’s murder is a shocking event.  But nothing prepared me for the gruesome reality of the scene.  I thought I knew the story – the rifles aimed by an execution squad at the family who had a moment of fear as they realized what was about to happen.  A hail of bullets, a few screams and some smoke. 

I had no idea.

First, there were no rifles - just pistols.  The execution took 20 minutes.  Most of the squad was drunk.  All four daughters survived the first round of bullets.  It was a gruesome bloodbath and included a raging Bolshevik, a berserker of the first order, filled with such hatred for the monarchy he waded into the pile of corpses to finish off the survivors by slashing with his bayonet and even then failing to give them final peace.  Rappaport’s description of the execution is horrific and terrifying, a heart-breaking and disturbing tale.  You rage at the sloppiness and inhumanity, the pointless suffering and excruciating length.  Perhaps this was the moment that the Soviet Union became cursed forever, when the seminal event of its birth was handled with such monumental incompetence.  And even after everyone had been slain, the sloppiness goes on and on and on, with a tale of burial so shoddy and poorly managed that it is amazing to read.

I admire monarchy to a point, as long as it understands its proper role in the modern world – to project an image, to provide solace, to be a living embodiment of national aspirations and pride.  The idea of being born into a position of leadership is ridiculous and infantile, and I know the Tsarist regimes were not kindly and benevolent.  They were repressive, stained with autocratic impulses, anti-Semitism and other deep corruptions.  I don’t think I would have liked the Tsar and Tsaritsa very much if I had known them. 

But it is indisputable that the Bolsheviks were even more brutal and repressive from almost the moment they took power, and in time became perhaps the most corrupt society so far in the history of the word, and there’s some fine competition for that ignoble title.

Perhaps that’s why the legend of the Romanovs has reached a fever pitch since the fall of the Soviet Union and why they’ve been canonized as martyrs by the Russian Orthodox Church.  The town of their final imprisonment has become a shrine to their memory.  Both of their burial sites (yes, both – you have to read it to believe it) are places of pilgrimage today.  Their remains were moved to the beautiful church of Sts. Peter and Paul in St. Petersburg, to lie with their royal ancestors, in a ceremony beamed across the world.  All this adulation is a bit overdone for my taste (although I am sorry that I visited St. Petersburg before their bones were interred there – I would have liked to visit their graves) but it is completely understandable.  Who doesn’t want a chance to atone for a dreadful mistake?