The most interesting parts of history are the moments that probably seemed small at the time they happened, but whose effects rippled throughout the entire world. And I can’t think of a single period in history more full of those little moments all coming together to disastrous effect than the reign of the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II.
Nicholas became the Tsar in 1894 and abdicated in 1917, during the World War I. Besides being the last Tsar of Russia, he and his wife Alexandra are famous for their association with Gregory Rasputin, and for the disturbing nature of their deaths. They were also the parents of the Tsarevich Alexei, whose severe hemophilia contributed to the instability of the throne.
It wouldn’t have taken much for me to love this book. I love to read about almost any kind of disease, so the parts about the Tsarevich and hemophilia were right up my alley. I actually work at a hemophilia treatment center, so reading about what treatment was like just 100 years ago was fascinating (and horrifying). Rasputin is one of the most bizarre historical figures ever, in my opinion, and then you add in some religious mysticism, World War I, Bolsheviks and you’ve got one of the most interesting time periods in history.
Robert K. Massie also does a great job of bringing to life the many people involved in the story. Excerpts from letters, telegrams, and diaries help flesh out Nicholas, Alexandra, their children, and the many people who were a part of their lives. It makes their terrible fates even sadder.
While I was reading I was struck over and over again by those tiny coincidences that changed not just the lives of the people involved, but the entire world. If Rasputin had never left his town in Siberia to come to St. Petersburg. . . if Nicholas’s older brother, who was supposed to Tsar, hadn’t died. . .If Nicholas and Alexandra had had another son, or one who didn’t have hemophilia. . . if there hadn’t been a plot to kill Rasputin. . . if Nicholas had agreed to give up some of his power to a constitutional monarchy. . . if the Czechs had rescued the exiled royal family before they were murdered. . . if, if, if. Would World War I have ended differently? Would Russia still have a royal family, albeit mere figureheads? Would Alexei have survived into adulthood to become Tsar, or would he have died because of his hemophilia? Would Rasputin have been killed by someone else, or exiled, or arrested?
Things happened the way they happened, and those happenings are still influencing world events today. How strange that so much of it can be traced back to a man who was never supposed to be a king, his wife’s status as a hemophilia carrier, and their association with a charlatan who fooled them into believing he was a mystical faith healer. If even one of those things had been the slightest bit different, what would the world look like today?