Monday, March 30, 2015

Life (and death) in a delusional bubble

I've been reading The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II. Nicholas was the last of the Romanov tsars to rule Russia. Except it's pretty clear that in a lot of ways he never did rule the country; he and his immediate family existed in a lovely bubble and were pretty much out of touch with any sort of reality.

I'm into the section of the book now where Nicholas and his family have been exiled to Siberia and are living under house arrest. They're only a few months away from being executed, but they're all cruising along as though everything is going to be fine. One indignity after another, more and more things stripped from them, and they still don't get it that they're heading down the same road as Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. They're given opportunities to flee the country, to go live in exile, sponge off some of their numerous royal relatives scattered around Europe, but they refuse to leave Russia. It's bizarre. I can halfway understand why Nicholas would decide to stay in Russia -- he really bought into the notion that the tsar was Russia -- but why didn't he try to get his kids or his lunatic wife out of the the country? He was reading the papers; he knew about the riots and social disorder. Did he really believe that because he had abdicated, they were now safe?

Then again, considering that he'd spent his entire life being passive, maybe it's not so surprising "Nicky" just sat back and waited for events to happen. Most of the time he was tsar he was pretty much oblivious to what was actually happening in the country or being done in his name. On the rare occasions when he actually asserted his authority, it usually wasn't his idea -- it was his wife's. And his wife was, to put it mildly, delusional. She was even more out of touch with reality than Nicky was.

And what were the underlying reasons for their happy, delusional life? There were actually two things. One was the Tsarina Alexandra. Nicholas and Alexander were that rare royal couple: they'd married for love against the wishes of various relatives, including Nicky's parents. They'd met as teenagers, Nicholas had fallen for Alexandra at first sight, and never gave up on the idea that someday they'd marry. His parents had consented only because they'd figured out that Nicholas wasn't going to agree to any other arrangements. His father had even tried the classic Russian aristocratic technique of hooking his son up with a ballet dancer in the hopes that he'd become sufficiently enamored of his mistress that he wouldn't care who his legal wife was -- it didn't work. Once Nicholas and Alexandra were married, they formed a self-sufficient bubble. This might not have been a problem if Alexandra hadn't been quite so insecure. She was easily offended and good at holding grudges. Nicky adored Alix so refused to do anything that might upset her. End result? Their social circle kept shrinking until it consisted of a handful of people who would tell the Empress only what she wanted to hear. If someone tried to insert an unpleasant truth, they'd find themselves cut off.

The other reason was religion. The tsar's only son, the heir to the throne, had hemophilia. The condition was diagnosed when Alexei was an infant. Alexandra's life became basically a search for a miracle cure. She absolutely refused to admit that her son had what was a terminal condition, that no matter how careful they were or how intensely she prayed, Alexei was not going to live long enough to be Tsar. It's not surprising that she fell for the lies told by Grigory Rasputin, a con man who was remarkably adept at telling Alexandra exactly what she wanted to hear. As anyone who's ever read any Russian history knows, Rasputin's influence on the royal family became widely known and despised. At the same time, articles and political cartoons in the newspapers openly suggested scandalous behavior -- Rasputin's public behavior away from the palace was, in a word, debauched so it was easy for ordinary people to believe the worst of the rumors circulating about the tsarina. Naturally, the worse Rasputin behaved away from the royal family, the less Alexandra was willing to believe she was being conned. Even when stories reached her about virtually public orgies, she just said this was proof of his holiness. Apparently there's a long Russian tradition of holy men indulging in remarkably outrageous ways and it somehow serving as proof not that they're perverts or degenerates but are instead especially blessed by God. I know -- it makes no sense, but Alexandra 's surviving letters and journals confirm that she believed it.

And then when you throw in World War I, the fact the Russians were getting slaughtered by the Germans, and Alexandra was a German princess who tried to meddle in politics by writing privately to her cousins? It didn't take many years of warfare and Russian losses for most of the country to believe Alexandra was a German spy and the tsar himself was betraying his country by not locking her up. I guess the biggest mystery when it comes to the last of the Romanovs isn't so much how they happened to end up lined up and shot in a basement, but why it took until the Bolshevik Revolution for it to happen. By the time Nicholas abdicated in 1917, he and Alexandra were so universally hated that it's moderately amazing they survived as long as they did.

One thing I have always wondered about, though, is why the Reds felt the need to execute the grand duchesses -- the tsar's daughters. They had no rights of succession; the throne followed the male line. No one was going to rouse the populace by saying "Let's put Princess Olga on the throne." Then again, fanatics have always had a problem with overkill -- and the Bolshevik leadership definitely qualified as fanatics.

As I was reading this book, I found myself thinking about how easy it is for people in leadership positions to fall into the same trap Nicholas II did: just listen to the happy news, chase away anyone who tries to do a reality check, and then find themselves wondering why their company is going bankrupt or their favorite policies are failing. The sad thing is that there probably is no good cure for the problem: the more powerful a person becomes, the less willing other people are to tell them the unvarnished truth.

So would I recommend Nicholas II to other readers? I'm not sure. It's probably a good one for anyone interested in Russian history -- the author does look at various events from a different perspective than I'd read before -- but the structure of the book is odd. It felt choppy and tended to be a little hard to follow. For someone with only a casual interest, though, it's not a good choice.


  1. Even your post got too long to keep my interest.

  2. Im going to read it..I love history ..and Russian history is very interesting.

  3. I like Russian Literature - the classics. I will put this on my list to take a look out.
    For some reason over the past year I have become intrigued with the politics and time of Henry VIII.
    They have a program coming on PBS called Wolf Hall. I have read the book and found it fascinating - the time of Cardinal Wolsey in Henry's court.
    take care and enjoy your "vacation?".
    the Ol'Buzzard

  4. Good review. I have read Massey's Nicholas and Alexandra but not this one by Radzinsky. I also read Education of a Princess by Marie, Grand Duchess of Russia. Published in 1933, I got a used copy from ABEbooks. It is a very inside look at exactly that bubble of which you speak. Her adventures in escaping the Bolsheviks would make a great movie but no one would believe it was real


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