This book has been on my shelves for many years. I’ve dipped into it before but never read it all through. After reading Helen Rappaport’s wonderful Four Sisters earlier this year, I wanted to read more about the Romanovs & this book was perfect. It’s a selection of the letters, diaries & memoirs of Nicholas, Alexandra, other family members, servants & other observers to the events of Nicholas’s reign.
The tragic story of the last Tsar & his family is well-known. As I was reading A Lifelong Passion, I was struck by just how early on in Nicholas’s reign the portents of disaster began. The personalities of Nicholas & Alexandra & the way they reacted to circumstances determined the course of their lives. The book begins with an account of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. Known as the Tsar-Liberator because he liberated the serfs, Alexander was succeeded by his son, Alexander III, who became one of the most reactionary & autocratic of Tsars in reaction to what he saw as the failure of his father’s liberal ideals. Alexander III dominated his son, Nicholas, who led an idle life in the Army & society.
At a family wedding, Nicholas met Alix of Hesse, a princess of a minor German royal house & a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Alix’s mother had died when she was young & Victoria had virtually brought up Alix & her sisters. Alix had been a happy child but the deaths of her mother & two of her siblings changed her personality & she grew up a serious, melancholy girl. She was also very religious & the great stumbling block to her love for Nicholas was religion. Alix was unwilling to convert to Russian Orthodoxy & it took years to overcome this resistance. Alix’s sister Ella had married one of Nicholas’s uncles, Serge, & her influence was crucial in the engagement eventually taking place. Alix became a passionate convert to Orthodoxy &, as tragedy consumed her personal life, she became more & more religious which led to an estrangement from Russian society & her dependence on mystics such as Rasputin.
Alexander III died suddenly in 1894 at the age of only 49. Nicholas had no training for his destined role & his personality was not suited to playing a dominant role. Nicholas also had several very domineering uncles who saw him as a weak personality who needed bolstering. He reacted with polite attention which gave the impression that he agreed with the last person he spoke to but which often left people feeling that he had deceived them. Alix, on the other hand, was stubborn & strong-willed, always pushing Nicky to impose his will on his Ministers & be a strong Tsar for the Russian people. This was a disastrous combination. The saving grace from a personal point of view was their great love for each other. This never wavered from their earliest days together until the end & is expressed in passionate terms in their letters & diaries in this book.
Their marriage began in the tragic circumstances of Alexander III’s death. Alix was summoned to Livadia to be present at the Tsar’s deathbed & she & Nicky were married just weeks later & the superstitious Russians said that their new Tsarina had come to them behind a coffin. From that moment, nothing seemed to go right. The coronation was marred by the tragedy of the stampede at Khodinka Meadow, when hundreds were killed as they tried to get hold of souvenirs. The new Tsar went to a reception that night which gave a bad impression. Alix was shy & uncertain in society, in contrast to her mother-in-law, Maria Feodorovna, & the mistakes she made in the early days were never forgotten or forgiven. Alix’s religious fervor was also wondered & laughed at by sophisticated Russian society.
Four daughters were born over the next six years, each one loved by their parents but the rest of the family despaired over the lack of a male heir. Alix’s desire for a son led her to consult quacks & religious mystics. When the longed for son, Alexei, was born in 1904, he suffered from haemophilia. Alexei’s illness dominated Alix’s life from that moment & led to her reliance on Rasputin, who seemed to be able to calm the boy when he was ill. The family also isolated themselves at Tsarskoe Selo, preserving their happy family life but distancing themselves from the rest of the family, society & the people.
Politically Russia was also in revolutionary mood. The Bloody Sunday massacre in 1905 & the Russo-Japanese War led to demands for democracy but Nicholas was reluctant to grant any power to the people. Bolstered by Alix, he stubbornly vowed to uphold the autocracy of his ancestors. Russia’s lack of preparedness for WWI led to enormous losses on the battlefield & Nicholas’s decision to take over as Commander in Chief of the Army was a fatal mistake. Revolution in 1917 led to Nicholas’s abdication, imprisonment with his family at Tsarskoe Selo, then Siberia & death in Ekaterinburg in 1918. Whether Nicholas could have done anything to avert the disasters of his reign if he had been a different man or if he had married a different woman, is a question that is impossible to answer. There are so many What Ifs in the story of the last Romanovs which is why it’s so interesting to read these firsthand accounts.
It’s so interesting to read how concerned Nicky’s family were about the isolation of the Royal Family. Right from the very beginning of his reign, there was concern that Alix was avoiding her duties to society, but as the family grew & especially after Alexei was born, the desire to be completely private & especially not to allow anyone outside the immediate family to know of Alexei’s illness, became more obvious. Nicky’s sisters, Olga & Xenia, write in their letters & memoirs of their concern at the Tsar’s isolation. The wider Romanov family were bewildered & concerned. Many of them grew to resent Alix & blame her for the increasing discontent in Russia, including her own sister, Ella, from whom she was increasingly estranged.
The most interesting sections of the book are the Diaries of Konstantin Konstantinovich, known as KR. KR was a cousin of Nicky’s, the grandson of Tsar Nicholas I. He was a writer, poet & translator; he translated Hamlet into Russian. He was a devoted husband & father of nine children but he was also bisexual which caused him great anguish. It also left him open to blackmail & he struggled with this although there was no open scandal. KR was one of the few Romanovs who were close to Nicky & Alix right up until his death in 1915. By then, it was too late to save the dynasty. Alix was virtually running the country when Nicky was at the Front & her letters to him are full of exhortations to be strong & save the throne for Alexei. Her letters become more & more unbalanced & it’s hard to imagine how Nicky must have felt when receiving yet another letter full of advice about ministerial appointments from his wife with total reference to Rasputin. The eyewitness accounts of Rasputin’s murder, & the murders of members of the Imperial family are also fascinating.The most poignant diary entries are from Alexei in captivity in Tobolsk as he writes day after day, “Everything the same.” “The same as yesterday“.
A Lifelong Passion is a fascinating book. There’s virtually no commentary from the editors, apart from chapter headings & footnotes, so the eyewitness accounts speak for themselves. With the mass of material available to them (the first draft was 2,500 pages long. The published book is 650 pages) the editors had to leave a lot out but they have done an excellent job of making a complex story coherent & allowing as many diverse voices as possible to be heard. The Memoirs may have the benefit of hindsight & self-justification (especially in the case of Felix Yusupov, one of Rasputin’s murderers), but the letters & diaries are so immediate that the well-known story becomes new once more.