Written by Lauryn Smith
I love Russia. Its architecture is beautiful, its culture fascinating, its people vogueish, its history unique. I recently returned from a trip to Moscow, and wow. The country is just incredible. To supplement my research prior to travel, I borrowed my dad’s first edition copy of “The Last Tsar,” also known as “The Last Tsar & Tsarina,” by Virginia Cowles. (His copy happens to be stuffed with a handful of newspaper clippings, all of which relate in one way or another to the notorious Romanovs. Borrowing old books is so much fun).
As the book’s title implies, “The Last Tsar” is the nonfiction account of Tsar Nicholas II, the final Russian Emperor. Until 1917, tsars were the supreme rulers of Russia. (The term “tsar” derives from the Latin word for “Caesar,” or emperor.) Nicholas began his reign in 1894, and he was forced to abdicate in 1917. The following year, he and his immediate family were unceremoniously killed en masse by the Bolsheviks. Cowles outlines the events that led to the end of imperial rule and the unfortunate fate of Nicholas, and she does so in a way that is both thorough and comprehensible.
Cowles elucidates Nicholas’s character, as well as that of his wife, the German-born Alexandra Feodorovna. The couple, we learn, unfalteringly believed that their rule was a God-given right. Alexandra had great influence on Nicholas and his policies, and the infamous Grigori Rasputin had great influence on Alexandra. Nicholas possessed a warm, timid personality, especially toward Alexandra and their five children. However, he was christened “Bloody Nicholas” by the Russian people, who derided his dependence on Alexandra’s input, his inept leadership and his role in thrusting Russia into a state of war and violence.
Cowles does well to intermingle details of political significance with others pertaining to the royal family. She relates the anxiety that arose when Tsarevich Alexei, Nicholas’s youngest child and only son, suffered painful bouts resulting from his affliction with hemophilia. She illustrates the perceived ignorance of Nicholas’s four daughters. She even covers the details of Rasputin’s murder, its cover-up and Alexandra’s subsequent distress. Cowles mounts chronological evidence of varying sorts that culminate in a concluding exposition of the February Revolution and its immediate aftermath.
Reading about the political saga of a country can be tough, particularly for those who are not history buffs. I myself am not typically drawn to such literature, at least not on a regular basis, but I completely enjoyed “The Last Tsar.” Cowles focuses on a subject that is innately interesting, pure and simple. What makes the book truly enticing is the way Cowles organizes and presents facts. Her voice is clear. She inputs logic alongside specifics, connecting dots and bridging gaps.
The best part of “The Last Tsar,” though, is hands down the images, which punctuate nearly every page. The mesmerizing photographs lend an authenticity, a familiarity that words alone would not have accomplished. The writing is not the best I have read, but Cowles is technically proficient. In addition to being a biographer, she is an experienced journalist, so her writing is at least easily accessible. For instance, Cowles repeats individuals’ full names and positions as appropriate so as not to lose readers. The photos, in addition to being historically significant and of great quality, help break up the text, which would otherwise be a bit dense on its own.
All told, “The Last Tsar” is a must-read for anyone interested in Russian politics or history. I would also recommend it to anyone who has a penchant for notable historic events, specifically ones clouded in mystery. And of course, anyone who finds the Romanovs of interest should pick up a copy. Given that the book is chock full of facts and quotes, whoever reads it will walk away with a heightened understanding of at least one aspect of the Russian Empire.
Title: The Last Tsar & Tsarina
Author: Virginia Cowles
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Publication date: September 8, 1977
Page count: 232
List price: $14.95
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