When it comes to Russian history, my knowledge base is not so much “spotty” as it is “basically nonexistent.” I read a biography of Catherine the Great last year, which was the first non-fiction Russian history book I had ever read. Alexandra: The Last Tsarina was the second, and before that my only source for information about the Romanovs came from the Royal Diaries series (the Anastasia one was really good, though) and one historic fiction book about them that I read in middle school. Add to that a National Geographic article that I read back when the Romanov remains had been found and identified, and there you have the entire breadth of my Romanov knowledge prior to reading this book.
So in that sense, I appreciated this book because just about every piece of information presented was new to me, and I was glad to finally learn something real about this doomed family. As the title suggests, Alexandra is the focus of the book – it begins with her childhood when she lost her parents at a young age, then we get a bit about her education and some of her family drama (including her grandmother, Queen Victoria), and then her extended courtship with Nicholas and how she became the empress of Russia. Throughout the book, Erickson describes Nicholas’s attempts to rule effectively, Alexandra’s increasing unpopularity with the Russian people, the wars and growing discontent, and Alexandra’s attempts to control her husband’s policies (with the assistance of Rasputin, of course). It’s all good information, and the story was able to keep me interested throughout – the last few chapters are especially engrossing, just because of how goddamn sad they are. You’re reading about the imperial family being held under house arrest, constantly being threatened by their own guards and thinking they’ll be killed any second, and then England is like, “Yeah, you guys can totally have asylum here! We’re sending a ship next week!” and then the next second the English prime minister realizes that that’s actually a really bad idea and that he won’t send a ship to rescue the family, but no one tells them that, and then their guards are all, “We’re going to Siberia now, where you’ll be safe!” and you’re just staring at the pages thinking oh god, oh god, oh god because you know how this story ends. So, to the uniformed eye, this seems like a really good, solid biography of a much-maligned woman.
Here’s the problem: Carolly Erikson is a terrible historian. One of her sources used in this book is the memoirs of Martha Mouchanov, a former lady-in-waiting of Alexandra. She provides a lot of personal details about the empress’s state of mind and the inner workings of the palace, and it seems like a great primary source. Unfortunately, as other reviews have informed me, not only are Mouchanov’s memoirs completely fabricated, but this was known before this book was written. So Erikson took an unreliable source and presented it as reliable, because it helped her case of presenting Alexandra as a more sympathetic figure.
Similarly, Erikson will frequently make a statement about Alexandra’s thought process or emotions at a certain time, with no actual evidence to back it up, and you get the sense that she’s just projecting her own emotions onto Alexandra. There’s no in-depth examination of why Alexandra thought that she was the most qualified person to rule Russia, Erikson merely tells us that Alexandra thought she could rule better than her husband and moves on. There’s really no critical analysis of anyone here – Rasputin, clearly the most enigmatic and fascinating figure in this whole fiasco, is examined only at surface level. Was he playing a long con on Alexandra, trying to manipulate her into destroying the country? Why did he begin by refusing large gifts of money and titles and later get greedier and more demanding? Did he really believe that he was a holy man and a healer, or was he an imposter all along? And most importantly, how was he able to miraculously heal Alexei when no one else could? I realize that these questions haven’t been given definite answers, but a little acknowledgement of them would have been nice.
There’s no definite closure to the story – it ends with the Romanov’s execution (spoiler alert!) and then a stupid epilogue about Alexandra’s body being properly interred in 1998. Between those two events, there’s nothing: how the Romanov’s bodies were disposed of and hidden, how they were discovered, who was identified and who’s still missing and why, not even any information about what happened to the rest of the extended family. It felt unfinished and unsatisfying.
This book shouldn’t have been nonfiction. Erikson should have just admitted defeat and written a historic fiction novel about Alexandra, because that’s basically what she’s done anyway – even the writing feels like overwrought fiction, like this passage: “The warm June sun continued to shine down over the domes and rooftops of Moscow, but now it was a city in mourning, and the crows, bloated and sated, floated like dark wraiths in the cloudless blue sky.” And this line, which was so ridiculous that it’s the only passage in the entire book that I made sure to mark so I could quote it later: “A new order was coming slowly and painfully to birth, forced into the light by the harsh midwife of revolution.”
By the way, “Harsh Midwife of Revolution” is the name of my new metal band. We’re not very good.
One last thing, and then I’ll put this book out of its misery: Erikson, for some god-unknown reason, insists on calling Alexandra and Nicholas “Alix” and “Nicky” throughout the book. Maybe this is acceptable among Romanov biographers, but it felt jarringly personal to me – imagine reading a Tudor biography that referred to Henry VIII as “Harry.”
Maybe this book would have succeeded as a historical novel, but as straightforward history, it’s a disaster.
Verdict: one out of five stars