Monday, February 9, 2015

The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming

Anastasia Romanov's mysterious survival of the Bolsheviks' execution of her family has been a celebrated urban legend. When the Romanovs' graves were found two bodies were missing and many believed it was Alexei, Marie, or Anastasia. Movies and books popped up periodically romanticizing and fueling rumors during the 20th century. Even imposters claimed to be the duchess beginning in the 1920s. The story of the last Tsar's brutal family's murder captured the public's thirst for unsolved mysteries. Today the graves have been found and DNA evidence tells the answers. What this book shows is how clueless Nicholas, the last Tsar of Russia, and his wife, the Empress Alexandra were to the plight of their people.

The author, through meticulous research, shows how at every major turn the Tsar either made the wrong decision or no decision. How he gave his wife power to run the government and she in turn sought the help of a holy man Rasputin. He took advantage of Alexandra's belief in mysticism and the miraculous to further advance his desire for a depraved lifestyle. He talked her into replacing all the cabinet members causing instability during the war. This is just one of many examples. Call them the royal odd couple; completely devoted to each other and utterly incompetent at ruling their enormous empire. They were not only insulated from reality, but they refused to believe facts even when solid evidence was brought forth. Further complicating matters was their son's hemophilia that they hid from the public and that Rasputin had the most success treating. The author reveals the royals' antisemitism, brutal suppression of disgruntled peasants, and poor leadership leading to the fall of the empire. Intermixed with the royals story is the depiction of the peasants desperate conditions, the resulting worker strikes, and the rise of Lenin and communism. Inserts give personal stories written by peasants detailing daily life and factory work. It is astounding how unaware and unempathetic the Romanov's were to their people. The children were victims of their father's poor decisions and brutal actions at suppressing strikers. He earned the nickname, "Bloody Nicholas" and his entire family paid with their lives as the populace sought revenge.

Fleming does a great job ratcheting up the tension. This is a book where you know the outcome; yet the suspense as to what happens next is not known. I've studied some Russian history, but she presents the royal family in wonderful detail. She draws out their last days scrutinizing how up to the very last minute they had no idea that circumstances were so dangerous. The royals were under house arrest because Nicholas didn't flee the country when there was a revolution. Nicholas seemed to think he was untouchable because the tsars were ordained by God and therefore holy. Nicholas ruled over 130 million people and owned one-third of the land. His family dynasty had been in control for 300 years. It is easy to see why he lived in a bubble and was completely out of touch with the social unrest. However, even when there was a revolution, he refused to believe it. There were 870 noble families that represented 1.5% of the population and owned 90% of the wealth. They didn't speak Russian because it showed a lack of breeding and their belief in their superiority was unshakable." It was one of their downfalls.

The family Romanov was an autocracy. They had absolute power with no checks or balances. The people in the government were ones that told the tsar what he wanted to hear versus the truth. If he didn't like what a person told him he could fire them at whim. Workers respected and worshiped Tsar Nicholas until their faith kept getting eroded. It began with Bloody Sunday when a group of peaceful protesters tried to talk to Tsar Nicholas and were gunned down by soldiers. Later, when Nicholas did give them a presence in the government it was undermined by a series of laws he passed so that they had no voice or power. Then World War I broke out and the government sent the peasants to war with no food, clothing, or guns. They ran out of guns after a few months. The people were suspicious of Empress Alexandra because they were fighting the Germans and she was of German heritage. To make matters worse, Nicholas put her in charge of his government during the war while he acted as Commander-in-chief at Stavka where the war was in progress. Alexandra replaced cabinet members willy-nilly based on Rasputin who wanted people hostile to him out of office (which was almost everyone.) At a time when stability was needed for war, it was upended. Fed up the peasants overthrew the government and installed a democracy. Nicholas abdicated but then Lenin came in with communism and military might toppling the peasants.

One of the inserts has a factory worker explaining how the initial workers strikes happened when 60% of the factory workers taught themselves to read. The peasant said that he never read a book that awakened his class consciousness, but it did teach him "how to think." The peasants wanted the government responsive to their needs and books revealed a different way of life. The working class mustered their courage to march on the palace peacefully and speak to the Tsar. They got a priest to help represent them, but it resulted in Bloody Sunday with hundreds of people gunned down in the streets. Nicholas thought the peasants should be grateful to him, not asking for improved conditions. He had no empathy, living an extravagant life in his palace with 500 servants.

When the family was shot they thought they were being moved to a new location. The girls had sewn millions of dollars of gems in their dresses so that when the bullets flew the girls didn't die right away because their gowns acted as bullet-proof vests. Even Rasputin has a bizarre end. There are so many kooky facts sprinkled throughout the text that it kept me going until the end. I'm not sure who I'd recommend this book to in an elementary setting. It would have to be someone interested in the Anastasia mystery and familiar with Russian history and a high reader. The text is clearly written but is more for middle school and high school. Some sections are dense with facts and I could see a young reader giving up on it. That said, I'm glad I have it in my library. Sometimes I'll come across a 5th grader interested in this type of nonfiction text. The end gives the most current information on the Romanov family and has an excellent bibliography, primary sources, and notes. I can see why it won a Sibert award in 2015.

5 Smileys

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