Massie - Nicholas and Alexandra

June 03, 2004

Robert K. Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, (New York: Atheneum, 1967)

I read Massie's Dreadnaught many years ago and liked it.

After reading Sheila O'Malley's rave about this I grabbed it and dropped it into my light non-fiction shelf. I also grabbed Massie's Steel Castles which I will read soon.

Massie has found a niche - he is immersed in the lives and personalities of world rulers at the turn of the twentieth century. He then tells the tale of the Belle Epoque and the Great War through those rulers, explaining the path to war in part through their personal foibles.

This approach works wonderfully for Nicholas and Alexandra. Massie argues convincingly that the Russian Empire fell because of Tsarevitch Alexis's hemophelia combined with the fact that both Nicholas and Alexandra were loving parents. From one medical fact and some personalities, all else follows. Otherwise, he suggests at the end, Russia was well on its way to becoming a constitutional monarchy during the Great War, with Nicholas ceding some power to the Duma as responsible reform, excluding the poor from political power for a while, and relying on the massive emotional pull of Orthodoxy and the Tsar to hold the nation together.

But it failed, and Massie tells us why.

For that reason it is a hard book to read - not just because the list of chapters ends with Ekaterinberg and we all know what happened there, but because the first four hundred pages are a train wreck happening in slow motion. In his classic anecdote of the bomb under the table, Alfred Hitchcock defined suspense as being when the audience knows that something terrible is about to happen, the characters on screen do not know it will happen, and so the audience is all worried to see if the characters will escape.

In Hitchcock's version, the audience knows there is a bomb under the table, but does not know if the people sitting at table will finish their conversation and leave before the bomb blows up. For Nicholas and Alexandra, we know that not only do they not stand up, they actually take steps that will make the bomb more explosive. And so we get to watch as well meaning people screw up by the numbers. It is a painful read; historians like to dissect failures so we can see what went wrong, but it can be hard to read about failure, especially for those of us with a limited capacity for schadenfrude (spelling?).

Good book - anyone who likes reading about people should read it.

Posted by Red Ted at June 3, 2004 10:02 AM
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