Title: Nicholas and Alexandra
Author: Robert K. Massie
Genre(s): nonfiction, historical nonfiction, biography
Length: 640 pages
Published: June 30, 1967
My interest in the last of the Romanovs began in 2018, when I read The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra by Helen Rappaport (what a long title)—and, in fact, was one of the reasons that I decided to pick up The Brothers Karamazov at the end of that year. But, like most mood-readers, the other Russian history books that piqued my interest during that phase were lost in a sea of classics and attempted genre-breakers, and it was over a year and a half before I plucked Nicholas and Alexandra from my bookshelf and gave it a go. I anticipated enjoying the information presented, but I did not anticipate finding such beautiful prose and skillful narration.
Nicholas and Alexandra is, unsurprisingly, a history narrative/biography of the lives of last Russian Tsar and Tsarista and how their personal and interpersonal lives intertwined with and influenced the downfall of the royal dynasty. The book, however, does not simply discuss the two rulers, but delves into the political climate before Nicholas took the throne, the early lives of Nicholas and Alexandra, their various family connections throughout Europe, the rise and influence of Rasputin (even beyond the palace), the social and political turmoil rising and falling throughout the nation, the effects of wars, and the stresses and joys of their private family life, including the horrible illness of their son, Alexei (spelled Alexis in the book, though I favor the more Russian spelling). The end result is a compelling, suspenseful narrative that shows the complexities, failings, triumphs, and tragedies of an infamous reign.
I’m always delighted to find nonfiction books with elegant, vibrant prose, especially when historical subjects run the risk of becoming dry in the hands of authors who don’t incorporate storytelling into their wealth of knowledge. Massie is one of those nonfiction storytellers. Here’s an example from the opening chapter (p. 3):
From the Baltic city of St. Petersburg, built on a river marsh in a far northern corner of the empire, the Tsar ruled Russia. So immense were the Tsar’s dominions that, as night began to fall along their western borders, day already was breaking on their Pacific coast. Between these distant frontiers lay a continent, one sixth of the land surface of the globe. Through the depth of Russia’s winters, millions of tall pine trees stood silent under heavy snows. In the summer, clusters of white-trunked birch trees rustled their silvery leaves in the slanting rays of the afternoon sun. Rivers, wide and flat, flowed peacefully through the grassy plains of European Russia toward a limitless southern horizon. Eastward, in Siberia, even mightier rivers rolled north to the Arctic, sweeping through forests where no human had ever been, and across desolate marshes of frozen tundra.
There’s an elegance and flow to each sentence, coupled with vivid word choices and descriptions that are easy to imagine, but nothing is overdone or too elaborate as to impede understanding or draw the reader from the narration. As a result, there’s a sense of richness to the world Massie describes—it wasn’t just a time far removed, but a place where real people lived and moved—and the attention to setting the scene for each place or action coupled well with the technicalities of events and quotations from primary sources. Additionally, his skill with language not only made the chapters enjoyable to read, but helped ease some of the denseness of chapters dealing with subjects like wartime maneuvers—which, at least for me, can be boring to read for more than a few paragraphs if not explained well. For all these reasons, I think the style of Nicholas and Alexandra is one if not the greatest of its strengths.
Can one truly critique characters of nonfiction books? Because everyone mentioned in Nicholas and Alexandra was (and some still are) real people, it’s difficult to assess them in the way I assess fiction or even memoirs. Putting that aside, however, Massie did an excellent job at showing the strengths and flaws of the “important players” in the narrative; there was a sense of consistency as well as development of temperament and motivation, which resulted in compelling conflicts and suspense, even when the end of the story was already known. Dare I say that I found both Nicholas and Alexandra to be sympathetic, even in light of serious mistakes they made during their reign. That, to me, shows the strength of Massie’s ability to take historical information and sources and present them in a way that seems real and compelling.
The plot of Nicholas and Alexandra is, in essence, their lives from beginning to end. Like everything else in the book, the pacing of information and the way chapters begin and end reads very much like a compelling story rather than a summary of facts and events, which in turn creates all of the satisfaction and suspense of fiction stories and creative nonfiction. That I can know the fate of not just the main characters but the nation in which they live from page one and still not be able to put the book down as I neared the end is testament to skillful storytelling.
In a word: Russia. However, because the book takes place over the course of more than fifty-years, the narration takes readers not just from city to city within Russia, but throughout Europe and Asia as well. Massie does a good job at describing not just the movement of the setting but the sensory and emotional qualities that the locations have or had—we aren’t just told that the Romanovs spent a summer in Livadiya, Crimea but are told details about the palace, the landscape, the inhabitants, the guests, the food, the music, the culture, to where a sense of place is established. This is a quality that often shows up in memoirs and is one aspect that I love about them, so it was delightful to experience the same in a history/biography book.
There is little objectionable content, but the book’s style and purpose minimizes the content that is present. I cannot recall any uses of cursing (if there is any, it would have been in quotes of primary sources); degrading language from primary sources or descriptions is used to illustrate the views of historical persons or their actions, but the instances are handled tactfully. There are a few instances of describing people drinking or becoming drunk. Descriptions of war, injuries, violent protests, assassination attempts and successful assassinations (namely, bombings) are present throughout the narrative, and are most acute when describing the end of the Romanovs. Rasputin’s illicit sexual activities, as well as vulgar rumors regarding his relationships with Alexandra and the Romanov daughters, appear throughout the middle and end of the book, but are also handled with tact. All potentially objectionable content is present for accuracy’s sake.
I’ve already sung praises of this book’s beautiful language and compelling narration, so to do so again seems like useless repetition. Nicholas and Alexandra is what I hoped it would be and then more, and has joined the list of my favorite historical nonfiction books (yes, alongside The Romanov Sisters; the family portrait is almost complete)—thus, the 5/5 star rating. If you also enjoy learning about history and have ever been curious about the last of the Russian Tsars, I highly recommend Nicholas and Alexandra, not only for its wealth of information but the pleasure of its prose. This book is an example of what all history texts should strive to be.