I have a thing for tragedies. As a kid, my library spoils contained your average Boxcar Children and Thoroughbred books, but they also included a heavy dose of realism. Whether it was the latest full-color encyclopedia of mummies or a stack of books on the Holocaust, I tended toward the tragic. Pompeii, the Titanic, Anne Frank — you name it, I read it. It’s no surprise, then, that I found myself checking out a book on the Romanov family my first week home from school.
If you didn’t know already, the Romanovs were the second imperial family of Russia and ruled the country from 1613 – 1917, when the February Revolution forced Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate the throne. The government then evacuated the tsar and his family to the Ural mountains to “protect” them from the revolution. This protection grew stricter and stricter as the revolution grew stronger, until eventually, in March 1918, the government placed the Romanovs under house arrest at the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg. There they stayed for seventy-eight days, until, on July 17, 1918, Tsar Nicholas and his wife, four daughters, son, and four household servants were shot to death in the basement.
Aside from their executioners and the ones who ordered the murders, no one knew what happened to the Romanovs. Word got out that Nicholas had been shot on orders of the Revolution, as punishment for his “countless, bloody, violent acts against the Russian people,” but what happened to the rest of the family was a mystery. They simply disappeared, leaving a trail of rumors and conspiracy theories in their wake.
Fast forward sixty years to 1979, when archaeologist Alexander Avdonin discovers a mass grave in the woods outside Yekaterinburg. Nine bodies. The right location. A trail of clues suggesting it was possible… Could this be the family Romanov?
This is the question that Robert K. Massie spends his book answering. Beginning with the account of the family’s murder on the morning of July 17, he takes readers on a dense, twisting, and oftentimes spellbinding search for the truth.
The book is nothing if not thorough. Massie covers some eighty years of history in a mere three hundred pages, and as such it’s easy to get lost amidst the swirl of Russian names, dates, and pretenders to the throne. Add to that the complexities of DNA testing and international court battles and you’ve got a recipe for a headache. However, if you try not to follow the details too closely and instead aim to see the big picture, the book turns out to be intriguing. Massie’s exhaustive research, while overwhelming at times, helps credit him as a writer. You trust him to weave all his dangling, unrelated threads together in the end, and he does. For the most part.
Massie’s book was published in 1995, and many of its major plot points (if nonfiction has such things) had only just taken place, many of them in 1994. As such, his book doesn’t have all the answers. Only nine bodies were found in the Yekaterinburg grave, but eleven people were shot. Who was missing? What happened to them? Were they still alive? With the help of DNA testing, scientists were able to determine that the grave contained the bodies of the tsar, his wife Alexandra, the four servants, and three of the four daughters. But what about the fourth daughter, and the tsarevich Alexei? Massie speculates the answers, but cannot say for sure.
He does lead readers on a fascinating quest to identify the missing daughter, though. Was it Olga? Maria? Tatiana? Or the famous Anastasia? Predictably, he spends half the book on the Anastasia question, dealing extensively with her various impersonators, especially Anna Anderson.
On the whole, it’s a fascinating book. While it’s true that I floundered a little in all the lab and legal jargon, my love of Russian history and Massie’s skill as a writer kept me going. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone looking for a light read, but if you’re not scared of Russian names and don’t mind doing a bit of googling to get the final answers, this is the book for you. 3.5/5 stars.