Orthodox America

  From the Bookshelf - Recent Books About the Last Romanovs

Priest Alexey Young

As for that Night...  (Job 3:6)

I first became aware-but only vaguely-of the last Romanovs when the film "Anastasia," was released in 1956.  At that time I knew nothing about Orthodoxy, Russia, or the Romanovs.  I certainly did not know enough to recognize historical errors and outright fantasies in the film-and, I later learned, there were many.  But scenes of a procession at Pascha, Icons with flickering vigil lights tucked away in shadowy corners: none of this was lost on my thirteen-year-old mind.

At the time I didn't understand why a hideous massacre of the Imperial Family had occurred on "that night" in 1918.  The terrible pathos of this tragedy came through loud and clear in the film-especially in the character of the lonely Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, the "Old Icon," as other characters in the film referred to her.1

I began to read.  And I read, and read: biographies, histories, memoirs-whatever I could find.  Much of it was uncomplimentary.  Tsar Nicholas was usually portrayed as (at best) "weak-willed" and, (at worst) "Bloody Nicholas."  Tsarina Alexandra was almost always "neurotic," dominant and "controlling" (when she wasn't being "controlled" by another mysterious figure, Rasputin).  But even to my adolescent mind this all seemed exaggerated.

I knew that Soviets were capable of vicious propaganda; it was in their interest to give the worst possible "face to the Old Order, personified by the Imperial Family: always discredit your enemies by painting them in the most lurid colors possible, for this gives a semblance of "legitimacy" to your own otherwise despicable actions.  Sadly, "these troubadours of [a] spineless ideology"2 had managed to convince most Western historians that under Tsarist Russia much of the population lived in poverty and despair when, in fact, "Russia, during the reign of Emperor Nicholas II, attained a high level of prosperity."3  One had to dig deeply to discover that the quality of life in Russia before the Revolution was as high, or higher, than in Europe, that the burden of taxes was many times lighter than in Germany, France, and England, that prior to Communism Russia was "the largest wheat-producing country in the world"4, or that enlightened child labor laws and expenditure on public education far exceeded those of the West.  No, we were given an image of slavery and starvation, inspired by blood-thirsty and venal Tsars.

But then, in 1967, Robert K. Massie's internationally successful biography, Nicholas and Alexandra, appeared.  Here, for the first time, we had a three-dimensional portrayal of the last Romanovs. Clearly, Massie was not writing an apologia for the Romanovs, but neither was he repeating the usual propaganda.  He did not have full access to secret archives, but he had a personal motive for being fair: he and his wife had a son who suffered from hemophilia, as had the Tsarevitch, Alexey.  This gave Massie's work a dimension of compassion lacking in works other than memoirs such as Anna Vyrubova's Memories of the Russian Court, or Pierre Gilliard's Thirteen Years at the Russian Court.  Massie even put the controversial question of Rasputin in a fresh context: he was divested of his horns, but neither was he whitewashed.5   "As for that night" in July of 1918, when the family was martyred, Massie gave an objective and factual account of the assassination.

In Oxford, in 1976, I made the acquaintance of George Gibbes, the adopted son of Fr. Nicholas Gibbes, who had been the English tutor to the Imperial children.  At his home in Oxford he had preserved not only his father's personal papers, but many important documents and memorabilia relating to the last Romanovs and "that night" of terror in Ekaterinburg.6  Gibbes is acknowledged in a highly sensationalized book, The File on the Tsar, by British authors Anthony Summers and Tom Mangold.  Although there was a modicum of scholarship in this work-for example the authors documented "the callous roles played by King George V and Kaiser Wilhelm" in the fate of the Romanovs-Summers and Mangold also rekindled speculation and reported rumors about possible survivors of "that night," presenting supposedly "new and compelling evidence that most of the Romanovs were not massacred...and did survive after July 1918."7  They acknowledged the assistance of George Gibbes.  But Mr. Gibbes told me they had deceived him and misrepresented his father's views about the "false Anastasia," Anna Anderson.  Although they presented themselves as genuine scholars, when their book was published Gibbes realized that they had a hidden and unscholarly agenda.

On the whole, there seemed to be a genuine malice towards the Imperial Family-either by portraying them as unutterably wicked and depraved,8 or by denying them the actual martyrs' death they had so cruelly suffered.  This malice had not abated more than sixty years after "that night" in Ekaterinburg and "the bloody bacchanalia" of the Revolution.9  Outside the Russian Church in the diaspora (for the Church under the Soviet Yoke was unable to speak freely on this subject), no one seemed able or willing to express the authentic and ancient concept that an anointed Orthodox monarch is much more than politics and systems of government, that he (or she) is "a living incarnation of faith in the Divine Providence that works in the destinies of nations and peoples and directs Rulers faithful to God into good and useful actions"10-and that this, too, is a legitimate way of looking at the question.

Or, as Blessed Archbishop John (Maximovitch) wrote in 1963: "When he [Nicholas II] saw that it had become impossible for him to perform according to his conscience his service as Tsar, he laid down the Imperial Crown, like St. Boris the Prince, not wishing to become the cause of discord and blood-letting in Russia, but on the contrary gave an even greater opportunity for committing crime without punishment, brought inconceivable sorrow and suffering. But he displayed...a greatness of spirit that likened him to the Righteous Job.  The malice of his enemies did not abate."11

By the late 1980's the Soviet Empire had begun to collapse: at last, historians started to take a new look at both the Romanovs and the Revolution.  At the same time, headlines and banners appeared overnight in Moscow: "'Moscow prays for the innocent Tsar.'  'The Russians must know the truth about the Tsar's death'," etc.12

In 1989 the unthinkable occurred: an Orthodox Constitutional Monarchist Party was founded.  And since this coincided with the startling discovery, the same year, of the skeletal remains of the Romanovs-thought to have been either completely destroyed or long since lost-a move to rehabilitate the Romanovs was on and a healthy spirit of revisionism was born.  It still has a long way to go, but in 1990 there appeared (first in French, then in English) Marc Ferro's scholarly study, Nicholas II: The Last of the Tsars. This was an important book, for Ferro had more extensive access to Russian archives than had been possible for others. This enabled him to penetrate the Soviet veil of propaganda and evaluate both the character and reign of Tsar Nicholas.

Ferro came to the conclusion that although Nicholas II was at times quite enigmatic, he "was one of those individuals who are burdened with a destiny that they have taken upon themselves as a duty decreed once for all time, and that separates them from a world undergoing change before their eyes. Nicholas II was not blind to this, but he considered that his duty consisted entirely in showing respect for the past and humility before God by yielding up none of his powers."13  He possessed a consistent "taste for the order, ritual and ceremony identified with the intangible grandeur of autocracy," and he therefore "hated everything that might shake that autocracy....[However] this ruler who came to be called Nicholas 'the Bloody' was not bloodthirsty."14  Nonetheless, Ferro realized, Nicholas' reign, "which had begun as an obligation imposed by God...became a nightmare."15

Having given a fuller and more accurate portrait of the last Romanovs, Ferro is also intrigued by the possibility that one or more members of the Imperial Family may have survived "that night."16  He examines in some detail the inconsistencies, contradictions, and puzzles in the documentation surrounding the assassination of the Romanovs, all of which, as he says, certainly "arouse[s] our curiosity," but does not constitute "irrefutable evidence."17 He believes that more information may still be hidden away in unknown, unrevealed archives, but he adds that there is no reason for secrecy, and hasn't been for many long decades: on the one hand he says, "the extent to which the family had been exterminated no longer mattered" once the Revolution was secure and, on the other, Lenin himself clearly believed that "the death of Nicholas II called for no explanation or justification...and...was so unimportant that it was not worth spending any time on it."18 He calls for more research, more evidence. In 1992 there appeared, in both Russian and English, The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II by the Russian playwright and historian, Edvard Radzinsky.  The "artist" comes through strongly: the book's style is poetic, impressionistic, with little sense of the historian's careful documentation and scruple.  And yet, partly because Radzinsky had access to normally restricted documents held by the Museum of the Revolution, and also had contact with the friends and families of the last witnesses to the events of "that night," his book is to be taken seriously.  Also, although he does not seem to be a believer, he is a Russian, and he understands almost intuitively things that others cannot.  For example, he speaks of "the mysticism of history":

"The monastery whence the first Romanov was called upon to rule was the Ipatiev; the house where the last ruling Romanov, Nicholas II, parted with his life was the Ipatiev house....A Michael was the first tsar from the house of Romanov; a Michael was also the last, in whose favor Nicholas II tried unsuccessfully to abdicate the throne."19

Few if any non-Orthodox Western writers would even note, as Radzinsky does, the Imperial Family's devotion to St. Seraphim of Sarov and the miraculous rediscovery of his incorrupt relics a few years ago (as the Saint had predicted); nor would they see the poignancy of the fact that some of the Saint's prophecies were deliberately "doctored" by the Imperial Department of Police in order to deceive the Tsar concerning the future of Russia and his own fate.

Nicholas is correctly described as "gentle, retiring"-he and his family "lived in nearly idyllic seclusion.  Few knew of their real life."  From youth the Tsar was a man of "irresolute compassion": "his tragedy was that, although he was stubborn, he was also unable to say a clear no to a petitioner's face.  He was too delicate and well bred to be crudely determinate."20  His last years were ones of "profound loneliness" and "deep sadness."21  He had no illusions about the provocative excesses of the muzhik, Rasputin, but neither did Nicholas see him as a "holy devil" or a "mad monk," as the conventional propaganda would have it.  The Tsar told a minister at the court:

"'The Empress...believes in the power of his [Rasputin's] prayers for our Family and Alexey, but after all this is our own business, completely private. It is amazing how people love to interfere in all that does not concern them.'"22 

Radzinsky adds significantly: "The Tsar's religious family and an increasingly atheistic society [especially the intelligentsia] were finding they understood each other less and less."23

As for the Tsarina, she (and others) had often seen Rasputin's undeniable ability to stop the frequent and near-fatal illnesses of the Tsarevitch. She was a mother, after all; her children were everything to her.  The Tsar had seen the police reports about Rasputin, and doubtless he had spoken to his wife about them.  But she had read books about Holy Fools and, mistakenly-but quite humanly-ascribed Rasputin's excesses to Foolishness-for-Christ.

Almost heartbreakingly, Radzinsky reveals (and documents) what no one else has dared to record-that the Tsar's last words "that night" in Ekaterinburg before being shot, were not "What? What?" (as is usually reported) but "You know not what you do"!24   "His last words.  At that moment it came to pass-the story of the sacrifice.  And forgiveness."25

As for who, if anyone, survived the massacre, this author is cautious.  He explores the rumors and contradictions in the reports and suggests some possible explanations.  He also makes mention of the various claimants, of whom there were more than most of us in the West had suspected until now. He describes the uncovering of the Imperial remains a few years ago and quotes a participant as saying that the grave was "opened up like barbarians, without a priest....Forensic medical experts cleaned the dirt off the bones and skull, dried them, and assigned inventory numbers.  The martyrs were transformed into an archaeological find."26

In spite of all the new research, the discovery of long-suppressed files, the unexpected recovery of the sacred remains, there is now a new mystery. Radzinsky records it on the last page of his book; the world's news media has reported it several times: the forensic experts cataloguing the bones of the Romanovs discovered that "the remains of Alexey and one female skeleton [Anastasia?] are missing."27 In a recent CNN interview, Radzinsky expressed his conviction that all of the Romanovs had indeed died on "that night" and in the same place.  It was just a matter of time, he said, before the missing remains would be discovered.  In July of 1993, seventy-five years after the martyrdom of the Imperial Family, scientists in Britain announced that DNA tests confirmed that these were indeed the remains of the Last Romanovs.28 They also expressed a conviction that the missing bodies would still be found.29

Although most of the new research and writing has concentrated on Nicholas, his reign and the manner of his death, other significant figures in the Imperial Family have scarcely been noticed.  But here we must make mention of two new books, not from the secular but the Orthodox religious press: Lubov Millar's Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia: New Martyr of the Communist Yoke, and A Gathered Radiance: The Life of Alexandra Romanov, Russia's Last Empress, by Nun Nectaria McLees.  The first contains original research concerning the sister of the Empress Alexandra, the Grand Duchess, St. Elizabeth. She was wife of the Grand Duke Sergei (uncle of the Tsar), and a woman of exalted Christian spirit and moral refinement, cruelly martyred one day later than the Tsar and his immediate family.  (Oddly, she is not even mentioned in Ferro, but she and her difficult and lonely marriage are frankly discussed in Radzinsky.)  Millar's biography is a warm yet scholarly tribute to a wonderful twentieth-century model for womanhood, almost completely ignored by the historians.

A Gathered Radiance is a different kind of book. It has no original research and relies almost entirely on the work of other historians and writers.  Yet it is an important (and well-written) biography because it sets the Tsarina Alexandra in her proper context as both a conscious convert to Orthodoxy and one who understood precisely both the spiritual meaning and the heavy burden and responsibilities of the autocracy.  (I know of one American convert who, after reading the Introduction, "Alexandra Romanov and Christian Monarchy," said that for the first time she understood the value and importance of monarchy!) This biography is both fresh and insightful and a real antidote for those who have not yet shaken off the propagandistic stereotypes of this tragic and greatly misunderstood woman.

The story of Tsar Nicholas II and his family has come a long way since 1918. From utter vilification and slander, to cautions but more honest biog-raphy, to rehabilitation and even respect.  One can only hope that historians-especially in the West-have learned something.  Sadly, for those few that still value spiritual beauty, refinement, and grace, the world of the Last Romanovs has completely disappeared.  Radzinsky saw and lamented this when he wrote the following about a very important and dear friend of the Tsarina's-who had also been much criticized and slandered-:

"In 1964...an eighty-year-old nun was being buried in a local Orthodox cemetery.  She had become a nun, but she had not lived in a convent, and she had taken her vows in secret.  The secret nun left behind many amazing photographs...the whole antediluvian word [of the Last Romanovs] that had drowned in eternity.  This was Anya.  Having lived more than half the twentieth century, Anna Vyrubova departed this life.  With her went an era."30

As for that night, let darkness seize upon it; let it not be joined unto the days of the year. (Job 3:6)

Priest Alexey Young


1. The Dowager Empress was the mother of the last Tsar, Nicholas II.  A non-Russian and an Orthodox convert, who had married into the Romanov dynasty, Maria Feodorovna was the sister of Queen Alexandra (wife of King Edward VII) of England. 
2. Brasol, Boris, compiler, The Reign of Emperor Nicholas II in Facts and Figures. 
3. Ibid. 
4. Ibid. 
5. Sadly, the widely-seen Hollywood film, "Nicholas and Alexandra," based on Massie's book-so say the credits-was a perversion of Massie's scholarship.  Many of the old stereotypes about the Tsar and Tsarina were perpetuated.  Soviet propagandists couldn't have been more pleased if they had produced the film themselves! 
6. J.C. Trewin's 1975 book, The House of Special Purpose (the code name for the Ipatiev House where the Romanovs were held in Ekaterinburg), written with the cooperation of Gibbes, is a fascinating contribution to the last days of the Romanovs.  In Mr. Gibbes' possession-inherited from his father-are the boots of Tsar Nicholas, a chandelier from the bedroom of the Grand Duchesses at Ekaterinburg, a personally-inscribed icon from the Tsarina to his father, letters, diaries, heretofore rare and unpublished photographs, etc., etc.. 
7. Anthony Summers and Tom Mangold, The File on the Tsar. 
8. Hollywood films from the 1930's on, such as "The Scarlet Empress" (about Catherine the Great) and "Rasputin and the Empress," to name only two, perpetuated these slanders.
9. Brasol, op.cit. 
10. Ibid. 
11. Ibid. 
12. Marc Ferro, Nicholas II: The Last of the Tsars. 
13. Ibid. 
14. Ibid. 
15. Ibid. 
16. Ibid.  In recent years, two books have appeared, unabashedly promoting Anna Anderson, who claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia. The first, which appeared shortly before her death in 1984, is Peter Kurth's Anastasia: The Riddle of Anna Anderson.  The second, published in 1991, is James Blair Lovell's Anastasia: The Lost Princess.  Both books are interesting and well-written, but raise more mysteries than they solve, and both make very clear that, whoever or whatever else Anna Anderson was, she was certainly profoundly mentally disturbed. 
17. Ibid. 
18. Ibid. 
19. Edvard Radzinsky, The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II. 
20. Ibid. 
21. Ibid. 
22. Ibid.
23. Ibid. 
24. Ibid. 
25. Ibid. 
26. Ibid. 
27. Ibid. 
28. For comparison tests, they used blood samples from Prince Philip and other living relatives of the Romanovs. 
29. But just to be safe, they also announced that they will soon run DNA tests on a hair sample of the late Anna Anderson. 
30. Radzinsky, op.cit.