Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Adventure classics -- A mad monk and a lost boy, found

Nicholas and Alexandra

by Robert K. Massie


In the middle of the twentieth century, historian Robert K. Massie and his wife learned their son had hemophilia. In those days before support groups and the Internet, Massie struggled to learn how other parents of children with this terrible disease functioned. He ended with a lifetime fascination for the most famous hemophiliac of all time, Alexis Romanov, heir and only son of Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia.

More than a single family’s tragedy, it is the story, Massie wrote in the introduction to his 1967 biography, Nicholas and Alexandra, of a distraught mother who, “in an effort to deal with the agonies hemophilia inflicted on her son. . . turned to Gregory Rasputin, the remarkable Siberian mystagogue. Thereafter, Rasputin’s presence near the throne--his influence on the Empress and, through her, on the government of Russia--brought about or at least helped to speed the fall of the dynasty.”

Massie follows fellow historian Barbara Tuchman’s dictum about how to maintain suspense when everyone knows the story’s ending by writing as if in the time of the events. He saves the rest of the story for an epilogue, leaving readers to marvel at the romance of the love match between Nicholas and Alexandra, the minor German princess so ill suited to become empress even without her fatal heritage of the gene for hemophilia.

Massie’s original readers and viewers of the 1971 movie based on his book mourned the death of a woman so rich, wealthy, forlorn and lovely. (Dancer/choreographer George Balanchine, who met Alexandra when he was twelve, would describe her as “beautiful, beautiful--like Grace Kelly.”)

Massie lays the heaviest blame for the fall of the Romanov dynasty on Gregory Rasputin, the self-proclaimed monk who led a life of debauchery while duping Alexandra with the hope of curing her desperately ill son. Given his personal circumstances, Massie is the most sympathetic of biographers toward Alexandra. But his research may leave readers in the twentieth-first century wondering, as I did, whether a woman so willfully ignorant, so stubbornly narrow minded and so manipulative of her weaker willed husband wasn’t the next thing to evil.

She schemed to destroy politician after reformer after general of any competence whose only crime was refusing to placate Rasputin. Even after Rasputin’s assassination, after the Russian revolution of 1917, and after Nicholas’s abdication, Alexandra continued to place faith in the rescue of herself and her family on another con artist, solely because of his family connection with Rasputin.

Alexandra’s hoped-for champion, however, took the money and ran, leaving her and her family to face a firing squad in the Siberian town of Ekaterinburg.

When Massie finished his book, he believed, like the rest of the world, that the killers had destroyed the bodies of Alexandra, Nicholas, their thirteen-year-old son and four daughters, leaving nothing except a few pitiful mementoes when a monarchist White Russian army captured Ekaterinburg a few days later. And there the story ended for decades.

In 1995, Massie would publish a sequel, The Romanovs: The Final Chapter. Thanks to the work of a Russian geologist turned amateur historian, and to the dissolution of the Soviet empire, the world learned that skeletons found near the site of the Romanovs’ murder had been identified as those of Nicholas, Alexandra, their servants, and three of their five children. In 2009, bone fragments in still another grave were identified as the remains of the long-missing Romanov son Alexis and his remaining sister. The missing had been found at last.

But the story hasn’t ended yet. For more about the continuing controversy over the Romanov heritage, see “Russian Investigative Committee doesn’t doubt authenticity of Romanov remains,” at

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics opens a February of animal adventures with Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague.)

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