Ekaterinburg: The Last Days of the Romanovs by Helen Rappaport

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Ekaterinburg: The Last Days of the Romanovs by Helen Rappaport

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Category: History
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A detailed and chilling account of the last few weeks in captivity of ex-Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and his family. (Though the basic story is familiar, readers may find some of the descriptions and detail upsetting).
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: April 2009
Publisher: Windmill Books
ISBN: 978-0099520092

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The city of Ekaterinburg was once regarded as imperial Russia's gateway to the east. In 1918 it became symbolic with one of the most savage executions, or might one say liquidations, ever recorded in history – the cold-blooded annihilation of the former Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, their children, the last remaining servants who had stayed with them in captivity, and their pet dogs.

This grim story has been told many times before. But this is the first book I have come across which does so in such detail. Many of you are probably as familiar with the bare outlines of what happened soon after midnight on 17 July 1918 as you are with the sinking of the Titanic or the assassination of President Kennedy, so that's the danger of spoilers herewith out of the way.

Helen Rappaport sets the scene in her introduction, from the evening of 29 April 1918 when a heavily-guarded train was moving Nicholas and his family on what they did not realize was their final journey, from Tobolsk in Western Siberia to the violently anti-Tsarist Ekaterinburg in the Ural mountains. Since revolution had broken out in the capital and the Tsar had abdicated in March 1917, all the plans being made for them to leave Russia and retire to a more friendly or perhaps a neutral nation, rather half-heartedly in some cases, had withered on the vine and they were placed under house arrest, their captors and guards becoming progressively less friendly as the Bolsheviks tightened their grip.

She tells the saga well while remaining remarkably objective and dispassionate about the main protagonists. The basic facts, that Tsar Nicholas was unable to capitalize on the initial euphoria after Russia entered the First World War in 1914 and that his prestige rapidly crumbled in the face of severe losses by the ineptly led and pathetically under-equipped Russian army, are firmly established at the start. Above all, the author's analysis into relations between the members of the royal family is shrewd. She points out that too many previous writers have sought to portray them as a totally united family who never knew a moment's discord when this was clearly not the case. At the centre were the neurotic Alexandra, her never very robust health undermined severely by worry ever since they had discovered that their son Alexis was a haemophiliac who could die at any time from an attack of internal bleeding (and nearly did several times during his short life), under the spell of the peasant and self-proclaimed 'holy man' Rasputin who assured her that 'the little one will not die' (until his murder in 1916), and the mild-mannered Nicholas, who was easily influenced by the last person who spoke to him and somehow learnt to live with his wife's temperament while turning a blind eye to her hysteria on occasion in order to preserve his own sanity. It was a fatal combination. We have a stark portrait of how it must have been for the bored and fearful family in captivity with a weak father, patiently resigned to whatever fate had in store for him, a chronically unwell mother (also resigned to some degree and despite her German birth insistent that she would rather die in Russia than be rescued by their foes the Germans), their terminally ill son of 13, and the four once high-spirited sisters aged between 17 and 22, doubtless hungry for male company and friendship yet denied it. One of the latter, the extroverted, flirtatious Maria, inevitably succumbed to temptation and was caught in a compromising situation with one of the guards. Just how far we do not know and never will, but the rest of the family were shocked by behaviour which most other parents would probably have shrugged off as a perfectly understandable adolescent lapse.

Throughout the narrative, as their approaching doom comes closer day by day, the indifference or helplessness of the outside world, the ever more oppressive restrictions placed on the family in the claustrophobic 'House of Special Purpose' as more palisades went up and the windows were locked, also whitewashed to prevent them from seeing the world outside, the sheer boredom they must have been faced with, the increasing realization that they would probably never get out alive, and the utter loathing for them by some of their captors, all create a chilling mood. As for the descriptions of the scene that early morning when the family are awakened and taken down to the cellar under the misapprehension that they are about to be rescued, and the scenes in the forest afterwards (let's just say 'disposal' and leave it at that) – for anyone not familiar with the ghastly detail, let me just suggest you read the book, but be warned that the detail really is horrific in places. Maybe we can take some mitigating comfort in the fact that Yurovsky, who had taken on himself the mantle of chief executioner and organiser of the firing squad, had some difficulty in finding men prepared to gun down the innocent children as well as the former autocrat dubbed by some of them a mass murderer himself.

There have been many books about the fate of the Romanovs during the last thirty years or so. I have read a number, and have sometimes wondered whether there is anything new to be said on the subject. Yet the author has found a gap and filled it well. This is, without doubt, one of the best-researched books on its subject, and in its retelling of the tale one of the most atmospheric.

For more on the last days of the Romanovs and on one of the survivors, may we recommend 25 Chapters of My Life: The Memoirs of Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna by Olga Alexandrovna, Paul Kulikovsky, Sue Woolmans and Karen Roth-Nicholls. A novel loosely based on the subject, The House of Special Purpose by John Boyne, may also be of interest. We also loved Caught in the Revolution by Helen Rappaport

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