Review published on May 5, 2017.
Robert Service, the distinguished Oxford University historian and expert in Russian and Soviet history, has surpassed himself once again with The Last of the Tsars.
Service has looked into new evidence from the archives, which some historians have either ignored or did not know what was there. It sheds new light on Nicholas II, from the time of his abdication in February 1917 until his death sixteen months later alongside the rest of his family.
What we find is that from 1887 until just before his death in 1918 Nicolas kept a diary and, while his fifty volumes are a diligent record, they actually revealed very little, other than he was dull and doting on his family. They revealed nothing about the health and state of political life in Tsarist Russia. What they did do is reinforce how completely remote the Russian aristocracy was from the lives of those whom they reigned over.
We do learn that Nicolas was a voracious reader and kept an extensive library at the Royal Palace at Tsarskoe Selo outside of St Petersburg. While he was being held captive, he was able to revisit some of his favourite titles. What Service does note is that he reread many of the Russian classics as well as military history while being kept prisoner.
The book shows that Nicolas was a fastidious man of a nervous disposition with simple tastes, who loved to eat borscht. While it is true that he always put the service of the nation first, he lacked the political intelligence and flexibility to run the country, especially during a war. Service shows that he was a ruler who was stubborn, who always thought he was right and who was completely blind to the people’s suffering.
Service’s account highlights the character and flaws of Nicholas, as well as challenging the claim that members of his family escaped from the cellar, where the family were shot. It explains why he didn’t flee to England (also that if George V had allowed Nicholas a place of exile that it was doubtful the Bolsheviks and Lenin would have allowed him to leave), his thoughts on the Bolshevik coup, what it was alike around the places of Nicholas’ detention, and why the killings took place.
In recent years, a number of books have been written concerning the Romanovs and they have been quite reverential in tone and adoration. This book challenges such an approach, and quite rightly so. Service also corrects the view, held by many, that Nicholas was a meek man, and reminds us that he was a bloody tyrant, not afraid to kill his own, and that is without a war. When war did arrive, he was simply not up to the task.
Robert Service has written an excellent and absorbing account of Nicholas II. He deals with forgotten facts and is not afraid to remind people he was the Tsar and like all before him an autocratic tyrant. Even when faced with a rapidly changing world in Russia from the time of his abdication until his murder, Nicholas still preferred to look back rather than face the new world and times.
This truly an excellent account, which needs to be welcomed during the one hundredth anniversary of the revolution that shook the world.
Paul Diggett 5/5
The Last of the Tsars: Nicholas II and the Russian Revolution by Robert Service
Macmillan 9781447293095 hbk Feb 2017
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