Friday, December 31, 2010

The Romanovs: The Final Chapter by Robert K. Massie

Just like the first time, I read this incredible book in one day. Since the fall of Imperial Russia and the rise of the Bolsheviks played a pivotal role in my family’s history, I’ve had more than a passing interest in the last czar, Nicholas II and his family.

Robert K. Massie’s work is based on numerous reports, interviews and research into what happened the night of July 16-17, 1918, when the czar, his wife, their five children and four servants were massacred in a cellar room in Ekatrinburg.

Six months after the czar disappeared, Admiral Alexander Kolchak, “Supreme Ruler” of the White Government in Siberia ordered Nicholas Sokolov to investigate. Following eyewitness reports, he found a site where bodies had been burned. He collected a box of ‘relics’, which included small bones which clearly showed axe marks. He concluded that the czar and his entire family had been killed and the bodies completely destroyed by fire and acid. His report published in 1924 created a furor across the world, since it was widely believed that the empress and the children were still alive. Skeptics argued that it is not possible to destroy eleven bodies by fire alone, but there were no bodies.

After eight years and no sign of the empress and her children, Moscow had to do some serious back-pedaling and published a Soviet version of Sokolov’s book. Its author, Pavel M. Bykov, admitted that Empress Alexandra and her children had been murdered along with the czar. However, in this version, he gave historians vital clues to the real location of the bodies.

Massie picks up the story when the bodies are discovered in 1991. His research rises above the chaos of lies, corruption and bureaucracy of several governments for over 70 years. Massie followed the process from the removal of remains and through the exhaustive DNA testing to find the conclusion that these remains were actually Nicholas II, family (minus two) and friends. There was almost as much drama in the scientific community as there was in Imperial Russia as different researchers clamored for a chance to test the bones, back-stabbing and criticizing each other.

But the biggest mystery remained. Where were the bodies of Alexis and Anastasia? The grave discovered in 1991 only held nine bodies when there should have been eleven. Almost from the beginning, shortly after the murders were discovered, rumors sprang up that some of the family had escaped with help from their executioners. Impostors appeared everywhere but were soon exposed as frauds. One exception however was Anna Anderson. In February 1920, a woman who bore an uncanny resemblance to Anastasia was pulled from the Landwehr Canal in Berlin. After she was placed in the Dalldorf Mental Hospital, another patient declared she was the Grand Duchess Anastasia. It’s interesting that a mental patient would be believed so readily. For six decades, Anna Anderson had as many people believing she was Anastasia as she had detractors. Massie describes the long arduous process after her death and the legal battles to have a tissue sample taken from Anna during a previous surgery (Anna was cremated immediately after she died). Eighty-nine pages later, the inevitable and anti-climatic conclusion was reached. Anna Anderson was NOT Anastasia.

So if the bodies of Alexis and Anastasia were not found with the rest of their family, where are they? Massie has a plausible theory. The box of relics gathered by Sokolov at the site of the burnings contains bones from two different bodies. After Sokolov collected the relics, he offered the remains to Nicholas II’s mother, who refused since she stoutly believed that her son and his family were still alive. He then traveled to England and offered them to Nicholas’s cousin King George V, who also refused them.

Sokolov went to Brussels and the box of relics is in the safe-keeping of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. The church has absolutely refused to allow anyone to inspect the contents of the box. They are mistrustful of Communists, the KGB and anyone from the West. Massie believes the remains of Alexis and Anastasia are in this box. At some point in the future, the box may appear and we will know the complete truth of the fate of Nicholas II and his family.

The Romanovs: The Final Chapter is one of the most fascinating historical books I’ve read. As I mentioned before, I couldn’t put it down until I had finished it.


♥Kathy♥ said...

Great review Alan! I love reading about the Romanovs. I've written this title down and will see if I can get a copy of it.

Alan Scott said...

You will definitely appreciate getting a copy. There aren't many books I read more than once but this is definitely one that I will read again. I need to get myself a copy, too. This one was borrowed from a friend. I read my sister's copy first some 10 years ago or so.