One of the questions I am asked most is “can you recommend a good book on Nicholas II?” For those of us who are now preparing to hunker down and “hibernate” during the long cold winter ahead, I thought this would be an ideal time to address this question.
Putting aside the numerous beautiful pictorials which have been published over the years, I have compiled the following *list of 5 books, which for the most part, present an honest assessment on the life and reign of Russia’s last Emperor and Tsar.
In addition, are the following honourable mentions: Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie (1967); Last Years of the Court at Tsarskoe Selo Vols. I (2010) & II (2017) by General Alexandre Spiridovitch; Thirteen Years at the Russian Court (1921) by Pierre Gilliard; At the Court of the Last Tsar (1935) by A.A. Mossolov; and The Coronation of Tsar Nicholas II (2012)
*NOTE: all of the books listed here are in English and listed in order of the year they were published. With the exception of Oldenburg’s 4-volume study, all the remaining titles are available from your favourite bookseller.
#1 – The Romanov Royal Martyrs: What Silence Could Not Conceal (2019)
Published by Mesa Potamos Publications (Cyprus)
508 pages, illustrated
The Romanov Royal Martyrs: What Silence Could Not Conceal draws on letters, testimonies, diaries, memoirs, and other texts never before published in English to present a unique biography of Tsar Nicholas II and his family. A lively portrait of the royal family emerges from their own personal writings and in the writings of those who lived very close to them. Based strictly on primary sources, the book also brings to light a multitude of unknown and unrevealed facts, which evince that many truths in regard to the life and martyrdom of the Royal Martyrs remain silenced or distorted to this day. The result is a psychographic biography that explores the essential character of the royal family in a deeper and inspiring way.
It includes nearly 200 black and white photographs, and also features a 56-page photo insert, of more than 80 high-quality images of the tsar and his family, all of which have been colourised by the acclaimed Russian artist Olga Shirnina (aka Klimbim), and appear here in print for the first time.
#2 – The Court of the Last Tsar: Pomp, Power and Pageantry in the Reign of Nicholas II (2006)
Author: Greg King
Published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. (US)
559 pages, illustrated
While a massive body of work has been devoted to the last of the Romanovs, The Court of the Last Tsar is the first book to examine the people, mysteries, traditions, scandals, rivalries, and riches that were part of everyday life during 22+ year reign of Nicholas II.
This richly illustrated volume includes 24-pages of colour photographs; more than 80 black-and-white photos; floor plans of the Winter Palace (St. Petersburg), the Alexander Palace (Tsarskoye Selo), the Grand Kremlin Palace (Moscow), among others.
King’s study draws on hundreds of previously unpublished primary sources, including memoirs, personal letters, diary entries, and official documents. His research invites you to experience dozens of extravagant ceremonies and entertainments attended by members of the Imperial Court, which numbered more than fifteen thousand individuals.
Chief among these, or course, was Nicholas II, Emperor and Tsar who ruled an empire that stretched over one-sixth of the earth’s land surface. His marriage to Princess Alix of Hesse in 1894 and their Coronation in 1896 are two of the most spectacular ceremonies described in this lavish volume.
The Court of the Last Tsar brings the people, places, and events of this doomed but unforgettable wonderland to vivid and sparkling life.
#3 – A Lifelong Passion: Nicholas and Alexandra, Their Own Story (1997)
Authors: Sergei Mironenko and Andrei Maylenas
Published by Doubleday (US); Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd (UK)
667 pages, illustrated.
These letters, most of which are published here for the first time, offer an intimate look at some of the most momentous events of the early 1900s, including Russia’s participation in World War I and the fall of the Romanov dynasty in the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Among the correspondents are Alexandra’s beloved but domineering grandmother, Queen Victoria of England, and Nicholas’ cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. Most poignant, though, are the letters and diaries of the last Tsar and Tsarina, which stand as eloquent expressions of one of the great love affairs of this century.
A Lifelong Passion begins in 1884 with the couple’s first childhood meeting and chronicles their intense courtship and first joyful years of marriage. The Romanovs’ happiness was not to last, however, as they were quickly overtaken by the forces of war and revolution. The discovery that their only son and heir Alexei was stricken with hemophilia opened the family to the formidable and perhaps malign influence of the monk Rasputin, whose gory death at the hands of two Grand Dukes is here recounted by one of the murderers. Though unshaken in their love for one another, Nicholas and Alexandra could not hold their country together, and their story ends with a chilling account of their assassination by the Bolshevik revolutionaries.
#4 – Nicholas II: Twilight of the Empire (1993)
Author: Dominic Lieven
Published by St. Martin’s Press (US); Pimlico (UK)
292 pages, illustrated
What is there new to say about Russia’s last monarch? Almost everything. Previous biographies have told of the shy family man, the father of the hemophiliac heir, the victim of the infamous murder at Ekaterinburg in 1918. This book provides new insights into those parts of the story, but it looks above all at Nicholas as political leader and emperor, as it portrays the Old Regime’s collapse and the origins of Bolshevik Russia in a way that will surprise readers.
Nicholas II was not stupid. Nor was he weak as is commonly thought. The dilemmas of ruling Russia were vast and contradictory, and it was an illusion to think that simply by agreeing to become a constitutional monarch Nicholas could have preserved his dynasty and empire. Drawing many eerie parallels to events unfolding in Russia today, Lieven shows that social and technological change had far outstripped the existing political and executive structures. Lieven argues that the inability of the Tsar and his government to recognize these growing anachronisms and to devise new systems constructively helped lead to the devastating chaos out of which the new order arose.
Drawing on his fifteen-year study of Imperial Russia and using archival material and other sources all over the world, Dominic Lieven shows that the downfall of both the Imperial and Soviet Regimes fit into a pattern of ongoing Russian history, one that bears close scrutiny if we are to understand the turmoil of the post-Cold War period.
#5 – Last Tsar: Nicholas II, His Reign and His Russia – 4 Volumes (1975)
Author: Sergei S. Oldenburg
Published by Academic International Press (US)
228 pages (Vol. I), 315 pages (Vol. 2), 224 pages (Vol. 3), 356 pages (Vol. 4)
The 4-volume Last Tsar. Nicholas II, His Reign & His Russia by the noted Russian historian and journalist Sergei Sergeiivich Oldenburg (1888-1940), remains the most comprehensive English language study of Nicholas II to date. Originally published in 1939 in Russian, the first English edition was not published until 1975.
It is a major document in modern Russian historiography. The final contribution of a Russian nationalist historian, it provides uniquely sensitive insights into the character, personality, and policies of Russia’s last tsar. It has no rival as a political biography of Nicholas II and is without peer as a comprehensive history of his reign.
© Paul Gilbert. 19 December 2020