My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!
Week 27: Romanovs, Royalty and Revolution July 17, 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the murder of Russia’s last Imperial family and four members of their household by Bolshevik revolutionaries in Ekaterinburg. The centenary of this tragic event has prompted the publication of new books and articles concerning the Romanovs and their legacy.
The two most recent non-fiction works about the Imperial family, To Free the Romanovs: Royal Kinship and Betrayal in Europe 1917-1919 by Coryne Hall and The Race to Save the Romanovs: The Truth Behind the Secret Plans to Rescue the Russian Imperial Family by Helen Rappaport examine whether an escape from Russia was possible after Nicholas II’s abdication in March 1917. Hall discusses the difficulties faced by the whole extended Romanov family while Rappaport focuses closely on Nicholas, Alexandra and their children and the political and logistical difficulties that prevented them from leaving Russia.
A recently published historical novel, The Romanov Empress, focuses on Czar Nicholas II’s mother, Empress Maria Feodorovna, the most senior member of the Imperial family to survive the revolution and find refuge in Europe. In the past week, I also read two history books about royal families who faced political upheaval in past centuries as well as a historical novel set in the aftermath of the Japanese annexation of Korea and a history of the Baltic States. Here are this week’s reviews:
#183 of 365 To Free the Romanovs: Royal Kinship and Betrayal in Europe 1917-1919 by Coryne Hall
Date Read: July 9-July 12, 2018
Format: E-Book, 306 pages
Review: A fascinating history of what Europe’s royal families did and did not do to help Czar Nicholas II and his extended family after the Russian Revolutions of 1917. Most books that examine negotiations concerning a possible rescue of the Romanovs focus narrowly on King George V and the British government. In addition to George V, Hall discusses a diverse array of European monarchs including King Alfonso XIII of Spain, who showed a strong interest in the welfare of the Russian Imperial family, Kaiser Wilhelm II, whose assistance was rebuffed by his Russian relatives because of the First World War, and King Christian X of Denmark, whose diplomats provided some aid to imprisoned Grand Dukes in 1919. Hall draws upon British and European archival sources as well as the unpublished diaries of Nicholas II’s cousin, Grand Duke Dmitri, who became increasingly outraged by George V’s failure to do more to help Nicholas II.
While I greatly enjoyed the book, I thought the ending could have been stronger, emphasizing all the reasons why there were not more efforts to help the Romanovs, such as the First World War and the poor communications of the time. The book is filled with references to undelivered letters and unsent telegrams that undermined efforts to locate the Romanovs once they were sent to Siberia, let alone develop a viable rescue plan. Instead, To Free the Romanovs, ends with the loose threads in the negotiations between Russia and various European powers concerning the Romanovs just before the murder of Czar Nicholas II and his immediate family, and the hope that that further information will come to light.
#184 of 365 The Race to Save the Romanovs: The Truth Behind the Secret Plans to Rescue the Russian Imperial Family by Helen Rappaport
Format: Paperback, 372 pages
Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books, Toronto
Date Read: July 13, 2018
Review: A thoroughly researched study of the obstacles to rescuing Czar Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra and their children in 1917 and 1918. Rappaport argues that there was a very narrow window of opportunity for the Imperial family to escape because of the internal political situation within Russia. She includes her own notes on her research process and how she built upon the work of previous authors who have examined the unsuccessful efforts to rescue the Romanovs by Europe’s monarchs.
I found Rappaport’s analysis of the influence of Empress Alexandra’s reputation on attitudes toward rescuing the Romanovs both within Russia and across Europe especially interesting. By 1917, Alexandra had alienated many of her own relatives as well as popular opinion in both the United Kingdom and Russia, and negative attitudes concerning her influence over Nicholas undermined interest her welfare and that of her family.
The book concludes with the former Imperial family’s own views of potential rescue plans. Their reluctance to be separated from one another and to leave Russia means that they would not have supported many of the plans discussed in the book. An engaging and absorbing read, even though the ending is sadly well known.
#185 of 365 The Romanov Empress: A Novel of Tsarina Maria Feodorovna by C. W. Gortner
Genre: Historical Fiction
Dates Read: July 14-15, 2018
Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books
Format: Hardcover, 427 pages
Review: An excellent historical novel from the perspective of Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, the mother of Czar Nicholas II, and sister of King George I of Greece and Queen Alexandra of the United Kingdom. C. W. Gortner brings Maria, nicknamed Minnie, and her colourful family to life. The scenes with Minnie’s sister-in-law and “friendly rival” Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, nicknamed Miechen, were especially entertaining. Gortner provides a nuanced portrayal of Minnie’s marriage to Czar Alexander III, which was successful in many ways but not without its challenges, and shows her frustrations at becoming increasingly marginalized from major decisions during her son’s reign. I would have liked more scenes set outside of Russia as Minnie was prodigious traveler who spent much of Nicholas II’s reign visiting relatives in England, Denmark and Greece. There were therefore opportunities to show more of Europe’s royal courts in the years leading up to WWI. Otherwise, an enjoyable novel inspired by a historical figure who lived through key events in the 19th and 20th centuries.
#186 of 365 Daughters of the Winter Queen: Four Remarkable Sisters, the Crown of Bohemia, and the Enduring Legacy of Mary, Queen of Scots by Nancy Goldstone
Date Read: July 15, 2018
Format: Hardcover, 480 pages
Review: An absorbing four generation family saga beginning with the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1587 and ending with the accession of George I in 1714. Goldstone describes the reign of James I, the eventful life of his daughter, Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia, and the adventures of her thirteen children, including four gifted daughters. Elizabeth’s youngest daughter, Sophia, actively campaigned for her family to be acknowledged as the senior line in the British succession and her son George I became the first monarch from the House of Hanover.
Goldstone draws interesting parallels between Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth of Bohemia and Sophia of Hanover in their tireless promotion of their family’s interests. In addition to their political significance, Elizabeth’s daughters were part of the intellectual life of the seventeenth century. Princess Elizabeth, corresponded with Descartes, Louise Hollandine was an accomplished portrait artist and Sophia and her daughter supported the work of Leibniz. I would have been interested to have read more about these intellectual currents. For example, there are passing references to prestigious University of Heidelberg without mention of the nature of the scholarship taking place there at the time. Daughters of the Winter Queen is otherwise a fascinating joint biography about an important branch of the royal family who became the direct ancestors of Queen Elizabeth II.
#187 of 365 Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs by Greg King and Penny Wilson
Date Read: July 17, 2018
Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library
Format: Hardcover, 331 pages
Review: A careful and detailed analysis of lives and deaths of Crown Prince Rudolf of the Habsburg Empire and Mary Vetsera who died in an apparent suicide pact at the Mayerling hunting lodge in 1889. Greg King and Penny Wilson examine the myths surrounding the events at Mayerling and the efforts of Emperor Franz Joseph to prevent any further investigation of his son’s death. They present a plausible reconstruction of what might have happened the night that Rudolf and Mary died. King and Wilson also describe the cultural atmosphere of late 19th century Vienna, a city that had one of the highest suicide rates in Europe, and discuss the tensions within Rudolf’s dysfunctional extended family. They provide an especially sensitive portrayal of Rudolf’s estranged wife, Crown Princess Stephanie, who suspected that Rudolf planned to harm himself and attempted to warn other members of the Habsburg dynasty. The book concludes with an epilogue that discusses the colourful life of Rudolf and Stephanie’s only child, Archduchess Elizabeth and the convent founded on the site of Mayerling where daily prayers are still offered for Rudolf’s soul.
#188 of 365 Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Genre: Historical Fiction
Date Listened: July 11-July 14, 2018
Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com
Format: Audiobook, 18 hours and 16 minutes
Review: The Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910 brought the reign of the last Korean Emperor, Sunjong, to an end. Pachinko is set in the aftermath of this political upheaval, following four generations of a Korean family who face discrimination and changing fortunes in Japan. The first two thirds of the novel are especially good as the political and economic circumstances of Japan and Korea, especially the Depression and Second World War, inform the conditions faced by the central characters. The atmosphere at the boarding house in Korea and in the Korean district of Osaka, Japan, as well as the pervasive obstacles faced by the characters as Koreans in Japan are presented in a compelling fashion.
The narrative begins to the lose momentum once Noa discovers some hidden truths about his family’s history. During the later chapters, there are too many jumps in the chronology and too many digressions concerning minor characters and their love lives. The novel is at its best when its focused on the central characters and their challenges within the wider context of Korean and Japanese history.
#189 of 365 A History of the Baltic States by Andres Kasekamp
Date Read: July 17, 2018
Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library
Format: Paperback, 251 pages
Review: A good overview of the history of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from prehistoric times to the present. More than half of the book is devoted to the 20th century but the major events and historical figures from earlier centuries are also discussed in some detail. I found the analysis of the influence of Baltic Germans on Imperial Russian history especially interesting. Kasekamp notes that “From Peter the Great until the demise of the monarchy in 1917, an astonishingly high proportion (one-eighth) of individuals who served in the top echelons of the Imperial administration were of Baltic German origin” with Baltic influence especially pronounced during the reigns of Peter the Great’s consort and successor Catherine I (who was raised in what is now Latvia) and his niece, Anna. The book includes detailed maps, a chronology of events, and an extensive further reading section organized by time period and theme.