The Valentine’s Day Book Review: Virginia Rounding, Alix and Nicky: The Passion of the Last Tsar and Tsarina

Since 1967, the lives of Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna, the last Emperor and Empress of Russia, have been synonymous with Robert K. Massie’s sweeping narrative, Nicholas and Alexandra. Like Massie’s other epic works of Russian History, Peter the Great: His Life and World and Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, Nicholas and Alexandra  is a page turner, combining the research of previous scholars of Russian history and court memoir literature into a work that read like a novel. Like Nicholas II, Massie is the father of a hemophiliac son, and he approaches the struggles faced by the last Emperor and Empress with great sympathy. Massie’s work was adapted as the Oscar nominated film Nicholas & Alexandra in 1971.

Despite the availability of new sources following the opening of the Russian archives to scholars in the 1990s, subsequent authors seeking to present a new perspective on Nicholas’s and Alexandra’s marriage did not attempt emulate Massie but instead provided commentary on edited volumes of Imperial letters, diaries and state papers. These fascinating collections of Romanov papers, A Lifelong Passion: Nicholas and Alexandra Their Own Story, The Complete Wartime Correspondence of Tsar Nicholas II and the Empress Alexandra: April 1914-March 1917and The Fall of the Romanovs: Political Dreams and Personal Struggles in a Time of Revolutionare significant sources for Virginia Rounding’s 2011 dual biography of Nicholas and Alexandra.

As the first author to write a full length narrative history about the marriage of Nicholas and Alexandra since Robert Massie, Rounding focuses on the issues that received less attention in the 1967 book. While Massie was primarily interested in the effect of the heir to the throne’s hemophilia on the Imperial marriage and the broader course of Russian history, Rounding devotes an entire chapter to Alexandra’s health. She notes that the Empress suffered from various mysterious ailments prior to her son’s birth and weighs the various theories concerning the the Empress’s physical and psychological health.

Rounding is also interested in Queen Victoria’s influence over her granddaughter, Alexandra. Other authors who have addressed this subject, such as Julia Gelardi in Born to Rule: Five Reigning Consorts, Granddaughters of Queen Victoria, have argued that the Queen exerted a positive influence over the young Empress. In contrast, Rounding argues that the example of Victoria’s comparative seclusion from her subjects and belief in bed rest as the cure to every health problem actually hindered Alexandra’s integration into the Russian court. Queen Victoria’s well known distrust of the Russian aristocracy and Nicholas II’s relatives may have also influenced Alexandra’s decision to raise her family at a comparative distance from the court in St. Petersburg.

One of the great strengths of Rounding’s work is her analysis of Nicholas’s and Alexandra’s diaries and letters for evidence of their cultural tastes. Their favourite novels are discussed in detail, the contrast between their enjoyment of mainstream Tchaikovsky ballets and the avant garde tastes of the broader Russian court receives sustained attention. Rounding’s use of memoir literature and newspaper articles of the period illuminates the reasons why their living spaces were considered “bourgeois” to aristocratic observers and appeared to emphasize the Imperial couple’s separation from the larger court.

My only criticism concerns the structure and footnotes of the book. The first half of the book is structured thematically with chapters devoted to Alexandra’s health, the Imperial couple’s religious mysticism and the significance of their friend Anna Vyrubova to their marriage. The second half of the book is structured chronologically with chapter 5 titled “Beginnings.” This arrangement of chapters has the potential to be confusing for readers who have not read Nicholas and Alexandra. Also, as a graduate student in history, I’m always interested in having a look at an author’s footnotes. Rounding’s citations are rudimentary and do not always provide the full source material for the interesting information that she presents in Alix and Nicky: The Passion of the Last Tsar and Tsarina.

Alix and Nicky: The Passion of the Last Tsar and Tsarinais a fascinating addition to any royal enthusiast’s library. Rounding’s new perspective on the marriage of Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna compliments Massie’s work, examining previously neglected aspects of the Imperial marriage. For readers, unfamiliar with the story of Russia’s last Emperor and Empress, I recommend reading both Nicholas and Alexandra and Alix and Nicky: The Passion of the Last Tsar and Tsarinafor two fascinating perspectives on one of the most significant marriages in twentieth century history.


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