While Tsar Nicholas II and the Empress Alexandra were entering the royal palace wearing jewel-encrusted robes, peasant mothers were adding dirt and sawdust to their bread in order to stretch their meager food supplies. The peasants made up 84% of Russia’s population, but they never blamed the tsar for their tribulations. They were sure that it was the small number of land-owning nobles who were to blame, because they believed—as did Nicholas and all of his forebears– that he was their Beloved Father. If he knew of their troubles, surely he would help them.
It is true that the tsar was ignorant of the grinding poverty of his subjects. Russia is a huge country, with vast tracts of remote, icy tundra. Nicholas and his family rarely left the western cities of St. Petersburg and Moscow, traveling from palace to palace surrounded by advisors and courtiers. They only heard what the nobles wanted them to hear and believed that God had ordained them to rule the people absolutely. So when the first peasants banded together to petition the tsar for redress of grievances, he thought they were just a small band of troublemakers and had his soldiers mow them down. The people were shocked and enraged. Opportunists like Vladimir Lenin took advantage of this unrest to provoke the nation to rebellion, and so began the movement that changed Russia into the Soviet Union and continues to influence Russian life even today.
It seems amazing in this day of internet news, cell phones, and texting, but Nicholas honestly did not understand the magnitude of his subjects’ anger. For years, he continued to think that they loved him and that only a few people were being unruly. Although he used increasing force against them, Nicholas never questioned his perfect right to do so. There was a White Russian movement, which was on the side of the tsar, but they were too small and weak to reach him in time. Even on the day of their assassinations, the royal family believed that they were being moved to safety.
Candace Fleming used primary sources and riveting storytelling in this new account of an important chapter in recent history. Russia has always seemed to be living in a past era to me. Catherine the Great seems practically medieval, but she reigned when George Washington was president. Incredibly, Nicholas II was tsar of Russia only a hundred years ago. Fleming presents both sides of the story, including letters from soldiers to their parents during World War I and the abundant photographs taken by Nicholas’ children, who were passionate about photography and carried their cameras with them everywhere.
This beautiful volume garnered six stars from professional review journals, an almost impossible feat. Fleming’s greatest triumph, in my mind, is in demonstrating that history is not necessarily a story of the good guys versus the bad guys. Sometimes it’s difficult to tease out the truth about right and wrong, and in this case, the reader’s sympathies can change from one page to the next. If this is so, how can we judge the motivations of those around us today? How will history portray our age? Perhaps both sides are right in some respects. On the other hand, perhaps no one is right. A very thought-provoking read, sure to spark discussion.
Highly recommend for teens and adults, and I hope to see some awards decorating the cover in January.
Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.