When I discovered Robert K. Massie’s books on tsarist Russia’s Romanov family I realized I had struck historical nonfiction gold.
Tragically, the author’s interest in the Romanov dynasty began with the discovery that his own newborn son suffered from hemophilia, a disease which also affected tsar Nicholas II’s son Alexis Nikolaevich.
You might expect a pedantic writing style from a Yale and Oxford educated Rhodes Scholar, but Massie brings his training as a journalist to his prose. What results is highly-accessible and still richly-evocative portraits of some of Russia’s most storied tsars and tsarinas.
Nicholas And Alexandra: The Classic Account Of The Fall Of The Romanov Dynasty
Published: 1967, reissued November 2011
Length: 673 pages
Though published in the 1960s, Nicholas and Alexandra remains the definitive account of the lives of the last Romanov Tsar and Tsarina. It starts with the improbable story of how a Princess from a small German state was selected to become Empress of Russia. Alexandra’s strong, overbearing personality is contrasted to her husband’s relatively weak demeanor, and her influence essentially directs his political decisions. The happiness of the couple at producing a male heir (after four daughters) is short-lived with the discovery he suffers from the then deadly disease of hemophilia. As mystical faith healer Rasputin’s influence on Alexandra increases due to her distress over her sons’s illness, the Russian people’s disaffection with their distant monarchs propels the country towards a revolution that will ultimately spell a bloody end for the Romanov dynasty. I couldn’t put this book down.
The Romanovs: The Final Chapter
Published: 1995, reissued February 2012
Length: 320 pages
Considered in part a more recent update to Nicholas and Alexandra’s story, The Romanovs: The Final Chapter also stands on its own as a chilling scientific account of the efforts to recover and identify the purported remains of the Romanov family.
After the demise of Soviet Communism brought to light the prior 1979 discovery of the possible grave of the Romanov royals, an examination of the remains was conducted by an international team of forensic specialists to determine their authenticity. Massie adds details to the tragic story of the capture, prisony and assassination of the Romanovs and of the expert effort to determine the provenance of these remains. Interweaved is also a thorough analysis of Anna Anderson’s claims to be Nicholas and Alexandra’s remaining living daughter Anastasia.
Catherine The Great: Portrait Of A Woman
Published: November 2011
Length: 656 pages
Winner of the Andrew Carnegie Medal For Excellence In Nonfiction in 2012
Though empress Alexandra’s story of rise from unknown German princess to Russian tsarina is remarkable, Catherine The Great’s similar beginnings led to an even more incredible result. After being plucked from relative obscurity and married to Russian heir to the throne Peter III, Catherine quickly realized her husband was no match for her strength of character or intelligence. Unable to count on him as an effective ruler on his ascension or even as a viable partner to produce an heir, Catherine took matters into her own hands. While Peter was still alive, she took a lover to secure the royal family’s line of succession and then orchestrated a coup d’etat after his assassination, installing herself as empress. She became the longest ruling female monarch in Russia and her reign is often considered as the Golden Age of the Russian Empire.
Peter The Great: His Life And World
Published: 1980, reissued February 2012
Length: 928 pages
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize For Biography in 1981
Peter The Great’s rule established the Romanov dynasty, preceding that of all other tsars and tsarinas covered in Massie’s books. Through significant territorial gains, Peter turned Russia into an empire and speerheaded a series of Enlightenment inspired reforms that modernized the country’s military,its educational system and its government, transforming Russia into a great European nation in its own right.
This is actually the only one of Massie’s books on tsarist Russia that I have yet to read. Now that I’ve been reminded of how much I loved reading his other works, I’m adding it to my short term list.
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