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Nicholas and Alexandra:
The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty

by Robert K. Massie
640 pages
Random House
Published: June 1967

Published in 1967, Robert Massie’s “Nicholas and Alexandra: The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty” is the classic biography of Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra – the last Emperor and Empress of the Russian empire. Massie was a journalist and historian who earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for his book “Peter the Great: His Life and World.” He is also the author of “Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman.” Massie died in 2019 at the age of ninety.

With a sweeping and often colorful 562-page narrative, “Nicholas and Alexandra” adroitly fuses two genres of non-fiction: biography and history. At its core, this is a dual-biography of Nicholas II (1868-1918) and his German-born wife (1872-1918).  But it also provides piercing, if incomplete, insight into the fall of the Russian empire and the rise of notable figures such as Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and Josef Stalin.

The tragic fate of this odd aristocratic couple seems immutably influenced by their son’s hemophilia, Nicholas’s inability to recognize growing discontent among the Russian populace and Alexandra’s unshakable faith in Grigori Rasputin’s mystical healing powers. What results when meticulous research meets an uncommon penchant for storytelling is an engaging and informative tale of the fall of the Romanov dynasty.

Outstanding individual moments in the book include Massie’s review of Nicholas’s 1894 coronation, a vibrant description of the Tsar’s private village (Tsarskoe Selo), a masterful portrait of the notorious Rasputin, an expert dissection of the personalities and family dynamics of the Tsar’s family and, finally, an engrossing chapter devoted to the nearly-bungled plot to assassinate Rasputin.

The first one-third of Massie’s book is nearly as good as biography can be. Nearing its halfway point, the narrative becomes somewhat more tedious as it tackles the increasingly complex nuances of Russian political instability and social unrest. The final chapters, however, are increasingly captivating as the beleaguered Tsar abdicates power and is eventually arrested and executed (along with his wife, children and dog).

Readers expecting a carefree journey through Russian history may be disappointed, however. While the early chapters provide an almost effortless literary experience, there is dense history to be tackled. And while Massie does a nice job simplifying the landscape, the narrative can occasionally feel like a blur of unfamiliar names and circumstances.

In addition, while the hemophilia diagnosis of Nicholas’s son (and heir apparent) is critical to the author’s thesis – and likely the fate of the Romanov dynasty – Massie’s emphasis on this issue can feel excessive at times. Finally, the half-century that has elapsed since the book’s publication has provided new insights into the Romanov family’s life and death, rendering the book slightly stale. On the basis of this new information, however, Massie wrote “The Romanovs: The Final Chapter” which was published in 1995.

Overall, Robert Massie’s “Nicholas and Alexandra” is a serious and soaring account of the lives of the last Emperor and Empress of Russia, their closest family members and the colorful characters who surrounded them. Readers interested in the demise of the Russian empire will find the narrative full of intriguing insights. But anyone who values great biography will also appreciate the captivating characters and colorful narrative.

Overall rating: 4½ stars