Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Romanov Massacre

For many people, the brutal murder of the Russian royal family in July, 1918, was the quintessential act of the Soviet regime. It of course a heinous act. With Lenin's approval, the Bolsheviks took almost twenty minutes to shoot and stab to death the tsar, his wife and children, and even a few royal servants. Robert Alexander's novel, The Kitchen Boy: A Novel of the Last Tsar, is only the latest in a long series of books and films that deal in some way with this Gothic horror scene. Alexander's book isn't particularly inventive, but it doesn't need to be: people are enthralled by this true crime story above all others. The murder of this Victorian family was bloody, and premeditated, and the only mitigating factor is that the victims didn't really expect to be cut down when they were asked to go into the basement to take a photo in order to prove to the capitalist press that they were all alive and well.

Focusing on the end of the Romanov family is necessarily fascinating. We wonder why the murderers did what they did. We wonder how the Romanovs felt as they contemplated their imprisonment and compared the Special House of Detention, their Siberian jail, with the life they had know in St. Peterburg's multiple palaces. We wonder if the any of the members of the Royal Family knew--whether consciously or subconsciously--that their collective liquidation was a very real possibility. But when we focus on the end of the royal family we seem to forget that Nicholas II and his wife were guilty of dozens if not hundreds of crimes. This of course is the byproduct of despotism: whenever you inherit or assume total power you are ultimately responsible for everything that happens on your watch. Nicholas--decent family man that he was--can therefore be blamed for pogroms, spies, Raputin and everything that he represented, civilian massacres, and perhaps Russia's disastrous participation in World War I. Notwithstanding these mistakes, he didn't deserve the death he got, nor of course did his family and their servants. But focusing on this single act of picturesque inhumanity seems to distract us from that which briefly lay between Romanov and Bolshevik, and that is Liberal Russia. Although we sometimes forget Kerensky, Nabokov, and the Kadets, their destruction during the October Revolution is in some ways a greater tragedy than that of this doomed family.

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