Monday, October 18, 2010

The Last Tsar

I recently completed reading Edvard Radzinsky’s “The Last Tsar: The Life And Death Of Nicholas II”.

“The Last Tsar” was published in the U.S. in 1992 and, insofar as I can ascertain, the book remains in print.

I cannot imagine why, because “The Last Tsar” is a very outdated—and very bad—book.

The book is outdated because Radzinsky suggests that Alexei and Anastasia survived the 1918 massacre of the Romanov family, and Radzinsky offers eyewitness testimony—second- and third-hand eyewitness testimony—in support of this possibility. The world now knows, through discovery of the Romanov grave and DNA tests that followed, that all members of the Romanov family indeed perished on the night of July 17, 1918.

Much of Radzinsky’s book, accordingly, needs to be rewritten—and this is so even though few reasonable persons believed or accepted, in 1992 (or earlier), that Alexei and Anastasia had somehow met a fate different from that of other family members.

At the very least, the publishers, Doubleday (hardback) and Anchor (paperback), should long ago have commissioned a new Forward for current editions in order to reflect post-1992 developments. Keeping the original text in print, without explication or update, is irresponsible on the part of the book’s publishers.

The book is bad because Radzinsky does not know how to write history or handle the presentation of factual material. Narrative flow is nonexistent. Radzinsky flits from subject to subject, theme to theme, year to year, character sketch to character sketch, to the point that the reader begs for the intervention of a competent editor (Jacqueline Onassis was editor of “The Last Tsar”). The book is more a loose fantasia on Tsar Nicholas’s life than a conventional biography or scholarly study.

Radzinsky’s writing is tortuous. He is by nature long-winded, and his tendency toward flowery, convoluted descriptions and Dostoevskian “analyses” only serves to magnify the ineptitude of prose already heavy and ponderous. His is some of the worst history writing I have ever encountered. (I assume the English translation is faithful to the Russian original). At least one-third of the book could have been cut without loss of a single important fact or idea.

Almost half the book is devoted to the last year of the Tsar’s life, yet Radzinsky has nothing new to offer about the Tsar and his family in captivity. Everything has been covered elsewhere—and everything has been covered better elsewhere.

Radzinsky’s twist is that he offers interviews with persons such as “X, who had a cousin who heard from a friend who had an old school chum that died thirty years ago who knew a church member who long ago talked with the son of an acquaintance whose former girlfriend once lived across the street from an elderly couple that once saw a Romanov carriage pass on the street”. Such interviews are worthless if not laughable.

Radzinsky also quotes extensively from the Tsar’s personal diaries, some of which had remained locked away in Soviet archives prior to the era of Perestroika, during which access to Soviet archives was somewhat loosened. Nicholas’s diaries offer very little insight into Nicholas the man or Nicholas the ruler—they establish that Nicholas was a devoted and faithful family man, and little more—and none of the diary entries included in “The Last Tsar” elucidates personalities or events. In fact, the diary entries contribute absolutely nothing to Radzinsky’s book unless one is interested in luncheon menus.

Radzinsky is not a professional historian. Prior to “The Last Tsar”, Radzinsky was a playwright, but the commercial success of “The Last Tsar” in Russia caused Radzinsky to abandon playwriting and to take up full-time the more lucrative field of popular biography. Radzinsky has since graced the world with new biographies of Napoleon, Tsar Alexander II, Grigori Rasputin, Joseph Stalin and many other figures. Only a small portion of Radzinsky’s vast output has been translated into English, as his books have not, in general, been well-received outside Russia. “The Last Tsar” is, I believe, the only one of Radzinsky’s books that made much headway in the U.S.—and any headway the book made here was unrelated to merit (Doubleday had engaged in an expensive public relations campaign at the time the book was released).

A satisfactory biography of Nicholas II remains to be written.


  1. I think Edvard Radzinsky should write a "history" on Franziska Schanskowska, how she and the Grand Duchess Anastasia were switched "at birth" by a drunk Polish midwife. Such a story would be quite feat since Schanskawska was five years older than Anastasia.

    Nevertheless, "Franziska Nicholaevna" would become a best seller in the US, no doubt, as suggested by the following comment posted on a website by an American literary consumer in 2008:

    "anastacia is not dead. i think people look at the facts too much and why not just believe in a miracle i know i dont know a whole lot but i know enough. people need to stop fact basing everything and just listen to your heart and mine tells me she lived i know she did. nobody just falls off the face of the earth like that"

    I haven't read Radzinsky's original work, but I suspect Ms. Onassis might have left out some really juicy parts. Rose Kennedy was fond of mocking her daughter-in-law every time she turned on all the water faucets full blast while going to the bathroom.

    Seriously, I think a biography on the greatest imposter of the 20th Century would make for a great read.

  2. I found that idiotic comment online at