Do you believe in fairies? Admit it, you don't, but you want to, don't you? When that moment comes in 'Peter Pan,' you want to shout out, 'Yes, I believe in fairies.'
How many of us are so egalitarian we cannot imagine being a prince and princess, served on silver platters in gilded rooms by elaborately decked-out servants, the envy and admiration of all?
But what if finding ourselves in such a situation entailed real responsibilities: The feeding of the starving and homeless, the wisdom of a Nobel-recognized economist, the humanitarianism of a saint, the PR tactics of a business entrepreneur. Wouldn't gaining all these skills be a little imposing, boring, tendentious … beyond our grasp?
What if we could just be Emperor and Empress and sit on our yacht, and have our swimming pools filled with tepid sea-water several times a day, and wear the latest fashions garlanded by cascades of jewelry every hour as our entire world admired our children and the way we conducted our lives?
These are the pressures on royalty, and every imperial personage will inevitable fall short, but how short is too short?
Robert K. Massie considered the story of Nicholas and Alexandra to be a tragic case of good people impaled on pins designed for butterflies. What responsibility the butterflies for being so impaled?
It is kind of unfair to expect human beings to be gods, to be immaculate and omniscient, impeccable. That is the tragedy ultimately of Nicholas and Alexandra, that they weren't perfect, that they didn't even have the wit of Witte, or the wit to realize that people like Count Witte, or Stolypin, could have saved them.
What happens when you place on the throne of a god a complete and utter idiot?
These were not Robert K. Massie's thoughts. He peered deeply into their humanity and fascinated us all with his storytelling. But sagas are centered on people with superhuman strength and wisdom and judgment.
Oh dear, pity Nicholas and Alexandra. They had nothing of that save the aspiration of it. And aspirations dissolve horribly when confronted with bullets and bayonets.
Until Edvard Radzinsky came along, the story of Nicholas and Alexandra was the one told eponymously by Robert K. Massie, the tragic tale of two beautiful, loving royals succumbing tragically in martyrdom to the whiplash of history.
Edvard Radzinsky arrived on the international scene in 1993 with a different take, and the route he took to arrive there was a curious and serendipitous one. He once fortuitously found himself lodging in the home of a retired ballet dancer, Vera Dinovia, who revealed to him the former existence of 'Atlantis,' a world long-submerged under Soviet rhetoric and purposive historical retelling. In her Atlantis, there were emperors and empresses, grand dukes and grand duchesses, princes and princesses beyond imagining, with limitless power and unimaginable wealth – gods on earth. Could Edvard bring himself to believe that once Vera had performed before gods?
Amid the strictures of the post-Stalinist Soviet Union, in which Russian history had been entirely rewritten to remove all inconvenient truths of an anti-Communist kind, these propositions took some swallowing, yet Vera was very convincing …
However, in the meantime, Edvard had become friendly with a librarian who one day showed him some banned photographs of the court of Nicholas and Alexandra, and the floods of Atlantis began to ebb away. Over time, Edvard gained access to Nicholas and Alexandra's private diaries and to the description by Yakov Yurovsky of the execution of the Imperial Family, and, no doubt perceiving the truth through the filter of socialist dialectic, he came to a very different conclusion as to the characters and decisions of the last Emperor and Empress of Russia.
Maybe they weren't a fairy tale prince and princess. Yes, they were beautiful, but maybe they weren't smart. Maybe they were actually somewhat obnoxious in their attitudes. Maybe Nicholas was bordering on mentally retarded and Alexandra was a huge, over-indulged whiner. Maybe, even, Russia was well rid of them, whatever the horrors and desecration of its subsequent history.
This is where I came in, with Edvard Radzinsky's 'Last Tsar,' and I have been fascinated by the crazy history of the Romanovs ever since. Whereas Robert K. Massie's telling was idyllic and gilded – until it wasn't – Radzinsky's version rang more true of humanity, the humanity of this particular Emperor and Empress, all wrapped up in their human failings, prejudices, myopia and arrogance.
In the end, we don't need to judge Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra; we need only observe them and ask what we would have done in their places. Someone greater than you and me might have extricated Russia from its woeful predicament, but the truth is that they weren't any smarter, or even any more ruthless, than we are, and they fell, and all of the Russias fell, accordingly.
Review of 'The Life and Death of Nicholas and Alexandra' by Maria Mouchanow, available on Kindle and free from open Internet sources under its original name of 'My Empress' by Marfa Mouchanow
Well, there you have it: two names, one book. That should tell us something, and that something is often argued to be that Maria / Marfa Mouchanow never existed, that she is a fake, that the book is a fake, and that nothing in it is to be relied on.
Yes and no.
Originally published in 1918, 'My Empress' has often been relied on – but rarely credited – by other authors telling the story of Nicholas and Alexandra, and it didn't write itself. Do you remember when word processors first came out and everyone assumed that books would soon write themselves? Are you old enough to remember that? Sadly, I am, and I can tell you that the theory of the book written by computer has as many wrinkles as I have. And don't think I haven't tried it. As I keep quoting, 'Writing is easy. Just open up a vein and let the blood pour out.' Don't you think I wouldn't rather hit a button on my laptop and go play Candy Crush while my PC churns out yet another blockbuster masterpiece? Yeah, yeah, I know that some Romance novels look like they have been written by a machine, and a bottom-of-the-range one at that, but I can assure you they haven't, and I can assure you also that 'My Empress' didn't write itself either. My guess is that those mechanical typewriters were darned hard to program.
So, first question: are we certain there was no Maria / Marfa Mouchanow?
Those dedicated Romanovophiles over at The Alexander Palace Time Machine have done an amazing job sifting through the various options of who Maria / Marfa might have been. They even sourced St. Petersburg telephone directories from the 1890s to try to track her down. She called herself 'First Maid in Waiting' and there should have been some historical documentary evidence of her existence somewhere, but there isn't, or not that anyone has managed to unearth.
So was she somebody else?
As I say, somebody must have written the darned book, so who are the contenders? The answer is virtually anyone who was in attendance on Empress Alexandra who hasn't published her own book, or someone pulling together scraps of newspaper articles who had possibly never even been to Russia at all, or possibly a team from the British or American secret services putting out some black propaganda to discredit the Russian Imperial Family.
There certainly seem to have been some mistakes later in her book, especially after Nicholas II's abdication and exile. Somebody on the spot should have known who had left as part of his entourage and who had remained behind in Tsarskoe Selo, for instance. How to explain that?
Well, I have an explanation. My guess is that the author of 'My Empress' was Margaret Eager or Margaretta Eagar – these names really get tricky – the Irish woman who was nanny to the imperial children until 1904 when she was dismissed by Nicholas in an anti-British sulk for his navy having accidentally sunk some British trawlers, which upset Britain's King Edward VII who was quite incomprehensibly peeved that the incidents had happened in the first place and that Tsar Nicholas was refusing to apologize for them or to offer compensation to the bereaved families. The fact that Margaret taught the children to speak English with an Irish accent – not as an attractive a lilt then as it might be considered today – may have had something to do with it too.
Margaret Eager wrote a book called 'Six Years at the Russian Court' in 1906, and her writing style has remarkable similarities to that of 'My Empress,' being playful and impish, not traits usually associated with the mummified Russian Princesses and Countesses who surrounded Empress Alexandra and knew no words of English, to Alix's continuing consternation and isolation.
Margaret Eager may have left the Russian court fourteen years before 'My Empress' was published, but she was about the only person close to Alix who spoke English at a time when Alix couldn't speak Russian and wouldn't speak French, so she was a natural confidante for the lonely Empress. She was also extremely close to the children and corresponded regularly with them, especially with Olga, until their exile and eventually death. Given her continued communication with the children and other members of the imperial household, Ms. Eager will have been receiving a steady stream of insider gossip but no first-hand information, which explains the occasional lapses where she made informed but wrong guesses to fill the gaps in what she had been told.
And there is another interesting thing about the book: While it may have contained factual mistakes, the author clearly knew Empress Alexandra better – or was more honest in her observations of her – than anyone else writing about her at the time, except diplomats such as Maurice Paléologue, the French Ambassador to Russia. Given the Empress's prominent position and tragic end, Alix was invariably placed on a pedestal by contemporary commentators, as was the intimate relationship between her and Nicholas which became the greatest love story ever told, until Edvard Radzinsky finally told it how it was in his 1993 'The Last Tsar.'
So the real question is more how Maria / Marfa came to know so much, rather than why she got some details wrong? Either someone was compiling information from confidential diplomatic sources that were damning of the Empress, or Maria / Marfa – whatever the disguise of her pen name – actually knew her, and, tellingly, knew how she behaved with her children and how committed a mother she was. Margaret Eager naturally knew all about this first-hand, and indeed was the one best placed to know up until her dismissal in 1904, no doubt keeping herself informed on the topic from inside sources – not least Grand Duchess Olga – for many years afterward.
Therefore I don't consider Maria / Marfa Mouchanow to be a fake, or even less that the contents of her book should be discounted, however much she paints the Empress as something other than a living saint and Ella as a right bitch. Maria / Marfa was a real person writing a factional account from the information she had gained first-hand and from the second-hand gossip she had continued to collect until it was impossible for her to continue to do so. If she was a fake, then so am I, because that is what I do too. I research real lives (that's the part of writing I really enjoy), then I creatively fill the gaps. Maria / Marfa was a pioneer faction writer, and, because she wrote from behind a mask, Margaret Eager – if she was Margaret Eager – could also be more candid about Alix and Nicholas's actual natures which she formally venerates while stripping away the veil of hypocrisy, sometimes in the next sentence, to hint at what she really thinks. And it is well known that in 1918 Margaret Eager very much needed the money the book would have earned her to fund her ailing B&B.
If you ignore the few factual errors, this book may actually be the most truthful book written about Alix, Nicholas and their relationship until Edvard Radzinsky came along seventy-five years later, and, for the period, she is a lively and surprisingly modern writer too. And if you are interested in Nicholas, Alexandra and their children, you should definitely make an online trip to Bob Atchison's labor of love, The Alexander Palace Time Machine, an extraordinary record of those Russian times.
Having been brought up in Russia, like Sarah Palin … well, Alaska was Russia once, until Secretary of State William Seward bought it in 1867 in a move known as 'Seward's Folly' … and I once had the 'pleasure' of meeting Sarah Palin when she was Mayor of Wasilla as she texted and then lounged on her sunbed, in a move known as 'McKenna Hewtson's Folly,' but I am digressing already …
Anyway, I have always loved Russian history and been fascinated by the Romanovs, and tried to read everything about them. They were so off the reservation. Michael Romanov was elected Tsar because he was a simpleton, if not completely insane, and they went precipitously down hill from there, with the periodic reprieves at the hands of Catherine the Great, Alexander I, Nicholas I and Alexander II: That's it, three hundred years of Romanovs and four decent tsars, with Alexander III making it to the 'prizes for everyone' category of 'not too bad,' if you're not Jewish, that is. If you're Jewish, Alexander III kick-started a new wave of pogroms that Tsar Nicholas II could only continue with unbounded enthusiasm.
Anyway again, I have always wanted to write about the life and times of Tsarina Alexandra, Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt, wife of Nicholas II, as it struck me that Nicholas and Alexandra together were responsible for the untimely deaths – directly and indirectly – of some one hundred million people across the world, which must qualify them for a genuine lifetime achievement award, not just a 'turn up and we will give you one' statuette. Actually, they got one of those too when they were canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church, less for dying for their faith – which the Church could find no evidence of – and more for suffering in silence, which would make every Russian who has ever lived a saint to be recognized by the Orthodox Russian Church, if you ask me.
Anyway, again again, Mirander Carter's tale of first and second cousins George V of Britain, Nicholas II of all the Russias, and Wilhelm II of Germany only serves to remind me of the capriciousness of history, and not just of Russian history this time, but of world history. How was it that quite so many idiots could make it to top jobs all at the same time, would-be school shooters on a universal scale – vain, arrogant, ignorant, opinionated, and with almost limitless fire power at their disposal in their basements?
We tend to think of King George V as being the smartest of the bunch – and certainly as being the most successful – but that is because he was the only one of the three who was a constitutional monarch, so there was a limit to the damage he could do. While Nicholas II could ignore the genius strategist Count Witte, and Wilhelm II could dismiss the equally accomplished Count von Bismark, George V had to put up with David Lloyd George, and vice-versa.
As early as 1895, Kaiser Wilhelm thought Tsar Nicholas would bring everyone's world tumbling down. Nicholas and George thought Wilhelm a militaristic buffoon, and George's main preoccupation was with shooting as many thousands of birds as he could, until this interest morphed into his armies shooting as many thousands of people as they could, German, British or otherwise. The principle of royal heredity has a lot to answer for.
In a 425 page book, Miranda Carter chronicles the relentless charge of inanity, insanity and vanity that was the daily life of all three of these monarchs of the most powerful European countries of their time, and she makes me proud to be American, America being the fourth great power in the world then. During the same period our leaders were Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson (I'll skip lightly over William Taft). It is a book that makes you shake your head inconsolably on every page and may conceivably provoke a major head injury by the end of the book, but that Health & Safety warning aside, it creates the filter through which we should probably view all imperialism at the turn of the twentieth century, and that filter sure ain't rose-colored.