Wify to Huzy: what will become of us?

A LIFELONG PASSION Nicholas and Alexandra: Their Own Story ed Andrei Maylunas & Sergei Mironenko, Weidenfeld pounds 20

EVER since the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1991, Russia has been expiating its collective guilt for the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his family at Ekaterinburg in 1918. There has been a revival of monarchist sentiment, and a cult of the last Tsar is firmly established. Nicholas is already numbered among the saints of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the confirmation earlier this year that the bones discovered in a shallow grave outside Ekaterinburg in 1979 were beyond reasonable doubt those of the Tsar, Tsarina and three of their daughters, has given these remains the significance of martyrs' relics. Now all that needs to be settled is a date for their reburial, whether in the family vault in St Petersburg, or on the site of the ominously named House of Special Purpose, along with the remains of the servants who shared the family's fate.

The lifting of the taboo on discussion of the murder of the Imperial Family has been accompanied by the opening of archives that were inaccessible under Communist rule. Many of the documents published here by Maylunas and Mironenko, the director of the Russian State Archive in Moscow, were previously only available in excerpts smuggled out of the Soviet Union, or were rumoured to have been destroyed altogether. The Tsar's diaries, begun at the age of 14 and kept for 36 years without interruption, were taken to Moscow after his death by a "secret courier", the chief executioner, Yurovsky, together with 630 letters written by Alexandra to the Tsar in the course of more than 20 years of marriage, discovered among her belongings at Ekaterinburg.

While these form the backbone of A Lifelong Passion, it is the chorus of contemporary voices - those of crowned heads and foreign ambassadors, Grand Dukes and Duchesses, revolutionaries and murderers - in official documents, letters and memoirs, which really give the book its sense of gripping immediacy, and turn it into such an engrossing drama. The perspective is constantly shifting, and we view crucial events like the murder of Rasputin from the multiple vantage-points of police reports, and the horror-struck, sometimes contradictory, memories of the assassins themselves, who after poisoning, shooting and beating Rasputin, are astounded by his "diabolical" refusal to die.

This saga of the last years of Tsarism also brings to life the struggles of an autocratic regime failing to come to terms with the modern world. The intrigues and in-fighting at court, the Tsar's unquestioning acceptance of his divine right to rule, and his and Alexandra's almost mystical fatalism, are vividly illustrated. The cast of subsidiary players also lends colour to the narrative. The Tsar's cousin, George V, insists that Nicholas wear high heels so that Alexandra won't tower over him; the Tsar's Uncle Konstantin, known as "the best man in Russia", is revealed in his journal to have been a regular visitor to the Moscow bath houses where he indulged his "depraved passion" for young boys; and there are the pathetic voices of the four young Grand Duchesses and the Tsarevitch: childish, affectionate, and full of enthusiasm for family life.

What of the "lifelong passion" of the title? There can be no doubting the genuine ardour that lay behind the public affection of Nicholas and Alexandra ("Huzy" and "Wify"), though conventional expression and reiteration make their more intimate letters one of the less involving elements of the book. Nicholas's diaries, too, are just what one would expect: terse and monotonous, with comments about the weather and the number of birds he has shot.

Alexandra emerges as the more compelling character. Shy and reserved, she never inspired general adulation in her adopted country, although the outstanding features of her personality - morbidity, violent swings of mood between despondency and elation, and "superstitious credulity" - were characteristics which were able to take strong root in Russian soil. As her own health suffers through nervous worry about the Tsarevitch's haemophilia, and she becomes increasingly dependent on Rasputin as the one person she believes can save her son's life, it is difficult not to feel some sympathy.

Even when she is at her most neurotic and misguided, writing page after page to the Tsar during the war, trying to wield political influence and prevent him from being weak and vacillating, she remains somehow a commanding figure, veiled, as one contemporary put it, "in a shadowy incomprehensible aura". What lies in store for us, she keeps asking: what will our lot be? Part of the power of this book is that we know how it will all end, in a hail of bullets in the cellar in Ekaterinburg. Before one is a quarter of the way through, one feels that one can already sense the inexorable, headlong rush towards tragedy.

Six years ago, I visited Sotheby's to view the archive of Nikolai Sokolov, the White Russian judge appointed to investigate the Bolsheviks' murder of the Tsar and his family. There were the coded telegrams from Moscow which prove that Lenin himself approved of the killing of the Romanov children, and I held a fragment of the yellow and cream wallpaper from the room in which the family were put to death.

Last month's return of the Sokolov archive to Russia marks another stage in the country's coming to terms with its recent history, and with its regicide. The publication of these documents is a small part of this process which will continue until all the loose ends relating to the events of almost 80 years ago have been tied up. Then it will be time to allow the Romanovs their quietus.

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect