BOOK REVIEW / Nailed by revolution: The Last Tsar - Edvard Radzinsky, Tr. Marian Schwartz: Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 20

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The Independent Online
IT IS not only under monarchical systems that publishers do well out of royalty. It is true that until recently the House of Windsor seemed to be the only serious runner in the prurience stakes, but since the advent of glasnost, the House of Romanov is coming up fast on the outside. British readers are currently being offered tittle-tattle about the bulimic propensities of their next queen. For some years now, those in the former Soviet Union have been able to gorge themselves on accounts of the rather more serious afflictions of their last emperor.

Edvard Radzinsky's contribution to this canon is presented as a biography of Nicholas II, but the account given of the last tsar's life before 1917 is extremely sketchy, and almost two-thirds of the text is given over to the family's captivity in Siberia and their murder in Ekaterinburg.

The provincial Bolsheviks who did them to death had a Kafka-like way with language - they referred to the engineer's home that they commandeered for their butcher's work as 'The House of Special Purpose'.

Edvard Radzinsky's way with words is less easy to describe. Those brought up on Fowler may well find his coolness towards main verbs and his fondness for one-sentence paragraphs hard to take. Perhaps this is because he is a man of the theatre - he claims to be Russia's most frequently staged playwright after Chekhov. The constant striving for dramatic effect and the disjointed nature of the narrative are wearing, however. The general impression is of a literary collaboration between Cecil B De Mille, Barbara Cartland and Old Moore's Almanac.

Radzinsky's fascination with Nicholas dates from the Sixties, when he was a student at the Historical Archive Institute in Moscow. The diaries and correspondence of the tsar and his wife have been in the public domain since the Twenties, and Radzinsky quotes from them more extensively than is justified by their intrinsic interest. Assiduous ferreting in various state and party archives has uncovered much important new detail about the murders, mainly in the form of autobiographical fragments by those who carried them out, but the claims that his publisher makes for the book - that he has resolved the fate of Anastasia, for example - are exaggerated.

When these findings first appeared in the magazine Ogonyek three years ago they created a considerable stir, and Radzinsky was bombarded by letters and telephone calls from all over the Soviet Union offering further evidence in the form of personal recollections and accounts handed down within families. Intriguing though some of this new material is - some of it suggests that the tsarevich may have survived - it does little to help us over the gulf that yawns between conjecture and fact.

The new climate created by the collapse of Communism and the opening of the Soviet archives make it possible for Nicholas to be brought under more balanced biographical scrutiny. His view of the revolutionary activity directed at his overthrow was objective to the point of being bizarre. When his Interior Minister, Sipyagin, was assassinated, he wrote in his diary: 'We must endure the trials the Lord sends us for our good with humility and steadfastness.' This belief that only the Almighty could determine the fate of men and nations was an unorthodox defence against the ruthless terrorism of the Social Revolutionaries.

In the tabloid mind, Nicholas merely bowed to the wishes of a hysterical wife and the promptings of the sinister and lecherous Rasputin. That is a crude caricature imposed by the hard - and lucky - men who overthrew him ('Nails should be made from those people,' wrote Mayakovsky. 'They'd be the strongest in the world').

Radzinsky quotes another view of Nicholas - the judgement of a politician and historian who believed that Imperial Russia's ship 'went down in sight of port' at a moment when very little stood between her and the fruits of general victory. 'In spite of errors vast and terrible, the regime he personified, over which he presided, to which his personal character gave the final spark, had at this moment won the war for Russia.'

The words are from Winston Churchill's The World Crisis. Seventy years on, a revisionist biographer could find many a worse epigraph.