The Last of the Tsars by Robert Service

Macmillan, £25

Robert Service’s reputation rests firmly on his highly praised biographies of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin. This book, published in the centenary year of most of the events it describes, represents a branching out to look at the most illustrious of the “former people”.

Nicholas II has had a sympathetic press over the past 100 years, being portrayed as a good family man and a tragic figure whose passage from weal to woe was marked by considerable personal dignity.

In addition, historians have had great material from which to spin a compelling tale: the final scene, that cellar in Ekaterinburg, remains, in the popular imagination, one of the great, indeed defining, scenes of the 20th century, a century of blood.

The tragic aspect of Nicholas rather passes Service by, and he does not make much of the dramatic elements of the story. What he shows us is perhaps what we always knew, namely, that Nicholas might have made a very good obscure landlord and country gentlemen, but was a hopeless autocrat and emperor. He had very little understanding of Russia and its people, and of the political events that swept him away. Like so many others in Russia, he was a confirmed, even rabid, anti-Semite, and believed Bolshevism to be a Jewish conspiracy. This is an unattractive characteristic, and also a sign of his failure to read the situation.

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