Author Topic: "The Last Tsar" by Robert Service (2017) - Review  (Read 932 times)

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Offline NicolasG

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"The Last Tsar" by Robert Service (2017) - Review
« on: March 14, 2017, 09:24:31 AM »


Short review: Not worth buying (maybe worth borrowing from a public library).

Long review:

Robert Conquest is a British historian who has written biographies of Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky, but Imperial Russian is neither his field of expertise nor a interest of his. He starts the book thanking his wife in the acknowledgements section and goes on admitting that "the last of the Russian tsars is a new interest for me".

Conquest does not feel much sympathy for Nicholas or Alexandra and the general impression is that the book was a suggestion of his agent: "Why don't you write something about Nicholas II for the centenary of his abdication?"

The author states about Nicholas: "Longevity in power had given an unwarranted confidence in his own judgement" (p.7) and "His actions were those of a ruler who always thought he was right" (p.8). That is certainly a novel view: almost any other source claims that the problem was exactly the opposite: an autocrat who lacked completely confidence and hesitated before taking any important decision.

But Alexandra gets a worse treatment in the book than Nicholas. She is "ignorant, opinionated" (p.9), "imperious and opinionated" (p.39), "opinionated" (p.40) [He obviously likes the word], "predictably vociferous" (p.56), "had a hauteur" (p.28) [I had to look the word up in a dictionary: it means "haughtiness, arrogance"], "was behaving with her usual hauteur" (p.178)....
Conquest does not explain why an empress with such a "hauteur" would train to become a nurse and work at a military hospital, replacing dirty bandages and assisting at operations. Something, as far as I know, no other queen or president's wife did.

Rasputin is a "monk" (a interesting fact you probably did not know): "The grumbling persisted in the Duma, where disappointment mounted about Nicholas's refusal to compromise after the Rasputin murder. At court, it was understood that the Imperial couple wanted no mention of the monk by name: they found the whole matter acutely painful." (p.17)
The desecration of his tomb and the disappearance of his body is described as "one small episode": "Nicholas and his immediate family adjusted themselves to their new circumstances, but one small episode disturbed them" (p.37). If something similar happened to one of his friends recently passed away, would Conquest talk about it as "one small episode"?

Robert Service does not avoid common cliches: "He who had dispatched thousand of political prisoners to Siberian forced labour, imprisonment or exile would himself be transported to detention in Tobolsk" (p.5). Well, I have read Conquest's biographies of Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky and I have not found in them the less evidence of political prisoners doing forced labour: they got a pension from the government that covered all their basic expenses, they translated books, they studied Marxism, they hunted, they fished, they got together, they bickered among themselves and when they decided so, they escaped from exile [Stalin had also time to impregnate a local girl in her early teens] But no evidence of "forced labour".

"Here was the quintessence of the Romanov family outlook: anti-Semitism mixed with Christian monarchism, expressed in a language that combined racialist slang and pious pomposity" (p.101) - Here is the quintessence of Conquest's style: wide generalizations and intrusive judgements, expressed in the language of scholarly pomposity.

Eastern Front, Eastern Front.... The Russian Empire had not had an "Eastern Front" since


 

Offline NicolasG

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Re: "The Last Tsar" by Robert Service (2017) - Review
« Reply #1 on: March 14, 2017, 10:58:17 AM »
Eastern Front, Eastern Front.... (p.12, 22, 68, 102, 129...) The Russian Empire had not had an "Eastern Front" since the end of the Russian-Japanase war in 1905. In WWI the Russian Empire had a Western front and a Southern Front. Of course, from the point of view of a British scholar the battles around Lemberg (L'viv - Lwow - Lvov) belong to the Eastern Front, and  but Russians would have not used "Eastern Front" to describe a region some 1,000 kilometres West of Moscow.

"When the priest stood his ground, the soldier gave way and escorted the two clerics to the Ipatev house. Avdeev let them in but objected to the idea that the emperor would receive a communion wafer from Storozhev..." (p. 206). Orthodox do not receive "communion wafers" like (Latin rite) Catholics, they are given small pieces of consecrated leavened bread in the mouth with a golden spoon.

(Not so) Latvians. [Conquest writing about the team of murderers in Ekaterinburg]: "Yurovski had Nikulin with him; there were also Pavel Medvedev, Mikhail Medvedev and Pėtr Yermakov and seven Latvians." (p. 255).

Richard Pipes, in his book "The Russian Revolution", published 27 years ago wrote: "Alexandra's diary confrims that on July 4 the internal guards were replaced by a fresh crew. Nicholas thought they were Latvians, and so did the captain of the guards when interrogated by Sokolov. But at the time the term "Latvians" were applied losely to all kinds of pro-Communist foreigners. Sokolov learned that Iurovskii spoke with five of the new arrivals in German. There can be little doubt that they were Hungarian prisoners of war, some of them Magyars, some Magyarized Germans. They had moved from the Cheka headquarters, housed at the American Hotel. This was the execution squad." (p. 773)

Helen Rappaport writes in her boook Ekaterinburg: "Yurovsky had originally designated 11 men to take part: himself, his assistant Nikulin. Pavel Medvedev and six others drawn from the Cheka giards collectively labelled as "Letts". These latter men remain shadowy figures, their identities the subject of much discussion and controversy, among both the men who took part themselves that night and historians ever since" (p.181) (one of "the "Letts" - a Hungarian POW named Andreas Verhas"... "would not shoot the girls"... "Yurovsky sent him over to the Popov house")

Also in Helen Rappaport's book: "Significantly, several of the "Letts" brought into the house by Yurovsky to be part of the execution squad had lost their nerves when it came to it, but a legend was born that night and persisted thereafter that "Letts and Jews" were the key figures in the executions when in fact it was not so; all but one of the killers were Russians and Yurovsky was a Jew by birth only" (p.187) - Here a note stating the source of this statement would be appreciated, but the book has not any note.

Conquest does not make clear that "Latvian" was a generic label, not a statement of their nationality.

Offline TimM

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Re: "The Last Tsar" by Robert Service (2017) - Review
« Reply #2 on: March 15, 2017, 07:06:36 AM »
Is the guy's last name Service or Conquest?
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Offline Ally Kumari

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Re: "The Last Tsar" by Robert Service (2017) - Review
« Reply #3 on: March 15, 2017, 07:49:32 AM »
Thank you for the long review! This definitely seems like something I will give a miss to. There are some excellent and good books no Nicholas, seems this one is not neccessary to read. Will save my money for something else.

Offline NicolasG

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Re: "The Last Tsar" by Robert Service (2017) - Review
« Reply #4 on: March 15, 2017, 08:40:04 AM »
Is the guy's last name Service or Conquest?

My mistake. The author is Robert SERVICE, not Robert Conquest. (Yes, I have read the book!).

Robert Service is a British historian whose specialty is the Communist period of Russian history and has written biographies of Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky.
Robert Conquest is also a British historian whose specialty is the Communist period of Russian history and has written several books about Stalinism (Harvest of Sorrow, The Great Terror, Stalin: Breaker of Nations...).

My brain just changed the surname of the two Roberts when I was writing the review, my criticism is of Robert Service....

And the title of the book is "The Last of the Tsars", not "The Last Tsar" (second mistake).