Overview: The Kitchen Boy
What would the last living witness to the execution of the Romanov family have to tell us about the final days of the Russian Imperial family? Did they live in comfort? How did they spend their days in exile? Did they have any idea of the fate that marched so closely on their heels? The titular character of Robert Alexander’s The Kitchen Boy: A Novel of the Last Tsar recollects the last month of the royal family. Brought with the family to the Ipatiev House in Siberia, the kitchen boy describes his role in the family’s murder.
The story begins in 1998 as Leonka, called “Misha” since fleeing to the U.S. after the Romanovs’ murder, begins to record his story for his granddaughter to listen to after his death. Now 94-years-old and newly widowered, Leonka knows that he must finally reveal the secrets that he and his wife have closely guarded for eighty years. As he weaves his tale of days spent inside a house with limed windows preventing glimpses of the outside world, eating meager meals, witnessing the royal family calmly ignoring constant verbal and emotional abuse from guards, and passing on secret messages of hope and freedom smuggled in by nuns, Leonka is overcome with survivor’s guilt. Out of the entire family and household staff only Leonka was spared, whisked away under the pretense of visiting his uncle mere hours before the carnage began. Leonka looks back on his memories of ill and desperately lonely Tsarevitch Alexei, the beautiful Grand Duchesses, deeply religious and caring Tsaritsa Alexandra, and the dignified and resilient Tsar Nicholas II with absolute sadness and shame.
As a 14-year-old kitchen boy, Leonka was the only servant of the royal family allowed to leave the house on errands. When the royal family received notes promising that there was a plan to free them, Leonka became the perfect courier. The notes claimed to be from members of the White army, still loyal to the monarchy. They urged the family to prepare for an imminent rescue attempt.
Leonka saw the Romanovs light up at this injection of hope: the women hurriedly sewed family diamonds into their garments in case of a quick getaway. Under the watchful and intrusive eyes of the Red guards surveilling Ipatiev House, Leonka managed to whisk the family’s responses to the priest of the nearby church. Bubbling with excitement that he and his kind but flawed former rulers would soon be free, Leonka managed to pass three notes along. Then, something went terribly wrong and sent Leonka on a lifelong mission to find some way to apologize for his part in extinguishing eleven lives.
My favorite reviews to write are reviews of books I loved, and I LOVED this book. I’ve been a fan of learning about the last Romanovs since the 1997 animated movie Anastasia and used to spend many of my first days on the Internet looking up anything I could find about the family. When I saw great reviews for The Kitchen Boy I knew I had to read it.
Having a background knowledge of Nicholas II and his family made me immediately appreciate Alexander’s attention to factual historical detail. If he wrote about an event I was unaware of, a Google search confirmed it was based on actual events during June and July 1918. Alexander is a lover of Russian history himself, and it shows. The fact that he could weave a fictional tale, and a plausible one at that, around the historical documents that piece together those last weeks at Ipatiev House is remarkable. Even though we now know that Alexei and Maria were indeed killed along with their family, Alexander’s writing kept me hoping that he could change history.
Leonka/Misha’s experience with the family paints them in a sympathetic light. However, he’s not one to shy away from criticizing the Tsar and Tsaritsa’s foolish and headstrong decisions, blaming them for their own circumstances. He’s neither entirely forgiving or damning the royal family, but rather portrays them as actual humans with character flaws and a lack of foresight. In my experience, it’s rare to see historical figures given this kind of consideration in fiction. Many historical fiction novels paint famous figures in black and white, which helps lead to the public’s view of these people as good or evil. The truth is much more complex than that, and Alexander is willing to tackle it.
Knowing the fate that awaits the Romanovs makes for constant suspense in the story, but just wait until you reach the final thirty pages. I was an emotional wreck. Will Leonka finally be able to tell all his secrets and forgive himself?
Rating: 5 out of 5 Fabergé eggs