Overview: A Lifelong Passion: The Letters of Nicholas and Alexandra: Their Own Story
If you’ve been reading my blog religiously, you already have a good idea of my interest in history, namely the history of royal families. I’ve mentioned my enduring love for the movie Anastasia before, thanks to the Don Bluth film of the same name. As a college student and history major I would prowl the history stacks for books about a select few royals: the Tudors, the Romanovs, and Marie Antoinette. I know, I should try out some less overexposed royals, but the heart wants what it wants and all that. I picked up A Lifelong Passion: The Letters of Nicholas and Alexandra: Their Own Story at the library, tucked myself into one the study nooks on the side of the library, and read the first few chapters as flakes of snow lazily drifted past the window. Damn, I wanna go back to college…
As you can probably guess, this book is ENORMOUS and I couldn’t justify checking it out of the library because it would inevitably distract me from my studies, so I wasn’t able to finish it. I decided to give it another go while I ride this wave of reignited interest in royal history. Letters, diary entries, and memoir excerpts tell the story of Nicky and Alix’s romance, from their first meeting at the respective ages of 16 and 12 at Alix’s older sister’s wedding to their deaths. As they reach young adulthood, the love between the two grows so fervently that after much hand-wringing, Alix decides to convert from Protestantism to Russian Orthodoxy in order to be with her beloved Nicky. The couple’s happiness in their betrothal is marked by tragedy when Nicky’s father, Tsar Alexander III, dies suddenly and catapults his unprepared and reluctant son onto the Russian throne.
Alix expected to have months to learn the Russian language and court culture but is instead introduced to Russian society as the full-fledged tsarina. As if her lack of knowledge of the Russian court isn’t enough to make the public critical of their new tsarina, her German background is often as cited as a reason to find her untrustworthy. Nicky’s initial reluctance at being tsar never fades, and he proves to be particularly ill-fitted to rule the largest country in the world, especially during a period of dissatisfaction and revolution. Meanwhile, Alix’s desperation to keep her son alive despite his hemophilia leads her to accept divisive religious figures into her intimate circle, inviting speculation into the tsar and tsarina’s relationship and priorities. Nicky’s ineptitude and Alix’s religious fervor wind up leading them to their doom, but despite the upheaval and uncertainty one thing can definitively be said in their favor: Nicky and Alix loved family life.
Through memoir and diary excerpts and letters between the couple, their family members, friends, advisors, and even their assassins, we see how the Romanovs fell so spectacularly and tragically.
Despite being a nonfictional book of primary sources, A Lifelong Passion isn’t a difficult read for those who aren’t history buffs. Details about the politics going on at the time, which can often bog down a book about history, aren’t delved into in too much detail. For the casual history fan, this book humanizes historical figures and makes their story accessible. The story of the last days of the Romanov dynasty is told from a variety of viewpoints across many countries. Nicky corresponds with his relations, King George V of England and Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, who give him advice about ruling a country. Alix’s granny, Queen Victoria, also sends well-wishes to the couple. Nicky’s sister Xenia and his mother Marie worry about the lack of a male heir before the birth of Alexei and Alix worries in her diary about her duty as the Tsarina. When Nicky is off leading troops during World War I, Alix writes about their little family’s volunteer work and urges Nicky to be more assertive.
A Lifelong Passion turns these figureheads into tangible people. You see Alix’s journey from a shy young princess to a beleaguered Tsarina, worn down by years of pregnancy followed by constant worry about her hemophiliac son. You see Nicky grapple with his responsibilities as Tsar and his true desire to be a simple family man. His family’s opinions morph from cautious optimism to downright disappointment and dismay as the years pass until Nicky finally abdicates and the family is forced into exile, bringing an end to the last vestiges of carefree family life. Accounts of the murders of Rasputin and the Imperial family are chilling, and a far cry from the grand balls and weddings that occupy the first few chapters. I found this peek behind the curtain more interesting and engaging than the usual nonfiction history book, and finished it with a greater understanding of the motivations of Nicky and his family.
Rating: 5 out of 5 Romanov children