The Romanov Empress by C W Gortner

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This book, about Minnie, Dagmar of Denmark, Empress Maria Feodorovna of Russia, wife of Alexander III and mother of Nicholas II, is a very entertaining read; and, for people unfamiliar with this period of Russian history, it’s probably quite informative.  Unfortunately, it contained a number of very basic factual errors, which, given the generally high quality of the writing, were disappointing.  OK, they didn’t really affect the story, but I’m very picky about Romanov history and they grated on me!   Annoying errors aside, it was an enjoyable book.  So much attention is paid to Nicholas and Alexandra that Minnie is usually just seen in terms of her son’s reign: it was good to read a book in which she was the central figure.

It wasn’t a long book, and it didn’t say much about her childhood.  That was a shame, really, because her birth family are fascinating: her father, a fairly obscure prince, became King of Denmark through a claim on his wife’s side, and the “Grandfather of Europe” through his descendants’ marriages and his second son becoming King of Greece.  But, OK, it wasn’t meant to be about her early life.  Most of her five siblings didn’t feature much, but there was a lot about her close relationship with her sister Alix, Queen Alexandra of Great Britain and Ireland.  The book actually started with Alix’s marriage to the Prince of Wales.  We then saw Minnie’s engagement to the Tsarevich Nicholas, and, after his death, her marriage – with some reluctance on both sides – to his brother Sasha, the future Alexander III.

“Sasha” is a very difficult figure to write about.  He and Minnie were happy together, he seems to have had a reasonably good relationship with his children – less so with his siblings, but that was because he was an early advocate of what Prince Charles would call “a slimmed-down monarchy” –  and he was often described by royals from Britain and elsewhere as genial “Uncle Sasha”, the gentle giant.  And he managed to avoid getting involved in any major wars, despite the tensions of the time.  It’s also a little unfair how he’s seen as the great repressor in contrast to his father, the “Tsar Liberator”.  Alexander II was certainly far more liberal than his son, but he moved away from that after the 1863-4 Polish Uprising.

But Alexander III was repressive.  Much of that was a reaction to his father’s assassination, in 1881, but his refusal to agree to a constitution set Russia a lot further along the road to revolution.  And there’s the huge issue of the May Laws and the pogroms.  They weren’t the big international news then that they were in Nicholas II’s reign, but what went on was horrific.  There was also repression against … well, pretty much anyone else who didn’t tick all three boxes of being Russian, Orthodox, and Russian-speaking.  This was a book about a woman’s life, not a textbook, so I didn’t expect too much detail about political issues, and the issues were raised, not ignored, but I thought there should have been more about them.  That’s just my opinion.  And the famine of the early 1890s was pretty much ignored.

The book was much better on family matters, though.  And it’s pretty difficult to keep up with all those Romanovs, and all the British, Danish, Greek and German relations abroad, and the marriages and divorces and children – the author did well there!   We also got a good picture of Minnie’s charity work, and her popularity with the Russian people.

Alexander III died in his 40s.  The events of Nicholas II’s reign are very well-known, but still tend to be sensationalised: I was pleased to find that the author stuck to the facts and resisted the temptation to include some of the stranger stories.  We did not see any claims that Minnie was plotting to depose her eldest son.  What we did see was a lot about her difficult relationship with her daughter-in-law Alix and, increasingly, with Nicholas.  Again, it’s difficult – you have to sympathise with Alix over her anxiety about her son Alexei’s haemophilia, and her desperation to do anything to help him; but Minnie and everyone else could see the damage that was being done to the monarchy by its association with Rasputin.

This was a book about Minnie, so we saw it from her viewpoint – but I think most of us see it from her viewpoint anyway.  Nicholas should have agreed to far wider and deeper political reforms than he did.  “Our Friend” should have been given his marching orders.  The young Grand Duchesses should have been brought out into society.  The First World War was badly mismanaged.  But she could have shown Alix a bit more sympathy, and their difficult relationship did come across well here, as well as the fast-moving political and social events of the time.

We were also shown all the issues within the wider Romanov family – Minnie’s other children, and Sasha’s brothers and their families.  I love all this stuff, so I know all about who married and divorced whom!  If you don’t, you will hopefully enjoy finding out – it was all going on!

It was disappointing, though, that the book pretty much ended with the October Revolution, and did end with the famous evacuation of Minnie and numerous others from the Crimea (sorry, “Crimea”.  But no, I will not say “Krym”!) on a British warship.  Having thought throughout how nice it was to read a book that was about Minnie as Minnie, not just as Nicholas II’s mother, it was rather annoying that we didn’t hear anything, apart from a brief afterword, about the remaining ten yeas of her life.  Her story did not end when she left Russia.

Again, it’s difficult … there’s this image of her as a rather tragic and rather batty old woman, refusing to face up to the fact that her sons, Alix, the young Grand Duchesses, Alix and so many others had been murdered.  I don’t know how you’d write about that, because she wasn’t a batty old woman.  C W Gortner handled it well, as far as he went, saying that she felt she’d be betraying them if she acknowledged that they were dead … but then her cut her story short.

So that was a shame.  And, as I said, there were some very annoying errors.  Minnie’s name was usually spelt “Minny”, not “Minnie” as it as in this, but, OK, that could be excused.  I prefer “Minnie” as well: “Minny” looks wrong to me.   Her nephew George, our King George V, was called “George” by his relatives in this, when he was always known as “Georgie”.  Pobedonostsev’s name was repeatedly spelt as “Pobedononstsev”.  Minnie’s son Michael got married in Vienna: this said that he got married in Paris.  OK, these weren’t major errors, but they were annoying.  More seriously, Minnie’s daughter-in-law, Alix of Hesse, was referred to as “Alexandra” before her conversion and marriage.  That’s a common error, but her given name was Alix.  It wasn’t short for Alexandra: it was her full first name, an alternative spelling of Alice.  Using the masculine version of Russian surnames for women is inexcusable.  As for saying that Prussia occupied Bosnia and Herzegovina after the Russo-Turkish War … how can you mix up Prussia and Austria-Hungary?!  Especially given the significance of Sarajevo coming under Austro-Hungarian control.  That sort of carelessness is just annoying.

OK, I’m being picky!  Moaning aside, I really enjoyed this.  It was exactly what I needed – Russian history and royal gossip are very good for me!   Recommended!