My interest in the last Tsar of Russia and his family began in 2017. The first book that I read about Nicholas II and his family was Nicholas & Alexandra, Robert Massie’s book that sold more than 3 million copies.
I was extremely captivated by the book. Eighteen months later, I literally read every book about the family that I could find on Amazon and bookstores in my country.
After completing all of those, I started reading parts of diaries of Nicholas, Alexandra, their son Alexei, and their daughters, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia. Unfortunately, I realized that they were quite difficult to read, as I struggled to connect each of the mentioned events together. Most of them were also brief records of what they did on that day, so they were quite boring to me.
I decided to skip them for a while, and found something else to read instead.
What I read next and found them very fascinating were memoirs written by other witnesses. Some were courtiers who followed the family to Yekaterinburg, their final destination. Below are 4 of the memoirs that I really admire. Each of them provides interesting information about the life and death of the Romanov family.
You don’t have to worry, all of them are available in English.
1. Once A Grand Duke
Once A Grand Duke is a book written by Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, known in the family as Sandro. The grand duke was the close friend and brother-in-law of the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II. Obviously, he was in a very good position to recount a story about the Tsar and his family to the world.
Sandro’s book is very easy to read. He portrayed Nicholas to be an affable, friendly but weak-minded person. According to Sandro, the Tsar was never confident in his ability to govern his country. However, he truly loved Russia. He did everything that he believed was best for her.
My favorite part of this book is the chapter that Sandro revealed the circumstances in the palace that surrounded Nicholas and his family shortly before the revolution. Not many sources elaborated much on this issue, so Sandro’s account was providing rare information. How Sandro “scolded” the Tsar was an eye-opener for new readers like me.
By the way, I tended to be cautious when I read his account on Alexandra. Her intervention in politics during the dynasty’s last years clearly displeased Sandro. Thus, I was not so sure that he was neutral enough on this.
Overall, Once A Great Duke is a solid account on the last Tsar and his family. I highly recommend reading the book, if you never read it before.
2. Memories of the Russian Court
Memories of the Russian Court was written by Anna Vyrubova. She was probably the closest lady-in-waiting and friend of Empress Alexandra. Both the Empress and Vyrubova were devoted followers of Grigory Rasputin, a notorious Russian mystic. Vyrubova remained loyal to the family until her own death.
Vyrubova’s book focused on Empress Alexandra (certainly, because she was closest to her.) Unlike many other books that attempted to blame everything on the Empress, Vyrubova portrayed her in a different light.
According to her, Alexandra was a strong-willed, caring, and generous mother and woman. She devoted most of her time taking care of her only son and four daughters, despite having frail health. Alexandra was sympathetic to the Russian people. She spent her personal money on charities and the construction of hospitals.
In her book, Vyrubova repeated many times that the Russian people did not hate the empress as others claimed. Alexandra was loved by soldiers and civilians alike, especially ones whom she personally met.
After I finished reading Memories of the Russian Court, I believed Vyrubova’s memoir is a perfect counter-argument to many records that blamed everything on Alexandra. However, as she was a staunch monarchist, readers should take her book with a grain of salt. She might attempt to hide some of the truth, potentially attempting to erase her master’s misdeeds.
Overall, I really like how she structured her book, so it was very simple for readers to follow. It was a good read, especially for readers who wanted to know how the monarchist viewed the collapse of the Russian monarchy.
3. Thirteen Years at the Russian Court
The author of this fascinating book, Thirteen Years At The Russian Court, was Pierre Gilliard, a Swiss tutor to the imperial children.
Gilliard voluntarily went into exile at Tobolsk with the imperial family in 1917 and followed them to Yekaterinburg in 1918. Unfortunately, the Bolsheviks restricted Gilliard and other retainers from entering the House of Special Purpose (Ipatiev House). From that moment, Gilliard never saw the Romanov family again.
As an imperial tutor, Gilliard witnessed various important events in Russian history “as seen from the Alexander Palace.” He recorded how the imperial family reacted to the calamity that befell them such as Alexandra’s anguish in the midst of the February Revolution.
The chapter that fascinated me most was the one that Gilliard spent time with the family at Tobolsk. It was the part that the entire family was under arrest. At Tobolsk, The Romanov family lived under reduced circumstances and threats of violence. This made Gilliard’s account highly interesting, as very few of them were available and reliable.
At that end of this book, there was a sad and heartbreaking scene. Gilliard thoroughly described his last glimpse of the imperial family. He never saw them again.
Unlike Vyrubova’s, Gilliard’s book was much more neutral. He did not attempt to point out only the positives about the imperial family in his book. His book was also a page-turner. I finished his book quickly in several hours.
Overall, this is a must-read for everyone who would like to learn more about the Romanovs and their fate.
4. The Executioner Yurovsky’s Account
No one else could provide better information on the last minutes of the last Tsar and his family than this man. He was the commandant of the Ipatiev House and the chief executioner of the imperial family.
His name was Yakov Yurovsky.
Yurovsky had several notes or memoirs. Each of them was once a classified document. They were kept in a secret archive for 6-7 decades, but now they are available to the public. I have read his account from 1922 and 1934 and found both of them extremely fascinating.
From his account, the reader would know how Yurovsky became a Bolshevik and his encounter with the imperial family. Yurovsky even saw Nicholas once in 1891, as he looked at Nicholas from the windows of his watch store in Tomsk. Yurovsky probably wanted to show that fate tied himself and the imperial family together.
As I read on his account, it was quite obvious to me that the Romanovs did not realize that they were going to die soon. Nicholas was still friendly, as he had been throughout his 50 years of life. The girls were also joyful until their last breath.
In my opinion, the most awe-inspiring part was the part that Yurovsky openly wrote about his feeling and opinion toward the imperial family. He somehow implied that deep within his heart he did not want to murder them.
Currently, Yurovsky’s account was probably the only reliable account on the last minutes of the last Tsar and his family. There were accounts from other executioners as well, they were much less reliable than Yurovsky’s.
Thus, his memoirs are ones that you would really want to read. I highly recommend reading his accounts.