Death of a czar

Monday Book Review

April 19, 1993|By John F. Kelly

THE LAST TSAR: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF NICHOLAS II. By Edvard Radzinsky. Translated by Marian Schwartz. Doubleday. 462 pages. $25.

TWENTY years ago, Vera Leonidovna Yureneva, a formeactress, was living out her life in a two-room apartment in Moscow. Edvard Radzinsky, then a young student at the Historical Archival Institute and a budding playwright, rented one of the old woman's rooms. Evenings, when he returned home, the two had long talks in the communal kitchen.

It was during one of these kitchen conversations that he heard the legend of Czar Nicholas II's execution in July 1918; how the czar was the first to die; how the bullets bounced off the czar's four daughters who had sewn the crown jewels in their corsets; and how the czar's young son, Alexei, exhibiting a "strange vitality," warded off the assassin's bullets with his hands.

That picture and the old actress' description of how the czar's murderers later met and reminisced while sipping tea through lumps of sugar, haunted Mr. Radzinsky. "I could not put it out of my mind," he says in the introduction to "The Last Tsar," a tense, suspenseful, well-researched book about the life and death of Nicholas II, who ended 300 years of Romanov rule when he abdicated in 1917.

Mr. Radzinsky's curiosity led him to government archives, where he found secret notes written by the assassins and even a Colt revolver deposited in the Museum of the Revolution along with a typewritten statement by Yakov Yurovsky, who commanded the execution squad. The author's biggest find, however, was a series of diaries Nicholas began when he was 14 and ended three days before his death.

Mr. Radzinsky's publication in Soviet journals of excerpts from the diaries triggered scores of telephone calls from Russians who had direct or indirect knowledge of the czar's last days. Among them was the son of a former Checka (forerunner of the KGB) official who said his father was the one who shot Nicholas, a former Soviet agent with access to secret police files and a psychiatrist who treated a middle-aged prisoner in 1949 whom she believed was the hemophiliac heir, Alexei.

Mr. Radzinsky, who is Russia's most frequently staged playwright after Chekhov, discredits the official Soviet explanation that a panicked local government, confronted with the imminent arrival of the Czech Legion and Siberian White Army units in Ekaterinburg (where the czar and his family were being held), carried out the executions. Instead, the author uses 70-year-old formerly top-secret telegrams he discovered buried in Soviet archives to trace the assassination order to Vladimir Lenin himself.

Mr. Radzinsky identifies the assassins (a motley, disreputable band of Bolshevik officials and secret police operatives, most of whom were later shot by Stalin) in a series of vivid biographical sketches, and he traces their gory itinerary as they attempted to destroy all traces of the murder. He also speculates on the fate of Alexei and Anastasia, neither of whose bodies was found in the common grave.

This book does not discuss in more than superficial detail the political, social and economic forces that led to the October 1917 revolution and abdication of Czar Nicholas. But that is not Mr. Radzinsky's intent. His focus is on the imperial family, not imperial Russia. "The Last Tsar" succeeds because it is above all compellingly human story.

John F. Kelly is a Baltimore writer.

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