Playing the “what if” game with the Romanov family

Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia

The Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Wow. Image courtesy of hotblack, Morguefile.

What IS it about the Romanov family that keeps me going back to books about them?

I just finished reading Candace Fleming’s book, The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperialist Russia. It’s an enjoyable read, especially for those of you who are history lovers, or in particular, Russian history lovers.

Apart from the main storyline about the Romanov family, the story of their lives, and their tragic end, Fleming inserts anecdotes from average people in different chapters. These anecdotes from Russians and non-Russians help you understand what real-world life was like for ordinary people of the time, and you see the immense contrast between average Russian citizens and the fabulously wealthy Romanovs.

I keep playing a game of “what if” with this family. What if Alexei had not been born a hemophiliac and there was no need to keep his illness a secret — would Rasputin have gained the influence that he did? What if Empress Alexandra had been less religious and more politically savvy? What if their children had been less isolated? (I give Alexandra some credit — she and the girls got training and helped wounded soldiers.) What if their relatives in other countries had helped them to escape?

What if Nicholas had received proper training in the art of statesmanship and been better able to be a tsar? Did he ever appoint any spies to seek out the truth and report it to him, as opposed to yes-men? Was it his culture, his upbringing or his character that led to his downfall and his family’s fate?

Too bad social media and PR didn’t exist then — Nicholas might have been better able to see how he was regarded and to take steps to gain popular trust. (When your own army, navy and some of your palace servants leave you, something is seriously wrong.)

Fleming’s book raises a lot of these questions for people who enjoy pondering the “what ifs?” of history. Analyzing what happened, why it did and how it could have been prevented keeps historians and history enthusiasts like me forever busy.


Filed under Writing

11 responses to “Playing the “what if” game with the Romanov family

  1. It is one of those fascinations that never ends. Mystery, intrigue, and so many “what ifs” with real possibilities. Love you pondering of how social media might have made a difference. (Didn’t the staff, servants, and military abandon Marie Antoinette too?)
    Hadn’t read this book. Never too many books on this one. Thanks!

  2. The Romanov family is one of the best what ifs in history. I always hate the ending and because this is history, not fiction, I usually stop reading before the final chapter. For me, the most fascinating character in the tale is always Rasputin. What a guy. Antichrist?

  3. Jaclyn

    All great questions. I’ve read a few Romanov histories and biographies and find them so fascinating. In “Nicholas and Alexandra,” Robert K. Massie theorizes that, based on his temperament, Nicholas would have made a fabulous Constitutional monarch (like his cousin, the King of England) and lamented that he had been taught that absolutism was the only acceptable path for Russia. It’s a big what if – what if Nicholas had accepted a Constitutional monarchy, or accepted it sooner?

    Great post!

  4. Servetus

    They would have been overthrown anyway because with the exception of Alexander II, no tsar since Catherine had been interested in any kind of economic or political modernization. The fatal mishap / proximate cause was entering World War I with their still proto-industrial economy. 25% of Russian soldiers went unarmed to the front and the huge failures caused unhappiness at home and anger in the ranks. Nicholas (and his immediate predecessor) were indeed ignoring the social situation at home (after the assassination of Alexander II in 1881), but they could have done nothing to change the horrible economic disparities in their own country — had they done so they might have avoided this particular end — but it’s hard to see how they could have, since Alexander II was the Romanov most interested in changed, and Nicholas and his predecessor (whose name I always forget) explicitly took policy directions away from that because the Russian nobility was so opposed. So I don’t think it’s really a matter of Nicholas’ statesmanship or the soap operatic stuff around the court (as interesting and weird as that all was).

    [Sorry. [ex-]history prof. Please forgive me.]

    • Yes, the author points some of that out in her book, like Russian soldiers going unarmed into battle. She explains clearly why Nicholas and Alexandra were so hated by their own people. Why didn’t Nicholas learn from the French Revolution???

  5. David’s family supported the Tzar and ended up fleeing from the Reds.


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