“Short, with a neatly trimmed beard and large, soft blue eyes, Nicholashardly looked like the imposing ruler of Russia. And yet this unassuming manreigned over 130 million subjects and one-sixth of the planet’s landsurface--an area so vast that as night fell along the western edge of histerritory, day was already breaking on the eastern border. His realm stretchedfrom Poland to Japan and from the Arctic Ocean to the borders of Turkey, theHimalayas, and China.
The richest monarch in the world, his family wealthwas once estimated at $45 billion (in today’s U.S. currency). Every yearhe drew an income of 24 million gold rubles ($240 million today) from thestate treasury, which derived most of its income from taxes and fees leviedon the tsar’s subjects. And if he needed more, he simply appropriated it.He owned thirty palaces; estates in Finland, Poland, and the Crimea (allpart of Russia at the time); millions of acres of farmland; gold and silvermines, as well as oil and timber reserves; an endless collection ofpriceless paintings and sculptures; and five yachts, two private trains, andcountless horses, carriages, and cars. His vaults overflowed with a fortune injewels.”
Meanwhile, outside of the palaces:“Often there was little to eat but dark bread. It was a staple of theirdiet, and peasant housewives tried to stretch the loaves by mixing clay,ground straw, or birch bark into the flour.”In an extraordinary narrative written for middle school and high schoolreaders, Candace Fleming has brought to life the life of the last royalfamily in Russia. Spanning the years 1881 to 1918, THE FAMILY ROMANOV providesan intimate and detailed account of the life of Tsar Nicholas II, his wife,Empress Alexandra, and their five children.
Interspersed with the primary narrative about the Romanov family arechapters that reveal the growing discontent in Russia which arose in the wake ofmigration to the cities. That evolution led to an increase in educatedurban workers. From the workers’ strikes of 1905, up through 1917 when Leninseized power, we see a growing demand for change. There was a broadeninghope that the government would respond to the desires of average people fora better life. (A chapter near the end of the book briefly lays out thestark realities of what became of life in Russia after the Romanovs, duringthe years of Lenin and Stalin.)These two sides of the story are further enlightened through the inclusionof excerpts from first-person accounts of some who lived back in theRomanov years.“While all this was happening, Nicholas’s train was carrying him back toStavka. As he chugged eastward, he blithely wrote to his wife, ‘I will missmy half-hourly game of cards every evening, but vow to take up dominoesagain in my spare time.’”THE FAMILY ROMANOV reveals so well how a monarch like Tsar Nicholas IIwas, underneath, just a run-of-the-mill person. His only extraordinarycharacteristic was being born the first male offspring of a current or futuremonarch, entitling him, in due course, to become Tsar. Indeed, if there isanything else to be said about Nicholas II being in some way extraordinary,it would be that he was extraordinarily clueless. He was clueless as to the horrible conditions under which most people lived; clueless about theineptitude of the appointees to which he entrusted the WWI effort; cluelessabout his wife running his government into the ground with the help of acharlatan named Rasputin; and clueless about the revolution that came crashingin on him like a tidal wave.
In the process of writing the book, Candace Fleming spent yearsresearching this era. Her preparation also included visiting many of the locationsin Russia that we read about here. THE FAMILY ROMANOV certainly meets thestandards for young people’s nonfiction in the twenty-first century, withthree dozen pages of source notes for quotations along with bibliographiccitations.
“If we started in 1960, and we said that as productivity goes up, that isas workers are producing more, then the minimum wage is going to go up thesame. If that were the case, the minimum wage today would be about $22 anhour...So my question is, what happened to the other $14.75?”-- Elizabeth Warren (2013)
While the Romanov reign in Russia a century ago is far removed from today’s America, there are ways in which THE FAMILY ROMANOV reveals that plentyof public and societal issues never go away.
For instance, the book shows the workers and peasants organizing andfighting to wrest away some of the influence of the wealthy. I can't help butbe reminded of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have reinforced thepower of wealthy people to bolster their own interests at the expense ofthe rest of us.We also see how a rapid rise in urban literacy rates in Russia a centuryago coincided with the rapid growth of discontent and the movement towardrevolution. Some of us may see this as relevant when considering today’sright-wing attacks on public education and educational standards.
978-0-375-86782-8 Ages 12 and up 304 pages
Recommended by: Richie Partington, MLIS, Librarian, California USA