Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Remembering the Romanovs

I first saw Franklin J. Schaffner's 1971 film Nicholas and Alexandra when I was a teenager. I remember it was shown on Australian television one Thursday night during the summer school holidays of 1981-82. It had quite the impact on me, not only because of its epic depiction of the downfall of Russia's Romanov dynasty, but because it movingly told a very intimate, very human story: the story of a loving family's attempt to deal with momentous circumstances and events, many of which were beyond their comprehension and control.

In particular, I'm thinking of the then-incurable haemophilia that inflicted Alexei, the couple's son and heir, and the consequences that flowed from the way Nicholas and Alexandra chose to respond to this tragedy of fate: their clinging stubbornly to the idea of absolute monarchy, their turning to Rasputin. Such responses ensured epic and tragic consequences for their family, the Russian empire, and, indeed, the world.

Right: The Russian Imperial family as depicted in Nicholas and Alexandra. From left: Grand Duchess Maria (Candace Glendenning), Empress Alexandra (Janet Suzman) Tsarevich Alexei (Roderic Noble) Grand Duchess Tatiana (Lynne Frederick), Grand Duchess Olga (Ania Marson), Tsar Nicholas II (Michael Jayston), and Grand Duchess Anastasia (Fiona Fullerton).The film also features Irene Worth as the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, Harry Andrews as Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich, Tom Baker as Grigori Rasputin, Laurence Olivier as Count Witte, Michael Redgrave as Sergei Sazanov, Michael Byrant as Vladimir Lenin, Ian Holm as Commissar Yakovlev, Alan Webb as Bolshevik officer Yakov Yurovsky, Richard Warwick as Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovich, and Jean-Claude Drouot as the tsarevich's Swiss tutor Pierre Gilliard.

Not long after, I found in the library of my high school the book upon which the film is based, Robert K. Massie's Nicholas and Alexandra. So began a fascination with the Romanov family that continues to this day.

Above: The Russian Imperial family pictured in 1913.

I found myself particularly drawn to the tsaritsa, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, compellingly portrayed by Janet Suzman (right) in Nicholas and Alexandra. Suzman was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress, the BAFTA and the Golden Globe for her portrayal of the tragic Alexandra, a woman who in her anguish and guilt over passing on haemophilia to her son, turned to the mystic and faith-healer Grigori Rasputin. Encouraged by him, she increasingly urged her husband to resist any reforms that would undermine the autocracy, which she was convinced was their son's birthright. Her fatalistic outlook, reactionary politics, and meddling in the affairs of state did much to bring down the Russian empire.

I began reading extensively about Alexandra Feodorovna (left) when I was in my early twenties, a time when I was becoming increasingly aware of my sexuality – my homosexuality. I found myself drawn to and relating to her struggle against her son's affliction, one that caused her great anguish. You see, at that time that's exactly how I viewed my sexuality – as an affliction. Just as Alexandra prayed for a cure for her son, I often found myself praying that I would be "cured" of the thoughts and feelings that my (somewhat delayed) adolescent development was making known to me. I even made what amounted to a holy card that had on one side a picture of the empress (in full imperial regalia) and on the other a quote by her that read: "Have patience, and these days of suffering will end; we shall forget all the anguish and thank God. God help those who see only the bad, and don't try to understand that all this will pass. It cannot be otherwise."

Although there are definitely times and circumstances when such a prayer is wise and helpful, I've come to realize that it is unhelpful and unhealthy to apply it to one's self-understanding as a gay person. Arriving at and embodying this realization was quite the journey for me, and one that I'm sure many of my readers can relate to. Homosexuality is not an affliction or a disease requiring a cure; it's not a "cross" that must be borne. I've come to see that when, for example, the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church make people feel bad about their sexuality and label the loving expression of homosexuality as "sinful," they are doing exactly what Jesus condemned the pharisees of his day for doing: placing unnecessary burdens, false crosses, onto people.

Life presents us with enough actual "crosses," enough genuine hardships to deal with. We don't have to make up false ones. I think that just striving to live lovingly and authentically as a gay person is challenge enough. For most gay people, living this challenge does not lead them to view their sexual orientation as an "affliction;" it does not lead them to believe that any and all sexual expression of their orientation is sinful; it does not lead them to strive to live lives of sexual abstinence. Compelling people to do these things and to think in these ways indicates a lack compassion and an unmindfulness of God's presence in the lives and relationships of gay people.

Nicholas and Alexandra had to deal with a real disease that afflicted their son. And many of the ways they chose to deal with this tragedy had enormous and terrible consequences. For instance, on commenting on the tsar and tsaritsa's turning to Rasputin (left), Pierre Gilliard, the Swiss tutor to Tsarevich Alexei, said: "The fatal influence of that man was the principal cause of death of those who thought to find in him their salvation." And about the August 12, 1904 birth of the haemophilic Alexei, historian Bernard Pares wrote: "More than anything else [this event] determined the whole later course of Russian history."

Fascinating, isn't it? . . . how the personal and the epic are so momentously intertwined in the story of the Romanovs!

I find aspects of their story moving and inspiring to this day. And I devote the rest of this post to explaining why . . .

The photograph above depicts the consecration of the Church on Blood in Honor of All Saints in the Ural city of Yekaterinburg, Russia. The church (pictured at right) is built upon the site of the infamous Ipatiev House – the place of imprisonment and execution of the Romanovs.

After Tsar Nicholas II's abdication in March 1917, the imperial family were held captive in Russia – first by the Provisional Government and then, after the October Revolution, by the Bolshevik regime. The family included Nicholas, his wife Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, and their five children – the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, and the Tsarevich Alexei.

Above: The Romanov's arrival at Yekaterinburg as depicted
in Nicholas and Alexandra. In reality, only Nicholas, Alexandra and Maria
arrived together at the Ipatiev House; Olga, Alexei, Tatiana and Anastasia
arrived later due to Alexei's illness in Tobolsk.

The experience of Yekaterinburg would be for the family one of both darkness and light. They were imprisoned in three upstairs rooms of the Ipatiev House (left) – ominously termed by the Bolsheviks, "The House of Special Purpose." Here they were subjected to all manner of deprivation and insult.

Yet even in this mire of darkness, the light of love defied extinction.

The dining room is dark . . . There is dust everywhere, we can't figure it out, since there aren't any carpets . . . Even this paper is dirty . . . Everyone who comes into the house inspects our rooms . . . It's difficult to write about anything cheerful, because there's all too little cheerfulness here. On the other hand, God doesn't abandon us. The sun shines, the birds sing, and this morning we heard the bells sounding matins . . .

– Maria

Soon spring is coming to rejoice our hearts. The way of the cross first – then joy and gladness. It will soon be a year since we parted, but what is time? Life here is nothing, eternity is everything, and what we are doing is preparing our souls for the kingdom of Heaven. Thus nothing, after all, is terrible, and if they do take everything from us, they cannot take our souls . . .

– Alexandra

Father asks to have it passed on to all that they are not to avenge him. He has forgiven and prays for everyone. They are not to avenge but to remember that the evil which is in the world will become yet more powerful, and that it is not evil which conquers evil, but only love.

– Olga

The atmosphere around us is electrified. We feel that a storm is approaching, but we know that God is merciful – our souls are at peace. Whatever happens He will look after us.

– Alexandra

On the night of July 16-17, 1918, the family was awakened and told to dress. They were led into a basement room and ordered to wait for vehicles which would evacuate them from the city. For days Yekaterinburg had been under threat by an advancing counter-revolutionary army, so the family no doubt accepted the reason given for their hasty departure.

Above: The final moments of the Romanovs as depicted
in Nicholas and Alexandra. The family was executed together with four
faithful servants: Doctor Eugene Botkin, chambermaid Anna Demidova,
cook Ivan Kharitonov, and footman Alexei Trupp. Only Doctor Botkin,
however, is depicted in the film. He is played by Timothy West.

Minutes passed. In time the guards re-entered the room. As revolvers were raised and directed at the family, Nicholas was heard to murmer Jesus' words: "They know not what they do." Within seconds he was shot dead.

A volley of bullets followed. Alexandra's last action was to make the sign of the cross, as was her daughter Olga's. Those that survived this first onslaught were brutally dealt with. Maria and Anastasia were bayoneted and clubbed to death on the floor of the cellar. The fourteen-year-old Alexei was shot in the head as he lay semi-conscious on the floor clutching his dead father's coat.

In the gray light of dawn the bodies were removed by truck to a deserted area of forest outside the city where they were stripped and thrown down a mine shaft. Days later, a group of Bolsheviks returned, retrieved the bodies, and loaded them again onto a truck. Fearing that the remains of the Romanovs would be discovered, they planned to take them to another abandoned mine shaft deeper into the forest. Enroute, the truck became stuck on a muddy forest track. A decision was quickly made to bury the bodies in a shallow grave by the road.

For reasons that remain unknown, two of the bodies were burned – Alexei's and Anastasia's. The remaining bodies were doused in sulfuric acid and buried. Logs were placed across the grave and later driven over by a heavy vehicle. After the gruesome task of the disposal of the bodies had been completed, a Bolshevik official boasted, "The world will never know what we did with them."

For sixty years this was indeed the case, as the bodies of the Romanovs and the four faithful servants killed with them in the cellar of the Ipatiev House, remained undiscovered in their forest grave. For a further ten years, the bodies' location had to be kept secret for fear of reprisals from the Communist regime. Only in 1991, after the collapse of Communist Russia, was it possible to excavate and begin the long process of identifying the remains of the Romanov family.

In 1995 author Peter Kurth noted that:

Through all the years since the death of the Russian Imperial family, two images have remained in the public mind. One is the famous formal group photograph taken during the 1913 tercentenary [celebrations of the Romanov dynasty]. In it Alexandra is seated next to Nicholas, Alexei sits in front in his sailor suit and the four Grand Duchesses, in their white silk and pearls, stand protectively behind their parents.

The other is the grisly snapshot of the cellar at Yekaterinburg after the White Army had driven the Bolsheviks out of the city. This photograph shows the pitted wall from which the murderer's bullets had already been dug and the floor where the victims had stood, scattered with debris.

The events in Yekaterinburg during the summer of 1918 embody, I believe, a definite spiritual perspective. The Yekaterinburg experience liberated the Romanov family from the privileges that had tended to unrealistically taint their view of life and the human condition. Free from such burdens, their spirituality grew and blossomed in the pit of suffering and brutality that was for them Yekaterinburg.

In Yekaterinburg the Romanovs were no longer exalted royalty, but an abandoned and frightened family who, through their response to the chaos and negativity around them, came to perceive more clearly the strengthening and transforming presence of God in their midst.

Virginia Cowles in her book The Romanovs, encapsulates this period of the family's life beautifully and succinctly when she writes:

The sixteen months that followed the overthrow of the monarchy revealed a new and noble Nicholas and Alexandra. These lamentable rulers, these tragic, misguided autocrats, who possessed not an inkling of understanding of the swift currents swirling around them, endured the trial and humiliation to which they were submitted with such rare dignity and courage that none but the coldest heart can fail to admire them. Their love for each other, their unquestioning faith in God, gave them a nobility that shines through the mists of time. The vacillating monarch became a man of strength; the censorious consort, a woman of compassion . . .

Above: Michael Jayston and Janet Suzman as the imprisoned
tsar and tsaritsa in Nicholas and Alexandra.

The flowering of this love, strength and compassion might never had occurred had the Romanovs remained enthroned, or had they escaped Russia and lived safely and comfortably as exiles elsewhere in Europe. Such is the potential mystery and paradox of crisis and suffering.

The Romanov's experience in Yekaterinburg confirms, I believe, a basic spiritual truth: the sacred force we commonly term God may not always be able to direct or alter our external, physical circumstances. Yet if we open ourselves to its presence – in the depths of our own being, in those around us, and in creation – we can be transformed inwardly. Even the Yekaterinburg experiences of our lives can be radically transformed into events of transcendent beauty – the light of which can not only warm and strengthen us, but guide, comfort and strengthen others.

Give patience, Lord, to us Thy children
In these dark, stormy days to bear
The persecution of our people,
The torture falling to our share.

Give strength, Just God, to us who need it,
The persecutors to forgive,
Our heavy, painful cross to carry
And thy great meekness to achieve.

When we are plundered and insulted
In days of mutinous unrest
We turn for help to thee, Christ-Saviour,
That we may stand the bitter test.

Lord of the world, God of Creation,
Give us Thy blessing through our prayer
Give peace of heart to us, O Master,
This hour of utmost dread to bear.

And on the threshold of the grave
Breathe power divine into our clay
That we, Thy children, may find strength
In meekness for our foes to pray.

– A poem found in the Ipatiev House
inserted in one of Olga's books
and written in her own hand.

Above: The Romanov family in a 1913 portrait.

Above: Nicholas and Alexandra on board the
imperial yacht Standart, 1914.

Left: Grand Duchess Olga.

Right: Grand Duchess Tatiana.

Left: Grand Duchess Maria.

Right: Grand Duchess Anastasia.

Left: Tsarevich Alexei.

Above: Nicholas and Alexandra, 1912.

Above: Alexandra and her daughters, 1913.
(From left: Olga, Tatiana, Alexandra, Anastasia and Maria).

Above: During World War One, Alexandra and her two
eldest daughters, Olga and Tatiana, trained and worked as nurses.

Above: The Romanov family in 1915.

Above: Alexandra and Alexei, 1912.

Above: Nicholas and his children in captivity
at Tobolsk in the winter of 1917.

Above: The last known photograph of Nicholas and Alexandra,
taken at the Governor's House in Tobolsk, late summer 1917.

Left: One of the last photographs of Empress Alexandra, pictured center with her daughters Tatiana and Olga in captivity in Tobolsk, 1917.

Above: The last known picture of Alexei and Olga – May 1918.
They are on board the riverboat Rus, being transported
from Tobolsk to Yekaterinburg.

NEXT: Remembering Olga Nikolaevna and Her Sisters

See also the previous Wild Reed post:
More Remnants of a Life Past


Anonymous said...

Oh my God, Michael, this is so beautiful and touching. I remember reading about the Romanov's and Anastasia, in a couple of books when I was in 8th grade. Over the years I have read many books about them. Some of the pictures you have posted are familiar to me. I always felt such compassion for this family. I had always hoped that Anastasia had survived the massacre but now we know that she also was killed with her family. It is such a tragic tale but as you have written, there is inspiration to be found in this story. Thank you so much for sharing this. God bless. Mark from PA

Garth said...

Thanks Mick. Was this the movie we watched in school? Was trying to remember the name of it recently. Your obsession with this topic certainly started my interest in the family and in Russia . . . a story that ends in me naming my first born Anastasia.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hey, Garth! Yes, this was indeed the movie I used when teaching about Russia way back in my teaching days in Goulburn! There's a picture and a bit of a write-up about that time and experience here. As you'll see, the photo I share shows dear Tess and many of her friends . . . in the bedroom of the tsarevich, no less!

I think it's great and I'm deeply honored to know that my sharing of my passion for the Romanov family played a part in the naming of your beautiful daughter.

Andrew said...

Caught the tail end of this movie on TV a few weeks back - need to find a copy to buy or rent.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi, Andrew! Yes, the film's definitely worth checking out. Although it's now over 40 years old, it remains, in my view, the best movie out there that focuses on the Romanovs.

colkoch said...

I vividly remember reading the book and truly thinking the movie was better than Dr Zhivago.

You have given the story heart and depth. This is a moving blog.

I can identify with Alexandra to some extent but have often wondered just who was Rasputin and what is the message he carries? If the message is he was a charismatic spiritual fraud of a priest who was abusive as hell, we are now living this story again. And won't it be ironic if the last standing monarchy,one that also considers rules by Divine right, is taken down by charismatic sexually abusing fraudulent clerics.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Wow! What a great insight/observation, Colleen. Thanks so much for sharing it here, and for all the important and insightful writing you share at your inspiring blog, Enlightened Catholicism.

Anne said...

Wonderful post! I think you would enjoy seeing a video I made about July 17th. It's about the morning when the truck with the remains left the Ipatiev House and the processions of today. Thank you


Michael J. Bayly said...

Thank you, Anne, for sharing the link to your beautiful video tribute and drawing.



Terry Nelson said...

Very insightful Michael - thanks for reminding me of this post. I like this what you wrote:

"In Yekaterinburg the Romanovs were no longer exalted royalty, but an abandoned and frightened family who, through their response to the chaos and negativity around them, came to perceive more clearly the strengthening and transforming presence of God in their midst."

Keir said...

To glamorise the Romanovs and see them as martyrs is akin to sympathising the Assads and grieving over how inconvenient their slaughter of their own people is to their eBay purchases. As Christopher Read puts it, Nicolas's first reaction was, always "to bring out the machine guns."

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi, Keir,

I don't believe this post "glamorizes" the Romanovs. I clearly say that the way Nicholas and Alexandra chose to respond to events around them – including the tragedy of their son's haemophilia – ensured epic and tragic results for themselves and countless others. They were, in the words of Virginia Cowles, "lamentable rulers" of a truly horrendous autocratic system.

Also, I don't view Nicholas and Alexandra as "martyrs." Without doubt they brought their downfall upon themselves. That being said, I don't think that anyone deserves the brutal death that they, their children, and their servants endured. Some people no doubt justify the execution of Nicholas and Alexandra by saying that they were political figures. No rationale, however, can be made to justify the brutal murder of their four children or the servants imprisoned with the family.



royalcandace said...

Didn't like the film but the music was magnificent! Still love Robert Maissie's Nicholas & Alexandra to this day. Did anyone ever read his book Journey about his family's struggles raising his hemophiliac son Bobbie? Fantastic book was the impetus for his writing Nicholas & Alexandra.