Anastasia's Album

by Hugh Brewster, Shelley Tanaka,
ISBN: 0316880213

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Children`s Books
by Olga Stein

There is a genre of Russian folk-tales that have as their starting-point a simple and foolhardy peasant boy called Ivan-"little foolish Ivan", or in Russian, Ivanushka durachek. Young Ivan, considered a simpleton even by his closest relations, is humble but ambitious (and not simple, after all). He sets his sights on treasures others think unattainable (usually some magical thingamajig). He makes mistakes and learns from them. Ultimately, he becomes the new Tsar-a wise and just ruler-by outwitting an old and greedy monarch, who has let himself be tricked into attempting some impossible feat through his own greed and stupidity. There is an interesting paradox in these tales: on the one hand, they carry the recognition that the ruler can be highly imperfect; on the other hand, they reveal a faith in the Crown and autocratic rule. Autocratic rule does not cease with the death of the old Tsar; it is carried on by Ivan, who is a new and improved version of the absolute monarch.

Anastasia's Album consists of family photographs, and moving and amusing excerpts from diaries and letters written to family and friends. The family is that of Nicholas II, the last Tsar, who was forced to abdicate in March 1917. Unlike the fictional new ruler Ivanushka, the order that took the place of the Romanovs proved to be no wiser, perhaps less just (in view of the terrible dislocation forced upon landed peasants and the state-sanctioned seizure and redistribution of private property), and brutal beyond description. And unlike the old, foolish Tsar of the folk-tales, who dies choosing to follow Ivanushka into a cauldron of boiling liquid because he is unwilling to consider the limitations of age and infirmity, Nicholas II, youthful and handsome, was heartlessly murdered along with his entire family.

This book brings home the enormity of the tragedy. Beautiful and tastefully put together, it invites us to meet the family of Nicholas on intimate terms. Dispensing for the most part with official shots, we are treated to photos of the four gorgeous princesses, Olga, Tatiana, Marie, and the youngest, the mischievous Anastasia. We see them playing, posing informally while preparing to go swimming or cycling. There are plenty of family shots with Nicholas himself present. Unlike the British rulers (Queen Victoria is said to have been uncomfortable around children, even her own), he comes across as a warm, demonstrative father who very much enjoys the company of his wife and children. One picture shows Nicholas and Alexandra (the Tsarina) resting on a haystack. He is totally relaxed. His head lies across the neck of one of his daughters, who keeps her arms lovingly over his chest. Letters written by Anastasia to her father are playful, even a touch vulgar. The Tsar, ruler of all Russia, obviously didn't insist on formality in his relations with his daughters.

Anastasia's Album is organized chronologically into chapters that correspond to political periods. One chapter, however, is given to imperial retreats. There are pictures of the family at their palace in Livadia (on the Black Sea), at their beach front summer home in Peterhof on the Baltic Sea, and on the Standart, the magnificent royal yacht. Again, the pictures are compelling and heartbreaking. This was an extraordinarily handsome and close-knit family. But there is more significance to this chapter. The family, and most importantly the Tsar, may simply have been too removed from the rest of Russia, from its poor and deprived masses. Clearly, Nicholas underestimated the desperation of the people and the zeal of the revolutionaries among them.

The text that accompanies the photographs in Anastasia's Album is well thought-out and informative without being cumbersome or judgemental. This is mainly Anastasia's story. We are told about political events, but these for the most part recede into the background, as they would naturally for a young girl sheltered from the social and political reality of her day. A glossary at the back serves as a helpful guide to various terms and expressions.

Folk-tales generally embody the collective sentiments of a nation: its fears and hopes, faith and cynicism. Invariably, however, folk-tales fail to illustrate the complexity of real-life events and personalities. Nicholas II believed he had the God-given right to autocratic rule. He may have lacked political astuteness (but autocratic rulers aren't raised to be politicians). Or perhaps-more generously-given Russia's political evolution the dynasty had simply outlasted its welcome. E. M. Almedingen writes this in his book The Romanovs:

"[Nicholas II] stood committed to a hereditary pattern by him considered sacrosanct and he never grasped that the flux of history would sometimes carry far greater weight than tradition. His greatest faults lay in his mistrust of those who were really fit to serve him and their country, in the confidence too readily given to wrong-minded counsellors and, finally, in his clinging to half-way measures.. His very inability to understand revolutionary processes was imputed to him as a fault when the complexities of the social and political needs of the Empire all through his reign would easily have defeated even a Peter the Great."

Whatever the analyses, Nicholas II was not an evil man; real life and folk-tales can differ on such points. The duality of love and hate for the crown, which finds expression in the Ivanushka durachek genre, actually does inhere in the minds and hearts of the Russian people. The murder of Nicholas, his wife, and his innocent children was and is still regarded (by all but the most dogmatic Russians) as a wrongful act, despite its historical implications for the Revolution. Russians have always loved their Tsars and Tsarinas. Lenin understood this when he secretly gave orders to have the whole family executed. It is also why he later made every effort to cover up the details of the murder, and to erase any evidence linking him to it.


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