The Court of the Last Tsar: Pomp, Power and Pageantry in the Reign of Nicholas II Hardcover – Mar 1 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
This high-end coffee-table book offers a comprehensive look at the lifestyles of the late-czarist rich and famous. King (The Fate of the Romanovs) includes chapters on major czarist institutions like the Russian Orthodox Church, but this is not his main interest; instead, he focuses on imperial ceremonies, palaces and the fashions of Nicholas's court, as well as sexual scandals involving members of the Romanov family. King has a vast knowledge of the subject, and those who are fascinated by the life of the royals and aristocratic intrigue will find much to delight in; for instance, his description of czarist royal jewelry and the magnificence of Russian balls, even as the regime was soon to crumble, adds to our understanding of how myopic the regime was. The photographs, both color and b&w, add to the book's appeal. King has made valuable use of memoirs from the era, but sometimes he uses them uncritically. But for those who are intrigued by the Russian high court, there is no better escort. (Mar.)
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Anyone who has read about the reign of the last czar of Russia understands that the imperial court was a place of opulence, but just how opulent it was is given almost staggering detail in this picture of the incredibly elaborate setting in which Nicholas II and his relatives existed. The House of Romanov, which included the czar's immediate and collateral family members, spared themselves nothing in terms of luxury in the declining years of the imperial regime, before the horrors of World War I brought an end to the monarchy. King marshals an amazing amount of information, and just as amazingly he presents it all in a very fluid, compelling fashion; specifically, he profiles the major members of the Romanov clan, then visits where they lived, gathers information on their possessions (such as jewelry, automobiles, and country estates), reconstructs the major pageants they performed in, and details how they spent their leisure. It's eye-opening, and even fun (now that it's all in the past), to visit this extraordinary group in its time and place. Brad Hooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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This time, instead of looking just at the personal lives, he recreates the world of magnificent palaces, grand spectacles, weddings, coronations, christenings and funerals, that the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and his family lived in and their lives in surroundings that were sumptuous, to say the very least. Greg King begins his journey with an overview of the Imperial family, but also the people of the court, from ministers and ladies-in-waiting, right down to the maids, footmen, chefs and nursemaids that cared for the Imperial children.
From there, we see that these people populated palaces of immense splendour, starting with the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Tsarskoye Selo -- The Tsar's Village -- Peterhof, and the palaces in Moscow. A brief history of who built the palaces, what they were used for, and how they were decorated and arranged by Alexandra, along with quite a few ancedotes about them makes for interesting reading. Far from living in grand rooms decorated with gilt and malachite, both Nicholas and Alexandra preferred a rather bourgoisie style, of homey, chintz style, and heavily cluttered, and the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo was more like an English manor than the home of the man who ruled more than a sixth of the globe.
Possessions, of course, filled these palaces, and King takes a look at not just the artistry of Faberge eggs and jewelry by Cartier, but also how the Russian Court dressed and influenced fashion, from the wily tricks of the most famous dressmaker in St. Petersburg -- But I always cut my prices for you, Your Majesty! -- to the private trains that transported the Imperial family from one palace to another, and the two yachts that they used, as well as some rare photographs of the interiors.
A tsar does much more than just merely sign decrees and pack revolutionaries off to Siberia, and the next section goes into the details of the ceremonial lives of the Imperial family -- from religious and military pageantry and reviews, to the intricate planning and details of births, marriages and funerals, along with the coronation ceremonies that marked Nicholas II's ascension to the throne. The the marriage of Nicholas and Alexandra, christening of the long-awaited Tsarevich Alexei, and the funeral of Tsar Alexander III form the backdrop of these ceremonies.
Finally, there are the pleasures that the Romanovs enjoyed. From Imperial balls and the 'Season' that lasted yearly from New Years to the begining of Lent, St. Petersburg's aristocracy, State visits to other countries, and the lush palaces of the Crimea, King goes into fine detail, but refrains from bogging down the reader with unneccesary trivia.
In fact, this massive book of nearly 600 pages moves quite firmly, forming a narrative from memoirs, the family's own diaries and letters, and the massive photographic and film records that were left after the Revolution of 1917. King does not cover the events that occured after the start of World War One, only the declaration of war in 1914, and the later exile and execution of the Romanovs is only hinted at.
At first glance, this may only sound like a pegean of praise and adoration for the last Tsar and his family, but King weaves in the mistakes and blunders that Nicholas and his wife made that would send them from the popularity that they enjoyed in the early years of the reign to the sinister influences of Rasputin, to the self-imposed isolation and dislike that would eventually lead to the Revolution. Much of what King wrote about in his previous biography about Alexandra is brought up, from her extreme shyness and hateur, and her compulsive need to be in control. King refrains from making any judgements, but allows the major players in this tragedy to speak for themselves.
Along with the vivid descriptions, King includes several appendices that have maps of Imperial estates, St. Petersburg, the floor plans of palaces, the structure and organization of the Imperial court, and a genealogical chart of the Romanovs. There are also extensive notes, bibliographies, and an index.
Several inserts of colour photographs are included, and throughout the text, there are quite a few black and white photos. Unfortunately, while many of the photos are of objects and places not usually seen in books on the Romanovs, the quality of the photos leave much to be desired. They tend to be out of focus, blurry, and just plain shoddy reproduction. This is the greatest drawback of the book, and lowers the otherwise excellent quality.
For those who want to know the details of the last Romanovs, and see how they actually lived and moved in their lives, this is an excellent resource, full of entertaining stories, quite a few prophetic moments, and ultimately, an overall pall of oncoming doom. It makes a good ancillary text to the more standard biographies about the Romanovs by Massie, King and Vorres, and for fans of royalty, it's one that is not to be missed.
Not only are there many previously unknown human stories in The Court of the Last Tsar, there are also fascinating descriptions of the palaces, hunting lodges, yachts, trains, jewels and other possessions of the Romanovs. King's descriptions of room after room filled with magnificent treasures in the Winter Palace, Peterhof, and Tsarskoye Selo are so vivid its like taking a tour led by the most expert of guides. Here again little known details add to the pleasure: Nicholas' yacht "Standart" was actually in active service for the Soviet navy until 1963, for example. King also discusses the Romanovs' vast wealth and the complications involved in administering an income which runs into the tens of millions of dollars in present day funds.
The palaces provided the setting for dazzling ceremonies, and King provides wonderful descriptions of balls, coronations, weddings, funerals, and other festivities. The information is so detailed and complete that I feel that if somehow I could travel back to the Winter Palace in 1900 to be presented to the Tsar and Empress, I would know exactly how to dress, which entrance to use, which halls and rooms to pass through, and how low to bow.
However, as for being 'extremely well researched' (Hall), 'a great work of scholarship' (Kurth), and 'a major source for historians' (Eilers), with Mr King 'emerging as one of the leading authorities' (Fuhrmann), I regret I must disagree with these assessments.
The book is filled with too many inaccuracies, and despite his fifteen years of research, the author has failed to master even the basic terminology. He has created court ranks that never even existed--starshaya dama, starshaya freilina, ober-truchsess, just to name a few--and his translations of them and others into English leave much to be desired.
P. 105 cites Princess Elizabeth Naryshkin-Kuryakin as Alexandra's ober-gofmeisterina when in fact she never held this exact title. Furthermore, her name is spelled incorrectly and she was not a princess by marriage. Her name should at least appear as it does on the cover of the English version of her memoirs, Under Three Tsars: The Memoirs of the Lady-in-Waiting Elizabeth Narishkin-Kurakin, or in strict transliteration as Naryshkina-Kurakina. NB: She was born Princess Kurakina and was known in Russia as Madame Naryshkina after her marriage. This double name was only used after the Revolution on her memoirs.
P. 105 describes the empress's suite thus: 'This included the starshiye dami, or ladies-in-waiting of the highest rank; the dames à portrait; the kamer-freilini, or personal ladies-in-waiting; the starshiye freilini, or ordinary ladies-in-waiting; the kaval'er-dami, or dames of the Order of St. Catherine; and the freilini, or maids of honor.'
First of all, there were only three (3) ranks, or titles for ladies at the court, not six (6) as is suggested here (not including that of ober-gofmeisterina and gofmeisterina, which Mr King himself does not include in this grouping). As already mentioned, starshaya dama and starshaya freilina did not even exist. The individuals who Mr King incorrectly calls starshaya dama and the dames à portrait were in fact one in the same, not two separate ranks. (Why he uses the French term dames à portrait in an English text is not understandable either as there is a perfectly good English translation of this court rank.) The kaval'er-dami (which is an incorrect transliteration) do not fall in this hierarchy, and even they did, would not be placed second to last they are here.
P. 106 states that both Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden and Countess Anastasia Hendrikov had the title of kamer-freilina. Neither in fact had it.
P. 489 purports to show the composition of the court of Empress Alexandra. Mr King cites Princess Alexandra Kozena (she was not a princess by marriage and her surname is misspelled) and Countess Emma de Freedericksz (the Freedericksz did not have the nobiliary particle 'de' in their name and her given name was not Emma) as Starshiye Dami as if there were only two (2). In fact nineteen (19) ladies were appointed to this misnomer rank during the reign of Nicholas II alone, and there were numerous others from previous reigns still alive at the time.
None of the ladies he names as Alexandra's Kamer-Freilini in fact held this title.
The ladies listed under the non-existent rank of Starshiye Freilini in fact belonged to two different subcategories of another rank. It is also interesting to note here the inconsistency in the transliteration of the surnames. One finds Princess Bariatinsky, Countess Tolstoy, and Princess Orlov (masculine endings), but Princess Obolenskaya, Countess Bobrinskaya, and Princess Vasilchikova (feminine endings). Out of consistency one should use all masculine endings (which is one option if one does not want to decline names in their female forms) or all feminine endings. Also to note is that Princess Olga Butzova was not a princess and her surname is spelled incorrectly. Cantacuzené is also an incorrect spelling.
There are five (5) ladies listed under the heading of Freilini (a rank that did exist); however, there were well over 200 freiliny (as it would correctly be transliterated) at the Russian court, not just these five. Why this meagre sampling is anyone's guess. In addition, Countess Elizabeth Kelepovskaya was not a countess.
Even within his own nomenclature, Mr King is not consistent, translating kamer-freilina as 'lady-in-waiting' on p. 488, but as 'personal lady-in-waiting' on p. 489. On p. 489, 'lady-in-waiting' is used to translate the non-existent title of starshaya freilina!
On p. 112 Mr King states that the Order of St. Catherine was 'reserved for women of the imperial family and their ladies-in-waiting'. This is inaccurate as not all 'ladies-in-waiting' received the order--in fact, the vast majority did not--and it was bestowed on many foreigners. However, what is most amazing is that he states that 'The other feminine order was that of St. Anna ... Although mainly reserved for women, it was also awarded to distinguished men at court.' The order of St. Anne was an exclusively male order and was never presented to women. Even if one did not have access to an authoritative book on the orders of the Russian Empire, there are dozens of web sites in both English and Russian that attest to this fact.
Then on p. 121 we read, 'While the tutors were thus engaged in their morning lessons, preparations were underway for luncheon. Alexander Bobrinsky, the ober-truchsess [another non-existent title], or palace steward, was in charge of the servants. Directly below him was the ober-kamer-fourrier, who supervised the palace kitchens; much to the chagrin of the Russians, every ober-kamer-fourrier from the reign of Alexander III was French'. To suggest that Count Alexander Bobrinsky, a direct descendant of Empress Catherine II and an Actual Privy Counsellor and former Governor of St. Petersburg, was below stairs supervising the servants at luncheon is ridiculous. Mr King has apparently completely misunderstood the meanings of these court ranks and the functions attached to them. Furthermore, the kamer-fourriers, as he spells it, were not in charge of the palace kitchens, and the last three listed at the court in 1917 were in fact all Russians!
On p. 141 he states that prior to the Revolution the Russian aristocracy spoke English and French but avoided Russian (the same statement appears in The Fate of the Romanovs, p. 30). This may have been the case in the eighteenth century, when French was the predominant language, but with the wave of Russification that swept the country in the mid-nineteenth century, almost everyone in society by the time of Nicholas II spoke Russian fluently, and even Anna Vyrubova, in chapter two of her memoirs, writes: 'My French, which I own I spoke rather badly, came in for a great deal of ridicule.'
His description of the court dresses on pp. 244-5 is somewhat baffling in the fact that he describes these as having a 'jacket', which they did not, and goes on to imply that there were two trains when in fact there was only one: 'the folds of the jacket formed a flowing train ... and a separate train, attached to the waist, fell back in folds to the floor.' Even a cursory examination of the numerous photographs of these dresses that have been published both in book format and on the Internet would enable a more accurate description.
On page 260 one finds the pearl and diamond tiara of Empress Alexandra made by Kurt Hahn. There was a jeweller by the name of Hahn, but his name was not Kurt, and besides, this tiara was made by a completely different firm.
One begins to wonder, just with these few brief examples, how many other errors have slipped into Mr King's 'encyclopaedic masterpiece' (Eilers). Mr King would be well advised to hire himself a qualified academic and translation editor to review his manuscripts before they go to print.
Furthermore, there have been numerous excellent books published in the past several years on the Russian court--Shepelev, Fedorchenko (in Russian), Tillander-Godenhielm (in English)--indispensable for anyone writing on the court, yet Mr King cites none of these in his bibliography. (He does mention a web site with an excerpt from Shepelev, but his book ought to have been consulted.) He does not even cite the official Russian Court almanac, which was published on a yearly basis up to the Revolution by the court about the court, which lists all the ranks and the people who held them. He could have avoided many an embarrassing error had he consulted this primary source, which should be the first one anyone writing about the court should consult. True, one does find an impressive array of Russian archival sources in the footnotes, however it is difficult to believe that any of these have been consulted in the original as nobody with even a basic understanding of the Russian language could have committed the errors in terminology and transliteration that one finds in The Court of the Last Tsar. Lastly, on p. 531 it states that the Almanach de Saint-Petersbourg was 'issued by the Ministry of the Imperial Court', when in fact it was a privately published society directory, and not an 'official' publication of the court as this designation suggests. Again, the indiscriminate distribution of titles by Mr King resurfaces in the bibliography, with de Basily, Nicolas picking up the title of prince.
So for those who want a nice memoiric (I just created that word in honour of this publication) overview of the period filled with 'mysteries, traditions, scandals, rivalries, rituals, and riches' this is the book! It makes fantastic reading if you want to immerse yourself in a fairytale-like atmosphere of a bygone era. Historians and those who wish to have an accurate and detailed account of the composition and titles of the court etc. will have to look elsewhere, I am afraid.
This book is what it promises a thorough view of the Court Life of Nicholas II. We are also given a glance at his wonderfully eccentric Romanov family. The fascinating Miechen, the frightening Nicholasha and the grim Sergei together with Uncle Bimbo and the wonderful Constantinovichi line.
If there is ever an argument that Nicholas II would have been a wonderful Constitutional Monarch this book is all the evidence needed.
What a wonderful pagentry of Russian Court life complete with rituals, clothes and jewelry this book presents. Russian Orthodoxy is explained enough to allow the reader to understand the tradgedy of Nicholas II.
Midway through the book I felt like putting on a corset and white dress, large hat with ostrich feathers and then walking down the Nevsky Prospek hoping to see the sights and characters described by Greg King. Perhaps I would even have bought a trinket by Faberge during my visit.
In addition, Mr. King owes me for the day I was forced to take off to finish the book. I was so lost in roubles, trains, boats, icons, starets, cousins, furs, troikas, burials, coronations and abdications that there was no way I could force myself into 2006 and get to work.
This will one day be the school text on the subject.
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