THE ROMANOFFS (TV SERIES): Review by a Russian History Enthusiast
C Metz-Longinette Gahring
When I was little, my parents were of two different Faiths (both Christian; my late father was a Roman Catholic, my mother was then a Protestant, now a Roman Catholic convert). One thing my mother ingrained in me was the dictum “not ‘wrong’, different”, which allowed me a certain freedom, an allowance for my (unending) curiosity, her confidence in her own beliefs and what she was imparting to me steady enough not to be threatened by, for example, my attraction to the glorious Churches and services of my father’s religion, the gorgeous stained glass windows, the statues, the banks of lit candles, which all appealed enormously to my affinity for and developing love of “Smells,Bells and Rite I”.
Another thing insisted upon was (is) respect. Whether or not I agreed with/understood, for example, various practices and personal devotions of others, it was absolute anathema to be rude and/or dismissive.
How far we as a society have ventured into what is allegedly “funny” or fair game for “entertainment” is amply exhibited in the success of the musical “The Book of Mormon”. I am not a Mormon. I do not find much appealing with Mormon theology, it does not “speak” to me. However, I believe in Freedom of Religion. It’s a moot point whether I “agree” or find anything they believe to be “plausible”. It comes down to Faith, and there are certain many tenets of Christianity that might look implausible/odd to a non-Christian.
“The Book of Mormon“, IMHO, was not funny. It could hardly have failed to be thoroughly insulting to anyone of that Faith. I found it one long, cruel jibe, that seemed like High School out of control, in which the “cool kids” were in on the “in jokes” in viciously satirizing someone else’s Faith (while seemingly also getting away with screaming murder in what would have been considered rampant racism and completely NOT funny “material” in almost any other conceivable “setting”). However, since the creators had the “correct” gonzo “comedy” bona fides, and apparently chose an “allowable target”, it was wildly applauded by people who pride themselves on blanching if someone tells a non-PC joke and for whom it is a necessity for even the most unthinking or unintentional of transgressors to hang their heads in shame, after copious confessions and being forced to confess that, like most teenagers, they said a variety of silly things when young and glib.
I fully confess I fall far short of sainthood. I certainly have made, and laughed at, many jokes about religious practice, including my own. I have commonly referred to the sit-stand-kneel-stand-kneel-sit-stand of Roman Catholic Masses as “Catholic calisthenics”, for example. As with anything, I think there are limits, as well as those who see “humour” as merely a test of “how far” things can be taken, regardless of the repercussions.
And now we have “The Romanoffs“. For members of the Russian Orthodox faith, this is not “just” a family, nor “just” a family that endured a horrific murder together. These are canonized saints, “Passion Bearers“, who saw their deaths coming, lived through the awful passage of time knowing with each increasing moment what they were inexorably headed towards, and sought comfort in one another and their Faith. The account is often repeated of how, when allowed the solace of a Mass in their last weeks, the Imperial Family fell spontaneously on their knees during the “Prayers for the Dead”.
Let’s stop there for a moment, and step back from the gilded palaces, the sumptuous court attire, the literal pounds of jewels, the thousands of precious, albeit material, possessions. All of that was gone by then (aside from the hidden remains of once-magnificent collections of jewelry; secreted away in the last hopes of funding a life in exile). What was left, “all that remained”, was one another and their faith. The priest and his assistant recounted they nearly openly wept at the sight of four young women, beautiful, full of promise, on their knees with their heads bowed. Unlike their parents, there would be no love matches for them, no great passionate marriages, no weddings, no children of their own. No life, literally. The oldest was twenty-two; the youngest was seventeen (their “baby brother” was a mere thirteen, not even through the beginning of the passage from boyhood). “It was as if they knew”, the officiating priest remembered.
“Knew”, as in “knew what was coming”, they had to feel the burden of the knowledge that “the dead” would soon come to include them. They weren’t aged. They weren’t sick. Their deaths were ordained by no further “crime” than their social status into which they had been born, and their belief system. A heavy burden for anyone, and five of those eleven people were so very young.
There is a fascination with the tales of people who have faced doom, whether from the Bolsheviks, the Khmer Rouge, the waves of French revolutionists (who so quickly turned on one another), the Stalinist purges, “ethnic cleansing” in a myriad of settings throughout history…
The new Russian regime had no use for Royalty, and no use for religion, either. The Imperial Family were the ultimate examples of Royalty, but their religiosity was no mere show. Even the Empress’s fiercest detractors could not deny her wholehearted embrace of Russian Orthodoxy. In fact, her serious devotion was one of the very things that had alienated the rather provincial, conservative German princess, with all the zealotry of a convert, from the sophisticated Russian Court. Orthodox from birth, the ladies of the Court moved through the “liturgical calendar” as they did through the social calendar. In fact, the social calendar worked around, even with many religious practices, enhancing the very human desire for a “treat” after endurance of such things as “fast days” and other denials of ease and pleasure. Standing on one’s feet for hours in heavy gowns in crowded Churches, the elaborate rituals for many of Life’s rites de passage, were simply de rigeuer, and while many moved through such seasons as the Quadragesima perhaps not with the depthhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paskha of pious introspection and reflection the Church hoped, they observed it all the same, and everyone loved the culinary treats associated with each great “Feast of the Church”, notably Paskha.
Every religion has those whose lives stand out as admirable “examples”. In the Catholic and Orthodox faiths, these people are saints. While Protestant faiths avow “the sainthood of all believers”, nonetheless they have their “heroes” and “examples” and even martyrs as well.
In the Romanov-mania of the centenary of the Imperial Family’s murders, projects with the most tenuous at best of “connections” ride the bloodied hems of the six women who were shot, stabbed and bludgeoned, screaming in terror and pain, in a cellar room. There is a willing suspension of acknowledgement of the fact that the central figure was a very real, very human, fifty year old man elevated beyond his competence by the mere happenstance of his birth, faced with the horrible certainty that everything was going to end, and end horribly, at that moment, and was largely the result of his poor choices. He had been willingly, devotedly, lovingly been followed, through many a catastrophically bad decision, an abdication, exile, right into that cellar room by his forty-six year old wife, their five children, their faithful family doctor, his wife’s maid and two manservants, all faithful to the end. Shows like “the Romanoffs” daintily, with insouciant obliviousness, step over the bleeding bodies of those people, who still scrambled, in their very last seconds, to protect one another.
Certain topics are treated “with kid gloves” – and should be. We are losing what is intrinsically moral and human about ourselves as a society in not “trampling another’s idols” as once was considered piety itself in times like the Crusades. Now, everyone is shocked when Muslim extremists insist on dynamiting ancient Buddhas, their dismay if not perhaps for their religious significance, than for their archeological and historical value, but still with the acknowledgement that for millions of Buddhists, those were sacred indeed. Yet those Buddhas were things. Their stone felt no pain as dynamite rocketed through them and reduced them to dust.
(It can be hoped) few would think it clever or simply bankable to begin a series with the repeated images of what it actually meant to die at the stake (Joan of Arc, scores of canonized Catholic saints and Protestant martyrs), the prolonged agonies of crucifixion (the hyper-devotion to getting the accuracy of death-by-crucifixion in Roman times made “The Passion of the Christ” skirt the edges of what could be considered a “snuff film”), or even the deaths of such people as Miguel Pro, shot for his crime of being a Jesuit and a priest during the Mexican Cristero War. The sight of that young, handsome man (his execution was covertly filmed) stretching his arms out in literal imitation of Christ, forgiving his killers, crumpling to the ground, would be robbed of its tragedy and humanity, that he died (as the Romanovs did, at least partially) “in odium fidei” and yet with the perfect belief and trust in God, if it is badly acted and cheapened by use as a “catchy opening”.
Repeated images of death is desensitizing literal generations of people. It has literally become recreation in our video games, a staple in films and television. For too many, civil war and deadly, mindless violence on our cities’ streets is so mundane that the death count no longer is front page news, it’s considered commonplace for “someone” to die every day because “someone else” casually pulled the trigger of a gun. The murders of the Imperial Family become “irresistible”, immortalized by the youth and beauty of those four girls, the innocence of their already desperately-ill and fragile little brother. Any news-person, print media or television, will tell you that the death of a beautiful young woman draws more attention and even “outrage” than the deaths of those no less innocent or even young, but deemed somehow less “attractive” and therefore their deaths not quite so tragic. In their number, the four Grand Duchesses and their brother, plus the irresistible “perfect” (another tale mythologized past any feasible human reality) love story of their parents, the dogged devotion of four servants following their “masters” to literal death, become mere “great ingredients” for a successful “story”.
For millions of sincerely-believing Russian Orthodox (and perhaps other Orthodox denominations as well) those four girls, their brother, their parents and their faithful retainers, are not simply just “glamorous” murder victims. They are saints. Their deaths were a personal sacrifice, their choices of “how to die” in the face of death personal and predicated on faith. While they are not considered martyrs, who die *for* (due to) their faith, they have been canonized as “Passion Bearers” (for having faced their deaths in a Christ-like manner, as He faced the Passion). While all are martyrs are Passion Bearers, not all Passion Bearers are martyrs. Using their deaths as a “hook”, and worse, completely inaccurate and with the focus of red blood on white dresses, staring eyes, blood running past blonde tresses along the floor, is, to those who see their deaths as martyrdom, blasphemy that cheapens and is deeply disrespectful and offensive.
That’s the whole thing about saints, that, at best and ideally, they serve as human examples. It may not be your belief system, or just “not your thing” to believe in saints. But there just be an acceptance, a certain respect, for the fact that it is a tenet of very serious and sincere belief, comfort, solace, strength, et al, for others. It’s not that the Romanovs went to their deaths meekly, as witless as a flock of sheep. They all recognized, to varying degrees, their situation. Yet in this most horrible of situations, they turned to God, whether or not that is understandable, or would be the choice, of everyone, or anyone, else. They were real people. They fascinate because they were born into, and briefly lived, in a quickly-disappearing world of unimaginable opulence. They fascinated others as celebrities do now, with little thought that, like all humans, they had their virtues and vices, their happiness and their troubles. Their lives can be summarized for the increasing amount of people who prefer their information to be reduced to simple statements (that at once, manage to “say everything” and yet say nothing) of a fantasy life that quickly tumbled (the many “reasons” not being deemed especially important) into the tragedy of a gory death (the dark, “flip side” of “and they lived happily ever after”, sometimes even more “enjoyed”, as humans cannot resist staring at the most horrible of sights, in the “fascination with abomination”).
The conclusion that the Romanovs are simply being used, a cheap “pull”, is almost undeniable. The stories (episodes) thus far presented have no discernible connection to the repeated opening scenes of the deaths of the Imperial Family. Insult is added to injury that the writers seemed to be unable to be bothered with getting those shocking images “right”. If one is going for the “big pull”, the shock of “the gory details”, there is a plethora of information “out there”, easily attainable by the slightest of efforts. A second grader with the most basic of Internet access and skills can get a shot-by-bludgeon account of the murders, complete with forensic pictures of the Imperial Family’s actual skulls, bearing mute testimony to the trauma they suffered.
The lead-in of walls covered in rich red fabric covered by framed paintings, opening a door to the Imperial Family chatting among themselves in all-white “Livadia wear” is just… stupid. They are then taken to the infamous cellar, where, far from showing any alarm (having not evidently been awakened in the middle of the night and rushed into quickly dressing to prepare for being “moved”) the family, immaculately dressed for a summer’s day at Livadia, continue to casually, comfortably chat with one another.
The crescendo blast of Tom Petty’s nasally wailed “Refugee” as the Bolsheviks open fire is jarring. None of “them” got out of that cellar alive, none became a “refugee”. If the writers had really wanted to shock, and shock with historical Truth, they could have worked in Helen Rappaport‘s chilling revelation of how angry the Bolsheviks waiting for the Imperial Family were in the Koptyaki Forest.
As incredible as it may seen, the brutality of what happened in the cellar of the “House of Special Purpose” in Yekaterinberg may have been one of those most savage “favours” in the Romanov story. The entire execution was a disaster from beginning to end, as “everyone” wanted the glory of shooting “Bloody Nicholas”, while few relished the actual act of shooting screaming, terrified, beautiful young girls or a sickly boy. With their hidden jewelry acting as bullet-proof vests, ammo was quickly depleted, the room a chamber of choking, blinding gun smoke and the firing squad left with seemingly-miraculously surviving targets. It was Dante-esqe pandemonium.
Still, unbelievably, all that horror was “better” than the Bolshevik soldiers waiting in the Koptyaki Forest, who were *not* awaiting *bodies* to hurriedly bury, but very live Grand Duchesses, for whom they had… “plans”. After all, they were going to die “anyway”. Why “waste” a “wonderful” opportunity to use women, not much more than girls, that they could never in their wildest dreams imagined being allowed to *speak* to a few short years before, and now those lovely, “unspoiled” girls were at their mercy. It would be the ultimate act of power and “retribution” by those inclined, and many *were* so inclined. It is hardly infeasible that many would have relished the entire monstrous possibility; the humiliation of the Grand Duchesses, the agony of their parents, brother and retainers, all utterly unable to protect them or render any aid or even comfort. Such things have happened to others. Had there been opportunity, the Grand Duchesses, and very possibility the others in their doomed group, would have suffered the fate of many others in such horrible situations. As such kinds of humiliation are crimes of power and aggression and not purely sexual (they are in effect, though not always in intent), the beautiful Grand Duchesses would not necessarily have been the only victims of sexual attack. Surely, there would have been many to leap at the opportunity to thoroughly humiliate and debase the “haughty, priggish” Tsarina (whom many “outsiders” presumed had been cavorting the debauched Rasputin for years) and assaulting “Bloody Nicholas” would have been a way of further emasculating a feckless leader long believed to be spinelessly under the thumb of his domineering wife.
Without a time limit, those unspeakable “plans” could have gone on for hours. The possibility alone, even given the horrors of what *did* happen, absolutely chilling in its stark depravity.
It’s facts like these that make the insouciance of a series like the “Romanoffs” truly unspeakable. These aren’t fictional characters a writer can bend, even exploit, at will, or rather, they shouldn’t. However, it’s all been done, so often, first because so many things “couldn’t” be “shown”, and also because so many things really weren’t “known”. Uncountable historical stories have a plethora of all the “necessary ingredients” – drama, intrigue, plotting, sex, adultery, drugs, alcoholism, addictions, bad behaviour of all kinds, even comedy – to provide endless compelling shows and series. The actual histories would be better served without all the unnecessary “reworking” that has made a complete muddle of the series, to varying degrees, of such as the already-mentioned “hits” (“The Tudors“, “The Borgias“, “Wolf Hall“, “Versailles“, “Victoria“).
For those who have studied these families, these histories, for whom History is a passion, not simply mere “entertainment” that can be manipulated at will and whim, these changes to known history have varied from the “small” to the incomprehensible and/or outright fictional (such as Elizabeth I having a face-to-face relationship with Mary, Queen of Scots, when in actuality they never met). If it’s well done, even fictionalization can work, moving a story along and actually streamlining a much longer, more complicated story, a good example being the depiction of a secret meeting between Elizabeth I and the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots in “Elizabeth I” with Helen Mirren. That depiction was excellent, believable, plausible (if still completely fictional). It condensed and explained years of the fraught relationship between the sister Queens, cousins and rivals, and their widely divergent outlooks and personalities. It also later provided a further excellent depiction of Elizabeth’s sincere sorrow at her own inescapable role in Mary’s demise. In comparison, “Reign” appears to be a melodrama-near-telenovella with two Queens who simply had the same names as their historical count, bearing little more in resemblance.
More so than the others, the Romanovs are, relatively speaking, in the scheme of History, “recent”. There are no photographs of the Tudors or Louis XIV, while the Imperial Family and many of their relations were enthusiastic photographers, and several entertained themselves by compiling spectacular photo albums. In depictions, everyone conforms to the modern standards of hygiene and cleanliness. While the actual state of Elizabeth I’s teeth, considering she died in 1603, can be chalked up to her times, it appears Nicholas II may have been phobic about dentists. While his wife and children’s dentistry was of the highest skill, to include even porcelain caps, Nicholas must have had staggering halitosis, with his mouthful of rotten and decaying teeth. (That alone puts a different fillip to the fact of his and Alexandra’s famous passion.)
The people around Nicholas and Alexandra, as well as the couple themselves, left copious amounts of memories and correspondence (even that Nicholas and Alexandra tried to destroy theirs, and others practiced varying degrees of self-censorship as to what they wished to leave behind). The mounting dismay of the Imperial Family and intimates over the Rasputin issue alone was well-documented even before the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF) truly opened its doors. While the calumny that Alexandra Feodorovna had a sexual relationship with Rasputin was commonly believed by many outside of the Court, even Alexandra’s most vocal detractors at Court, eager to believe the absolute worst of their disliked Empress Consort, never believed that particular allegation to be true. They thought her a hysteric, a prude, narrow, bigoted, provincial, manipulative, a hypochondriac and a host of other things from the petty to the crude to the cruel, none actually believed that the Tsarina, so famously besotted with her husband, was sexually transfixed by the uncouth, literally unclean Russian peasant. Family members such as Ella (Elisaveta Fydorovna, née Pss Elisabeth of Hesse and the Tsarina’s elder sister) and Olga Alexandrovna (Nicholas’s youngest sister and Alexandra’s sister-in-law) *worried* about the rumours they’d heard that Rasputin was entirely too at ease with the young Grand Duchesses, and even had access to their bedrooms, seeing them in their night dresses, but their separate “investigations” of those stories did not bear fruit (and neither lady would have hesitated using such information had it proved to be true).
The coming Third Episode of “The Romanoffs” (“The House of Special Purpose”) will allegedly take an unambiguous line, that there *was* a sexual relationship between the Tsarina and Rasputin. (Never mind that Rasputin was long dead before the Romanovs arrived in exile to Siberia.) This stance can serve no realistic purpose, aside from doing a deep disservice to both the actual history and character of the Tsarina, further damaging the reputation of Nicholas II (not only was he an inept Tsar, but his and Alexandra’s famous love story was a sham and he was a cuckold in the bargain) and providing a known-false narrative.
It may have been “simpler” had Alexandra’s dependence on the Siberian moujikstaretz been so “easily explainable”, that she was simply yet another case in history of a vulnerable person who fell disastrously, fatally in sexual thrall to a cagey manipulator. Arguably, one of Alexandra’s “problems” was that she was hardly a shrinking violet, more believed to be a termagant, and an autocratic shrew. It goes against everything known about this granddaughter of Queen Victoria that she would swoon into the crafty and suave arms of an “operator” and partake of “sexual healing” when she felt needy. Alexandra was not the “needy type”, on that level. Another “issue” her detractors were quick to point out: Alexandra’s opinions of her own talents in regards to ruling, etc, far exceeded her actual capabilities. Rasputin was far more likely to have been a slick “yes-man” than clever seducer, and while he certainly lived up to his reputation (and the source of his name, “Rasputin”) as “the Dissolute”, he did so without laying a paw on Alexandra, her daughters, her sister or sisters-in-law, or any other titled woman who was not a volunteer.
The truth is more of an enduring mystery: what was it, what ability, did Rasputin have that seemed to have such a reliable effect on the Tsarevich’s disease? Yes, of course, his ability to calm Alexandra, which is turn helped calm and relax her son, thus helping him, was a factor. However, no amount of calming can cause a careening blood chemistry to clot as it should. Even if Rasputin had been boning the Empress senseless (which, again, he most certainly was *not*), however some might argue that could “relax” *her*, it still would have no effect on her son’s blood’s ability, or inability, to clot normally.
“The Romanoffs” may go completely beyond the Pale, cross a Rubicon of what even the public is willing to stomach as to what degree Fiction can/should be “allowed” with dealing with the names and characters of actual, historical people, with this Third Episode. Nicholas and Alexandra certainly did many things that set them on the road to the “House of Special Purpose” and its terrible cellar room. Regrettably, they took their innocent children “with them”, though perhaps the sad story of Marie-Thérèse, the Duchess of Angoulême, the daughter of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette and sole survivor of her family, is an pitiable example that “surviving” is not always a kindness.
However, this next episode will be blatantly treading on sacred ground, and possibly very offensively glibly.
ROMANOV FAMILY: TIME TRAVEL TO TSARSKOE SELO (VIDEOS)
Below are the video “podcasts” made by me during my visit to Tsarskoe Selo in December of 2016. Travel through time with me and learn what the familiar places from pre-revolution photos look like today. Have a good trip!
The Alexander Palace, still being restored at the time of this writing, is one of the original imperial structures that survived World War II and the Nazi occupation of the Town of Pushkin. Commissioned by Empress Catherine the Great in 1792, it was given by her as a wedding gift to her favorite grandson, the future Tsar Alexander I. The last Russian imperial family chose this unassuming, relatively small palace as their permanent residence in the early 20th century. It was here where they were placed under house arrest when the Russian revolution broke out in 1917 and Nicholas II was forced to abdicate.