This intriguing photo album of private family pictures of Russia's last czar is a welcome spinoff from Robert Massie's ''Nicholas and Alexandra.'' The photos belonged to Anna Vyrubova, a lifelong friend of the Empress Alexandra, one of Queen Victoria's grandchildren.
The czarevitch, Alexis, suffered from birth with a serious disease and, for all the czar's fatalism, the absence of smiling faces in these photographs is perhaps understandable. The Romanovs were, however, a loving and united family. They would probably have been happier still if unencumbered with royal responsibility. As stupendously vacuous and boring as upper-class life of the period appears to us today, it had the added vice in those days of isolating the Romanovs from their subjects and their problems.
Anna Vyrubova draws a very warm, sympathetic picture of the imperial family, based on personal experience. Perhaps the picture is too sympathetic. The post-imperial, revolutionary horrors, however, do make one wonder whether the czar's limitations were not infinitely preferable to Stalin's excesses. One is not surprised to learn from Robert Massie's introduction that ''there were stories of attempts by Soviet agents to locate, remove, and destroy from all public and commercial archives any photographs depicting the last Tsar and his family as normal human beings whose faces and activities might arouse a shred of interest or sympathy.'' Mercifully, if such attempts were ever made, they did not succeed, as this fascinating and beautifully produced volume shows.