The violent dynamics of a monarchy's finale

THE FLIGHT OF THE ROMANOVS By John Curtis Perry and Constantine Pleshakov Basic Books 427 pp., $30

Ask many Americans what they know about prerevolutionary Russia, and they'll often cite Nicholas and Alexandra.

To authors John Perry and Constantine Pleshakov, that's not enough. For the past five years, they've immersed themselves in the rich and sobering history of Russia's royal family. But the moment in 1917 when the country violently dismembered centuries of imperial power is just a small part of the story. Theirs is a mission to fill in the outlines replete with alluring characters and unusual circumstances - and to tell the story of a family that failed the ultimate test of leadership.

"It's a story about ... how an elite responds to enormous and rapid change," says Perry, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass. And it's a tale that tells us a lot about the times in which we now live. Today, he says, "the themes of our lives - the Internet, the new flows of information - are almost revolutionary."

The result is "The Flight of the Romanovs," an undertaking that led the two scholars on a circuitous journey, delving into Russian, English, and Danish archives, seeking out Romanov relatives and associates, and meeting at sites from Istanbul to St. Petersburg.

The book reaches back into the heyday of Romanov power. It illuminates the history of Alexander III, for example, who maintained peace but didn't hesitate to twist a fork into a knot to show a potential adversary how a Russian division might handle opponents. It casts forward to a grand duchess born in a 700-room palace, only to finish her days in a small apartment in Toronto. And it puts readers ringside at a family reunion of sorts at the state funeral of Nicholas and Alexandra in 1998 - an event that several descendants of a family once enamored of elegance, attended in T-shirts.

The project started innocently enough, the result of after-dinner musings one night at Perry's Massachusetts home. "We got talking about the Romanovs and the dramatic transitions in their lives," says Pleshakov, a professor at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass.

After a year or so of plotting their course, the two embarked on the gumshoe part of prying the lid off a little-told history. No biography of the Romanov family as a whole existed, a surprising omission given the drama surrounding the family's long, iron grip on Russia - and a history more captivating than that of better-documented royal families.

"The Romanovs are an interesting family because of the violence of the end, and [tsarovich] Alexis's illness, and the mysterious Rasputin," Perry says. "It has all the elements of high drama." Too, he says, everyone from pretenders to the Russian throne to Disney have conveniently kept the story alive in popular thought.

Archives, of course, played a crucial role in researching the book. Sometimes, important documents proved frustratingly beyond reach. Pleshakov recalls trying to track down the archival collection - including correspondence - of the second wife of Alexander II, who after her husband was assassinated, spent 40 years in France.

"It was a treasure trove," Pleshakov says, one that had been kept for a while in a library in Texas. But it was sold to a private individual - and they were not able to get his name.

"It could have been a critical source of information," he says wistfully. "When you know a valuable source just disappears because someone out of curiosity has paid a lot, this is really sad. I'm against state ownership, but a nation is better off if archives are owned or managed by the state."

Sometimes access problems were practical: Standing between the documents and the authors were often poorly paid bureaucrats who weren't enthusiastic to help others succeed with a project that wouldn't benefit them.

But cultural issues also came into play. "Russia ... is accustomed to keeping things secret that aren't secret at all," Pleshakov says, noting that growing nationalism reflected itself in part through a greater protectiveness about sensitive historical issues.

Equally challenging, though sometimes far more rewarding, was finding a family member or someone who had been close to a Romanov. "You can go through boxes of documents and find arid reports," Perry notes. "It was particularly exciting when we found people - their little tidbits can be so important to the mosaic."

Sometimes tracking sources down was as simple as looking in the phone book. Perry, for example, knew from an obituary of Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna in The New York Times that she had lived in New York - as had her private secretary, Betty Tobias. He went to the directory and started dialing.

"She was very surprised and delighted to hear from me," Perry recalls. In her 90s by then and somewhat temperamental, Miss Tobias happily sat for a long time with Perry to talk about her service with the former grand duchess.

And then there were coups like meeting the only Romanov survivor in Russia, a cousin of Nicholas II born just months before the 1917 revolution. She'd had an unusual career spanning everything from an agent for the secret police to a performing motorcyclist. But by the time the authors met up with her in 1998, she was a forgotten figure, living in a small apartment in Moscow that hosted just a few vestiges of Romanov history.

To pull it all together, each author participated in all the chapters but divided sources: archives, books, and interviews. They met periodically in places associated with the Romanovs - comparing notes and reading the manuscript word by word to each other to achieve a consistent rhythm. They relied heavily on e-mail, which allowed them to stay in constant communication.

Despite the strains that working in tandem on a project can bring - they say they can't count the number of drafts they wrote - the two are emphatic about one thing: Writing the book was an exhilarating experience, and one that was enhanced by blending Russian and American perspectives.

"It was one of the best experiences of my life," says Pleshakov, who was pressed to enhance his skills in negotiating the often-difficult Russian bureaucracy. "It helped me gain a much better understanding of Russia's [monarchy] and why it failed."

For Perry, the highlight involved getting to know people who, in the end, faced the same issues as families of far less privilege or fame.

"The focus was always on the personalities," he notes of their approach. "I am interested in family dynamics and people who rise to leadership. With the Romanovs, you could look at this extraordinary family that, underneath it all, was very much like other families.

"I hope readers will see it not just as an exotic episode, but something that speaks to these times."

*Amelia Newcomb is the Monitor's Learning editor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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