King, Kaiser, Tsar by Catrine Clay

SPOILER ALERT!!!!  If you don’t know that the 20th century begins with World War I, don’t read any more of this post!

This book was a Christmas present for Drew many years ago.  We had both read a novel called The Kitchen Boy, historical fiction based on the end days of the Romanov family.  Drew had been fascinated with this time in history long before The Kitchen Boy even came out, but all it takes is a good book to fascinate you all over again.

Ever since he read it, he’s been asking me to check it out.  But you know how it is…there’s always another book waiting in the wings, and it’s difficult to place someone’s recommendation before your own.  This summer, however, with the heat of Las Vegas closing in on us, a book focusing on Russia, Germany, and England and the royal ties between them seemed like a welcome respite.  There’s also nothing like a tragic, Shakespearean historical tale to make you feel like whatever might be bothering you isn’t that bad.

The book is exceptionally readable for its undertaking — the author really tries her best to focus only on the most important players.  Even as a slight German speaker, I had trouble keeping track of all the members of Kaiser Wilhelm’s court — everyone was von ________ern this or zu _______berg that.  Tricky stuff.  So the extra bureaucratic players blended together into two groups  for each sovereign — those that supported monarchy, and those that supported democratic systems.

My favorite picture from the book -- Tsar Nicholas on the left and King George on the right. Look like twins, huh? Would you guess that their mothers were sisters? I bet you would. And you'd be right.

By the end of the book, I really had a handle on the personalities of all three monarchs.  They’re sort of like the Beatles — there’s the quiet one (Tsar Nicholas), the beloved one (King George), and the crazed, autocratic, militaristic one who can’t possibly lose touch with reality because to lose touch would mean that he was in touch in the first place (Kaiser Wilhelm).  I guess Tiger Beat would call him the bad boy.

It’s so difficult to get into the spirit of the times, though.  Sure, through our post-revolutionary eyes it looks like Nicholas should have seen the demise of his reign coming for years, but through the eyes of an autocratic ruler who believes that God has placed the country under his care, and whose predecessors had, for DECADES, survived assassination attempts and revolutions — well, then it’s a little more difficult to see.

Tsar Nicholas, King George, Kaiser Wilhelm

Monarchy had to fall at some point, and it’s the poor luck of these three cousins to be the last ones.  The Kaiser is the most intriguing man here, because you’re never quite sure what he’s going to do next, but you know it’s something crazy.  This book posits that World War I is his fault — and it’s hard to see otherwise — because he felt shunned by England and Russia.  England hurt the most, though — Queen Victoria was his grandmother, and he was always torn between being German or being English.  Willy lives with a paranoia that England and Russia are plotting against him, and so he strengthens his army and builds up his navy as if to say, “Now you HAVE to pay attention to me.”  But the author doesn’t let the other two off the hook — they DID ignore Wilhelm to a certain extent, and could have changed the course of history by not creating an alliance with France that blatantly dismissed Germany…in fact, it was really in case of war with Germany.

The Tsar and his children

So, in conclusion…I don’t know.  To quote Monty Python, “Let’s not bicker and argue about who killed who.”  (That’s a deep cut, if you don’t know the quote.)  It does seem pointless to try to find out who was the first monarch at fault.  What is certain is that it was the perfect series of events to bring about the abdication of two monarchs — Wilhelm was forced to abdicate at the end of the war, and he was exiled to the Netherlands;  Nicholas was also forced to abdicate by revolutionaries in Russia, and the rest of his life plays out much more sadly…whereas it’s difficult to feel sympathetic to the Kaiser, it’s easy to feel sympathy and sadness for the Last Tsar and his family.  George is the only one who made it through the war unscathed, thanks in equal parts to the constitutional monarchy of Britain, which made the war not the fault of the king alone, and to his displayed attitude during the war.  The royal family put themselves on war rations while the war was going on, and made sure the British people saw they were doing it.  His upbringing helped him succeed here where his two cousins failed — Willy and Nicky never knew life without luxuries, but George, who was not the eldest son, had been in the Royal Navy for years, and not just in a non-combat role.

Obviously, I have a lot to say about this book and the history in it.  So let’s just wrap it up — I liked the book.  It was clear, interesting, opinionated, and you can’t create more fascinating characters or situations.  History makes the best books.  I feel bad for all the characters in it, just playing out the parts fate has dealt them as best they can.  And I feel like watching Fall of Eagles again, even though it was campy, 1970s BBC.  Since we’re seeing so many remakes anyway, how ’bout it, Hollywood?  You can’t get a better story than this.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

From the ballet -- Looks like the capture the desperation well. Don't tip onto the tracks!

Centurylink has caused this post to be barely existent. We waited for one entire month for them to hook up our Internet connection, and finally ended up ditching them and switching to Cox…who hooked up the Internet within two days. See, Centurylink, it was not the impossible task you thought it to be.
In the meantime, I finished Anna Karenina. Quite a feat. My first impression was that people must have had many fewer distractions in Tolstoy’s time, because there was a lot going on. Understatement!
But this was a novel that I had gotten halfway through in high school. It was the summer between graduation and college, and I was working at the Excelo Bakery, getting to work to open for them at 6:00 am. It helped to have a good book between 9:00 and noon, when I got off work. Not many people were buying donuts after 9:00. But, that summer, with trepidations of the oncoming move away from home and the frequent get togethers with high school friends, didn’t leave any mental space for poor Anna. At some point mid-book and midsummer, I just dropped it for a book where every character only had one name instead of four.
This time I started from the beginning again, and it took forever…as expected. But! I had NOT expected to become so engrossed in the twin story of Levin and Kitty! I would find myself rushing (or maybe Russian? Ha!) through the depressing, fatalistic sections about doomed Anna and difficult Vronsky to get to the story which Tolstoy must have meant as the positive counterpart to the passionate partners. Levin and Kitty survived together, and loved each other without the selfish bounds that Anna and Vronsky created around themselves.
And even though I knew what would happen to her (spoiler alert!), the train scene was gritty and intense, not what I expected from a book of this time period. It was more like the end of a Tarantino film, and I mean that in a good way. I read it three times before I felt that I understood what was going on philosophically and spiritually.  Also, I was inspired to finally read it all the way through because of the movie, The Last Station, about Tolstoy’s last days.  Really great film.  And now I want to see THAT again too!  Maybe it’s just a continuous roundabout of Tolstoy excitement — novel, movie, novel, movie — until you become so dizzy you fall on the tracks.  (Poor taste?)
All in all, a good read that I am glad to have crossed off my list, but feel no need to reread in the next thirty years or so. After that…maybe. AND! My new favorite song is a song by Phoebe Kreutz, called, “I’ve Got a Bad Feeling About Anna Karenina.”. I know how you feel, Phoebe. If only we could have warned her.

Seriously...a bad feeling.

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