336 pages, Oxford University Press, ISBN-13: 978-0195081923
Nicholas II: The Last of the Tsars by the French historian Marc Ferro is a character study of the last monarch of Imperial Russia that views Nicholas II through his governance and is, all things considered, a rather plodding tome that offers a familiar history of events leading up to the 1917 Russian Revolution. I’ll save you a great deal of trouble and state that the only real revelation to be found here is Ferro’s suggestion (based on the contradictory accounts of the execution of the imperial family at Ekaterinburg in 1918) that his wife – Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna – and daughters – the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia – may not have been killed; indeed, there are even documents in the Vatican archives that support this theory, according to the author…IF, however, you would like to see these documents – or any other actual PROOF of this outrageous claim from Monsieur Ferro – tough; you just gotta take his word for it.
But Ferro’s book is more about the death of Nicholas II than his life. It is difficult to determine for what audience Ferro wrote: professional historians will find the absence of footnotes the least of the book’s peculiarities, while general readers will be discouraged by a style that all too faithfully reflects the “Annales School” (a style of historiography developed by French historians in the 20th Century that stresses long-term social history), of which Ferro is a prominent member. The book proceeds chronologically through four chapters, each subdivided every two pages by pretentious headers; the first three chapters tell little that is not already known about Nicholas and seem to have been written only to give book-length status to the final chapter.
It must be said that Ferro ably reconstructs the essential Nicholas: stubborn, shallow and bound by tradition. Though absolutely mandatory, the accompanying social and political explication is awkwardly integrated into the biography; it’s almost as if two distinct titles had been compressed into one. For better, more rounded and thorough looks into the Last of the Tsars, you’d be better off with Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie, a work that remains the volume of choice for a general audience, and The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II by while Edvard Radzinsky, which harbors more interesting details concerning the Romanovs’ final days.