Book Review: The last diary of Tsaritsa Alexandra

“The last diary of Tsaritsa Alexandra” is no novel, but a historical document. It is what its title suggest: one of Alexandra’s diaries. The book not only consists of the diary, but contains a small biography and other parts.

The diary was edited by Vladimir A. Kozlov and Vladimir M. Khrustalëv, while notes were provided by Alexandra Raskina. The Russian version was translated by Laura E. Wolfson for publication by the Yale University Press in 1997.

last-diary-alexandraThe English version starts with an excellent introduction by Robert K. Massie. This can be read as a short biography of Alexandra. It starts with an impression of her, recorded by another diarist, ten years before Alexandra was murdered. Lili Dhen describes the Empress’ figure, dress, complexion, jewelry – and that the Empress spoke Russian with a strong English accent (p VII).

This biography not only covers Alexandra’s background and life, but also indicates what shaped her character and personality. It describes her marriage and family life. It mentions that after her murder, over 600 letters, the diaries, as well as various documents were recovered, which are now in the Moscow archives.

Alexandra’s diaries cover 1887-1892, 1904, 1916-1918 and this last volume. This volume was actually a gift to Alexandra from her daughter Tatiana and records the last half-year of Alexandra’s life and the move from one prison-house to the next.

Alexandra was not what some would call a diarist. She did not wrote long accounts nor many personal opinions or feelings. This diary differ considerably from say, an account by Catharina the Great. Here are recorded a date and times and a few words, sometimes a paragraph of how the day was spent.

The introduction and editorial note warn the reader: Alexandra wrote in English, but also used a code she devised herself and “… she freely alternated between the Roman alphabet and the Cyrillic alphabet, …” (p. LVIIII)

Throughout this book are photos. Many are of the family, their prisons, one of the cratered and partly destroyed wall of the cellar in which they were murdered. There are also photos of pages of the diary and its content. As in the Amsterdam Hermitage exhibition, where personal letters can be seen, the handwriting stands out. Not just of Alexandra herself, but Tatiana’s dedication.

The last entry in this diary

The last entry in this diary

This book contains a photo of the original diary opened at Tatiana’s dedication on a left page. Opposite is the translated, edited, printed text. The handwriting is clear enough, to read part of Tatiana’s message in the photo: “To my sweet darling Mama dear …” The last photo shows Alexandra’s last diary entry, for 3 (16) Jul 1918 – with a blank page next to it.

It is followed by an afterword by V.A. Kozlov and V.M. Khrustalëv. This in turn is followed by a timeline of events starting with 1 (14) of January and the attempt on Lenin, up to the 18th of July 1918. Then there are a glossary and list of sources.

Each entry lists the date, as well as which Saints’ Day it was or if it was an important date like “Coronation” or a birthday of a member of her own or extended family. Alexandra records temperatures and weather conditions, then jotted down times, with remarks for each “time slot”. Think “breakfast at, lunch, dinner at followed by” one jots down in an ordinary diary.

Comments consists remarks about Baby’s health – Alexei’s health dwindled during imprisonment, the girls doing needle work, that Alexandra suffers from a headache, that the family and a few friends (imprisoned with the family) play cards, or that there is “no news”. Spiritual readings are recorded, as well as what books were read and what lessons the girls did. Alexandra set her children tasks, so there are notes about Tatiana reading parts of the Bible, or Maria having a German lesson. What stands out most, is the dreary repetitiveness of the long days in isolation.

Readers need to be familiar with the situation in the houses where the family was held through the introduction or other sources. In their last “home”, most windows were painted over and none could be opened. When guards suddenly relented and paint was removed from one or two windows and one window could be opened – the relief was immense. Freedom of movement was curbed. What probably helped Alexandra keep sane, were the care for her Baby and simple things like reading, needle work, having her family around her.

The diary gives a good impression of this family’s last day. Not just how cut off they were, but also the pettiness of guards, the lack of news, occasional fears, unfounded hope based on lies (about the return of people who had been imprisoned and killed) – and that being murdered was simply not expected. The situation can best be compared with present-day political prisoners in far too many countries the world over – though without much physical torture.

“The last diary of Tsaritsa Alexandra”, Yale University and the State Archive of the Russian Federation, hard cover, 222 pp excl introduction, first publication, 1997. Available through Amazon.


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