“The Tsar and Empress: Secret Letters” (2017)
A lavish two-part series revolving around the letters that Tsar Nicholas II, the last Emperor of Russia, and his wife the Tsarina Alexandra, this documentary explores the theme of how two individuals’ love for each other is so consuming that they end up isolating themselves from everyday affairs and in so doing, condemn themselves and their children to untimely (and brutally violent) deaths and the Russian empire to instability and chaos. While this series can be highly informative about the Romanov couple and the people associated with them (notably the self-proclaimed holy man and mystic Grigory Rasputin), it is weak in placing them in the wider political context of the last decades of Imperial Russia, and in the relationship of the position of tsar and the Russian imperial family in the empire’s politics and society. Anyone wanting to know more about how the last tsar and tsarina were so unsuited for the roles they inherited and should have been prepared for, and how Russian society changed so much in the late 19th century that it left imperial political institutions behind in the dust – leaving Nicholas II and Alexandra even more superfluous – will be left wanting by this series, in some ways as much divorced from the wider political historical context of Imperial Russia as the hapless last Romanov emperor and his family were.
Narrator historian Suzannah Lipscomb, cutting an unforgettably glamorous figure with flowing wavy blonde locks and fur-collared scarlet jacket, does a capable job investigating the private lives of the tsar and tsarina from the time they meet in 1884 all the way to their awful deaths in the cellar of the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg in 1918. Lipscomb is aided by other historians who emphasise the characters of both Nicholas II and Alexandra as instrumental to their relationship, which seems at times to have been quite shallow in its constant and almost suffocating infatuation, even given the fact that at the time people writing personal letters to each other could be melodramatic in expression, and in particular their beliefs and weaknesses which made them unpopular with most sections of Russian society. Nicholas II seems to have been easily dominated by Alexandra, a strong, forceful but credulous woman; he clearly was not born to be a leader, much less a leader of one of the world’s largest empires and one undergoing vast social changes that were bound to generate unrest and desire for political, economic and social reforms among the people and in turn place great political pressures on the Imperial government and on Nicholas II himself, in particular on his choice of ministers and other advisors. In this, the tsar made disastrous choices in relying on his wife and the most senior ministers such as Plehve and Pobedonostsev who met public demands for political reform with repression and violence.
The documentary’s narrative style is restrained in contrast to the romantic melodrama of the Tsar and his wife’s letters, several of which are read out by off-screen voice actors. The characters of Nicholas II and Alexandra alone suffice to convey the autocratic and introverted character of the Russian monarchy and its remoteness from most of contemporary Russian society at the time. Surprisingly there is very little information about how the couple brought up their children, apart from the understandably close and often obsessive attention Alexandra gave to Alexei, the only son and a haemophiliac to boot. Reading Internet sources enables one to discover that Nicholas II and Alexandra were devoted parents, in many ways even model and quite progressive parents, to their five children but one shouldn’t have had to trawl Google outside the documentary to find this information, given its subject matter and range.
Where the documentary really falls down though is in not considering how the backgrounds and education of the doomed Romanov couple contributed to their characters and the flaws in them, and how all these factors might have led to their unpopularity with the Russian people and their consequent withdrawal and isolation from society to focus obsessively on their relationship and their children. Alexandra’s reliance on Rasputin says much about the couple’s lack of education, their naivety and inability to cope with the pressures and expectations imposed on them by the institution of monarchy and the competing forces of modernisation in Russian society. In some ways, Nicholas II and Alexandra are not to be faulted for having been brought up by their respective families to have a conservative view of monarchy and its role in society, and of their particular roles as Tsar and Tsarina, divinely appointed to ensure stability and to lead and guide the Russian people, gently at times but firmly – very firmly, to the extent of using punishment and violence – away from modern attitudes and demands for democracy and reform. Had the documentary laid more emphasis on the conflicting social and political demands made on the last Romanov emperor and his wife, viewers might come away with a more sympathetic opinion of them.