2006, Non Fiction
Wiley, $35.00, 576 pages, Amazon ASIN 0471727636
I am all for comfort. Not for me the torturous trappings of the 19th century woman, but if they ever make a time machine, I will gladly don a corset if it means I can go to a reception, dinner, and ball at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg during the time when the Tsar was still the absolute ruler of Russia. Even a woman like me who prefers jeans to velvet has a bit of the Princess in her. Till then, In the Court of the Last Tsar will have to do.
There are ten monarchies in Europe today: two principalities (Monaco and Liechtenstein); one grand duchy (Luxembourg); and seven kingdoms (Great Britain, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Denmark). Most of the time the Royals keep a fairly low profile – they cut ribbons, give speeches, visit schools and step out on the balcony and wave. It’s only on occasions like a royal wedding or a state dinner that they break out the tiaras and sashes and look regal. Great Britain is the only country that still has a coronation and goodness only knows what will happen when Prince Charles takes the throne.
Back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was a different thing entirely. Monarchs were remote and awesome figures, none more so than the Romanovs who ruled the Russian empire. The Russian court was the richest and most glittering court in the world and the letters and diaries from this time all attest to its magnificence. In this book, Greg King describes the Russian court at its peak, before the Revolution brought the whole gleaming edifice crashing down.
The Russian court was centered in St. Petersburg; the magnificent Venice of the North built by Peter the Great. The Tsar was the head of the court, government and army and he reigned as an absolute monarch answerable only to God. Beneath him was the royal family - the Grand Dukes and Duchesses, Princes and Princesses - and the noble families of Russia. These people lived lives of unbelievable wealth and luxury. The Youssoupov family kept bowls of polished gems around for decoration and it was a popular after-dinner game to see how many a guest could hold in his hand. If Princess Youssoupov was feeling magnanimous, the guest could keep the gems. Russian jewelry was so spectacular, that when Queen Victoria saw Princess Alexandra’s engagement gifts, she said, “Now Alix, don’t get too proud.”
This book describes it all - the palaces, the jewelry, the court functions and how a typical day in the Winter Palace progressed from both the Tsar’s and the palace servants’ point of view. King describes a summer vacation on the imperial yacht Standart, which was luxurious, albeit rat-infested. He describes the pomp and circumstance surrounding Nicholas and Alexandra’s wedding and coronation, and some of the festivities that took place during the tercentenary celebration of the Romanov dynasty, especially the Medieval Ball. The reader gets a grand tour through all the palaces, homes, and hunting chalets that belonged to the Romanovs. There isn’t much about Rasputin in this book, and although King doesn’t dwell on the cracks in the foundation of autocracy that widened as Nicholas reigned, he doesn’t ignore them either. However, readers who what to know more about Rasputin and the Russian Revolution will have to look elsewhere.
I love books that go into detail about people’s lives in the past and this one is chock full of fascinating bits. It describes Russian court dress for women, which was beautiful and distinctive, but so uncomfortable that women referred to wearing a court dress as “putting on the armor”. The book tells what kinds of candy you’d find in the bowls scattered around the reception rooms, why the Empress Alexandra kept her toilet covered up all the time, and how Russian military officers got into their skin-tight breeches. When I am bored with the mundane details of life, I can pick this book up, dip into a chapter and imagine myself at a ball dripping with jewels, dancing the mazurka, listening to gypsy music and finishing up with a troika ride.
-- Ellen Micheletti
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