In the turbulent early days of revolutionary Russia, Bolshevik agents herded the deposed Tsar Nicholai II, his family and aides into the basement of a Siberian house and executed them all in a blaze of gunfire. Details of what happened that fateful night have taken decades to emerge, reaching a terrible climax with the 1991 excavation of a mass grave believed to be the one in which some of the members of the Romanov family were buried.
Writer Robert Alexander, a fluent Russian speaker who studied in Leningrad, became fascinated with an obscure reference in the Empress Alexandra's personal journal shortly before her death, noting that their kitchen boy had been sent away. This brief reference from a forgotten 1918 diary took root in Alexander's imagination and, after much research, blossomed as his new novel The Kitchen Boy. This intriguing work of speculative historical fiction recreates the last days of the tsar through the eyes of the young Leonka, who recalls how he secretly returned to the Siberian house that served as the Romanovs' prison and witnessed their execution.
The novel successfully maintains an intense atmo-sphere of peril and suspense despite the reader's foreknowledge of the Romanovs' fate. The calamity is heightened by the fierce, almost primal protectiveness the parents showed toward their children who nevertheless would die with them—invoking compassion for the royal family as people rather than dusty national symbols. Despite the sympathetic portrayal of the tsar and his family, Alexander doesn't ignore the judgment of history. As Leonka notes, however well-intentioned Nicholai and his empress may have been, their rule over Russia was a legacy of war, revolution, corruption and oppression. But the thuggish Bolshevik revolutionaries fare no better under the novel's scrutiny.
The Kitchen Boy is a fascinating and suspenseful glimpse of a tempestuous but shadowy period in Russian history. It's also a moving portrait of a family that, despite their legendary role in world events, proved in the end to be as mortal as the rest of us.
Gregory Harris is a writer, editor and technology consultant in Indianapolis.