London: “The Last Tsar” @ the Science Museum

Like many people, I think, I am fascinated by the lives and barbaric deaths of Nicholas II, Alexandra, and their children. As I think I’ve said before, I even signed up for a Russian history class as an undergrad on the assumption that we would discuss the tsars, only to be disappointed when it was nothing but communism, communism, communism (I mean, communism is interesting too, but if that’s all you want to talk about, you should maybe call the class Soviet History instead to at least give people a clue. Not that I’m still salty about that C or anything…). So I was pretty excited about the Science Museum’s new temporary exhibition “The Last Tsar: Blood and Revolution,” which also promised to contain a good dose of medical history, one of my favourite things. Admission to the exhibition is free, but you must book a ticket, which we found easy enough to do online on the day of the exhibition, shortly before we arrived. Normally I like to visit exhibitions in early-mid afternoon so I can avoid being caught in rush hour on the Tube on the way back, but on this particular afternoon, we were planning on going out to dinner after visiting the museum, so we booked the last slot of the day, at 4 (the museum closes at 6), and found the downstairs galleries of the museum virtually deserted, which was a rare treat. There were a handful of people in the exhibition, but I’m sure it was nothing like as crowded as it would have been during the day. Unfortunately, photography was not allowed, so I’ll post pictures of the objects I can find, and you’ll have to use your imagination for the rest.

Nicholas and George, from Wikimedia Commons.

The exhibition began with an introduction about who the Romanovs were, and their connection to the British Royal Family (as you can see from that picture of George V and Nicholas II side by side, they look eerily like twins, despite only being cousins, though George favoured snappier shoes (as do I!)), as well as a collection of bucolic photographs of the children from the worry-free days before WWI. Well, not exactly worry-free, because of course the Tsarevich Alexei had haemophilia, and Tsarina Alexandra had quite a few health problems of her own, but still, idyllic compared to being brutally gunned down after months of imprisonment. It was actually Alexei’s health problems that led to the royal family withdrawing from the court in the first place to try to improve Alexei’s health with frequent trips to the country, and it was this disconnection from the people combined with their desire to maintain an authoritarian government that caused the discontent that led to revolution, so if Alexei had not suffered from haemophilia, the world may well have been a very different place.

One of Alexandra’s maternity dresses. Copyright State Hermitage Museum.

The second gallery discussed Alexandra’s medical issues in more detail, as well as the kind of medical care that was available in Russia at the time. Apparently health care there was fairly progressive for the era, provided by a mix of the church, charities, and local government, and they were moving away from things like restraining people suffering from mental illness. Unless you were a political prisoner, of course, in which case you would be put in chains in a dark cell and essentially left to rot. Many political prisoners chose to commit suicide rather than continue to suffer under appalling conditions, as we learned in a small, somewhat incongruous section that included photos of the horrific-looking cells. Of course, Alexandra went through none of this pre-Revolution, though she did struggle with aftereffects from her pregnancies in her all-encompassing need to produce a male heir (their first four children were all girls) – probably a combination of sciatica and postpartum depression, with a few other unpleasant side effects thrown in. Since mainstream medicine couldn’t always help, she ended up turning to folk medicine, especially in the case of her son Alexei and their relationship with the controversial Rasputin.

Imperial Steel Faberge egg. Copyright Moscow Kremlin Museums.

The next two sections were about Alexei and the effect his haemophilia would have on the royal family (it was discovered very early on, when his umbilical cord wouldn’t stop bleeding), and the First World War and its impact on Russia. Of course, WWI was another major catalyst for the Revolution, due to the heavy losses suffered by the Russian Army and growing dissatisfaction with the war, for which the royal family largely took the blame. However, although they didn’t suffer during the war along with their people, they did help with the war effort, in particular Olga and Tatiana, the two oldest daughters, who volunteered in a Red Cross hospital. Thanks to the Romanovs’ closeness to their British royal relatives (both Alexandra and Nicholas were related to them. They were second cousins and Alexandra was Victoria’s favourite granddaughter), there was also a British hospital in Petrograd during WWI, financed by contributions from both sets of royals. Because of course they had to stick some Faberge eggs in somewhere, there were two in this room, including a very cool one made from Imperial steel and resting on bullet cases, which was filled with a miniature easel depicting Nicholas and Alexei surveying the troops. As part of one of many, many medical treatments over the years, Alexei saw a doctor who took some x-rays of him, and fascinated by this, Nicholas and Alexandra both had their hands x-rayed, which were on display here (fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it) they were all killed before having to worry about the high doses of radiation present in the early x-raying process).

Alexandra’s radiograph. Copyright Harvard Medical Library.

The final two galleries covered their murder and the attempts to solve it over the years, starting with Nikolai Sokolov’s 1920 investigation, right up to modern DNA analysis of the remains found in Ekaterinburg. Their murders are probably the part of their lives I’d read about most extensively, so it was very cool getting to see some of the artefacts found as a result of the investigation, including clothing and jewellery belonging to the Romanov family, and letters from Sokolov’s investigation (Sokolov was a royalist, and the Bolsheviks weren’t well entrenched enough in 1920 to stop him from carrying his investigation out. He was assisted by the Romanov children’s former English tutor, Charles Gibbs, who was so close to the family that he agreed to follow them into exile, and upon his return to England became a Russian Orthodox priest and turned his chapel into a shrine to the family). The Soviets did admit to killing Nicholas II in 1926, but it wasn’t until after the collapse of the USSR in 1991 that they admitted to the murder of the rest of the family.

Nicholas’s radiograph. Copyright Harvard Medical Library.

The modern DNA tests were assisted by Prince Philip, who is related to the Romanovs through his maternal line (his great-grandmother was Princess Alice, Victoria’s daughter, who was Alexandra’s mother) and agreed to provide a sample for testing, which proved a match. The bodies of Alexei and one of his sisters (DNA testing can’t narrow it down any more than that) were the last to be found, in 2007. There were facial reconstructions based on their skulls here on display, which looked better than these sorts of things usually do, though it’s presumably a hell of a lot easier to do a facial reconstruction when you know roughly what you’re aiming for. The whole family have been canonised in the Russian Orthodox Church (which is not without controversy, but the exhibition didn’t mention anything about that), and all except the final two children to be found have been given an official state funeral.

Red Cross Faberge egg. Copyright Cleveland Museum of Art (!).

Although none of this was anything earth-shattering (and some things weren’t really touched on, like all the Anastasia imposters in the first half of the 20th century), it was nonetheless a good exhibition, and I learned some things I didn’t know about the health of the rest of the family and Alexei’s specific type of haemophilia, which is apparently the rarest type (type B). It is a sad story, as Nicholas may have helped bring about his own downfall, but communism would prove even worse for the Russian people than Nicholas’s reign, and even though Nicholas and Alexandra seemed like unpleasant people in many ways, that doesn’t mean they deserved to die, especially not their children (I do put some of the blame for that on George V for refusing to allow them into Britain when they begged for his help, though they kind of blew it themselves by not getting out earlier when they had the chance. All of these royals come off like jerks). I think the section about political prisoners, whilst interesting, didn’t really fit in with the theme of the rest of it other than to try to establish a reason for the royal family to have been hated, and probably would have worked better in an exhibition about the Revolution specifically rather than one that aimed to be mainly about the Romanov family, especially since it otherwise shied away from controversial subjects. Still, for a free exhibition, I can’t really complain, and I certainly don’t regret going to see it. 3.5/5.

18 comments

  1. I, too, am completely fascinated by the Romanovs (and weird medical history). I highly recommend the book “The Fate of the Romanovs” if you haven’t yet read it. It’s a great companion piece to “Nicholas and Alexandra.” This sounds like an interesting exhibit–great write-up and commentary!

    1. Thanks for the recommendation! I’ll have to check it out one of these days. I’ve had Nicholas and Alexandra on my to-read list for ages, but still haven’t gotten around to reading it because the libraries here didn’t have a copy, though I just looked it up and they finally got one, so I’ll have to remedy that!

  2. For some reason I find this sentence hilarious (you always slip in a good wisecrack):

    “Nicholas and Alexandra both had their hands x-rayed, which were on display here (fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it) they were all killed before having to worry about the high doses of radiation present in the early x-raying process).”

  3. Such an interesting story and perfect illustration on how/why most monarchies eventually fail. I’ve always loved Faberge stuff – but I’d never seen the stainless steel egg. Very cool. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond has a good collection of Faberge – including 5 eggs (it’s one of my favorite art museums and it’s free). I loved the x-ray images. My dad tells about getting his feet x-rayed once or twice a year at the shoe store when he was a kid. How times have changed!

    1. I saw a great Faberge exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art when I was a kid, and that Red Cross one is in their permanent collection, along with a few others, if I remember correctly.
      The Clarks factory outlet shop in Somerset still has a foot x-ray machine in it. I wanted to try it out, but the line was too long, so we just went to the Shoe Museum there instead.

      1. I just went to Google to look up the x-ray machine in Somerset and your site came up on the first page of results 🙂

  4. Very interesting post. That idea about Alexei and his illness being a historical monkey wrench makes one think. But then, things just go as they do and there are no simple answers.

    1. It does. There’s so many things that seem relatively inconsequential that go on to change the course of history, and it’s fun to speculate, but no one can really know for sure what would have happened otherwise.

  5. Someone else blogged about this recently, I can’t remember who. It looks great. I too find them fascinating since seeing the film Nicholas and Alexandra as a teenager just about the time I was becoming interested in history. I had the book of the same title (a much more serious affair) and you’ve sent me to my shelves, but it’s no longer there. It was a paperback so no doubt disintegrated, along with the picture of the Romanov family as portrayed in the film which I kept along with it.

      1. Yes, though I wouldn’t have remembered who was in it beyond the leads without looking it up. I’d even forgotten Tom Baker was Rasputin, though I think this was before he was Dr Who so I maybe didn’t know who he was in 1971.

        Hope the rest of your trip went well.

  6. Yes to George’s shoes! Like you, I’m a sucker for two-tones.
    The x-ray bit is really neat! I hadn’t realized they’d done that. Any mention of what the metal bit next to Nicholas’s wrist was?
    I have to admit that I was hoping they’d have more on Rasputin. And it’s probably in bad taste to say, but my first hope was that they’d have his penis there. (I’ve since looked it up and it turns out it’s questionable whether or not anyone actually has it. (Also, I suppose it wouldn’t exactly be a classy addition to an exhibit on the Romanovs. … but still.))
    I have to say I like that steel Faberge a lot more than others I’ve seen. They’re usually far too jeweled for my liking. And I love the idea of the tiny portrait inside.

    1. I recently got a pair of four-tone boots, which I reckon is twice as good as two-tone!

      I’m not sure what the metal bit is – it looks like a bit like a wristwatch, but I know those weren’t commonly used until during the First World War, so maybe not. Just going from the positioning, it may have been either a metal coat button or a cuff link.
      Yeah, I think the location of Rasputin’s penis is a bit of a mystery (I did read a book about him that talked about it in detail though), rather like Samuel Pepys’s bladder stones, which I would LOVE to see, but they seem to have gone missing at some point in history.

  7. Four-tones?! Yes! Sight unseen, I can tell they’re awesome.
    Oh I’m a dope – I hadn’t even thought about it being a button or cuff link.

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