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Last Russian Czar Remembered as Family Man


An exhibition never seen outside Russia provides a window into the private lives of the Romanovs, the last Imperial family of Russia. The image of Russia's last czar that emerges from the exhibit is much different from the legacy given to him by historians.

Historians do not speak kindly of the political legacy of Czar Nicholas II, proclaiming his 19th Century rule of the massive Russian Empire out of step and ineffectual.

Richard Pipes is a Russian history scholar at Harvard University. He says 26-year-old Nicholas was not the right man for the job he unexpectedly inherited in 1894 from his powerful father, Czar Alexander III. "He was weak, not terribly interested in politics," he says. "He basically only liked two things, his family and outdoor activities. But he insisted on maintaining autocratic authority because he felt it was his sacred duty to keep it intact and pass it on to his son."

A more sympathetic perspective is presented at the Newark Museum in the northeastern state of New Jersey, where Russian music plays in a replica of the main reception room of the late czar's favorite palace.

The museum's new exhibition reveals the czar's more intimate side through a rare collection of cherished family heirlooms, letters, books, photographs and home movies never before seen outside Russia.

More than 250 objects depict the passions and pastimes of the czar, his wife, the Empress Alexandra, and their five children. The exhibition recreates the family's private chambers inside the Alexander Palace, an isolated castle to which they permanently retreated after the first Russian Revolution in 1905.

Ulysses Grant Dietz is the Newark Museum's curator. He says the exhibition contains family portraits, favored religious icons, love letters, and thousands of family photographs taken by Nicholas, who was an avid photographer. "What the exhibition does is takes you on a kind of schematic walking tour of the private wing, the family wing, of the Alexander Palace, where Nicholas and Alexandra raised their children. You see really just one public room, and then you go through her room, his room, and the kids' rooms, filled with artifacts from those rooms that were saved through all sorts of curatorial miracles over the decades," he says.

Mr. Dietz says even the portraits that hung in their bedrooms reflected Nicholas and Alexandra's deep love for one another. "The two portraits at the beginning of the show I love because this is Nicholas and Alexandra the way they looked to each other. These are not official portraits, this is a portrait of her as a pregnant bride that he commissioned, they were married, but she was pregnant with her first child, Olga, and this is the way she looked to him. This is the portrait that hung in his reception room at the Alexander Palace," he says.

Yet as devoted as he was to his family, says Harvard's Richard Pipes, Nicholas was equally as inattentive to leading Russia's people and its massive military and bureaucracy. "His problem was that he was not suited to be an autocrat, and yet he insisted on being one. So Russia got the worst of both," he says.

Mr. Dietz agrees that the strength of Nicholas's character was not in his leadership, but in the fierce protectiveness of his family. "The ironic flip side to this was that he was a 26-year-old newly married husband with a 22-year-old wife, who wanted nothing more than to be at home with his wife and raise children with her. He was totally a family man, and the strength of that is central to this exhibition but it is also central to what was his undoing. Because it was his relationship with his wife and his children that encouraged him to keep the outside world at arms length," he says.

The exhibit also contains the diaries of the last czar, which clearly reflect his profound attachment to his children and his wife, whom he married over the objections of his family because she was not Russian Orthodox.

"It is an amazing story of a family that by any standards in the late Nineteenth Century was unusually close and devoted and by standards of upper class and royalty in the western world was amazing, an astonishingly close family. Most Victorian families in America were not devoted and as closely-knit as this family," says Mr. Dietz.

The exhibition also reflects a way of life that existed in Imperial Russia for 300 years. Mr. Dietz says czar Nicholas was not known for material excess, but merely lived the way his parents did. "The way that Nicholas and Alexandra lived was pretty typical of the way the aristocracy in Europe and the industrial rich in America lived at the time -- big houses, elaborate decoration, an endless supply of elaborate things to decorate your house with. This was the pinnacle of the industrial revolution, which was true in Russia as well as the entire West. You could go to stores, you could buy anything, the finest craftsmanship, the most beautiful materials if you had the money, there was nothing you could not have," he says.

In 1918, after the second Russian Revolution, czar Nicholas, his wife, and five children, were exiled to Siberia under prison guard. It was there that revolutionaries killed the entire family.

After the fall of Communism, a Russian Orthodox cathedral was built on the site. In August 2000, the Russian Orthodox Church canonized Nicholas and Alexandra as royal martyrs.

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