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The Last Czars

I've always been a bit of a history nerd, though I must admit I tend to be mostly in love with the victorian and edwardian era. I love to research and study up on different events and people, along with information on daily life. One part that I've always been very interested in and loved to study and learn about is Nicholas II and his reign, including the awful end that he and his family met. So you can only imagine how excited I was when I heard that Netflix was making a documentary about this very subject! I was obviously a little skeptical about the documentary, but I was happy to see that it wasn't one long two-hour documentary, but instead a series of six episodes each around forty minutes long. I immediately decided to watch it and quickly consumed it in its entirety!
So, the all important question: 

Did I like it? 

Well... yes...and no. I'll explain below what I liked, didn't like and just didn't really care about one way or another. 

The main question I think people are wondering is did I think the story was historically accurate? It was as accurate as the movie Titanic, in that it had the basic storyline of what happened, but also had a lot of bullshit thrown in to try and make it more entertaining. Was it entertaining though? It was, to an extent, but I was annoyed at just how many liberties Netflix took and just how much they added to make the story "better". Personally, I think the real events of the story are interesting and dramatic enough, but I understand why they did it. Most people have heard of the Romanovs and what happened to them, but it's not a subject too many people actively research so I'm sure Netflix wanted to make it more soap opera-y to get more people interested.

I liked that The Last Czars had the scholars and historians continuously explaining and giving feedback and context to what was going on throughout the series, but I wish there was more time devoted to their segments so that things could be explored more. I get that it's a very complex subject and would take way too long to explain everything fully and 100% accurately in (roughly) six hours, but I think they really rushed certain aspects of Nicholas II's reign. It was an overall disaster in every sense of the word, from famine, depression, the ever increasingly bleak outlook on the front end, as well as Nicholas' incompetencies, but the series seems to put the blame mostly on Rasputin (more on that later). It's true there's way to deny that Rasputin was a figurative knife that twisted and destroyed the tsar and tsarina's reputation and view for the russian people, both Nicholas and Alexandria were both seriously incompetent to rule in a long list of different ways. This is even acknowledged in Episode 5, after Rasputin is assassinated and the scholars point out that, "Everyone realises suddenly, that actually it wasn't Rasputin who was governing Nicholas. It was Nicholas governing Nicholas.". Not only that, but the show seems to make it out as if Rasputin nudged and encouraged Nicholas II to personally lead the army, and as if "poor naive Nicholas" simply went along with this idea. But in reality, Rasputin was merely just telling Nicholas whatever he wanted to hear, and whether Rasputin had said anything or not, the tsar almost certainly would've ended up personally leading the army eventually. Not just because he was seemingly unable to see his own failures as a tsar, but because he really believed that he was divine and a God in his own right, so felt as if he was unstoppable. 

Another thing that I didn't like about how Rasputin was portrayed in the series (and I can promise that I no fan of him) is that they seemed to really stress that he was a khylysty, a member of a sect that believes in self-flagellation and mass orgies in order to gain repentance for committing sins. It is true, that Rasputin did believe in sinning by drinking and being intimate with women, but this was more of his way to excuse those parts of his behaviour that he couldn't seem to get rid of. During the reign of Nicholas II, there were dozens of reports that were done into Rasputin and his background and history to try and prove that he was in fact a part of this sect, but there was never any conclusive evidence that this was more than a rumour. His own daughter, Maryona, went on the record to say that while he looked into the sect, he didn't join it in part because he was completely against self-flagellation. Though, it's true that she tended to paint her father's memory with a rose-coloured brush, it's worth noting that since no investigation ever came up with hard proof that he was a member and his own daughter also denied this, it's not fair to ignore everything and insist he was. 
Although the show hints at this throughout the show, the tsar was extremely religious, almost to fanatical levels and was known to pray for hours on end every single day, but especially whenever something bad happened or an important decision needed to be made. While this seems admirable, to have someone love and hold their religion so close to themselves that they devote hours upon hours every single day to praying and trying to grow closer to God, this proved to be a very bad move on the tsar's part. He believed (as many rulers of that time did) that God flowed through his veins and that God's desires and decisions were spoken to him, which led to him making some very bad and extremely reckless and disastrous decisions. The part after Rasputin's funeral where Nicholas reminds Alexandra that Rasputin had told them to "trust in God" and then decides to return to the front line is exactly what he believed and how he treated every decision. He believed that by trusting in God and doing whatever he felt was best (whether it made sense or not), that he was doing God's will and would be victorious. Though there is plenty of evidence that his advisors were mostly against a lot of the decisions he made, even trying in vain to convince him to do what they saw as being the most logical decision. Instead, almost every time, he would instead pray to God and then do what he wanted, the only real exception being entering World War I, which Rasputin and the tsarina both advised against. 

One part pf the show that I found really aggravating and inaccurate, was the way Nicholas' uncle Sergei was portrayed. He was shown to be a hateful, nasty, foul-tempered person who cared very little for Nicholas or the country, but mostly in his own interests. While it's true that he was very much against reform and was very cruel in his treatment of the lower classes, this is unfortunately a common problem of old-held beliefs being carried on by the older generation. He was, after all, the son of Alexander III, who saw his father, Alexander II (known as The Last Great Tsar) assassinated during some of the biggest reforms the country had ever seen. It was said that Alexander III saw his father's assassination to mean that reform was an ill-advised step in the completely wrong decision and it made him determined to oppose reform as much as possible, a sentiment he no doubt passed to Sergei. While it is true that the Khodynka Tragedy was definitely largely his fault, from choosing such a muddy location whose ground was extremely uneven from being used by the army as training ground (there were many trenches throughout that were used for training), to not making sure there was enough security to help keep things calm and under control, as well as not having the forethought to anticipate just how many people were going to attend, it's almost cruel to show him as completely uncaring. The whole series seemed to show him as a giant asshole who just didn't care and that was that, but while he initially put the blame on others, he did eventually go to the tsar and offer to resign, but this was effectively blocked by his brothers who threatened to resign from public life (shocking, I know) if this happened. 

One thing I disliked was the way his assassination was treated, not only because it was made much more fantastic than it really was. In the series, a man walks next to the carriage and throws the dynamite in and Uncle Sergei curses and stomps around a little before his carriage blows up. His wife (the tsarina's sister) is outside of the Nicholas palace and is somehow unharmed, as is the assassinator, who stands next to where the carriage was and screams that he killed the Governor of Moscow. In reality, Sergei and his wife had already retreated from public life and public office and he was in the final processes of closing his office, which is why he got in the carriage. His wife, was inside of the Nichlolas palace at the time of the explosion, and while it is true that the bomb was thrown into the carriage by Ivan Kalyayev, it was a nitroglycerin bomb, not a few sticks of dynamite, and it was thrown directly in Sergei's lap and immediately exploded. The force of which caused the palace's windows to shake and rattle, which is what caused his wife to run outside and see what had happened. Kalyavev did not stand next to the carriage and scream and declare victory as is shown in the series, but instead, he was lying on the ground, covered in wounds and splinters (from the wooden carriage exploding right next to him) and was bleeding. He was actually so close to the explosion that he was sucked in by the force of evetything and was lying next to one of the wheels and was seriously injured (he had actually expected to die from the explosion). Also, he was not killed by firing squad after screaming, "Fuck the tsar!", but was hanged, since this was how executions were normally carried out.

Did Sergei's widow, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, really go to the prison to see Kalyavev and ask him why he killed her husband? Yes. She asked why he killed her husband and asked him to repent and said that she would go and ask for his life to be spared, but Kalyavev refused to repent as he believe his death would be more powerful than just assassinating Sergei. True to her word, Elizabeth did go and begged and pleaded unsuccessfully for Kalyavev to be pardoned, but her pleas fell on deaf ears and he was hanged two months later. She ended up retreating from public life, sold all of her jewels (including her wedding ring) and belongings and opened a convent, where she cared for the poor. This is why, later in the last episode, where we're told that she was captured by the Bolsheviks and thrown down a well, they mention that she continued to sing hymns until her death. While the narrator makes it seem as if she was killed immediately after the soldiers threw a grenade into the well, there is actually testimony from the soldiers that they actually threw two grenades, but this didn't kill the seven victims, and the soldiers resorted to lighting branches on fire and hurling down to the bottom. Months later, however, soldiers found the bodies down in the well and were shocked to discover that most had died from starvation and not from either the fall, grenades or even fire. In my mind, The Grand Duchess Elizabeth's death was the most tragic and upsetting, since she was one of the most innocent of victims, especially considering she had been a nun for a long time before the revolution broke out.

But, what I believe ultimately spelled ruin for the Romanov dynasty was just how completely out-of-touch the tsar and tsarina really were. Even when the revolution was in full-blown effect, they didn't seem to even care or understand just how dire and serious the situation was. In their minds, nothing had changed from the hundreds of years that the Romanovs' had first been brought into power. There is evidence that Queen Victoria herself urged the tsarina to make the royal family's life more public and to be more open and familiar to the public and that this was the only way to keep the public happy and to ensure that the royal family was beloved. However, the tsarina, for whatever reason, didn't believe that this was necessary at all and believed that in Russia, the entire population loved and adored the Royal family and that just existing was enough. 

Sadly, just as that logic is flawed, there is more than ample evidence to show that the very opposite was true: by isolating and withdrawing from public life, the royal family not only became out of touch with the public (and to some extents, reality) but that they weren't seen as the people's tsar and tsarina, but as someone that didn't belong to the public at all. While one could argue that this is something that gradually happened over the reign, there's no more definite spot in history when this sentiment really took over than after Bloody Sunday, when thousands of the public marched to the Winter Palace to give the tsar a petition and the army fired and killed around one thousand. After this, the tsar and tsarina were seen as being uncaring and were blamed for everything bad that happened (while before, people tended to blame local government and Governors).

Something that really made me mad was the tsarina's portrayal in the series! She was made out to be this crazy, hysterical woman who was completely unhinged. It's true that many believe that she suffered a mental breakdown due to the stress of having to care for Alexei, the tsarevich, but she mostly recovered and only tended to panic and (understandably freak out) whenever the tsarevich had an attack and was in pain. Back during the 1900s, haemophilia was a death sentence and led to very early deaths for anyone afflicted, so it's understandable that this would cause so much emotional and mental turmoil for the tsarina. Especially as she was the carrier of the disease and was even blamed and hated by her immediate family after she confided in them and finally told them of Alexei's condition. She greatly blamed herself and felt immense guilt, something that no one but herself can ever fully understand. 

During the parts that focused on World War I, when Nicholas goes to the front and leaves Alexandra in charge, she's shown as using drugs and being completely out of her mind. While it's true that she used, and later became addicted to Veronal, there isn't any evidence that she snorted cocaine (as shown in one scene where she's sitting at a desk and snorts some white powder before making an important decision). I think it is really in very poor taste for Netflix to paint the tsarina in such a poor light. It's true that she was completely inept at ruling and running the government and that she definitely had a leading role in the government growing increasingly weak and unable to function properly, but you cannot deny that Nicholas had just as much blame in the matter. 

Women are often portrayed as hysterical, overly-emotional people that fall apart at any sign of stress and it seems Netflix is carrying on this stereotype. No one person was to blame for the reign being such a disaster, but instead it was as if both the tsarina and tsar worked together to create their own form of dysfunction and confusion that led to their downfall.

I think all in all, the docu-series, The Last Czar, was as accurate as you would expect a dramatised historical series to be. It follows the basic storyline and events, while sprinkling plenty of fictionised details to try and make what happened much more dramatic. It seems as if Netflix was very concerned in making sure the history and context was explained in enough detail so that anyone watching could follow along. But considering the documentary is meant to follow the events of almost twenty-two years, certain places seemed rushed and certain events and facts are ignored. I can definitely see myself watching it again since it's a subject I'm very interested in, and I would recommend it to others. But if you want something that is completely factual, you'd be better off watching a documentary with just historians instead. 7/10, would recommend, but definitely view it with the knowledge that you're watching a soap opera with historical figures and events.

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