Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Kitchen Boy by Robert Alexander

Though the events are almost a century old, the imprisonment and execution of Tsar Nicholas and his family still hold an aura of mystery that fascinates. In haunting prose, Robert Alexander retells the story through the eyes of Leonka, on the kitchen boy to the Romanovs, who claims to be the last living witness to the family's brutal execution. Mysteriously spared by the Bolsheviks, the boy vanished into the bloody tides of the Russian Revolution. Now, through Alexander's conjuring, he reemerges to tell his story. What did the young boy see in those last days of the Imperial Family? Does he have answers to long-standing questions about secret letters smuggled to the Tsar, thirty-eight pounds of missing tsarist jewels, and why the bodies of two Romanov children are missing from the secret grave discovered in 1991?

I hesitated for a long time in picking up this book because I once read a description of Tsar Nicholas last moments and it so impressed me for its brutality that I always felt a bit depressed whenever I thought of reading this about it even in HF. But yesterday I was looking for something different to read and I thought it was time to give this one a chance.

I'm very glad that I did it because I think Alexander wrote an engaging story. Nothing is really new in the first chapters but he manages to make us care for the characters at the same time that he points out their flaws. We see them through the eyes of Leonka, the kitchen boy of the title. It is though him that the Imperial family receives notes from their supporters detailing a plan to release them. Since we know from the beginning how it all ends it's a bit sad to read of how much hope they had. The narrator is now an old man telling his granddaughter of the events of the past. He feels guilty that he did not manage to save them and he is the only witness of what really happened in the "House of Special Purpose" in that fateful night of July 17th 1918.

Leonka's narrative also gives a clue about why two of the children's bodies were missing from the family grave. When this book was published (2003) only three of the children's bodies had been found thus leading to stories about how two of them had maybe survived and been smuggled out of Russia. Alexander uses that in an interesting twist at the end of the book but in 2007 those two last bodies were finally identified in another grave thus proving that the whole family did die that night.

It is quite incredible the amount of research that Alexander must have needed to do to write such a story. There's a huge amount of information about Nicholas and Aleksandra's family and about their personalities and behaviour towards others. He doesn't shy away from concluding that Nicholas' rule was far from successful but it is difficult to accept that anyone should be condemned to the brutality the Romanovs faced. While it didn't much add to my knowledge of the period and people involved I found the fiction bits were interesting and well merged in the narrative. I think I might just have to try another on of his books in the future.

Grade: 4/5


  1. I've been wanting to read this one too because I read and reviewed another one of his books The Romanov Bride and I was really impressed with his writing. Someone mentioned that I should read this one as well. It is sad. I wish some of the children had survived as well. So tragic.

  2. I have read a lot of good reviews of this book. I really haven't read any Russian hist fic but I have always been intrigued by this story. Thanks for the review.

  3. I really liked this book. Russian history has always intrigued me and I think this book captured it well. I have never read any of his other books, though, and I really must do so!