THE LAST EMPRESS: The Life and Times of Alexandra Feodorovna by Greg King (Birch Lane: $24.95; 430 pp.) It is a telling detail, a portent, if you will. Little Princess Alex of Hesse, summering with Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace, is fascinated by one of Grandma's mechanical toys, a full-sized lion with a crank for a tail. "When the tail was turned, the lion opened his mouth and swallowed the model of a Russian soldier." Swallow Russia she did, the girl who grew up to be Alexandra, though hardly single-handed and not by design. It is a familiar story: Nicholas rules Russia; Alexandra rules Nicholas; Rasputin rules Alexandra. Everyone is slaughtered--except maybe daughter Anastasia--and Russia lives unhappily ever after. A familiar story but one that hasn't begun to lose its quota of captivation. Handsome, feckless sovereign; fey, haughty Anglo-German who hitches her wagon to a czar; hemophiliac heir; sex-crazed mad monk--can't miss. Nor is King's entry any less fascinating than its predecessors.
It is King's conceit that the "disintegration" of Alexandra--and by extension, of Russia--was predestined by the 22 years before she married the man who was so spectacularly unqualified to rule (hence the vacuum into which she stepped, Rasputin on her well-turned heels). Mother Alice of Hesse was obsessed by death and the hereafter. Alexandra, then, grew up in a state of almost exalted melancholy and extreme religiosity. Coupled with "a susceptibility to grandeur and opulence," they were traits unlikely to endear her to the lusty, bucolic Russians. Her dependence on the randy Rasputin, moreover, was at once touching and somewhat Satanic; she (and author King) believed that the monk truly could alleviate son Alexei's illness merely by his presence: "Rasputin would pray; God would answer. To Alexandra, it was as simple as that." King build his case, painstakingly and with flair, in a valuable addition to the ongoing riddle of the Romanovs.