The Kitchen Boy

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Overview

Drawing from decades of work, travel, and research in Russia, Robert Alexander re-creates the tragic, perennially fascinating story of the final days of Russian monarchs Nicholas and Alexandra as seen through the eyes of the Romanov's young kitchen boy, Leonka.
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The Kitchen Boy: A Novel of the Last Tsar

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Overview

Drawing from decades of work, travel, and research in Russia, Robert Alexander re-creates the tragic, perennially fascinating story of the final days of Russian monarchs Nicholas and Alexandra as seen through the eyes of the Romanov's young kitchen boy, Leonka.
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Editorial Reviews

BookPage Review

In the turbulent early days of revolutionary Russia, Bolshevik agents herded
the deposed Tsar Nicholai II, his family and aides into the basement of a
Siberian house and executed them all in a blaze of gunfire. Details of what
happened that fateful night have taken decades to emerge, reaching a
terrible climax with the 1991 excavation of a mass grave believed to be the
one in which some of the members of the Romanov family were buried.

Writer Robert Alexander, a fluent Russian speaker who studied in Leningrad,
became fascinated with an obscure reference in the Empress Alexandra's
personal journal shortly before her death, noting that their kitchen boy had
been sent away. This brief reference from a forgotten 1918 diary took root
in Alexander's imagination and, after much research, blossomed as his new
novel The Kitchen Boy. This intriguing work of speculative historical
fiction re-creates the last days of the tsar through the eyes of the young
Leonka, who recalls how he secretly returned to the Siberian house that
served as the Romanovs' prison and witnessed their execution.

The novel successfully maintains an intense atmo-sphere of peril and
suspense despite the reader's foreknowledge of the Romanovs' fate. The
calamity is heightened by the fierce, almost primal protectiveness the
parents showed toward their children—who nevertheless would die with
them—invoking compassion for the royal family as people rather than dusty
national symbols.

Despite the sympathetic portrayal of the tsar and his family, Alexander
doesn't ignore the judgment of history. As Leonka notes, however
well-intentioned Nicholai and his empress may have been, their rule over
Russia was a legacy of war, revolution, corruption and oppression. But the
thuggish Bolshevik revolutionaries fare no better under the novel's
scrutiny.

The Kitchen Boy is a fascinating and suspenseful glimpse of a tempestuous
but shadowy period in Russian history. It's also a moving portrait of a
family that, despite their legendary role in world events, proved in the end
to be as mortal as the rest of us.

Gregory Harris is a writer, editor and technology consultant in
Indianapolis.

Publishers Weekly
The Romanovs are arguably second only to Jack the Ripper as objects of literary speculation. The story of their last days, their possible escape and the final resting place of the $500 million in jewels hidden in their clothing provides periodic grist for fiction writers. Alexander's first novel is based on "decades of painstaking research" and access to previously sealed Russian archives. He has produced a detailed version of the Romanovs' captivity, but the book fails to deliver much drama, despite the inherent mystery of the events. Narrated by 94-year-old Mikhail Semyanov, a Russian immigrant now living outside Chicago, the novel travels back to the bloody days of the Russian revolution, when the entire royal family is imprisoned in Siberia, in a building known as the House of Special Purpose. There, the seven Romanovs-Tsar Nikolai, his wife Aleksandra, their hemophiliac son, Aleksei, and their four daughters-are confined with a small staff of attendants, including Leonka, the kitchen boy of the title, who may or may not be narrator Mikhail. The captivity is seen from Leonka's point of view, and his focus on the gravely ill Aleksei prevents the development of a fully nuanced portrait of the rest of the family. Instead, they're depicted as passive victims of a tyranny even worse than the czarist state. Though impressively detailed, the novel is often as static as a museum exhibit, with notes and documents held up for display. Most of the suspense is held for the end, a denouement that reveals Mikhail's identity and Alexander's imaginative theory about the final dispensation of the Romanov jewels. . (Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Drawing on 30 years of research and archival source documents, first novelist Alexander transforms a now-familiar and bloody era of history-the Bolshevik Revolution and the Romanov massacre-into a suspenseful and richly layered account of a family in deadly peril. The story is told from the viewpoint of a surviving witness, the kitchen boy who worked in the house where the Romanovs were imprisoned in 1918. Now an ailing grandfather, Misha records his experiences on tape so that his American granddaughter will know his real history. Tsar Nicholas and his wife, Alexandra, are portrayed as loving but achingly flawed people whose poor judgments lead inexorably to the family's destruction. The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, come off as comic book villains. Because the fate of two Romanov children, Alexei and Marie, is still not known (their bodies were missing from the family's gravesite when it was exhumed in 1991), Alexander's version of what might have befallen them packs a wallop that is surprising but consistent with his story. Sure to entrance readers in most public libraries, this is recommended for most historical fiction collections.-Barbara Conaty, Library of Congress Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Once again, the end of the Romanovs by execution, this time through the memories of an old man who claims he was there. In 1998, in a Chicago suburb, a wealthy aging Russian émigré bequeaths to his granddaughter a tape he’s made so that she will understand his role in the death of the Tsar and his family. According to the tape, he was a 14-year-old kitchen boy called Leonka in the Siberian house where the Romanovs were imprisoned. The narrator waxes on about the Tsar and Tsarina’s qualities as human beings—their courage, kindness, family devotion—while he begrudgingly acknowledges their weakness as rulers: Alexandra’s religious fanaticism and Nikolai’s unwillingness to accept the concept of a constitutional monarchy. Leonka rails against the Bolsheviks, declaring them swinish and vicious, and recounts the household’s dull daily routine of prayers, meals, and sewing (pounds of jewels inside the girls’ corsets). Because as kitchen boy he regularly leaves the house and is too lowly to draw suspicion, Leonka becomes a courier between the Tsar and unknown allies outside the walls. The days drag on until eventually, through Leonka’s carelessness, a letter is intercepted and plans for Nikolai’s execution are set in motion. Leonka watches through a window as the Romanovs are murdered and later recovers two bodies that fall from the wagon carrying them away. One is the heir, shot dead. The other is his wounded sister, Grand Duchess Maria. Leonka’s sense of guilt leads him, at great risk, to try to save Maria’s life. The tape over, the old man dies, and his granddaughter discovers that his story, though true in spirit, misleads in its most central details. Meantime, historical letters and otherfactual tidbits have been sprinkled throughout as if to prove authenticity, though they add little. More accurate than Ingrid Bergman waltzing with Yul Brenner, but also much duller.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781587244575
  • Publisher: Gale Group
  • Publication date: 7/1/2003
  • Pages: 354
  • Product dimensions: 6.24 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 0.76 (d)

Meet the Author

ROBERT ALEXANDER has traveled to Russia for nearly thirty years. Born and raised in Chicago, Alexander now lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Biography

A devoted Russophile, Robert Alexander has studied at Leningrad State University, worked for the U.S. government, and traveled extensively throughout Russia. While he's already made a name for himself with his series of bestselling mysteries (written as R. D. Zimmerman), he has also written a well-received trilogy of Russian historical novels (The Kitchen Boy, Rasputin's Daughter, The Romanov Bride) about the last days of Empire.

Good To Know

In our interview, Alexander shared some fun and fascinating facts about himself with us:

"Most of my friends know: I'm much too outgoing to be living in quarantine, as I do (as any writer does). Most of my friends don't know: I can ride a unicycle, I can't balance my checkbook, I broke my back going over a ski jump, and I was once enrolled in Meats 104 and Beverage 111 at a prominent School of Hotel and Restaurants, which prompted me to drop out and start my first novel."

"What I would like to know about me from someone is, why do I keep going to Russia? I've been going there for 28 years, and it's definitely not a place to unwind. But it certainly is always interesting. And that's where I met my domestic partner, Lars, and we've now been together 25 years. And it's also where I met my business partner, Meri, and we've been in business now almost 14 years -- we have a customs clearance business and Barabu, a small chain of espresso/wine bars. And I always come up with some weird story idea over there. So maybe I just answered my own question.

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    1. Also Known As:
      R. D. Zimmerman, M. Masters
    2. Hometown:
      Minneapolis, Minnesota
    1. Date of Birth:
      August 23, 1952
    2. Place of Birth:
      Chicago, Illinois
    1. Education:
      B.A. in Russian Language and Creative Writing, Michigan State University, 1976

Read an Excerpt

1

America
Summer 1998

"My name is Mikhail Semyonov. I live in Lake Forest village, Illinois state, the United States of America. I am ninety-four years old. I was born in Russia before the revolution. I was born in Tula province and my name then was not Mikhail or even Misha, as I am known here in America. No, my real name-the one given to me at birth-was Leonid Sednyov, and I was known as Leonka. Please forgive my years of lies, but now I tell you the truth. What I wish to confess is that I was the kitchen boy in the Ipatiev House where the Tsar and Tsaritsa, Nikolai and Aleksandra, were imprisoned. This was in Siberia. And...and the night they were executed I was sent away. They sent me away, but I snuck back, and that night, the moonless night of July 16-17, 1918, I saw the Tsar and his family come down the back twenty-three steps of the Ipatiev House, I saw them go into that cellar room...and I saw them shot. Trust me, believe me, when I say this: I am the last living witness and I alone know what really happened that awful night...just as I alone know where the bodies of the two missing children are to be found. You see, I took care of them with my own hands."

Misha took a deep breath, tried to push himself on, but couldn't. Panicking, he hit the stop button on his tape recorder, and just sat there on the flagstone terrace of his home, his eyes fixed straight ahead on the curling waters of Lake Michigan. Despite his determination, he'd faltered, been unable to proceed.

Over the many years since the Russian Revolution, Misha had come to realize that on a single night in 1918 he had witnessed far too much for an entire lifetime, particularly in the tortured silence he had so sternly observed in the ensuing decades. But such was his punishment. He was an old man, certain that this long life and clear memory were the torture he deserved. Yes, there was a God, for if there were not he would have been spared this suffering. Instead he kept on living. And remembering. True, he had gained some wisdom, for over the course of all this time he had come to look at that night as the start of everything horrible that had since befallen his poor Rossiya. As he looked back from these United States and through the distance of the decades, it was all so clear. A great curse was unleashed that night, inundating every corner of his vast homeland. If his comrades could commit such an act, was it any wonder that Stalin could kill upward of twenty million of his own people? No, of course not. On a hot night in the Siberian city of Yekaterinburg the individual had become expendable.

Misha was a tall man who walked with the slightest of limps, but over the last fifteen years, of course, he had grown smaller and his gait more halting as his body had settled and lost muscle mass. He'd always been trim, and it was this leanness that had undoubtedly contributed to his longevity and his lack of major illness. His hair, which he had always combed straight back in an elegant manner, had been snow white for more than thirty years, and while it had receded only slightly, it had definitely thinned. His face was narrow and long, his nose simply narrow, while his upper lip was straight and noticeably, almost oddly, small. Since his fifties, the tone of his skin had gone from robust to ruddy to its present parchment color, skin that now hung loosely from his sharp cheekbones. Always a dapper dresser, he wore lightweight gray wool pants and a yellow cashmere sweater over a pressed and starched blue shirt from Brooks Brothers.

Seated in a wrought iron chair on the raised terrace behind his grand, twenty-room house, he stared out over the bluff and at the lake, himself the very image of old Chicago money. Nothing, however, could have been further from the truth, for when he'd arrived in the United States in 1920 he'd had but a rucksack, one suitcase, and the clothes he was wearing. And while everyone believed that he'd made his millions on the stock market down at the Chicago Board of Trade, that too was a lie, albeit one that he had carefully cultivated.

Staring out at Lake Michigan, Misha was transfixed by the flashes of light upon the blue water, flashes that sparkled like diamonds. He'd been tormented his entire life because of that night more than eighty years ago, a night which until now he'd never spoken of to anyone except May, his beloved wife. But now he must, now he had no choice. May was already two weeks in the grave, and he was determined to follow her as soon as possible. Before he left this world, however, he had certain obligations, namely, to reveal a kind of truth to their only heir, their lovely granddaughter, Kate. May, who'd also fled Russia after the revolution, fully understood the delicacy of the matter, and even though she'd helped Misha decide just how it might be done, he'd put it off. Now, however, the time had come, he could wait no more: he must give the young woman not simply a way to understand, but a reason to fulfill a pledge he had made so long ago. No, he thought, he had to give her more than a reason. He had to set her on a mission, his mission, otherwise he feared she might flounder in confusion, even despair, and perhaps thereby stumble upon...upon...No, thought Misha, he couldn't let that happen.

He raised his wrist and checked his thick, gold watch, which these days hung so loosely on his thin wrist. It was teatime. And if May were still alive, he would be joining her upstairs. Their maid would bring up a pot of tea, Misha and May would each have exactly two cups, a biscuit or two, and May, who'd been bedridden for the past three years, would reminisce about Russia, as she had done so frequently in her last years, chatting about this and that, but...but...well, she was gone. All that was over. And now Misha needed to take care of this as soon as possible.

Clutching the tape recorder in one of his thin hands, with the other he grabbed the arm of the wrought iron chair and pulled himself forward. With no small amount of effort, he pushed himself to his feet. And then he simply stood there, swaying like a flag in a gentle breeze. Once he'd gained his balance, he started across the flagstones, one hesitant step at a time. At the house, he pulled open one of the French doors, lifted up his foot, focused all his attention on the effort, then stepped into the grand central hallway, a gallery of sorts, that ran from the front to the back of the house. The living room lay immediately to his right, and he carefully made his way into this grand room with its dark-beamed ceiling and matching woodwork. At the far end stood the focal point, the large, stone fireplace amputated from some French château, while a palace-sized Oriental carpet in deep reds and blues ran from one end to the other.

As he moved slowly through the room, Misha wondered what his granddaughter was going to do with it all, these antiques, the oil paintings, the Tiffany sterling and Steuben crystal bric-a-brac that May and he had collected over the decades. Perhaps she and her husband would keep everything, perhaps they would sell it all. He didn't much care, these common things didn't matter. However, the numerous Fabergé items-including the little jade bulldog with the diamond eyes that sat on the coffee table and the cobalt blue enamel opera glasses of the Tsaritsa's sister perched over there on the piano-were an entirely different matter. He'd left detailed instructions in his will, and he prayed Kate would follow his precise instructions. If only his story would induce her to do just that.

On the far side of the living room Misha moved through an arched opening and into his library that was filled with two red leather chairs, a large desk, and a massive built-in walnut bookcase that held his entire collection of books on the Russian royal family. Focused on the task at hand, he went directly to his desk and put down the small black tape recorder, laying it next to a manila folder-his dossier-which contained a variety of historical documents. Sure, a thousand truths, that was what it was going to take to convince his Katya, daughter of his son, which was precisely why he'd carefully collected copies of letters and diary entries and telegrams from that time. And he would not only read from these, but leave the complete dossier for her to peruse, even scrutinize.

Wasting no time, he sat down, opened the top desk drawer, and withdrew a sheet of letterhead. He then took a gold ink pen, and wrote:

August 27, 1998

My Dearest Katya,

This tape and these documents are for you. Perhaps together they will help you understand the complete picture. Please forgive me. Yours forever with love and devotion,

Dyedushka Misha

Satisfied, he laid aside the pen and paper. And now he had no choice but to continue, to press on to the end. He reached for the small tape recorder, held the microphone to his dry lips, turned the machine back on, and slid into the past.

"Yes, so as I was saying, my sweet one, I know what happened that horrible night the Romanovs were murdered. But the truth of the matter is that the beginning of the end of my Nikolai and Aleksandra commenced a few weeks earlier, which is to say I'll never forget the twentieth of June, 1918, the day we received the first of the secret notes."

—from The Kitchen Boy by Robert Alexander, Copyright © January 2003, Viking Press, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.

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Interviews & Essays

An Interview with Robert Alexander
Your book is the product of some extraordinary research. Was there any information that was particularly hard to find? If you could have just one missing document, what would it be?

First of all, I should say that doing the research was perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of writing The Kitchen Boy. There's just so much information out there—so many books, memoirs, biographies, archives, photographs, and newsreels—that it was a privilege to dive into such fascinating material and call it work. Ninety-five percent of what I sorted through was not difficult to find primarily because Nicholas and Alexandra were perhaps the most well documented royal couple in history. I say that because in addition to writing numerous letters and keeping daily diaries, their lives were captured by many of the newer technologies. For example, the entire Romanov family was crazy about photography, and the royal children each had their own wooden Kodak camera. Amazingly, they left behind 150,000 family snapshots, all carefully glued into albums—and that's not even counting the official court photographs. You can see a handful of these photographs at my Web site, www.thekitchenboy.com.

The only thing that was hard to find was information on the kitchen boy, Leonid Sednyov, who was removed from The House of Special Purpose just a few hours before the Romanovs were murdered. Several guards later testified that they saw Leonka, as the boy was known, across the alley in the guardhouse; they claimed he spent the night there and remembered seeing Leonka crying and curled up under a coat. The next morning he vanished, and it seems that no one made any serious attempt to find him. As the only survivor of the Romanovs' captivity, he could supply us with so many answers (who wrote the secret rescue notes, how were the two suitcases of imperial jewels smuggled away, did the Romanovs really expect to be saved, and more). A reader recently wrote to me and said she'd heard that Leonka died of typhus in 1929, and that he'd left behind a short memoir. If such a memoir still exists, that's the one document I wish I could have. Part of me believes, however, that if Leonka's memoir were out there, it would have been published long ago.

In your novel, your narrator says something surprising about cross-cultural perceptions. He says, "The truth is that Americans cannot possibly begin to understand the depth of the Russian soul." It seems to me that many of your readers will want to achieve just the kind of understanding that your narrator says they can't have. Is Misha just being difficult, or do you believe that there really is a psychological profundity that only another Russian can recognize?

What an excellent question. Yes, Misha is just being difficult, but in doing so he is, to me, being so very Russian; as I know them, Russians take remarkable—and remarkably smug—pride in the mysteries of their culture. I love Russians for their dramatic, emotional nature. They're not afraid to love, not afraid to get hurt, not afraid to exaggerate or act impulsively. Much of that, of course, is due to the extraordinarily tragic times they've lived through, from wars to revolution to rapidly changing political systems. In other words, they have an outlook and value of life that has, by and large, been shaped by tragedy. A small example of this is that many Russians spend money as quickly as they get it, and I believe that's due not only to the Soviet era where self-dependency was not encouraged but also, more recently, to hyperinflation and devaluation. I have a one hundred ruble note that in 1990 was worth $165 but today is worth maybe two cents (to me it's priceless as a bookmark), so obviously Russians have learned the hard way that there's no point in saving.

I should add that Russians and Americans always seem to get along very well on a one-to-one basis, and that, I think, is because we are both from great, expansive countries that are the most multicultural in the world. At the same time, however, there are many fundamental differences between us that continue to amaze me. One of the great mistakes we make is that we try to understand Russians in the context of European culture, when in truth Russian culture and society is historically more Asian than it is European. I've heard many Russians say that their country is not an Occidental one but Oriental, from which, they insist, they received mysticism, fatalism, and turmoil.

One of the fascinating qualities of Misha as a character is that he wants to be both known and unknown; he desires to be secretive, but he also wants to talk and talk. What are your thoughts about Misha's simultaneous love and dread of communicating?

So who doesn't want to tell a secret, particularly one that's been burning in your heart for decades? Actually, only very few people want or even succeed in taking a secret to the grave; most feel a need to confess as a way of lightening their souls, as a way of preparation for the hereafter.

And yet Misha's situation is actually quite different. Yes, he revels in finally revealing to his granddaughter so much of what he witnessed in The House of Special Purprose, and he is painfully delighted to relate what he knew about the Romanovs. But ultimately Misha is quite devious. He knows Kate will discover the items that are hidden in the house, he knows that if he didn't tell Kate anything she would have more questions than answers, questions that quite possibly would lead her to the ultimate truth. And that scares him, not only because he doesn't want his granddaughter to come to hate him, but, more importantly, because he's determined to protect her. So in reality Misha's so-called confession is actually his attempt at creating a penultimate truth, or more specifically, his attempt at creating a false truth that will be forever believed. Simply, his reason for telling Kate his version of the story is a very determined and planned attempt at controlling the future from his grave.

Even when a historical novelist makes it very clear, as you have done, that he has written a piece of fiction, readers may still turn to the book in hopes of finding some form of truth. You have written a book in which truth and falsehood richly intertwine. Is there anything you would like to tell us about the problem of "truth," either for a historian or for a novelist?

Facts alone are not the only way to discover truth. Indeed, I think stories that open both mind and heart are perhaps the best way to a greater truth, and therein lies the beauty of fiction. The problem of "truth" regarding the Romanovs is that I don't think we'll ever find it, I don't think we'll ever know what really happened in those final weeks and, in particular, on that grisly night they were killed. Three great mysteries exist that the facts cannot solve—who wrote the secret rescue notes that Nicholas and Alexandra received and responded to, what happened to over thirty-six pounds of famed Romanov jewels, and, most critically, what really happened to the Tsarevich Aleksei and Grand Duchess Maria? To me it's an incredible story—who could make up something like this!—and these still-unanswered questions are what compelled me to write the novel.

By the very nature of their profession, historians are of course forced to remain focused on the hard facts, but when the facts are skimpy or missing, it's difficult to create an accurate picture of what really happened. In fiction, however, one is not so constrained. As I wrote The Kitchen Boy, I could speculate, I could probe and imagine, I could ask "what if" and play that out. Also, I think it's important to recognize that most facts are, essentially, the result of human decisions, which are determined in great part by a person's emotions and feelings. And while the territory of emotion is a nebulous, even dangerous one, for any historian, it's fodder for a novelist.

Virtually all of the books on the Romanovs are nonfiction, which is why I wanted to do something different. The works of historians are priceless, of course, but historical fiction is often more accessible to the nonscholar. It also allows the reader to experience the events vicariously, to feel them and see them, rather than study them and potentially get bogged down in minutia. While we know via the facts what happened almost every day of the Romanovs' captivity, I wanted to use the magic of fiction to breathe life into those sweltering days, hours, and minutes, and thereby give readers another point of entry into the tragic story of Nicholas and Alexandra. We know the facts, but what did it feel like, what were their hopes, how did they interact? Not all of us are lucky enough to find our wisdom while we're still on earth, but I do think that Nicholas and Alexandra, who made many downright stupid mistakes, did in fact come to a greater understanding of their lives. And that, ultimately, is what impresses me about them and what I wanted to explore fictionally.

One story you have chosen not to tell us concerns the married life of May and Misha. Given the, shall we say, unusual circumstances of their coming together, how do you imagine them as a couple?

In my imagination I know almost every aspect of their lives. Simply, May and Misha are an utterly devoted couple, united by tragedy, truth, forgiveness, and love. May's love for Misha is much cleaner and purer, for in her soul she has come to terms with the events and resolved them, put them at rest. Misha's love for May, however, is more complicated—he's devoted, absolutely so, but he feels an even greater sense of obligation to her. Misha can't let himself forget. In fact, he's determined not to.

There are many things I know about May, Misha, and their granddaughter, Kate, that I either have written about in my writing journal or know in my mind but chose not to include in the book. Simply, there was very little I could write in the present that could compete with the actual story of the Romanovs. To paraphrase Shakespeare, the fall of royalty has forever been the grist of entertainment, and to me the fall of Nicholas and Alexandra is so very tragic because no matter their good intentions, every step was a misstep.

In developing May and Misha and what they lived through, I came to believe that every century has a crime that defines it. For example, by leading humanity down a path no one had imagined, the events of 9/11 seem to have already defined this century, not only because they were so unbelievable, but because they have determined the primary focus of the world ever since and perhaps for years to come. In the very same way, I think the liquidation of the Russian royal family—Nicholas, Alexandra, their five children, four attendants, pets, everything and all except, strangely, their kitchen boy—was a defining event for the last century because on that very night the individual became expendable for the supposed sake of the collective. Thus a terrible page in history was turned, and the stage was set for the mass liquidations that followed all over the world. In Russia alone tens of millions of people perished at the hands of Stalin, and then of course another twenty million or more Russians died in World War II. Just terrible.

In the Ipatiev House, everyone is under constant surveillance and your characters would suffer horrible penalties were they to say what they think. What were the challenges of writing a narrative in which so many thoughts and emotions have to be repressed?

The main challenge was to identify and create a sense of tension, the key ingredient needed in any book. In my opinion it's the element missing from too many contemporary novels, for without tension there is no pace, no reason to turn the page, and who doesn't like a compelling book, not to mention a page-turner? I think tension in a book is more important than ever because these days there is so much competition for the "moment" from television, videos, computers, the Internet.

Of course, the main problem in telling the story of the Romanovs is that their last months and days were horrendously boring. As Nicholas himself said, each day stretched on and on, one no different from the other, much like the monotonous days on a ship. To address the problem of tension, I focused on the opening paragraph of Chapter 1 in which Misha claims that not only is he the kitchen boy, but that he knows where the two bodies of the missing children are to be found, for, as he claims, "I took care of them with my own two hands." For anyone interested in the Romanovs, that statement packs a wallop, hopefully enough to draw one immediately into the book. Thereafter, I focused on the slow release of information regarding the secret notes and the jewels, at the same time always keeping my eye on the ball: the night of July 16, 1917. Actually, let me be even more specific. The whole crux of the book, its primary source of tension, is captured in this statement: if Nicholas and Alexandra's kitchen boy had survived, what would he be able to tell us?

The murder of the Romanovs is somewhat like the assassination of JFK in that, on one level, everyone knows what happened and, on another level, no one knows what happened. What was it like to construct a story that is at the same time so familiar and so mysterious?

Like walking a tightrope, frankly. There are so many intimate details—and so many people who know those intimate details—that I had to be especially attentive and careful of the facts. If a reader spots a mistake, then nine times out of ten they let you know! For example, I got a four-screen email from one reader who said he would have enjoyed my book but there was no wheelchair in The House of Special Purpose. I wrote back and gently broke it to him: yes, there was, I have a photograph of it in the dining room. Essentially, as I wrote I knew I couldn't blow my credibility, for a single mistake in the facts would break the sense of story and verisimilitude.

Readers who are familiar with Russian literature may sense a certain Dostoyevskian undercurrent in your prose. Are you conscious of a stylistic influence deriving from the Russian masters? Do you feel as if you have written a "Russian" novel?

Would that I could be so talented, but really my only goal was to create as realistic a Russian voice as possible so that the story would, in turn, be as believable as possible. Sure, as a Russian language major I've read all the great pieces of Russian literature, but what I relied on to develop Misha's tone and point of view were actually my own experiences and impressions over the nearly thirty years I've been traveling to Russia. I studied at Leningrad State University, I worked for the U.S. Information Agency in Russia, and for over twelve years now I've been a partner in a St. Petersburg business. I travel frequently to Russia, I speak with my Russian partners numerous times during the week. So I drew on all those experiences as I wrote, and whenever I wasn't satisfied that I had found a "Russian" way of writing the story, I simply called St. Petersburg and asked which way was up

Your book is reminiscent of Crime and Punishment in that it centers on deep, inexpressible guilt, but also suggests the miraculously redemptive power of love and forgiveness. In this horrible, brutal story, May's power to forgive apparently offers us a pathway out of the darkness, but that path seems to go dark again when Misha kills himself. Why did you decide to have him finally reject the forgiveness that has kept him alive for eighty years?

Author Edvard Radzinsky so clearly writes of this, warning of "the dangerous courage of the Russian soul—it is not afraid of sin." In other words, Russians have a fundamental belief that the only way to find the redemptive power of love and forgiveness is to sin. The guilt that follows throws one unto the feet of God, where one eventually finds holy deliverance. Misha makes mention of this halfway through the book—sin, torment, purification; sin, suffering, forgiveness. It's a critical aspect of Russian Orthodoxy, and this is why Russians sometimes refer to the "joy of suffering," for it is the light that shines the way to deliverance.

Yes, May has found the pathway out of the darkness. She recognizes the sin, she sees the suffering, and she believes it has been purified, that there is reason to offer forgiveness. Misha, however, has only pretended to forgive. What has kept him alive all these years is not merely his sense of duty to his family, not any kind of purification or holy deliverance, but the torment, the suffering, which he experiences by remembering that night over and over again. In essence, he's stuck in step two of three—and he won't let himself get unstuck. He has committed a sin, he has suffered greatly, but he is determined to continue lashing himself and wallowing in torment. And that is exactly why he commits suicide, for the last thing he wants is to go on to the third and final step, forgiveness. Instead, he goes back to step one by committing another sin, actually one of the greatest in Russian Orthodoxy. He's that determined not to find salvation, but to suffer for all eternity.

The Romanovs' story is one that often makes people—including the kitchen boy in your novel—start sentences with the words, "If only..." Do you have a favorite "If only..." regarding the Romanovs?

Yes! In late February of 1917, Nicholas gathered a handful of ministers, including Prince Golitsyn, the Prime Minister, and announced that the next morning he would go to the Duma and grant what everyone had been demanding: a government accountable to parliament. Nearly every noble and revolutionary recognized this change as the only way to avoid complete catastrophe. A few hours later, Nicholas changed his mind, presumably dissuaded by Alexandra, who was convinced that autocracy was best for Russia and who was fiercely determined to leave the system intact for her son. So instead of going to the Duma the next day, Nicholas quietly left the capitol for military headquarters. And a few days later, revolution broke out.

What if Nicholas had not changed his mind? What if he'd offered these concessions and granted a constitution? In my opinion there would have been no revolution or, at the very least, one not nearly so catastrophic.

This novel is likely to whet your readers' appetites for more. Are there any nonfiction studies of Nikolai and family that you especially recommend?

Please turn on your computer speakers and take a look at the trailer at www.thekitchenboy.com. In addition to some historical photographs, a more complete bibliography follows the trailer. Otherwise, here are a few of my favorite works of nonfiction on the subject:

The Fall of the Romanovs, Mark D. Steinberg and Vladimir M. Khrustalev (Yale)
The Last Diary of Tsaritsa Alexandra, Introduction by Robert Massie (Yale)
The Last Tsar, Edvard Radzinsky (Doubleday)
Nicholas and Alexandra, Robert Massie (Atheneum)
Nicholas II: The Interrupted Transition, Helene Carrere d'Encausse (Holmes & Meier)
Tsar: The Lost World of Nicholas and Alexandra, Peter Kurth (Back Bay Books)

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Reading Group Guide

Our Book Club Recommendation
Robert Alexander's novel The Kitchen Boy is not merely a historical novel -- although it does employ careful research and a painstaking approach to the details of setting and atmosphere. This story, which re-imagines the final days of the last tsar of Russia and his family, becomes not merely a re-creation of a few historic weeks in 1918 but a meditation on truth, lies, guilt, and forgiveness.

The Kitchen Boy opens in the recent past: first, with a brief scene in St. Petersburg, as a young woman brings an older one a mysterious tape recording. Next, we are taken to a house in the suburbs of Chicago, where an old man is shown making the recording -- a memoir of what he saw during the Russian Revolution. This story-within-a-story construction immediately brings to light one of the themes of The Kitchen Boy: the power of fiction and our desire to go "within" it to discover what is hidden -- even if it is, in the end, a truth we would rather not have known. Reading groups will find much to discuss in Alexander's methods of staging his historical tale -- and how later revelations in the story affect our sense of why it is being told at all.

This concern with tales and their tellers relates closely to another concern of Alexander's, the propensity for self-deception and illusion, even in situations where the most cynical realism seems necessary for survival. The tsar is perhaps the greatest example of this universal tendency: Though imprisoned in a tiny, sweltering house in Siberia, he still refuses to open a milk bottle for himself. He continues to keep a diary -- which includes his thoughts on escape -- in disbelief that his captors will use it against him. Indeed, Nicholas's "gentlemanly" and trusting character -- one that nevertheless wielded a merciless authority while in power -- may prove to be one of the most fascinating puzzles for book club members to pore over.

But the Bolsheviks, of course, are prisoners of their own illusions about the destiny of the Revolution, and the correctness of their violence. All here -- even the narrator himself -- provide self-contradictions and self-justifications that later are revealed to be attempts to cover up or defer the clear evidence of our vulnerability in this world. Possibly the most important theme in The Kitchen Boy is the emphasis on this simple fact of human life, its fragility and transience -- as the climactic moment, the murder of the Romanovs, makes clear. Unlike many of his characters, Alexander does not turn away from the brutality that often accompanies "history" but also reveals the heroism that love can make us capable of. As the young woman from the opening scene -- the granddaughter of the tale-teller -- eventually discovers, such a mixed legacy is her inheritance, as it is, perhaps, everyone's. Bill Tipper

An Introduction from the Publisher
The time: July 1918. The place: The town of Yekaterinburg, just on the Siberian side of the Ural Mountains. In the Ipatiev House, the former Tsar of Russia and his family live imprisoned by Bolshevik soldiers. As a loyalist army presses toward the town and the Romanovs pray for a rescue that will never come, their captors receive a stark authorization from Moscow: Nikolai, his wife, and their five children are all to be shot to death. This is the story, recounted in all its vivid and terrible drama, of Robert Alexander's novel The Kitchen Boy.

Although the general facts surrounding the captivity and murder of the Russian royal family have long been known, some key gaps in our knowledge have continued to raise curiosity and fuel speculation. When, in 1991, the secret mass grave of the Romanovs and four of their attendants was discovered, two bodies—those of the Tsarevich Alexei and his sister Grand Duchess Maria—were not found. Remaining unrecovered is a family suitcase packed with thirty-six pounds of priceless jewels. There was yet one other remarkable disappearance. Mere hours before the Romanovs and their servants were led to their deaths, the family's kitchen boy, fourteen-year-old Leonka Sednyov, was ordered away from the Ipatiev House. He was never heard from again.

Combining these mysteries with a meticulously researched body of facts, Robert Alexander has crafted a tale of intrigue, tragedy, and betrayal in which all appearances are utterly believable yet nothing is quite what it seems. The story is recounted by Misha Semyonov, a recent widower now in his nineties who fled to America during the tumult of the Russian Civil War. With death approaching, Misha wants to set the record straight for his granddaughter and for the world at large: he is none other than Leonka, the vanished kitchen boy. Eighty summers ago, he carried a series of secret messages between the ex-Tsar and a band of potential rescuers, and, on the night of July 16-17, 1918, he bore witness to the royal massacre. But Misha must face his own issues of guilt, truth, and deception. Although he has resolved to convey "a thousand truths" to his granddaughter, will he dare to disclose the ultimate, shattering facts of his own existence?

Seen through the youthful, astonished eyes of Leonka but told by the cynical, misanthropic voice of Misha, the novel allows the reader to know a family that discovered greater nobility in its squalid exile than it had ever known in the gilded palaces of St. Petersburg. But The Kitchen Boy is about more than history—it is also a deep and moving meditation on the nature of evil and the power of forgiveness.

About Robert Alexander
Robert Alexander is a pen name of R. D. Zimmerman. A graduate of Michigan State University, Mr. Alexander has also studied at Leningrad State University and has lived and traveled extensively in the former Soviet Union. In researching The Kitchen Boy, Mr. Alexander gained access to Russian archives and palaces that are closed to the general public. Under his own name, he has written numerous mystery novels, including Hostage, Outburst, and Innuendo: A Todd Mills Mystery. Robert Alexander currently makes his home in Minneapolis.

Discussion Questions

  1. How did you respond to Misha as a character? How did your feelings toward him change as you read the novel? Do you feel sympathy for him? Why or why not?
  2. Misha's tape-recorded recollections are complicated by the passage of time. He observed events through the naïve eyes of a teenager, but he retells them from the perspective of a jaded elderly man. How does the distance between seeing and speaking affect his narration?
  3. Misha is a man of harsh judgments—of his country, of Communism, and ultimately of himself. Do you agree with his judgments?
  4. Early in the novel, Misha says that truth is one of the three values that enable America to save itself. Recognizing the saving power of truth as he does, why is Misha incapable of telling a true story? Would telling the truth make his salvation possible?
  5. The Kitchen Boy describes both Nikolai and Aleksandra as being "blinded by religion," and it tells of one of the key episodes in the rise of an officially atheistic state. Nevertheless, can it be argued that The Kitchen Boy is, at heart, a religious novel?
  6. In The Kitchen Boy, the Romanovs bear their sufferings with almost saintly forbearance. Does their acceptance of suffering make them nobler in your eyes, or does it merely deepen their status as pathetic victims of history? People sometimes talk about the redemptive power of suffering. Does suffering redeem anyone in this novel?
  7. The Kitchen Boy offers a great deal of commentary on what Misha calls "the Russian soul." Did this novel help you toward a different understanding of what it means to be Russian? Nations are made up of millions of individuals, and yet those individuals do share an invisible connection. Is it possible to speak coherently about a national soul?
  8. In Misha's view, "a great curse was unleashed" on the night of July 16-17, 1918, "inundating every corner of [his] vast homeland." In what sense can the subsequent path of Russian history be understood as being the product of a "curse"? Do other nations, America included, suffer beneath their own national curses?
  9. Imagine The Kitchen Boy as the basis for a screenplay. Choose a scene and discuss how you, as the director, would want to film it.
  10. Late in the novel, Misha reflects that forgiveness is "the last thing" he desires; he does not want it at all. Why is he unable to accept mercy?
  11. What is your response to the ending of the novel? The "true" story of May and Misha may strike some readers as beautiful. Others may find it wildly improbable or even grotesque. Does their love strike you as a miracle, as an impossibility, or as something else?
  12. The Kitchen Boy retells one of the most frequently told stories in twentieth-century history. Nevertheless, the novel succeeds in maintaining suspense. How does Robert Alexander accomplish this feat of storytelling?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 74 )
Rating Distribution

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 74 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 8, 2008

    By Far the Best Book I Have Ever Read

    This was defenitely the best book I have ever read. It was a perfect blend of fact and fiction, and it was beautifully researched. At first I wasn't sure if I was going to like it. When I bought it, I thought it would be really light and some Romanov 'what-if' fluffy fantasy. But I was wrong. This took me about a week to read as the text was very small. The way Alexander spins the story is incredible. The story is in the point of view of of ninety-four year old Misha, who is living in a huge estate on Lake Michigan and waiting to die. His wife, May, is two weeks in the grave, and Misha is facing serious inner torment, which he has felt for over eighty years. On a series of recorded tapes made for his granddaughter and heir Kate, he explains the last days of the Romanovs and that he was really the kitchen boy. As those last days in Siberia unfold, Misha reminisces of the family that so quickly ceased to exist and his part in their downfall. By the end, Misha has unvailed the his truth. The end is very confusing, but a reread or two will make it make sense. Overall, this was an amazing book. It was so well written in its simplicity. This is one of those books that everyone should read. Praise for Robert Alexander's The Kitchen Boy!!!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 5, 2010

    The Kitchen Boy is dramatic with a surprising ending.

    The story catches your attention right away. The historical facts are presented in a very interesting plot with amazing insignts to the day-to-day trials of Tsar Nicholas and his family. I enjoyed reading this book, and will recommend it ot all my friends.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 2, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Great Start to the Set of Three

    "The Kitchen Boy" is the first in three books including "Rasputin's Daughter" and "The Romanov Bride" (about the Empress' sister) that Robert Alexander wrote about this dynamic and tragic time in Russia's recent past.

    What's fascinating is the combination of a great deal of actual history and plausible fiction (namely in the form of character dialogue and motivation, though certainly some of the action is invented.) It opens a window into the worlds of peasants and rulers with drama and affection.

    Knowing some of the foolish decisions that were made at the time, I found myself developing sympathies toward to some (though not all) of these iconic people.

    (I accidentally happened upon the three books in reverse order. That didn't stop me from enjoying them as they don't lead one into the other.)

    I'm also recommending Tom Bradby's "The White Russian". This book falls in line with Alexander's trilogy in both time period and even some of the characters. (The Empress herself makes an appearance and some of the dialogue includes the discussion of the Imperial family and Rasputin.) Again, it provides a window into the lives of people from this place and time with evocative settings and dramatic plot.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 18, 2011

    best book i ever read

    this truly was amazing it was riveting it literally had me putting together a million different endings! a must read!!!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 27, 2011

    Great Book!

    I really enjoyed this book. I read on the train going and coming from work. I got so into it i almost missed my stop a couple of times....this one is hard to put down. There are so many book about the Tsar's family it was interesting to read from a servant's point of view.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 10, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    I thought I knew how this was going to end---I didn't!

    I'm a fan of the Romanov period in history. I picked up this book because of the cover.
    This book was an easy read, and I thought I knew what was going to happen. But I was wrong. I did not see the ending coming.

    For another book with a surprise ending, see Pat Conroy's South of Broad.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 28, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Just Leaves You Begging For More

    The Kitchen Boy is amazing, absolutely amazing! It's the story about when the Russian Imperial family was thrown into exile some of their servants from the palace camewith them, willingly. But along with the Empress's maid, the Tsar's footman, the Tsarevich's doctor, and the cook came a little boy named Leonka who has never been in close contact with let alone in the same boy as the Romanovs. He does though become friends with the young royal prince Aleksei as he starts to earn the trust of the entire family things become more dangerous as the Kommandant starts to grow suspicious could Leonka become one buried with the Romanovs?

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 10, 2014

    Not good!

    Did not enjoy this one!

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  • Posted July 21, 2014

    Book was good. However anybody who has read information about th

    Book was good. However anybody who has read information about this time period would probably know that the "kitchen Boy" was killed by Stalin in around 1941/1942. There not sure of exactly the year. However it was a quick read with good historical notes. The only other problem is since this book was written they found the bodies of the two missing family members and used DNA to identify them in 2007. But I still enjoyed the book. 

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 25, 2014

    Very good read

    A glimpse into the life and characters of this tragic story. I enjoyed this very much

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  • Posted January 25, 2013

    I liked this book. It was engaging & I wanted to keep readin

    I liked this book. It was engaging & I wanted to keep reading. It's historical fiction based on the last days for the Romanov family, the royalty in Russia. I liked the real letters & other historical facts. Russian history is fascinating & you get a glimpse of it here in this novel. It made me curious to visit the Russian museums & archives. The end of the novel was a surprise, but I knew there was to be a plot twist!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 28, 2012

    The Kitchen Boy is a National Bestseller, and I can definitely s

    The Kitchen Boy is a National Bestseller, and I can definitely see why. The book is about a boy named Leonka who was the only witness of the brutal assassination of the Imperial Family, the Romanovs. Tsar Nicholas, his wife, and five kids are trapped inside The House of Special Purpose without them even knowing. The Bolsheviks need one reason to have the excuse to kill Romanovs, and later in the book they desperately find one. Robert Alexander made this book come alive as if I was in it. He takes his readers to Russia where the story takes place, in a town called Yekaterinburg. His descriptive words make me feel like I was watching the book on television. He makes the characters, the setting, and the storyline so vibrant, as if I was living in the time period of the Russian Revolution itself. The only gory part of the book is at the end is where it describes the assassination of the Royal family. Some people may be turned off because of this scene, but again, if you do not like blood and gore I still suggest reading this book because there is very little. This book can be read by young adolescents to honestly anybody. There is no given age for this book. If you’re into history, or even if you’re not, why not read it? “Ingenious…Keeps readers guessing through the final pages.” says USA Today and “History may be the subject matter of his latest fiction, but [Alexander] crafts it with the excruciating build of dread suitable to a horror story.” says Minneapolis Star Tribune. I would recommend this book to anybody who likes a good and short read. One wouldn’t even have to like Historical Fiction to understand or like this book, because this book is excellent for all.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 15, 2012

    Interesting, but flawed

    The imagined saga of the "kitchen boy" told against the actual tragedy of the Romanovs. Starts strong then becomes far-fetched. Worth a read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 25, 2012

    Good book for historical background if you are going to Russia.

    We are going to Saint Petersburg as part of a cruise this summer. This is a good book to give some historical background for the trip. I would recommend "Leningrad" also for historical background on Saint Petersburg. It is a little harder read as it is history not a historical novel.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 30, 2012

    Don't read

    Don't waste your time or money. I could only read the fist 82 pages....this book lacks passion and imagination. The topic is one of great depth and this does not do it justice. Very superficial and bland.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 22, 2012

    Well written story

    The book builds to a strong final life journey.
    Highly suggest reading after ken follitts fall of giants.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 10, 2011

    Gilly willy

    Best book ever you won't belive how good this book is

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  • Posted August 13, 2011

    Great book!

    I love Russian imperial history...so this is my kind of book. I love it and highly recommend. It's was a page turner and hard to put down. I thought I had it all figured out towards the end of the book but there was a surpriseni didn't see coming.....I love novels like that. I can't wait to read the other two novels by Alexander, rasputin's daughter and the Romanov Bride.

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  • Posted November 28, 2010

    Highly Recommended

    I really enjoyed reading the Kitchen Boy. I have trouble finding historic books that I enjoy, but I really enjoyed reading this book. I enjoyed it because it had twists and turns that when looking at it, you would never expect it to have. I also enjoyed the book because it was written in journal form and the way the author wrote in details about what they think actually happened to the Tsar and his family. The author also described a lot about the Tsar and his family instead of just assuming that the reader would know about them. I also liked the way that Robert Alexander told not only good things about the Tsar but also bad things too, which helped the reader to understand why they were being held in the Ipatiev house.
    What stood out with this book is that it is actually almost like non-fiction. The only reason that it is fiction is because we don't know for sure what exactly happened in the Ipatiev house when the Romanovs were being held there. This book was also full of details and really made me believe what happened in the book.
    I would recommend this book to any high school student and even some adults that like historical fiction books would enjoy reading it. I think the high school students would enjoy the book more because they might understand it easier if they are currently learning about revolutions and other historic moments that brought about violent times. High school students should especially read it for history book reports because it is fairly easy to remember most of the details. I would recommend this book because I think everyone should read it even if they don't enjoy reading or don't enjoy historical fiction books. Even if you don't read very often, I think you will really enjoy reading this book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 13, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Love This Book

    I am someone who loves all things Russian - from the history, to the language, to the culture to the music. One of the most intriguing stories in Russian history is that of Tsar Nicholas II and his family. While "The Kitchen Boy" is a fictional story, it draws on historical fact to pull the reader into a tale that you will find you are wishing were true. I was completely engrossed in the story and could not put this book down. I had to keep reminding myself that the story was fiction based on fact - that is how spellbound I was. Whether or not you are familiar with the story of the last Tsar and his family, you will enjoy this book. Well written, historically accurate and a real page-turner.

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