Searching for the Emperor
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Oddly, in this internet age, there is not very much on line about the book or the author. Roberto Pazzi is Italian and he wrote this debut novel in Italian in 1985. It won the Bergamo Prize the first year it was awarded. I find it odd that an Italian should write a book about the last days of the Russian tsar and his family but it was obviously something of a passion for him. I wonder if he had ever travelled in Russia, specifically Siberia, or if he based his descriptions on written text. There certainly would not have been any internet at the time he wrote this book. Perhaps Doctor Zhivago was used as a source; I certainly felt that some passages reminded me of scenes from it. Doctor Zhivago was first published in Italy so it would have been available to him.
After the Communists took power they sent the imperial family to Siberia before deciding to execute them all. Prince Ypsilanti, head of the Preobrazhenskii Regiment which had been fighting on the Eastern Front near the Caspian Sea, had lost contact with headquarters but had heard rumours about the revolution. He marched his regiment during the winter to a small outpost where he hoped to be able to contact his superiors. However, the city had lost its telegraph connection at the beginning of the winter and was completely cut off. They had heard that the imperial family was being held in Tobolsk and Ypsilanti decided to continue the winter march there. In fact, Tsar Nicholas and his family had been moved to Ekaterienberg, almost 600 km further east but Ypsilanti had no knowledge of that. Alternating chapters of the book reveal what the imperial family is experiencing while the regiment struggles across the steppes with men dying or defecting constantly. When they came to the taiga, a vast forest with no path through it, Ypsilanti decided to split his forces, sending one half through the forest and the other, commanded by him, around it. Before this could be carried out a tiger struck the camp at night, killing several horses including Ypsilanti's mount. A soldier who knew how to hunt tigers offered to track it down. He successfully hunted the tiger but in the meantime one of the small band that accompanied him was seduced by a woman of the forest dwelling people. During the time the regiment was camped by the taiga they noticed large groups of birds migrating at the wrong time of year and this phenomenon was also noticed by the Tsar and the people guarding him. Clearly this was a bad omen.
The ending comes as no surprise since we know that Tsar Nicholas, his wife and all his children were executed and no imperial force came to the rescue. The word elegiac came to my mind when I finished this book. I don't know if Pazzi intended the reader to feel that they were witnessing the passing of an era but that's certainly how I felt. And I also couldn't help comparing the Imperial reign of Russia with the current political climate there. It seems to me that Vladimir Putin has as much of a stranglehold on the people of Russia as all the nobility and imperial family exerted during their time in power. So what did the Russian revolution gain?
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