44 pages 1 hour read

Robert Alexander

The Kitchen Boy: A Novel of the Last Tsar

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2003

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Summary and Study Guide


The Kitchen Boy: A Novel of the Last Tsar (2003) is a historical fiction novel detailing the fate of the Romanovs by Robert Alexander (a pen name for Robert Zimmerman). Although Alexander is American, he spent decades in Russia. He attended Leningrad State University and, afterward, ran various businesses in St. Petersburg. As such, he has personal experience with Russian culture. He wrote several historical fiction novels that take place during the Russian Revolution—including Rasputin’s Daughter (2006) and The Romanov Bride (2008). This guide refers to the Penguin Books edition published in 2003.

Plot Summary

In 1998, a man in Michigan named Mikhail “Misha” Semyonov records a tape spilling his life’s secrets to his granddaughter, Kate (introduced as “Katya”), before his death. He claims his real name is Leonka Sednyov and that in his youth, he lived in Russia and worked as a kitchen boy for the royal family, the Romanovs, in their final days before their assassination. He witnessed the Bolsheviks murder the Romanovs and wants to record his memories before joining his recently deceased wife, May, in heaven.

Leonka begins his recollection on June 20, 1918—roughly one month before the Romanovs’ assassination. A nun named Sister Antonina and her ward, Novice Marina, bring food to the Ipatiev House, where the Bolsheviks are holding the Romanovs. Leonka finds a secret letter written in French hidden in the meal’s milk bottle cap. He delivers it to the Romanovs, who translate it to reveal that the pro-Tsarist forces of the White Army sent the letter through Sister Antonina and are planning a rescue mission. Leonka volunteers to be the Romanovs’ courier, offering to smuggle Tsar Nikolai II’s replies out of Ipatiev House. The tsar and his wife agree to the idea. The next day, Leonka successfully delivers the tsar’s reply—which describes a floor plan to help the White Army plan their escape—to Father Storozhev at the Church of the Ascension.

Over the next few days, the Romanovs wait for a reply from the White Army. The Bolsheviks routinely antagonize the royal family, adding to their stress. On June 25, 1918, Sister Antonina returns to Ipatiev House and delivers a second secret letter; Leonka smuggles out the tsar’s reply discussing the escape plan. Later in the week, Sister Antonina brings more food and tells Leonka to notify the Romanovs to ready themselves to escape that evening. Leonka and the Romanovs wait with bated breath all through the night, but the White Army never arrives. Tsar Nikolai instructs Leonka to smuggle out additional letters—one of which tells the White Army to hold off on any rescue attempts because he does not want his family to live through further violence and trauma.

Leonka moves on to July 5, 1918. A new commander named Yakov Yurovsky is hired to guard the Romanovs at Ipatiev House. Sister Antonina and Novice Marina deliver food and a third secret letter. The army assures the tsar that they can pull off their rescue attempt. The letter instructs the Romanovs to wait for a whistle at midnight, which will signal the rescue party’s arrival. Once again, the White Army never arrives.

The Tsar gives Leonka a final letter to deliver, but he is forced to hide it in the bathroom when Komendant Yurovsky searches everybody who enters and leaves Ipatiev House; the hidden letter then goes missing. Anxious that the Bolsheviks discovered the Romanovs’ escape plan, Leonka dissolves into a feverish state and is sent to bed. The next day, he is dismissed from Ipatiev House and sent to the nearby Popov House in preparation for his return to Moscow. In the middle of the night, Leonka is awoken by an alarm bell that sounds from Ipatiev House.

At Ipatiev House, Leonka watches Komendant Yurovsky force the Romanovs into a cellar; he witnesses the family’s assassination by Yurovsky’s men. After the Bolsheviks clean up the crime scene and gather the bodies into a car, Leonka follows them as they reach the Romanovs’ burial site. As the Bolsheviks drive, Leonka sees two bodies fall out of the car—one being the Romanovs’ dead heir, Aleksei, and the other being Grand Duchess Maria, who is still alive. Leonka brings Aleksei’s body and Maria into the woods for hiding.

Hoping to save the mortally wounded Maria, Leonka runs into town and tells Sister Antonina and Novice Marina what happened. The two follow Leonka into the woods to help Maria, but they cannot save her life. As Maria dies, she makes Leonka and Marina promise they will save the remaining Romanov gems hidden in town and return them to the Russian people after the fall of Bolshevik rule. In his tape recordings for his granddaughter Kate, Leonka says he and Marina later fled Russia and settled in the United States. Marina took on the name “May” and became Leonka’s wife. After “Leonka” finishes recording, he reflects on his lies. Though he was witness to the Romanovs’ assassination, the narrator is not Leonka: He took on the real kitchen boy’s name to hide his identity. The narrator then kills himself by drinking a vial of cyanide.

The Epilogue follows Kate in 2001 as she travels through St. Petersburg, now tasked by her grandfather’s tapes to return the Romanovs’ gems to the Russian people—as was promised to Grand Duchess Maria. Kate goes to an address she parsed from personal research into the Romanovs’ deaths and meets Marina, now an old woman. A confused Kate asks Marina about the Romanovs’ final days: The latter reveals that the White Army letters were fakes written by the Bolsheviks to incite the royal family into escaping. The letters were delivered to the tsar by Kate’s grandfather, a Bolshevik guard whose true name was Volodya.

On the night of July 16, 1918, Volodya was assigned to kill the tsar’s third daughter, Grand Duchess Maria. He injured but did not kill her. During the transport of the corpses, Volodya found Maria alive on the side of the road and tended to her injuries. Marina confirms that she and Sister Antonina helped Volodya save Maria’s life. Maria is in fact Kate’s grandmother, who became “May” to hide her identity. Volodya and Maria fled Russia with the Romanov gems, married, and settled in the United States with their fake identities. The novel concludes with Kate’s realization that she and her children are the last living descendants of the Romanovs.