They were the Princess Dianas of their day—perhaps the most photographed and talked about young royals of the early twentieth century. The four captivating Russian Grand Duchesses—Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia Romanov—were much admired for their happy dispositions, their looks, the clothes they wore and their privileged lifestyle.
Over the years, the story of the four Romanov sisters and their tragic end in a basement at Ekaterinburg in 1918 has clouded our view of them, leading to a mass of sentimental and idealized hagiography. With this treasure trove of diaries and letters from the grand duchesses to their friends and family, we learn that they were intelligent, sensitive and perceptive witnesses to the dark turmoil within their immediate family and the ominous approach of the Russian Revolution, the nightmare that would sweep their world away, and them along with it.
The Romanov Sisters sets out to capture the joy as well as the insecurities and poignancy of those young lives against the backdrop of the dying days of late Imperial Russia, World War I and the Russian Revolution. Rappaport aims to present a new and challenging take on the story, drawing extensively on previously unseen or unpublished letters, diaries and archival sources, as well as private collections. It is a book that will surprise people, even aficionados
— — —
I listened to this audiobook on the advice of my friend, Ewa, who has been talking about it since Christmas. And I am using it as one of the categories on my 2018 Reading Challenge :)
The Romanov Sisters is a clearly written and detailed account of the lives of the four sisters and the little Tsesarevich from the time of their births until their deaths during the Russian Revolution.
Listening to their story changed many of the perceptions that I had – and clued me in to how many of those stemmed from the Disney film Anastasia – but also created duelling portrayals of Tsar Nicholas II in my mind.
Nicholas II and Alexandra lived rather modest lives in terms of possessions. Their daughters shared bedrooms with single size beds, and were not over-run with presents, although what they did have was of very high quality. Alexandra was much more heavily involved in her children’s upbringing than was common among the aristocracy of Europe at the time, even breastfeeding her children which was unheard of. The main theme throughout the entire book is the deep love shared between these seven people, and it is tragic that it eventually led to their deaths.
The Imperial Family was not well suited to governing the country. Nicholas and Alexandra would have been far more content to remain minor royalty and retreat into a quiet, idyllic life with their children than to be on the international stage. Their love for each other and their family led them to make many decisions that sacrificed image, popularity and power in Russia, further destabilizing an already tumultuous autocracy. Their ends certainly indicate the necessity of Royalty to remain visible and (at least somewhat) accessible to the masses, even at the sacrifice of privacy at times.
The last Tsar of Russia was pious, deeply religious and professed a deep and unfaltering love for his wife and children. Many accounts point to his being a moral man who was just unsuited to ruling. And yet, he showed little understanding of, or compassion for, his suffering peasantry and is the man behind mass jailing of political dissidents, pogroms and Bloody Sunday.
Whatever decision Empress Alexandra made, it was the wrong one. She was either too formal and withdrawn from the Russian people; too heavily involved in raising her children; too pious; too unwilling to open herself up to the innate mysticism of Russian orthodoxy and everyday life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Russian culture, yet too willing to accept the mystical and mistrusted Rasputin into her inner circle. During WWI, when she and her eldest daughters became nurses and worked daily in hospital with wounded soldiers, many considered it sacrilegious and a betrayal of Russian Imperialism for the Tsarina and Grand Duchesses to be working so closely with those of lower stations in improper circumstances.
The environment was poisonous and it is hard to imagine whether there could have been any other outcome for Russian Imperialism, even if Nicholas and Alexandra did everything differently.
* * * *