Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra. by Helen Rappaport.


PUBLICATION:  UK: Pan Macmillan, 27 March 2014  USA: St Martin's Press, 3 June  2014

The four captivating young Romanov sisters were perhaps the most photographed and talked about young royals of the early twentieth century. And with good reason; they were much admired for their happy dispositions, their looks, and their devotion to their parents and sick brother. From an early age they were inevitably at the centre of unceasing gossip about the dynastic marriages they might make. But who were they really beyond the saccharine image perpetuated by those now familiar photographs of them as pretty girls in white dresses and big hats?  What were their personal hopes, dreams and aspirations and how did they interact with each other and with their parents? What was life really like within the highly insular Imperial Family and how did they really feel about their mother’s obsessive and all consuming love for their spoilt brother Alexey?  

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. They are too often seen merely as set dressing, the beautiful but innocuous background to the bigger, more dramatic story of their parents – Russia’s last Tsar and Tsarina, Nicholas and Alexandra.   They are perceived as lovely, desirable and living charmed lives. But the truth is somewhat different.

For most of their short lives the four Romanov sisters were beautiful birds in a gilded cage, shut away at their palaces at Tsarskoe Selo or Livadia as a reaction to the fear of terrorist attacks on the Imperial Family.  In reality the sisters had few friends and were largely cut off from the real world outside and the normal life experiences of other girls – that is, until everything changed in 1914. Suddenly, with Russia’s entry into the war, the girls had to grow up fast.

In a deliberate echo of the title of Chekhov’s play, Four 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of those young lives against the backdrop of the dying days of late Imperial Russia, drawing on previously unseen and unpublished letters, diaries and memoirs of the period.

The book is also the subject of a forthcoming documentary  ‘Russia’s Lost Princesses’, which the author has been working on with Silver River Productions for BBC2.  A transmission date will be announced soon. www.silverriver.tv

Four Sisters review – an intimate portrait of the doomed Romanov grand duchesses
The tsar's daughters, murdered in the Russian revolution, take centre stage in Helen Rappaport's powerful account of the end of the Romanovs
Lara Feigel

The four daughters of Tsar Nicholas II were murdered almost by accident. "I will never be the Marat of the Russian revolution," pledged the prime minister, Alexander Kerensky, after the February revolution in 1917. He tried to find the family refuge outside Russia (Britain's George V couldn't help, although Nicholas's wife, Alexandra, was the granddaughter of Queen Victoria) and then sent them to Siberia hoping that the Russian populace would forget about them. But revolutions demand their victims. The entire family was moved to Ekaterinburg and shot. Helen Rappaport has already written about the Romanovs' terrifying final weeks in prison. Now she moves from nightmare to fairytale, placing the four beautiful grand duchesses centre stage for the first time.

What is most surprising in this story is quite how unsuited the family is to power. They all live chiefly for each other. Alexandra finds the business of state "a horrid bore" that keeps her husband away from her. Nicholas comes home for the children's bathtime every night and records episodes of teething and weaning in his diary. When Nicholas abdicates, his first thought is that now he can "fulfil my life's desire – to have a farm, somewhere in England".

Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia are bright, wilful girls who are devoted to their parents and to their precious little brother Alexey. The tsarevitch appeared just when Nicholas was despairing of ever providing the country with a male heir, and the girls grow up conspiring to keep his constantly life-endangering haemophilia a secret from the nation. Anxious to protect her son and fearing the moral iniquity of St Petersburg society, Alexandra keeps her children secluded in their countryside palace. The "girlies" (as Alexandra persists in calling them) long for news of "outside life" but have little interest in court intrigues. They are delighted when they can wander around an English village with money of their own to spend.

For all four sisters, the ideal life would be one of quiet middle-class domesticity with a soldier husband. Infantilised by Alexandra, they are allowed to run wild with the soldiers who escort them on their annual holiday to Crimea. Even as teenagers, they play boisterous games of hide and seek with the handsome young officers; at one stage 10 people crammed into a wardrobe. Everything changes in the first world war when Alexandra, Olga and Tatiana train as nurses (typically modest, they take the titles of Sister Romanova numbers 1, 2 and 3). Now at last the girls have the contact with the outside world they have longed for as they change dressings and help with operations. But again it's the ordinariness they most love. "It's only at our hospital that we feel comfortable and at ease," Olga tells one of her patients.

Because the grand duchesses are so ordinary their story can feel tedious. The book seems quite long and slow at times as they go on one holiday after another while Alexandra's health steadily deteriorates. The sisters are too young to be complex (they are aged between 17 and 22 when they die). Rappaport is keen to transcend the saccharine image of four fairytale princesses by emphasising their flaws, but all she can say is that they throw things at their siblings and rag their tutors. The chief drama comes not from their individual stories but from their untimely deaths. We know that, like all good fairytales, this one will have a nightmare ending and Rappaport sets it up powerfully so that we remain uneasily frightened throughout.

Psychologically, Nicholas and Alexandra are more interesting than their children. Rappaport is insightful in her analysis of Alexandra's vulnerability and mistrust of strangers. And in the process she illuminates the precise influence of Grigory Rasputin, the drunken hypnotic pilgrim whose close association with the family contributes to their unpopularity. Alexandra disapproves of Rasputin's intemperance as much as her subjects do, but she is helpless because she believes that no one else can save her son. His effects on Alexey's health are visible to all around them; he can cure the tsarevitch's bleeding attacks simply by speaking to him on the telephone. Also, the isolation in which they live makes her more susceptible to his power. At times, he seems like their only friend.

There is a danger of making too much of all this. Four Sisters is a work of history as well as biography and arguably Rappaport is too eager to tackle historical causation. She says early on that the tsar and his family were destroyed by "a fatal excess of mother love". Lenin and the Bolsheviks are barely mentioned. But if this is unashamedly history from above, then it is also history from within; an astoundingly intimate tale of domestic life lived in the crucible of power.

Lara Feigel is the author of The Love-charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War (Bloomsbury).

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