Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Reading the Romanovs



Two weeks ago, I borrowed The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport from my local library. Within just a few pages of reading, I found myself completely absorbed, swept away by an old obsession I hadn't indulged in many years - my youthful fascination with the Romanov family, the last Tsar of Russia and his wife and children. Do you know their story? Nicholas II was considered a weak ruler and his wife, Alexandra, was roundly disliked by their subjects. To make a long story short, the whole family was murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918, after the Russian Revolution brought sweeping change to the political and social landscape, ending imperial rule.

That's my copy of Robert K. Massie's epic biography, Nicholas and Alexandra, up there in the photos, along with the library copy of The Romanov Sisters. I've had the Massie book since I was a teenager, and it was old then, an edition from the 1970's. The cover is torn, mended with scotch tape where it's separating from the spine. Oh, how I love this book. I read it over and over again when I was younger, carrying it with me on long car trips, on the buses and trains I used to take when I traveled between college and my parents' house. My (maiden) name is written inside the cover. I found the book just after I'd learned about the last Tsar in history class, in tenth grade. I was already intrigued by their story and I think the book just came along at the right time and I was transfixed. Has that ever happened to you? When it happens to me, I'm hooked for life, literally. I can't let a book go after that.

I hadn't read Nicholas and Alexandra in about fifteen years, but my interest in their story has continued on and off. I took it out to use as sort of a companion to The Romanov Sisters, helping me refresh my memory as to family trees, especially (both Nicholas and Alexandra were descended from the major European houses of royalty). I've read numerous other books about them, some much better than others. The Romanov Sisters is about their four daughters - the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia. The girls have often been depicted in an idealized way, bordering on hagiography, even while they were alive. They were the first four children of the Tsar and his wife, born before the longed-for male heir, Alexey, who was a hemophiliac and very sickly.

The girls were killed, along with their parents and brother, when all four were between the ages of 17 and 22. Rappaport's book brings the girls to life in a way that no other book I've read has done. They were close and loving, but they had personality flaws like anyone else. They nursed inappropriate crushes and struggled with schoolwork at times. They squabbled like any other siblings and sometimes had disagreements with their parents and tutors. I enjoyed the way that Rappaport told their stories through personal letters and diaries, which offered a glimpse of their everyday language and senses of humor.

I was particularly impressed with the way Olga and Tatiana were depicted. As the eldest daughters, they had more responsibility and more visibility, having entered the marriage market in the years before their deaths. Both also served as nurses during World War I, in makeshift hospitals with seriously injured patients. Tatiana, in particular, blossomed in this environment and proved herself to be a very capable and compassionate young woman. I was surprised by some things I learned about the girls, such as their close relationships with their appointed sailor/bodyguards on the family yacht, and the intimate friendships they formed with soldiers as well as the "healer" Grigory Rasputin, whom their mother relied upon for spiritual advice and faith-healing for herself and the hemophiliac Alexey. I was not aware that the girls were so close to Rasputin but they wrote letters to him and often looked to him for advice in their personal lives.

The younger daughters, Maria and Anastasia, were not as fleshed-out in this book, which is my only disappointment. I think Maria gets the least discussion in most books on the Romanov family. She was considered the sweetest, most agreeable of the four, while Anastasia is usually depicted as more of a spitfire. Anastasia is famous posthumously, of course, because of doubts that she had died with the family and even imposters who claimed to be her. (All members of the family have been proven killed, by the way, through forensic analysis of their remains. All have also been canonized as martyrs by the Russian Orthodox church).

As soon as I finished The Romanov Sisters, I went back to the library for Helen Rappaport's previous book, The Last Days of the Romanovs, which I've only just started in the last couple of days. It chronicles the last weeks and days of the family after they were imprisoned at Ekaterinburg, a city in western Siberia, where they were soon killed en masse by their Bolshevik captors. It's very good so far, and also does a good job of shedding more light on the personalities of all the family members. As a lover of biography, I think Rappaport has a real gift for bringing historical figures to life. I understand that she is also an expert on Victorian England, which I have also long enjoyed reading about (Alexandra was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria), so I will look for her books on that subject as well.

I know from having Instagrammed about The Romanov Sisters that some of you are interested in the last imperial family's story as well; I think you will love this book.

27 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for bringing the books to my attention, I have them on my huge to be read list. Great review!

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  2. I watched a programme called Russia's Lost Princesses at the back end of of last year, it was split in to two parts with the first part concentrating on their childhood and their relationship with Rasputin and the second part about the last four years of their lives with the revolution, imprisonment and murder. It was really interesting. I may very well look if our library has this book at some point.

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  3. It's a fascinating story isn't it. You talk so evocatively about your enjoyment of their history, I shall definitely pick up the books if I see them. CJ xx

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  4. Thank you for telling us about these histories. Do you have any Russian blood in your ancestry that triggered your fascination? Enjoy your reading! ((hugs)), Teresa :-)

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    1. Well, actually, my paternal grandmother's parents emigrated from Latvia as children, so I do have some connection. :)

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  5. Yes two very excellent books!

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  6. It's wonderful to lose yourself in s good book. We were on holiday last week with no wifi, no internet, no phone signal and no TV - it was bliss. I will remember your recommendation and look out for it at the library.

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  7. I've never read anything about the family, but you have sure triggered an interest with this wonderful review. Have you ever done book reviews professionally? Your's was so well written.
    Blessings,
    Betsy

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    1. Thanks, Betsy. I haven't done any professional book reviewing but I think I'd love to someday. :)

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  8. Catching up with a few past posts here Jennifer :) I too like the history of the Romanovs, and remember watching a subtitled movie about them waaaaay back (probably the 1971 movie 'Nicholas & Alexandra). This new book sounds like a good one, and I'll have to look it up.
    Reading back here, I'm glad you had a good Mother's Day. Love your flowers in the yard and in the vases. Sounds like everything is humming along nicely at your place :) Enjoy your last few days of freedom ... well before the real fun begins in summertime.
    Wendy

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    1. Oh, I have always wanted to see the movie! You reminded me to look around for it.

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  9. I have not read these Jennifer but am very intrigued. You have me sold on picking these up and diving in though the thought of the girls being killed in the end is so sad. Thank you for passing it along buddy! Wishing you an amazing Wednesday! Nicole xo

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  10. It does sound like a fascinating read. I added the book to my reading wish list after you last mentioned it, I really will have to track a copy down. Do you find you are always struggling to make enough time for reading ... it seems to become harder not easier here.

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    1. I don't read nearly as much as I used to. When I was in school as an English major, forget it - I probably read 500 pages every couple of days, sometimes more than that! I do try to make time for reading today. I can get into patterns, like lately, where I read constantly, and never even think about turning on the TV. I wish it happened more often. :)

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  11. Another great post from you Jennifer, you always make everything sound so interesting! These books sound very absorbing. I know what you mean about falling in love with a specific edition of a book, I have paperbacks where I could describe every mark, stain and lovingly sellotaped page, as well as what page they are on, in addition to reciting long passages from the books themselves, simply through repeated readings. Books are just the most powerful, remarkable objects X

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    1. Yes! Oh, Penny, I'm so glad you know what I mean. I actually think my own speech and thoughts have been influenced by things I've read over and over, like I've adopted the turns of phrase into my own language!

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  12. I found the same happened with me when I read Constance Wilde the wife of Oscar wilde. It started me on a long road of passionate research of Oscar and his works. Well worth a read.
    Rosie

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    1. I don't know much about Oscar Wilde but I do find him interesting. I will have to look out for that book. Thank you. :)

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  13. Romanovs story is amazing. I really want to read this book.

    Domestic cleaning Beckenham

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  14. Their story is so fascinating. I hope you're finding the latest book just as enjoyable. Happy reading!

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  15. It is such a fascinating story that lives on doesn't it? Such a tragic loss of a beautiful family.
    Meredith

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    1. I really can't get enough of their story. It's so sad but so gripping.

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  16. I love this post Jennifer! I too have always been fascinated by the Russian royal family, and remember years ago when a woman who said she was Anastasia was very old, and living in the US (I think). It was later disproved, as you say. I will be looking to read The Romanov Sisters, and know I'll like that too. Their story is better than fiction - unbelievable except that it is all true. The Tsar Nicholas looked almost identical to his cousin the King George V of England. I was glad when they finally found their remains and they received proper burial and acknowledgement.

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  17. Jennifer, you've made me want to read more about the Romanov family! I remember learning about this for my History A Level and was fascinated by the subject, but there was never the opportunity to pursue it further. What a fascinating family.

    Also, I can't think about Rasputin without thinking of the Boney M song. Do you know it? "Ra Ra Rasputin, Russia's greatest love machine...." xx

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    1. Ha...I don't know that song but I will definitely be looking it up!

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    2. Okay, just watched a video of it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5yTVWXYctoY

      That was awesome. Was this a big hit over there? I'm sorry not to have seen it sooner. My life is complete now. :D

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  18. Before I read this post I was in CA at my sister's house and I picked up her paperback copy of "A Gathered Radiance" by Nun Nectaria McLees, which is about the Romanov family. [fun how our lives share interests at the same time :)] I have read articles about the Romanovs a little bit, especially about an Anastasia imposter. After reading your post I read about Rasputin in Wikipedia and I listened to the video above...so much fun :)
    The story that strongly influenced my life and interestingly came into my life when I was 14 was "The Sound of Music". While I have watched the movie numerous times, I also enjoyed reading Maria Von Trapp's story of her life which though different than the movie is, I think, beautifully portrayed in essence through the movie. I heard Maria speak at a breakfast meeting in San Jose, CA in the 1970's and she mentioned feeling that her husband was portrayed as being harsher than he actually was. I wanted to go stay at the Von Trapp hotel in Vermont but have yet to realize that want :) xx

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Thank you for leaving a comment. It's so good to hear from you! I don't always have time to reply but I try to answer questions when I can.

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