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.