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NONFICTION

The Romanov Sisters

By Helen Rappaport

St. Martin’s Press

492 pages, $27.99

By Michael D. Langan

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

Do you remember observing Diana Spencer or more lately Kate Middleton on TV? If so, you will appreciate the sense of loss felt by earlier royals-watchers.

At the start of the 20th century they followed the lives of the Romanov sisters, tsarinas Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia. The girls were the daughters of Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II.

Most photographed young royals of their time, they were “adored for their looks, clothes, happy dispositions and privileged lifestyle.”

Everything about them, however, disappeared in a Moscow minute. You’ll recall that the entire Romanov family was wiped out in a 1918 slaughter. The killings took place during the waning days of late Imperial Russia, World War I and the Russian Revolution. The girls came to an abrupt and heartbreaking end in a basement at Ekaterinburg.

The English writer Helen Rappaport, a specialist in Imperial Russian history, wrote extensively about the family’s demise in her 2008 book, “Ekaterinburg: The Last Days of the Romanovs.” In it, she covered the final 14 days of the lives of the family at Ipatiev House, charting “in forensic detail the horrific circumstances of their murder and the disposal of their bodies.”

So it was that on July 17, 1918, mother, father, the girls, the oldest 22, the youngest, 17, and their 13-year-old hemophiliac brother were herded down 23 steps to their doom.

In this new volume Helen Rappaport mines a trove of fresh material as she uncovers the lost lives of the daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra.

Rappaport gained insight via previously unpublished letters, journals and photographs of what she calls the tragic princesses and their family. “From a treasure trove of diaries and letters written by the grand duchesses to their friends and family, we learn that they were intelligent, sensitive, and perceptive witnesses to the dark turmoil” all round them, according to her publisher.

Is it any wonder that joy, insecurity and poignancy are the key words in describing the Romanovs? After their deaths, the author reports, one can still view the tsar and tsaritsa’s personal effects in the Alexander Palace. This was the unimposing residence where Russia’s last imperial family lived.

There, we get a sense of how underwhelming they were as private people. Rappaport writes, “The tsar and tsaritsa’s suite of interconnecting private rooms further testified to their three consuming passions: each other, their children and their devout religious faith.” Icons of their Russian Orthodox faith encumbered every wall, with knickknacks of the children everywhere else.

What about the girls themselves? After all, they are the subjects of the book.

Olga, the oldest, was aware of her position. By age 10, her mother called her their “little empress.” She would salute soldiers standing on guard. During puberty she exhibited “a dark side” but in general tried to see things aright. When once told by a nursemaid that she had gotten out of bed “on the wrong side”, she was puzzled. Next day Olga asked gingerly a question that an inquisitive child might ask: which was “ ‘the right foot to get out with?’ ”

Tatiana came next. At eight years of age she was “pale-skinned, slender and with darker, auburn hair, and eyes rather greyer than the sea-blue of her sisters. She was already arrestingly beautiful … and never hostage to her temper as Olga sometimes could be …” Tatiana was devoted, polite and deferential.

Maria, the third sister, was shy. Rappaport relates that she may have suffered by being “piggy in the middle between her two older sisters and her younger siblings.” She craved love that she felt she sometimes did not receive. Still she was by far the prettiest, not especially bright but good at painting and drawing, our author relates.

The youngest sister, Anastasia, was “a force of nature,” the author says. Anastasia was extremely forthright, even with adults. She balked at being told to do anything, doing in fact the opposite, to provoke. She lived her short life in a battle of wills.

Knowing how different the girls were in private, Rappaport observes that the saccharine public view of the beautiful young things was often at odds with the more private reality. This observation will be no shock to anyone who ever raised a family.

Some more detail: Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia all had light, spacious bedrooms at the palace. They were furnished, Rappaport tells us, with “simple ivory-painted and polished lemonwood furniture and English Chintz fabric curtains.”

A scattering of boxes, jewelry cases, manicure sets, combs and brushes, are set about, presumably just as they left them. Exercise books, framed pictures of the family, prayer books, crosses and candles were at their bedsides – “rather than the usual clutter one might expect to find.” The girls left behind clothing, hats, parasols and shoes. They were exited quickly away by new authorities anxious to remove any remnant of the old.

Of note, Rappaport describes the abortive marriage negotiations between Olga and Carol of Romania, and the visit to Constanza in 1914; details about Alexandra’s supposed “phantom pregnancy” of 1902, and an exhaustive description of the family’s time in captivity in Tobolsk.

A couple of asides: dealing with the prerevolutionary period in Russia is complicated. At the time, there were two competing dating systems – the Julian calendar used in Russia until Feb. 14, 1918, and the Gregorian calendar, already in use in most parts of the world.

Add to the confusion of interpreting dates, the transliteration of Russian words and proper names. This handling of language “… is a minefield of confusion, disagreement, and perceived error, depending upon which transliteration one follows.” Rappaport has dealt nicely with all these troubles, choosing in this latter case the Oxford Slavonic Papers system which, for example, represents the name Aleksandr as Alexander, to spare the reader head-scratching.

Rappaport’s latest effort is a success in England. The Independent calls the book “a compassionate account of a close-knit, deeply devout and surprisingly ordinary family caught up in quite extraordinary circumstances …”

“Mother Love” and its fatal excess were a burden to the Romanov family in the end. How this abiding virtue practiced by the girls’ mother, Alix, is key to this sad story.

As a lively young woman, Alix dismayed her grandmother, Queen Victoria. She turned down what might have been a chance through marriage to become a future queen of the United Kingdom. Instead, Alix only had eyes for her third cousin, the Russian tsarevich, Nicholas. Moreover, the state of Russia was bad, further discomfiting Queen Victoria.

As Alix tried to explain her choices: “… I am rather a contemplative, serious being, one who looks into the depths of water, whether it be clear or dark.” That high-mindedness carried with it a fatal flaw, notes Rappaport. To be successful, “virtue must be amiable,” the author tells us. Instead, Alix’s virtue went awry, provoking her to see life too seriously. This was a factor in her invalidism brought on by sciatic nerve trouble, migraines and poor circulation; all a heavy lift for the girls, who took care of Alix and their younger brother until the end.

Read “The Romanov Sisters” and weep.

Michael D. Langan is the former headmaster of Nardin Academy and a longtime reviewer of books for the Buffalo News.