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Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport

I rather like my Goodreads review of this book, so I am sharing it here.

Some folks wonder why I read about the Tudors, Queen Victoria, and Nicholas and Alexandra of Russia. I took a European History minor for my BA, along with my English degree. and historians enjoy reading these things. There is something about vanished empires and lost worlds which continues to intrigue me.

In particular, the lives of the last emperor of Russia, Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, and their children, continues to fascinate me. This is one of the best books I have read so far about this doomed and destroyed reign, and it specifically focuses on the Romanov daughters: Olga, Tatiana, Marie, and Anastasia.

So close were these sisters that they often signed letters and such with "OTMA", a signature of their combined first initials. They grew up relatively isolated; at some point, frustrated with governesses, Empress Alexandra stepped in to raise the girls herself--something unheard-of in royal households. The girls seemed relatively unspoiled, considering they were part of the wealthiest dynasty in history. I especially liked that their rooms in the various palaces were fairly simple, considering. They slept on camp beds, for example (one has to consider that there were militaristic aspects to their upbringing, especially since each child headed their own regiment of soldiers). They had small allowances each month for stationery, the few toiletries they were allowed, etc. I especially liked that Marie and Anastasia had a border of dragonflies and flowers stenciled on their bedroom walls (I love dragonflies and this small detail somehow made me feel closer to them).

I think that the most moving aspects of this book were, for me, the tenderness the girls showed for their hemophiliac brother, the Tsarevitch Alexie, and their mother, Empress Alexandra. Alexandra's health literally broke from the relentless crises with her hemophiliac son: there were no treatments for the condition except to let the internal bleeds run an extremely devastating course. Except for Rasputin's prayers and ministrations, there seemed to be no end to the boy's suffering. The girls added a buffer for the family in terms of caring for their invalid brother, which probably contributed a great deal to their strong characters.

I always wondered about the girls as they transformed to women: so little attention has been spent in other books about any budding relationships or crushes. They had little contact with marriage prospects from the royal houses; instead, the men in the girls' lives were household staff and the crew of the royal yacht, the Standart, and their innocent crushes were focused on the latter. Of course, such affections could never be returned. Olga in particular fell deeply in love with one of the crew members and knew, even from the start, that she would never be allowed to marry a commoner.

Poignantly, during their final captivity first in the Alexander Palace, then Tobolsk, then the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg, the girls showed enormous strength of character. They baked bread with the cook, helped with meals, planted a vegetable garden, chopped wood with their father, lived in very Spartan conditions, and were a comfort and great help to their mother, father, and Alexie. Alexie was very ill during the last months of his life, having suffered two major hemhorrages during the family's imprisonment.

The Romanovs were avid photographers (there is even a very silly bare-butt photo extant, not in this book, of Emperor Nicholas swimming about in the altogether with his yacht crew and others in Finland. It's a bit refreshing to see that everyone was very natural and unashamed about their bodies--the men laugh into the camera with everything, and I mean everything, peeking out, with no attempt to hide anything. I say "peeking" rather than "showing" because they are all swimming about in an ice-cold Finnish fjord). Of course, these particular photos are not in the book (though some made their way into family albums), but there are several lovely photos of the family, including their very last pictures (one can see that Anastasia matured into womanhood just before she died, and her resemblance to Alexandra is striking).

All in all, a very absorbing book, and highly recommended.