Tuesday, June 3, 2014

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

Main characters: Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia Romanov
Time period: Late 19th, early 20th century
Location: Imperial Russia
Genre: Nonfiction, History, Biography

The story of the family of Nicholas II, last Tsar of Russia, is well known - the opulent lifestyle, the personal heartbreak of the son and heir's illness, the influence of the mad monk Rasputin, the revolution that resulted in the abdication, the imprisonment, and finally the shocking murder.  And always in the background are the four pretty girls in their pretty white dresses.

In The Romanov Sisters, author Helen Raapaport brings those four girls--Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia--to the foreground.  She paints a picture of a loving, closely knit family that was also very sheltered from the outside world.  Partly because of their mother's crippling shyness--a trait shared by Olga--the girls do not mingle with outsiders.  Their closest friendships beyond the immediate family are with members of the household and the sailors that man the imperial yacht.

Because of the events happening while I was reading this, I found the description of their summer vacations in the Crimea very moving.  They loved going to this beautiful land well removed from court and official duties.

I did find the center section of the book lagging a bit, with so much attention being paid to Alexei's hemophilia and Alexandra's growing dependence on Rasputin as the only person who could relieve her son's pain.  Fortunately, Rappaport avoids sensationalizing Rasputin.  As she does through the whole book, she depends on her extensive research of surviving letters, diaries and memoirs.  There were plenty of people who disapproved of Rasputin and his dissolute ways, while others, closer to Alexandra, swore by his healing abilities.

Once Would War I begins, the focus shifts back to the sisters and their contributions to the war effort.  Olga and Tatiana found their own hospital and are trained to nurse the wounded--and sometimes developing close (too close?) relationships with their patients.  Maria and Anastasia also have their own hospital; though they are too young to be nurses, they do spend a lot of time visiting and playing games with their charges.

Following the Revolution, the family is forced to leave their home and sent first to Tobolsk and then to their final home in Ekaterinburg.  Their household shrinks as does their living space, but they are together after the long separations the war caused.  The girls try to be cheerful and make the best of things, not wanting to add to their parents' worry.

Rappaport does not dwell on the murder, but in a fascinating epilogue, she follows what happened to members of the Romanov household--many of whom also fell victim to the revolutionary forces.

Rappaport has done a great deal of research, as the footnotes and bibliography attest.  Her use of personal diaries and letters makes the scenes where Alexandra burns her own letters and journals--how much more could we could have known if she hadn't felt the need to do that.

The e-ARC that I read did not include the index or illustrations--I am looking forward to the published book to come out so I can see the illustrations--but it did include a helpful glossary of names.  I read The Romanov Sisters as an e-ARC from NetGalley.

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