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Review: The Romanov Sisters

Review: The Romanov Sisters

Title: The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra
Author: Helen Rappaport
Published: 2014
Length: 381 pages [plus pictures, notes, a bibliography and index]

My star rating:  ★ ★ ★ ★ 

Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia, had four daughters—Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and the now-infamous Anastasia—who are often collectively called OTMA. The girls were, despite their differences, all charming, beautiful, loving and innocent.  Helen Rappaport pieces together the tragically short lives of these young Russian grand duchesses through their own letters and diaries, as well as the later memoirs of those who knew them, in this ambitious biography.

“There are four of these little girls. They are bright, intelligent children, but nobody in Russia wants them, unless it be their parents,” observed another editorial commenting on the simple, unspoilt lives of the consistently overlooked imperial daughters. … [T]here was no doubt how much Nicholas and Alexandra loved their daughters—their “little four leaved clover” as Alexandra described them. “Our girlies are our joy and happiness, each so different in face and Character.”

Like many other reviewers, my major complaint is that in the first third or so of The Romanov Sisters, the focus is less on the titular sisters than on their parents. The book, while excellent in many ways, is unlikely to be the “definitive” volume on any or all of the girls for that reason. However, I think the background Ms. Rappaport gives regarding Alix (or Alexandra), their mother, and her relationship with Nicholas, provides some valuable background and grounding for the remainder of the book for readers less familiar with the family and the period. I know many people who snatched this book up from the first are the opposite—people hungry for new Romanov literature, especially on OTMA—but I respect Rappaport’s apparent decision not to assume this.

As one Amazon reviewer said: “The Romanov sisters were part of a family and in order to have a more nuanced understanding of them they cannot be written about in a separate cocoon from their parents and their brother. … Rappaport’s endnotes and bibliography … are astonishingly thorough and a real tour de force of scholarship.” That not only sums up the real strengths of this book, but also the reason I’m not totally annoyed with the early, Nicholas-and-Alix-heavy chapters.

I’ve also heard complaints that there is nothing “new” in this book, and perhaps that’s the case. I’ve had an interest in the last Romanovs, and these four young ladies in particular, for many years, but my interest has been limited to a few novels and biographies [of their parents] and, of course, sifting through the endless photographs of this stunningly photogenic family available online.

To me, the book was new enough to both cement what I knew about the girls, as sisters and individually, picked up from various other sources; and to provide some valuable depth to that preexisting knowledge.

For instance, I didn’t know that Olga was sometimes called “little empress” before Alexei’s birth—I still hold that, despite her depression and health problems towards the end of her life, Olga would have made a great tsarina—or that Alexei was perhaps more attached to Olga than any of his other sisters. I also knew very few details of their poor, doomed crushes on various officers.

It was particularly saddening to realize how deeply all four girls cared about their country and its people. When they arrived in Siberia, despite their reduced circumstances and imprisonment, they showed genuine interest in learning more about the different cultures and peoples of Russia. It makes you wonder how much different things might have been for the long-suffering peasants if only these four caring and charitable sisters had had enough power to use their wealth and goodwill do widespread good.

I especially appreciated that though Rappaport frequently discusses them together (out of necessity—the girls seem to have almost always been in the company of one sister or another), she always focuses on them as individuals. She generally avoids the pairings sometimes used by the family—the “big pair,” Olga and Tatiana; and the “little pair,” Maria and Anastasia—preferring to discuss each girl individually when possible in every situation.

No doubt many people are also critical of Rappaport’s stance on Alexandra. She is sometimes unsympathetic, and yes, sometimes places a good deal of blame on Alexandra’s shoulders. However, she has—as far as I could tell—drawn her conclusions from intensive research on the Romanov family, including a great many primary sources (the memoirs of Alexandra’s close friends, Lili Dehn and Anna Vyrubova in particular).  Since I share many of her opinions of Alexandra, I suppose I viewed Rappaport’s criticisms of her as rational and well-founded.

In short: The Romanov Sisters may not break new ground, but it is still an impressively well-researched and readable popular history. It probably isn’t suited for newcomers to Romanov/Soviet history and is a bit dense. However, for a biography of four young women, it explores and fleshes out each individual sister fairly well, while recognizing that they are difficult to isolate completely. (Unlike Blood Sisters, it does not get completely lost in or bogged down by the larger historical forces surrounding the women in question.)

In these pages, you will meet remarkably simple, kind, intelligent—if somewhat naïve and (unfairly) sheltered—girls.  They were girls bound to one another but with distinct personalities; girls loved by everyone who knew them for their mutual goodness and sweetness; girls who are remembered as beautiful, tragic fairytale princesses but who were far more human than that. They were indeed famously beautiful, but their beauty went much deeper than their looks.

Whether you love Ms. Rappaport’s book or not, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia will probably steal, and break, your heart by the end of it.

P.S.: I have liked Rappaport since I read her haunting earlier book, The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg. However, she makes a statement in the introduction that cemented my respect for her: that she has no “intention…to give space to any of the numerous fake claimants…[who] have variously attempted to persuade the world that they are one of the other of the four sisters…nor [to] give the oxygen of publicity to the  conspiracy theorists who continue to claim Anastasia’s survival—or that of any of her sisters—in the face of extensive and rigorous scientific analysis and DNA testing undertaken since since the most recent discoveries in the Koptyaki Forest in 2007.”

If anyone is disappointed that she does not discuss the Anderson myth, they should be disappointed in giving that myth any merit in the first place.

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