I was ten when the animated film Anastasia hit theaters and my mother took me to see it. That was the first I learned about the Romanovs and what happened to them—I believe I began asking questions after the movie and my dad explained a little more about what really happened as opposed to the simplified and happier version in the cartoon. But that was the beginning of my minor obsession with Russian history and literature. When Helen Rappaport’s recent The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra showed up on various New Releases pages if frequent, I quickly added it to my library list.
Beginning with Alexandra’s upbringing—as it would affect her own maternal philosophy—Rappaport relies heavily on the few primary sources that have survived, quoting the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia as often as possible to tell the story of their experiences in their own words. In order to understand the sisters and why they led the surprisingly sheltered lives they did, it is important for some greater historical context to be given and—especially during Nicholas and Alexandra’s attempts for a son and heir—public and international attention was very focused on the royal family and the daughters they kept producing. The historical context grows increasingly important as the narrative reaches the events of World War I and the Russian revolutions of 1917 as they led to the end of the Imperial Family.
Given that the title of the book is The Romanov Sisters, I was a little surprised by just how much the book actually focuses on their mother, Alexandra. At least a third of the book focuses almost exclusively on Alexandra with the rest of the family in the background and much is made of the role Alexandra’s relationship (or lack thereof) with the public affected the family’s fall from grace. To be fair, a great deal of the girls’ lives was spent with little first-hand exposure to even the aristocratic circles of Russian society, let alone any in-depth knowledge or awareness of how more common Russian people lived. At the same time, Alexandra wasn’t extravagant or indulgent in how the children were treated or what they were given. Family and faith played crucial roles in their upbringing and gave them hope and the strength to endure the trials and indignities of their final months under house arrest.
What shines through Rappaport’s narrative strikingly well are the different sisters’ distinct personalities and characters. Because of the rumors of her survival (and the several films inspired by the rumors), Anastasia is the Grand Duchess that appears most frequently in popular culture. Of the sisters, she was easily the most outgoing and confrontational—a memorable force to be reckoned with. As Olga and Tatiana were the two eldest and came of age before WWI, they were the sisters who had time to make a more lasting impression in imperial circles—with romances, speculated marriages, and rumors that worked their way into many of the diaries, letters, and newspapers that have managed to survive. If there is a sister who I still don’t seem to have much sense of, it would be Maria. The sources simply don’t seem to have survived to give the same complex and in-depth view of her as the other sisters.
*Part of my interest in The Romanov Sisters was as research for a personal fiction project and for that purpose, it has been an invaluable resource.