Review: The Romanov Sisters

The extent to which readers will enjoy Helen Rappaport’s The Romanov Sisters will most likely depend on one or two important factors.

First, it will help if you haven’t spent much time reading about the Russian Revolution, or if you have, that you enjoy hearing familiar details retold. After all, the tale of the last imperial family of Russia and their murder in Yekaterinburg in 1918 has not exactly suffered from a lack of exposure. The Russian Revolution, Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, Alexandra, and of course the “mad monk” Grigory Rasputin have been the subjects of countless books and numerous films.

At first glance, then, The Romanov Sisters does not appear to break new ground. This, however, brings us to the second and central factor likely to tip the reader toward enjoyment: whether he or she is interested in the private lives of royals. For it is here that Rappaport’s innovation lies.

Rather than focus on the complicated politics of pre-revolutionary Russia, the calamitous end of World War I, the maneuverings of Lenin or even the almost total mediocrity of the last tsar himself, Rappaport brings us a tale of domestic life in palaces and country estates, primarily as it was experienced by the four daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra: Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia.

Of course, there are dangers inherent in such an approach, not least of which is that the four sisters were young when they were murdered—between 17 and 21—and so had experienced little. More to the point, as royals, and especially royal females who were never expected to inherit the throne or wield power, they had lived exceedingly sheltered lives, smothered by a hypochondriac mother and doted on by a loving father, as well as sundry staff.

How unscintillating are the details Rappaport includes? We learn that at a ball given on her 16th birthday, Olga wore her hair up, as did her sister Tatiana. Maria and Anastasia, however—gasp—wore their hair down. We also learn that on a trip to England in 1910, Olga and Tatiana bought some postcards and also “treated themselves to some perfume from Beken & Son’s pharmacy.”

There is a lot more of this in the book, a great accumulation of it. It’s as if 100 years from now an author were to collate contemporary news reports about Prince William, Kate Middleton and their son into an epic tome viewing early 21st century history from the point of view of regal domesticity.

But it’s not all pointless. A striking feature of the book is how relatively sheltered the sisters’ lives remained even after the Russian Revolution. For aside from a stint Tatiana and Olga spent working as nurses during World War I, the sisters remained segregated from the worst excesses of Russian reality almost until the very end of their lives. After their father abdicated, they left the grand palaces, but in exile they remained cooped up inside houses, reading and going for walks in gardens.

When news of the October Revolution finally reached the governor’s mansion in Tobolsk, where the family was living at the time, the deposed tsar didn’t even bother to mention it in his diary.
Between all this tiny detail, and upon the frequently cloying evocations of royal home life, falls a shadow. For as we follow the four sisters on their journey through life, learning of their schoolgirl crushes, their favorite games and what books they read, we know what they do not. Violent death stalks the book, and the effect, overall, is quite chilling.

First published in the DMN Aug 2, 2014

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