Friday Royal Read: Tatiana Romanov: Daughter of the Last Tsar: Diaries and Letters 1913-1918

 For a generation of young women, the outbreak of the First World War brought new experiences and leadership opportunities. When Russia entered the conflict with Britain and France against Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1914, Tsar Nicholas II’s four daughters joined the war effort. Olga and Tatiana, aged eighteen and seventeen, became nurses and headed philanthropic committees. Maria and Anastasia, aged fifteen and thirteen, volunteered in a hospital named in their honour.

Of the four Grand Duchesses, Tatiana achieved the most success in her war work and became a well known public figure in her own right. In Tatiana Romanov, Daughter of the Last Tsar: Diaries and Letters, 1913-–1918, Helen Azar, editor and translator of The Diary of Olga Romanov: Royal Witness to the Russian Revolution and Maria and Anastasia: The Youngest Romanov Grand Duchesses in Their Own Words: Letters, Diaries, Postcards. allows Tatiana to speak for herself through her own writings as a witness to war and revolution in Russia.

The publication of Tatiana’s writings challenges numerous longstanding myths about Nicholas II’s children that have developed since the murder of the Imperial family in 1918. A number of popular biographers, including Robert Massie in Nicholas and Alexandra  and Peter Kurth in Tsar: The Lost World of Nicholas and Alexandra have described the Grand Duchesses as leading cloistered or socially isolated lives. Tatiana’s diaries and letters discuss a broad range of friends, relatives, officers and fellow nurses with whom she socialized on a regular basis and continued to correspond with after the Russian Revolution. Tatiana’s detailed accounts of her participation in committee meetings and operations in military hospitals refute any idea that her war work was primarily ceremonial in nature.

Azar’s translations of the letters and diaries are richly annotated by Nicholas B. Nicholson, an expert in Russian decorative arts and author of Object of Virtue: A Novel. Tatiana and her sisters often referred to their relatives and friends by nicknames and initials in their writings and Nicholson’s notes provide detailed mini biographies of many of these figures. Nicholson also describes the fate of the places where Tatiana visited during the tricentennial of the Romanov dynasty in 1913 and First World War. Stalin’s rule saw the demolition of historic palaces and churches in Moscow’s Kremlin. The Siege of Leningrad during the Second World War caused the destruction and damage of imperial sites surrounding St. Petersburg.

The letters and diaries in the book are complemented with excerpts from the memoirs of those who knew Tatiana during the First World War and Russian Revolution, providing valuable context and background to the events and personalities in the Grand Duchess’s writings. Some of these accounts, such as Thirteen Years at the Russian Court, by the Imperial children’s French tutor, Pierre Gilliard, will be familiar to readers of biographies of Russia’s last Imperial family. Tatiana Romanov, Daughter of the Last Tsar: Diaries and Letters, 1913-–1918 is unique because it includes memories of Tatiana’s fellow nurses and wounded soldiers, published in English for the first time.

Tatiana’s letters from 1917 and 1918 reveal how the twenty year old Grand Duchess responded to the Russian Revolutions and her family’s imprisonment. Although, Tatiana wrote to one of her tutors in October 1917, “As you know, we don’t dejected easily,” her correspondence makes clear that she felt betrayed by members of her extended family who had not remained loyal to her father and was concerned about a variety of circumstances from her family’s isolation from the outside world to Bolshevik treatment of military veterans. The book ends on a haunting note, with Tatiana’s final letter to fellow nurse Valentina Cherbotaryeva in May 1918, “Send regards to all who remember me.”

Tatiana was murdered alongside her family just two months later, at the age of twenty-one. The remains of the Imperial family were excavated in the 1990s and are now buried in the Peter and Paul fortress in St. Petersburg. Tatiana Romanov, Daughter of the Last Tsar: Diaries and Letters, 1913-–1918 captures the experiences and achievements of the young Grand Duchess during one of the most tumultuous periods of Russia’s history.

Next week: Agincourt: Great Battles Series by Anne Curry

 

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

My review of The Romanov Sisters in the Royal Studies Journal

My review of The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra by Helen Rappaport has been published in the current issue of The Royal Studies Journal, a peer reviewed, open access, interdisciplinary and international academic journal for the field of Royal Studies published by Winchester University Press.

Click here to read the review in The Royal Studies Journal, Volume 2, Number 2, 2015.

OlgaTatianaMariaAnastasia1916

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Toronto Public Library Talk on September 24: Peter the Great and the Building of St. Petersburg

Peter the Great in 1698

Peter the Great in 1698

I will be giving a lecture at Deer Park Library in Toronto (40 St. Clair Avenue East) about Peter the Great of Russia and the Building of St Petersburg on September 24 at 2pm. 

Czar Peter the Great (r. 1682-1725) wanted to open up Russia to the rest of Europe. In 1703, he ordered the building of a new capital on the Baltic Sea that was unlike any other Russian city. St. Petersburg would be Peter the Great’s window to the west and the setting for some of the most dramatic moments in Russian history. The lecture will include images of Imperial Russian art and architecture as well as photographs from my 2013 visit to St. Petersburg.

Tickets may be reserved by phone or in person on Sept 23. Click here for more information.

 

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Friday Royal Read: Becoming a Romanov: Grand Duchess Elena of Russia and Her World (1807-1873) by Marina Soroka and Charles A. Rudd

The four daughters of Russia’s last Emperor, Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, are well known in the English speaking world. They have been the subject of popular biographies, most recently The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport and Road to Ekaterinburg:Nicholas and Alexandra’s daughters by ECS Banks, as well as historical novels. In contrast, the Grand Duchesses at the courts of nineteenth century Czars, the daughters and daughters-in-law of Paul I, Nicholas I and Alexander II are little known outside of Russia.

Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, the wife of Catherine the Great’s youngest grandson, Michael Pavlovich, assumed in her own lifetime that she would be the subject of a biography and carefully curated her own papers. Despite her extraordinary accomplishments, she has disappeared into near obscurity, the subject of a few academic conference papers and a chapter in Charlotte Zeepvat’s Romanov Autumn. In Becoming a Romanov: Grand Duchess Elena of Russia and Her World (1807-1873), Elena finally receives the full length biography she expected and deserves. University of Western Ontario professors Marina Soroko and Charles A. Rudd bring the Grand Duchess and 19th century St. Petersburg to life.

Elena displayed a strong personality and intellectual curiosity from her childhood as a Princess of Wurttemburg, Germany. When she was seventeen and had only been at the Russian court for a year, she informed the author of a multivolume history of Russia, “I know your work sir, and do not think I have only read it only in translation, I also read it in Russian.” In middle age, she tackled Russia’s social and political problems, advising her nephew the “Czar-Liberator” Alexander II in his plan to free the serfs. During the Crimean War, she acted as Russia’s Florence Nightingale, founding an order of nurses that developed into the Russian branch of the Red Cross. Her palace was a gathering place for Russian intellectuals and her artistic patronage included the founding of the St. Petersburg conservatory

While Elena was respected in her public role, her private life was filled with unhappiness from her childhood through her engagement and marriage. Her parents separated when she was a child and her father, Prince Paul of Wurttemburg cut corners on her education to pocket the money sent for this purpose by her grandfather. When Elena showed a fear of mice as a child, Paul had a servant release a sack of live mice in her bedroom (she fainted). Elena’s husband, Grand Duke Michael Pavlovich, was pressured into the marriage and made clear from their betrothal that would have preferred to marry another. He shared none of her intellectual interests, smoked cigars to avoid having to talk to her and said that he would celebrate 30 years of marriage as the anniversary of the 30 Years War. Two of their five daughters died in infancy and another two died as young women.

In addition to Elena’s eventful life, Soraka and Rudd also describe 19th century St. Petersburg in vivid detail. Elena’s and Michael’s residence, the Mikhailovsky Palace was one of the city’s landmarks with a main staircase described as the finest in Europe. Elena’s first child was born in the aftermath of the 1824 Neva river flood that killed more than 600 people and the disaster and recovery efforts are described extensively. Becoming a Romanov is richly illustrated with portraits of Elena and her family in addition to images of the landmarks of the St. Petersburg she knew.

The only false note in this otherwise brilliant biography comes in the first paragraph, where the authors describe Elena as “…the only female Romanov whose name merits mention in any narrative of Russian history after the Crimean War…” The contributions of the Romanov women – including the famous daughters of Russia’s last Czar – to Russia’s war effort during the First World War merits a book of its own. Grand Duchess Elena’s accomplishments over the course of the nineteenth century were so extensive that it was difficult for any future Grand Duchess to achieve a similar public profile. Becoming a Romanov restores Elena Pavlovna to her rightful place in Russian history.

Next Week: La Couronne et le Parlement – The Crown and Parliament, eds. Michel Bédard and Philippe Lagassé

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Toronto Star Interview: Shabby Toronto apartment was once home to Russia’s Grand Duchess Olga

Grand Duchess Olga painting in her Cooksville home

Grand Duchess Olga during her last years in Canada

Grand Duchess Olga, younger sister of Russia’s last Czar, Nicholas II, lived in Canada from 1948 until her death in 1960. Olga’s last home in Toronto has recently gone up for sale, demonstrating the changes she experienced over the course of her life, from her birth at the Peterhof Palace outside St. Petersburg, to her last months in a Toronto apartment.

I am quoted in an article about Grand Duchess Olga’s time in Canada in today’s Toronto Star. Click here to read “Shabby Toronto apartment was once home to Russia’s Grand Duchess Olga

For more on Grand Duchess Olga, see my article on this site, “From St. Petersburg to Toronto: The Life of Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna”

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Friday Royal Read: The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport

The last Imperial family of Russia are one of the best documented families in history. Czar Nicholas II, his wife Empress Alexandra, their four daughters, Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia and their son, Grand Duke Alexei lived at a time when photography and newsreels captured the royal image and they all kept diaries and wrote numerous letters. The Russian Revolutions of 1917 and the murder of the entire family in 1918 resulted in an exodus of courtiers from Russia who wrote books about their time with the Romanovs.

Despite all these sources, the distinct personalities and achievements of Nicholas and Alexandra’s daughters are little known. In official photographs, the Grand Duchesses dresses alike, appearing interchangeable in public. Their murder when the eldest was twenty-two and the youngest was seventeen resulted in the public viewing them collectively as “the children” or martyrs rather than as individuals. In The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra, Helen Rappaport, author of The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg, Conspirator: Lenin in Exile and A Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert, and the Death That Changed the British Monarchy, reconstructs the lives Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia led behind palace walls.

Books about the Grand Duchesses are often dominated by their last days, deaths and the numerous claimants who captured the popular imagination. Rappaport keeps the focus firmly on the young women’s lives. (Readers interested in their deaths should consult her previous book, The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg). There is plenty of material from newspapers, letters and diaries revealing how the four young women were viewed during their lives.

Alexandra may have hoped to shield her daughters from what she perceived as the corrupting influence of court society but society was intensely curious about them. The years leading up to the First World War saw intense speculation about the princes they would marry and the potential for change to Russia’s semi-Salic succession laws.  The Grand Duchesses’ writings reveal that they had their own, more modest goals. Olga confided to a friend during the war that she hoped, “To get married, live always in the countryside summer and winter, always mix with good people, and no officialdom whatsoever.”

The most fascinating chapters of Rappaport’s book cover the war years because these sections reveal the full scope of the Grand Duchesses’s war work and impact on Russia. Like other young women of their social station, Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia found leadership opportunities during wartime that expanded their horizons. While other works on the Romanovs focus on how Olga and Tatiana trained as nurses alongside their mother, Rappaport also looks at their committee work and fundraising opportunities in detail. Tatiana, in particular, excelled at these activities. She chaired a committee for the aid of displaced refugees, wrote a newspaper article to increase awareness of this issue, collected donations from an international array of donors and did administrative work for her charities.

Rappaport devotes much of the first third of the book to Alexandra’s upbringing and the influence she had over her daughters. While this material is crucial to understanding the worldview of the Grand Duchesses, more material on Nicholas II’s childhood would have been useful here. The last Czar was an involved father who spent a great deal of time with his daughters and was undoubtedly also a strong influence over their lives.

The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra restores the individuality of Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia. They were among the most famous royal personages of their early twentieth century and continue to fascinate people around the world today. Rappaport has written the definitive biography of four young women who made a profound impact on their family and country during their short lives.

Next Week: Hereward: The English Outlaw who Rebelled Against William the Conqueror by Peter Rex

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

My column in today’s Globe and Mail about Prince Charles’s remarks on Vladimir Putin

My column in today’s Globe and Mail discusses Prince Charles’s remarks on Vladimir Putin. There’s a long history of royalty making critical remarks about Russia but still fulfilling their duties as constitutional monarchs.

Click here to read “A Future King and that Hitler thing” in the Globe and Mail

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

CBC Syndicated Radio Interviews about Prince Charles and Putin for May 21

Here’s today’s schedule of CBC radio interviews

3:00
WINNIPEG     — Up to Speed
3:20
NEW BRUNSWICK — Shift
3:40
HALIFAX   — Mainstreet
4:10
SASKATCHEWAN – Afternoon Edition
4:20
VICTORIA  — All Points West
4:40
THUNDER BAY  — Voyage North
4:50
KELOWNA — Radio West
5:40
EDMONTON   — Radio Active
facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Empress of the Night: A Novel of Catherine the Great by Eva Stachniak (Historical Fiction Review)

Since the publication of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl in 2001, the Tudors have dominated English language popular historical fiction. In addition to novels about Henry VIII and his wives, children and parents, obscure figures from the Tudor court have captured the imagination of novelists. Even Henry VIII’s confectioner is a main character in a historical novel, Suzannah Dunn’s The Queen Of Subtleties: A Novel of Anne Boleyn. The publication of Eva Stachniak’s first novel of Catherine the Great, The Winter Palace, reminded historical fiction readers that the Tudors do not have a monopoly on court intrigue and spectacle. In the The Winter Palace, Stachniak told the story of German Princess Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst’s unlikely path to the Russian throne as Catherine the Great through the eyes of her watchful servant, Varvara. Empress of the Night imagines Catherine as a mature ruler.

Readers expecting a conventional sequel to The Winter Palace will be disappointed by Empress of the Night. Stachniak does not resume Catherine’s story in the aftermath of the military coup that made her Empress but in her dying hours. Following a stroke, Catherine looks back on her life and reign. The last third of the novel covers the drama of the last year of Catherine’s life, including her desire to disinherit her unstable son, Paul, her attempts to secure a prestigious royal marriage for her eldest granddaughter, Alexandrine, and her relationship with her final lover, the young Platon Zubov. Stachniak’s  evocative writing shows the tensions within Catherine’s family and court.

While Catherine’s last months and hours unfold in rich detail, earlier periods of her life and reign pass by too quickly in the novel. While swift progress through Catherine’s life before becoming Empress makes sense because this material is covered in The Winter Palace, Catherine’s early reign does not receive enough attention. The creation of her law code takes place over a few pages and the aquisition of her famous art collection is alluded to in short scenes. Stachniak’s talents as a writer ensure that each of Catherine’s favourites emerges as a distinct personality but they seem to come and go at a dizzying pace before her last year.

Stachniak’s Catherine is steeped in Russian folk proverbs from her time learning the language and constantly struggles with conflicts between passion and power.  This interpretation of Catherine’s character evokes the complexities of eighteenth century Russia but does not do the historical Empress justice. In the novel, Catherine refers to her love of reading but does not mention, much less quote, her favourite French Enlightenment philosophers such as Diderot, Voltaire and Montesquieu. There is little sense of Catherine’s place among eighteenth century Europe’s Enlightened despots beyond Austrian Emperor Joseph II’s visit to Russia.

Empress of the Night provides an engaging portrait of Catherine’s Russia and her last year. Stachniak’s first novel, The Winter Palace, however, provided a stronger imagining of Catherine’s character. Her early reign passes by too fast in Empress of the Night to reveal her evolution from enlightened despot to determined reactionary in her final years. Both Stachniak’s novels reveal that Catherine’s Russia is an ideal setting for historical fiction. Hopefully, there will be many more Imperial Russian historical novels to come.

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

When Catherine the Great Invaded The Crimea And Put The Rest of the World On Edge

Portrait of Catherine the Great as a Legislator in the Temple Devoted to the Godess of Justice by Dmitri Levitsky, early 1780s.

Portrait of Catherine the Great as a Legislator in the Temple Devoted to the Goddess of Justice by Dmitri Levitsky, early 1780s.

My article in Smithsonian Magazine, “When Catherine the Great Invaded The Crimea And Put The Rest of the World On Edge” looks at the original annexation of the Crimea by the Russian Empire during the reign of Empress Catherine II in the late eighteenth century. Catherine presented herself to the world as an “enlightened” despot who ruled according to the law, and considered the welfare of her subjects.  Her foreign policy and treatment of internal dissent, however, demonstrated that she saw did not observe any constraints on her power. For centuries the Crimean peninsula and other regions of the modern day Ukraine have been one of Europe’s battlegrounds. Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin is following in a long tradition of Russian leaders expanding their political influence at the expense of Ukrainian autonomy.

Click here to read “When Catherine the Great Invaded The Crimea And Put The Rest of the World On Edge” in Smithsonian Magazine. 

Interested in learning more about Catherine the Great and The History of the Ukraine?

Books about Catherine the Great

Simon Dixon, Catherine The Great (2010).

Isabel de Madariaga, Catherine the Great: A Short History; Second Edition (2002).

Robert K. Massie, Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman (2011).

Books about the Ukraine

Anna Reid, Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine (2000).

Paul Robert Magocsi, Ukraine: An Illustrated History, (2013).

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather