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