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