Emperor Nicholas II of Russia, his wife Empress Alexandra, their four daughters, Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia and their son, Grand Duke Alexei are one of the best documented ruling families in history. Historian Andrei Maylunas listed the multitude of source material concerning Russia’s last Imperial family in the introduction to A Lifelong Passion: Nicholas and Alexandra: Their Own Story. The Imperial couple and their children all kept diaries and engaged in extensive correspondence. They were photography enthusiasts who took more than 150,000 photographs of each other for their family albums. They appear in thirty hours of film footage showing both state occasions and family holidays.
As Russia’s ruling family, their movements were recorded by their security detail and their public appearances were covered by domestic and foreign journalists. After the Russian Revolutions of 1917 and the murder of Nicholas, Alexandra and their children in 1918, surviving relatives, courtiers and members of their household wrote memoirs in exile detailing their impressions of the Romanovs. In the 1990s, the excavation of the family’s mass grave outside the Ural mining town of Yekaterinburg provided yet more information about their lives and deaths.
Despite this wealth of source material, ECS Banks’ work, Road to Ekaterinburg: Nicholas and Alexandra’s Daughters 1913 – 1918 is the first book devoted to the daily lives of the four Grand Duchesses. In the numerous books about their parents, they are often reduced to broad stereotypes encapsulated by a remark once made by their Aunt Elisabeth, “It is Olga the Clever, Tatiana the Fair, Marie the Good, and Anastasia the Terror (reprinted in ed. Arturo Beeche, The Grand Duchesses: Daughters & Granddaughters of Russia’s Tsars, p. 159). The youth of the four Grand Duchesses at the time of their deaths (they were in their late teens and early twenties) also encourages portrayals of them as “children” who obeyed their parents without question and rarely expressed opinions of their own.
In contrast, Banks’s research reveals the growing independence of the Grand Duchesses between 1913 and 1918. While Nicholas and Alexandra wanted their daughters to have happy marriages like their own, they also expected them to marry royalty, as the Fundamental Laws governing the Imperial Family of Russia dictated. All four of their daughters, however, volunteered in hospitals during the First World War and developed attachments to ordinary Russian officers.
Eligible Princes and Grand Dukes seemed to make little impression on Nicholas II’s daughters. Olga appears to have barely noticed her first royal admirer, Prince Christopher of Greece and actively disliked the future King Carol II of Roumania. Nicholas II’s young cousin Grand Duke Dmitri was treated as an older brother by the Grand Duchesses and the awkward gestures of Grand Duke Konstantin’s younger sons did little to encourage the young women to see them as potential husbands. (For example, Olga wondered aloud what to do with the stag’s head that the young Prince Konstantin Konstantinovich sent her as a gift after one of his hunting trips). Instead of arranging illustrious marriages for Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, Nicholas II found himself arranging marriages and military transfers for various ordinary Russian officers to end their friendships with his daughters, hoping that the next Prince might make a more favourable impression.
Banks structures her book as a day by day account of the lives of the Grand Duchesses. This approach has both strengths and weaknesses. It reveals just how much their lives changed with the advent of the First World War as summer holidays in the Crimea were replaced by full time work in military hospitals, then changed again when the family was placed under house arrest in 1917. Describing the daily lives of the Grand Duchesses also provides a kind of social history of Nicholas II’s family and household, detailing the fashions, food and reading material of the Imperial residences.
Unfortunately, Banks’ structure also results in a lot of repetition. She states on numerous occasions that Alexandra did not like her daughters to have idle hands and that Olga was a mediocre tennis player because embroidery and tennis were quotidian activities for the Grand Duchesses. The book would also be improved by including more full dates, particularly in the pre-revolutionary chapters. Too many paragraphs in the early chapters begin with “The following day” or “On Wednesday” without including the month or day. Those who have read the extensive memoir literature and collections of documents concerning the Romanovs will recognize Banks’ sources but the absence of footnotes impedes use of the author’s extensive research by scholars.
By synthesizing the known source material about the daily lives of the Grand Duchesses and analyzing their reading material and cultural tastes, Banks uncovers the complex personalities of these young women and their emerging adult lives during the First World War and Russian Revolution in Road to Ekaterinburg: Nicholas and Alexandra’s Daughters 1913 – 1918. As Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia reached their teens and early twenties, their expectations gradually differed from those of their parents. The Romanovs remained a devoted family until the end of their lives but there is clear evidence that if they had survived the Russian Revolution and Civil War, the Grand Duchesses would have made their own choices about their marriages and futures.