Reviewed by Harriet Devine
On 17 July 1918, four young women walked down twenty-three steps into the cellar of a house in Ekaterinburg. The eldest was twenty-two, the youngest only seventeen. Together with their parents and their thirteen-year-old brother, they were all brutally murdered. Their crime: to be the daughters of the last Tsar and Tsarita of All the Russias.
The story of the tragic fate of Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, and their five children has been told so many times, in print and on film, that you could be forgiven for wondering whether we need yet another account of it all. But when that account comes from Helen Rappaport, biographer and historian extraordinaire, the answer has to be emphatically yes.
Rappaport began this project in the wake of her own successful 2009 book, Ekaterinburg: The Last Days of the Romanovs, a detailed and almost unbearably painful account of the last fourteen days of this doomed family before the murder that ended all their lives. But this is the first time the lives of the four sisters, The Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, have been put on centre stage. And what extraordinary lives they were, though not, perhaps, quite in the way you might think. They were made extraordinary by the personalities of their parents: Nicholas, essentially a good man and a bad tsar, who longed for a quiet life and would have made an excellent gentleman farmer, and Alexandra, beautiful, neurotic, increasingly obsessed with religion. These two were certainly devoted parents, and loved their daughters no less for being girls despite their powerful need for a son and heir. They believed that, in spite of their stupendous wealth, the family should live simple lives, sleeping on hard cot beds with no pillows and taking cold baths every morning. But the fact of their imperial birthright combined with the sheltered lives imposed by their parents resulted in the four girls being denied the kind of happiness that they came to long for.
Sadly, during their last days of imprisonment the family destroyed their many of their diaries and letters, but enough valuable primary materials have survived for the personalities of the four girls to emerge vividly here. Olga, the eldest, though intelligent and compassionate, was an often difficult and angry teenager, and this can’t have been helped by the pressure she was constantly put under to set a good example to the younger children. Tatiana, said to be the beauty of the family, was altogether cooler, quieter and more practical, with a real talent for organisation that developed as she grew older. Maria, the third child, pretty and plump, seems to have been moody and insecure at times, feeling left out by her elder sisters, while the youngest, Anastasia, lively, outspoken and mischievous, hated schoolwork and delighted in making people laugh.
Although at times they were dressed up and paraded in front of the populace, the four girls led incredibly restricted lives. The outside world was a complete mystery to them — as young adults, Olga and Tatiana once visited a shop and emerged in some confusion, having realised they had no idea how to buy anything or even what money really was. When they met people who lived in the ‘real’ world, they would cross examine them in detail about their lives and experiences. The first proper contact they had with any kind of ordinary life came when, during World War One, Olga and Tatiana trained as nurses and worked in a military hospital. But even this turned out to be a mixed blessing, as it brought them into contact with attractive young men with whom they certainly fell in love but who they could never hope to be allowed to marry. Intense flirtations ensued, which were bound to end in heartbreak, and Olga seems never to have fully recovered from her final disappointment. Astonishingly, their mother appears to have been completely unable to comprehend the seriousness of all this, and turned a blind eye to the close relationships her daughters were forming. Meanwhile family pressure to marry some crown prince or other continued, despite the fact that none of the girls could bear the sight of the suitable matches who were periodically wheeled out in front of them. Perhaps, Helen Rappaport suggests, had the family survived, the girls would have been allowed to make so-called morganatic marriages, in which case they might have achieved settled and happy home lives. Of course events took over, and this was destined not to happen.
This book has left me thinking a great deal about the implications of being born into an imperial family such as the Romanovs. Russia was an absolute monarchy, the last to survive in Europe, until the Revolution of 1906, and even after the establishment of the Duma, an elected legislative body, Nicholas still retained absolute power. The dichotomy between the family’s simple domestic desires for a peaceful home life and the massive expectations imposed by their position inevitably made for great unhappiness, and undoubtedly contributed to their overthrow. Kings and queens, or emperors and empresses, are, after all, only human beings, but they are expected to behave as if they were not. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the tragically foreshortened lives of the four sisters, who come vividly to life in Helen Rappaport’s excellent biography. Impressively researched, with enough endnotes and references to satisfy the most demanding scholar, the book also manages to be a real page-turner. Quite an achievement, and highly recommended.
Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Helen Rappaport, Four Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Romanov Grand Duchesses (Macmillan, London, 2014). 978-0230768178, 496 pp., hardback.