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REVIEW: The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport

romanov-sisters

They were the Princess Dianas of their day—perhaps the most photographed and talked about young royals of the early twentieth century. The four captivating Russian Grand Duchesses—Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia Romanov—were much admired for their happy dispositions, their looks, the clothes they wore and their privileged lifestyle.

Over the years, the story of the four Romanov sisters and their tragic end in a basement at Ekaterinburg in 1918 has clouded our view of them, leading to a mass of sentimental and idealized hagiography. With this treasure trove of diaries and letters from the grand duchesses to their friends and family, we learn that they were intelligent, sensitive and perceptive witnesses to the dark turmoil within their immediate family and the ominous approach of the Russian Revolution, the nightmare that would sweep their world away, and them along with it.

The Romanov Sisters sets out to capture the joy as well as the insecurities and poignancy of those young lives against the backdrop of the dying days of late Imperial Russia, World War I and the Russian Revolution. Rappaport aims to present a new and challenging take on the story, drawing extensively on previously unseen or unpublished letters, diaries and archival sources, as well as private collections. It is a book that will surprise people, even aficionados.

Dear Ms. Rappaport,

My introduction to the Romanovs began many years ago when I read Robert K Massie’s “Nicholas and Alexandra.’ While it’s a very good book for its time, one glaring defect for me was always the fact that the lives of the four Grand Duchesses were covered in only one chapter titled OTMA. The sisters themselves used the term but, as you mention in your book, it mainly served to turn them into an faceless mass, indistinguishable from each other. When I saw the title of your book I thought, ‘aha, now maybe I can learn more about each sister as an individual.”

From the opening, the book is so full of signs, SIGNS I tell you! of what was to lead to what was to come. Or what certainly helped grease things along. Reading it is like watching one of those old 1970s disaster films – Airport, The Towering Inferno, Earthquake or The Poseidon Adventure. We get the introduction of the cast of characters, the setting of the disaster and slow build up to The Event – whatever that might be, followed by the fallout from the catastrophe. Here it’s the Romanov family, in a Russia poised for social upheaval, which lead to the Revolution and then to their deaths.

Since we already know the family is doomed, it’s easy to pick out the people and events in their lives and the world stage that got them to Ekaterinburg. All of this must obviously be covered as it was such an integral part of what happened to the sisters but what about them before the end? What made them tick? How were they different? This is what I really wanted to know.

The book comes through for me. It’s obvious that considerable time and effort was expended in tracking down – and in many cases translating – original source material. Their parents wrote much about them in letters and diaries. Since the sisters were celebrities in their day there a plethora of foreign coverage of their lives. And as they were prodigious letter writers, their own experiences, thoughts and hopes were captured and preserved in the moment, much like objects in amber.

Far from being the stairstep princesses in often matching tulle covered picture hats of the day, the sisters were vastly different young women. Sometimes solemn, serene, imperial, impish, boy crazy or downright mean, the girls were individuals from the beginning and just starting to show the women they could have become given different circumstances. I was surprised at how extremely naïve they were but given the degree to which their parents sheltered them, and how they still called them “girlies” until Olga was near twenty, I suppose I shouldn’t be.

One thing that does come through, crystal clear, is their devotion to each other, to their parents and to their brother who, unfortunately, due to the Russian peoples’ and his parent’s hopes for an heir, seemed to push the four sisters into the background and blur their individual personalities.

Reasons are given for not including information about the actual execution and the disposal of the bodies. I realize that you’d already covered it in another book but by merely mentioning that it makes it seem as if you’re trying to sell the reader that book to get the complete story.

I did enjoy getting to know Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia much better than I did when I began the book. Each sister is now a bit clearer and more fixed in my mind. Yes, I know that if they had lived, they would probably have been relegated to nothing more than footnotes of the era (after all, who remembers much of Princess Marie-Thérèse Charlotte of France?) but since that isn’t what happened and many still want to know more about them, this is a good starting point to do so. B

~Jayne

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Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

9 Comments

  1. Anne
    Jun 05, 2014 @ 12:11:46

    Thank you for this review. It looks like the other book you referenced, The Last Days of the Romanovs is on sale so I’m going to start there but this one is definitely going on my wish list.

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  2. Brigid
    Jun 05, 2014 @ 15:54:48

    Great review jayne,
    I’ve always been interested in the Romanov sisters. Does the book go into their personal lives? What it was like to be the daughters of the czar and czarina?

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  3. Susan
    Jun 05, 2014 @ 16:11:00

    Thanks for this one, Jayne.

    Nicholas and Alexandra was my gateway for a lifelong fascination with the final days of the Romanovs (including the extended family). I’ve read/owned a ton of books on the subject, including some that were, to put it kindly, wackadoodle. But I can never seem to get enough. Looking forward to this one: it’s gone on the wishlist.

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  4. Jayne
    Jun 05, 2014 @ 18:04:56

    @Brigid: Yes, it does cover their personal lives – what little time they had. What I took away from it was how circumscribed their lives were and how much time they devoted to their sick mother and brother. It really wasn’t until the eldest began nursing training and work that they got to see much of life beyond the palaces and royal yacht.

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  5. Jayne
    Jun 05, 2014 @ 18:07:39

    @Anne: The other book that Rappaport has written on them covers the last 14 days of their captivity and – I think – the immediate aftermath of the execution. I’d be interested to know what you think of it. Her writing style is very readable. It isn’t breezy and chatty but it’s also not tomb-dry and boring either.

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  6. Jayne
    Jun 05, 2014 @ 18:10:57

    @Susan: And boy did they have an extended family. It’s cousin this and Grand Duke Uncle that and Grandmother England. I rewatched “The Fall of Eagles” recently and their family gatherings were just staggering.

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  7. SAO
    Jun 06, 2014 @ 09:56:37

    I hate it when people try to translate Russian diminutives into English. “Girlies” sounds silly, but Russian is so full of diminutives that the words most commonly used for “Potato” and “Carrot” are diminutives. Further, I’ve heard the diminutive of Potato, given a diminutive. The formal word (rarely used) is Kartofel, the commonly used diminutive is Kartoshka, and I’ve heard people say, Kartoshitchka. So, my bet is that the word for “Girlies” sounds a lot less silly in Russian.

    In Russian, the last names are declines, so it is Nikolai (Nicholas) Romanov and Alexandra Romanova.

    To what extent were the Grand Duchesses sheltered and to what extent were they living in the same strange little world their parents lived in? I never got the impression that either Nicholas or Alexandra was much in touch with what was going on in the country outside the palace walls.

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  8. Jayne
    Jun 06, 2014 @ 18:32:12

    @SAO: N&A might have been oblivious but everyone else seemed to have something to say about what was going on. There are several quotes in the book from people both inside and outside of Russia and foreign reporters commenting on how N&A were botching things by their actions or inactions.

    The book also describes how the Grand Duchesses knew almost nothing of St. Petersburg society and played children’s parlor games during the early years of WWI when in the company of the officers they had crushes on. Perhaps this was common among women of their class or these games have come to be played by children in the decades since but started as adult pasttimes?

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  9. Molly B.
    Jun 07, 2014 @ 09:19:17

    Thanks for the review, Jayne. I had to laugh about the disaster-movie foreshadowing–I’ve read several popular history books that use that technique, and it’s kind of like “HERE IS THE SLEDGEHAMMER OF HISTORY, I WILL HIT YOU OVER THE HEAD WITH IT NOW.”

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