Four Sisters:The Lost Lives of the Romanov Grand Duchesses by Helen Rappaport
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|Four Sisters:The Lost Lives of the Romanov Grand Duchesses by Helen Rappaport|
|Reviewer: John Van der Kiste|
|Summary: The lives of the four daughters of Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra of Russia - the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia - from their birth to the tragic end at Ekaterinburg during the revolution in 1981|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 492||Date: March 2014|
|External links: Author's website|
A few years ago, Helen Rappaport wrote and published Ekaterinburg: The Last Days of the Romanovs, a painstaking, chilling account of the final days and death of the last Tsar of Russia and his family. To a certain extent this biography is a prequel to that volume, an account of the short lives of OTMA, as they referred to themselves – the Tsar’s daughters Olga, Tatiana, Marie and Anastasia.
All too often, we might think of the quartet as being a photogenic but somewhat colourless unit, cruelly deprived of their adult lives and overshadowed by their fate before they had a chance to develop as personalities in their own right. After reading this book, we know this not to be the case. All four emerge as individual characters.
A prologue introduces us briefly to the palace which had been the home of the first family – Nicholas, Alexandra, their son and four daughters – until the revolution of 1917 which brought the curtain down on the doomed empire, and a reference to the woman whose ‘fatal excess of mother love’, Alexandra herself, sadly proved their undoing. Then we are introduced to four sisters from an earlier generation, the daughters of the Grand Duke and Duchess of Hesse, the latter a daughter of Queen Victoria. Tragedy had stalked the family from the start, with the death of one of their brothers in infancy, a haemophiliac who bled to death after falling from a window, and then an epidemic of diphtheria which claimed the life of a fifth sister and then their mother. These bereavements in quick succession left their mark on the youngest surviving daughter, six-year-old Alix. Almost overnight, the once cheery little child nicknamed ‘Sunny’ became a withdrawn, introspective girl. We then follow her through her adolescence and marriage to the Russian heir, Nicholas, an unassuming young man overshadowed, even cowed by his bearlike father, Tsar Alexander III, who was struck down in the prime of life by illness. Nicholas and Alexandra thus found themselves Tsar and Tsarina at a time when they were woefully unprepared for it. As Queen Victoria, the grandmother who had in effect taken on the role of substitute mother to Alix, foresaw all too accurately, the state of Russia was ‘so bad, so rotten that any moment something dreadful might happen’.
Then came the birth of four Grand Duchesses in succession, the subjects of this book, between 1895 and 1901. For the parents and empire anxiously awaiting the birth of a healthy son and heir, with each daughter that was born, the disappointment became ever more acute. To crown it all, the son and heir, Alexey, born in 1904, was a high-spirited youngster, but cursed with haemophilia and prone to haemorrhaging after the slightest fall or knock.
Throughout these pages we follow the lives, individually and collectively, of the sisters against the background of their brother’s attacks of severe bleeding when his life was in the balance, the appearance of the ‘holy man’, Rasputin, who seemed to have magical powers and assure them that ‘the little one will not die’ when they had all but given up hope, and the ever-worsening ill-health of the Tsarina, racked with guilt at having produced such a sickly heir, tortured by worry, sciatica and then heart trouble, soon aged well beyond her years and confined to a wheelchair. Olga comes across as charming but serious and often withdrawn, Tatiana as organised, methodical, the most robust, level-headed and a born leader, Maria as strong, stoical, well-rounded and more unaffected by their situation than the rest, and Anastasia the irrepressible jester or cheerleader, guaranteed to keep their spirits up when needed.
A vivid if sombre picture is painted of their lives and the general background. The shy, haughty Alexandra had neither the common touch nor the appetite for society life, and the family withdrew increasingly into their own private world. For the four sisters, there were occasional balls and parties, but the shadows fell all too soon, with the necessity of supporting a harassed and fatalistic father, an ailing mother and a sickly younger brother who was not beyond administering a hefty slap in the face when he objected to being protected too much for his liking. The elder ones were intelligent enough to realise that the advent of Rasputin may have had a beneficial effect on Alexey, but also brought gossip and innuendo which harmed the already dire reputation of their mother, increasingly stubborn in her conviction that her husband was an autocrat who could not be expected to share power with anybody else.
When war broke out in 1914, all of them – including the Tsarina, when her health permitted - served the empire valiantly by nursing the wounded soldiers, taking part in helping with operations and even amputations, watching the most badly injured dying almost before their very eyes. Olga resisted all attempts to try and pair her off with an eligible royal heir to some other European kingdom or empire, even going so far as to thwart plans for an engagement with Prince Carol of Roumania by making sure she and her sisters had good tans when he and his parents visited them, thus making themselves look like ‘ugly peasant women’. Vowing that none of them would ever leave Russia, they hoped for a match with some dashing soldier from their own country, and there were several brief infatuations along the way.
In the last few chapters there is an increasing feeling of foreboding, as the family saga proceeds towards its shocking conclusion. As we know, the girls never left Russia, and maybe that was their one consolation. After his abdication, ex-Tsar Nicholas, freed of responsibilities, briefly told a friend of his life’s desire – to have a farm, somewhere in England. Of course that never happened either.
It is an almost unbearably poignant tale at times. The young women all emerge as flesh and blood, certainly more than the sometimes interchangeable faces who gaze serenely at us from their photographs. There is a wealth of detail as we follow them from gilded if not exactly cosy splendour to their last grim abode, ‘the house of special purpose’, with its windows deliberately painted over to keep out the summer light, surrounded by palisades reaching well above the roofs, where one endless boring day followed another until the final horrific episode. At the risk of using an inappropriate cliché, the family is brought vividly to life, as is their increasingly unhappy world. I found this a very sad read (and obviously never expected it to be otherwise), but a very authoritative, superbly written one. Anybody with the slightest interest in the Romanovs, or the era, will ignore this volume at their peril.
If this book appeals then we can also recommend 25 Chapters of My Life: The Memoirs of Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna by Olga Alexandrovna, Paul Kulikovsky, Sue Woolmans and Karen Roth-Nicholls, Rasputin: A Short Life by Frances Welch and Russia: A 1,000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East by Martin Sixsmith.
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Four Sisters:The Lost Lives of the Romanov Grand Duchesses by Helen Rappaport is in the Top Ten Biographies 2014.
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