Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport








Romanov scholarship, especially on Nicholas and Alexandra and their family, has certainly taken a giant leap since 1967 when Robert Massie's Nicholas and Alexandra was published.   Massie's seminal work has stood the test of time, in terms of a competent, well-researched biography.   It was one of the first royal books I read (I was 13 in 1967), and remains one of my favorites.

Massie wrote a biographical-history with relatively limited and largely English-language sources.    Soviet archives were closed to western historians, so biographers such as Massie, had to rely on largely secondary English-language sources, apart from a selection of Nicholas' diary and his correspondence with Wilhelm II.    Massie (and others) could only offer the insight into Nicholas and his family by what others said or perceived about them.

Fast forward several decades to the 1990s, after the fall of communism and the Soviet Union, when richness of material in the Russian archives became available.   There has been a plethora of material, from the diaries of Alexandra and her daughters to family  correspondence, including letters between Alix and her brother, Ernie.

British author Helen Rappaport, a former actress who retains a bit of the dramatic flare, reminds me of Alison Weir (another British historian, albeit one who specializes in the Plantagenets and Tudors) whose early books were good and competent.  Weir moved to the stratosphere of greatness with her breakthrough biography on Eleanor of Aquitaine, which was followed by an equally impressive biography on Katherine Swynford.  Two modern and awesome royal biographies.







There is no doubt that Rappaport is a decent biographer, who understands the concept of good research (and mining source material  beyond the familiar.)  She is fluent in Russian, and has made judicious use of material in  Russian archives.  Her first Romanov themed book, The Last Days of Romanovs Tragedy at Ekaterinburg (2007), focused, with intense detail, on the final weeks before Nicholas II and his family were assassinated  by the Bolsheviks.   

That book was not perfect, as Rappaport allowed a few piddly mistakes to sneak into her text (and not caught by her editor).  Twice (and in the index) she referred to Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, as Prince Edward, Duke of Clarence.  She also stated that Alix's older sister, Ella, converted to the Orthodox faith when she married Grand Duke Serge, when, in fact, Ella abjured her Lutheran faith several years after her marriage.


Helen has decided to continue the Romanov theme with The Romanov Sisters The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra (St. Martin's Press: $27.99), a book that offers flashes of brilliance, but often falls flat.   This does not mean the book is bad or should not be read -- it should -- but one has to eschew the fandom enthusiasm that followed the publication.  I have no interest in royal or Romanov fandom.  I am a historian, with a serious interest in royal history.  The Grand Duchesses and their younger brother were among the many victims of Bolshevik aggression. 

Rappaport is to be commended for accessing new Russian sources, as without the new material,  The Romanov Sisters would be another rehashing of the tragic lives of OTMA.  But she does ignore parts of the story as she barely mentions the relationship between the four grand duchesses and their only grandparent, the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna.  It is all right to be biased toward your subjects, but the entire story also needs to be told.

It takes about a third of the book for the author to get to the meat of the story: the four girls.  I can understand the criticism toward this, but it is also important to understand that the four girls and their brother were the sum parts of their parents.

Let's just say Nicholas and Alexandra were ill-served as Emperor and consort, and as parents.  It went beyond over-protection.  As each year passed, the family grew further inward, closing themselves off from family.  Nicholas and Alexandra were very much in love, but it was a suffocating love, at times.   As with many converts to Orthodoxy,  Alix turned into a bigot and zealot.  Her view of her husband's role as Emperor was not rooted in reality.

Neither Nicholas nor Alexandra were able or willing to discern the real ills that plagued Russia, a massive, intense country, struggling to find a place in the 20th century.   Unlike western Europe, Russia never truly experienced the Reformation or the Age of Enlightenment (which can be seen even in today's Russia).

The birth of the Tsarevitch Alexey further exacerbated the family dynamics.  Alix, never a truly healthy woman, was physically and mentally worn out by five full term pregnancies.  Russia's succession was semi-Salic which meant that the four grand duchesses followed all of the eligible males in the Imperial family.  Thus, a direct male was imperative.   Unfortunately, the one son was born a hemophiliac, a then fatal disease that Alix brought to the family.  She was a carrier, as was her sister, Irene, and their mother who inherited the gene from her mother, Queen Victoria.  Alix's brother, Friedrich Wilhelm, suffered from the disease, and died as the result of a fall from a window.

Thus, Alexey's childhood was fraught with the fear that a bruise might kill him.  One can only imagine his mother's self-inflicted torture and pain knowing that she was responsible for her son's frailty.  Alix drew further inward, unable to be the consort that Nicholas (and Russia) needed. 

The four grand duchesses grew up in a largely confined atmosphere, with minimal connection with other family members, such a cousins.  There was no real opportunity for a chrysalis-like emergence into adulthood.

The girls were socially inexperienced.  When Olga and Tatiana made their first appearances at court balls, others noticed they were gauche and unable to make small talk.  Their diary entries focused on the mundane: the weather, Alix's declining health, going to religious services.

Faith certainly played a role in the lives of these four young women.  Alix reiterated over and over again that only God would save them.  (As a devout Lutheran, I could have told Alix that a strong belief in God is important, but, equally important, one has to listen to what God says.  Alix was unable to listen to anyone except perhaps Rasputin, who called himself a man of God.  He wasn't.)



In her previous book, The Last Days of the Romanovs,  Helen's painful eloquence is evident in her detailed accounting of the grand duchesses' final weeks of life.  It was must have been a pure hellacious torment to be held prisoner by brutish men whose sole intent was to kill the entire family.  I was brought to tears when I closed the book. 

The tears should have come this time, too.  It is in the final chapter where The Romanov Sisters falls flat.  The pathos, the pain and tragedy of their deaths,  even the details of Maria's discomfiture by her family should have been included here, too.  After all, this book is about Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia.   The author (or anyone else) should never  assume that everyone who reads this book will have already read The Last Days of the Romanovs.   

For many, The Romanov Sisters may be a reader's first introduction to Nicholas and Alexandra and their family.  For others, it is just one of many books that we will read in our lifetimes about the Romanovs.

Rappaport is an excellent story teller.  Her writing style is fluid, never over arching. She captures the personalities of the main characters, giving OTMA voices largely ignored by others.   I think a good editor should have provided a little  massaging to have Helen introduce the girls earlier in the book. 

The book has its high points, and it will be a good source for future Romanov historians.   Largely due to the skimming of details in the final chapter, this book isn't Helen's breakthrough work.  She is certainly capable of a breakthrough biography, but she needs to move beyond the tried, true and comfortable:  Nicholas and Alexandra and their five children.    How about a new biography of Ella or see what other treasures in the Russian archives that are crying out -- I hear them -- to be translated.

Sadly, she still trips over the silly mistakes.  In the index, you will find Edward, Duke of Clarence.  You think Helen would have figured this out by now.  The eldest son of Edward VII was called Eddy by his family, but his official first name was Albert Victor.  She also writes that Prince Maurice of Teck, younger son of Princess Alice of Albany and Prince Alexander of Teck,  was a hemophiliac.  Maurice died at age 6 months, but he did not have hemophilia.  His older brother, Rupert, suffered from the disease.   In the 1980s, when I was writing the first edition of my book, Queen Victoria's Descendants,  I began a correspondence with Princess Alice's only daughter, Lady May Abel Smith, who confirmed that her younger brother, Maurice, did not have hemophilia.  He may have had an illness, or perhaps succumbed as the result of what we now call crib death.


The Romanov Sisters is a good book that will provide a stepping stone to more material coming out of Russia.  Surely, however, it is time to move on to writing biographies about other members of the dynasty. 

















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