Monday, February 24, 2020

Maria Romanov Third Daughter of the Last Tsar Diaries and Letters 1908-1918

Grand Duchess Maria Nicolaievna of Russia, was the third daughter of Russian emperor Nicholas II and his wife, Alexandra of Hesse and By Rhine.  She was known as Mashka, an emphatic, strong-willed, and very devoted to her family.  It was customary, indeed obligatory, for Marie and her siblings to keep diaries.   As Marie destroyed most of her diaries and other papers in 1918, only three diaries (1912, 1913 and 1916) have survived.

These diaries have been translated into English for the first time by Helen Azar and George Hawkins.

The authors have also included letters from other family members, including Empress Alexandra, to Marie.

Even as a small child, Marie's correspondence with her mother often focused on the latter's health.   Marie often asked her mother about her heart and her head.

Marie's diaries are similar to Olga and Tatiana's diaries, which were also edited by Helen Azar.  The topics are often similar: going to church,  lessons, meals and spending time with family and friends.   Contrary to the views of other biographers,  the young Grand Duchesses did have contact with cousins from both sides of their families.  As devout members of the Russian Orthodox church, Marie and her family spent a lot of time attending services.  Food poisoning was a good excuse to get out of church as Maria noted on May 14,1912.
"I had food poisoning and didn't go to church.  Had breakfast at 5 with Papa..."   Inquiring minds want to know: did Maria eat something bad when she had breakfast with her father?

Maria Romanov Third Daughter of the Last Tsar Diaries and Letters 1908-1918 (Westholme) can only give a glimpse of the young Grand Duchess's life largely due to the limited scope of materials.   This is not a criticism.   So much was understandably destroyed, so we should appreciate what is available.

It is a joy that Helen Azar and George Hawkins, both of whom are fluent in Russian, have translated these letters and diaries.

Maria's diaries do not give us her pain and fear in those final months of life.  This is not a surprise as these diaries were never meant to be read by historians and those with a general interest in the Romanovs more than 100 years later.

We can only assume what was behind the words.  In January 1918, when the family was held at Tobolsk, Maria wrote to a friend that she was sitting by a window, celebrating the sunshine and that the "frost isn't heavy."  In another letter, she writes about the "masses of cockroaches."

After Maria arrived with her parents at Ekaterinburg in May 1918, she wrote to her younger sister, Anastasia, that "we have not unpacked everything because we were told that we would be moved to another place." 

For Maria and her sisters and younger brother,  there must have been great fear as well as the loss of security, as she writes about the guards changing every three hours, and hoping that her letter to a family member was sent.

Maria's correspondence ends in May 1918.  The final two months of Maria's life (and the lives of her parents, siblings, and servants) are in the words of others including those who took part in the murders. 

Westholme has also published two of Helen's earlier books: The Diary of Olga Romanov  Royal Witness of the Revolution and Tatiana Romanov: Daughter of the Last Tsar, Diaries and Letters, 1913-1918).  The latter title was co-written by Nicholas Nicholson.

The authors have been able to open the curtain, at least a little bit, into Maria's young life, providing readers with a little insight into Maria's personality and her relationship with her family.  She was certainly devoted to her darling Papa.  Her voice is not complete because most of her diaries and correspondence were destroyed.   A muted voice is better than no voice at all.

Helen and George succeed in bringing Maria's "gentle character" to life.

I look forward to further collaborations from them.

 Helen has found a niche market but I know she can move up a few notches as a Romanov historian, especially as she is a native Russian speaker.  It is not easy to move out of the comfort zone, but far more people (not just the usual roundup of armchair Romanov fans) want to learn more about the Grand Duchesses.  This means writing more articles for more publications or giving lectures, for example.

This also means working with professional editors and translators.

That said,  Maria Romanov Third Daughter of the Last Tsar, Diaries and Letters 1908-1918) will become a well-thumbed standard reference for a genuine impression of Nicholas II's third daughter.

The book is illustrated with photographs from GARF, Russia's state archives.

I read the manuscript before it was published, helping the authors with identifications of persons named in the diaries and letters and historical events.

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