Sunday, May 29, 2022

A Romanov Roundup: the letters of Anastasia and Alexei


As it turned out,  Grand Duchess Anastasia was the boldest of the four daughters of Nicholas II and Alexandra.  She was a young woman, filled with compassion and perspective, who "had no tolerance for pretension.  "  Anastasia was only 17 years old when she was murdered with her parents, siblings, and several loyal retainers on July 16/17, 1918.

Having already translated diaries and correspondence of the three older Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, and Maria, Romanov historian  Helen Azar has turned to the writings of Anastasia Romanov The Tsar's Youngest Daughter Speaks through Her Writings (1907-1918).   The book was co-authored/translated by George Hawkins.

This 415-page book includes correspondence between the young Grand Duchess and her parents, grandmother, Empress, Aunt Irene, Aunt Olga, friends, and teachers as she emerges from childhood to young woman.

Many of the letters are short letters that include birthday greetings, religious days, and, most important, the final year of Anastasia's life when she and her family were prisoners of the Bolsheviks

I am drawn to Aunt Irene's  (of Prussia) letter to Anastasia  (June 17, 1914) to offer birthday greetings, "fancy already 13".  Irene, Empress Alexandra's older sister, also wrote about the imperial family's recent visit to Livadia in the Crimea and to Constanta in Romania  Nicholas and Alexandra and their family visited the Romanian royal family, where Queen Marie was eager to arrange a marriage between her eldest son, Crown Prince Carol, and Nicholas' eldest daughter,  Romania.   

Empress Alexandra and Queen Marie were first cousins,  but Alexandra did not share her cousin's enthusiasm for the marriage. 

The letter was written 11 days before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, which was the final match that led to the first world war.   

For Anastasia and her sisters and her younger brother, Alexei, who was a hemophiliac, their parents and tutors tried to maintain a semblance of pre-war life.  

Anastasia was at her happiest when corresponding with her father, even better when he would return from the front.  But there is little discussion of the war or the social upheaval outside the Palace.   In a letter written after Nicholas' abdication, Anastasia writes to her father:  "Well, my dear Papa darling. I'll finish now. I kiss you awfully firmly and love you! 1000. God be with you. All the best. Lovingly yours, your faithful and devoted Kaspyitz"  

The father-daughter love could not be constricted by imprisonment in Tobolsk and finally in Ekaterinburg.

George Hawkins is the editor/translator of  Alexei, Russia's Last Tsarevitch - Letters, diaries, and writings.  This nearly 700-page book opens with a brief introduction, followed by a chronology from 1904 until 1918.  The first entry is an excerpt from Nicholas II's diary, where he writes about the "unforgettably great day" when his son, Alexei was born.  

It is not until 1911 that Alexei's first written words appear.  The first chapters are diary excerpts and correspondence of Imperial family members writing about the young heir. Including other voices certainly helps the reader to understand Alexei.

He often wrote about illness (hemophilia), including the pain, but never truly complained.  Alexei was a young boy, who was determined to live a full life, even though he was under constant watch by his parents, his doctors, and the young soldiers who were his nurses-cum-playmates.

Kudos to Helen and George for the translations of Anastasia and Alexei's correspondence and diary entries.  But there are distinct problems with both books.  Publishing the letters in English is fantastic, but what is missing is the historical perspective and scholarship. 

Every chapter should begin with a text that informs readers about what happened during that year.  Tell the readers what the letters mean, the relationships, and the people mentioned in the letters and diaries. 

In other words: offer context.  Provide the historical perspective and scholarship that the letters and diaries demand.  

Where is the scholarship that these works deserve?  Both books were self-published through Amazon. I acknowledge that this is a good way to earn money.   But -- and this is a big but -- quality control is cast aside because the books were rushed into print.   This is a disservice to the material that both authors have translated.   University publishers, for example, invest time and money in their publications, making sure   Helen and George's books are far too important to be self-published   Neither had editors to guide them through the process of finalizing the manuscript before the book goes to press.

Publishers also have marketing and publicity departments, the latter of which sends ARCs to Library Journal Kirkus as well as book reviewers, historians, and others, people who can provide lucid and competent reviews of the subject matter.   The books also receive important cataloging information for libraries.   

Publishers also get books into bookstores and libraries, public and private.  But without the marketing and publicity, these books will receive minimal attention.

Most of the photos used in both books were supplied by GARF, the Russian archives.  The quality of the reproductions is not good, and many are too small to really appreciate. 

Both books include minimal footnotes, but the authors commit the cardinal sin of not including an index to names, places, subjects, and topics.  Seriously, an index is worth its weight in gold to researchers. 

This review is not a criticism of Helen and George's work. They have done a fabulous job in translating the correspondence from Russian to English.  My grumbles are toward the decision to not take the time to present their work to serious publishers who would be able to advise and release scholarly tomes that would reach a much wider market.   They need to put flesh on these letters.  

In other words, the historical and biographical of Who, What, Where, How, and Why.   

The authors have in their hands a historical treasure trove ... and both have the ability to produce a scholarly tome!

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