Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Those Romanov Girls

Reading about the last Romanovs always feels a bit like driving past a fatal car wreck. You don't want to look because you know what happens, but you can't help yourself. Just one peek, you say. Suddenly, there you are rubbernecking like the worst person in the world (or reading another book about the end of the Romanov dynasty).  A couple of months ago, I read a British review of The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra by Helen Rappaport and pre-ordered the book. I'm glad I did. I still might be rubbernecking, but I learned some new things and came away with a better understanding of the daughters and the world in which they lived.

When reading about the Romanovs, the sisters -- Olga, Tatiana, Marie, and Anastasia -- always get lost in the shuffle of larger personalities. The less-than-prepared-to-be-tsar  father and the tragically flawed, sickly mother, both nonetheless buying into the whole notion of divine right and autocracy. The long-hoped-for but chronically ill brother about whom so many decisions were made that increased the trajectory of  the dynasty's downward spiral. The larger than life figure of Rasputin. The sisters themselves seem to even buy into this notion of being second-class characters by referring to themselves collectively as OTMA and publicly presenting themselves as a group.

Some critical reviews say this book still has a dearth of information about the girls. Relatively speaking, this is probably true. However, it's worth mentioning that the sisters were highly sheltered and not considered all that important by their family and friends during their lives. (They were not the heir and never would be, although for the first time you get a hint that Nicholas felt one of his daughters might have been a more worthy successor.) So, no one felt very compelled to write about them, and their parents took great pains to keep them out of the spotlight. Moreover, the girls themselves destroyed many of their diaries and letters n the days leading up to the revolution. The Bolsheviks who clearly didn't want anything left that might cause people to sympathize with the family destroyed many more artifacts that might have brought them into sharper focus.

What's left for us, the readers, is a basic, yet compelling account of four young women caught up in a maelstrom not of their own making. You come away with a sense of their ordinariness, their piety, their great love of family, and their very real patriotism. With the bits of information that are left to us, you can wonder if the revolution had not happened, might they have broken out of their cocoon as so many young women did after WWI shattered the old order?  What would they have been like if that had been the case? You can sympathize with their longing to be loved by someone and then falling in love with the guards who surrounded them, because who else did they ever see or meet? (When their loyal guards are replaced by Bolsheviks, you also sense their confusion as they try and fail to make friends with these new men as they always had done.) You can almost feel the mind-numbing boredom of their imprisonment and the growing sense of their own doom. In the end, you come away thinking they were really sweet, naive girls who must have gone into that cellar wondering exactly what they had done to deserve such a fate.