'The Romanov Sisters:' How the daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra fared (not well)

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“No tears, no sobs and no questions.” Ordered down to the basement of their Ekaterinburg prison one summer morning in 1917, the last royal Romanovs went to their brutal deaths with a quiet detachment.

Their whole world had crashed down after the Tsar’s abdication the previous year. Gone were the palaces, devoted military guards, royal and aristocratic visitors and luxurious foreign trips.

Placed under house arrest by the new government, Nicholas, his wife Alexandra, son Alexei and daughters Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia endured the taunts of their proletarian guards and the many indignities of being closely watched. Yet the overriding impression they generated was of a quiet fortitude.

The last Romanovs had always been a close family. Alexandra, a German-born princess and granddaughter of Queen Victoria, saw her husband’s royal duties as a “horrid bore.” Soon after her marriage, she retreated into her private life, avoiding the court as much as she could.

Nicholas himself seems hardly to have been enamored of his role, although few would argue he was an easygoing ruler. The pair, however, were genuinely devoted parents. They gave their children much attention and love, at a time when many upper class families were only too happy to send their offspring away to be cared for by others.

The end of the Russian Empire is often discussed in terms of Nicholas, Alexandra, their hemophiliac son Alexei, the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917, Rasputin, Kerensky, Lenin and Stalin.

By contrast, the Grand Duchesses, or OTMA as they called themselves, have traditionally been in the background; much photographed, but rarely given a voice.

English historian Helen Rappaport seeks to fill this long-lasting void. “The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra” (St. Martin’s Press, $27.99) is a sizable exploration of the sisters’ relatively short lives.

Despite frequent pomp and circumstance, the sisters spent much time behind closed doors. Ms. Rappaport describes their hours of private tuition and focus on each other, always watched over by a highly protective mother.

As they turned into sometimes boisterous, strong-willed teenagers, occasional nighttime balls and impossible romantic attachments came as welcome diversions. The sisters never exactly rebelled, but they did gradually become more independent. They knew what they wanted but did not want to get there by causing their parents any pain.

For their part, Nicholas and Alexandra seem to have taken it all in their stride, neither resenting nor fearing their children as they became adults. Ms. Rappaport is good at showing life within the castle gates.

Sometimes, however, Ms. Rappaport’s focus means we lose a sense of proportion: a small party involves an expense beyond the wildest dreams of most Russians, a short holiday involves an army of guards and attendants. Three hundred years of Romanov rule had put the family at a seemingly unbridgeable remove from most other Russians, which Rappaport does not seem to find particularly striking.

“The Romanov Sisters” gradually turns from a bright story of a young family into a melancholy account of victimhood. Whatever your politics, it is hard not to feel a deep revulsion at how Russia’s new powers solved the royal “problem.”

That said, Ms. Rappaport is weak at giving us a sense of the others: the long-suffering Russian peasantry, the newly emboldened intelligentsia and triumphant, infighting revolutionaries. She simply ignores the wider political context in which the Romanovs lived and died. Their dignity in the face of death is deeply moving, but such an aloof attitude is less suited to an objective historian.

Nonetheless, Ms. Rappaport makes a genuinely new, interesting contribution to the Romanov story, which is likely to appeal to both general and specialist readers.

Andre van Loon (vanloonandre@gmail.com) is a freelance book critic specializing in Russian literature and history.

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