Once upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away, there lived an inept king and a scorned queen (versions vary; in some she may be wicked, insane, abominable, all of the above). They needed an heir, but instead kept popping out princesses. At wit’s end, they sought the help of a wizard. Though he was “uncouth” and “sexually intimidating,” he granted their wish—at last there was a cause to launch 301 gun salutes (girls warranted only 101), and the kingdom rejoiced. But what nobody knew was that the little tsarevich was gravely ill with a royal disease of the blood: A bang on the knee could lead to death. An entourage of doctors was helpless—only the wizard could bring the boy back from the brink of death. But the wizard had come to be reviled throughout the kingdom. As anybody could see, the family was in a bit of a bind. For a long time nothing happened (except, you know, some wars, pogroms, assassinations)—until a bullet flew into the archduke of Austria. The World went to War, our kingdom being no exception. The wizard prophesied “calamity, much grief, no ray of light, an incalculable ocean of tears.” He gave up being a wizard and started drinking. The fairytale was taken hostage. Everyone was shot.
The story of the Romanovs, Russia’s last imperial family, clearly haunts Helen Rappaport. The British actress-turned-historian has already tackled the most wrenching part of the royal tale: A previous book, Ekaterinburg: The Last Days of the Romanovs, counts down the final, tense moments. In the author’s note to Rappaport’s new book, The Romanov Sisters, we’re told that she won’t be revisiting that gory territory. What a bummer. We’re supposed to read, instead, about breastfeeding and nanny dramas, knitting pastimes, cute turns of phrase, temper tantrums, tutors and suitors, without the payoff of harrowing demise. Fortunately, foreshadowing is permitted, and there’s plenty of opportunity for it. Gloom and doom characterized their lives from the very start. The end was written into the beginning. By the final pages, the lack of nitty-gritty is only a relief.
This book is Rappaport righting a wrong. History has turned the Romanov sisters into an indiscriminate fairy princess amalgam, slammed a halo over it, and shot it up into the firmament—not the worst of treatments, but a bit dismissive. Rappaport takes on the task of bringing the girls back to earth. She wants to return them their lives, which, though brief, went by slowly and painstakingly, day by uneventful day, page by agonizing page. She saves the sisters, but kills the interest. I complained about the tedium to my grandfather, who was born six years after the Romanovs’ murder, when the kingdom was already, as the wizard foretold, “drowned in much blood.” It’s so boring, I told him. The girls take baths, play hide-and-seek, drink tea, get measles, love each other—it’s unbearable! For a long time he was silent. Finally, he said, Yes, but those were their lives.
Rappaport’s main undertaking is to give the sisters back their individuality. The Romanovs themselves, however, undermine the effort. To their mother, Alexandra, they’re “the girlies.” Those girlies refer to themselves as OTMA (Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia). To the outside world they’re the Grand Duchesses—always the same “four light dresses, four gay summer hats.” From an early age, Alexandra dressed her daughters in “their own informal ‘uniform’ of matching colours, as two identifiable couples—the ‘Big Pair’ and the ‘Little Pair’ as she called them.” The coupling makes sense. The big pair is prime princess stock—they are tall, slender, graceful; the little pair is shorter, fatter, clumsier, and, as if in compensation, more lovable.
Rappaport does succeed in making each sister unique. Olga, the eldest, is “the most deep-feeling and sensitive.” She spends a good chunk of the book pining away for one or another of the swarthy officers with “splendid moustaches”; as a French journalist observed, she has “something of the serenity of the mystic.” Tatiana, second eldest, steals the show in two arenas: During the war, in the military hospitals, where her nursing skills and hard-working nature come to the front, and in photographs. She is arrestingly beautiful. But she is as cripplingly cautious and reserved as her mother, who taught her daughters that you should only reveal that something is wrong “when someone is dying.” If you need your wound dressed go to Tatiana, but if your soul is aching, Maria’s your girl. Though “not especially bright,” she is good-natured and stoical, endowed with “an earthy Russian quality not possessed by any of the other children.” Anastasia, nicknamed Shvybzik, German for “little mischief,” is a loose cannon. Starring in a series of plays staged by the tutors during the freezing winter of their Siberian imprisonment, she provides her grieving mother “the last heartily unrestrained laughter the Empress ever enjoyed.” Most importantly, for the book’s sake, her letters are actually entertaining.
The girls never bristled against being a collective. They spent all their time together and intended to keep it that way. Wherever they went, they were described as pretty and charming, except on one occasion, when the family sailed to Romania for a possible match for Olga to a Prince Carol. There they were “found not very pretty,” their faces “ugly as those of peasant women.” They’d sunned themselves to a crisp “so that Carol should not fall in love with any of them.” It wasn’t in Olga’s plans to marry another country’s prince: “‘I will never leave Russia,” she proclaimed. “I’m a Russian, and I mean to remain a Russian!’” But what did the sisters really know of Russia? Most of their time was spent in palaces and yachts, until the family was imprisoned. And their mother enforced a “virtually monastic life” (page-turner stuff!).
With the exception of one or two instances, Rappaport refrains from criticizing the Romanov parents. This can’t be easy, but it’s probably wise. Criticism implies the possibility of an alternative, whereas this is a tale of helplessness, of being “shackled to fate.” With so much at stake, it’s no surprise that the family clung to the notion of destiny. They had the mentality of prisoners long before they were imprisoned. Gradually, in sadistic increments, they were deprived of anything that brought them joy, forced into ever deteriorating conditions—but no one ever put up resistance. “The family is bearing everything with great sangfroid and courage,” wrote Nicholas’ advisor, Prince Vasili Dolgorukov. “They apparently adapt to circumstances easily, or at least pretend to, and do not complain after all their previous luxury.” There are countless mentions of the Romanovs’ lack of complaint, eerie passivity, and composure. The day before the Romanovs were to be murdered, four women from the Union of Professional Housemaids came to clean the Ipatiev House. (It seems particularly Russian that they should come the day before.) Though they were forbidden to speak to the prisoners, they exchanged glances and worked together, as the girls were very eager to help. The women “were greatly moved by the girls’ quiet acceptance of their situation.” A few months prior, the girls were helping their father clear snow from the yard, and Maria was struggling with a broken spade. Therein lies the moral of our story: Do not to be born at the wrong time in the wrong place—but if you must, and your spade breaks, speak up.