Remembering the Romanovs in Russia

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A Reading of Helen Rappaport’s Romanov Sisters

Winter Palace, Saint Petersburg, Russia

An imperial chair at the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg, Russia
Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

The story of some sisters burdened with a bit of a wackadoodle mother and an autocratic father appeals to many of us, even if we do know the ending, as in the case of the daughters of the last Russian czar (Nicholas): Olga, Tatiana, Marie, and Anastasia. Intrigued, like so many, about what happened to Anastasia Romanov, I pick up a copy of Helen Rappaport’s The Romanov Sisters hoping to understand how it all ended so badly for the family back in 1918.

The tumultuous years of World War I and the Russian Revolution are largely glossed over on my own visit to Russia. Even touring royal palaces, more is made of what happened to them during the Second World War than who was living in them during the first. To an American tourist, the Romanovs seem largely to have disappeared, except in the church in Peter and Paul Fortress in Saint Petersburg, where their remains are exiled to a back corner, a bit separate from the graves of the other czars.

The remains of Olga and Tatiana Romanov are now at Peter and Paul Fortress in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

The remains of Olga and Tatiana Romanov are now at Peter and Paul Fortress in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

The Romanov Sisters is an intriguing book, for which Rappaport deserves all the more credit given that none of her readers even needs to flip to the last page to find out how it all ends for the siblings. For me, Anastasia, despite that marvelous name, turns out not to be the most interesting sister. What I most like about the book is the contrast between what Czar Nicholas was doing as part of his day job and the caring he demonstrated toward his family at night. Of course, that is also the scariest part, that a very engaged father could ruthlessly try to put down any sort of dissent beyond his palatial surroundings.

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Readers begin to understand Czarina Alexandra’s fears, given that she has a hemophiliac son and that the law of the time prevents succession of females to the throne. We can even understand her need to resort to a holy man, Rasputin, as conventional medicine of that era largely failed Alexei. Alexandra and Nicholas were too far removed from the real Russia, though, and unwilling to get to know it, or accommodate it, or really improve it. Readers get a dose of family and international politics as England does not save the Romanovs from a very bad fate, even though Alexandra was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria and marriage to the man who would be king and then abdicate, Edward VIII (David), was contemplated for one of her daughters. Fear of revolution spreading beyond Russia apparently trumped any familial connection.

Maria and Anastasia Romanov's remains are now in a church at Peter and Paul Fortress in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

Maria and Anastasia Romanov’s remains are now in a church at Peter and Paul Fortress in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

I wish that I had this book to accompany me on my own trip to Russia as I toured the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg where the Romanovs sometimes stayed, although they preferred the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoye Selo, now known as Pushkin. The ineptitude of Russia’s last czar and his wife reminds me so much of the inanity of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette in France. Believing in their divine right to rule, they all acted without understanding that there would, indeed, be very serious consequences.

Russia’s history has long featured violence, so the ultimate outcome of its revolution for the Romanovs is not entirely surprising, nor the rumor that one family member may have survived, sort of like the rumors that the dauphin in France had outlasted that country’s own mistreatment of his family.

—Lori Tripoli

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