The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra

Romanov Sisters Book coverIt is a commonly held platitude that victors write history. However well-intentioned the victorious triumphant, history books still hold some level of propaganda. Motivations of the other side, whether they be the ruling class oppressors or the naive revolutionists, morph to fit the current era’s cultural and political understanding of the historic period. Events that were earth-shattering in one corner of the globe barely register in another. From the French perspective, the American revolution was simply a costly and final mistake of their ruling class and little more besides. Even when an historian is able to capture a picture-perfect replication of a moment in human events, chances are that in the wider world it will devolve into myth, hearsay, and faction proselytism.

I challenge you, for example, to name a single thing about the Romanov family that you didn’t learn from the 1997 animated film, Anastasia.

For years, it was not only the victors who determined what made the history books, but also a very thin slice of victors: upper class, usually white, usually male public figures who had contributed either politically or militarily to historic events. Even the historic research around the “everyday life” of an individual was dominated by whatever momentous historic occasion was occurring in the background, dwarfing the individual the historian choose to focus on like an engulfing shadow. Let historic fiction care about these figures as once-living humans with feelings and lives; we have historic events to record here!

The last decade has seen a slow growth of nonfiction history books choosing to examine history in a more inside-out way, so that whatever historic event is occurring is personalized and reflected through the individual we come to know over the course of the book. It is still rare, though, to find a nonfiction book that reminds me so strongly and so palpably that the characters I am reading about were real, flesh-and-blood beings, and that every seemingly mundane and unremarkable moment in their lives was leading to something with far-reaching consequences.

I should admit upfront that I personally know very little about Russian history pre-19th century. That crack about Anastasia earlier? I won’t claim that I ever believed Rasputin hung out with a talking bat or sold his soul to Satan, but I didn’t wholly question the movie’s outlandish understanding of Russian politics either. When reading many nonfiction historic works, a lack of knowledge can work against you; the author assumes you are familiar with who Gaius Octavius is or why the Hapsburg family was such a big deal. Helen Rappaport, author of The Romanov Sisters, manages to tread the careful line between dropping in hints of what’s to come and yet focusing on the family almost to the exclusion of any significant historic event. I came away from the book knowing far more about what sort of medications Tsarina Alexandra preferred for her “heart pains” than anything significant about the origins of the revolution.

Now, if historic character studies focusing on the domestic or the everyday (granted, the everyday of a very wealthy, if reclusive royal family) is not your cup of tea, then chances are this would not be the book for you. It is only within the last hundred pages or so, with the murder of Alexandra’s trusted confidant Rasputin that we begin to see any significant historic impact on the family themselves. Rappaport frequently drops hints as to the state of the country, pointing out for example that Tsar Nicholas II was often seen as a weak and reactive ruler, but just as the Romanov children were sheltered from much of any outside contact during their lifetimes, so do we the reader exist in isolation.

However, such a focused and exclusive examination of the Romanov family unit fills a previous historic void. The fate of the Romanov family was entangled not only with that of the Russian autocracy, but with the rumors and propaganda about the family themselves, sometimes unknowingly perpetuated. Nicholas II, portrayed throughout the novel as a warm, affectionate, and attentive father, is perhaps too overly concerned with his family, to the wider neglect of his country. A marriage made in love and mutual tenderness perhaps lead to blindness about the unsuitability of his bride for state affairs. The birth of a disabled heir bred secrecy and desperation, prompting a dependency on the only person able to heal him, a peasant layman named Grigori Rasputin. Taken in complete isolation, without the looming historic events, so much of the record is simply a family struggling to live a normal life alongside domestic difficulties (a grand palace is still not big enough for four teenage sisters.) It is only when the camera is pulled back that the reader realizes the devastating impact these supposedly normal lives, behaviors that make perfect sense as a non-significant individual suddenly take on deadly connotations in a wider context, cascading out like ripples in a pond.

Not all of history must be momentous or widely significant. History is, at its heart, the study of human life that has been. July 1918 saw the deaths of about a dozen people; a small and unimpressive number even compared to just the bloodshed within that country in that time period. And yet now I know that it wasn’t just “the Romanov family”; it was Olga, hopelessly smitten with love; Tatina, steady and kind; Marie, trapped in the middle and struggling to form her own identity; Anastasia, wild and willful. Some of those people who died were girls I know, girls who lived and struggled and looked with hope and anticipation to the future, a future we know isn’t coming. Yet, we can’t help hope maybe there will be a last-act twist.

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