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The Short and Secret Lives of ‘The Romanov Sisters’

the romanov sisters by helen rappaportIn 1895, Tsar Nicholas Romanov II and his wife, Tsarita Alexandra, welcomed their first child into the world. Although the Tsar and Tsarita were thrilled with their daughter, Olga, much of the Russian populace was concerned because, of course, the dynasty needed a son. When the Tsarita gave birth to three more daughters — Tatiana in 1897, Maria in 1899 and Anastasia in 1901 — public gossip about her standing as Empress began to swirl.

In private, though, the Tsar and Tsarita were dedicated and loyal to their family, shutting their girls away from much of Russian life to create a private, loving sphere for them to grow up in. The eventual birth of a Russian heir, Tsarevich Alexi Nikolaevich, in 1904 shifted the sister’s out of the public sphere even more. In The Romanov Sisters, historian Helen Rappaport focuses in on the domestic life of the Romanov family to capture the joys and challenges of these young women during the final years of Imperial Russia.

I think what struck me most about this book, an impulse grab from my local library, is that The Romanov Sisters is a very personal book. Rappaport spends most of her time focusing on the Romanov family at home — Alexandra’s parenting style, Nicholas’ love of the outdoors, and the passions and personalities of the Romanov daughters. Although the girls were often separated into pairs — Olga and Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia — they each had distinct personalities and contributions to the family and, had they lived, I imagine Russian society as a whole.

Focusing on the family at home also provided an opportunity for Rappaport to make some specific arguments about how the domestic life of the Romanov family contributed to the civil unrest in Russia that eventually led to the Russian Revolution (and the family’s execution). In particular, Alexandra’s ill health and the turmoil of Alexi’s illness (hemophilia), forced the family to spend much of their time close to home and behind closed doors, exacerbating the distance between the people and the royal family.

Even something as seemingly innocuous as choosing to work as nurses during the war had unintended consequences for the sisters. Alexandra thought that showing the family in ostentatious dress was distasteful during the war, when so many others were going with out. And she and the girls threw themselves into working at various hospitals in and around their home. But Rappaport notes this may have been a miscalculation — many Russians, especially peasants, still saw the royals as almost divine beings and expected their public image to reflect that.

Since I am a reader who tends to get bogged down in historical politics and timelines (and, relevant to this book, Russian names) this domestic framing for the story worked well for me. I loved the way Rappaport made each of the girls stand out and gave a sense of the potential that was cut short when they were murdered. But if you are a reader looking for a more broad historical narrative, I’m sure there are better options to pick up.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Sandy January 20, 2015, 6:33 am

    I think I’m almost always drawn to the more personal stories. Broad perspective as a whole tends to bore me. Probably baggage from high school! This one is definitely going on the list.

  • BermudaOnion(Kathy) January 20, 2015, 8:17 am

    I am fascinated by the Romanovs and used to read a lot of books about them. This one sounds especially good!

    • Kim January 25, 2015, 9:01 am

      I’m interested in them too, but I haven’t read many books about them. Rappaport has another book about the family that specifically focuses on life at Ekaterinburg (before they were murdered) that I’m hoping to read soon-ish.

  • C.J. January 20, 2015, 9:29 am

    Wow, your review makes this book sound really good. I was curious, but now I definite think I need to get my hands on it.

  • Leah @ Books Speak Volumes January 20, 2015, 11:06 am

    This sounds really fascinating! I also tend to have trouble with big historical texts about politics and battles, but I love reading personal stories.

  • ahorseandacarrot January 20, 2015, 12:21 pm

    O this looks great! About two years ago I read Rappaort’s The Last Days of the Romanovs which told the story of the family’s last days held in Ekaterinburg and their deaths’. I thought it was a really powerful book, so I will have to put this one on my list!

    • Kim January 25, 2015, 9:02 am

      I want to read that one! She ends this book at the moment they’re killed, but doesn’t go into many of the details specifically because she had written this other book on the subject.

  • Heather January 20, 2015, 2:59 pm

    This looks good – I have a biography of Catherine the Great that’s been sitting on my shelves for quite a while and I think this would look good next to it :). Any book – fiction or non fiction – intimidates me when it involves political or revolutionary timelines because I confuse what I’ve heard (or not) vs. what is historically accurate. Similar to your experience, I think the focus on the domestic portion of their lives would make this more approachable to me. If you are looking for other books with political overtones presented in a more approachable way I HIGHLY recommend Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente. It’s communist Russia told through Russian folklore in a traditional fairy tale format and it is phenomonally written.

    • Kim January 25, 2015, 9:02 am

      Thanks for the recommendation — that sounds really interesting!

  • Belle Wong January 20, 2015, 5:27 pm

    I have this one in my audiobook to-listen pile. I’m hoping to get to it soon.

  • Kailana January 20, 2015, 5:32 pm

    I have wanted to get this but just haven’t had a chance… I look forward to a chance to reading it now!

  • susan January 20, 2015, 9:19 pm

    Intriguing subject matter of the Romanovs. I’ll likely have to get it.

  • Katie @ Doing Dewey January 21, 2015, 12:14 pm

    I read this and I think my reaction was almost the opposite of yours! I found all the domestic details a drag and I think I would have enjoyed broader historical perspective more. I’m glad that this approach to the topic worked for you 🙂

    • Kim January 25, 2015, 9:04 am

      It’s certainly not an approach that would work for everyone — I think it really depends where your interest in Russian history lies. I’m almost always more interested in people and their stories.

  • Jenny @ Reading the End January 22, 2015, 6:45 am

    I learned about the murder of the Romanov girls at least fifteen years ago, and it has stuck with me so vividly. I remember being told their deaths were far more brutal and painful than they were intended to be, because the girls were wearing so many jewels it protected them at first. Awful. I should read something that makes them a bit human — that’s a hell of a story to be the only thing I know about them.

    • Kim January 25, 2015, 9:05 am

      Yeah, it is! And sort of a weird story, since at the time they were under house arrest they lived a very unadorned life. Like, I’m not sure how they would have been wearing lots of jewelry because I don’t think they had any? Now I am especially curious to read Rappaport’s other book on Ekaterinburg.

  • Trisha January 23, 2015, 9:44 pm

    Such a fascinating family and story. I still remember when I first heard of the Romanovs – junior year of high school.

  • Michelle January 24, 2015, 4:27 pm

    I read one Romanov biography that focused on the four girls in particular. I can’t remember the name of it, but I do remember being struck by the senselessness of their deaths and the fact that they were nothing more than pawns in a much larger game. It sounds like Rappaport makes a similar case in her version, which I find important.

    • Kim January 25, 2015, 9:06 am

      Yes, that’s very much part of her argument — the girls were very sheltered by their mother and, as such, not really responsible for any of the excesses or political ill-will that was heaped on the family by the revolutionaries.

  • Ann @ Books on the Table January 26, 2015, 8:05 am

    I can’t wait to read this one! I have always been fascinated by the Romanov family — I read Nicholas and Alexandra back in high school and have been hooked since. Strangely enough, I learned recently that a good friend of mine is a Romanov descendant. I just posted on my blog about “sisters” books and wish I’d read this one before I read the post.

    • Kim January 26, 2015, 9:41 pm

      I haven’t read your post, but I’m sure this would be a wonderful addition to it. The sisters seem to have had warm and kind relationships with each other.

  • Tanya @ Mom's Small Victories April 23, 2015, 11:25 am

    I will need to add this to my TBR. The Romanov family is fascinating and I enjoy books that focus more on the personality of the characters and how they are impacted than technical detail of the war against them.