In 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.