There have been many books written about the tragedy of the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, & his family. I know, I’ve read an awful lot of them. Helen Rappaport’s new book, Four Sisters, has found a new way to tell the story, through the lives of the four Grand Duchesses, Olga, Tatiana, Maria & Anastasia.
The story of the Romanovs has traditionally concentrated on the relationship between Nicholas & his German-born wife, Alexandra. They were fortunate in marrying for love & that love never failed them. They were also blessed with a happy family life. However, that is about the only good fortune they enjoyed. Alexandra was very shy & often appeared haughty. She had no time to acclimatise herself to Russia & Russian society. Nicholas became Tsar unexpectedly when his father, Alexander III, died at the age of only 49. Alix arrived to find her future father-in-law on his deathbed & her wedding was clouded by grief. The superstitious Russians said that the Tsar’s bride had come to them behind a coffin. Alix converted to Russian Orthodoxy & embraced her religion with a fervour that was unusual among the aristocracy. She didn’t enjoy society, unlike her popular mother-in-law, the Empress Dowager Maria Feodorovna, & she was often in bad health, so grand occasions were torture for her on several levels.
Above all else, Alix was expected to provide an heir to the throne. She was soon pregnant & Olga was born the year after her marriage. However, as three more daughters followed, Alix’s desperation to have a son led her to explore mysticism & quack doctors such as the notorious Maître Philippe. When she gave birth to the long-awaited Tsarevich, Alexey, in 1904, the joy of the family was clouded by the realisation that the baby suffered from haemophilia. Alix knew what this meant. Her mother, Alice, daughter of Queen Victoria, had been a carrier of the disease & one of Alix’s brothers had died in childhood after his bleeding couldn’t be stopped after a fall. Alexey’s illness dominated the rest of Alix’s life. It led her to isolate herself & her family more & more at Tsarskoe Selo, the Tsar’s estate outside St Petersburg. It also led her to rely on healers such as Rasputin, who claimed to be able to help Alexey’s suffering. There were many reasons for the fall of the Romanovs but the secrecy about Alexey’s illness & the invisibility of the royal family surely contributed to the rumours that circulated among the aristocracy, especially after the outbreak of war in 1914.
Helen Rappaport has told this familiar story but concentrates on the lives of the four Grand Duchesses who have often been dismissed as pretty girls in white dresses & big hats. Olga, Tatiana, Maria & Anastasia were never second best in their parents’ eyes. However it was inevitable that their lives would be dominated by the need to protect & watch over Alexey & support Alix whose health was never robust. Alix’s wish for privacy & distaste for society also led to her daughters leading very restricted lives. Their only social outings were tea parties at their Aunt Olga’s house. They met very few people outside the household. Their tutors, servants, ladies-in-waiting & the sailors on the royal yacht, the Shtandart, were their companions. Above all, they had each other.
Their self-contained way of life continued even as the girls became young women. Alix infantilised her daughters, referring to them as the Big Pair & the Little Pair & calling them her girlies in letters to Nicholas when Olga & Tatiana were in their 20s. They may have occasionally signed letters collectively as OTMA but they were individuals. Olga sometimes suffered from being the eldest & expected to set a good example to her siblings. Tatiana was the most beautiful of the girls but also the most enigmatic. Tall & elegant like her mother, she also shared Alix’s reserve & could appear haughty. Maria suffered from being the middle child but was open hearted & the most Russian in temperament. Anastasia was the boisterous, unruly child, always ready to make a joke but a trial to her tutors. All of them were desperate to find out about the life outside, as they called it. Whenever they met strangers, especially young women, they would avidly question them about the parties they went to, the dresses they wore, what life was like outside the confines of the palace.
Olga was 19 & Tatiana was 17 when WWI broke out. Along with Alix, they trained with the Red Cross & became nurses in a hospital set up at Tsarskoe Selo. In a way, they were liberated by the war. Finally they had worthwhile work to do & their dedication impressed their colleagues, the soldiers they nursed & the wider society. Photographs of the Grand Duchesses in their Red Cross uniforms were widely circulated. Tatiana was born to be a nurse although Olga eventually found that her health, both physical & mental, was undermined by the work. Maria & Anastasia had their own responsibilities as hospital visitors, helping the wounded men write letters home & hearing their stories. Unfortunately the war was not going well for Russia. Nicholas took over command of the troops & took Alexey with him to Headquarters which, again, allowed people to see the Tsarevich & get to know the royal family. It was too late & when revolution erupted in 1917, Nicholas abdicated.
Initially there was some hope that the Romanovs would be allowed to go into exile, in England or to the Crimea, where they had always been so happy. Gradually these hopes faded & they were imprisoned, first at the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, then in Siberia at Tobolsk & finally, Ekaterinburg where they were murdered in July 1918.
Helen Rappaport has written an intensely moving book about the lives of four young women who never really had a chance to fulfill their great potential. Her research has uncovered much that was new to me, including some photographs that have never before been reproduced. She also discovered a collection of letters written by Anastasia from their Siberian imprisonment to her friend, Katya Zborovskya, that add to the picture of their lives at this time. Boredom & apprehension for the future, along with a sense of the love the family had for each other & their religious faith which never wavered. The story of the final weeks of the family’s lives has been told by Rappaport in her earlier book, Ekaterinburg : the Last Days of the Romanovs (2008), as well as the horrific aftermath of the murders & she doesn’t repeat those scenes here.
I also felt more sympathy for Alexandra. Her life must have been dominated by her ill-health. She had five pregnancies in ten years as well as a phantom pregnancy & her health never recovered. She also had the never-ending fear for Alexey’s health as well as the times of anguish when he was ill. There must also have been an element of guilt at being the transmitter of the disease that was torturing her son. It’s understandable that she clutched at straws when she allowed herself to be convinced by faith healers but none the less tragic that she couldn’t see what damage she was doing to her family.
I loved Four Sisters. It’s a story told with great sympathy & insight & makes the tragedy of the unlived lives & unfulfilled potential of the Romanov Grand Duchesses even more poignant.