In the early to mid sixties I worked at Highgate Library. I was a teenager at the time and have recently realised that during those years I read three books which started me off on a life time's reading. One was Victoria RI by Elizabeth Longford, the second was A Man of Sorrow by Locke & Dixon, a biography of Patrick Bronte, and the third was Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert Massie. My fascination with these three areas of biography, literature and history have continued to the very moment I am writing this post.
If the Romanovs had escaped from Russia and not met their appalling end it is safe to say our interest in them would probably have waned. But they did not escape and their tragic death in the cellar at Ekateringburg is one of those moments in history where it is difficult to comprehend the terror and suffering of Nicholas, Alexandra and their children as they were shot and butchered to death. It is because it is so dreadful that the myth of Anna Andersen and her claim to be Anastasia captured the imagination and was believed for so long, even when DNA has finally disproved her claim. There are those who in 2014 still believe her story and this is because we want it to be true, we want to feel that one of those children escaped, we would rather not face up to the truth.
Helen Rappaport is a Russianist and her knowledge and love of this period of history is profound. Her book, Ekaterinburg, which I reviewed here, was a marvellous piece of writing which brought home the grim reality of the claustrophobic final days of the Romanov family. Now she focuses on the four daughters, Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia and brings them to life in a new way which, while making us love them, also makes us sorrow for them even more.
I have said many times on Random that, for me, history is about people, not about politics. Of course, this is fascinating too and a recent programme on the BBC about the Three Cousins, George (England), Willie (Germany) and Nicky (Russia) explained in detail which I found quite absorbing, how various treaties and entente cordiales and meetings shifted and changed the balance of power between these countries. However, the part of this programme I loved the most was the footage of the families 'off duty' and how emperors and kings and queens behaved. The most heartbreaking piece was a film of the Four Sisters, dressed in sailor suits, dancing on the deck of the Imperial yacht with tiny brother Alexis. Those few seconds I found more powerfully moving than any details of the machinations in the Kremlin or Buckingham Palace..
I have read several of Helen Rappaport's books and have enjoyed them all immensely. The author has a way of engaging the reader's interest immediately, she writes in a clean, unfussy style which I appreciate very much as I dislike fuss and hyperbole. She obviously loves who she writes about and invites you to get to know them and love them as much as she does. I saw Helen speak at the inaugural Felixstowe Book Festival last year and had the pleasure of introducing her talk on the Last Days of the Romanovs. By the end many of the audience were in tears, including me.
She loves these four girls and oh how I yearned over them the more I read. Their lives were so circumscribed and claustrophobic. They lived in this tight family circle which I would have found stifling and their lack of contact with the outside world and enjoyment of normal every day activities, shopping, meeting friends, going to the theatre, being allowed out to see the world outside their gilded palaces, is something that would have driven me stir crazy in a matter of weeks. But for Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia this was all they knew. I am amazed at how loving and tolerant they were under such restrictions and how they managed to deal with their mother, Alexandra, I shall never know. She seemed to spend most of her life either in bed or lying on her sofa, plagued with melancholy and ill health and was, in my opinion, a suffocating and possessive mother. Nicholas loved her deeply and my view is that it was he who curbed any rebellion that might have arisen by his own sheer lovability and understanding. Clear that he was an excellent father who adored his children. Without such a father their lives would have been worse than they were.
I know one should have sympathy with Alexandra but I do struggle to do so. Deeply religious and, as I have already said, melancholy, mournful and wracked with shyness and an inabilty to deal with the life to which she was condemned by her marriage, she exerts total joylessness in all that she does. OK I know that as she produced daughter after daughter and knew that her inability to produce a son was a pressure we cannot imagine today, but I still have problems with her. Of course, then when she produces the long awaited heir and realises that she has passed on a cripplingly painful disease to her son, her sense of guilt and pain must have been extraordinary. Enter Rasputin who I will not discuss here who seemed to be the only person who could cure her son and with her deeply religious nature she became totally dependent upon him.
Throughout all of this the Four Sisters try to continue with their lives. There is so much more I wish to say about these marvellous girls that I am going to write a second post all about them alone as I simply fell in love with them and want to show just why I feel this way. So when I have gathered my thoughts and sorted out the copious notes and scribbles on post-its which are all over my review copy, I will be back.
The Four Sisters by Helen Rappaport is due to be published on 27 March 2014. If you wish to give yourself a treat then I suggest you order it now.