Helen Rappaport: The Romanov Sisters

They were the Princess Dianas of their day—perhaps the most photographed and talked about young royals of the early twentieth century. The four captivating Russian Grand Duchesses—Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia Romanov—were much admired for their happy dispositions, their looks, the clothes they wore and their privileged lifestyle.

Over the years, the story of the four Romanov sisters and their tragic end in a basement at Ekaterinburg in 1918 has clouded our view of them, leading to a mass of sentimental and idealized hagiography. With this treasure trove of diaries and letters from the grand duchesses to their friends and family, we learn that they were intelligent, sensitive and perceptive witnesses to the dark turmoil within their immediate family and the ominous approach of the Russian Revolution, the nightmare that would sweep their world away, and them along with it.

The Romanov Sisters sets out to capture the joy as well as the insecurities and poignancy of those young lives against the backdrop of the dying days of late Imperial Russia, World War I and the Russian Revolution. Rappaport aims to present a new and challenging take on the story, drawing extensively on previously unseen or unpublished letters, diaries and archival sources, as well as private collections. It is a book that will surprise people, even aficionados.

My Russian history is POOR. To be honest, the only thing I really knew about the Romanovs was that there was once a girl named Anastasia, and something tragic happened to her royal family–there was some mystery around her death. Surely the Disney movie didn’t tell the whole historical truth…because Disney. But aside from some vague, remote understanding that there was a Russian Revolution at some point, and that they went from having a czar under Nicholas, to forming a communist government…thaaaaaaaaaaaaat’s all I’ve got for you. Something about the Bolsheviks.

But, Russian literature is one of the genres I really struggle with, and part of forming a better understanding of a country’s literature is having a firmer grasp of the culture and history. So, time to study up. Plus…I really just like history.

Helen Rappaport’s biography of the four Romanov daughters is a great way to dive into the Russian Revolution. Through them, we learn about their royal parents, how their court was run, the politics involved, Rasputin’s involvement, and how the downfall happened–at least from the family’s perspective.

It was so interesting reading this, and comparing it to the Disney version. Sure, there were several men named Dimitri, but no kitchen boy with a music box. Anastasia was much older than Disney made her out to be when her father abdicated, so even if it would have happened the way it did in the movie–she would have remembered much more of her childhood. It wasn’t a sudden whisk away at a ball either, it was a political move. The movie doesn’t even come close to the real story–it’s much more interesting…and way sadder.

The whole story of the Romanovs is devastating from beginning to end, and leaves me with so many questions. This won’t be the last I read about them, and I definitely want to read more about Russian history now. Maybe this will help with my literature after all!


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