By Helen Rappaport – Prepare to have your heart broken. Like everyone, I knew that the Russian Revolution of 1917 brought a violent end to the rule of the Romanov family and the tsars. I also knew the gruesome trivia that Tsaritsa Alexandra had family jewelry taken apart and the gems sewn into her daughters’ clothing. In July 1918, when the family was led to the tiny half-cellar room where they were shot, at first many of the bullets struck the gems and bounced away, giving the fleeting impression the girls were impervious to them.
Rappaport wrote about that last horrific scene in a previous book, Ekaterinburg: The Last Days of the Romanovs, and she may have wanted to spare us—and herself—from reliving it. In this book, she follows the family right up to its final hours, and I found myself reading more and more slowly, trying to delay the inevitable.
Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia were 22, 21, 19, and 17 at the time of their deaths. The book follows the courtship and marriage of their parents, the births and childhoods, and their maturing to young women through remaining letters diaries, and reminiscences of friends and relatives at the time. The reader comes to know these intelligent, warm-hearted, and lively young women well, and their unnecessary death is devastating.
It’s perhaps inevitable to speculate about a happier outcome. What if Nicholas hadn’t unexpectedly become Tsar at the age of 26? What if he’d been a stronger, more experienced military and political leader, a more flexible one, receptive to the idea of constitutional monarchy? What if their mother had been less withdrawn, chronically ill, and mentally fragile and had fostered—rather than assumed—the love of the Russian people? What if heir Alexey hadn’t inherited the hemophilia gene? Would she not have fallen under the sway of the much-reviled Grigory Rasputin?
Even without any of these circumstances, what if Nicholas and Alexandra had taken one of their many opportunities to leave Russia or at least send their daughters abroad? Eventually, even England’s King George V—determined to keep Soviet Russia as an ally in the war against Germany—withdrew his offer to provide his cousins safe haven.
They girls lives were closely sheltered, and they saw little of life as it existed outside their palaces or aboard the imperial yacht used for summer vacations. Alexandra often dressed them all in long white dresses, and that’s the picture most people had of them: remote, inviolate.
An exception arose during the War, when Alexandra, Olga, and Tatiana trained to be nurses. Alexandra couldn’t reliably fulfill these duties because of her health, but the older two—especially Tatiana—were tireless. They wrapped bandages, dressed wounds, assisted in surgery, cleaned instruments, and did everything they could to aid the wounded soldiers in their care, including raising funds for their hospitals. The two younger girls read to the wounded and wrote letters for them.
These soldiers, like everyone else who met them, repeatedly remarked how natural and unaffected the girls were, how curious they were about the lives of other people. They were not at all like what they expected Grand Duchesses to be or what their popular image was. Rappaport has written a well researched, engaging biography of these brief lives and a century-old crime.