Four Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Romanov Grand Duchesses

7 April 2014

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On 17 July 1918, four young women walked down twenty-three steps into the cellar of a house in Ekaterinburg. The eldest was twenty-two, the youngest only seventeen. Together with their parents and their thirteen-year-old brother, they were all brutally murdered. Their crime: to be the daughters of the last Tsar and Tsaritsa of All the Russias.

Much has been written about Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra and their tragic fate, as it has about the Russian Revolutions of 1917, but little attention has been paid to the Romanov princesses, who – perhaps inevitably – have been seen as minor players in the drama. In Four Sisters, however, acclaimed biographer Helen Rappaport puts them centre stage and offers readers the most authoritative account yet of the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia. Drawing on their own letters and diaries and other hitherto unexamined primary sources, she paints a vivid picture of their lives in the dying days of the Romanov dynasty. We see, almost for the first time, their journey from a childhood of enormous privilege, throughout which they led a very sheltered and largely simple life, to young womanhood – their first romantic crushes, their hopes and dreams, the difficulty of coping with a mother who was a chronic invalid and a haeomophiliac brother, and, latterly, the trauma of the revolution and its terrible consequences.

Compellingly readable, meticulously researched and deeply moving, Four Sisters gives these young women a voice, and allows their story to resonate for readers almost a century after their death.

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Nicholas II, Alexandra, Olga and Tatiana, CE von Hahn & Co, 1898. Photo: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014.

This morning, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and little Prince George arrived in New Zealand for the first leg of a ten day royal tour. Although, as always, the internet is buzzing with photographs and discussion of the carefully chosen red outfit that the Duchess changed into before touchdown, the true cynosure of all eyes is the royal baby, the cutely chubby cheeked and relatively rarely seen future heir to whatever’s left of Great Britain by the time he succeeds to the throne. Thanks to his look of typically infantile disdain, there’s already ‘Grumpy Prince’ memes springing up like mushrooms all over social media while details of his outfit are being discussed everywhere.

This feels like a typically modern sensation – this enthralled fascination with a royal child, who really, at the end of the day, looks just as fed up and unimpressed as any baby after a lengthy flight from London and New Zealand, but actually it’s been going on for decades and I certainly see a strong parallel with the intense and definitely film star level interest and obsession with the young family of Nicholas II and Alexandra of Russia, who were celebrities not just in Russia but all over the world with press and public alike clamouring for photos and even the most trivial details about their daily lives. Of course it helped that, like the Cambridges, the young Romanovs were an exceptionally photogenic lot, with huge clear eyes, shining bouncing manes of chestnut hair and, in the case of the Grand Duchess Tatiana at least, those fabulous and typically Slavic high cheekbones, while the young Tsarevich Alexei, born after ten years of marriage and when his parents had started to turn to faith healers in their desperation to provide the nation with the much longed for male heir after producing a series of four daughters, was hailed by most who saw him as being the most beautiful child imaginable. The tremendous joy that had hailed his birth and then the rarity of his public appearances both contributed to make him a child of almost mythological status with people who saw him commenting that they’d hardly been able to believe their eyes as they’d half assumed that he didn’t really exist.

At the time, people overseas wondered at the way the four Grand Duchesses were dynastically sidelined by birth of their brother – nowadays though I wonder at how Alexei felt to be raised in a household which to all intents and purposes revolved around his worship and protection. Smothered, I bet and looking forward to his eventual escape into manhood and relative freedom.

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Anastasia, unknown photographer, c1914. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014.

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Olga and Tatiana in court dress, Boissannas et Eggler, 1913.

The rarity with which the young Romanovs were seen in public was the flipside to the intense isolation with which they were raised – a result of Empress Alexandra’s difficult and controlling personality and dislike of what she saw as the immoral decadence of Imperial Russian high society as well as both parents’ wish to keep the illness of their only son and heir, the longed for Alexei, as secret as possible. It is this life: intensely private and with an emphasis on the all important family circle that Helen Rappaport brings to fascinating life in her latest book, Four Sisters:The Lost Lives of the Romanov Grand Duchesses.

Although the lives of the last Romanovs are now fairly familiar to us all thanks mainly to the books of Robert Massie and others, this is the first time in ages that the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia have been accorded their own biography that looks at the imperial family’s heyday and rapid downfall from the point of view of these four sisters who have been simultaneously sidelined and almost fetishised throughout their own lives and, increasingly, ever since they vanished from view in July 1918.

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Nicholas II, Alexandra, Olga, Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales, Robert Milne, 1896. Photo: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014.

If you’re looking for the charming little details about their favourite Coty perfumes and so on then you won’t find them in Rappaport’s book, which instead takes a more sober look at the sisters’ short lives against the background of their difficult family life, strained by the Empress’ and Alexei’s ongoing illnesses and also the ever worsening political situation in Russia. Isolated and protected though the Romanov grand duchesses may have been, it often seems like their lives were not markedly happy as each one suffered under the very real constraints that their mother’s anxious, fearful nature placed on them. Whereas past generations of Romanov children had been raised amidst the pomp and ceremonial of the royal palaces in St Petersburg, Nicholas and Alexandra instead opted to move their household out to Tsarskoe Selo, fifteen miles outside the city and there brought them up in secluded comfort, cut off from their aristocratic peers who would, ordinarily, have been their friends.

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Grand Duchess Maria, 1906.

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Olga, Tatiana and Anna Vyubrova, 1909. Photo: Beinecke Library.

When, Olga, the eldest daughter, had her first official coming out ball in St Petersburg, she found herself surrounded by strangers as she had been subtly discouraged from mixing with most well born youngsters of her own age. Her mother, true to form, had refused to attend the ball but her father had gamely stepped up to the plate, only to whisper to his sister that he didn’t know anyone there. This to me, seemed one of the most striking incidents in the book and the one that most underlined the distance that had formed between Tsar and aristocracy. There’s parallels to be drawn here, of course, with the self imposed isolation of Marie Antoinette at the Petit Trianon and the way that she wilfully put a wedge between herself and the majority of the French aristocracy, preferring instead to surround herself with a small circle of handpicked, sycophants. We know that the Empress Alexandra was very fond of identifying with the doomed French Queen – it seems odd therefore that she took no lessons from her earlier counterpart and instead repeated the same mistakes.

Another oddity for me was the fact that although there was occasional talk about matching the Grand Duchess Olga with various well born princelings either at home in Russia (which would no doubt have been the preferable option for her doting parents) or overseas, her parents seemed content not just to seemingly shirk all consideration of their daughters’ futures but also to encourage them in their admittedly harmless flirtations with naval officers on the royal yacht Standart or young wounded officers that they cared for in their hospitals during World War One. This despite knowing that such juvenile romances could never truly lead anywhere. I think that Empress Alexandra, who was fortunate enough to marry for true love, was blind, perhaps wilfully so, to the deep emotional impact that such relationships would have upon her sheltered daughters, who frequently astounded people with their naivety and the childlike simplicity of their speech and behaviour.

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Anastasia, Maria and Tatiana, 1917.

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Anastasia and Tatiana, 1917.

And yet, with hindsight, perhaps instead of being alarmed by what could well have been a disaster waiting to happen, we should rather be pleased that this group of unfortunate young women, doomed never to fulfil their potential and have their own independent family lives, managed to snatch some happiness in the midst of war and oncoming revolution and despite the circumscribed nature of their upbringing.

I was enthralled by Rappaport’s book and, as always, found myself hoping against hope that there would be a happier ending for the family. Too often, the daughters of the last Tzar are denied individuality and instead viewed as an amorphous group in their matching white dresses and huge picture hats – Rappaport challenges this view though and instead allows each girl to have her own individual voice so that for once we are allowed to get to know them as the individuals that they so definitely were. Isolated though they may have been, dutiful though they always were, each of the four Grand Duchesses had her own own strong and distinct personality and I can’t help but wonder what destiny they might have embraced had they been allowed to do so.

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The last known photograph of Alexei and Olga, May 1918.

Whenever I write about the Romanovs here, I always get a few comments from people who accuse me of being overly sympathetic to the Tsarevitch and Grand Duchesses, avowing that they deserved to share their parents’ fate and are no more deserving of sympathy than any other young people who perished during those terrible years. However, I disagree. I believe that the murder of the Romanovs is a blot upon Russian history and that really Nicholas and Alexandra should have been accorded a public state trial rather than being so horribly and furtively killed and I certainly don’t think that their children should have shared their fate. I also believe that to an extent, all families are represented by the first family of the nation. Okay, this may be a bit laughable when the first family is as obscenely wealthy as the Romanovs or even our own Windsors here in Great Britain, but they’re human nonetheless – they love, they have children, they suffer and they die, just like us.

When I mourn the Romanov children, I suppose that really I’m mourning all the young people who died during that terrible time of war and revolution as well because to me that is what they represent: a doomed and wasted generation. To me they are just as squandered, just as bright, just as missed as any of the unknown youths, both young men and women, who bled their lives away on the battlefields of Flanders, the streets of Russian industrial cities or in field hospitals on the Somme.

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Grand Duchess Maria, 1915.

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Grand Duchess Tatiana, Boasson and Eggler, 1914.

Ultimately therefore, one is left with the bleak, unhappy sense of five carefully nurtured, loved and loving, bright lives all wiped out in a grubby instant. Although the book more or less ends before the fateful events of the 17th of July 1918, I still found it to be an often harrowing read that haunted me for days afterwards and underlined the enormous waste of life involved in the birthing of modern Europe and a definite must read for anyone with even a passing interest in the period.

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