Monday, June 23, 2014

The Romanov Sisters

Father asks me to tell all who have remained loyal to him...that they should not avenge him, for he has forgiven everyone and prays for them all; that they should not themselves seek revenge; that they should remember that the evil that there now is in the world will become yet more powerful, and that it is not evil that will conquer evil only love. ~Grand Duchess Olga Nicolaevna of Russia
Helen Rappaport's new biography of the four daughters of the last tsar and tsarina, Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra, reminded me that there is no tragedy like a Russian tragedy. The story of Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, told as never before, goes from being Little Women to The Trojan Women as four young girls are forced to enter the heart of darkness of Bolshevik oppression. In my subconscious mind I suppose I am always hoping that the ending will be different; that somehow they will all escape. As the final hour draws inexorably nearer, I always experience the same sinking feeling of dread. However, as the book reveals, the Imperial Family took great pains to live the liturgical life of their Church and, taking the suffering Savior as their model, they accepted everything that came their way with both serenity and heroic virtue, in spite of their very human fears and frustrations.

The Romanov Sisters is a book for die-hard fans of Nicholas, Alexandra, and their children. If a person is interested in reading about the aches and pains suffered by Alexandra during each month of her five pregnancies, then this book is for them. It is a treasure trove of details of life at the Alexander Palace. Although I have read numerous books on the Imperial Family I nevertheless found new information on just about every page. And the information with which I was already familiar was placed in the proper context of events and situations so that my understanding of family dynamics and the characters of the daughters has been immensely enriched.

I never before really understood Alexandra's total anguish at having daughter after daughter when so much pressure was on her to produce a son. When the longed-for son was cursed with an incurable, potentially fatal illness, of course it was too much for her. Her emotional and physical health never recovered. She was not able to be consistently present to her girls as they grew up. They sent notes and letters from their floor to hers, which is why they loved going on cruises because on the yacht they had their mother at hand.

Each of the sisters is brought to life through letters, diaries and anecdotes. Their innocent romances are described, as well as their growing isolation from the world at the very time most young women were preparing for marriage. No wonder many family members thought that Alexandra was crazy. The Grand Duchesses were sheltered from the pollution of high society and yet they were allowed to mingle informally with young officers at their Aunt Olga's Sunday teas, playing wild games which could have compromised them. Where elegance is concerned, Olga and Tatiana could have conquered all of Europe, had not the First World War swept away the old civilization and their very lives.

It is easy to feel for them, especially for Olga, who seemed to understand what was happening to their world, and was afflicted with depression as she felt her own powerlessness to disperse the cloud of doom which surrounded her family. I have nothing but admiration for Tatiana, who was able to take on the social duties of her mother and work incessantly and skillfully as a nurse in the operating room. As for the younger pair, the good-natured, pretty Maria and the irrepressible Anastasia, they each were able to rise to the occasion, showing spirit and courage as the darkness fell.

Whatever their faults, Nicholas and Alexandra succeeded in building a loving family and passing on their strong faith to their children. What roles the Grand Duchesses would have played upon the stage of the world had they survived is anyone's guess. (We can safely guess that Anastasia would have lived eccentrically, causing no end of trouble to family and friends.) We do know that under the most brutal circumstances they displayed love for their God, their Church, their family, and their country. In a short span of time they became more than great ladies, they became martyrs.

One of the last formal portraits of the Grand Duchesses. From left to right, Anastasia, Olga, Maria, and Tatiana


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