the romanov sisters

I am currently reading Four Sisters by Helen Rappaport and feel compelled to tell you my story of reading it.

I first learned the story of the Romanov imperial family when I was seventeen. Sad and displaced in Australia, I happened one day to pick up Robert Massie's Nicholas and Alexandra and became entranced. Other than the fact that it's one of the best-written historical biographies I've encountered, it drew me into a country I had loved since small childhood. Under the mistaken belief that my name was Russian, I had developed a childish fancy that Russia somehow belonged to me. At five years old, I used to gaze longingly at its map and dream of its vast wild places. As a shy and slightly strange eleven year old, I thrilled to the Boney M song of Rasputin, "lover of the Russian queen." (Of course he was not, and Alexandra Romanov turned out to be a whole lot less enchanting than the phrase Russian queen made me imagine her.)

Once I learned about the beautiful love story of the emperor and his wistful bride, and about their children, I became obsessed. I scoured libraries for any information available. I took Russian history and literature courses at university - although I probably would have anyway, since I loved the country so. Only years later, thanks to the internet, did I discover I was not alone in my fascination.

There's always a difficulty when a fervent amateur historian reads a biography about their favourite subject. They know so much, will any book truly satisfy them? I must tell you, Four Sisters does not satisfy me.

Granted, you would have to write many hundreds of pages to cover all the stories I know and love about the Romanov family. But I am saddened that Helen chooses to spend a big part of the book writing about Alexandra instead of her daughters, who are supposed to be the subject of the book. If she had reduced the parents' pre-marital history to one chapter, she'd have had plenty of space to include a proper telling about the sisters. As it is, she leaves out so many charming or insightful anecdotes, her book is disappointing. I know that people reading it as their introduction to the Romanov grand duchesses are missing out on some wonderful illuminations of the girls' personalities and experiences, not to mention real insights into imperial life at the turn of the century.

Helen writes beautifully and I am enjoying reading what is there. I don't want to give a bad review because honestly she engages the reader and I am finding it hard to put down, despite my disappointment as to the content. But each time she goes through a year or episode without mentioning one of my favourite anecdotes - something simple but sweet, like the girls tracking one of their father's servants around the palace by sniffing out his perfume, or how Nicholas used to summon them using a birdlike whistle, or something as important as Maria suffering symptoms which seem to prove she was a haemophilia carrier - or she gets something wrong, such as saying Anastasia was not a traditional imperial name (it was the name of the first wife of Ivan the Terrible, the woman who infact brought the Romanov family into the imperial line), my heart can't help but sag.

The fact she wrote nothing of the trip Nicholas, Alexandra and Maria took from imprisonment in Tobolsk towards trial in Moscow, only to end up in Yekaterinberg, was an astonishing omission, considering what happened along the way. (Nicholas sent his teenaged daughter into the soldier's train carriage frequently to garner information from them. In other words, he utilised her feminine charm and put her at risk. It's a telling insight into how he saw his daughters and probably his naivety about soldiers. Also, a fascinating but little known story : the Bolshevik assigned to lead them on this journey, Vassili Yakovlev, became enchanted by Maria, as most people did. He fled the Bolsheviks later and a search of his apartment revealed a story he had been writing of how a Bolshevik soldier fell in love with an imperial princess. Yakovlev himself was an intriguing character and there is some question whether he was infact trying to rescue the family or not. (Probably not.) See, that's the kind of thing I like to read in a biography.)

More seriously though, Helen continues a fault I find in many historians who write about this family. The insistence that the imperial children were isolated is an infuriating one. I wonder why historians can't see past their modern perspective to understand the context of the day? The children had a more open and relaxed life than most royal children of their time. They associated with people of all ranks and ages. There are hundreds of photographs of them playing with cousins, sailors, and soldiers. They were protected, and they did not go out into the common streets often, and their contemporaries did not understand their lifestyle and thought it was a shame (as common folk in other countries, discovering the constraints of royal life, have always been surprised and dismayed by it.) But to say that they led dull, isolated, unhappy lives is just not fair. Especially when many of the primary sources of information about their months in imprisonment come from letters they mailed to their friends!

But you probably have no idea what I am talking about. So although I could write on and on, I will stop here with a deep, complicated sigh. My daughter asks me why I don't write a book on the subject. Well, partly because I am writing another book at this time, and partly because there is so much information available on the internet. Nevertheless, it is probably something I (and many other obsessed amateurs) will grumble about doing for years to come. At least Helen put pen to paper and got it published.

Three stars because it's really well-written, and because I acknowledge Helen had a near-impossible job. But the missing two stars tell a deep story indeed.


ps, having finished the book now, I am more comfortable with my three star rating. Although I was disappointed by the lack of the sisters in this book supposedly about them, I must say I came away with a real feeling for them as people. I've known so much about these girls for decades now, but somehow Helen managed in very small ways to deepen my sense of them. I think it's perhaps because she had in her mind a clear definition of each girl and kept reiterating that with well-chosen words. Maria came to resemble Anne Shirley, which was charming. My heart ached for Olga and Tatiana. I disliked Anastasia even more than I had in the past. I still aver there was far too much missing, and considering her sources I can't fathom the choices Helen made to leave those stories out in order to tell those of other people. Also, just because some of the post-Tobolsk stories are difficult (such as the likelihood the girls were abused on the train journey to Ekaterinburg) doesn't mean they should be shied away from. Helen has told these stories before in an earlier book and Romanov fans rebelled, so I wasn't surprised, although I was very saddened, to see them missing here. Perhaps the most powerful chapter of all was the last, where we read the fate of the family's friends.

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