We may think that our voyeuristic need to know intimate details about the lives of the rich and famous is a contemporary phenomenon, but in reality everyday people have always desired a glimpse into the not-so-ordinary lives of those above them. Such was the case with the Romanovs, the last Russian royal family. They were the Kardashian family of their time (if you were to replace sexual scandals with health and political ones), and people across the world felt it their business to know the ins and outs of the family's life. The family was, however, fiercely private, and it has only been with time, and access to their journals and letters, that we have been given the luxury of truly understanding what their lives were like during such a turbulent time in Russian history.
As expected, The Romanov Sisters focuses mainly on the Romanov sisters: Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia, but plenty of time is spent on their mother, the Czarina Alexandra, their father, Czar Nicholas II, and their younger brother, Alexey. Rappaport breaks down her account into several longer sections, beginning with the early life and courtship of Alexandra and Nicholas, leading into Alexandra’s pregnancies (and the Russian people’s frustrations over her slew of daughters), and then winding it’s way through the lives of her children as they grow into teenagers and young adults. While an account of the Romanovs would not be complete without reflection on their tragic execution in Ekaterinburg, Rappaport’s spends almost no time on their deaths, with at least 95% of the book being dedicated to relating the story of their lives.
Rappaport works to get beyond the sensationalism of their horrific deaths, and instead gives full due to each of the characters, cutting through the royal facade and getting at their personal thoughts and beliefs. She reveals a family deeply religious, fiercely devoted to one another, and unbreakable in spirit. Alexandra, thought to be a frosty and distant empress during her life, is shown to be a woman faced with numerous tragedies in her youth, who spent much of her adult life ill and in bed. Despite this, she gave thanks to God for her daughters and son, with whom she had a deep bond, and remained hopelessly in love with her husband and his empire until the day she died. The Romanov sisters, known mainly for their striking elegance and beauty during their lives, instead strike the readers as intelligent, bold, thoughtful, and humble, carrying on lively friendships with their servants and soldiers, and devoting themselves wholeheartedly to nursing during the Great War. Anastasia, the most famous of the daughters, jumps off the page in all of her goofy, gawky, mischievous splendor. Nicholas, who in the final days of his reign was reviled as a merciless tyrant, is cast in a sympathetic light: a man who loved nature and simple living, one who would have much preferred the life of a gentleman farmer, but instead was pressed, unprepared, into the life of a czar.
And then finally there is Alexey, the invalid son crippled by hemophilia and burdened with expectations of leadership. But, thanks to Rappaport’s perceptive and thoughtful writing, Alexey becomes more than his disease, and more than his title, instead reading as a boy struggling to be independent and strong in the face of pain and illness, one who, while at times petulant and spoiled, had a desire to learn about the empire and become an illustrious fighter who could head the Russian Army. Even Grigori Rasputin, the magical villain of the animated children’s movie Anastasia, becomes far more human once Rappaport pens him, developing into a poor and imperfect man, who nonetheless felt a strong attachment to Alexandra, her daughters, and especially her son, for whom he consistently prayed and helped heal.
In her account, Rappaport makes what is celebrity everyday, and reminds the reader that those with fame and wealth are still merely human. We learn of the girls’ frustrations with schoolteachers, their crushes on military officers (some requited and others kept to the confines of their journals), and their desperate desire to remain optimistic in the face of illness, war, and societal turmoil. We learn of Nicholas’s insecurities, and his joy in living a simple life (he always slept on a military cot, took cold showers, and ate simple fare). We are reminded that wealth does not make us any less human: the famous sleep, eat, pray, laugh, and cry as we do. Instead of capitalizing on the attention-grabbing nature of their lives and deaths (Romanov family lives in four palaces worth of splendor! Romanov family, executed by Bolsheviks in dirty basement prison!), she works to draw the reader past the clickbait, and into the true lives of a family whose outlook on life mirrored any Russian peasant.
Grub Street Editor-in-Chief
The image above is "Flight" by Gillian Collins.