Royal Women: The Romanov Sisters

You guys know that I LOVE reading about Royals. Royal women are probably my favourite non-fiction subject to read about. For Christmas, you may remember I asked Santa to bring me The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra by Helen Rappaport.

My letter must have missed him because, no dice.

But then for my birthday, my friend got it for me! I actually shrieked with delight when I unwrapped it because a) I really wanted to read this book and b) it was the only book I got for my birthday if you can believe that. I meant to savour it, I tried really hard to hold off reading it, just enjoy the having. But I couldn’t.

I posted about this on instagram but every time I read about the last Romanovs I’m just so sad the whole time. No matter how glamorous or beautiful or wonderful their lives might have seemed at the time, you know that it won’t last, that their end will be horrific. And it makes me sad.

This one was harder to read than anything previously because Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia were so young. They paid the ultimate price for things that really they had nothing to do with. I’ve read a lot about Nicholas and Alexandra, how their marriage was a true love match, how Alexandra’s debilitating shyness made her seem like a snob, their complete reliance on Rasputin, how they both hated the bureaucracy of governance and would have preferred the life of the landed gentry in England. But before this book I’d only read about the girls as their lives related to their parents’ – their births, some of the illnesses. But they were never fully formed people.


The Romanov Sisters finally introduced me to the daughters as people in their own right. Olga, serious and intelligent, a worthy successor to her father if only the rules hadn’t favoured male offspring; beautiful Tatiana who found her calling as a nurse during the Great War, taking charge when her mother’s illnesses kept her in bed; charming, sweet, self-effacing Maria, the girl that boys who met her wanted to marry – Louis Mountbatten kept a picture of her in his room until the day he died; and mischievous Anastasia,who didn’t have a great love for the classroom but loved military parades and acting in plays for her family. Their lives were short and extremely sheltered – for years their biggest outing was a weekly trip to their aunt’s house for tea – but by all accounts they were polite, charming and totally devoted to each other.

There were a lot of mistakes that were made in the lives of Nicholas and Alexandra. There’s no way to know if anything done differently would have actually changed anything. I suspect that if some major things had been different (for example had they been honest with the Russian people about Alexei’s hemophaelia, they wouldn’t have needed Rasputin) their end might have been different too. They would have at least been able to escape. Rappaport has written other books about the last Romanovs where she follows them to the very end. In The Romanov Sisters she chooses to leave them right before the end. She writes that it was an emotional experience writing about them, spending so much time with them over the months that she was writing. I totally understand the decision. I’ve read about the ending – I prefer to think of the sisters as they were: in lovely white dresses with big white hats, laughing together.

One of the last letters that Olga wrote from Ekaterinburg really had me choking up. It was true then and it’s true today:

“…that they should remember that the evil there now is in the world will become yet more powerful, and that it is not evil that will conquer evil – only love.”


Nicholas and Alexandra

Robert K. Massie first wowed me with Catherine the Great. Have you read it yet? It is exquisite. When I finished that, I wanted to read more. I already have a more than healthy obsession with royalty and the Russian royals are some of the most extravagant. This time, I picked up Nicholas and Alexandra: The Classic Account of the Fall of the Romanov Dynasty.

This book is incredibly sad. So so sad. You know how it’s going to end and no matter how much you want the ending to change, sooner or later you are going to have to read about those final months and then the horrifying conclusion and this knowledge colours the entire reading experience.

A lot has been written about Nicholas and Alexandra. He was a Tsar that didn’t care about his people, that was off playing soldier, leaving the important work of governing to his wife. She was a cold German who was alternatively in league with the Germans and at the mercy of a Russian peasant. You may have heard of Rasputin – Boney M has a pretty catchy song about him.

The real story is completely different. Nicholas and Alexandra were that rare royal marriage that was actually a love match. They cared deeply for each other and for their five children. Alexandra was an incredibly shy woman who didn’t have the gift of making small talk with strangers, so people thought she was a snob. In later years she was completely consumed by worry over the health of their only son, the Tsarevich Alexei, who was a hemophiliac. His childhood was a painful one and his parents were desperate for someone to cure him. Rasputin seemed like he had that power and that’s why Alexandra was so willing to do anything that he wanted.

If you’re hoping for answers to the legend of Rasputin…I don’t know that there are answers to be had. I still don’t know what to make of Rasputin.

This book was published in 1967 and there are moments when you have to stop and think about that. For us reading the book now, the events of the turn of the 20th century are not part of living memory. But for Massie, writing in the 1960s, people that were alive in 1917 were still around to tell the tale. Barely, but they were there. He sometimes relates the events of book to things that were happening when he was writing and it takes a minute to work through what he means. It doesn’t take away from the book at all, but it’s a bit of a curiosity.

I read somewhere that Massie first became interested in the Romanovs after his own child was diagnosed with hemophilia. The hemophilia of the Tsarevich becomes such a massive issue for the Romanov dynasty. There is no telling how events would have unfolded had Alexei not been a hemophiliac, or, if the Russian people had known about his condition. It was a closely guarded secret. One gets the sense that Massie has real empathy for his subjects, parents watching their child suffer so intensely, just like he has.

Sorry that this is such a downer post. If you are looking for an upbeat read, Nicholas and Alexandra is not for you. But if you’re in the right mindset, it’s an incredible biography and I really do recommend it. Not sure if I will tackle Peter the Great next – I don’t tend to read many biographies of men, but if I do, this would probably be near the top of the list.


Catherine the Great

I finally finished Robert K. Massie‘s Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman and it was awesome. I loved it so much.

My knowledge of Russian rulers comes in much later – right at the end in fact, with Nicholas and Alexandra. So going in, I knew basically nothing about Catherine the Great. But thanks to Massie’s impeccably researched, flawlessly executed biography of her, I feel like an expert too.

So much scandal! I think if there is one thing that surprised me about Catherine the Great, it’s that there was so much scandal around her. But no one ever really cared to do anything about it. She was married to the man who would become Peter III and for nine years after they got married, she stayed a virgin. They were so concerned with getting an heir that in the end, she was seduced by someone that wasn’t her husband and forever after there was speculation that perhaps her son, Paul, wasn’t her husband’s son (they did eventually officially consummate the marriage).

Also? Catherine got around. She had 12 lovers. Twelve. Delightfully called ‘Favourites’ – but the euphemism fooled no one. It paid well to be a ‘Favourite’ – she gave them all houses, titles and tons of money and when it was time to part ways, she never held onto any ill will. She even made one of her lovers the King of Poland. Obviously that benefitted her as well, but come on. One minute you are the lover of an Empress, the next a King in your own right?

I think a lot of people tend to dismiss Catherine the Great. There is the whole thing with the lovers and the fact that her useless husband died under rather mysterious circumstances right after she took the throne from him, but she actually contributed greatly to the arts and culture of her era, and to the history of Russia in particular. She was an avid art collector, a student of the Enlightenment (although in her later years she didn’t think that the regular people were capable of ruling themselves), a patron of the arts and made vast improvements to the architecture in and around Russia, most of which still stands today.

Massie won a Pulitzer for his book Peter the Great – I don’t need to tell you that this man is a talented writer. He manages to break down all the crazy happenings of Catherine’s lifetime  – her crazy mother, the battles with Empress Elizabeth, the Pugachev uprising, the Revolution in France, Voltaire and the Enlightenment – into manageable, understandable, relatable nuggets of information. He doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the French Revolution, or seek to smooth out the imperfections that Catherine herself was very aware of and in so doing manages to create a book that is perfect in every single way.

It took me a while to get through it – this is a book that is 574 pages chock full of everything under the sun. But every minute spent with Catherine the Great is worth it and I’m going to kind of miss her.