02 June 2014

the Romanov sisters

The Romanov SistersThe Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

All biographies are written in the context of history. The question facing a biographer -  how to balance the lives of individual flesh-and-blood people with the events - is made even more difficult when the events were, to a degree, controlled by the people she is writing about.

What Helen Rappaport has achieved in The Romanov Sisters is a portrait of a family that could be any family, save for the exigencies of dynastic marriage, unimaginable wealth, and the paradigm-shattering events of the early twentieth century. These four sisters - Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia - were real babies, real flesh-and-blood children, awkward teenagers, and accomplished young women, and they were murdered as political prisoners.

The reader learns about each girl as she passes through each stage of a young life. One girl is quiet, one is rambunctious; one cares about clothing and hair, one has a weight issue. Each life is detailed with precision and objectivity, without judgement. And, each sister is shown to have been loving, caring, and tender towards her parents, and her grievously-ill brother, Alexei.

One stunning part of the book deals with the royal family's response to the European War. Alexandra, Olga and Tatiana became fully-trained, full-fledged nurses who worked countless hours in the most dramatic areas of the hospitals by day, dressing horrific wounds, participating in amputations and treatment of hideous gangrene, while returning to the hospitals by night to sew linens, roll bandages, and knit garments for soldiers. Both sisters had reached an age where most would be developing crushes on young, handsome men. Both did.

The younger sisters also worked amongst the suffering wounded, as well as doing the expected visits and reviews. Even Alexei served by accompanying his father to battle areas, despite the danger to his fragile health.

This was a family that understood duty beyond noblesse oblige, and set aside its own comfort to serve the victims of politics. As a family of father, mother, and children, it was quite normal. Alexandra was disdained because she breast-fed her children instead of hiring a wet-nurse. The children were simultaneously considered ill-mannered (by sniffy outsiders) and refreshingly typical (by other outsiders). Royalty, privilege, and wealth could not cure Alexei or ease his suffering. Rasputin, both rake and staretz, provided some relief. Rappaport reports, but does not judge.

This biography is written in a detailed, yet clear and flowing voice that leads the reader through the tangles of dynastic interrelationships as easily as it describes the daily life of a doomed family.  It leaves judgments and comparisons up to the reader.

Highly recommended.

I received an ARC from NetLibrary. This is an honest review.

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