Books interview with Helen Rappaport: the Romanov sisters

Helen Rappaport talks to Matt Elton about her new study of the lives of the Romanov sisters, drawing upon their letters and diaries they kept until their assassination by Bolshevik forces in 1918

The family of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, c1910.

This article was first published in the April 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Could you tell us about the background to the story of these sisters?

The parents of the four Romanov sisters were the last tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, and his German-born wife, Alexandra of Hesse. It was, in the royal dynastic scheme of things, a fortunate marriage, in that they married for love. But there were enormous pressures on Alexandra from the moment that she married to produce a son and heir. Yet she gave birth to one girl after another: within six years she had four girls. She was so desperate for a boy that it pushed her towards a series of quacks: she was highly neurotic, and clutched at illogical, irrational practices. It was getting desperate, but even worse was the extremely vicious talk about Alexandra having brought a curse on the family – that the Romanovs were doomed.

Despite all the talk, though, the couple loved their daughters – and, when he finally arrived, their son, Alexei. They doted on them, and never expressed any kind of disappointment. They weren’t consigned to the nursery: the girls grew up with an incredibly strong loving sense of family, and of loyalty to the family, of duty and care. And they kept that to the very bitter end.

What impression do we get of the girls?

This is the tragedy: the world outside knew nothing of these four girls beyond the pretty official portraits, which presented a bland, docile, dutiful image. People had no sense at all of four very different personalities. What is so interesting about the girls is that you get a clear sense of that very early on. It wasn’t as if they were dull and interchangeable at all.

The onus was always on Olga, as the eldest, to set an example. I think of all the sisters, she suffered the most emotionally, and was the most volatile. The next sister, Tatiana, was the great beauty of the family, with the most extraordinarily lovely, svelte figure. But she was also reserved like her mother – so much so that people thought she was haughty. For me, she remains something of a beautiful enigma, although she shone through the most in the end: this dedicated, highly gifted young woman who worked as a nurse in the First World War. Had she not been a princess, she could have gone on to be a pioneering nurse.

How about the two younger sisters?

Whether by accident or design, Alexandra somewhat anonymised her daughters by referring to them as ‘the big pair’ and ‘the little pair’. However, the ‘little pair’ – Maria and Anastasia – were, again, contrasting personalities. I think Maria suffered a little from being the middle child. The older two tended to stick together and, while Anastasia was closer in age, she was extremely wild, undisciplined and manipulative, and Maria – being very soft and docile – suffered at her hands. So Anastasia was not quite the pretty little Romanov sister one might imagine!

The awful thing that persisted with Alexandra right to the end is that, even when she was writing letters to Nicholas in the years of the First World War, she infantilised her children. She was still talking about her ‘girlies’ when Olga’s over 20: they weren’t girlies any more, but young women. It’s as if she wouldn’t accept that sooner or later they had to be introduced to the outside world.

How far did their mother and brother’s illnesses shape the sisters’ childhood?

One of the many tragic angles of this story that really came through is that the girls spent their entire lives in the shadow of sickness.

By the time Alexandra had produced a fifth child in 10 years, plus a phantom pregnancy and at least one miscarriage, she was an emotional and physical wreck. She had never been a well woman, suffering from a whole catalogue of things: migraines, sleeplessness, facial neuralgia. It has been suggested that some of it was psychosomatic, and perhaps it was, but what struck home to me was how genuinely, chronically sick she was.

And then their incredibly precious brother Alexei was born, who was discovered to have haemophilia, a life-threatening condition which meant that one serious fall or knock could provoke uncontrollable haemorrhage. So then the girls had the burden of looking out for their mother and also cocooning their brother, especially when their mother was indisposed. Effectively those girls spent their whole lives as carers: that’s why they saw so little of the world outside.

Outside of the family, which figures – if any – contributed most to the girls’ development into young women?

Nobody. Really, by about 1912 the people in their lives were their mother and father, their auntie Olga and Rasputin – and the people who they most gravitated towards, who were the officers in the entourage. You see these girls growing up surrounded by adults, and a few ladies-in-waiting who they loved and trusted, but they had no association with young people of their own class because Alexandra despised the Russian aristocracy. So when they had a problem they could only turn to adults or each other, not their friends.

What misapprehensions about the girls would you like the book to alter?

I don’t want people to think that they were four bland little girls in pretty frocks who had no brains, no personalities, and were totally without interest. They were four very vibrant and fascinating personalities, and

I think their sense of devotion to their family, and particularly to their very sick mother and brother is exemplary. The extraordinary thing is that whether or not you’re religious, you get a powerful sense of their Christian belief, of this faith that held the family and the girls together. I want people to see that they were four lovely young girls on the brink of adulthood: there was life and they longed to grab it, but it was snatched from them.

If you could ask a question of any of the sisters, what would it be?

What I most want to know – and there’s so much speculation about this – is how aware they were of how desperate their situation was at the end, when they were put under house arrest and then killed by revolutionaries in 1918. I’ve found evidence, which I use in the book, that they were all pretty aware of how bleak things were, that the game was up. But I would like to know if they clung to hope right to the very last minute, because you get a sense of them being reconciled to God and their faith and whatever life brought. I’d like to know how aware they were of the awful shadow approaching.

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Four Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Romanov Grand Duchesses by Helen Rappaport (Macmillan, 496 pages, £20)