“Four Sisters. The Lost Lives of the Romanov Grand Duchesses”, by Helen Rappaport. (Macmillan) 492 pages, 40 illustrations.
Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia. We all know their names. Known collectively as OTMA they flit through the pages of books in their white dresses and large picture hats but have never been given individual voices. Helen Rappaport has set out to rectify this.
The narrative starts with the family of Princess Alice of Hesse and the youth of Empress Alexandra, so it is as much a biography of Alexandra as about her daughters, who we really only meet on page 90 - Olga, thoughtful, charged with keeping Alexei in order; Tatiana, called ‘the governess’ by her family; Maria, clumsy but the prettiest of the girls; and the spirited Anastasia. We are told the younger ones wore hand-me-down clothes because Alexandra was thrifty but later Ms Rappaport quotes accounts for Maria’s wardrobe in 1909-10 showing that some £14,500 was spent on her clothes that year. There is little really new and many things that could have been made more of (the holidays in Finland, their relationship with their grandmother the Dowager Empress) are rushed.
The Tsar’s daughters led rather secluded lives and, we are told, grew up ‘hungry for the sight of the world beyond’ the Alexander Palace. To understand why this was so it is of course necessary to understand the character of their mother and the effect that Tsarevich Alexei’s haemophilia had on the family – but there is rather too much about Alexandra and Alexei.
It is ironic that the outbreak of the war which would lead eventually to the revolution and their deaths should be the catalyst that allowed Olga and Tatiana to see a little more of life outside the palace, although even this was nursing in the palace hospital. Their various crushes on young wounded officers make poignant reading, knowing as we do that they will never have chance to marry and settle down.
Unfortunately, the world outside the Alexander Palace is to a large extent excluded to the reader as well, so we never really understand the reasons for the revolution, the Tsar’s abdication and the family’s imprisonment. We learn more about the children’s measles (Maria’s temperature rose to 40 degrees Centigrade – 104 degrees Fahrenheit) than we do about all the other momentous events.
Newly discovered letters from Anastasia to her friend Katya Zborovskyaya give a valuable insight into the sheer boredom of life in Tobolsk and there is a brief diary kept by the maid Anna Demidova but nothing about the fear Olga, Tatiana and Anastasia must have felt on the final journey on the boat to Tyumen, when they were forced to leave their cabin doors open at night, and nothing to suggest (as Gilliard hinted) that one or more of them may have been subjected to lewd advances by their coarse guards.
At Ekaterinburg the detailed narrative ends around the time of Maria’s birthday on 27 June 1918, meaning that the family’s final days are crowded into just 3 pages. Information included in Helen Rappaport’s previous book on the family (such as Maria’s compromising behaviour with one of the guards at Ekaterinburg) is missing from Four Sisters. This is a great pity, as we are deprived of a full account of the sisters’ lives and their horrific deaths, and the book ends rather abruptly.
Unsurprisingly, the sisters come over as unsophisticated young women whose lives were dominated by sickness and suffering.
This is a brave effort – but it left me disappointed.