Book review: Four Sisters by Helen Rappaport

An impish girl wearing a jaunty, wide-brimmed hat poses for the camera as she has a cheeky taste of her father’s cigarette…
Four Sisters by Helen RappaportFour Sisters by Helen Rappaport
Four Sisters by Helen Rappaport

This moment of playful family fun captured in the Ukrainian countryside in 1912 is just one of a gallery of touching photographs illustrating the last years of the doomed Russian Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra and their five tragic children in a powerful and yet astonishingly intimate biography by Helen Rappaport.

The family were executed by Soviet revolutionary guards in the cellar of a bleak house in Ekaterinburg, Siberia, in 1917, bringing to a close over 300 years of Romanov rule.

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For the man who had often declared that he would have preferred to be an English country farmer rather than the Emperor of all the Russias, it was a violent end to a turbulent reign.

Much has been written about Nicholas, his melancholic, introverted wife, their haemophiliac son and heir Alexey and Grigory Rasputin, the notorious Russian ‘mad monk,’ peasant and mystic whose overpowering influence helped propel the family to death and disaster.

But Alexey had four older sisters, four grand duchesses – Olga, Tatiana, Marie and Anastasia – whose legacy until now has been mere footnotes in history and shy smiles in fading photographs.

At long last, acclaimed biographer Rappaport has set the record straight, allowing the girls to leave their shadowy obscurity, to flourish as individuals with their own personalities and to take centre stage in a real-life story of privilege, isolation, unexpected domesticity and revolutionary turmoil.

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In a strange quirk of fate, the sisters on the cusp of womanhood – they were aged between 17 and 22 when they were mown down in a hail of bullets – became intelligent, sensitive and perceptive witnesses to the countdown to catastrophe despite their downgraded roles as royal women.

The sisters have always been reduced to bit part players in the major drama of the dying days of the Romanov dynasty but Rappaport has drawn on the girls’ own letters, diaries and previously unexamined primary sources to give us a new and vibrant perspective on their troubled lives and times.

Their stories should have been the stuff of fairy tale but an obsessively virtuous and high-minded mother scarred by tragedies in her own childhood, a father totally unsuited to autocratic rule, a brother with a disastrous hereditary illness and a country teetering on violent revolution turned the dream into a nightmare.

Their early years were indeed cushioned – immense wealth and privilege amidst the magnificence of the mighty Russian court – but their happiness and personal freedom were always overshadowed by their mother, a German-born granddaughter of Queen Victoria.

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Alix, as she was known in the family, had ‘a fatal excess of mother love,’ says Rappaport, and it was that, perversely, which finally helped to destroy them all.

Morose, introspective and mistrustful of strangers, she had a ‘violent antipathy’ to being on public display and even at her wedding to Nicholas, one guest admitted to being overcome with ‘the feeling of approaching calamity.’

The birth of four daughters in the space of six years in a country where only a male heir could succeed placed enormous pressure on a woman already regarded as ‘a German’ and a frosty interloper.

The arrival of a son in 1904 was a short-lived triumph for the Romanovs when Alexey’s haemophilia, inherited through his mother’s line, was discovered but kept well hidden from those outside the immediate family and the microcosm of the court.

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Alix withdrew into uneasy and guarded isolation and as the girls matured, their world shrunk to a limited number of rooms at the Alexander Palace near St Petersburg whose cosy, homespun, domestic simplicity shocked a proletariat anticipating untold luxury when the Soviet regime opened the doors to them in 1918.

Rappaport takes us through their sheltered childhood, coping with a mother who was increasingly beset by ill health, a spirited but sickly brother and their genuine affection for a hands-on father who found more joy in his family than the affairs of state.

Olga, we discover, was a pleasant girl but withdrawn like her mother, Tatiana was outgoing and daring, Marie robust and long-suffering and the youngest Anastasia was the family clown and entertainer, always eager to keep her siblings smiling.

We witness the girls’ first romantic crushes, learn about their hopes and dreams and see them relishing contact with the outside world and the opportunity to nurse wounded soldiers after the outbreak of war in 1914.

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But by 1917, the country was dangerously unstable and when the family were rounded up and placed under arrest in the spine-chilling ‘house of special purpose’ in Ekaterinburg, their terrible fate was sealed…

Rappaport is a consummate and compelling biographer who can always be relied on to put humanity into history, painting the past in all its dramatic detail but placing people at the forefront of her penetrating portraits.

She allows the sisters’ bright but brief light to shine with clarity, charm and sensitivity and without ever losing that sense of foreboding which enveloped Russia’s tragic grand duchesses and makes this account of their lives so unbearably poignant.

(Macmillan, hardback, £20)