Friday 28 March 2014

Four Sisters, by Clare Mulley

To mark ‘Women’s History Month’ I am dedicating my March blog to four Russian sisters…

A couple of years ago the Russianist, historian, translator and author Helen Rappaport decided to write about four sisters. I was researching three very different sisters at the same time, so I hoped that collectively we could write about seven sisters, and meet occasionally in north London to toast our progress. Sadly, my chosen sisters fell by the wayside (at least for now), but Helen’s wonderful book: Four Sisters: The Lives of the Romanov Grand Duchesses was published this week.

The British hardback of Helen Rappaport's Four Sisters

A fluent Russian speaker, Helen is a specialist in Russian history and 19th century women’s history. Her subjects have ranged from a blackmailing Victorian beautician to Lenin’s years in exile, and from the stories of women in the Crimean War of the 1850s to an encyclopedia of female social reformers.

Author Helen Rappaport, photo by John Kerrison

Four Sisters is Helen’s second look at the Imperial Romanov family. In 2009 she examined the last painful fourteen days of the dynasty in her history, Ekaterinburg. Now she widens her lens to provide a deeply moving account of the four Romanov sisters, Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia.

Important chiefly as dynastic assets in their own lifetime, these women were perhaps the most photographed and talked about young royals of the early twentieth century. Presented essentially as beautiful, demure figures, flanking their parents, in gauzy white dresses, it would have been unthinkable that not one of them would find a husband. However, in 1918, they were all brutally murdered, along with their parents, thirteen-year-old brother, and loyal personal staff, by members of the Bolshevik secret police. 

Olga, Maria, Nicholas II Alexandra Fyodorovna,
Anastasia, Alexei and Tatiana, 1913

The fate of the Imperial Romanov family is well-known, and yet this is a story still obscured by confusion, deceptions and myth. Inevitably perhaps, such a tragic tale of innocence and brutality has often been reduced to a binary narrative about good and evil. However, presenting the four Romanov sisters simply as innocent victims without independent character, fault or value, does little to further our understanding. The apparently irrepressible desire to believe that Anastasia escaped her family’s fate, despite all evidence to the contrary, has further romanticized the story.

I asked Helen why these four women’s lives have not been more critically examined before, despite their fame, and about the politics of writing about women who are primarily known for their relationship to, or association with, more famous men.

     ‘The perennial problem with telling the story of interesting women in history’ Helen told me, ‘is the lack of sufficient source material. Sometimes the only way we can learn anything about women is when they are shown as an adjunct to the much more famous men in their lives and the results are not always satisfactory. I don't believe in trying to aggrandize the role of such women, but by taking a close up look at the key role they played - as in the case of Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin's wife - one can find fascinating perspectives on the bigger story. Similarly, the lives and upbringing of the four Romanov sisters hopefully sheds much valuable new light on their parents and the whole dynamic of Russia's last imperial family.’

The tragic fate of the Romanov family provides a brutally direct metaphor for the end of Imperial Russia. How did you balance the focus between the personal drama, and the political context?

     ‘I think the reason that people are so endlessly fascinated by the last imperial family has a lot to do with the murder of those five innocent children in 1918. And yes, it is indeed a metaphor for the dreadful, savage and bitter civil war that followed the Bolshevik coup in October 1917. Millions of people died in the first formative years of the new Soviet Russia, many of them innocent women and children. The Romanov children represent the murder of innocence and also the difficulty, even now, that people in Russia have of coming to terms with the savagery of their own past.’

What is new in your approach to the story?

     ‘The sisters have always been perceived as an adjunct to the much bigger story of their parents and their haemophiliac brother. I had never had any interest in writing standard biographies of, say, Nicholas or Alexandra, nor have I ever considered myself to be a political historian. I was interested in the Romanovs' private, domestic life, as a family and how they interacted with each other.
     As a mother of daughters myself, I wanted to write about them as any other young women – i.e. without preoccupation with their status and titles. I wanted to view their development as one would any other developing girls - with the same interests, impulses, hopes and disappointments. I wanted to show their very different personalities and how each of them had qualities that were uniquely their own. This was no bland collective, as they are so often presented, but four very interesting young women who were on the brink of life and who, in their own very different ways, had a great deal to offer.’

How important was your fluency in Russian during your research?

     ‘My Russian was crucial. There was much that I wanted and needed to read in the Russian original, especially the girls' letters and diaries, even though a lot of source material has now been published and translated. I visited Russia several times to refuel my sense of place, but not so much to discover new things. I found much new material by other means, even without going there. Being in Russia helped me connect with the four girls and their story in an important emotional and spiritual way.’

Finally, how would you like the four Romanov sisters to be remembered?

     ‘As four very different contrasting personalities who deserve to be remembered more than as just pretty girls in white frocks and big picture hats. They were not a bland collective, they were a fascinating quartet of young women who at heart were decent, loving, honest and inherently altruistic and caring. They deserve to be remembered for the love and devotion they showed each other, their parents and their sick brother without complaint and with a gentle stoicism that I find admirable and touching.’ 

Maria, Olga, Anastasia and Tatiana
in captivity, Spring 1917

Helen is passionate about uncovering the neglected truths behind well-known stories and releasing women from what she calls ‘the footnotes and margins’ of history. Four Sisters gives individuality and vibrant identity back to Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, presenting them not just as pawns in the hands of their Imperial family, symbols of an out-of-touch regime, or tragic victims of the brutal revolution, but as young women with hopes, dreams, frustrations and fears of their own. Here they are actors in their own right, each responding distinctly to the circumstances, opportunities and constraints of their lives, and living without the foreknowledge that usually clouds perceptions of them. Their personal stories are told lightly but with such scholarly authority that it is easy to forget how new it is to consider them in this fresh and sensitive way. 

History like this shows how women’s lives have often been doubly marginalised, first in life, and then in their retrospective historical treatment. Helen Rappaport not only liberates the Romanov sisters to great degree but, in doing so, she shows how revisiting the lives of women living in the shadow of more powerful men can illuminate history in all sorts of new ways.


Sue Purkiss said...

This story has such a terrible ending I'm not sure I can bear to read it, but I suppose that's a bit pathetic - it sounds wonderful, and the sisters deserve to have their story properly told.

Ann Turnbull said...

I remember meeting Helen Rappaport in 2012 and she told me she was working on this book. I said then that I'd love to read it. Thank you for telling us about it, Clare.

Joanna B., native Texan, Steve Earle fan, resident of Minnesota said...

I can't wait to get my copy of what I know is going to be another incredible book my ms. Rappaport. Planning on taking it with me to Mexico and reading on the beach a week in June!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Thank you fro this post. I can't wait to read this book. I was so moved on visiting Ykaterinburg and seeing photographs of the family.
Then about 2 years ago I went to Yalta and was astonished to discover that the Romanovs travelled all the way to Sevastopol from St Petersburg on the royal train, then by royal yacht to Yalta for their summer holidays. I visited Livadia the white house with its lovely garden that they stayed in and tried to imagine their lives... where drawings from their childhood still hang in the 'nursery' and where a photograph depicts the young Nicholas and Alexandra on their engagement. It seemed cruel to look into their eyes and know the fate that lay ahead for them.

Leslie Wilson said...

Very interesting!