Russia’s last grand duchesses and their tragic fate

Nicholas and Alexandra’s daughters get a biography worthy of their fate
The family of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, c1906-c1907(?). The Tsar (1868-1918), Tsarina Alexandra (1872-1918) and their children Grand Duchesses Olga (1895-1918), Tatiana (1897-1918), Maria (1899-1918), Anastasia (1901-1918) and the Tsarevich Alexei (1904 (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

The mystique that envelops the last Romanov family is still in place, nearly a century after they were all shot by the Bolsheviks in a basement in Ekaterinburg in 1918. They were the richest family in the world—he was Czar Nicholas II of Russia, with the vast resources of its empire at his disposal—yet lived a rather pedestrian, even middle-class life, albeit one with hundreds of servants in a palace. The Russian aristocracy and court was known for its vast wealth, opulent lifestyle and decadent ways, but Nicholas loved nothing more than spending time with his wife and family.

The lives and deaths of Nicholas, his wife, Alexandra, and their five children have been intensely chronicled. Yet while much of the focus has been the czar, his wife and heir, Alexei, their four daughters have been consigned to the sidelines of history. Now, in The Romanov Sisters, Helen Rappaport, author of Ekaterinburg: The Last Days of the Romanovs, goes behind the usual window dressing to reveal four unique individuals—grand duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia—and the lives they lived.

Q: What prompted you to write about the four sisters?

A: I went to Ekaterinburg, when I wrote about the last days of the family in the city. I soaked up the atmosphere and completely absorbed myself in the story. I went to the place in the forest where their bodies were thrown into a pit. I felt so haunted by those girls.

The girls were always there in the story, as a backdrop. There are so many books about the Romanovs and photographs, and they are always rather pretty, innocuous set dressing: the “girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes,” as the song goes. They seemed dull and rather characterless and uncontroversial. I thought there has got to be more to those girls than is generally perceived. I wanted to tell their story in their own right, because too often they are an adjunct to the bigger story of Nicholas and Alexandra or their tragic hemophiliac brother, Alexei.

Q: Is part of the fascination that they died so young?

A: They are frozen in time. They are forever young, forever beautiful and innocent, which is why it’s so hard holding back this tide of hagiography that is growing in Russia. They have been made saints. You get these awful flowery, cutesy websites—oh God, it’s horrendous. There is this huge teen fan sentiment. They revere them, talk about them ad nauseum on websites, but too much is saccharine.

That’s another reason why I wanted to write the book. I could see the hagiography was going to drown the real girls in a sea of schmaltz, and I wanted them to be seen for real people, not plaster saints.

 Q: In a sentence or two, how would you describe each of the four girls? We’ll start with Olga.

A: The eldest, she inevitably had the most responsibility, and at times it weighed on her. She was by nature quite melancholic and romantic. She liked poetry and played the piano beautifully. I think she wore her heart on her sleeve. She fell in love easily, and got hurt. She had a private world she longed for. I find her sad and plaintive.

Q: Tatiana?

A: An extraordinary young woman. Very enigmatic, she had this strange, almost Asiatic beauty. She would have been the Diana of the bunch. She clearly would have married well. She was a good organizer, not academic but very together, very organized. She was a fantastically gifted nurse—had things been different she could have been a medical pioneer. She had enormous gifts of dedication and stoicism. I find her the most intriguing, she was so intensely private. You never really get inside her head. Tatiana would have made a great monarch.

 Q: Maria?

A: Maria is the opposite—she’s sweet, soft, kind, and loving, and malleable, and easily led by her rather devious younger sister, such a gentle soul. She was very Mother Earth Russia, longed to be a mother, wanted to have children.

Q: Anastasia?

A: The wild child, the court jester, the mimic. She had this quizzical, demanding, highly curious personality. She wanted to be into everything, and knowing everything, asking impertinent questions. She got away with blue murder because she was such a force of nature. You have to admire her. At times she must have irritated her sisters beyond words, because she was so madcap, and so bad at concentrating on anything. She was such a live wire.

Q: Compared with their contemporaries in Russia, what was their lifestyle like?

A: Their mother brought them up with old-fashioned Victorian, English values handed down by her mother and grandmother [Queen Victoria]. They had iron bedsteads and cold baths, frugal nursery food and only a little bit of pocket money. Yet they were terribly happy because the key factor in the story, and the big revelation in terms of the family, was that those children had the most loving hands-on parents any children could wish.

Those children were loved by their parents, Nicholas especially. What a tragedy, that man. So inept as czar, so wrong for the job, yet he was such an exemplary, hands-on father. How many monarchs can you think of in history that would take time out from affairs of state to go walking through the snow with their daughters, throwing snowballs, or cycling around?

Q: What was their childhood like?

A: Actually, it was very happy. Looking at it from the outside, retrospectively from a feminist point of view, one can all too easily say, “Oh those poor repressed girls, locked away. What miserable lives they had.” But they didn’t have miserable lives, they were always satisfied with what they had and they made the most of it. At times you can sense a wistfulness in them about wishing they could see more of what they called the “outside life.” They knew there was a life they were never going to be allowed access to, partly because their mother was extremely strict, and very prejudiced about the decadent influences of the Russian aristocracy and the Russian court, which she despised.

Also the very real consideration of security—Alexandra was petrified of some attack being made on the family, particularly Nicholas. And there was this conspiracy of silence to protect Alexei, and not let people find out he had hemophilia. They kept up this pretense in the first eight years by constantly protecting him, cosseting him and cocooning him.  Finally in 1912, the news did emerge.

In those years the family kept a low profile partly so that the Russian people should not find out that they had a cripple for an heir. The heir to that enormous empire had to be seen as robust and healthy.

Q: You detail how the two oldest daughters, Olga and Tatiana, who were young women during the First World War, kept falling in love with military officers, men that would not likely have been accepted as the husbands of royalty.

A: That’s so heartbreaking, Poor Olga: she knows it’s hopeless, but she does it again, falling for all these handsome officers she would have been happy to marry. She never expressed any interest in any grand dukes or princes.

I think if the girls had survived, if things had been different, they could have married one of them. They didn’t want to leave Russia.

Q: But the timing was wrong, wasn’t it, given they were in the middle of a devastating war?

A: You see them subsuming themselves completely in their war work. Olga and Tatiana wearing those hideous nurses’ wimples, covering all their lovely hair. They are hardly ever seen in civvies, and when it is, it’s only plain skirts and woolly cardigans.

Q: Though you recount their happy family life, there is also tension slowly building throughout The Romanov Sisters. Great-uncle Serge was assassinated in 1905; there was an attack on a theatre when Nicholas was there with one of his daughters. How dangerous was it for them?

A: They had to live in the shadow of their father’s possible assassination. I’m sure they were aware of it. There are these sad comments from Olga during the war years. She was really distressed by the fact that everyone had turned against her father. This was the man she could only see as the most kind, loving parent. She would say, “I can’t understand why the people are so against Papa.” It broke her heart because she saw a loving father, and a man who, in many ways, did the job to the best of his very limited abilities.

Q: In one of the more interesting sections, you talk of their relationship with the mystic Rasputin, who advised the royal couple, especially about their son’s health. Many distrusted Rasputin, yet as you discover, the girls saw a different side of him.

A: This is why I can’t stand it when people say, “Oh, what do you think of Rasputin? Do you think he seduced the daughters and got into bed with Alexandra?” I get furious, so sick of the salacious, unfounded gossip and drivel written about his relationship with the family.

He was like a wise guru, a father figure. Those girls had very few people to turn to for advice; they didn’t have other girls they could share secrets with. They looked upon him as a wise owl. Clearly he offered sage advice at times, and they respected him. When they were younger, he told them stories, entertaining and beautiful stories from the Gospels, his life in Siberia.

What disturbed Olga toward the end [Rasputin was killed by Russian aristocrats in 1916] was how their mother’s close friendship with Rasputin was being wrongly interpreted; she could see it was bringing the family into disrespect.

Q: The Romanov dynasty lasted three centuries, and produced the likes of Catherine the Great, yet say “Romanov” and everyone thinks of the last family. What helps stoke such interest in them?

A: I think because of all those gorgeous pictures. They are among the most photographed families in history. Those very seductive, and haunting images become even more seductive and even more haunting, even more tragic when you get to the end of the story and hear about the gruesome end those children met.

Q: Even nearly 100 years after their deaths, every little bit of information about them generates headlines around the world. It’s usually about their lifestyle, isn’t it? Recently it was a newly discovered Romanov Easter egg.

It’s this myth of their extraordinary beauty and elegance and opulence of late imperial Russia. If you look close up, the imperial family was not ostentatious. Alexandra had some wonderful jewels; she liked collecting jewels and had some fabulous pearls and diamonds. But look at the girls: all they ever wore were little pearl plain necklaces.

The tradition of giving a Fabergé egg at Easter began with Nicholas’s grandfather and mother and he continued until 1914 or 1915, when they rightly announced they were going to be frugal and not have any more eggs.  I think the Fabergé eggs epitomize the height of exquisite craftsmanship of late imperial Russia, but the family itself led pretty plain lives.

The girls wore quite plain clothes, hand-me-downs. They didn’t have lots of flashy things; they lived quite modestly. They didn’t like their rooms in the Winter Palace and didn’t use them after 1905. They liked very simple, quite bourgeois domestic surroundings and all their homes were like that. They didn’t go for the great big grandeur of imperial Russia as one perceives it.

Q: Imperial rule collapsed very quickly. Describe the next few months.

A: The great thing about the family you can see in the letters they write to their friends while in captivity. Though the letters are rather circumspect for obvious reasons, they don’t complain. They learn to enjoy being out in the garden; they always loved fresh air, so they go out and plant turnips and cabbages and tomatoes, chop wood, and make themselves useful. They could be very content so long as they were not separated from each other. They made the most of it, even though it got worse and worse every time they moved, but they still tried to smile and keep each other going.

Q: Did they know the end was coming in Ekaterinburg?

A: I think Olga probably had a pessimistic sense of doom because of her personality. But they all, right to the end, swallowed their anxieties, held down their own fears, to try to keep their parents going. They kept their fears to themselves; they were all so stoic in that way.

But there was that very interesting comment from Charles Sydney Gibbes [their English tutor, who was in their entourage until the final move to Ekaterinburg]. When asked later what sense he’d had of the family in those final days, he said, “They knew it was the end when I was with them.”

I think certainly Nicholas and Alexandra knew the end would come, but they were in denial. They tried hard to deny it, because it was too awful. What parent could consciously stop and think that their children might be killed? Themselves, perhaps—it must have crossed their minds—but not their children.

Related: The persistent allure of the Romanov family