Thursday, November 30, 2017

Helen Rappaport's The Romanov Sisters

Like her other excellent books on modern Russian history, Helen Rappaport's book, The Romanov Sisters:  The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra, is extremely well-written and well-researched.  In fact, Rapport is clearly right at home in the pre-revolutionary Russia, and has no trouble tracking the lives of the five young women whose died so tragically at the hands of their Bolshevik executioners. If there can be any criticism of this book, it is only that the semi-private lives of these innocent young ladies does not reveal all that much about either Russian society or the revolutionary trends that were soon to engulf the ancien regime. 

To be sure, Rappaport's book covers the entire reign of Nicholas and Alexandra, and gives readers a reasonable treatment of the autocracy's slide toward disaster.  It also discusses dynastic relationships, World War I, Rasputin, and the tsarevich's physical vulnerability.  But the young ladies don't really play all that significant a part in the political life of Russia.  They were symbols of the autocracy, and their beauty was sometimes exploited to shore up the image of their often unpopular father and mother.  However, they rarely made decisions of note, so their story is largely a story of symbolism or mythology.  Certainly, readers will always be curious about how such a wealthy and powerful family could wind up dead in a cellar.  But the ordinary lives of these young ladies isn't really the story we must follow. 

Douglass Smith's biography of Rasputin actually offers a better way to write biographies like these.  According to Smith, the story of Rasputin is as much about the lies or gossip people told about the man as it is about his actual story-line.   What did Rasputin represent to different classes in Russia, either before or during the First World War?  And why was a man like Rasputin allowed into the inner chambers of power?  These questions are worth investigating, even if Rasputin's personal antics weren't so enthralling.  The same may be true of the Romanov sisters.  They may deserve this well-written biography, but history also deserves an extended treatment on what the women represented to others, however poorly this representation reflected their real lives.  Mikhail Zygar's book, The Empire Must Die, offers one a sense of how absolutely dreadful Nicholas II and Alexandra were, both in terms of their decision-making, and in terms of what they represented to the Russian intelligentsia, as well as the Russian peasants and Russian ethnic minorities.  Nicholas and Alexandra were living symbols of oppression, anti-antisemitism, bureaucracy, stultified thinking, violence, incompetence, inequality, etc.  Thus, if one really wants to know more about Russia's imperial family, one might start with a book like The Empire Must Die.  While Rappaport is right to assert that Nicholas II was a great family man, it's probably more important to note that he was a criminally naive, criminally incompetent, and criminally indecisive.  After all, it was Nicholas and Alexandra's folly, and the folly the autocracy represented, that at least partly led to the Revolution that Rapport's documented so well in her next book, Caught in the Whirlwind, reviewed recently by Soviet Roulette.

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