Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg

I grew up with an undeniable fascination for the lost Imperial Russian Royal family (and particularly Anastasia, of course). I remember watching Unsolved Mysteries back in 1998 and listening to Robert Stack describe how Anna Anderson's ears matched Anastasia Romanov's ears at 14 different points. Well then, mystery solved, I thought. Of course that's Anastasia.

I was about ten. I didn't need much convincing.

The later discovery of the Romanov remains quashed any wishful thinking; the entire Romanov family had indeed died back in 1918 via firing squad in Ekaterinburg, Russia. Like Marie Antoinette, the Romanovs have endured in the collective public consciousness as tragic victims of a violent political upheaval. We see that beautiful young family in photographs and shake our heads. We mourn the loss of a royal dynasty. 

Helen Rappaport re-establishes the Romanovs as people in The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg. Her sharp focus on their final fourteen days highlights the Romanovs' familial relationships as they struggle to stave off the boredom that comes with being secluded in the private Ipatiev House. The Romanovs are kept alive as political pawns, isolated from the outside world, and have long ago lost the agency to determine or affect their fate. 

So what does a family do when they're isolated, when they've given up hope? They band together. The readers know what's coming; the dread lies in reading their monotonous daily trifles, their grinding routines to keep themselves occupied. 

It's hard to disagree with Rappaport's poor assessment of Tsar Nicholas II's reign: the introverted Tsar preferred to shut himself away inside the Alexander Palace rather than acknowledge Russia's challenges or shifting political climate. His German-born Tsaritsa, Alexandra, had given him four daughters before producing a sickly male heir, Alexey. Alexandra's reliance on an unpopular holy man called Rasputin to curtail Alexey's bleeding attacks had seriously wounded the family's pious public image. By the time Nicholas abdicated in 1917, Russia was in the midst of a full-blown Revolution.

Author and Historian Helen Rappaport.
Courtesy of
But Rappaport isn't really interested in exploring the failures of the fallen monarch. Instead, she focuses on the personalities stuck in solitary confinement. Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia sew. Alexey plays with tin toys. Nicholas reads. Sewing and reading occasionally give way to card games. Talking with the multitude of guards is forbidden, though Nicholas and the girls try anyway. Maria, in particular, is caught in a "compromising situation" with a guard who'd smuggled a cake into the house for her 19th birthday.   

Rappaport's contrast of small routine to the big picture politics is brutally effective. There was nothing for the Romonov family to do but wait as Commandant Yurovsky worked out the particulars of their execution.

As soon as I finished reading, I grabbed my dog and took her for a long walk in the sunshine. Don't read this book at night. 

The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg by Helen Rappaport is available at the library and as an e-book on Overdrive.

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