They were the Princess Dianas of their day – perhaps the most photographed and talked about young royals of the early twentieth century. And with good reason, for the four captivating Russian Grand Duchesses – Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia Romanov – were much talked about and admired for their happy dispositions, their looks, the clothes they wore and their privileged lifestyle.
From an early age they were at the centre of unceasing gossip about the dynastic marriages they might make. But who were they really beyond the saccharine image perpetuated by those now familiar photographs of them as pretty girls in white dresses and big hats? What were their personal hopes, dreams and aspirations and how did they interact with each other and with their parents? What was life really like within the highly insular Imperial Family and how did they really feel about their mother’s obsessive and all consuming love for their spoilt brother Alexey?
Over the years, the story of the four Romanov sisters and their tragic end in a basement at Ekaterinburg in 1918 has clouded our view of them, leading to a mass of sentimental and idealized hagiography. They are too often seen merely as set dressing, the beautiful but innocuous background to the bigger, more dramatic story of their parents – Russia’s last Tsar and Tsarina, Nicholas and Alexandra. They are perceived as lovely, desirable and living charmed lives. But the truth is somewhat different.
For most of their short lives the four Romanov sisters were beautiful birds in a gilded cage, shut away at their palaces at Tsarskoe Selo or Livadia as a reaction to the fear of terrorist attacks on the Imperial Family. In reality the girls had few friends and ever fewer playmates and were largely cut off from the real world outside and the normal life experiences of other girls – that is, until everything changed in 1914. Suddenly, with Russia’s entry into the war, the girls had to grow up fast.
In a deliberate echo of the title of Chekhov’s play, Four Sisters sets out to capture the joy as well as the insecurities and poignancy of those young lives against the backdrop of the dying days of late Imperial Russia. It will aim to present a new and challenging take on the story, drawing on previously unseen archival sources, as well as photographic and other material in private collections and opinion drawn from the author’s considerable personal network of royalty experts.
To be released in the UK on March 27, 2014 under the title, Four Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Romanov Grand Duchesses, while it’s US release on June 3, 2014 will be published under an alternate title, The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra. Illustrations will include some new or very rare images and one or two surprises!
A two-part documentary is currently in the works, with filming to take place at the Alexander Palace, Livadia, the Governor's House at Tobolsk, and the Church on the Blood in Ekaterinburg. Its release is scheduled to coincide simulataneously with the publication of the book.
© Helen Rappaport. 26 October, 2013