Saturday, September 5, 2015

Anastasia And Her Sisters by Carolyn Meyer

Anastasia and Her Sisters tells the tragic story of the Romanovs, the last reigning monarchs of Russia at the turn of the 20th century. The focus is on the four daughters known as the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Marie and Anastasia who went by the acronmym of OTMA and is told by primarily by Anastasia but also through the diary entries of her older sister,  Olga.

The story begins in April, 1918 with the family under house arrest. Seventeen year old Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanova watches as her father, Tsar Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, her mother, Empress Alexandra and her sister the Grand Duchess Marie leave in a caravan of peasant carts. Her father is to be put on trial in Moscow by the provisional government.  Accompanying them are Dr. Botkin and some servants. Anastasia along with her thirteen year old brother Alexei, and her sisters Olga and Tatiana remain in Tobolsk waiting, fearful of the outcome. Olga and Tatiana are the older sisters, while Marie and Anastasia are the two younger ones. The sisters hope that they will be rescued, even after the family was refused asylum in England. They have no idea what the future holds for them, but they hold out hope that they will be rescued.

Anastasia and her sisters learn that the Tsar and Empress have been taken to Ekaterinburg instead. A letter from Mama tells her that they need to sew their jewels into their clothing, although that is not exactly what she tells them to do. As a young girl on the verge of womanhood, Anastasia reminisces about the ball for Olga's sixteenth birthday. During that ball, Olga danced with Lieutenant Sablin but had eyes only for Lieutenant Voronov. It is these memories that lead to Anastasia narrating the events that lead up to the terrible day in 1918.

This leads into Part I OTMA: The Grand Duchesses 1911. In autumn of 1911, at their palace in Livadia, on the Black Sea Anastasia and her family spend their time hiking along mountain paths, playing tennis and touring in their papa's motorcars. In December they travel by train north to Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo only a half hour away from St. Petersburg. There are always two trains, one a dummy train so that should a revolutionary or anarchist attempt to assassinate the tsar, they will not know which train to bomb. Anastasia discovers that her sister Olga is infatuated with Lieutenant Pavel Alexeyevich Voronov one of the officers assigned to the Tsar's yacht, the Standart. Besides noticing her sister's glances at Lieutenant Voronov she decides to read her sister's private diary.

At Tsarskoe Selo the royal family follows its routine of rising early and having lessons with their tutors of whom there are many. For example, Charles Sydney Gibbes teaches them English, Monsieur Pierre Gilliard teaches French, Pyotr Vasilyevich Petrov teaches them geography. Also at the palace  is the royal physician, Dr. Botkin and his children, Gleb and Tatiana. Anastasia's only brother, the heir to the throne, Alexei, is a hemophiliac, a condition inherited from his great-grandmother, Queen Victoria of England. This fact is a closely guarded secret. Alexei is watched by two sailors, Andrei Derevenko and Klementy Nagorny who try to prevent him from injuring himself and who often carry the young tsarevich around. Father Grigory Rasputin who dresses like a peasant and smells bad, frequently comes to see Alexei and he seems better after his visits. Father Grigory's seeming ability to heal Alexei has resulted in a close relationship with the family, especially the empress. Anastasia's Aunt Olga Alexandrovna, Papa's youngest sister visits Tsarskoe Selo very Saturday during the winter, taking the girls skating and tobogganing. On Sundays they usually visit Anichkov Palace to have lunch with their grandmother, Dowager Empress Marie whom Anastasia and her sisters and brother called Grandmere Marie. They would sometimes go to Aunt Olga's palace on Sergievskaya Street which she shared with her husband Duke Peter (Petya) Alexandrovich of Oldenburg, meeting cousins and other relatives, to dance and play games. Their life is filled with routine and ease.

Tsarevich Egg given by Tsar Nikolai to the Empress, 1912
In the spring of 1912, the Romanov's return to Livadia where they are invited to parties on estates, go sailing and have picnics. After celebrating Easter at Livadia, Olga begins to develop a deeper attraction to Pavel Voronov. Count Smolsky tells Tsar Nikolai that unrest continues to develop across Russia, with workers walking off their jobs. Aunt Olga indicates that she has heard the peasants too are restless, but Anastasia's papa, brushes off their concerns,  believes that everything will be fine. Later on during the summer they meet Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, who is called Cousin Willy because he is a cousin to both Anastasia's mother and father. Anastasia and her sisters are not fond of him. During the spring, Alexei somehow injuries himself and begins bleeding. This episode is so serious that Dr. Botkin believes Alexei may die and convinces the tsar to inform the people that their beloved tsarevich is very ill. Father Grigory telegrams the Empress to tell her that he will recover which he does. Olga celebrates her seventeenth birthday at the royal lodge in Spala in what was once part of Poland, with the help of many of the locals who come to dance and play music. From Olga's diary, Anastasia learns that their father asked Olga if she would consider marrying Dmitri Pavlovich.

In the winter and spring of 1913, Russia prepares to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Romanov rule with church services, ceremonies, dinners and receptions. On the third night, Olga and Tatiana are invited to a grand ball held in honour of the Tsar and Empress. Disappointed she and Marie cannot attend, Anastasia waits to hear about it later from her sisters. Meanwhile Olga's relationship with Voronov continues into the summer when they have their first kiss. But by the winter of 1914, Voronov is engaged to be married to Olga Kleinmichel and Olga is devastated. The spring of 1914 Olga is asked by the tsar to consider marrying Prince Carol of Romania, something that does not appeal to her. Anastasia watches as Olga continues to struggle with the loss of Voronov.

In the summer of 1914, Tatiana turns seventeen, Marie is fifteen and Anastasia is thirteen. The summer is spent painting and relaxing at their dacha in Peterhof and then embarking on their summer cruise in the Baltic Sea. But an event far away, in Sarajevo, Serbia is to cause repercussions around the world. The assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and his wife by a Serbian lead the tsar to realize that this may very well lead to war. Russia was on Serbia's side while Austria and Germany were allies meaning that if Austria declared war on Serbia, Russia would have to enter the war.  At first Anastasia and her sisters are deeply concerned. Little do they know that their lives are about to change forever with the start of a world war later in 1914. And the instigator of it all will be their much disliked Cousin Willy who will declare war on his own cousin, Tsar Nicholas II.


In Part 1, OTMA, Meyer sets the stage for the story, which is essentially about the events leading up to the mass murder of the entire Romanov family in 1918 by the Bolshevik secret police, the Cheka. This is done by describing the life as a young Grand Duchess through the eyes of Anastasia (Nastya) Nikolaevna Romanova as she grows up from an eleven year old girl to a young woman of seventeen. Detailed descriptions of holidays, birthdays and family relationships are presented, giving the reader an excellent idea of what it was like to be a member of the Russian royal family at the turn of the century. In many respects the young duchesses are like any other girls in this era; sharing secrets with sisters, learning about puberty, experiencing a deeper relationship with parents or other relatives (in Anastasia's case, her Aunt Olga), feeling pressured to follow social conventions such as marrying a man of equal social standing, disliking school lessons and becoming curious about boys, love and marriage. But in other ways, their lives were very different, filled with luxuries most young girls could never imagine, trips on the Baltic, wearing gorgeous gowns, attending balls and dancing with dashing military men, and living in beautiful ornate palaces. The focus is mostly family intrigue and on the relationships between the various cousins as well as Grand Duchess Olga's blossoming love affair with Lieutenant Voronov who is quickly married off to prevent the socially unacceptable attachment from developing any further.

Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna 1914
Since the narrative is Anastasia's, there are only fleeting mentions hints that all is not well in Russia. Anastasia mentions about the gruesome murder of her great grandfather Alexander, how her father is warned not to ride ahead of the Cossacks into Moscow on the anniversary of the crowning of the first tsar. Their lives as aristocrats are insular as they are generally unaware of the true state of life in Russia and how the people really feel about the tsar and his family.

In Part II War 1914 focuses on Russia at war and the involvement of the royal family in the war effort. Anastasia points out how conflicted her mother, the empress must feel. "Her mother was English, but her father was German! She was born in Germany! Her brother, Uncle Ernie, lives in Germany. She might still be there if she hadn't fallen in love with Papa and come to Russia to marry him. She had to learn to speak Russian, and she even gave up her religion for ours. Mama is as Russian as anybody and she must hate it that Cousin Willy is doing this wicked, awful thing."

The royal family were not mere spectators but participated fully in the war effort. The Empress Alexandra turned numerous palaces of the tsar and of wealthy Russians into medical units to care for the wounded soldiers. She also organized special trains to bring the wounded men to these hospitals and smaller facilities called lazarets. The empress and her older daughters, Olga and Tatiana, were trained by the Red Cross to work as nurses, becoming sisters of mercy. They spent many days caring for the wounded and dying. Anastasia points out in her narrative, her "Mama assisted at as many as three surgeries, one right after the other, each lasting a couple hours." Both Tatiana and Olga recount the horrors of men terribly wounded and of others dying.

As in other European countries, the Russian people were intially excited about going to war and also held the belief that it would be a short war. The attitude of the Russians towards the Germans is summed up by Gleb Botkin who tells Anastasia, "The Germans don't know how to fight!" Gleb assured my brother. "They only know how to make sausages! All we have to do to win is to throw our caps at them." Anastasia's Aunt Olga remarks about the patriotism of the people. "I've witnessed the most extraordinary sights over the past week: the thrilling sight of men going to war. Every day from early morning until after sunset, hundreds and hundreds of men marching down Nevsky Prospect to the Warsaw Station to board a train for the front. People walk beside them, cheering them on. They're fighting for Holy Russia and for the tsar, Nicky!"

Tsar Nicholas too becomes involved in the war, traveling to Stavka, the army headquarters near Bialowieza. As in other countries, the Romanov's soon realize that the war will not be over by Christmas 1914. As the war drags into 1916, Anastasia indicates that Russia is suffering from strikes, food shortages and trouble from the revolutionaries. However, these troubles seem distant as she doesn't not provide many details nor indicate to the reader how she feels about these troubles.  recounts that Empress Alexandra spends more and more time with Father Grigory who has become an advisor to the tsarina, while Nicholas II remains at Mogilev as commander-in-chief.

Rasputin, advisor to the Empress
It is through Olga's diary entries that there is a hint of the true situation brewing at home. Olga reveals that the empresses seems blind to how people view her relationship with Father Grigory who is hated by the people and although she wants to warn her mother, Olga and Tatiana believe it is futile. The warning is left to the empress's sister, Ella who tells Alexandra that Emperor Nicholas needs to be leading the country and not the army as he is not a military man. Aunt Ella also attempts to warn the empress about Father Grigory. But these warnings are strongly resisted by Empress Alexandra.

Part III Revolution 1917 begins with the OTMA becoming sick with the measles and the abdication of Tsar Nicholas and the establishment of a provisional government. This section focuses on the increasingly precarious situation of the Romanov royal family. They are placed under house arrest in Tsarskoe Selo. Anastasia and her family are led to believe that there is a British ship on its way to take them to England. Their situation grows more difficult when soldiers arrive to guard them. They are insolent and treat the former Tsar with disrespect. Food shortages continue and Monsieur Faberge who has created many beautiful eggs for Nicholas as gifts to the tsarina at Easter over the years, has fled the country.

Part IV Exile, 1917 tells about the blossoming friendship between Anastasia and Dr. Botkin's son, Gleb while traveling by ship to their place of exile in Tobolsk. They know nothing about what is happening in the war. By the winter of 1918, it's obvious that their situation is desperate and Olga refuses to allow their parents to treat them as children anymore. The new government has ordered the Tsar to Moscow where he is to be put on trial. The Tsar, his valet Trupp, the Empress, her maid Anna Demidova, Marie, and Dr. Botkin will all travel to Moscow.

Part V Fate, 1918 focuses on the Romanov's last few months, essentially picking up the story that was started in the short chapter prior to Part I. Marie, Anastasia, Alexei are reunited with Papa, Mama, Olga and Tatiana in Ekaterinburg and taken to live at Ipatiev House which has been renamed the sinister House of Special Purpose. Their guards are no longer respectful Russians but coarse Bolsheviks who are cruel. Anastasia turns seventeen and is no longer the happy, carefree girl she was before the war. "When I'm frightened -- that's most of the time now -- I retreat to happy memories and try not to think."

Anastasia and Her Sisters is perhaps Meyer's best piece of historical fiction, filled with exceptional detail about the Romanov's everyday life in Russia before the war and their complicated family relationships and connections with the other royal families of Europe and England. The characters of the Tsar Nikolai and Empress Alexandra as well as Olga, Tatiana and Anastasia are well portrayed. However, the reality of life in Russia for the vast majority of Russians is only hinted at. Instead, the Tsar is shown as a sort of benevolent ruler who cares deeply for his people and who believes fully that he has been called by God to rule. With the story told from Anastasia's point of view, this makes perfect sense. As a young girl she would completely believe in the way of life she her family had and they way her father ruled Russia. In the latter part of the novel,  Meyer maintains Anastasia and her family's ignorance of the terrible end planned for them.

The subject matter of this novel is incredibly interesting and the detail Meyer provides her readers may encourage them to do even more research into the Russian royal family. The book is detail driven and therefore is slow through the middle of Part I which is the largest section of the novel. Perhaps the inclusion of photographs of Anastasia and her sisters and brother and maybe their various palaces might have helped the narrative along. Those readers who are interested in a follow up would do well to read The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming which I will be reviewing soon.

Meyers includes a simplified family tree of the Romanovs and a detailed Epilogue at the back of the novel explaining what happened to the Romanov's as well as many of their relatives, maids and tutors.

Readers are encouraged to search online if they wish to research further.
The Alexander Palace website has much information to explore.

Book Details:

Anastasia And Her Sisters by Carolyn Meyer
Toronto: A Paul Wiseman Book        2015
308 pp.

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