Thursday, 7 March 2013

The Romanovs And Me

The early signs of spring are here—the buds and early flowers, birdsong in the lighter mornings and an undefined scent in the air, heavy with promise. This new energy has given me the impetus to complete a job I’ve been putting off for ages—sorting through my late mother’s books and ordering some of them in the bookcase I’d moved downstairs. It sounds a simple, even enjoyable job, but was so charged with emotion that I’d put off decanting these particular few boxes throughout the long, dark months of winter.

Winston Churchill, the Mountbattens, Gertrude Jekyll, the Pre-Raphaelites…those who led or created were my mother’s thing. But her great love was the lives of the Romanovs, as the scores of books, some obscure, others more general, on the topic bear witness. I’m not sure how my mother’s interest in Russia’s last imperial rulers was piqued, but it was passionate and lifelong. Framed portraits of the last Tsar Nicholas II and his family are dotted around our house, hoodwinking visitors into believing that they were our own distant relations.
Our family photos
Russia has long fascinated me, too—the diversity of its people and cultures, its enormity, the vast open plains, the remoteness, the fairytale architecture of St Petersburg, the language…but it’s been a long-distance love affair as it’s not until I began sorting my mother’s books that I’ve really started to get to know the place and some of the famous people associated with it.

I’ve resolved this spring to work my way through the books and find out more about my extended Russian family, though it’s a daunting task to know where to begin. The House of Romanov reigned over Russia from 1613 until 1917, when Tsar Nicholas II abdicated during the February Revolution. The Tsar and his family—the Tsarina Alexandra and their children Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia and Alexei—were put under house arrest near St Petersburg, then later sent to Tobolsk in Siberia, where they lived in relative comfort, and perhaps hope. Finally they were sent to the ominously-named House of Special Purpose in Ekaterinburg in the Urals, where they were executed on 17 July 1918. The fact that the White Army (opposers to the ruling Bolsheviks) regained control of Ekaterinburg only days later adds poignancy to the tale.

Often with a daunting task it helps to start with pictures rather than words, and it’s a delight to pore over the many volumes containing both official photographs and family snapshots.

Formal portraits show the Tsar as he was often described: thoughtful, dutiful and with a natural warmth. The Tsarina, too, lives up to her image—distant, haughty maybe, and reserved. Hardly surprising, though, that she may have appeared a little disconnected. Before her marriage, the Tsarina, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, was Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine. On her marriage to Nicholas she left her native Germany, converted to Russian Orthodoxy and took the name Alexandra Feodorovna, and so took on a new culture, religion and identity all at once.

There are delightful portraits of the imperial children, a young Tsarevich Alexei as feminine as his four beautiful sisters, dressed in a white lacy robe and with curls cascading to his shoulders. Happy photographs show the children pre-revolution, enjoying a rather formal picnic at a dining table set on a carpet, liveried servants on standby, or playing with Jimmy, their pet spaniel.
Tsar Nicholas II and his family
It’s the snapshots taken by the Tsar himself that, of course, are the most revealing for their intimacy. Alexei posing with his arm round the guard who was later to disown the family. The Tsarina wearing the cross given to her by Grigori Rasputin, the self-styled mystic and healer and her closest advisor, posing in front one of the lavish bouquets he sent to her daily. A shot of the crowds of presumably thousands who greeted the royal train as it pulled into a station somewhere. A signed photo of Olga posing seriously in medieval Russian costume wearing an elaborate tiara. The picture was found pinned to the wall of the Tsar’s room in Ekaterinburg after the assassination. Photos taken on the first part of their exile in Tobolsk—Tatiana and Olga posing happily in fashionable summer dresses from Paris. Later in the exile, a portrait of Marie, Alexei, Tatiana and Olga shows the girls in more simple dress and the Tsarevich in uniform, all looking weary and worn-down.
It’s fascinating to flick through these photos as if they were any other family portraits—to decipher who resembled whom, to wonder how differently our lives have turned out and to dwell a little with the sad burden of hindsight. Some of the portraits are as familiar to me as our own family pictures—I’ve passed them every day for years, glancing across at them every now and again on my mother’s treasured bookcase. But now, energised by the acuity of loss, I resolve to really get to know the story of these people I’ve shared a house with for so long—my family, the Romanovs.


  1. As ever, a truly wonderful blog, my dear Emma. There is a belief, held by some, that we are drawn to specific people in history because we were close to them, or maybe even were them, in previous lives. I have similar affinities, as your mother had with the Romanovs, with Robert Dudley, Robert Catesby and King Cnut and Hereward the Wake...and my mother has been a life long banner waver for King Harold Godwin. As an historian, it has always intrigued me why some periods of antiquity draw me in as if under a spell, while others leave me cold - so there may be something to the theory. Interestingly, the majority of the historical figures who set my pulse racing at the mere mention of their name, are from the Neville family - down the line of John of Gaunt. Incredibly, some years ago, whilst trying to prove a family myth that my great, great grandmother was a gypsy I discovered that it was indeed just a myth; in reality she was a Neville, from the Kent line, and directly descended from Edward III via John of Gaunt and I was indeed related to the majority of my historical heroes, even Hereward the Wake! So, go seek, my dear, dear Emma - who knows what you might find :) x

    1. Thank you, dearest Janis, or should I say Your Royal Highness given your credentials! Wow, your family research has turned out to be revelatory! Yes, perhaps I should have a look and see if there are any Russians in my family tree...d'you know, it's funny, someone just the other day remarked on my resemblance to the Grand Duchess Tatiana *flicks hair in a self-important manner*...