If you know anything of Russian royal history, you likely recognize the acronymn OTMA. It stood for the first initials of the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia–the four daughters of Tzar Nicholas II and his Empress, Alexandra. But what do we know OF them, beyond the cute collective name? Until this book, we knew little beyond what was told of the family as a whole. We knew, for example, that with their mother, they nursed wounded soldiers in World War I and, of course, we knew of their tragic end. While historian Robert K. Massie brought us the harrowing story of their parents and their little brother, Tzarevich Alexi–the hemophiliac whose genetically transmitted illness brought the family to the edge of disaster when Alexanadra befriended Rasputin, little has been written about each of the girls.
Author Helen Rapport writes with the help of documents released after the fall of the Soviet Union and beyond. She brings OTMA alive collectively and individually. The spectre of hemophilia–inherited from Alexandra, thru her mother Princess Alice and Alice’s mother Queen Victoria, was a factor in the plans for their future lives. Would they achieve the marriages a Tzar’s daughter should have? Would things be changed so that Olga, the eldest, would be a regent or, even a become Empress in the tradition of Catherine the Great? Or, if Alexi died, would the throne pass to male relatives.
In the book we learn of the young officers who charmed and entertained the Grand Duchesses. We learn of their daily life, their studies, their devoted and close family life. (Had Nicholas’ “twin” first cousin, George V, learned from his cousin’s devoted fatherhood, British history could have been changed for the better.) I found myself aching for these girls who were forced to live in such strict isolation. I thought instantly of today’s over-shleted, extremely isolated far-right homeschooled girls as I read of this part of their lives. But nature marches on and no matter how isolated the girls grew into young women–young women who liked young men and dreamed of love and happy marriages. And, how amazing for Grand Duchesses, to have grown up with parents who were devotedly in love with each other?
The war, the revolution and the horrible end, showed that these young Grand Duchesses were not mere hot house flowers. They coped, they faced, the endured–dare we say #theypersisted? Yes. Sadly, one daughter (no spoilers) could have survived had she accepted King Carol of Romania. That actually made me cry even though he was certainly no prize as a husband.
Happily, while politics does enter into the story, as does the war, neither takes over the story. Nor are we dealt endless pages of royal history at the start. This is a very good thing for the casual reader.
How do they relate to current royals?
Queen Elizabeth’s Uncle David (later King Edward VIII and later still Duke of Windsor) is at the left next to Tzar Nicholas II, the Queen’s gradfather, King George V has his hands on Tzarevich Alexei at the right. (The Queen’s father was ill and not able to take part in this last State Visit)
To put these girls into a historical perspective that modern royal watchers can grasp, think of this: Had the war not come, any of the four–in fact more than one, could have married Queen Elizabeth’s father and uncles. The Queen’s grandfather was first cousin of both Nicholas and Alexandra. Her grandmother, Queen Alexandra was the near-twin sister of Nicholas’ mother, Empress Maria Feodorovoa.
Had the war not come, King Edward VIII might have reigned until his death in 1972 with Queen Olga or Queen Tatiana by his side. Wallis Simpson would never have been heard of. They would likely have visited with their cousin Emperor Wilhelm III of Germany and his Empress Anastasia, say. The royal sisters would have been like Queen Alexandra and her sister, Empress Marie. And, Prince Louis Francis of Battenberg might have won the beautiful Maria–the cousin he dreamed of marrying long before any thought had to be given to changing Battenbergs into Mountbattens.
When visiting Russia for the first state visit since before World War I, Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth’s husband, is supposed to have replied to the question of if he was happy to be in Russia: “Yes, they killed most of my family, but I’m happy to be here.” His grandmother was Alexandra’s big sister. Philip’s DNA was used to identify the remains of OTMA and their parents. His grandmother’s other sister, Ella [Elizabeth], is now an Holy Martyr of the Russia Orthodox Church–a step on the ladder to Sanithood. [His mother is included in the Rightous Among Nations for sheltering a Jewish family in World War II in Greece, but I’m digressing].
Possibly the most readable Romanov book since Nicholas and Alexandra in 1967. This would make a fabulous period drama-miniseries! And, I’d love to see Jessica Findlay Brown as one of the Grand Duchesses.
The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport