My fascination with the Romanovs began in 1995, although it lay dormant for twenty years. In 1995 The New Yorker magazine published a piece on the forensic and DNA identification of the nine bodies found in a forest in the Urals near the Russian city of Ekaterinburg close to the boundary between Europe and Asia. In his article “The Last Romanov Mystery” author Robert K. Massie compellingly told the story of Tsar Nicholas and his family’s last night, their brutal execution, hasty burial, removal and reburial, and eventual exhumation and identification 73+ years later. The horrific and gripping details—bullets bouncing off the Grand Duchesses because they had sewn jewels into their corsets—made a lasting impression, as did the account of one of the daughters waking up from unconsciousness and crying out in pain amid the corpses of her family being loaded onto a truck. Compelling and grisly. What impressed me the most was the author’s explanation of the scientific evidence in a detailed yet accessible manner which was comprehensible to laypersons like myself. I renewed my New Yorker subscription for several years based on the strength of this piece alone.
It was the history and science which interested me; I’ve never gone gaga over royalty. I’d had zero desire to see the 1997 animated film Anastasia which I knew would be romanticized drivel. Fast forward ~16 years. At the time of my conversion to the Orthodox Church—a non-Russian jurisdiction I might add—my priest informed me that Tsar Nicholas and his family were saints, and I respectfully concealed my skepticism. It was only this past July, upon reading about the Feast Days for the Romanovs, that I began to understand why they were considered saints, and then I became completely captivated with the Grand Duchess Maria.
Grand Duchess Maria 1914. Photo from Wikimedia.
In Russia, the royal family is considered Passion-Bearers, those who face death in a Christ-like manner, although some recognize them also as martyrs. Whatever his flaws personal and political, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated for the good of his country; he choose to stay in Russia to share the suffering of his people. Later, when he tried to emigrate, it was too late. Fate slowly tightened around him and his family. (An example of an English passion-bearer is King Edward the Martyr.)
One religious website describes the Grand Duchess Maria as having “the rare quality of being perfectly happy in any surroundings, even when the family was imprisoned in Tobolsk.” Because of this good nature, “she was chosen by her parents to accompany them when they were forced to separate from the family and embark upon their last fateful journey to Ekaterinburg” (Sheniloff). I took a special interest in Maria—I have a history of depression amidst life trials less challenging than the horrors of political imprisonment—and I set out to learn to the truth about the Grand Duchess. Was her good temperament actual, or a religious gloss? I had to know. Thus began my quest into the Romanovs.
Helen Rappaport’s The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg was as compelling as the original The New Yorker article. She devotes a chapter to each of the key players—the four daughters are combined in one chapter—and the reader learns about Tsaritsa (Empress) Alexandra’s genealogy as Queen Victoria’s granddaughter and her marriage to the Tsar; some reasons for Tsar Nicholas’ ineffective reign; the tremendous courage of the Doctor and other household servants who accompanied the royal family; and why the family was executed at that point in time: the Czech army and the pro-monarchy White Russian army was advancing on Ekaterinburg and closing in three miles away. Rappaport confirms that third-daughter Maria “seemed easily contented with very little, having no complaints about the family’s quiet life [under arrest] in Tobolsk.” The author also verifies that Maria was “patient” and “stoic,” a natural caregiver for her oft-indisposed mother and her hemophiliac brother Alexey, the heir. She alone initially accompanied the Tsar and Tsaritsa as they were moved from Tobolsk to what would become their final prison and execution site, the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg (81). [Tsarevich Alexey was ill and couldn’t travel, and the rest of the family joined them later.] Rappaport also addresses in brief their 2000 canonization and the founding of the Church on the Blood at the execution site; her book is copywritten 2008, before the identification of the bodies of Alexey and Maria, who were buried separately from the main mass grave.
Of particular interest to religious readers will be Rappaport’s description of the family’s final liturgy, a service called the obednitsa, a shorter liturgy-without-communion typically offered to soldiers in the field. When the serving deacon came to the part of the service commemorating the dead—“ ‘With the saints give rest, O Christ, to the soul of your servant where there is neither pain, nor sorrow, nor suffering but life everlasting’ ”— he was compelled to chant rather than speak it, and the entire family “had all silently fallen to their knees” (162). They recognized their likely approaching death, and turned to God in their last days as they had throughout their entire lives.
The Church on the Blood (Ekaterinburg, Russia), the church built on the Romanovs’ execution site. Note the photos of the imperial family posted on the church. Photo from Wikimedia
I remember being a little girl of 4 or 5 when my father compared me to Sesame Street’s Oscar-the-Grouch. It seems I’ve always been grumpy. Lately I’ve been thinking about Grand Duchess Maria. If she can be cheerful throughout house arrest, surely I can learn to stop complaining. An Atlantic article suggests that kindness is a muscle we can strengthen. Grand Duchess Maria is someone I aspire to emulate: I have recently taken Maria Nikolaevna Romanova as my patron saint.
To think it all started with a The New Yorker article.
- New Yorker author Robert Massie won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Biography for his book Peter the Great: His Life and World.
- Helen Rappaport has also written a 2014 book about the Romanovs, The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra.
For Additional Reading
Maria Romanov: Grand Duchess Maria Niklaevna of Russia
Massie, Robert K. “The Last Romanov Mystery.” The New Yorker. Vol. No. August 21 & 28, 1995, p. 72 – 95.
Rappaport, Helen. The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg. N.Y.: St. Martin’s Press, 2008.
Sheniloff, Matushka Natalia. “Russia’s Crown Jewels: The Child-Martyrs.” Orthodox America [Newspaper]. Vol. XVI, No.6 (146), February1997, pp. 8 & 10. Posted online at http://www.serfes.org/royal/child-martyrs.htm