Friday, March 4, 2022

The Power of Family

In these troubled times, with Russia launching a military attack against neighboring Ukraine in a misguided attempt to restore—literally or figuratively—the Slavic portion of the old Soviet empire, it seems like a strange coincidence that my latest New Books in Historical Fiction interview explores the disintegration of that Soviet empire’s predecessor and the early days of Bolshevik power. But this is, in fact, part of the complex history of Russia’s relationship with its neighboring states and, more broadly, with Europe. So the subject of this novel, conceived at least two years ago, is more pertinent to the present than it may appear at first glance.

The history of the Russian Revolution, including the assassination of Emperor Nicholas II and his wife and children, has been so thoroughly researched that spoilers are not really possible. But what Bryn Turnbull does in The Last Grand Duchess is to focus in on the Romanovs as a family—their strengths and weaknesses, their conflicts and desires, and above all their deep and lasting devotion to one another even as events spin out of their control. Although elements of the story are fictional, as one would expect, Turnbull hews pretty close to the facts, and in doing so she both raises questions—suppose the daughters had married foreign princes before the revolution?—and offers explanations of otherwise troubling points in their history (why the emperor and empress did not send their children out of the country when that was still possible, for example).

Above all, she individualizes the five younger members of the family, who have at times been caricatured as the sick princeling Alexei and an undifferentiated OTMA, comprising the four daughters. She also manages to produce a balanced and convincing portrayal of Rasputin. So although you probably know how the story ends, read the novel anyway. And as we work our way through another episode of imperial overreach, you may even find it eerily prescient.

As usual, the rest of this post comes from the New Books Network.

Interest in the events leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917 has only increased since the centenary of the Romanovs’ assassination in 1918. Bryn Turnbull tackles this familiar story from the perspective of Emperor Nicholas’s eldest daughter, Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna (1895–1918).

The novel opens with a prediction, made on the day of Olga’s birth, that the infant grand duchess would “not live to see thirty.” From there it moves to 1907, when the young heir to the throne, Tsarevich Alexei, is on the brink of death due to uncontrolled bleeding, the result of his hereditary hemophilia. Enter Grigori Rasputin, who enacts a miracle cure, saving the boy’s life and earning himself the undying gratitude of the desperate empress.

With this central conflict established—including the secrecy maintained around the nature of Alexei’s illness for as long as he remained heir to the throne—we shift forward in time to Nicholas II’s abdication in March 1917. The two stories of the revolution and the years that preceded it intertwine, with accounts of Olga at parties or nursing during World War I interspersed between chapters detailing the increasing confinement of the family after the revolution, from the Alexander Palace in Petrograd to a house in Siberia, then their transfer to the mansion in Ekaterinburg where the assassination took place.

Olga makes a compelling narrator, old enough to see what’s going on and have opinions about it but young enough to enjoy life, whether that means flirting at her coming-out party, chatting with a handsome wounded army officer, or riding a sled down Snow Mountain, a structure built by her and her siblings at the interim house in Tobol’sk. She is intensely family-focused, devoted to Russia, and charmingly naive due to her sheltered upbringing. Indeed, if one thing comes through in this richly described and thoughtful novel, it is the love of Nicholas II, his wife, and his children for one another—even if their insistence on staying together dooms them all.

Many factors, of course, lay behind the Russian Revolution, and The Last Grand Duchess hints at poverty, disillusionment, the massive casualties of the Great War, and Bolshevik determination as well as Nicholas’s limitations as a ruler, Alexandra’s shortcomings, Rasputin’s ambition, and the “ministerial leapfrog” to which those failings gave rise. But the strength of fiction lies in its ability to draw us into the minds and hearts of a small group of people, and in this case, that group is Olga and her immediate family. It’s a journey well worth taking.

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