The Tsarina’s Daughter, by Carolly Erickson

tsarinaThe Tsarina’s Daughter is a historical novel about the Russian Revolution, told from the viewpoint of Tatiana, one of the four daughters of the last Czar of Russia.  As the story is told in first-person, the presumption of the narrative is that Tatiana survives her family’s execution and escapes to start a new life, allowing her to tell her tale.

Anastasia is, of course, the daughter who was widely (and romantically) believed to have survived the execution of the Romanovs (the bodies of the Tsar, the Tsarina, and three daughters were found in a mass grave, fuelling a century of speculation about the fates of their son, the Tsarevitch Alexei, and the missing daughter). Belief in Anastasia’s survival fuelled hundreds of legends and stories and the careers of numeruos imposters, the most famous of whom was Anna Anderson, whose lifelong claim to be the last Romanov was debunked by DNA evidence ten years after her death.

At first, picking up The Tsarina’s Daughter, I wondered why, if  Erickson wanted to retell the Romanov story, she didn’t do it from the more popular perspective of Anastasia. I think the reason she chose Tatiana (whom no-one has ever seriously claimed survived the massacre, a point Erickson is quite clear about in her afterword) is because, first, there isn’t a lot of mythology and legend already surrounding her, and second, she was four years older than Anastasia, and would have had much clearer memories of the years leading up to the Russian Revolution, experiencing them as a teenager rather than a child.

Tatiana’s fictional escape forms only a tiny part of this story, and her life afterwards is barely mentioned: imagining Tatiana’s survival is really just a way of getting us into the story of the turbulent years from the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905) to the Bolshevik takeover and death of the royal family (1918).  Tatiana describes those years from the perspective of the royal family, but because of a number of adventures in the world outside the palace that Erickson creates for her plucky Grand Duchess heroine, Tatiana also gets a bit of a glimpse into the lives of the workers and the reasons why they are rebelling.

One thing I thought this novel captured very well was the sense that all the royal families of Europe, closely related through intermarriage, really did think of themselves as a large, extended (though quite dysfunctional) family, with “Cousin Willy” (Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany) coming across more as the black sheep of the family than as a completley foreign foe. Thus World War I appears as a large and brutal family quarrel, and the crowned heads of the warring nations feel, even in the midst of war, that they have more in common with each other than they do with the common people of their own countries.  That sense of disconnection from the workers and peasants leads directly to the downfall of Tsar, once seen as the “Little Father” of the Russian people but eventually driven into Siberian exile and then brutally executed.

I happened to pick up this book at the same time as I was teaching the Russian Revolution to my World History class, and it provided an interesting fictionalized perspective on those events.  It didn’t move me as profoundly as reading Robert K. Massie’s non-fictional Nicholas and Alexandra did when I was much younger, but it performed much the same function: puttin g a human face on historical events.

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1 Comment

Filed under Fiction -- historical

One response to “The Tsarina’s Daughter, by Carolly Erickson

  1. This sounds like a book I’d relish . . . I’ve long been a fan of Carolly Erickson’s non-fiction and I was totally obsessed with the last Tsar and his family when in my late teens/early twenties. I didn’t even know this book was out there (or that Erickson had moved into fiction . . . where have I been!??!!?) so thanks for reviewing it!

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