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Grand Duchesses of the Romanovs' Fallen Empire

Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia. Historian Helen Rappaport has called the four sisters “The Princess Dianas of their day.” They were featured on calendars, postcards, magazines, boxes of chocolate, and widely photographed for official purposes, as in the picture on the left.


These were young women of privilege, but their freedom was limited by their position as daughters of the tsar. They were isolated from other young women their age, as well as young men outside of tightly controlled court and family acquaintances.


In formal depictions, the sisters were grouped together and their image carefully curated. They were sweet, well-tempered daughters of a loving father. This had political implications for Nicholas. The tsar was the father of the people, or at least this was the official line of tsarist Russian elites: the belief that the people viewed the tsar as their "little father" who had their best interests at heart. By this logic, a good father to four fine daughters must also be a kind and just ruler.

Recent work by historians like Helen Rappaport and Helen Azar has recaptured more of the inner lives of these young women. The photo on the right was taken while the sisters were hunting for mushrooms during a vacation off the coast of Finland. While the girls are dressed alike, they show more of their personalities. Maria looks coy and happy, Anastasia mischievous, Olga strikes a pose as though she might be in charge. Even Tatiana, the tallest and hidden in back, seems true to life as she was said to be the most reserved of the four, more of an introvert like her mother.


When WWI prompted their entry into nursing, Olga and Tatiana reportedly fell in love with soldiers convalescing at the hospital where they worked. And they acquired a sense of what it meant to be an independent woman in a rapidly changing world.

Which led me to wonder: what would have happened to the Romanov sisters had they lived to see that world?

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