The Romanov Bride
by Robert Alexander
(Viking, 24.95) ISBN 978-0-6700-1881-9
****
For thirty years, Robert Alexander has traveled in and studied the history of Russia. Apparently, his primary interests lay during the Revolution, for all three of his novels have taken place during the end of the tsarist era. Romanov representatives, historians, and fiction lovers alike have praised his works, and I am happy to agree with them.  It has to be said that the first two, The Kitchen Boy and Rasputin's Daughter, moved along a lot more quickly.  As with the previous two novels, Alexander has approached the story from several perspectives - this time from first-hand viewpoint of the Grand Duchess Elisavyeta (Ella), alternating with that of peasant revolutionary, Pavel.

Like her sister, the Empress Alexandra, Ella came from Germany already a princess, granddaughter of England's Queen Victoria.  For twenty years, she played the role of the royal Romanov wife perfectly.  However, the assassination of her husband, Grand Duke Sergei, uncle to the Tsar, Ella finally has the opportunity to think for herself ... and embark on a journey into a world from which for so long she had been forbidden.  

As a royal's subservient wife, Ella was pampered and largely ignored aside from the attention she got as one of Europe's most beautiful women.  As that royal's widow, she launches into the good works she had always felt were so important.  Selling her own worldly goods and distributing the rest between a family that strongly discourages her, she establishes a convent and becomes a nun.  Her convent includes a hospital and an orphanage and is open to anyone in need of aid.

Although, during this time, the royals and nobles are clearly not the public's favorite people (the Tsar had a brief resurgence at the beginning of WWI, but it only lasted until the high casualty statistics started rolling in), Ella managed to be loved amongst many, even the lowest of peasants.  There are times when her German heritage gets in the way, but she was one of the last Romanovs arrested, and was later martyred for all that she had accomplished.

Pavel comes at things from an entirely different angle.  He starts off naive and hopeful, but when his wife and unborn child are massacred during the Bloody Sunday killings at the palace, he quickly takes a downward turn.  Immediately joining the radicals who want to kill the entire Romanov family and establish Communism, he makes it a personal mission to do just that, and is involved over the years with a number of Romanov and official deaths.  All along you get the feeling from him that his conscience doesn't approve - every once in a while there's still shines some idealism through the grime of his soul, which makes him such a truly human character.  He feels tied to Ella and her death, since he had a hand in Sergei's death and was the one to push her into the mineshaft that would be her grave.  He, like many others, came to love and respect her for her thoughts and deeds, but went ahead with the revolutionary scheme, even relocating to be her guard just to be closer to her when she's eventually arrested.

The book begins and ends at a Russian gulag, where Pavel has been sentenced to death and is working alongside a priest. Pavel's part of the story is basically his confession, and that shadows beautifully Ella and her saintly but not preachy ways.  The passion each feels for their chosen path is astounding and bleeds through every word.  The fact that Ella comes from a life of wastefulness and pride and morphs into the Matushka of a convent also contrasts sharply with Pavel's life, which started out in sweetness and faith and pitches into slaughter and finally prison.  There is more depth to Pavel's story because he is so much more energetic and, let's face it, he suffered considerably more. The peasants did have it rough in Russia and most were too undereducated to realize that the violent path they were taking didn't solve many problems.  The reader learns to hate Pavel at times, especially for his methods and his vindictiveness - mostly for the vindictiveness.  Pavel's revolutionary outlook does not come from patriotism or creativity or oppression; he helps to bring down an empire, a family, and an entire country out of spite, and doesn't even realize until too late that he regrets it.

Although reading the story from two sides is fascinating, the best part of The Romanov Bride is how, despite the obvious differences between the two characters, their ends, and their states of mind at the time, are so similar. Alexander, as usual, has recreated a world, while completely avoiding romanticizing it, that has long fascinated anyone with an imagination.  It's also tying into current events, considering the recent identification of the remains of the missing two of the Tsar's children.

This is not an easy read or a quick one, and it will leave the reader with as many questions as answers, so it will not appeal to everyone.  However, I do think it will appeal to some who do not necessarily read historical fiction, simply because it is based very strongly on true events and oftentimes is even taken from existing documents of the time.

--Sarrah Knight


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