Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia. Like the fingers on a hand—first headstrong Olga, then Tatiana the tallest, Maria most hopeful for a ring, and Anastasia the smallest. These are the daughters of Tsar Nicholas II, grand duchesses living a life steeped in tradition and privilege. They are young women each on the brink of starting her own life. The summer of 1914 is that precious last wink of time when they can still be sisters together—who link arms and laugh, sisters who share their dreams and worries, and who flirt with the officers of their imperial yacht.
But in a gunshot the future changes—for these sisters and for Russia.
As World War I ignites across Europe, political unrest sweeps Russia. First dissent, then disorder, mutiny—and revolution. For Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia, the end of their girlhood collides with the end of more than they ever imagined.
At the same time hopeful and hopeless, naïve and wise, the voices of these sisters become a chorus singing the final song of this great empire. Impeccably researched and utterly fascinating, acclaimed author Sarah Miller recounts the final days of Imperial Russia.
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The Lost Crown
1 August 1917
Our luggage is packed and we’ve said our good-byes. The palace is as dark and still as a museum at midnight, but it’s been hours and the train still isn’t here. No one will tell us when it will come, or where they’re taking us. Even Papa doesn’t know anything. We can only wait in the semicircular hall with Kerensky’s footsteps echoing over the guards’ voices as they whisper.
My sisters and I sit together on a pair of suitcases. If we’ve forgotten to pack anything, it’s already too late—our rooms have all been sealed and photographed. Anyway, Tatiana would say it’s bad luck to return for something you’ve forgotten.
Olga and Tatiana hold hands, and Anastasia dozes against my shoulder. Our younger brother, Aleksei, climbs like a bear cub over the piles of bags and crates. Clutching her rose leaf cushion, Mama follows his every step with her eyes. Papa stands against the wall with one hand on her shoulder. His other hand smoothes his beard over and over again.
Even though it’s been almost five months since the revolution, sometimes I can’t understand how it all happened. I remember Monsieur Gilliard pointing out Russia and all its territories on our classroom map, telling us Papa ruled one-sixth of the world. Now we’re prisoners. Papa says we’re not prisoners, me and my sisters and Aleksei. If we wanted to go, the guards couldn’t stop us. But none of us will ever leave our parents. “We seven,” Mama calls us. No matter what else changes, we will always be we seven.
I can’t even imagine what else is left to change.
Anastasia shifts against me and yawns. “What time is it?”
“Nearly three o’clock,” Tatiana answers.
I screw my eyes shut, nuzzling my shaved head against Anastasia’s shoulder. It can’t be long now, and I want to remember everything, everything before we go….
Imperial yacht Standart
There has never been such a summer! Since sailing from Peterhof, my sisters and I have spent all day on the sunny decks of our dear Standart, playing shuffleboard, roller-skating, dancing, and yes, sometimes flirting with the officers. Of course they kissed our hands when we climbed aboard, but only because we’re the tsar’s daughters. They can’t simply wave hello to a flock of grand duchesses. None of the four of us has had a real kiss, unless one of my sisters has started keeping secrets.
The only dark blot on our trip is Aleksei’s accident. Three days ago our brother bumped his ankle on a rung of the ship’s ladder. Instead of scampering about the decks in his starched sailor suit with his spaniel, the poor darling ended up stranded in bed, the joint twisted and swelling by the minute. Mama’s sent three telegrams to Otets Grigori, hoping the holy man’s prayers will cure our little Sunbeam. In the meantime Anastasia, Tatiana, and I tease our oldest sister, Olga, mercilessly about her matches with Crown Prince Karol of Romania and our cousin David, the prince of Wales. Even the ship’s officers join in.
Clearing her throat, Tatiana straightens up, her hands clasped behind her back. “I am requested by the officers of His Majesty’s yacht Standart to present this card to Her Imperial Highness, the Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna,” she announces, handing over an envelope with a little curtsy.
I peek at Anastasia. Something’s up. We never use our titles among one another, and neither do the officers. Anastasia only shrugs, but you never can tell with her. Our impish little sister could very well be behind this.
Olga pulls a card out of the envelope. “Oh!” she says after hardly a glimpse, her hands flying to her hips. “It was you, wasn’t it, Shvybzik?” she demands, shaking the card at Anastasia.
“Not me,” Anastasia insists, batting her eyelashes before she ducks under Olga’s hand and snatches the card away. She glances at it and snorts with laughter. Behind us, the officers chuckle as Anastasia capers about the deck, waving the card like a banner. Tatiana’s dogs, Jemmy and Ortipo, yip and prance along.
“You all are swine!” Olga declares. I catch Anastasia and read over her shoulder.
The joke’s a good one: a cutout newspaper photo of cousin David’s head pasted on to a picture of Michelangelo’s David. I can’t help hooting right along with Anastasia at the sight of our cousin’s face balanced above all that naked marble.
“Oh, Nastya, what a pair they’ll make! Him stark naked and Olga in the fifteen-pound silver nightgown of a grand duchess, just like Auntie Ksenia had to wear on her wedding night!”
“Humpf,” Olga sniffs at me. “You’re just as much a grand duchess as I am, Mashka, and you’ll be fitted for your own fifteen-pound nightgown one of these days. If only we can find someone willing to marry our fat little Bow-Wow!”
“Of course I’ll marry,” I sing out. “I’ll marry a soldier and have dozens of children.”
“And they’ll be prettier than yours, Olga,” Anastasia pipes up, “because her babies will all have Mashka’s big blue saucer-eyes.” I clasp Anastasia around the waist and peck her cheek. She’s a shvybzik, but she knows my dreams as well as I do.
“Fine,” Olga says, “we can set a banquet table with Mashka’s saucers.”
Tatiana bursts out laughing, and the officers applaud Olga.
At the sound of a sob from Aleksei’s rooms belowdecks, the smile leaves Tatiana’s face. Our giggles dissolve in a heartbeat. We all look at one another, thinking the same thing: That time it sounded like Mama. Suddenly somber, the officers shift their eyes to the deck. Tatiana hurries past them all, her skirts fluttering like sails behind her. Olga follows, and Ortipo, too, before Anastasia and I fall into line, hand in hand and a trifle skittish. Stranded at the top of the stairs, Jemmy whines, her little legs too stubby to follow us down the steps.
We find Tatiana with Mama in the passageway outside Aleksei’s cabin. Mama’s face is pale and her cheeks streaked with tears. As we come closer, she leans her head on Tatiana’s shoulder and closes her eyes. Ortipo whines. Beside me, Anastasia stiffens. “What’s wrong?” she asks.
Tatiana puts a finger to her lips and motions us toward Aleksei’s doorway. “Go in,” she whispers. Her eyes flick down to a rumpled telegram in Mama’s hand. “No one has told him.”
Olga nods and steps inside. I take a breath as Anastasia pulls me along behind her. Nagorny, Aleksei’s dyadka, nods, then shuts the door silently behind us. Our brother’s sailor nanny always makes me relax a little. Having Nagorny nearby is like sitting under a birch tree, he’s so tall and steady in his white sailor suit.
Inside the cool, dim cabin, Joy, Aleksei’s spaniel, thumps his tail at us but doesn’t budge from his place beside our brother’s bunk. Only Aleksei’s eyes stand out from the bed-clothes. His face and hands have begun to turn waxy white. Under the sheet, his ankle bulges, already swollen as big as his knee. The pull of the sheet as Olga sits on the edge of the bed makes him wince. A hollow opens in my chest at the sight of him like that.
“How are you, Sunbeam?” I ask, leaning over to kiss his dear little forehead and slip a candy from my pocket under his pillow.
“Better than yesterday,” he says, his voice as small as his face, “but still swelling.”
Still swelling! If I’d knocked my ankle on that ladder, I’d have no more to endure than an ugly bruise and my sisters’ teasing. Poor Aleksei has lain in bed three days, and the blood is still pooling into the joint.
“Where’s Tatiana?” he asks.
Olga and I look uneasily at each other, but Anastasia springs into action.
“Oh, you know the Governess. She’s probably discussing your lessons with Monsieur Gilliard this very minute.” Anastasia stands on her toes and stretches out her neck to make herself as tall as our regal Tatiana. “Monsieur Gilliard,” she says, addressing me with a twinkle in her eyes, “Aleksei is neglecting his studies. Something must be done.”
“But Tatiana Nikolaevna,” I begin, and as I try to bow, Anastasia takes one of Aleksei’s sailor hats from the bed and pushes its long black ribbon against my upper lip to imitate our tutor’s wide mustache. Aleksei blinks with amusement, and Anastasia presses on.
“Really, Monsieur, he has lolled about in bed three days now. It is positively disgraceful.”
“But surely, Your Highness,” I say, bowing again and gesturing to Aleksei’s bed. But I forget to keep hold of my mustache, and the sailor hat topples to the floor. Olga shakes her head and rolls her eyes, but Anastasia keeps up the charade.
“My dear monsieur,” she huffs, “that will be quite enough. I see I have overestimated you. A man who cannot even keep track of his own mustache simply cannot be capable of educating the next tsar of the Russias. You are dismissed!”
I let my head fall to my chest and make my way to the door.
Anastasia yanks the hat from the carpet and holds it out to me, one ribbon pinched between two fingers with her pinkie sticking out a mile. “And take this with you. I will not have discarded mustaches lying about the tsarevich’s bedroom!”
Aleksei smiles, a real smile this time, and bursts into applause. Olga joins in after an instant, while Anastasia and I hold hands and curtsy.
At that very moment, Monsieur Gilliard himself appears in the doorway, his arms full of our brother’s favorite storybooks. Aleksei explodes with laughter, and the pinch of happiness inside my chest splits open like a firecracker. Anastasia turns white for a flash, then grabs me by the arm and pulls me straight under Monsieur’s mustache and into the corridor, slamming the door on our tutor’s bewildered face. Despite Mama’s startled glance and Tatiana’s glare, I can’t help wrapping my arms around my clown of a little sister with a hug that lifts her from her feet. Even though I know something dreadful has happened, for that moment, the only thing I can think of is that I love Anastasia best of all.