Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 29, 2010

Ekaterinburg, by Helen Rappaport

One of the unexpected pleasures of being a tourist who loves museums is the occasional exhibition sourced from some other museum not on the itinerary. So it was in Edinburgh in 2005 when we went to Edinburgh’s splendid new Museum and chanced upon a touring exhibition from the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, about the Romanovs, the Russian Royal family who were executed in 1918 during the Russian Revolution.   This exhibition of mainly photos humanised the history that I knew (which wasn’t much) and as a reminder I bought a pretty little cloisonné peacock which was a replica of a much grander Fabergé one that used to grace the Tsarina’s dressing table.

I knew about the Romanovs because my grandmother’s name was Anastasia.  No doubt this means nothing to today’s teenagers but in my adolescence every elderly lady of that name and born about 1901 could have been the Grand Duchess herself, rumoured to have escaped from the slaughter and to be living in obscurity rather than run the risk of elimination by the still-wicked-Communists.  With the wisdom of hindsight I can now see that no woman who could cook cabbage in such a distinctively British way as my grandmother could possibly have been the incognito Grand Duchess of Russia, but as a romantic adolescent I was intermittently convinced of my royal forebears and was keen to find out more about them.

So naturally, when I came across Ekaterinburg, The Last Days of the Romanovs by Helen Rappaport I was intrigued enough to order it, but was disappointed.

It appears to be well-researched but while there is an impressive bibliography, there are no footnotes or end notes.  In the ‘Notes on Sources’ the author explains:

This book is a synthesis and retelling of a large number of Russian and English sources…It is not a political history, nor does it set out to evaluate the reign of Nicholas II or his vices and virtues as a  monarch.  It seeks to tell the story of the Romanov family within …[their] last 14 days.  It was decided to write the book without the intrusion of footnotes.  The priority was to create a strong historical narrative that did not enter into academic digression or interrupt the story with debate about contentious issues.  (p224)

This means that when the reader comes across something that seems dubious, there’s no way to check the source.  Ok, it’s popular history not a scholarly tome but there’s something vaguely disingenuous about Rappaport’s allusions to ‘difficult-to-locate  Russian-language sources’ – I would have liked to be able to delineate between source material and what Rappaport calls ‘leaps of faith’ to fill in the gaps in the historical record.  An end note or page notes tell me that a scholar can confirm an assertion if s/he wants to, and that the historian is confident about her propositions.  Their absence makes me uneasy.  (Russian Bride at Amazon has the same concerns.)

It’s only a small point, but one example which made me sceptical was the plentiful references to the girls’ ‘increasingly worn and threadbare’ clothes(p18).   This seems highly unlikely.  The family was in custody for 16 months altogether from abdication to execution and dresses don’t wear out in such a short time, especially not when they would have been made with best quality materials in the first place, even if they did wear hand-me-downs as claimed.  What could have been the source for this, and how credible is it, I wondered?

However it was mainly the repetition of the same information that annoyed me most.  At the end of the day there’s only so much that you can write about people who die young, and the padding and repetition goes into overdrive in the chapters about the unfortunate children.  Some of these repetitions are so clumsy they appear only a couple of pages apart, something a competent editor could have fixed.  Over and over we are told about Alexandra’s domineering behaviour, her poor health, about young Alexey’s haemophilia, about Rasputin’s influence on his treatment.  There is some attempt to balance what look like the romantic reminiscences of nostalgic émigrés with commonsense acknowledgement that hormonal girls probably did get cranky with each other, but overall it’s a saccharine picture that idealises this family beyond redemption.

When we get away from what often reads like an amateur family history there’s a lot of wisdom-of-hindsight history of the Russian Revolution. At page 118, I’d had enough.    Too many other enticing books on the TBR to go on with this one, I thought, and whipped over to Wikipedia for a more succinct bio of Anastasia…

DoveGreyReader enthused about this book, and Helen Rappaport has links to a number of appreciative reviews on her blog (scroll to the bottom of the page for the links.)

Author: Helen Rappaport
Title: Ekaterinburg
Publisher: Random House 2008
ISBN: 9780091921163
Source: Personal library


Responses

  1. There’s a couple of Helen Rappaport books around that I want to read – and this is one of those!

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    • I’ll be interested to see what you think of it, Marg!

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  2. I don’t trust books without end notes etc either. How else can you determine what’s “true” and what’s not? It smacks of lazy “journalism” to me.

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  3. If you decide to revisit the subject, I recommend A Romanov Fantasy: Life at the Court of Anna Anderson by Frances Welch. While the story is ostensibly about the “Anastasia Legend” it also goes into the slaughter of the Romanovs, their last days etc.

    I’d always thought (from a distance) that the Anastasia survival story was considered unlikely, but this book showed how nutty the story was. Excellent stuff.

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    • Thanks, Guy, perhaps I might leave it for a while …

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  4. Great review as usual, Lisa – thanks. I don’t care about good, bad or indifferent, you go into detail and specifics. I would be very aggravated to read a supposedly non-fiction book and discover no way to verify the sources – that’s a basic in history – it’s like repeatability in science.

    Anyway, I’ve read about Nicholas and Alexandra since I was a kid – I don’t remember the name of the book my folks had but it piqued my interest in about 7th grade. I studied the history of Russia in college (the Romanovs were not emphasized – lol – but I did to a paper on Rasputin.

    I’d skip this book and maybe pick up “The Fall of the Romanovs
    Political Dreams and Personal Struggles in a Time of Revolution” by Mark D. Steinberg and Vladimir M. Khrustalëv; Russian documents translated by Elizabeth Tucker

    http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/book.asp?isbn=9780300070675

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    • Thanks, Bekah, I reckon I would have loved studying Russian history. It’s so hard to choose which major to do! I did English and Classics, and I loved that but now I’d really like to do Arts and History as well. Maybe when I retire?

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  5. Thankyou for your informative post. I missed it when you first posted it because I did not have internet over Christmas/New Year.

    As you can tell from my post http://stumblingpast.wordpress.com/2011/02/28/footnotes-sneakily-important I also dislike it when an author does not clearly tell the reader when they change from writing a history grounded in verifiable sources to fiction. There is a reciprocal relationship between an author of a history and their readers. The author has to first show that they have done the research carefully by providing evidence of it through footnotes/endnotes. The reader seeing that will then open the book and read it. Without the evidence of research, why should a reader open the book?

    “Leaps of faith” are fine, but only if the author has clearly told the reader when history based on sources turns into fiction.

    You say that the editing of this book is poor. While the author should accept responsibility for the quality of the writing, it would be interesting to explore what role publishers play in ensuring the standards of the histories that they publish are high. Do publishers have a responsibility to ensure their authors produce work of acceptable standards?

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    • There’s been quite some commentary about this in different contexts lately – those fraudulent misery memoirs from the middle east for example raised this issue of the role of the editor in checking authenticity.
      I know the role of the editor has changed and that they are under enormous pressure in these cost-cutting times, but despite that I think they have a responsibility to make sure that a book is readable and coherent, and they should also take some steps to verify that a book purporting to be an authentic history has scholarship behind it. Even if it’s popular history, it’s only a few pages extra at the back to have some end-notes which would give the reader confidence that the book can stand up to scrutiny.

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