The Romanov Empress by CW Gortner
Published: July 2018
Genre: historical fiction
Narrated by the mother of Russia’s last tsar, this vivid, historically authentic novel brings to life the courageous story of Maria Feodorovna, one of Imperial Russia’s most compelling women who witnessed the splendor and tragic downfall of the Romanovs as she fought to save her dynasty in the final years of its long reign.
Barely nineteen, Minnie knows that her station in life as a Danish princess is to leave her family and enter into a royal marriage–as her older sister Alix has done, moving to England to wed Queen Victoria’s eldest son. The winds of fortune bring Minnie to Russia, where she marries the Romanov heir and becomes empress once he ascends the throne. When resistance to his reign strikes at the heart of her family and the tsar sets out to crush all who oppose him, Minnie–now called Maria–must tread a perilous path of compromise in a country she has come to love.
Her husband’s death leaves their son Nicholas as the inexperienced ruler of a deeply divided and crumbling empire. Determined to guide him to reforms that will bring Russia into the modern age, Maria faces implacable opposition from Nicholas’s strong-willed wife, Alexandra, whose fervor has lead her into a disturbing relationship with a mystic named Rasputin. As the unstoppable wave of revolution rises anew to engulf Russia, Maria will face her most dangerous challenge and her greatest heartache.
From the opulent palaces of St. Petersburg and the intrigue-laced salons of the aristocracy to the World War I battlefields and the bloodied countryside occupied by the Bolsheviks, C. W. Gortner sweeps us into the anarchic fall of an empire and the complex, bold heart of the woman who tried to save it.
What an absorbing read! My understanding of Romanov history is pretty slim — the gist that the Russians (specifically the Bolsheviks) were upset with their poverty and the Romanov’s excess, tore down the monarchy, and established communism, which is great in theory but not in practice. I remember my travels to Russia in 2004 reflecting that juxtaposition of wealth and poverty, all the glorious palaces and churches bursting with gold and light, and the dirty, gray-and-brown streets, transportation, skies, and downtrodden people. So many elements from the last hundred years of the Romanov dynasty are still very much part of the Russian political system today, such as censorship, oppression, and the KGB (and its successors) for example.
This slim understanding of Romanov and Russian history was perfectly fine, as the book details about sixty of the final years of the Romanov dynasty, all that happened, what led to the uprising, and the state of Europe at that time. The Romanov Empress follows Maria (or Dagmar, as she’s known in Denmark) as a teenager and ends shortly after her son Tsar Nicholas II is shot. She becomes the daughter-in-law to Alexander II, who freed the serfs but didn’t have the foresight to provide homes and jobs. He was assassinated, and Maria’s husband Sasha (Alexander III) ruled. He was beloved, but he also lived in fear of the sect responsible for killing his father — thus creating a police system to track down and execute naysayers.
Meanwhile, Maria would hard to show the Russian people the Romanov family cared about their people, the land, their country. She worked in hospitals and established agencies for women and children. Unrest continued — and when Nicholas II took the throne, Maria was devastated by his choice of bride. And I was too. Alexandra was an annoying, arrogant, manipulative, pretentious, horrible woman, who seemed shy and weak at first but proved to be incredibly overpowering as well as gullible. If Nicholas had a backbone, or if Alexandra weren’t his wife, I think the Romanovs would certainly still be on the throne, with a Parliament as intended by Alexander II, today.
I was immersed in this novel, and after every engaging chapter I’d look up the people mentioned, the events that took place, the surrounding events in Europe, and found myself falling down an absorbing rabbit hole of complex history. The Romanov Empress is well-researched, a fascinating biographical historical fiction through the eyes of the wife and mother of two drastically different tsars, and all that led to the family’s downfall and the rise of Lenin.