Just finished “The Romanov Bride“, which I really liked. The book is written from two voices that alternate by chapters: the female voice of Ella, the eponymous princess and Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna; and the male voice of Pavel, a peasant who moves from the countryside to St. Petersburg and becomes a revolutionary.
Ella was born a princess, grand daughter of Queen Victoria and while the chapter opens by saying that she was not raised in a life of luxury as the duchy was not a rich one, that appears to be just a simple relativism at play. But when diphtheria struck her family, killing her younger sister and her mother, then her words of not living a life of luxury have more impact. When she is twenty years old, Ella is married to the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia and becomes Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna of Russia. As the strikes and demands for political reforms grew stronger in Russia, the Grand Duke Sergei, who is the Governor General of Moscow, became very unpopular, and is ultimately killed by a terrorist bomb inside Kremlin at the hands of revolutionary Kalyayev. At the time of this tragedy, Ella chooses to start her hospital and ultimately becomes a nun at a convent that is established by the Tsar in an imperial decree. She sells off all her personal riches and jewels to support her mission and the chosen path of religion and spirituality. As the country deteriorates into mayhem and revolution, she rises in her spiritual endeavors, and is able to love everyone and everything, and is able to serve those in need.
Pavel’s story generally flows in quite a different direction. After her wife and unborn child are killed in a bloody Sunday when the peasants wanted to give a petition to the Tsar, Pavel is consumed with the fire of revenge, and this fire slowly corrodes his conscience until he finally becomes a shell of a man who no longer recognizes himself or his purpose in the revolution.
One of the fascinating elements of this story is to discern what is fact and what is fiction. The princess’ background, the grand duke and the politics is of course all factual, so is Sergei’s murder by Kalyayev. Even the episode in which Grand Duke escapes when a revolutionary hesitates upon seeing him in company of his wife and two children is factual. All that said, the very existence of the narrator Pavel may be fictional, as a human face of the peasants. His persona is an exaggerated version of the well accepted premise that the peasants rose in arms to the revolution, without realizing that the violent revolution and communism was very unlikely to improve their lives. The exaggeration in case of Pavel of course is that he himself is killed by communists for speaking out against his superior, an act very similar to the one that killed his beloved wife Shoura.
The book begins and ends in a Russian gulag near the white sea, where Pavel is awaiting his death sentence and in a way joins the lives of the two narrators in terms of the finality of death and the judgment that awaits them. From Pavel’s own perspective, he has lived a life of sin, while the grand duchess has lived a saintly life. He owes her a confession, but while she is gone, a priest “Father Vladimir” listens to his confession.
Overall, excellent book, and especially for people such as myself who were not so familiar with the Russian history during the 1905-1917 years, this book is very interesting. Highly recommended.