Book Review by Bud Gundy
I first read this book 20 years ago, when a dear friend recommended it with the promise of a story I’d never forget. She was right. She was right about so many things, but that’s another story.
I recently re-read this book and it was just as engrossing as I remember.
The Grand Duchess in question was Maria Pavlovna (known by intimates her entire life as Marie). She was the Tsar’s cousin, and in the bloated monarchies of pre World War I Europe, that was close enough to earn her the style of “Imperial Highness” and bring her into the world on a cushion of privilege and comfort.
When she was not yet two years old, her younger brother Dmitri was born, and her mother died as a result of childbirth. Thus was forged one of those sibling bonds that raises eyebrows and carries a suggestion of unsavory possibilities, but is in reality almost certainly nothing more than the excessive and desperate love of a sister so set apart from the real world that she clung her entire life to the one person who fully understood her own isolation, however gilded.
After her father was banished from Russia for re-marrying without the Tsar’s permission, Marie and her brother were raised by an aunt and uncle, Serge and Ella, a regal couple that by her own description share that peculiar bent for obsessive concentration on their own neurosis, an apparently common affliction for those who grow up surrounded by scraping obedience. She describes her uncle as almost fanatical in his love for the children, jealous even of their playmates, while her beautiful, ethereal aunt devoted herself to jewels and fashion.
A bomb would change everything.
In her early years, Marie was shielded from the knowledge of the revolutionary forces afoot in Russia, although the dark reality is so pervasive it makes itself known in small but sinister ways, even to a girl who spends her life behind palace walls.
While living in a palace on the grounds of the Kremlin itself, she and her brother heard the bomb that assassinated her uncle as he left for a meeting. The explosion was powerful enough to send her life reeling off into unimaginable directions.
This change of course wasn’t evident at first, and like other royal princesses of the day she found herself engaged at 16 to a Swedish prince, William – a man she had met earlier that day. The wedding photo in the book shows the young couple on their wedding day, awkwardly standing apart, bedecked in robes, jewels and ribbons. The stiff formality might be expected, but the apprehension and tight smiles are impossible to miss. It is a photo almost comical in its ironic contrasts of wary faces and regal splendor, and the royal trappings fail utterly to hide the unhappy reality, giving the impression of a couple in Halloween costumes.
Her description of life as a Swedish princess is a ripping yarn, full of the playful antics corrupted by unblinking public attention. But there her stories are oddly empty of emotion, and even the birth of her son, a cause of national celebration, is treated in an offhand manner. Indeed, she devotes more time to her art classes than to her relationship to her son, and it is no surprise that the marriage falls apart and she goes to the strenuous effort to secure a divorce that was much frowned-upon. She is circumspect about the reasons for her deep unhappiness, but my own online research reveals that she told various friends that her husband was having affairs with men.
She returns to Russia just before the start of World War I, and joins the Red Cross to train as a nurse. It’s fascinating to read about her adventures in hastily prepared hospitals in the early months of the war and she claims to have pitched in with everybody else, engaging in the most menial work. Of course, her identity is often discovered and she claims to be shocked and horrified when various actors who had treated her normally at first find out she is a princess and thereafter strain with the etiquette that she reliably disdains.
But her royal connections always intrude, most especially when the war turns disastrous for Russia. Here her story takes an epic turn, when Rasputin (the mystic who was hated the length and breadth of Russia except in the rarified confines of the Emperor’s house) is murdered and her brother Dmitri is implicated in the plot. While the Russian public cheers his death, the Imperial reaction of punishing the killers by exile and banishment destroys the rationale. In the end, Rasputin’s murder hastened the revolution by cementing the impression that the Tsar and Tsaritsa were alien beings, the only people in the land to mourn the man known as the mad monk.
When revolution comes, the change in her standing with the public is instantly clear to Marie, and her authority soon collapses. While her immediate co-workers have spent nearly three years observing her work ethic and her fearless efforts in miserable conditions, everyday soldiers and civilians have no such experience to fall back on. The terror for her family mounts as the Bolsheviks take power and every last comfort is taken away.
She marries again and gives birth to another son, but events soon force her to flee Russia in fear of her life. The story is gripping and filled with tension, but her memoirs end abruptly soon after her escape.
I’m thankful for the internet, where I was finally able to answer many nagging questions about her life that she avoided in the book, such as her first husband’s homosexuality. She was known for the rest of her life as an aloof woman and her Swedish son claimed that he barely knew her and that their few meetings as adults were awkward and strained. She moved from place to place, including New York City where she wrote this memorable and fascinating memoir, but one suspects that she was always a person who lived in excruciating isolation, a lifelong result of coming of age cosseted in a corrupted monarchy that was dying even as she was born.