The Romanov Empress by C.W. Gortner
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
This engaging historical novel about the life of Tsarina Maria Feodorovna, neé Princess Dagmar of Denmark, evocatively captures the last seven decades of the Russian Romanov dynasty. Dagmar, who went by the nickname Minnie, came from relatively humble beginnings in life, a strong contrast to the life she led when she married Tsarevich Alexander Alexandrovich. Prior to the Russian Revolution, she had been one of the wealthiest women in the world. Minnie, or more formally Princess Marie Sophie Frederikke Dagmar of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, was born into an impoverished royal-blooded family in Denmark. One of six children, when her family was raised to rule in Denmark she saw the entire family's fortunes change in less than a decade, as she and her siblings married into or were appointed to powerful royal houses of Europe. Closest to her sister Alix, who married Bertie, Prince of Wales and son of Queen Victoria, and related to most of the great royal houses of Europe, Minnie lived a truly incredible life. During the course of her life in Russia, she saw the country descend into disaster and revolution.
Fiercely loyal and a family person, Minnie endured considerable personal loss, beginning with the untimely death of her beloved fiancé Tsarevich Nixa, to whom she was happily engaged, prior to marrying his younger brother, Grand Duke Alexander, who later became Tsar Alexander III. Minnie went on to raise five children to adulthood, including her firstborn son, the ill-fated Nicholas II. With her powerful charisma and socially adept nature, Minnie had helped smooth over some of the problems of the revisionist reign of her husband Tsar Alexander III, a conservative leader who reversed a number of liberal reforms of his predecessor-father. His death after only thirteen years as tsar placed Nicholas II at the head of the Romanov trainwreck. While he initially took his mother's advice in the early years of his reign, he eventually supplanted her with his somewhat unstable wife Alexandra as his chief advisor, spelling disaster for the Romanov line. Minnie lived to see all of her sons (her son George Alexandrovich died in a vehicle accident in 1899, and her remaining sons Tsar Nicholas II and Grand Duke Misha Alexandrovich who were cruelly murdered by the Bolsheviks), along with her grandchildren from Nicholas die before her, her own exile into penury, and a country she had loved for fifty years descend into the chaos of revolution.
The story of Maria Feodorovna is truly epic in its scope. While I had some trouble with the early parts of the book dealing with royals marrying for love versus duty (honestly, wasn't it way more duty than love for women marrying into these Royal European families?), the story of the last Romanovs is so gripping that you get swept away by Minnie's amazing and ultimately tragic life. This was a stirring and well-researched novel.
By the way, I do have to say that looking at photos of Dagmar and Nixa (left) versus Dagmar and Sasha (right), you can't help but feel that there was great reciprocity and fondness between the former star-crossed pair. Her sadness over Nixa's loss is captured poignantly in this novel. Still, a year and a half later, her family had her packed off to St. Petersburg to marry his brother Sasha. Duty called.
I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from NetGalley and Ballantine Books, as well as a paper review copy, in exchange for an honest review.
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