A grim follow-up to Alexander’s other novels about the twilight of the Romanovs (Rasputin’s Daughter, 2006, etc.).
In this reverent account of the life of Grand Duchess Elisavyeta (known as Ella), her point of view alternates with that of Pavel, a peasant turned Red turned Gulag detainee, whose path crossed Ella’s at crucial points in her doomed existence. A German granddaughter of Queen Victoria, Ella marries Sergei, the uncle of Tsar Nikolai II. Ella’s sister Alexandra weds the Tsar. Grand Duke Sergei, a homosexual, rebuffs his wife’s affections—the childless couple adopts Sergei’s niece and nephew. “Alicky and Nicky,” Tsar and Tsaritsa, are mostly offstage, although Nicky’s loosening grip on his realm is all too apparent. In 1905, a large contingent of peasants and clerics marches peaceably on the Palace to beg the Tsar for economic relief. Soldiers fire into the unarmed crowd, killing hundreds, including Pavel’s pregnant wife. In despair, Pavel joins the revolutionaries. An attempt on Sergei’s life is thwarted by Pavel’s reluctance to kill Ella and the children. But an assassin’s bomb eventually catches Sergei alone. Ella forswears her opulent life to found a religious order. She establishes a convent hospital in Moscow to serve the poor. Pavel secretly trails her, marveling at her selflessness and daring as she ventures into Moscow’s seamier slums. Just as conditions for the underclass are improving—Nicky’s ministers have instituted reforms while wiping out thousands of communists—along comes World War I. During the February 1917 uprising, Ella’s convent narrowly escapes destruction, but she rejects all offers of asylum and continues to aid the war-wounded, sick and hungry. After the October 1917 revolution, Ella’s arrest is inevitable. Pavel follows Ella to Siberia as her guard, and they exchange their life stories, but death is on the horizon.
Although the regime’s free fall is vividly brought to life, the two principals are more archetypal than real. Still, a moving testament to a saintly woman’s sad end.