The Romanov Luxury

The children are beautiful, young, and royal. Their family was close and loving. They all died terrible, tragic deaths. It's hard not to fall in love with the Romanovs.

 Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia Romanov. From  here .

Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia Romanov. From here.

I'm writing a novel that takes place in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, so although the Romanovs do not figure in my story, their presence (and absence) overhangs society.

One of the magical things about writing is how the world seems to offer you connections and clues, even when you're not looking for them. Last spring, my husband and I traveled to Georgia (the country). We took a weekend trip to a spa town in southern Georgia, and there found a museum focusing on the local Romanov hunting retreat.

The museum had a floor filled with Romanov hunting trophies and furniture from their lodge (above), in addition to gorgeous displays of the fine china used in this "rustic" retreat (below).

It's so easy to imagine charming young women sitting on a sunny patio, drinking cold juice poured from that gorgeous pitcher and eating fruit from that fluted bowl.

Yet Borjomi is ... 2684 kilometers from St. Petersburg, or 1963 km from Moscow, according to Google maps. It's hard to imagine the Romanovs made it through the multiple mountain ranges of Russia and Georgia to retreat to this hunting lodge that often. (And if they did, who was running the country?)

Last month, I visited the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. They have an exhibit on Fabrege and the Russian Craft Tradition, which of course brought me back to the Romanovs.

The enamelware and metalwork on display was stunning. Like this presentation box with the monogram of Tsar Nicolas II. It's made of nephrite, diamonds, gold ...

Or this art nouveau-inspired kvosh, which Empress Maria Feodorovna, wife of Tsar Alexander III, gave as a gift to a Dutch doctor:

The exhibit included two eggs made in the workshop of the famous jeweler/crafter Fabrege. One egg contains inside a miniature rendition of one of the large Romanov palaces, all crafted in gold down to minute detail. Including streetlamps smaller than your pinky nail. The other egg has dozens of diamonds, and was given by one Romanov emperor to his wife on the occasion of the birth of their son.

The items are stunning in their beauty and their luxury.

But not everyone in Russia was living in opulence. The Russian economy was growing rapidly at the beginning of the 20th century, but land ownership was concentrated in the hands of the wealthy, and urban workers worked long hours for limited pay. According to one 1904 survey, an average of 16 people shared each apartment in Petrograd, with 6 people per room. Then World War I hit, and conditions deteriorated.

It gets a little easier to understand why the Marxist revolutionaries yearned for a better, more equitable life. They didn't end up delivering it, but the scheming students of the early 1900s didn't know yet that their dreams were hollow. They just knew that the rich could sashay through the glittering showroom of Fabrege, while the poor sometimes struggled to find enough to eat.

 The Flophouse, 1889. V. Makovskii. Istoriia russkogo iskusstva, ed. E. Grabar (Moscow, 1964), vol. 9. pt. 1, 341. Source  here .

The Flophouse, 1889. V. Makovskii. Istoriia russkogo
iskusstva, ed. E. Grabar (Moscow, 1964), vol. 9. pt. 1, 341. Source here.

That's the funny thing about history. We sympathize with the stories, with the humans whose names we know and whose narratives we can follow. We forget the lived passions and agonies of the nameless ones.

I'm not justifying the terrible way the Bolsheviks killed the Romanovs, nor the disaster that was the Soviet Union. But I think it's important for history lovers to try to take in the whole panorama of society, as much as possible. That's where the stories come in. We know the stories of the Romanovs. Now lets learn -- or imagine -- some stories from other people of that time. That's the magic of historical fiction.

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