Natasha’s Will by Joan Lingard

Natasha’s Will by Joan Lingard was first published in 2020. It was a Federation of Children’s Book Groups’ Pick of the Year. I must admit that I’ve never heard of that group. It’s a very quick read at just 166 pages.

This is a dual time and place setting. It begins in contemporary Scotland where Natasha has just recently died. She had been over 90 and had been cared for in her own home by family friends of generations’ standing.  Natasha had started life in St Petersburg where she had a very privileged life – until the revolution in 1917. After a lot of difficulty danger and disasters Natasha and her mother had managed to make their way out of Russia and eventually ended up in Scotland, along with Eugenie, a friend who marries a Scot.

Years later it’s Eugenie’s family that look after Natasha in her own home until she dies. Natasha had always said that she was going to leave the family her house, but her will can’t be found anywhere, and it’s thought that she didn’t actually get around to writing it. It’s a disaster for the family, especially when Natasha’s official next of kin turns up to claim his inheritance. This was a good read with plenty of tension although I was pretty sure  that everything would turn out right in the end.

As ever it’s a plus when you know the locations and I was happy to be able to recognise St Petersburg as well as Scotland. I didn’t know anything about this book when I saw it in a charity bookshop in Edinburgh, but I’ve started to collect Lingard’s books whenever I see them, which isn’t that often, even in her hometown of Edinburgh.


The Romanovs: The Final Chapter by Robert K. Massie

The Romanovs: The Final Chapter cover

I’ve always been interested in Russian history and years ago I read Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K.Massie, so when I saw The Romanovs: The Final Chapter by the same author I had to buy it. This book was first published in 1995 which I’m always shocked to realise is over 20 years ago, so some things have moved on a lot from the end of the book.

I have to say that I was a bit disappointed by this book, that’s partly because I remember how much I enjoyed his previous book on the subject. The beginning of this one was interesting as was the end but oh dearie me – the middle section dragged on and on in an exceedingly tedious manner. It was the early days of DNA testing – a new branch of science. When bone remains were discovered and thought to belong to the Russian Imperial family it was hoped that DNA could be extracted from them but that was no easy matter as there were arguments about who could give permission for the tests to go ahead. Another problem was that some so called experts weren’t able to admit that they didn’t have the expertise required and ultimately never did come up with any results. In the end it was Prince Philip who gave blood for comparison with the bone DNA as his mother Princess Alice was Alexandra’s sister and a British laboratory did discover that the bones were those of most of the family, but Anastasia and Alexei’s bones were missing.

As there had always been rumours that Anastasia had survived the massacre in the cellar of the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg this obviously set the tabloid types agog. So began a section involving all the stories of imposters who had appeared from time to time since the 1920s, claiming to be Romanovs. Anna Anderson is I’m sure the best known of those demented/fraudulent people and it’s amazing to think that for almost 60 years she duped a lot of people who really should have known better. I suppose some people just longed for there to be a survivor and disregarded the evidence. One Polish man (it turns out that ‘Anna Anderson’ was Polish too) claimed to be Alexei despite being 18 years too young, born actually in 1922 and crucially NOT a haemophiliac!

It wasn’t only the immediate members of the royal family that were murdered, the Bolsheviks had made a fairly good job of eliminating a lot of the extended family. But several different branches of Romanovs did manage to escape murder, mainly those who had already been banished from Russia by the Tsar or had been sent to very remote parts of the country and so had been able to make their way to other bordering countries and safety. The prince who murdered Rasputin had been banished for his deed and that ended up saving his life!

Those surviving Romanovs seem to have spent their lives squabbling with each other over exactly who is the head of the family and deemed to be the new Tsar. Which says it all about the Romanovs really. With the ‘glasnost’ of the 1980s some of them seem to have been very hopeful of being invited back to Russia to take up the throne again. Crazy.

Money and power are two things that often cause mayhem, and the belief that Nicholas had sent millions of pounds to banks in Europe before World War 1 meant that the survivors all wanted to get their hands on it. Well most of them, but a few have lived quiet and useful lives, changed their names and told nobody about their family links with royalty.

It seems that many of the Romanovs despised England for not granting the royal family permission to settle in England and I know that for years I blamed King George V and Queen Mary, but if I’m recalling correctly it was just last year when the private papers were released, and it turned out that it was the British Prime Minister who refused to give permission – and that of course shows the big difference between the Russian Royals and the British ones who really have no power. If Nicholas had been willing to go down the same route then things would have been very different.

The last part of book deals with the Ipatiev House, it had been demolished in 1977 so that it wouldn’t be a focus for Romanov supporters. The authorities in Ekaterinburg hoped to build a church on the site and bury the royal remains in it. But other parts of Russia hoped to get their hands on the bones. With Russia beginning to open up to the world, tourism was in their minds. Nothing had been decided by the end of the book but of course since then a church has indeed been built there and the remains have been buried at the altar which is situated where the cellar was. The victims have all been made saints and the church is called Church on the Blood.

Caught in the Revolution by Helen Rappaport

Caught in the Revolution cover

Caught in the Revolution – Petrograd 1917 by Helen Rappaport was published in 2016, is non-fiction accounts of what people witnessed in Petrograd in the run up to the Russian Revolution. This is a subject that I’ve been interested in since ‘doing’ it in second year at Secondary School, so I knew all about the political details but this book focuses on what was happening out in the streets, how events were affecting ordinary people.

It seems that Petrograd was full of foreigners so there were plenty of people writing of their experiences in a chaotic environment. At the beginning the Tsar is still in power and the people (particularly the women) are having to spend hours every day in queues just to get some basic foodstuffs – if they are lucky.

There seemed to be an awful lot of foreigners in Petrograd, including Arthur Ransome of Swallows and Amazons fame although this is before he wrote those books, he was a reporter for the Daily News and Observer. The writer Hugh Walpole was reporting on events for the British Foreign Office, there were lots of people writing diaries, so I found this book to be a really interesting read.

There were plenty of British and American manufacturers there such as a Singer sewing machine factory, Thorntons woollen mill and Coats of Paisley threads company. The revolutionaries encouraged the workers to demand exorbitant wages for a much shorter working week. Basically everybody gave up working and everywhere was filthy.

Sadly of course after the Bolsheviks took over things got even worse for the ordinary people and food was even more scarce than before. Although I’ve read a lot about this period I don’t think I had realised before what an evil swine Lenin was – but he was a clever one.

The Tsar doesn’t really feature much in the book, but as ever I just wanted to grab him and talk some sense into him, but better people than me tried, such as the British Ambassador Sir George Buchanan. I find it bizarre that considering Tsar Nicholas was so close to the British royal family, and his cousin King George V in particular – he just couldn’t contemplate changing the Russian Imperial system to something similar to the British.

Other well known people who were eye witnesses were Somerset Maugham and Emmeline Pankhurst. Maugham’s experiences formed the basis for his Ashenden collection of short stories which were published in 1928.

There were quite a lot of newspaper photographers in Petrograd at this time but there are frustratingly few photos surviving. There are some in this book but nothing of great interest, the book is a great read otherwise.