Launch: Tamar Anolic’s Tales of the Romanov Empire
INTERVIEW BY E.C. AMBROSE
Tamar Anolic has written several books on the Romanovs. The Russian Riddle is her biography of Grand Duke Serge Alexandrovich. She has published three novels featuring members of the imperial family who ruled Russia for three centuries: Triumph of a Tsar, Through the Fire, and The Imperial Spy. E.C. Ambrose interviews Tamar Anolic on her latest Romanov book.
How would you describe this book in a couple of sentences?
Tales of the Romanov Empire is a novel in short stories that sheds light on the lesser-known figures of one of history’s most successful dynasties. This book contains stories of war, stories of personal gifts and choices bent to an autocratic ideal. The vast human cost of absolute power— for both the oppressors and for the oppressed—becomes clear.
What aspects of visiting Russia were you able to weave into your story?
In the summer of 2019, I visited Moscow and the Golden Ring, the circle of ancient cities around Moscow, as well as Saint Petersburg. I saw the Winter Palace and the Kremlin, which both became settings. I also visited the Ipatiev Monastery in Kostroma, where Mikhail Romanov was hiding when several boyars came to inform him of his election to the throne. Both the town and the monastery are major settings in the book’s opening. Being able to see them in person helped me describe them in great detail. The Troitsky Monastery, where Peter the Great sought refuge before he seized the throne back from his regent and half-sister, Sophia, played a large role when I wrote the chapter based on those events.
How did your personal connection to the time of the Romanovs influence your writing?
Most of my ancestors emigrated out of Eastern Europe because they were subject to the Romanovs’ repression and being drafted into the tsar’s army. I wanted to make sure their stories were told. It’s the dark underbelly of the Romanovs in a lot of ways, but it made me write this book, to make the Romanovs interesting characters without glossing over their shortcomings.
What most excited you during the research for this project?
Finding the details! Like the names of the boyars who went to inform Tsar Mikhail of his election to the throne and realizing that the descendants of one of them fought alongside Peter the Great at the Battle of Poltava. Learning that Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana were sitting with Crown Prince Boris of Bulgaria in a theatre in Kiev when they witnessed Prime Minister Solypin’s murder. Also, learning the name and dates of the ship on which my great-grandfather emigrated to the United States.
What resource(s) for this period did you turn to the most?
I tried to use as many primary sources as I could—letters, diaries, etc., but also found myself turning to biographies because those give a good bird’s-eye view of a person’s life and times. Finding primary sources was toughest for the stories that take place in the early to mid 1600s. I had to rely on a couple of really fascinating sources instead—books about the bride shows that were staged for both Mikhail and Alexei, and a catalogue from an exhibit that the Smithsonian in Washington put on years ago. This exhibit, named “The Tsars and the East,” showcased the trade and diplomatic gifts exchanged between the early tsars and the Ottomans and Persians, among others. These gorgeous objects played a large role in the second chapter of this book.
Which character did you find the most challenging to write about?
There are a number of Romanovs about whom I wish there were whole books. Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich started in the navy before switching to the army. He commanded elite units, married and had nine children, and was beloved by the family. He defied the imperial ban on Romanov men having careers outside the military by writing and publishing poems and plays. He wrote under a pseudonym, but it became an open secret. His favorite son, Oleg, was the only Romanov to be killed in World War I. Konstantin was also quite religious. When his diaries were published decades after his death, they revealed that he was a closeted homosexual who was scared of being caught after multiple encounters with other men. My book includes several chapters about Konstantin, but it was hard to present his secrets without being obvious about them. It was also tough to focus on only a few things about him—there was so much more I wanted to say.
What are some delights and challenges of writing both novels and short stories?
With a novel, the delight is having the chance to dig deep into a character and watch them grow and change over the course of the book. For historical fiction, with the amount of research we do, the challenge is often deciding what to leave out.
Short stories are a challenge because you have to convey a lot in a much shorter form. No words can be wasted. You really have to be careful in choosing what to home in on.
Do you have any tips for choosing what to leave out?
It boils down to figuring out what essence you want to convey, as well as how the information fits the rest of your novel. In the course of my research, I became fascinated by Irish diplomat Lord Castlereagh, the lead British diplomat at the Congress of Vienna. He frequently dealt with the increasingly difficult Tsar Alexander I. Castlereagh had many ups and downs in his career, and he had enemies. There was so much I could have included in the chapter about him, which I found painful to cut. In order to trim this material, I kept coming back to focus on his meetings and relationship with Alexander in order to maintain the entire book’s focus on the Romanovs.
What are you working on now, and how far along is your process?
I have a short story collection, The Lonely Spirit, set in the Old West, that will be published in the spring. I’m also finishing the first draft of a novel set in the rock and roll scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
What is the last great book you read?
The Sound of Gravel by Ruth Wariner.
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