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Gill Paul | Sexing up the Romanovs

August 28, 2019

The new Netflix series The Last Czars is a visually stunning and generally accurate account of Nicholas II’s ascent to the Russian throne and the mistakes he and his wife Alexandra made that more or less assured their tragic fate. However, right from the first episode, there are sex scenes galore, as if some studio exec decided it needed ‘sexing up.’ One such scene in the final episode had me yelling out loud at my screen.

It showed Maria, third daughter of Nicholas and Alexandra, making out with one of the guards in the Ekaterinburg house where they were held from April to July 1918. She is unbuttoning her blouse while he is ripping off his jacket, presumably about to have consensual sex, when the door is thrown open by Avdeyev, commandant of the guards.

This is implausible on many levels. First of all, Maria was a deeply religious girl, who followed the daily practices of the Russian Orthodox church and was unquestionably chaste. She was also a tsar’s daughter, who in other circumstances might have been matched with foreign royalty or a Russian aristocrat, while the guard in question was a lower-class factory worker. Maria was an obedient girl, not a rebel, and this was 1918, not the 1960s! And finally, the family and their retainers were crammed into a few rooms on the first floor of the house so it’s hard to imagine where this scene is supposed to have taken place.

The scriptwriters did not invent it from scratch, though. Many history books mention that a guard called Ivan Skorokhodov brought Maria a cake on her nineteenth birthday. The family shared it then Maria went out to the corridor to thank him and the two were caught in what were referred to as “compromising circumstances”. Ivan was removed from his post (although not shot, as in The Last Czars), security around the family was tightened, and a new commandant was brought in—Yakob Yurovsky, the man who would lead the execution squad that brutally murdered the Romanovs three weeks later. Some historians argue that Maria’s indiscretion may have been one of the triggers that hastened the decision to kill them.

Helen Azar, translator of the Romanov’s diaries and letters, believes the whole story stems from a mistranslation of something a priest said and that there was no romance between Maria and any guard. Maria was a friendly girl, who was popular with all the men–Yurovsky remarks as much in a testimony he wrote for Soviet archives–but her posthumous reputation has been smeared by this mistranslation.

When I decided to write a novel about Maria, I tried to imagine myself in her position. In 1918, the four Romanov sisters were aged between fifteen and twenty-two, and all were beautiful. The men guarding them were in their late teens or early twenties, and although the Revolution had overthrown the monarchy, the girls still had an aura of privilege. Living in close proximity with them must have stirred up the sex pheromones. We know that Olga and Tatiana were harassed by the guards who accompanied them from Tobolsk to Ekaterinburg; there was name-calling of a sexual nature and perhaps more.

Life in the Ekaterinburg house was intimidating for the family. They were surrounded by a ten-foot fence with machinegun posts at the corners, and the windows were white-washed. Food was restricted, they were only allowed to exercise in the yard for limited periods, and they were no longer permitted to write letters to friends. All they could do was wait to see what fate their Bolshevik captors had in mind. It seemed natural to me that Maria would try to befriend the guards, hoping it might increase her chances of survival–and also to relieve the boredom.

In my novel, The Lost Daughter, I allow Maria to have a kiss–her first-ever–with Ivan Skorokhodov before the commandant discovers them. That would have been enough to lead to his dismissal. I also invented a less welcome advance from another guard. Both seemed to fit with what we know of Maria’s open nature.

My purpose in writing historical novels is to slip beyond the documented historical facts and try to imagine what it must have felt like to be there, in that place and at that time. The writers of The Last Czars did the same thing for a different medium. Of course, they had the right to interpret the facts as they did, but I would argue the truth is so compelling it didn’t need ‘sexing up’.

And I would ask you to spare a thought for poor devout Maria, unjustly labeled promiscuous over a hundred years after her death.

Gill Paul’s novel, The Lost Daughter, is in stores now. Helen Azar’s translation of Maria’s diary will be published in October.



The Lost Daughter

If you loved I AM ANASTASIA by Ariel Lawhon you won’t want to miss this novel about her sister, Grand Duchess Maria. What really happened to this lost Romanov daughter? A new novel perfect for anyone curious about Anastasia, Maria, and the other lost Romanov daughters, by the author of THE SECRET WIFE.

1918: Pretty, vivacious Grand Duchess Maria Romanov, the nineteen-year-old daughter of the fallen Tsar Nicholas II, lives with her family in suffocating isolation, a far cry from their once-glittering royal household. Her days are a combination of endless boredom and paralyzing fear; her only respite are clandestine flirtations with a few of the guards imprisoning the family – never realizing her innocent actions could mean the difference between life and death

1973: When Val Doyle hears her father’s end-of-life confession, “I didn’t want to kill her,” she’s stunned. So, she begins a search for the truth – about his words and her past. The clues she discovers are baffling – a jewel-encrusted box that won’t open and a camera with its film intact. What she finds out pulls Val into one of the world’s greatest mysteries – what truly happened to the Grand Duchess Maria?

Women’s Fiction Historical [William Morrow Paperbacks, On Sale: August 27, 2019, Paperback / e-Book, ISBN: 9780062843272 / eISBN: 9780062843289]

About Gill Paul

Gill Paul

Gill Paul’s historical novels have reached the top of the USA Today, Toronto Globe & Mail and UK kindle charts, and been translated into twenty languages. She specializes in relatively recent history, mostly 20th century, and enjoys re-evaluating real historical characters and trying to get inside their heads.

Gill also writes historical non-fiction, including A History of Medicine in 50 Objects and series of Love Stories. Published around the world, this series includes Royal Love Stories, World War I Love Stories and Titanic Love Stories.

Gill was born in Scotland and grew up there, apart from an eventful year at school in the US when she was ten. She studied Medicine at Glasgow University, then English Literature and History (she was a student for a long time), before moving to London to work in publishing. Her first novel was written at weekends, but she has now given up the ‘day job’ to write fiction full-time. She also writes short stories for magazines and speaks at libraries and literary festivals about subjects ranging from the British royal family to the Romanovs, and about writing itself.

Gill swims year-round in an open-air pond – “It’s good for you so long as it doesn’t kill you”– and loves travelling whenever and wherever she can.


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