When I embarked on writing my first two novels, Harem and Courtesan, I did not know where and how my story would begin, nor did I know when and how it would end. Yet, I was intimately familiar with my main characters, with their looks, their likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, and their many eccentricities. I also knew they were determined individuals, even if I was unaware yet of the extent of their bullish tenacity. Having been blessed with a colorful cast of eccentric family members, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends, I’ve gathered a treasure-trove of fodder to draw from, all types of traits that would find home in my protagonists, men and women, who led me through the ups and downs of their lives, surprising me at every page. And I utterly enjoyed the element of surprise, the excitement of not knowing what they would do next and how their story would unfold.
But the way I came to write The Last Romanov was quite different.
I was introduced to the shattered, acid-drenched, and burned bones of my main characters, the last Romanovs, on July 18, 1991, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the fall of Communism. The advent of Perestroika by Gorbachev and the policy of openness enabled the government to announce to the world that the remains of the Romanovs were discovered after seventy-three-years. Yet, the mystery surrounding the 1918 Bolshevik executions of the Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra and their five children, remained unsolved. About 1000 bone fragments were exhumed, but only nine skulls discovered. Whereas eleven people—the Romanov Family and four servants—had been murdered in the cellar of the Ipatiev house in Yekaterinburg. Russian scientists began the lengthy process of skeleton identification. With the help of photographic superimposition, initial tests concluded that the missing bodies were those of the Grand Duchess Marie and the Tsarevich Alexei. Another forensic team, this one American, travelled to Yekaterinburg in 1992 to analyze the dental and bone specimens. This time, it was concluded that the missing daughter was Anastasia. To make sure, a Russian DNA specialist took some of the bones for genetic testing to Britain. The mitochondrial DNA—passed down only through the female line and sharply dissimilar from one family to another—from the remains of the Tsarina and three children were compared with that of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, whose maternal grandmother, Princess Victoria of Hesse, was Alexandra’s sister. The match was identical.
I was captivated by every emerging detail that raised one question after another. Why did the Tsar neglect to care for his teeth, while the Tsarina had sophisticated dental work, even porcelain crowns? Who was this cold-blooded Yakov Yurovsky, the primary Bolshevik executioner, who left a note, detailing the executions, in addition to the gory details of the destruction of the bodies? How and why would the mysterious Grigori Rasputin, known as the mad monk, find such great favor with the Imperial Family? Was he a man of God or was he a sorcerer? Was it true that he caused the downfall of the 300 year-old Romanov Dynasty? But the most pressing question gnawing at me was the looming mystery of the missing remains of the Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaevich. Did he survive? And if so, would he have been in a position to reinstate the Romanov dynasty?
I have often asked this same question, albeit in another form and in the context of another revolution, which I witnessed in my own lifetime and which upended my life in profound ways. What if the Islamic Republic is overthrown? What if the Pahlavi Dynasty is reinstated? And if so, is it in Iran’s interest for Prince Reza Pahlavi to be crowned the country’s Shah?
Thirty-two-years pass since the 1979 Islamic Revolution of Iran and the overthrow of the Pahlavi Dynasty. I spent my formative years in Iran. I remember well, the day my life changed in profound ways. Huddled around the TV screen, my family and I watched the Ayatollah Khomeini step onto the tarmac in Mehrabad airport. His dark, glaring stare and condemnatory wave dismissed Mohammad Reza Shah and ushered in an era of chaos and uncertainty.
Now, after more than three decades in America, I am a changed woman, an American author with the freedom to write honestly without fear of censorship, without fear of imprisonment. And the freedom to ask “What if!” What if the Islamic Republic is overthrown? What if the Pahlavi Dynasty is reinstated?
So, questions about the possibility of the fall of Communism and the reinstating of the Romanov Dynasty became tantalizing seeds that bloomed into a novel. I chose 1991, the year the Romanov bones were discovered, as the opening and closing of my novel that spans the life of my main character. One hundred-and-four-years. So, although the missing remains of Alexei and one of his siters were discovered in 2007, while I was still in the process of writing the book, I saw no need to alter the storyline. And as always, drawing from the amalgam of different cultures I experienced, I weaved my own fictional protagonists, such as the opal-eyed Darya Borodina and the Jewish artist Avram Bensheimer, among epic historical figures.
After extensive research, I became intimately familiar with Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, the four Grand Duchesses, and Alexei, the hemophilic heir to the throne. I learned about Alexandra and Nicholas’s great love for each other, which might have been another cause for their downfall, how their only son’s suffering affected their private lives, the political future of Russia, and arguably the entire world. Against the backdrop of one of the most tumultuous political eras in Russian history, years of unrest, a chain of revolutions, the Russo Japanese War, World War I, and the Bolshevik uprising, I set out to give the reader an intimate understanding of a decadent court steeped in myth, superstition, and denial.