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The Family Romanov

The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion and the Fall of Imperial Russia

Written by Candace Fleming
Published by Random House Children’s Books
ISBN: 978-0-385-86782-8
Grades 7 and Up 

Book Review
What do we really know and understand about the Romanov family? What really happened to them almost one hundred years ago when they fell from power during the Russian Revolution? Is what we think we know myth or reality? Fortunately, we can now read The Family Romanov and find out. Archives and treasure troves of materials unavailable to researchers for most of the 20th century have been mined by Candace Fleming to create this truly intimate portrait of the Romanov family and “murder, rebellion and the fall of Imperial Russia.” Fleming weaves the personal and the political life of the Romanov family together, so that adolescent readers can understand the private family dramas and delights as well as the concurrent political missteps, misunderstandings, self-centeredness, and naiveté of Tsar Nicholas. Additionally, she includes in this tapestry the voices of every day citizens struggling to survive in the “real” Russia, in sections called “Beyond the Palace Gates” that punctuate the text. This is a masterful piece of research and a compelling in-depth examination of the Romanov family and the dawn of the 21st century. Wonderful back matter illuminate the author’s purpose and the research process. History buffs will love it for pleasure reading, but middle and high school humanities, language arts, and social studies teachers can find multiple ways of incorporating it into the curriculum, from an examination of power and leadership, to a comparison of world affairs a century ago and right now, to a mentor text for research and writing, and much, much more.

Teaching Ideas and Invitations

Mentor Text: Parallel Biographies. Fleming does an exceptional job of weaving together a portrait of the glittering world of the Romanov family and the day-to-day destitution of the people whom they ruled. Have your students compare the writing style used to in each part of the book, by zooming in on one chapter about the Romanovs and the “Beyond the Palace Gates” section that follows it. Have students research and write about the extreme differences among people in a different time or place using Fleming’s work model.

Identifying as a Reader. First and foremost, this is a book about the Romanov family. We see their family photos, the places they lived, and we hear about the every day lives and relationships with one another as well as their official duties and capacities as leaders of the Russian Empire. When reading, which people do your students identify with? Do they find themselves cheering on the peasant class as they learn of their struggles? Or, despite their sympathies, are they inwardly hoping the Romanovs get a second chance because they have learned so many intimate details about them? Or, because of the legend of Anastasia, do they somehow feel a closer connection? Why were the Romanov children killed alongside their parents, when they were not responsible for their parents’ decisions? Have a discussion with students about the personal responses they have to the text and whether or not their personal sympathies match their intellectual understandings of the events and decisions made by the Romanovs and others. What is to be gained by understanding the personal and the public lives of leaders? How does each impact the other?

Faith and Leadership. What does it mean to let your faith rule your decision-making? Rasputin, the unofficial advisor to Nicholas and Alexandra, was by all accounts a fraud. Yet, they put their faith in him, and he put his faith in his visions and healing powers (or his ability to trick people). What is the line between religion, faith, and leadership? Is there a line? Have your students explore the ways in which the Romanovs relied on Rasputin. How have other leaders in different countries and time periods also relied on advisors aligned with their personal faith? Were all the advisors who they said they were? What relationships were healthy? Which were problematic?

Post-Royalty Era? Will there ever be a post-royalty era in the world? Will there ever be a time when nations are ruled by elected leaders rather than those who inherit a position of leadership? Across the different continents around the world, how many countries still have a royal family? What kind of power does that royal family have? What’s the appeal, both to citizens of that country, and the general public around the world? Why does the British Royal Family garner so much attention here in the United States while other Royals don’t? Do we need royalty in the world today? If so, why? 

Duet Reading: The Russian Revolution. Have some of your students read The Family Romanov in small groups; have others read George Orwell’s fictional allegory of the Russian Revolution, Animal Farm. Next, have the groups switch and read the other book. How does one book help influence the reading of the other? To what extent does Animal Farm help to capture the reality of everyday life in Russia after the fall of the Romanovs? How much changed for the poor of Russia after the change in power? 
Exploring World War I. With the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, have your students explore the war from multiple perspectives. Divide your class up into different countries, so that students are researching the war from the perspective of a single country, rather than just through the lens of American history. The Family Romanov can be used as part of the Russian group’s research, while some of the general books on World War I and digital resources can be mined for the views of other nations. Host a World War I forum, in which students set up booths that detail what they learned about the causes of their country’s involvement and short-term and long-term implications of the war for that country. Invite a local history professor that specializes in World War I to launch the forum or serve on a panel with students. If local families have uniforms or artifacts from family members who fought in the war, these would be wonderful to have on display. You may want to invite your local historical society to participate.

Critical Literacy 

Exploring Income Inequality Today. It is perhaps easy to compare and contrast the over-the-top luxury of Romanovs with the utter poverty in which the majority of Russians lived. But what are some of the similarities between the Romanov’s Russia and America today? Using statistics available in the book, have students conduct research in small groups on income inequality. As students complete their research, have them decide a format for presenting what they have learned. Are they comfortable with income distribution in the US? What are some the suggestions they may have for making changes? 
Where Does Power Reside in Any Government? Explore the ways in which the Romanav dynasty failed to meet the needs of the Russian people, using the events depicted in the book and digital resources below. Use this experience as a pivot to explore other moments in time when leaders have toppled. Consider the Arab Spring, the Ukraine, Iraq, and the recent failed attempt at an independence vote in Scotland. You might want to bring in the American Revolution. Does power reside in the people? Laws? Government structures? The military? Have students working in small groups to conduct their research and then have them come together to have a staged debate about power and government, or a “panel talk” about the power in the particular situations they researched. 

The Gilded Age in America and the Romanovs in Russia. Were the Romanovs so outrageous to live the way they lived? Have your students explore the Gilded Age in America and the ways in which rich Americans held a concentration of wealth and power. Have some students explore the life of the poor and middle class, while others research the very research. Compare and contrast through multimedia presentations, which can take advantage of the photographs that document the era, how people lived in the United States compared to Russia during the last two decades of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th century.

Russia Today: Vladimir Putin and Power. After reading The Family Romanov, have students explore Russia today. Using the digital resources listed below as well as other resources made available, have them compare those in power today in Russia with the Romanov family and the leaders of the Russian Revolution. How much is different? One hundred years after the start of World War I, what has changed in Russia? What is the standard of living for most citizens compared to other European or Asian nations? What do students make of Russia’s aggressive military moves into Crimea, a part of the separate nation of the Ukraine? What do your students think the world community should be doing? Have students research different aspects of Russian life today, as well as the period of the Soviet Union, for some basic understanding of the 20th century. Then, have them write letters to your two Senators telling them what U.S. policy should look like. Have someone deliver those letters to your Senator’s local office, and/or arrange to have students meet and discuss the issue with him/her when s/he is next available.

Further Explorations

Digital Resources

Candace Fleming’s Official Website

The Family Romanov Book Trailer

Alexander Palace Time Machine

Nicholas and Alexandra Online Exhibit, State Hermitage Museum

Romanov Memorial

Royal Russia

Yale Beinecke Library, Romanov Family Albums

New York Times Topic: The Romanovs

“Missing Romanov Family,” National Geographic (short clip)

“The Great War,” PBS site on World War I

“World War I,” BBC

War and Revolution in Russia, 1914-1917, BBC

Ukraine, NY Times Topic

Russia, NY Times Topic

Lesson Plan, New York Times Blog, Russian Revolution 1917, Arab Spring 2011

Income Inequality, NY Times Topic

The Gilded Age, Digital History

The Gilded Age, Library of Congress

The Gilded Age, The Gilder-Lehrman Collection


Freedman, R. (2010). The war to end all wars. New York: Clarion.

Murphy, J. (2009). Truce: The day the soldiers stopped fighting. New York: Scholastic.

Orwell, G. (1996/1946). Animal farm. New York: Signet Classics, Penguin.

Wade, R. A. (2001). The Bolshevik revolution and Russian Civil War. San Diego, CA: Greenwood Press.

Mary Ann Cappiello About Mary Ann Cappiello

Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets (2013) and Teaching to Complexity (2015) and Text Sets in Action: Pathways Through Content Area Literacy (Stenhouse, 2021). She has been a guest on public radio and a consultant to public television. From 2015-2018, Mary Ann was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K-8) Committee, serving two years as chair.