AROUND OUR HOUSE WE NEVER said, ‘Gee, our grandfather lived in the Russian court, and father used to play with Anastasia,’ ” says 74-year-old Marina Botkin Schweitzer. “We rarely talked about it.”
The Botkin family’s casual acceptance of their place in history—Schweitzer’s grandfather Eugene served as personal physician to Tsar Nicholas II and his family—nearly resulted in a small, vivid piece of that legacy remaining hidden from the world forever. In the months before the Romanov family—and Eugene Botkin with them—were executed by Bolshevik gunmen in 1918, Schweitzer’s father, Gleb, then 17, had entertained the tsar’s five children with his fanciful drawings of an animal kingdom under siege. “When we were growing up, he called them ‘just funny drawings,’ ” recalls Schweitzer, who was raised on New York’s Long Island and was a book editor and French teacher before retiring in 1957. “He threw them in with the rest of his junk in his study. I wanted to save them for my children, but sooner or later they would have fallen apart.”
Two years ago friends of Schweitzer’s saw the drawings at her Great Falls, Va., home and suggested she take action to preserve them. Now, Botkin’s drawings and the stories that went with them have been collected in a book called Lost Tales: Stories for the Tsar’s Children. Detailing the adventures of a 12-year-old bear named Mishka who battles monkey revolutionaries in an attempt to restore a ruler to his throne, the stories “read like thinly veiled chronicles of what happened to the Romanovs,” says historian Greg King, who wrote the foreword to Lost Tales. “Gleb managed to capture how the family was feeling and their hopes for the restoration of the monarchy.”
Gleb Botkin did not know the Romanov children intimately, but he related well to them from the start. They met in September 1911, when 11-year-old Gleb and his sister Tatiana, 13, spent 11 days visiting their father aboard the Russian imperial yacht, where Botkin was accompanying the family. “We played with the grand duchesses as if they had been our playmates from earliest childhood,” Botkin wrote in his 1931 book The Real Romanovs. Marie, then 12, and Anastasia, 10, “became particularly interested in a game of my own invention…an interminable story about a planet populated exclusively by toy animals,” Botkin wrote. Seven-year-old Alexis “made me draw several picture books for him wholly dedicated to wars and parades.”
The doctor’s son and the imperial children saw each other periodically thereafter, and in 1917, when political tensions had forced Nicholas to abdicate and the family was living under house arrest in Siberia, Gleb and his family were installed across the street. Since Gleb was not permitted access to the Romanov children, he began making the drawings he knew they liked, “and every day,” says Schweitzer, “my grandfather would put them inside his coat lining and smuggle them back and forth to the family.” In his drawings, Gleb would later write, “all revolutionaries…came to a bad end—to the delight of Alexis and his sisters.”
In the spring of 1918, after Lenin’s Bolsheviks seized power from the provisional government that had replaced the tsar, the Romanovs were moved to Yekaterinburg, in the Ural Mountains. Ever loyal, Dr. Botkin chose to accompany them, leaving Gleb and Tatiana behind. In July 1918, when the Romanovs were herded into the cellar of their Yekaterinburg residence, Botkin went with them.
“It’s so tragic,” says Schweitzer. “My father was only 18 and traveled there looking for them afterwards.” Gleb ultimately escaped to Japan and then New York, where he found work as a commercial artist. He married, raised Marina and her four siblings and wrote eight books, two on the Romanovs, before his death in 1969. He tried once to have his Mishka drawings published, but when they were rejected as “too militaristic,” Schweitzer says, he gave up. Would he be pleased that they are finally getting the attention they deserve? Says his daughter: “He would be tickled pink.”
JANE SIMS PODESTA in Great Falls