Diaries and Letters - The Grand Duchesses - OTMA
No royal princesses could have been closer than the daughters of Nickolas and Alexandra. There were four girls, born right after one another in succession to the Imperial couple. The formal picture above, was taken in Alexandra's Pallisander Room of the Alexander Palace, is obviously posed, yet it cannot conceal the closeness between the sisters.
The two eldest, Olga and Tatiana shared one bedroom and the two youngest, Maria and Anastasia shared the one next door. Their bedrooms were large and airy and furnished in a hodge-podge of furniture assembled from things found around the palace and gifts from relatives. Large folding screens, covered in floral fabric were used by the girls to partition off private sleeping areas. After they outgrew cribs the princesses slept on folding camp beds covered in blue ticked covers and each bed was marked with the name of its owner. Small ikons were pinned to the striped covers which served as headboards. They slept on thin mattresses, under warm, blue blankets, monogrammed with their initials. On top were thin satin coverlets with the monogram of Catherine the Great, strange slippery covers that slid off easily. Camp beds were a tradition since the days of Catherine the Great who introduced the custom for her grandson Alexander and it became the rule from then on. Imperial children were taught from a very young age to endure hard beds and other relative discomforts - like cold baths and simple foods. The Grand Duchesses camp beds were light and easy to move. The girls moved their beds around their suite of rooms. In summer when the upstairs rooms of the palace became hot and stuffy they would set them up under the big open windows of their rooms to catch the cool night breezes. At Christmas the girls assembled their beds around the Yule tree in Aleksey's< playroom. Here they could lie in the dark, watching the sparkling ornaments and star-like lights as they drifted off to sleep.
Even though they could afford to have duplicate sets of beds, these camp beds were packed-up and followed the girls as they migrated throughout the year to Livadia, Peterhof and back to the Alexander Palace. They even went abroad. Eventually, these same camp beds followed them to Siberia.
The Grand Duchesses shared a large bathroom, with two bathtubs. One large tub from the reign of Nickolas I was silver-plated and was engraved with the names of everyone who had used it over the years. Nearby, a smaller one had been used when the children where infants. Lined up along the side of the large tub were big buckets for nursemaids to pour water over the children when they bathed. Later the girls did this for each other. The single toilet was behind a partition hung with watercolors and prints. An older, second bathroom was located on the stairs between the girl's Dining Room and their mother's chambers below, but it was mostly used by the Empress's maids after the new bathroom was built in 1902.
The girls lived upstairs separately from their parents. The 'nurseries' functioned independently of the rest of the palace and had their own servants. This is one of the reasons the girls came to create their own semi-official identity- 'OTMA' - as they sometimes signed themselves, using the first initial of each girls for a common signature. As they were growing up they had the typical spats of siblings over toys and dolls, which their nursemaids and governesses vainly tried to arbitrate. When these tussles faded away with maturity the girls became quite good friends and enjoyed each other's company and companionship.
Languages were a potential source of confusion in the family and many foreign tongues could be heard in the palace. Although the girls were thoroughly Russian, they spoke English with their mother, Russian to their father and Aleksey, and both English and Russian among themselves. They felt equally comfortable in both languages. When they were infants they had an Irish Governess, named Miss Eiger. From her they acquired an Hibernian accent. Later, when the Empress began to groom her daughters for possible English marriages she brought in a 'proper' English tutor, named Sidney Gibbs, to help them with their pronunciation, which he labelled 'Scottish'. Isolated from the outside world, the girls developed a curious child-like way of speaking Russian, which some outsiders found disconcerting. When they were in their teens they were still using the phrases of the nursery among themselves giving the impression their development had somehow been arrested.
OLGA had the lightest hair in the family and was a dark blond with blue eyes and her father's pug nose. She was thin and willowy. Like all her sisters she was naturally graceful, delicate in her movements and exceedingly polite in public. Since her mother selected all the children's clothes, she had little choice in what she wore and was indifferent to fashion. When she was 16 she was allowed to create her own wardrobe, which she continued to coordinate with Tatiana. She owned a cat named Vaska.
For security reasons the Imperial family was surrounded by guards and police. It was next to impossible for anyone to get near them without being cleared by the police. The unlucky soul who ran into the Grand Duchesses by accident would be immediately interrogated by the police to find out their identity, why they had spoken to the princesses and the nature of the conversation. Press reporters and society gossips kept the family under intense surveillance, anyone who got close was in danger of having their reputation ruined by wagging mouths and unscrupulous tabloid journalists. Obviously, this made meeting new people difficult. In spite of the difficulty in getting through to her, Olga worked hard to develop and maintain friendships outside the inner court circle. These friends were important to her, not only for their emotional support, but also as eyes and ears to the real world outside the palace. Olga kept her friendships low-key and out of the public view to protect them.
Her remarkably kind heart and empathy for people with troubles was admired by those who knew Olga. She sacrificed her own small allowance to support people in need, not for show, but privately. Not wanting to draw any attention to herself, she insisted these charitable acts be done without fanfare. Until she was in her late teens her small allowance made it difficult for her to help in a big way. After she came into part of her personal fortune she expanded her giving as much as she could.
Olga was the most independent of the sisters and had a bad temper. She could be brusque and give people orders without thinking of the effect of her words, even when she was a small child. This kind of conduct unacceptable in the family, where all the children were instructed to be polite and ask gently for this or that to be done. Alexandra firmly believed ordering servants to do things one could do on your own was not acceptable and taught her daughters to follow this dictum.
The Empress found her oldest daughter hard to discipline, Olga talked back and even yelled at her mother. She was stubborn and strong-willed; her mother was often at a loss as to how to deal with her. Olga was the only one of the children to have a tendency toward 'bad manners' and was prone to become sullen and withdrawn. Intellectually, her tutors thought she was the most intelligent of her siblings and had intellectual tendencies. Had she wanted, she might have made something of herself, but as a young adult her tutors felt she suddenly lost interest in further intellectual development. Olga was aware of the danger her family was in as the revolution approached. This knowledge took its toll on her emotionally and she became jittery and nervous. This condition was worsened by overwork during the war as a surgical nurse. Olga, joined by her mother and sister Tatiana assisted in difficult operations and the nursing of wounded soldiers. The work was hard and no allowance was made for her position or age. Olga saw men suffer and die in horrible agony from battlefield wounds. The experience changed her and she lost whatever carefree spirit she had left. She became more moody, irritable and withdrawn, and had a kind of nervous breakdown. This ended her work as a nurse.
At the time of the revolution Olga could feel the mood of the country and she knew her parents were hated. Reading the press and talking with her friends she was shocked at the negative public image of her parents; the characturatures people had of her mother and father baffled her, she could not comprehend how people could believe the lies people were saying about her dear parents. Being a young woman in her early twenties, Olga must have had some bitterness that the war and the circumstances of her birth had deprived her of a normal life.
Preferring the company of her father over her mother Olga enjoyed long walks with him in the park. After the revolution, when the family was imprisoned in the Palace, she spent hours shut up in the privacy of the Tsar's study, discussing the changed circumstances of their lives and how it came about with her father. This was a great help to Nickolas in coming to grips with what had happened and his own responsibility. He appreciated his daughter's intellect, judgement and deep sympathy for him, her adored father. She was a brave young woman throughout the difficult days of their imprisonment. Olga carried a concealed revolver on her within the Alexander Palace and later in Tolbolsk. Captain Koblinsky had to plead with her to give it up before they were transferred to Yekaterinburg.
TATIANA had exotic, dark features with widely spaced grey eyes and dark brunette hair. Old black and white photographs do not do justice to her extraordinary beauty. She had a special quality which one had to see in her walk and regal, feminine bearing. People said she was most like her mother and, like her, no one never mistook her for anything other than a royal. She was reserved, was excessively thin, and had the posture and attitude of a princess. Tatiana was also graceful and charming. She sensed people's initial unease being around a Tsra's daughter and made a point of putting people at ease in her presence. Tatiana had a lovely voice that was elegant and aristocratic, and more formal than her sisters. She loved to write letters, her artistic penmanship was very angular and virtually indecipherable. Having friends was very important to her and, like her sister Olga, she eagerly sought them out. Although she was a charming person and eager to meet new people, she found it difficult to build satisfying friendships. People found it almost impossible to forget who she was, and the still rigid formally of the court made relationships with average people 'unsuitable' in the eyes of high society. The girls had a rigid schedule which was preplanned for them by others and it was difficult to arrange spontaneous meetings with people their own age. Dozens of people were required to arrange a simple visit to a friend. Even casual informal walks in parks or along streets were a big operation. The secret police followed them around constantly, hiding in bushes and even chasing people away ahead of them on paths.
Men found Tatiana extremely attractive and she was the most well-liked of her sisters by the guards in Siberia. Clothes, jewelry, furs and perfume were of great interest to her and she was conscious of how attractive she could look in a smart dress. In this she followed in the footsteps of her mother, who also had a love of fashion. Tatiana was closest to Alexandra and was usually the one chosen to ask for difficult favors from their mother. Her tact and gentle persuasiveness usually worked. Some felt Tatiana was the favorite of her parents, but they tried very hard not to show favoritism. More so than her sisters, Tatiana understood her mother's personality and preferences; it was obvious she enjoyed being in her mother's company more than the others. Unlike Olga, she never complained when asked to do a chore by her parents.
Tatiana seemed indifferent to her education and the arts. She studied languages, painted and played piano, but seemingly without passion or inspiration. Her technical mastery of the piano was obvious, however her technique was dry and academic.
During the war she became a nurse like her mother and sister. Her uncomplaining, cheerful discharge of duties and stunning beauty made Tatiana exceedingly popular among staff and patients. Smiling and naturally affectionate, but without undo familiarity, she was approachable but unmistakably a princess. Tatiana was adored by many of the officers she took care of in her wartime hospital work. In some cases, their affection took on a passionate, fairy tale aspect and many officers carried fond memories of the beautiful Tatiana long after her death.
Imprisonment was tough on Tatiana. Like her older sister, she became even more thin and withdrawn. Tatiana was religious - much in the same way her mother was - and she was an inspiration to the rest of the family in captivity.
She had a French bulldog named Ortino, who was a great family favorite.
MARIA had big blue eyes, light brown hair, rosy cheeks and a bright smile. When she was young she tended to be fat and somewhat stout in comparison to her older sisters. Ever thinking of her daughter's future marriages, Alexandra despaired at Maria's weight and watched her figure with some concern. She shared her relief with her friends when it vanished at puberty. In her teens Maria became a great beauty, although she was not as elegant as her older siblings.
Maria was bold, unafraid of meeting new people and easy to speak with. She would instinctively reach out and grab a baby out of a mother's arms and smother the child with kisses. As the third child she had a tough time as a toddler and ended up being the butt of her elder sisters jokes and abuse. Her sisters shut her out of their play time fun and Maria had to learn to fight for her place. After Anastasia arrived things became easier and her new sister became her best friend and confidant. The girls separated into the 'big' and 'little' pair. Even though she was older, Maria found herself dominated by the stronger, more forceful personality of her sister Anastasia. Being paired with a sister two years younger than herself, Maria's personality developed slowly and she was treated as a child longer than she should have been. When she was 16 people remarked how she had the habits, attitude, childish speech and gangliness of a much younger girl.
As a student she was fairly accomplished, though she was indifferent to education in general, tending toward idleness and daydreaming. Maria was left-handed when she painted and had a natural talent for the arts. A favorite pastime of Maria's was imagining the day when she would be married and have her own family. She would have made an excellent mother and wife. She was the most affable of the girls and loved nothing better than talking to common people and handsome young officers. She had a habit of developing crushes on young men and, rather than rebuking her, the whole family would kid Maria about her infatuations. During the war she developed a serious, platonic attachment with an officer, which her parents did nothing to discourage. Maria would watch for him to walk by on Palace Street, standing on her mother's balcony at the Alexander Palace so she could be seen from the road. Circumstances being what they were, she met her boyfriend infrequently. The revolution cut the budding romance short.
During the war Maria was considered too young to be a nurse. Her favorite, 'pet' was a mouse that lived in the wall of her bedroom.
ANASTASIA had blue eyes, fine light-brown hair and a thin, delicate nose like her mother's. People close to the family though she could have become a real beauty when she grew up. As a child she was small and impish. As she grew into her teens she put on weight and become rather round and pudgy in Siberia. Alexandra dispared of her weight and hoped it was baby fat to be naturally lost as she grew older. Her weight was a constant source of affectionate harassment in the family.
Aleksey and Anastasia had a close relationship, they seemed to communicate without speaking using some sort of sixth sense. She was always running to his rooms to entertain him with her antics - or steal food from his buffet tables. When the Tsarevich was ill, Anastasia seemed to 'feel' his illness herself. She knew how to distract him, how to make him forget his pain.
Maria and Anastasia were close as well. They had a phonograph player in their room, with a large collection of records. They liked playing them as loud as possible while dancing about their room, pounding on the floor with their feet. They knew the noise could be plainly heard below in their mother's rooms. They thought it great fun to make a big racket for Mama and her guests below. Anastasia played the balalaika and the guitar very well. She and Aleksey liked performing duets or accompany their sisters on piano.
Anastasia was extremely intelligent, but prone to be lazy and inattentive. Her teachers found she learned much faster than her sisters. On the other hand she was easily bored and had trouble focusing on her lessons. She was a cut-up, freely dispensing her own kind of dead-pan, sarcastic humour at the expense of others. The whole family would crack up at her jokes. Nobody was safe from her tongue and brutal observations of other foibles. She had a cutting wit and knew it, it was one of her chief ways of getting attention. Painting was one of her passions, dogs were another. She had one dog named Shibzig, who died of a brain disorder, which left Anastasia inconsolable. She and her canine companion had been inseparable and his death was a great shock to her. For a while after she lost him Anastasia became humorless, quiet and pensive. Little Shibzyg was buried on the Children's Island near the other family dog graves, surrounded by lily-of-the-valley. The children had a special service for him with special hymns and prayers. Later, to help her get over the loss Anya Vyrubova gave Anastasia another little dog, Jimmy, who died in the Grand Duchess' arms in Yekaterinburg.
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