by Janet Whitcomb
By law she was not intended to rule. She never married, didn't live long enough to celebrate her twenty-third birthday, and in what might be considered her only "career attempt," met with less than stellar success. Despite the fact that her mother and at least two of her three sisters were celebrated beauties, she considered her own looks modest. And more than eighty years after she and her family were assassinated in a Siberian basement, it is her youngest sister's name - and not hers -that inspires the imaginations of authors and dramatists.
Why then would the brief life of Olga Nicholaevna Romanova, eldest daughter of the last Tsar of Russia, be of interest?
As the eldest daughter, Olga arguably lived a more complicated life than her three younger sisters. Beyond that, it is her personality-thoughtful and compassionate, but also plainspoken and sometimes rebellious-that intrigues readers of Romanov history. Unlike her far more moderate sister Tatiana, her more openly romantic sister Marie, or her more waggish sister Anastasia, Olga's appeal is very similar to that of every heroine, real and fictional, who has dared to think "outside the box."
Olga's beginnings, however, were quite conventional-unless, of course, one considers that she was born to parents who presided over a nation comprising one-sixth of the globe's land surface. After the November 1894 marriage of Nicholas and Alexandra, all of Russia awaited an heir to the throne, who-according to law-must be male. So it was with much anticipation that the announcement was received: A disappointing 101 rounds of gunfire, rather than the hoped-for 300 rounds, announcing the arrival of a grand duchess rather than a tsarevich. "A day I will remember for ever," Nicky wrote in his diary under the heading of November 3, 1895. " . . . at exactly 9 o'clock [p.m.] a baby's cry was heard and we all breathed a sigh of relief! With a prayer we named the daughter sent to us by God 'Olga'!"
His sister Xenia's diary entry was almost as rapturous, but with one important difference: "The birth of a daughter to Nicky and Alix! A great joy, although it's a great pity it's not a son! . . . The baby is huge-weighing 10 pounds-and had to be pulled out with forceps!"
Days later Nicky continued to be the proud father. Thinking, perhaps, of the birth three months earlier of his niece Irina-firstborn of Xenia and her husband, the Grand Duke Alexander-the doting young Tsar recorded another entry: "In the morning I admired our delightful little daughter; she does not at all look new-born, because she is such a big baby with a full head of hair . . . Thank God is all well; but the baby does not want to take her breast, so we had to call the wet-nurse again."
The matter of the wet-nurse, in fact, had inspired some amusement between the two married couples. As Xenia had recorded on November 5, "Alix started feeding [Olga] herself. During dinner, the wet-nurse's son started to take her breast, and we all took turns to go in and watch the spectacle!"
Amidst all this domesticity, Alix's grandmother, Queen Victoria of England, was not to be denied. On November 12 Nicholas wrote his grandmother-in-law an affectionate letter about the days following the birth of his daughter. Aware of the Queen's adversity to her own daughters and granddaughters engaging in breast-feeding, Nicholas was pleasant but firm regarding his wife's preference in the matter. "Dearest Alicky, who is lying near me in bed, begs to thank you most tenderly for your letter and good wishes. Thank God everything went off happily and both she and the little child are progressing most satisfactorily. She finds such a pleasure in nursing our sweet baby herself. For my part I consider it the most natural thing a mother can do and I think the example an excellent one! We are both so pleased that you accepted to be Godmother of our first child, because I am sure it will prove a happiness to her after your constant signs of kindness and of motherly affection towards us." Then, as if to allay any protestations the Queen might have that the child had not been named for her English maternal line, Nicholas wrote, "The name of Olga we chose as it has already been several times in our family and is an ancient Russian name."
The following day Alix's sister Ella, wife of Grand Duke Serge, also wrote to her Grandmama Queen. "Alix is looking well and her nursing the Baby does her the greatest good possible . . . The joy of having their Baby has never one moment let them regret little Olga being a girl."
A Protected Childhood
For the next six months, Nicholas, Alexandra and their infant daughter lived in something of an idyllic bubble. "From today our daughter is being dressed in little short dresses!" Nicky recorded March 10, 1896. In a letter to her mother-in-law, the Dowager Empress Marie, Alix wrote that "Baby is flourishing and kisses her beloved Grandmama . . . it is so strange to see her such a big, fat little creature, laughing and cooing away . . . she weighs now a little more than Irina, but is of course not as long." The comparisons were inevitable, although for now all was friendly between Nicky and Alix and Xenia and her "Sandro."
Soon, however, it was time to prepare for the gala coronation ceremonies in May. The festivities began auspiciously, and all seemed to be going well. Then-as the many days of celebrations were nearing their end-the disaster of Khodinka Meadow occurred, leaving the young couple horrified and depressed.
By July Nicky had written to his brother George, a tuberculosis patient living in the Caucasus Mountains, "I don't want to talk about Moscow-it makes me sick to remember." Instead he shifted his focus to the "intolerable foreign visits" he and Alix would be obliged to make: "First of all we are going to Austria, then Kiev, Germany, Denmark, England, France and finally Darmstadt; there at least we can hope for a complete rest . . . On top of it, we shall have to drag our poor little daughter with us, as all the relatives want to see her. I can imagine what the French will get up to in Paris-maybe they will rename [her] Napoleondra, or something like it!"
Nicky's grumbling did have some validity, for everyone-her Great-Grandmother Victoria included-wanted to fuss over the round-faced infant with the solemn blue eyes. And although Parisians did not demand a name change, they did cheer their approval as the small child rode by with her nurse in a carriage, following that of her parents. "Vive le bebe!" they shouted, and "Vive la Grande Duchesse!" Finally, after two months of traveling, the couple and their now year-old baby returned to returned to Tsarkoe Selo, and to quiet domesticity once more. Soon after their return, Xenia recorded in her diary: "Before tea we went into the nursery. Nicky and Alix sat in the playpen and played with their daughter! She is a splendid, huge little girl, and seems to have got prettier, taller and even fatter!"
By January 1897 Alix had entered the middle trimester of a second pregnancy and could feel the fluttering of new life within her womb. Nicky rejoiced in this milestone, and also in the fact that Olga, now a toddler, was showing herself to be both a happy and stoic child. In a letter to his mother, the Dowager Empress, he wrote: "Yesterday our little daughter fell against a chair, and a large blue bump appeared on her forehead; she cried a little but then did not complain any more about her injury." Writing again to his brother George, Nicky joked about an upcoming visit from Olga's slightly older cousin Irina-"I can just see them pulling each other's hair and quarrelling over the toys" - then added that "I still can't believe that Xenia is the mother of two children! Her Andrusha is a big, healthy boy, but still very ugly; please don't you tell her that. All parents always think that their children are the most beautiful in the world."
By the end of May a new play companion for Olga arrived. "The second bright happy day in our family life," Nicky wrote in his diary. "At 10:40 in the morning the Lord blessed us with a daughter-Tatiana." Nicky's cousin, the Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, recorded that he had "heard from the Tsar that his daughters are called Olga and Tatiana like Pushkin's Onegin."
As 1897 drew to a close, Nicky could write his mother that "Our little daughters are growing, and turning into delightful happy little girls . . . Olga talks the same in Russian and in English and adores her little sister . . . The cossacks, soldiers and negroes are Olga's greatest friends, and she greets them as she goes down the corridor. Little Maria and Dmitri often come to see us and romp around endlessly with Olga."
"Little Maria and Dmitri" were the children of Nicky's widowed uncle, the Grand Duke Paul, who had entered into a relationship with an officer's wife and was subsequently banished from Russia. The children had become wards of the Grand Duke and Duchess Serge but frequently spent time at Tsarkoe Selo. Dmitri Pavlovich was a handsome if sad-eyed six-year-old; his more pugnacious sister, Marie Pavlovich, was seven years of age. Later Marie would write, with her own brand of frankness, that she found Olga's sturdy appearance "remarkably ugly"-all the more so, perhaps, when contrasted to the delicate looks of Baby Tatiana. Still the children continued to be nursery playmates, and as they grew up a sentimental hope was cherished that perhaps Dmitri and Olga might one day marry.
Miss Eager's Precocious Charge
About the time that Alix was expecting her third child-another daughter, Marie-an Irish governess by the name of Miss Margaret Eagar was engaged. Miss Eagar immediately became very fond of Olga and Tatiana, as she would of Marie and the eventual fourth daughter, Anastasia. In her 1906 book, Six Years at the Russian Court, she recounts numerous anecdotes, many of them centered on the young Grand Duchess Olga. Among the personality traits she noted in her oldest charge, and which would become all the more prominent as Olga matured, were a strong interest in the outside world, a stubborn streak tempered by compassion, and a complete devotion to her father.
One day, Miss Eagar relates, while she and the Grand Duchess were out driving along the Nevsky Prospect, Olga "was not good. I was speaking to her, trying to induce her to sit down quietly, when suddenly she did so, folding her hands in front of her. In a few seconds she said to me, 'Did you see that policeman?'" Miss Eagar told her the policeman would not bother her. Olga replied, "But this one was writing something; I was afraid he might have been writing 'I saw Olga, and she was very naughty.'" Miss Eager said this would be highly unlikely, but Olga reminded her-"rather reproachfully"-that some time before she had seen a drunken woman arrested in the street, and had asked Miss Eagar to tell the police not to hurt her. Miss Eagar, however, had refused to interfere, saying that "the woman was naughty and the police quite right in taking her." Miss Eagar responded to this irrefutable fact by stating that a person had to be quite big and very naughty before the police would take that person to prison. Nevertheless, upon returning home Olga asked everyone if a policeman had come by while she was out, then recounted the entire story to her father. Had her father ever been a prisoner? she asked. The Emperor answered that he had never been quite naughty enough to go to prison, where upon Olga replied with much admiration, "Oh! How very good you must have been!"
Generosity also was becoming a hallmark of Olga's personality. During a visit to Darmstadt in the fall of 1899, Olga, her slightly older cousin Elizabeth (Ella) and two-year-old Tatiana were escorted by Miss Eagar to a local toyshop. The children had been told they might select toys for both themselves and as gifts. After looking at everything, however, Olga chose the smallest toy, then refused to consider any other acquisitions. Finally Miss Eagar took her aside and asked why she wasn't buying more. Olga responded, "But the beautiful toys belong to some other little girls, I am sure; and think how sad they would be if they came home and found we had taken them while they were out."
Still, Olga was showing signs of the frankness that so many later would remark as being a strong part of her character. When her mother decided to have portraits painted, the artist informed her that rather than paint from photographs he must paint her children from life. "Even to paint their frocks he insisted upon them sitting to him for three or four hours each day," Miss Eagar relates. "Of course the poor children got very impatient, and one day the little Grand Duchess Olga lost her temper and said to the artist, 'You are a very ugly man, and I don't like you a bit!'"
For her father, however, Olga felt quite the opposite. As a Christmas gift-and despite Miss Eagar's expressed misgivings-the little grand duchess decided to make a potholder for her Papa. "When Christmas came, " Miss Eagar remembered, "she presented it to her father, saying, 'Nana is afraid it won't be much use to you, but you can put it on your table for a mat, or hang it on the wall for a picture.'"
In September 1903 Nicky, Alix, and their children-now a quartet of comely little girls-traveled to Darmstadt to witness the wedding of Princess Alice of Battenberg to Prince Andrew of Greece. All four girls were overjoyed to see their cousin Ella, whose parents, Uncle Ernie and Aunt Ducky, had since divorced. Ella, as an only child, also longed for their company, and it was decided that after the wedding festivities Uncle Ernie and Ella would accompany the Romanovs to the Skernevetski hunting lodge in Poland. The children loved romping around together, but when Ella-who was eight months older than Olga-was allowed to stay up late one night to see the day's game, Olga grumbled at having to go to bed at the usual time. Ella quickly said, "Oh dear Olga, don't be angry, you will often see it again, but I-never again!"
Following a party celebrating Olga's eighth birthday, and after much joking and giggling, all five little girls finally went to sleep. The next morning Ella awoke complaining of a sore throat. A doctor was consulted, but it was his opinion that the previous day's activities were the cause. Ella did show improvement by afternoon-so much so, in fact, that the adults left for a theater party that evening. By the time they returned, however, Ella was having difficulty breathing. A second doctor arrived, several treatments were administered for what was now diagnosed as typhoid, and everyone-the grand duchesses included-spent a restless night. But all was to no avail; at approximately 7 a.m. the next morning little Ella died. Days later four doctors performing the post-mortem agreed that it had indeed been a case of "suppressed typhoid."
Nicky and Alix did not wait for the confirmation. Fearing that the other children also might take ill, they made arrangements for Miss Eagar and her four small charges to leave that evening for Tsarkoe Selo while they stayed behind for the funeral. But at that point Alix also fell ill with a severe ear inflammation. Her health had progressively deteriorated with each pregnancy, and now she was weighed down by grief for her niece as well as concern for a favorite maid-of-honor, Sonia Orbelani, who during their Darmstadt visit had shown the first signs of the spinal disease that eventually would claim her life. Alix remained in Poland for six more weeks, to ill to move, finally returning home to Tsarkoe Selo just prior to Christmas-and soon after contracting influenza.
In the meantime, deprived of her beloved Ella, and now without her mother, Olga was understandably shaken. The children were told that God had come for Ella's spirit and that later he would take her body to heaven. For weeks this information weighed upon Olga's consciousness. Then, on Christmas morning, she awoke and straight away asked Miss Eagar, "Did God send for cousin Ella's body in the night?" When told that it had not happened, the grieving child dejectedly replied, "I thought He would have sent for her to keep Christmas with Him."
Nor was Olga any less impressionable when it came to overhearing opinions and rhetoric that floated about the palace. The following year, soon after Russia became embroiled in war with Japan, Olga startled Miss Eagar by saying, "I hope the Russian soldiers will kill all the Japanese-not leave even one alive." Miss Eagar remonstrated, causing her young charge to ask "Have they an Emperor in Japan?" and other similar questions. Then, after a thoughtful silence, the grand duchess slowly replied, "I did not know that the Japs were people like ourselves. I thought they were only like monkeys." And, added Miss Eagar, "She never said again anything about being pleased to hear of the deaths of the Japanese."
While the defeat at Tsushima undoubtedly affected the sensitive Olga, much better was the birth, that August at Peterhof, of what all had longed for: An heir to the throne. The day of Alexei's birth, Nicholas, the Dowager Empress Marie, and the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana and Marie attended a Te Deum, then received congratulations from all assembled. Less than two weeks later Olga and her sisters played prominent roles at their brother's christening ceremony.
How soon was Olga informed about the subsequent discovery of her brother's hemophilia? When and what she and her sisters were told is not known. But it is interesting to note that about this time-and less than a year after the loss of her cousin-Olga began a conscientious effort to moderate her former hijinks and boisterousness. It is not unreasonable to suspect that, along with the normal maturation process, Olga's exposure to the sudden death of a cousin, the nearby presence of an invalid former lady-in-waiting, and the arrival of a fragile baby brother, vividly illustrated that Life had a definite shadow side.
Olga Grows Up
In the meantime, tutors were hired and a new governess by the name of Sophie Tiutcheva employed as "OTMA" prepared in earnest for their roles, collectively and individually, as representatives of their father and country, and eventual prospects in the royal European marriage market. Moreover, the Tsarina expected her eldest daughter to set the example. Whether isolating herself in her famous mauve boudoir or accompanying her husband to various destinations in his realm, Alexandra began sending Olga notes that were often apologies, but even more frequently reminded her firstborn to be on her best behavior: "Show kindness to all, be gentle and loving, then all will love you." "I'm sorry I could not see you alone, but it's difficult these days." "Be sure to be very good and remember, elbows off the stable, sit straight and eat your meat nicely." "I am glad to hear that Baby Tsar has a new tooth, I hope he is quite well and does not have pain. As tomorrow you will only have a music lesson, I hope you will write me a little letter, and Tatiana too."
And Olga's plaintive, still ungrammatical responses echoed her mother's regrets, as in this note which reads, in part, "So sorry that never see you alone Mama dear, can not talk so should trie to write to you what could of course better say, but what is to be done if there is no time and neighter can I hear the dear words which sweet Mama could tell me."
As Olga entered what we would call her teenage years, Alexandra continued to write instructive notes. On the first day of 1909, Alix encouraged her thirteen-year-old daughter to "Try to be an example of what a good little obedient girlie ought to be. You are the eldest and must show the others how to behave. Learn to make others happy, think of yourself last of all. Be gentle and kind, never rough nor rude. In manners as well as in speech be a real lady. Be patient and polite, try to help sisters in every possible way. When you see somebody sad, try to cheer them up and show them a bright sunny smile. " Ten days later, Alexandra asked Olga not only to behave for her sake, but for the sake of a family counselor, Gregory Efimovich Rasputin: "Listen to those who are older than you. Remember above all to always be a good example to the little ones, only then our Friend will be contented with you." And still later that month, a reminder that "You are growing very big-don't be so wild and kick about and show your legs, it is not pretty. I never did so when your age or when I was smaller and younger even."
In addition to trying to measure up to her mother's standards, Olga was also assuming new duties. That July, for example, she became commander-in-chief of the third Elizabetgradsky Hussars Regiment. One of her duties was to concern herself with the decoration of her regiment's uniform. And so in 1911, on the petition of their commander-in-chief, the troops were given short white fur-lined cloaks to be worn with full-dress uniform. The men expressed their gratitude with the following regimental song:
We Hussars are not of foil, We are all of damask steel How we value Olga's name Our white cloak and our flag of fame!
But these were also the years that Rasputin's influence solidified. In an entry recorded on March 15, 1910, Xenia reports a conversation with one of Alexandra's ladies-in-waiting. "She is still under the shock of a conversation with S. I. Tiutcheva in Tsarskoe yesterday, and everything that is going on there: the attitude of Alix and the children to that sinister Grigory . . . He's always there, goes into the nursery, visits Olga and Tatiana while they are getting ready for bed, sits there talking to them and caressing them. They are careful to hide him from Sofia Ivanovana, and the children don't dare talk to her about him."
How much validity did this gossip contain? Whatever the case, Olga and Tatiana had learned to "close ranks" when it came to Rasputin . . . and it wasn't too long before the governess Tiutcheva was dismissed.
Olga Comes Of Age
By fall of 1911, the beautiful new Livadia Palace was being readied for its first party: A celebration of Olga's sixteenth birthday. "We were bidden for a quarter to seven o'clock," wrote Baroness Agnes de Stoeckl, who was residing at the nearby villa of Harax. "First we assembled in the large dining room . . . The doors at the end of the room opened; instantly a silence fell on the assembly. The Emperor appeared leading the Grand Duchess Olga; she looked pretty in her first long gown and her hair up for the first time."
But if those attending the party discussed what Olga and her sister Tatiana had witnessed only months ago, they did so quietly.
Many years before, after reading some stories centered on the more blood-stained aspects of English history, Olga had told Miss Eagar, "I really think people are much better now than they used to be. I'm very glad I live now when people are so kind." In recent times, however, Olga-who read voraciously and was becoming increasingly aware of threats against her father and his government-was understanding, more and more, the dangerous position she and her family were in. Even so, she could hardly have been prepared for what she had experienced that September.
They all had been on a visit to Kiev to dedicate a new statue of Alexander III, the tsar's late father. Included among the celebrations, a gala performance of Tsar Sultan had been scheduled, and that evening Nicholas escorted his two eldest daughters to the event. During the second intermission, as he and Olga were in the inner room from the imperial box, two loud noises were heard. Tatiana, standing outside the door to the outer box, saw what had happened and slammed the door to prevent her father and older sister from coming forward. But Nicholas, followed by Olga, rushed to the railing moments later and gazed down at the row of seats near the orchestra where Prime Minister Stolypin, his jacket bloodied by an assassin's gunfire, stood looking up at the Tsar and making the sign of the cross. Five days later the Prime Minister died of his wounds. Later Nicholas wrote to his mother that Tatiana had seemed especially shaken, and that both girls had been unable to sleep.
And it wasn't just the outside world that concerned Olga. In between her brother's bouts with hemophilia she was expected to monitor his frequently incorrigible behavior. In the spring of 1912, just before the family was about to leave for the Crimea, the wife of one of Nicky's cousins attended a luncheon at Tsarkoe Selo, then reported back to her husband about the Tsarevich's shocking behaviors. "He wouldn't sit up, ate badly, licked his plate and teased the others," the Grand Duke Konstatin Konstantivich recorded. "The Emperor often turned away, perhaps to avoid having to say anything, while the Empress rebuked her elder daughter Olga, who was next to her brother, for not restraining him. But Olga cannot deal with him."
After their stay in Livadia the family began another round of travels to historical sites, including those at Borodino and Moscow commemorating the centenary celebrations of Russia's resistance to Napoleon. Next they traveled to Spala in Poland for some much needed rest. It was during this time of supposed relaxation that Alexei suffered his most intense attack of hemophilia-so intense that he almost died. For some time certain monarchists had been discussing the possibility of removing Nicholas from power; one plot involved marrying Olga to her cousin Dmitri and placing the two of them on the throne. No longer a child, and probably aware of at least some of the gossip regarding the line of succession, it is safe to say that Olga felt the weight of her brother's latest attack almost as heavily as did her parents.
The Question of Marriage
As the new year began-a year of Tercentenary celebrations-the Tsar's highly marriageable eldest daughter was being noticed all the more. Later A. A. Mossolov, head of the Court Secretariat, would write that "Olga was at seventeen already quite a young lady, but she still behaved like a girl. She had beautiful light hair, her face-a wide oval-was purely Russian, not particularly regular, but her remarkably delicate coloring and her pretty smile, which disclosed remarkably even, white teeth, gave her a great freshness . . . Olga's character was even, good, with an almost angelic kindness."
It is very possible that Mossolov's observation of Olga at this time was influenced, without his knowledge, by a new dimension that had entered Olga's life: She was in love.
Her feelings were not for her notorious roue of a cousin, the Grand Duke Boris, whose proposal-made through his scheming mother, the widow of Nicky's Uncle Vladimir-had been rejected out of hand by Alexandra. Nor was Olga in love with her childhood playmate Dmitri Pavlovich, whose antics with the wealthy and dissipated Felix Yussovpov also fueled current St. Petersberg society gossip. Olga's affections were instead focused on a man that, with regard to their respective stations in life, would be deemed a highly unsuitable match.
Nicholas and Alexandra always had been amused rather than alarmed by the infatuations their daughters felt for the Standart officers. But now Olga was a young woman, and the object of her affection a handsome young officer just nine years her senior.
Earlier that year Paul Alexeyevich Voronov had been promoted to lieutenant and was one of the six main deck officers of the Standart. Born in Kostroma in 1886 into a family of the hereditary nobility, Voronov had entered St. Petersburg's marine and navel corps in 1904, subsequently serving on warships stationed in the Baltic. He was, in fact, on board the Admiral Makarov in waters off Italy when the terrible Messina earthquake occurred. The Admiral Makarov and two other Russian ships came to the rescue of more than 1,800 homeless people, and for his valor Ensign Voronov was awarded a medal by the Italian government.
Now as a Standart officer, Lieutenant Voronov was invited to the Livadia Palace for dinners and dances, as well as to escort the children on Crimean outings. And so by the fall of 1913, Olga's entries in her diary became increasingly more cheerful. Included amongst these entries-all using secret code-were her feelings for Paul Voronov, his reciprocation of her feelings, and the giddy proclamation that she had never been happier in her entire life. That year her birthday was spent on board the Standart, and after a great luncheon dancing was arranged on the yacht's quarterdeck.
A few weeks later, however, Olga recorded that "he is all the time with the Kleinmichels." For days she and her beloved officer would not see each other-but finally, when they did meet, "I didn't say a single word and didn't want to."
The difference was indeed due to Countess Catherine Kleinmichel, who was vacationing at her own Crimean villa and about to be visited by her two attractive nieces, Olga Konstantinova Kleinmichel and Tatiana Konstantinova Kleinmichel. Coincidentally, perhaps, the Countess received an invitation to breakfast at Livadia Palace. Shortly thereafter, Lieutenant Voronov's availability to Grand Duchess Olga diminished, and by December Olga learned that Voronov was engaged to marry Olga Kleinmichel. "Lord, send happiness to him, to my beloved one," she wrote.
The wedding was set for February 7, 1914, and the entire family attended. "God give them happiness," Olga recorded in her diary that day. Effective immediately after the wedding, Voronov had been granted a two month leave and a new post on the imperial yacht Alexandria, used for "inner cruising" along the coast of the Gulf of Finland. From that time on, although Olga would occasionally mention him in her diary-"I have seen him! I thank God!" "Lord save him!"-their relationship would be of the past.
It cannot have been comforting, either, to have known that her cousin Irina was also set to marry, even if the bridegroom was the perversely charismatic Count Felix Yussovpov. Just two days after Olga witnessed the marriage of Paul Voronov, she and her family attended the wedding of Irina and Felix. Her dashing but conflicted cousin Dmitri, also at the wedding, was rumored to have wanted to marry Irina himself.
And now yet another marriage prospect for the despairing grand duchess was being considered. Soon after the flurry of weddings, Princess Marie of Romania, her husband Prince Ferdinand, and their feckless son Prince Carol arrived in St. Petersberg. Princess Marie-flamboyant, perceptive, and much fonder of her cousin Nicholas than she was of her cousin Alexandra-found all four girls immensely likable, but remained unconvinced that Carol would be happy with Olga. She needn't have worried; Olga found Carol less than appealing, and was happy to find out that her mother felt the same way. Even so, a return visit of the Romanovs to Romania was arranged for June.
As that time neared, Olga began to exhibit signs of defiance. To one of her tutors, Pierre Gilliard, she said, "Tell me the truth, Monsieur, do you know why we are going to Romania?" Diplomacy, Gilliard offered. To which Olga- still wary of what lay ahead- replied they were traveling not for mere diplomacy's sake, but because of a possible marriage alliance. "I don't want it to happen," she adamantly stated. "Papa has promised not to make me, and I don't want to leave Russia. I am a Russian and I mean to remain a Russian."
The following day the Standart steamed into the Black Sea port of Constanza to the cheers of excited, well-wishing Romanian subjects. But as if to compensate for the lack of chemistry between the two young people, the day had been overscheduled with a Te Deum, a public drive through Constanza, a military review, a family lunch and a brief rest period, then tea on the imperial yacht and a gala banquet in a hall built especially for the occasion.
Moreover, the supposed marriage candidate for Prince Carol seemed to be less attractive than originally thought-as, indeed, was the case of her other three sisters. What the disappointed crowds did not know was that in a show of Musketeer-like solidarity, Olga and her sisters had purposely sunburned their faces during the voyage to Constanza.
The day proceeded according to schedule, with the obligatory speeches, photographs, and awkward if polite small talk. Instead of sparks flying between the recalcitrant Grand Duchess and the petulant Prince, however, the closest bonding appeared to be between Carol's younger brother, Nicholas, and the Tsarevich Alexei, when the latter showed the former how to spit grape seeds into the punch bowl. At the end of the day a series of fond farewells were made and the Standart steamed back across the Black Sea.
Less that two months later, Russia had joined "The War to End All Wars."
A New Vocation
Whatever her flaws, Alexandra had never been one to stand by in a crisis. Now she had a new cause, and within a short time she, her friend Anna Vyrubova, and Olga and Tatiana had enrolled in a nurses' training course. But while Alexandra demonstrated a talent for nursing, and Tatiana-as always-showed herself to be highly proficient, the sensibilities of the oldest grand duchess could not cope with the grisly horrors of the operating theater. Within a short time Olga was relieved of her operating room duties and given administrative work instead.
When not at the small hospital at Tsarkoe Selo, Olga and Tatiana kept busy with their various war effort committees. Olga had been unable to deal with the most gruesome aspects of hospital work, but she continued to work tirelessly in other capacities and was not above being contemptuous of those who had time on their hands. In March 1915, for example, Olga wrote to her father that "We are in Petrograd today. I had the pleasure of two hours presiding in a big committee . . . Then I went to Irina . . . Felix is a 'downright civilian,' dressed all in brown, walked to and fro about the room, searching in some bookcases with magazines and virtually doing nothing; an utterly unpleasant impression he makes-a man idling in such times."
Nor was Olga any less blunt in person. As she continued to log hospital hours, she and Tatiana became the special favorites of Valentina Ivanovna Chebotariova, a nurse and administrator. In her diary-sections of which were later published by her son Gregory-Valentina recorded her impressions of the German-born Tsarina and her two daughters. In her entry for July 17, 1915, she wrote, "And how at times [the Tsarina's] girls, with their characteristic vivacity, can hurt her." A wedding had just taken place at Pavlosk, and one of the guests said it had been "carefully concealed" that the groom's in-residence grandmother was a German. "'Of course he has to conceal it, I quite understand him, she may perhaps be a real bloodthirsty German,' burst out Olga Nicholaevna."
Still, Valentina empathized with "Sisters Romanova One and Two." As her son wrote later, "They seemed to like to be away from their gilded cage in the palace . . . This shyness when first meeting strangers was paralleled by intense interest in the way of life of ordinary people, about which they knew next to nothing. One day, the lady-in-waiting who usually picked up the two Grand Duchesses at the hospital was prevented by something from doing so and just sent the carriage along. The two girls seized the opportunity to do some exploring of the world around them on their own, and ordered the carriage to stop near the Gostinny Dvor, an arcade of shops, with the aim of buying something. They were not recognized in their nurse's uniforms. However, they very soon realized that not only had they no money with them, but that they did not know how to go about buying something. The next day they questioned Mother as to how this was done."
In the meantime, Alexandra was finding it more and more difficult to deal with her young adult children, in particular her less-than-cooperative eldest daughter. In a letter to Nicholas dated March 13, 1916, Alexandra wrote to her husband that "The children with all their love still have quite other ideas and rarely understand my way of looking at things . . . Olga is always most unamiable about every proposition, though may end by doing what I wish. And when I am severe-sulks me."
As Valentina continued to work alongside her young royal friends, Olg (by now frequently out of her mother's line-of-sight) began to write in her diary of a "Mitya." The first entry, made August 12, 1915, states, "One thing is the most important-talked with Mitya again." Soon the number of entries accelerated, sometimes mentioning that she "sat long with Mitya" or "awfully nice it was with Mitya," other times mentioning "It is miserable without Mitya." Then as 1915 turned into 1916, time spent with Mitya became less frequent, though occasionally she spoke with him on the telephone or she heard of his correspondence with others. By the fall of 1916, the entries had decreased, but Olga continued to see his mother from time to time, which made her "awfully glad, a bit of him she is."
Who was "Mitya," and what was Olga's depth of feeling for him? Some have asserted that he was in fact a young cavalry officer, Dmitri Malama, who had been wounded in battle and then, after being nursed back to health at Tsarkoe Selo, was appointed equerry to the court of the Tsar. But it was an open secret among those "in the know" that a romance had blossomed between Dmitri and Tatiana, rather than Tatiana's older sister. Could it be, then, that the sisters-known for their closeness-shared a beau? Or were Malama's attentions toward Tatiana simply a ruse-with Tatiana's amicable permission-to actually court Olga? Or was the "Mitya" of Olga's diaries another person entirely?
The war continued, and then-with Christmas fast approaching-came the shocking news, ricocheting like bullets throughout the already volatile atmosphere, of the assassination of Rasputin. To add to the shock, it soon became public knowledge that Count Felix Yussopov and the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich had been involved in the murder.
For a short time the Empress and her daughters went into seclusion. But the need for hospital workers remained, and on February 5, 1917, Valentina Ivanovna Chebotariova recorded yet another comment by Olga that would surely have troubled the Empress: "The following sentence escaped from Olga some days ago: 'Maybe it was necessary to kill him, but not so terribly- we are a family, one is ashamed to admit they are relatives.'"
Not long after, Olga and her brother were playing in the snow with a young military cadet who, as it turned out, had the measles. Olga and Alexei were the first to fall ill; soon, their sisters would succumb. It wasn't until Olga was on the road to slow recuperation that she learned, from her mother, that her father had abdicated the throne, and that they were now all under house arrest.
The Captive Grand Duchess
Sometime before these events Olga's increasing fears had apparently prompted a conversation between her and her father, resulting in his giving her a small pistol and undoubtedly lessons on how to use it. Now imprisoned, Olga did not forget the gun. Eventually she would take it with her to Siberia, where Colonel Kobylinksky, commandant of the Governor's House in Toblosk, would learn of its existence and convince her to give it up before she, Tatiana, Anastasia and Alexei rejoined their parents and Marie in Ekaterinberg. But for now, Olga kept quiet about her possession of the firearm. As the weather turned warm, she joined her sisters, father and members of the household in the approved activity of creating a vegetable garden. And her literary side expressed itself in at least one poem, dedicated to her Mother on April 23, 1917:
You are filled with anguish For the suffering of others. And no one's grief Has ever passed you by. You are relentless Only toward yourself, Forever cold and pitiless. But if only you could look upon Your own sadness from a distance, Just once with a loving soul- Oh, how you would pity yourself. How sadly you would weep.
Olga also continued to write letters, among them at least one to her "darling dear Godmother," Aunt Olga. Just 13 years older than her brother's eldest daughter, the Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna had seemed more of an older sister to the daughters of Nicky and Alix. For years Aunt Olga had been mired in an arranged marriage. Then, upon the outbreak of war, she too had become a nurse, and her growing love for one of her husband's aides-de-camp-a commoner by the name of Nicholas Koulikovsky-led her to petition, successfully, for a divorce. During the war Alexandra and her oldest daughters had visited Olga, by then nursing in Kiev. Now Olga was married to her beloved Colonel Koulikovsky, and they and their infant son, Tikhon, were sharing a similar imprisonment with other Romanovs in the Crimea.
Longing to speak to her Aunt Olga in person, Olga's June 21, 1917 letter begins by saying that she is "terribly touched by your sweet letter and heartfelt words. I wanted to have a heart-to-heart talk with you when you were with us in Kiev, but there wasn't the opportunity." She then discusses her mother's boredom and their "new life and the circumstances" at Tsarkoe Selo, adding that "we can all be grateful that we will be together and in the Crimea"-the family at this time still expected to be sent to Livadia-and closes with "A kiss to you and Mitya. Love you sincerely and with all my heart, Your loving Goddaughter, Olga."
By autumn the family and those who volunteered to accompany them had been sent to the Siberian city of Toblosk. That November Olga wrote to one of her former tutors, Peter Petrov, and noting that she was writing in red ink managed to joke, "What a fashionable color I'm using to write you with, eh?" Then she proceeded to tell him of their quiet, day-to-day existence; of the sound of a small choir that had visited them at the house ("a concertlike manner that I can't stand, although many praise it"); and that the family dogs, Joy, Ortino and Jemmy, "are thriving."
The day after Christmas 1917 found Olga sitting at the dining table in the big hall of their prison, once known as the Governor's House, composing a letter to a former lady-in-waiting her own age, Rita Khitrivo, whom she had befriended some years earlier. While the rest of the family-except for her mother, who was still in bed-sat drinking coffee and talking quietly, Olga wrote to "Ritka dear" that "Your letter from the seventh was obtained yesterday in the evening and I thank you greatly for it. I wrote to you on the fourth, and I don't know if you will get it or not . . . The fir tree we have is in the hall and gives off a wonderful smell, in no way like at Tsarskoe Selo. This is a special type called a balsamic fir tree. It smells strongly of oranges and along the trunk resin always flows. There are no ornaments, only silver rain and wax candles from the church. After dinner into Christmas Eve, we gave gifts out to all, a larger part of them embroideries. When all was assorted and ready to be given, I was reminded of the charitable markets in Yalta. You do remember such preparations?"
In April 1918 the decision was made to move the family. But since Alexei was not well enough to travel, it was decided that Nicholas and Alexandra would leave first, accompanied by Marie, and that the remaining children would, in time, follow. About six weeks later Alexei had recovered sufficiently and preparations were made for the transfer to Ekaterinberg.
As they waited to board the steamer Rus, lady-in-waiting Baroness Sophie Buxhoveden, who along with a large retinue of servants and household staff had accompanied the family into captivity, noted that "Olga Nicholaevna had also greatly changed. The suspense and anxiety of her parents' absence, and the responsibility she bore when left as head of the house with her sick brother to look after, had changed the lovely, bright girl of twenty-two into a faded and sad middle-aged woman." Olga, Baroness Buxhoveden added, was the only one of the daughters who "acutely realized the danger that their parents were in."
During the long wait it became increasingly apparent that anything from the houses the family and staff had occupied was being put on the ship, whether it belonged to them or not. "Olga Nicholaevna was in despair when she saw the archbishop's carriage and horse, which he had lent to take the Cesarevitch to the boat, also being taken on board. 'But he will need it. It is not ours, please tell them,' she said. I assured that my protestations would not help. We were prisoners and had to be passive."
Then one of the men hurt his foot while stepping off a ladder. "Remembering the many wounded she had nursed during the war," the baroness wrote, "Olga Nicholaevna was immediately full of solicitude and was anxious to look at his foot and bind it up. He was not a gaoler to her but a Russian sailor. The injury was nothing of importance and the man refused gruffly to have it seen to." Nonetheless, the baroness added, Olga Nicholaevna continued to worry about the "poor fellow."
When they at last arrived in Ekaterinberg, Nicholas recorded in his diary that "The poor things had suffered a lot of anguish, both in Tobolsk and during their three day journey." Then, as the days of their Ekaterinberg confinement turned into weeks, a new pattern of behavior began: Olga retreated further from her sisters and their growing friendliness with the Ipatiev House soldiers, choosing instead to stay closer and closer to her mother. When, in the early morning hours of July 17, 1918, the family, their remaining three servants, and the faithful family physician, Dr. Botkin, were taken down to a cellar, later testimony would reveal that both the Empress and Olga were in the process of making the sign of the cross when the first volley of bullets hit their targets.
Months earlier, Olga had written from Toblosk that "Father asks to . . . remember that the evil which is now in the world will become yet more powerful, and that it is not evil which conquers evil, but only love . . . " These words, reminiscent of those found in the famous diary of a young girl some three decades later, remind us that in no other way does man's inhumanity to man strike quite so viciously as in the decimation, through unrest, war, and revolution, of the young, the promising, and the idealistic.
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