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A bolt from the blue

The memoirs of the Grand Duchess Olga are an entertaining record for anyone interested in the imperial family’s home life during the last years of Russian autocracy.

21 April 2010

12:00 AM

21 April 2010

12:00 AM

25 Chapters of my Life: The Memoirs of Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna Paul Kulikovsky

Librario, pp.216, 11.99

The memoirs of the Grand Duchess Olga are an entertaining record for anyone interested in the imperial family’s home life during the last years of Russian autocracy.

The memoirs of the Grand Duchess Olga are an entertaining record for anyone interested in the imperial family’s home life during the last years of Russian autocracy.

Olga was the youngest of Alexander III’s six children; her mother was the Danish princess, Maria Fyodorovna. She was born just after her father’s accession, in 1882, when the throne was already in crisis. Her memoirs are suffused with a sort of distant innocence that has great charm, but one longs for a bit more: she gives a child’s, and then a woman’s, viewpoint, which contains little political information or even gossip; but she is modest, intelligent and observant, and provides a valuable insight into a vanished world.

Her eldest brother, the future Nicholas II, was 14 years her senior. The next son, Alexander, died in infancy of meningitis, and the third, George, suffered from TB and spent much time in the Caucausus where the air was said to be good for his lungs. He too died tragically young. There was a sister, Xenia, whose fascinating diaries are also published. And there was Michael, close to Olga both in age and emotionally, but destined to have a highly unsatisfactory career, marrying inappropriately and succeeding to the throne for one day after Nicholas’ abdication.


Olga was adored by her giant of a father, who, after his own father, the Tsar-Liberator Alexander II was assassinated, followed policies of rigid repression. But here we see him in a different light, both playful and loving.

The book contains some vivid scenes: Olga was involved in a train crash, with many casualties, and recounts all the shock and terror she felt. It is never clear whether it was an accident or the result of a terrorist attack. During the first world war, she nursed at the front near Kiev, and was clearly devoted to this task. She describes too, with touching nostalgia, both the eccentric grandeur of the court and the running of Gatchina, the Emperor’s country estate, with a painterly eye for the beauty and texture of the Russian countryside.

The story of her marriage was one of the scandals of the time: her husband, Prince Peter of Oldenburg, was a Romanov cousin, widely believed to be homosexual. Her account is somewhat discreet, but the marriage was probably never consummated and she soon fell in love with a young officer, Nikolai Kulikovsky. Their relationship fascinated the imperial court, especially when the husband appointed the lover his ADC. A touching moment comes when Olga is finally granted permission to marry Kulikovsky, who was to remain the love of her life and by whom she had two sons. (The book’s editor is her great-grandson, who fills in the facts behind her reminiscences.)

She seems distant from politics, but she did meet Rasputin who struck her simply at a ‘typical peasant’. She writes:

The news that a revolution had broken out in St Petersburg came to those of us who worked in our hospital in Kiev like a veritable thunderbolt. We hadn’t heard a word, not even a rumour … we read the news over and over again and did not want to believe our eyes … None of us could foresee how it would disrupt our lives.

Olga certainly had a gift for understatement. The revolutionaries executed not only her brother Nicholas and his family, but Michael too, and many other Romanovs, including their widowed aunt, the Grand Duchess Ella, who had entered a convent after her own husband’s assassination in 1905. Olga escaped to the Crimea where she was variously harassed and protected. Finally she fled to Denmark, where these memoirs were written and first published. She lived through the second world war but, fearful of Stalin’s secret police, ended her days in Canada, dying in 1960.

This book is best read in conjuction with Nicholas and Alexandra’s letters, with Dominic Lieven’s life of Nicholas II, and the superb Court of the Last Tsar by Greg King. It will be most thoroughly enjoyed by connoisseurs of the private lives of the Romanovs.


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