Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna
Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna
Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna (1895-1918) of Russia was the eldest daughter of the last tsar of Imperial Russia, Nicholas II (1868–1918). She died at age 22, along with her three sisters, younger brother, and parents, on a night in July of 1918, when the royal family—then under house arrest after Nicholas's abdication in the midst of a Communist revolution— was taken into a basement room and shot on orders of the local Bolshevik regional government.
Olga was born on November 15, 1895, at Tsarskoye Selo (“Tsar's Village”), the imperial family's estate outside of St. Petersburg. On her father's side she was a Romanov, the dynasty that had ruled Imperial Russia since 1613, and this first child of the tsar's marriage was named in honor of Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna (1882-1960), the tsar's sister, who spent a great deal of time with her nieces and nephew during their youth and young adulthood. On her mother's side, Olga descended from the venerable German dynasty that produced England's Queen Victoria, who was Olga's great-grandmother. Olga's mother was Alix of Hesse, who wed Nicholas in April of 1894 and became Empress Alexandra of Russia. As a ten-month-old, Olga visited Queen Victoria when her parents took her to Balmoral, the royal castle in Scotland.
“The Big Pair”
Olga was an only child for 19 months, until the birth of her sister Tatiana in June of 1897. Two years later came Maria, followed by Anastasia in June of 1901. The Romanovs ruled by the right of male primogeniture, which meant only a male heir could become tsar; there was immense relief, therefore, in August of 1904 when a son was born to Nicholas and Alexandra, whom they named Alexei. The little Tsarevich, as he was known, soon showed signs of hemophilia, an incurable genetic disorder that had already afflicted several in his mother's family. Hemophilia is characterized by a lack of clotting agents in the blood, which meant that a simple injury could lead to fatal internal bleeding. In this era, there were no remedies for hemophiliacs, and few lived past the age of 20.
Olga and her sisters doted on the Tsarevich, and with few friends outside of their royal circles all five siblings were a close-knit family. Olga shared a bedroom with Tatiana, and the two were referred to as “the big pair.” Maria and Anastasia were also dressed in matching outfits and dubbed “the little pair.” Like their father before them, the girls lived in austere conditions despite the opulence of the imperial household. When they were little, they slept on camp beds and were required to take a cold-water bath each morning. As they grew into their teens, however, the quartet of daughters successfully petitioned for a few more luxuries, and later took baths in a solid silver tub with water both heated and perfumed. Olga's signature scent was reportedly Rose Thé from the French perfumer Coty. They spoke Russian amongst themselves, with their father, and to members of the household staff, and English with their mother. Like her sisters, Olga was educated at home by a governess and tutors. She was known as high-spirited and somewhat willful, though not as mischievous as the youngest sister, Anastasia.
Mother Influenced by Odd Monk
Empress Alexandra spent much of her children's lives in poor health. She suffered from both migraines and sciatica, and was confined to a dark room for the former and a wheelchair at times because of the latter. She had renounced her Lutheran faith as required for her marriage, and became a devout convert to the Russian Orthodox faith. Her weakened state, exacerbated by worry over Alexei's always-precarious health, led her to fall prey to an unusual spiritual advisor. Grigori Rasputin (1869-1916) was a bearded, unkempt Russian peasant known as a wandering monk, who had impressive powers as a faith healer. The Empress requested his help for her son, and the improvement in Alexei's condition secured Rasputin's link to the royal family for several years. The household staff, however, was resentful of the uncouth, disheveled peasant's access to the Romanovs, and those close to the family were also wary. For years gossip circulated that Rasputin was conducting an affair with Alexandra, and had even seduced all four daughters. He was finally murdered by a posse of aristocrats in December of 1916.
Olga had been briefly engaged to one of the men who killed the monk, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, back in 1912, but they drifted apart and Russian history scholars posit that the influence of Rasputin likely caused Dmitri to distance himself from the family. Another marital prospect was Prince Edward of England (1894-1972), eldest son of Britain's George V (1865-1936), who remained a bachelor when he assumed the throne as Edward VIII in 1936, then famously abdicated eleven months later to marry a twicedivorced American woman. There was also a halfhearted attempt to unite Olga with a member of the Romanian royal family; she and her sisters visited Romania in the summer of 1914, but Olga was reportedly unimpressed with Crown Prince Carol. She revealed to intimates that her parents had promised to allow her some input into her future spouse and would not compel her to marry someone she did not love.
Became War Nurse
In November of 1915, Olga celebrated her twentieth birthday, was given access to her personal fortune at the milestone year, and began making charitable bequests. By this point Russia was fully engaged in a large-scale war with her mother's homeland of imperial Germany in the conflict that became known as World War I. Olga trained as a Red Cross nurse and tended the wounded in a St. Petersburg military hospital for several months. Her mother and Tatiana also joined in the war effort, while their father—against all advice, and with no combat experience—insisted upon commanding Russian troops in the field. Russia was losing badly, and the number of horrific injuries began to weigh on Olga. She became alternately depressed and prone to angry outbursts, was given arsenic injections as treatment, and finally moved to an administrative job at the hospital.
As nurses at the hospital, the “big pair” were able to meet regular young women their own age for the first time in their lives, and exhibited a keen curiosity about what life was like outside the royal enclave. The duchesses usually traveled back and forth to their duties with a lady-in-waiting, but on one occasion the carriage came with just the driver, whom Olga and her sister Tatiana ordered to stop in St. Petersburg's retail district. They ventured into a store, thrilled that they were not recognized in their nurse uniforms, and tried to buy something but had no money. The next day, they asked one of their fellow nurses exactly how such store transactions were conducted.
Millions of Russians, meanwhile, lived in the most abject poverty. The Romanovs had freed the entirety of the peasants just 50 years earlier; for several generations the poorest farmers had essentially lived as sharecroppers, bound to the estate of the local landowning noble and prohibited from moving elsewhere. During his reign, Olga's father was famously resistant to calls for further democratic reforms, yielding only when absolutely cornered while ordering a growing state-security apparatus to deal harshly with political opponents of the monarchy. The war only worsened anti-Romanov sentiment, with the Tsar blamed for the mounting casualties and resentment focused on his already-disliked wife, unpopular because of her German heritage, haughty airs, and devotion to Rasputin. Revolutionary groups used the growing unrest in both the armed forces and in the civilian populace as an opportunity to seize power in March of 1917. Nicholas finally agreed to abdicate in order to prevent outright civil war.
Sixteen-Month House Arrest
When Olga and her sisters lost their royal status, they were at Tsarskoye Selo and were guarded by royal troops in an uneasy truce for several days before their father was able to join them there. They were suddenly at the mercy of a revolutionary village council, who now made all decisions about their daily routine, diet, access to books, and other details. They were held there for five months as the country descended into civil war, with the Red Army fighting on the side of the new Communist Soviet state. On the other side was the White Army, made up of troops loyal to the Romanovs and the monarchy. In August the family was moved to a governor's mansion in the Siberian city of Tobolsk. In the spring of 1918, after more than a year of house arrest, the family was moved once more, this time to Ekaterinburg, a city in central Russia. Before the trip, Olga and her sisters sewed their jewels into the lining of their clothes.
In Ekaterinburg the family was placed under guard in Ipatiev House, a once-grand residence commissioned by the Ural Soviet, the regional governing council. With them there were a retinue of close servants, including the maid Anna Demidova; Alexei's physician, Dr. Eugene Botkin; Trupp, Nicholas's valet, and two cooks. Olga walked twice a day in the yard with her father, a brief respite from being shut up in the house, whose windows were locked and painted white except for one; this was done to prevent the family from signaling to the outside for rescue.
There was indeed a concerted effort to make contact with the Romanovs and rescue them. When the White Army advanced toward Ekaterinburg, the Ural Soviet decided to put to rest fears that the family would be freed (and restored to the throne, which would likely result in mass executions of Communists) by eliminating them altogether. On the night of July 16-17, 1918, Botkin was told to wake the family just after midnight and assemble them. The order was given by Yakov Yurovsky, the newly installed commander of the Cheka, the Bolshevik government's secret police. He told the family that there was unrest in the town and that they needed to be taken to the basement for their protection. They walked through a courtyard—with their retinue and Jemmy, Anastasia's King Charles spaniel—and entered a room with no furnishings. Yurovsky arranged them in two rows, informing them that a photograph needed to be made to quell rumors circulating that they had escaped from custody. Then he gave an order, and eleven soldiers brandishing revolvers entered the room. Yurovsky took out a piece of paper and read aloud from it: “In view of the fact that your relatives are continuing their attack on Soviet Russia, the Ural Executive Committee has decided to execute you,” according to Robert K. Massie's The Romanovs: The Final Chapter.
At that, Nicholas turned to look at his family as he said, “What? What?” and was shot first by Yurovsky. The other weapons were fired immediately. Olga was shot in the head and died quickly, having attempted to make the sign of the cross before she fell. Her sisters, however, seemed impervious to the bullets. The executioners had been told to fire at the hearts, but after the first bullets did not pierce their dresses, the soldiers panicked and fired a volley of shots. Only when the bodies were buried were the jewels they had sewn into their corsets discovered, which had appeared to make them bulletproof; a stunning 18 pounds of diamonds alone were found. The bodies were dismembered, then burned, a process which reportedly took three days. Five days after that, the Ekaterinburg fell to the Whites. Their graves were not discovered until 1991, and subsequent DNA tests confirmed the identities of Olga, her parents, and two of her sisters. In 1998 their remains were interred at Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg.
Martin, Russell E., “Romanov Dynasty,” Encyclopedia of Russian History, edited by James R. Millar, volume 3, Macmillan Reference USA, 2004.
Massie, Robert K., Nicholas and Alexandra, Atheneum, 1967.
Massie, Robert K., The Romanovs: The Final Chapter, Random House, 1995.