Monday, 25 June 2018

The Lost Lives of Grand Duchesses Romanov

Grand Duchesses and the Romanov daughters – Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia (†1918) – so little had been written about them, aside from passing comments in a handful of contemporary memoirs and things said about them in family letters and diaries. They led very protected lives, attendance at Russian court functions and the occasional ball was a rare treat, as too were trips to opera and ballet in St. Petersburg with their Father, Emperor of Russia Nicholas II. In their childhood the four sisters lived a quiet family life at home at the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, where the family had close ranks to protect Prince Alexei from harm. Their summers were spent sailing on the imperial yacht, the Shtandart, round the Finnish skerries, or at the Lower Dacha at Peterhof by the Gulf of Finland, or at their beloved White Palace in Livadia, Crimea.

They signed some of their letters as OTMA, short for their names. Yet behind the scenes they were four very different personalities. Their letters and diaries reveal their lovely voices full of hope, of love, and of undying optimism – a belief in the basic goodness of people no matter how difficult and frightening their circumstances.

As the girls grew older speculation inevitably mounted about whom they might eventually marry, and all kinds of dynastic pairings were suggested. But all talk of marriage evaporated when the Great War broke out in 1914. Their personal lives aside forever, the war years revealed a different, sober, and suddenly grown-up side to the girls.

Next day the Great War broke out Tsarina Alexandra signed up the three elder daughters to be nurses in a military hospital. There the Romanov daughters were not spared any of the shock of their first confrontation with the suffering of the wounded and the terrible damage done to their bodies by bombs, sabres and bullets. They were thrown in at the deep end, dealing with men who arrived “dirty, bloodstained and suffering... Our hands scrubbed in antiseptic solutions, we began the work of washing, cleaning and bandaging maimed bodies, mangled faces, blinded eyes, all the indescribable mutilations of what is called civilized warfare” – they wrote in their diaries. Family tutor Pierre Gilliard observed that the Grand Duchesses “with their usual natural simplicity and good humour… accepted the increasing austerity of life at Court during the War... They were not playing at being nurses – which I observed in other aristocratic ladies – but were true sisters of mercy”.

The brisk and efficient Tatiana (b. 1897) was the absolute linchpin of the royal family: “She had inherited her mother's nature: strength of character, a tendency to keeping life in order, and an awareness of her duty. She took charge of organizing things in the house. She watched over Alexei. She always walked with the Emperor in the yard. She was the closest person to the Empress. They were two friends... If the family had lost Alexandra Feodorovna, then its protector would have been Tatiana Nikolaevna”.

Olga (b. 1895) was gentle and soft-hearted. In many ways she was Tatiana's opposite, so much easier to love, for she had inherited her father's warm, disarming charm. Unlike Tatiana, Olga hated being organized and loathed housework. With her love of books and preference for solitude, it seemed in their exile in 1918 she understood the situation considerably more than the rest of the family and was aware of how dangerous it was. Olga's finely tuned nature clearly predisposed her to a sense of impending tragedy, accentuated by her love of poetry and her increasing concentration, in her reading, on religious texts. She wrote to her friends: “Father asks me to tell all who have remained loyal to him and those over whom they might have an influence, that they should not avenge him, for he has forgiven everyone and prays for them all; that they should not themselves seek revenge; that they should remember that the evil there now is in the world and it will become yet more powerful, and that it is not evil that will conquer evil – only love”.

Of all the Romanov sisters, sweet, accommodating Maria (b. 1899) remained the most self-effacing, her consistently loving and stoical personality inviting the least amount of comment or criticism. Everyone, including the red guards and even the commissar, adored her. She was the archetypal, wholesome Russian girl “kind-hearted, cheerful, with an even temper, and friendly”.

Anastasia (b.1901) had an irrepressible personality; she was “the family's cheer-leader who kept everyone's spirits up with her high energy and mimicry”. She certainly could be juvenile at times, challenging authority in the classroom. But all in all, [in their exile], her “gay and boisterous temperament proved of immeasurable value to the rest of the family”, for when she chose to, “Anastasia could dispel anybody's gloom”.

Everyone who spent the last months in 1918 with the family noticed their quiet fortitude in the face of so much desperate uncertainty. “My respect for the Grand Duchesses only grew the longer our exile lasted” - recalled family doctor Botkin, “Every time the Emperor enters the dining room with a sad expression on his face the Grand Duchesses push each other with their elbows and whisper: “Papa is sad today. We must cheer him up”. And so they proceeded to do so. They would begin to laugh, to tell funny stories, and, in a few minutes, His Majesty begins to smile”.

When the daughters were leaving for Ekaterinburg, the place of their martyrdom (where the rest of the family was already under arrest), a local engineer who was at the station suddenly caught sight of three young women dressed in pretty dark suits with large fabric buttons whom he recognized as the Grand Duchesses: “They walked unsteadily, or rather unevenly. I decided that this was because each one was carrying a very heavy suitcase and also because the surface of the road had become squelchy from the incessant spring rain... They passed by very close and very slowly. I stared at their lively, young, expressive faces somewhat indiscreetly – and during those two or three minutes I learned something that I will not forget till my dying day. It felt that my eyes met those of the three unfortunate young women just for a moment and that when they did I reached into the depths of their martyred souls, as it were, and I was overwhelmed by the pity for them – me, a confirmed revolutionary. Without expecting it, I sensed that we Russian intellectuals, we who claim to be the precursors and the voice of conscience, were responsible for the undignified ridicule to which the Grand Duchesses were subjected... We do not have the right to forget, nor to forgive ourselves for our passivity and failure to do something for them”.

As the young women passed him, the engineer was struck by how “everything was painted on those young, nervous faces: the joy of seeing their parents again, the pride of oppressed young women forced to hide their mental anguish from hostile strangers, and, finally, perhaps, a premonition of imminent death... Olga, with the eyes of a gazelle, reminded me of a sad young girl from a Turgenev novel. Tatiana gave the impression of a haughty patrician with an air of pride in the way she looked at you. Anastasia seemed like a frightened, terrified child, who could, in different circumstances, be charming, light-hearted and affectionate...”

That engineer was, forever after, haunted by those faces. He felt – indeed he hoped - “that the three young girls, momentarily at least, sensed that what was imprinted on my face wasn't simply a cold curiosity and indifference towards them”. His natural human instincts had made him want to reach out and acknowledge them, but – “to my great shame, I held back out of weakness of character, thinking of my position, of my family”.

This was the last account of meeting the Romanov daughters alive and free...

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