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...

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Prince Alexei Romanov: A Short and Bright Life

Look at the icon of New Martyrs and Confessors of the Russian Orthodox Church and you will see something very important. There is a boy standing in front of all the great martyrs and confessors who defended the Faith in its darkest hour in Russia. He is up there like the main intercessor before God for all people. How come a boy’s prayers can be so powerful and important to God?

We know that a child’s prayer is always particularly dear to God, and that’s why it’s always a good idea to teach kids to pray. The Russian Orthodox Church is very lucky and unique in the fact that it has a child as its intercessor. This boy is St. Alexei (†1918), Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra’s only son and the heir to the Russian throne. The whole Royal Family went through martyrdom at the cruel hands of godless commissars in July of 1918. St. Alexei was the youngest in the family; he was about 14 at the time.

St. Alexei was born on July 30 (August 12, NS), 1904, in Peterhof, a beautiful suburb of St.Petersburg. He was the fifth and the last child in the royal family. Alexei was very long awaited by his parents as the line of hereditary succession in Russia required a male heir to the throne. Before Alexei Tsar and Tsarina had four daughters: Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia. Together they made up one of the most loving and exemplary families in the world. They were canonized in Orthodox Christianity as a family too.

Pierre Gilliard, a Swiss academic and a French language tutor to the royal children wrote in his memoirs about the first time he saw Alexei: “I almost finished my class with Olga Nikolaevna [-Tsar’s daughter-] when the Empress entered with the Prince on her hands. She obviously wanted to show me her newborn son who I have not seen yet. Her face shone with maternal joy as the Prince was the answer to her long prayers. I felt she was very proud and happy for her beautiful son… And indeed the Prince was as good-looking a boy as you could only imagine with his pretty fair-hair curls, big grey-green eyes, long and beautiful eyelashes. His face had healthy rosy complexion, and when he was smiling he had two cute dimples at his cheeks… I noticed that the Empress was holding the Prince very tenderly and tightly to herself. There was some deep underlying concern about her loving look at him. It was much later when I realized the reason for her concern”.

Little Alexei was found to have a rare hereditary blood condition called hemophilia causing very slow blood clotting and thinning of blood vessels. Any small bruise or cut would cause him a lot of painful suffering and might be deadly. From his earliest age his doctors required special care for him, which was carried out by two sailors who were with him at all times. Many regular kids’ activities that his sisters enjoyed were prohibited for him, like playing tennis or riding a bike.

Nonetheless, little Alexei was a very playful boy. Pierre Gilliard noted in his diaries that Alexei liked to play with his guards’ kids, never paying any attention to his royal status or their being sailors’ children; yet he was a very thoughtful, bright and compassionate boy. Gilliard was often struck by the questions Alexei would ask, which meant just how delicate and sensitive he was. Gilliard wrote: “I found in him a boy with a naturally loving heart with unusually deep understanding of other people’s pain, probably because he suffered himself a lot”. Another commentator noted that Alexei’s condition increased his will power as he did not like to cause too much concern in those around him while his sufferings were truly great. He also had a lot of respect for his mother and for all who would devote themselves to caring for others.

Young Prince’s life was far from being luxurious. Alexei spent a lot of time studying and doing homework. He studied with breaks from 9 am to 2 pm. Then there was a mandatory walk in the fresh air with other kids, his favorite pet animals or his sisters (he especially enjoyed the company of Anastasia who was just a little older than him). At 4pm the studies resumed and lasted until dinner time. All commentators noted his bright and quick mind, his high ability to learn. Before bedtime Alexei would listen to his father's reading out his favorite book. Alexei was very religious and when his health allowed it he always attended Church services with his family (missing Church for other members of the royal family was not an option).

All this suffering and the incurable condition shaped a very special personality in him. By ten he had learnt quite well what pain was and how close death could be. Once his sister Olga found him lying on his back and looking at the clouds: “What are you doing?” – she asked. “I like to think. I enjoy so much the sun and the summer, and I know tomorrow I might not see it again” – he replied. He realized very well how fragile life was and how limited the physical presence might be even if you are a Prince.

They say there are no ifs in history but looking at the downfall of Soviet Russia in the 20th century it’s very important to think of what Russia would have become had Alexei become its Tsar. His father, Tsar Nicholas II laid out very firm and fertile foundation for the economic, cultural and religious development of the country which flourished under his rule. Russia was still behind some world powers but this lag was only temporary. With Alexei being all Nicholas II hoped for in terms of intellect, character, faith, and more – due to his specific condition – Russia would have soared as an economic, political, scientific, cultural and spiritual leader of the world. It would have become the country demonstrating both might and highest moral principles and ideals, setting the mark of responsible political behavior at such high levels that are nowhere seen at the real moment. The Russian monarchy would have become the glorious kingdom, emulating the mystical Kingdom as close as it is physically possible in this world.

There is profound wisdom in the fact that God did not let this happen at that time. For the good of the mankind He sent His Own Son to die on the Cross. For the same good of the Russian people the Royal Passion-Bearers accepted their martyrdom. The world was simply not ready for this bright kingdom that Russia would have become, and God in His Wisdom made it impossible – for the moment. But as St. Paul wrote it in his Epistle “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of preaching to save those who believe.” (1Cor 1:21). The life of St. Alexei shows that the only true and lasting answer to all human weakness and suffering is humility, unconditional love for Jesus Christ Who would accept all His faithful servants in His Heavenly Kingdom. And this Kingdom would never crumble as did Russia without the Orthodox Christianity and the pious Tsar.

(Translated from Russian and English-language sources)

Thursday, 14 June 2018

"Her Love Will Prevail"

Auto-portrait by Tsarina Alexandra
To say that Tsarina Alexandra (†1918), Russian Tsar Nicholas's wife, was under pressure means to say almost nothing about her. In fact she was under such tremendous pressure all her life at the Russian Royal Court that it’s almost a miracle she never complained. Yet only her profound faith in Christ and His Ultimate Sacrifice helped her cope with that pressure. True, she had a loving and supportive husband but there are places human support cannot reach.

Consider such challenges St. Alexandra faced. After she married to Tsar Nicholas II she moved to the Russian Royal Court in the capital city of St. Petersburg. She happened to be of German descent (of a mostly Anglo-German mix) during the war between Russia and Germany, when the anti-German sentiment in Russia was so high that even the then-capital was officially renamed Petrograd to avoid the German sound. Newspapers hinted bluntly about her being a German spy, to say nothing of court gossip. Interestingly, the public chose to completely forget about her Grandmother who was the famous British Queen Victoria ruling the ally nation of Great Britain!

Another example. St. Alexandra was supposed to produce a male heir to the Russian Throne but kept giving birth to girls, four of them one after another. When the fourth daughter Anastasia was born the most popular Russian newspaper at the time described the event in a front-page article under the title “What a Disappointment!.. A Fourth Girl!” Not really supportive, is it?! Finally, when she gave birth to a son named Alexei, it was found he had incurable blood condition hemophilia. It impaired his blood to clot, which meant that a simple bruise would make him suffer severe pains and might easily kill him. This disease was inherited, and it came down from her German ancestry, so she actually was the cause of his sufferings. How is that for a mother to bear?

But even in areas where it was hard to find fault with her, some ridiculous accusation would still arise. In 1914 next day after the war with Germany broke out she and her three elder daughters went to become hospital nurses. St. Alexandra wanted her daughters to become real nurses, not just appropriate pictures on fashionable magazine covers. She ordered simple uniforms for them, found a doctor who could teach the girls the basics of medical care and wound treatment, and got that doctor to work with the daughters in real operation rooms with severely mutilated soldiers. If they could not assist they would dress wounds. They would even cut soldiers’ nails! One would think you can’t really find fault with that exemplary behavior. Well, there were people who publicly accused Tsarina of seeking cheap popularity, demystifying imperial women, and their “common” association with unclean wounds and men’s bodies. She never said a word back…

You get the idea now, Tsarina Alexandra was not very popular with the Russian media. Understandably, it made her devote most of her time to the family, and after Alexei was born – to him. Of course, there were public accusations of being cold, haughty, snobbish, you name it. By that time she already learnt simply to ignore them but her general health had already taken a hit and she had a lot of back pain for the rest of her life. However, it never affected her work as a nurse. She worked full time herself as a regular nurse in a regular hospital providing an example to her daughters and to all staff.

There God revealed her gift of giving religious consolation to the sick and the dying. Many suffering soldiers reported (and many fellow nurses witnessed) how their pains would ease once St. Alexandra just sat by the bed, holding their hand and praying for them or talking to them about Christ and His Immeasurable Sufferings. She never refused a single request of that kind, sometimes leaving home in the middle of the night on a phone call to console a dying soldier who wished to see her before death. Just like sick Alexei they were all her children and she was able to share with them her unlimited compassion and religious wisdom. In her own words she believed “her responsibility was to be where people were suffering”.

To those who still harbour scorn for the Royal Martyrs I would suggest reading Tsarina’s letters from Siberian imprisonment, after 1917, when they had lost everything and were completely vulnerable to commissars, militant atheists and anti-monarchists. Those letters are published now. Her religious wisdom there takes biblical profundity: “One must always and ever be thankful to God for everything one has, and what one has lost is even better, as it makes one brighter, cleaner. Never complain but hope, for God is so big we can just pray. I keep praying for my Russian Motherland which is crushing terribly at the moment… We are all fine, God thinks about us, locals keep sending us bread, fish, and vegetables secretly. Really, dear, don’t worry about us. My heart is broken only when I think about Russia – what they did to it in just a year! But God let it happen, and then it should be so, to make people see the lies around. It hurts to think that everything we cherished and were proud of got shamelessly destroyed and trampled upon. Only this is good for the soul which must grow and rise above the earthly, mustn’t it? We all need to understand that God is above all, that He wants us to get closer to Him through our sufferings. Love Him as much as you can… Right now the country is dying but with God’s help it will manage, He will show His strength and wisdom, we just need to wait, believe, and pray”.

(From Russian and English-language sources)