Grand Duchess Maria (1899-1918) is the least well known of the four daughters of Russia’s last Czar, Nicholas II and his consort, Empress Alexandra. Her two older sisters, Grand Duchess Olga (1895-1918) and Grand Duchess Tatiana (1897-1918) came of age and made their debut in Russian high society before the outbreak of the First World War and continued to be prominent public figures in wartime as nurses and heads of charitable organization. Maria’s younger sister, Grand Duchess Anastasia (1901-1918) became famous after her death as she was impersonated by numerous women who claimed to have survived the massacre of the Imperial family in 1918. In the context of her family, Maria was overshadowed by her sisters and younger brother, the heir to the throne, Grand Duke Alexei (1904-1918) and there is evidence that she sometimes felt overlooked in her own lifetime.
In recent decades, the publication of new primary source material concerning the imprisonment and murder of the Romanovs has done little for Maria’s reputation and historical legacy. A 1918 interview with Vassili Yakolev, the Bolshevik Commissar who escorted Nicholas, Alexandra and Maria from Tobolsk to Ekaterinburg (their final place of imprisonment), translated and reprinted in The Fall of the Romanovs: Political Dreams and Personal Struggles in a Time of Revolution dismisses Maria in a few lines: “Maria, the Romanovs’ daughter, is completely immature for her years. She has no understanding at all of life in the broad sense of the word. She is under the strong influence of her mother.” The 2005 book The Fate of the Romanovs, quotes extensively from biased Bolshevik sources and presents the teenaged Maria as a flirt who was censured by her family because of her friendly relations with the soldiers who kept the Romanovs under guard in 1917 and 1918. Helen Rappaport’s books about the Imperial family are kinder to Maria but Rappaport still emphasizes Maria’s perceived flirtations, concluding that “Gauche and naive, she was an innocent abroad in the company of men” in The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg.
Two new volumes of Maria’s letters and diaries,1913 Diary of Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna: Complete Tercentennial Journal of the Third Daughter of the Last Tsar and Maria and Anastasia: The Youngest Romanov Grand Duchesses In Their Own Words: Letters, Diaries, Postcards, edited by Helen Azar, finally allow the Grand Duchess to speak for her herself and demonstrate that she was not fully understood by those who met her in passing during the final months of her life. Klavdia Bitner, a tutor employed in 1917 noted that the Grand Duchesses were unfamiliar with certain contemporary authors and concluded that they were indifferently educated but Maria’s 1913 diary reveals that at the age of thirteen and fourteen, Maria’s days were dominated by lessons. On February 5, 1913, she wrote, “Had lessons in the morning…[In the afternoon] Had a dance lesson. Had a music lesson…Then did homework.” A report card from that year demonstrates that Maria received top marks from all of her tutors and that she experienced a wide variety of educational opportunities from frequent visits to theatre and ballet to physics lessons in the science lab of a secondary school near the Alexander Palace.
During the First World War, Nicholas II spent months at a time at military headquarters as Commander-in-Chief of the Russian army and his daughters wrote him frequent letters. Of the four sisters, Maria may have been the most descriptive letter writer, providing detailed and thoughtful accounts of the hospital where she volunteered with her sister Anastasia. On May 29, 1916, Maria wrote to her father, “This afternoon we rode around then went to our infirmary. Almost all the wounded are lying in the tent…Those who are able, walk to the Catherine Park and sail around the lake in row boats. They really enjoy this and always ask the nurses to go with them.”
Both Maria’s 1913 diary and her wartime letters demonstrate how closely she and her sisters were integrated into their father’s close relationship with the military: all four of the Grand Duchesses became honourary Colonels-in-Chief of regiments from the age of fourteen, attended military reviews, organized social events for military personnel and volunteered in military hospitals. This routine meant that Maria was comfortable socializing with soldiers from a young age. Her interest in the daily lives of soldiers and ability to create a friendly rapport would be interpreted as flirtation by Bolshevik observers after her family was placed under guard following Nicholas’s abdication in March 1917.
Maria’s diaries and letters also provide insights concerning the daily routine and social circle of the Russian Imperial family during the 1913 tercentennial of the Romanov dynasty and the First World War. The involvement of two of Czar Nicholas II’s relatives, his cousin Grand Duke Dmitri and nephew by marriage Prince Felix Yusupov, in the 1916 murder of Grigori Rasputin seems to demonstrate a longstanding estrangement between Nicholas and his extended family but Maria’s letters and diaries demonstrate that Nicholas, Alexandra and their children had a warm relationship with numerous members of the Romanov extended family. Maria appears to have been particularly close to the “Ai-Todorsky,” the children of her Aunt, Grand Duchess Xenia, including Princess Irina, who married Felix Yusupov.
Maria was murdered with the rest of her family on the night of July 16-17, 1918, soon after her nineteenth birthday. Her final letters demonstrate that she was the most hopeful member of her family in their final months. In a letter written just two months before her death, Maria wrote, “It is difficult to write anything pleasant, because there is very little of it here to report, but on the other hand, God does not abandon us, the sun shines and the birds sing.” The publication of Maria’s letters and diaries provide valuable new insights about life within Russia’s last Imperial family from 1913 to 1918 and show Maria to be an intelligent and thoughtful observer of her family’s experiences during the Romanov tercentennial, First World War and Russian Revolution.by
In the Fall of 2017, I will be teaching an eight week course about the history of Women in Power at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. Click here for more information and to register:
Time and Date:
03 Oct 2017 – 21 Nov 2017
7:00PM – 9:00PM
Powerful women have presented themselves as warrior queens, rulers by divine right, wives and mothers and, most recently, as elected officials. We’ll examine the most significant female political figures in history, including Boadicea, Queen Isabella, Queen Elizabeth I, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Clinton. Through lively lectures and discussions, you’ll learn the story of women in political life. Why are women still underrepresented in political life? Join Carolyn Harris for a fascinating look at the often-neglected place of women in power from Cleopatra to Angela Merkel.
“[The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge] want Princess Charlotte and Prince George to go to the local school. They want to be hands-on parents. On the day George left the hospital, William wrestled with the lad’s car seat, a performance reenacted daily by new dads the world over. The message they hoped you’d glean from it? Will and Kate are just like you and me.
In her new book, Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting, Canadian historian Carolyn Harris reveals there may be other parenting tips to be gleaned from royal watching. With Harris as inspiration, we offer six tips from moms and dads who also happened to be monarchs.”by
The May article in my Russian Revolution series in Smithsonian Magazine examines the May Day celebrations in Russia on May 1, 1917 and the subsequent call to arms for Russian women to take up combat roles during the First World War. Advocates of women’s rights in Russia and around the world, including the British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst, paid close attention to the mobilization of women on the eastern front.
Sources and Further Reading:
The Cavalry Maiden: Journals of a Russian Officer in the Napoleonic Wars Nadezhda Durova is quoted at the beginning of the article. The experiences of Durova, a woman who served with distinction in the Napoleonic Wars influenced Russian popular culture during the years preceding the First World War.
The May Day celebrations in Saint Petersburg on May 1, 1917 are described in detail in Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 – A World on the Edge by Helen Rappaport. The book also discusses Emmeline Pankhurst’s visit to Russia in the Spring on 1917.
Excerpts from the former Czar Nicholas II’s diaries, including his account of the May Day celebrations outside the Alexander Palace, where the Imperial family were under house arrest in 1917, are available to read in A Lifelong Passion: Nicholas and Alexandra: Their Own Story.
Maria Bockareva, the soldier who formed The Women’s Battalion of Death in 1917, wrote a memoir about her experiences, which was reprinted in 2013 as Maria’s War: A Soldier’s Autobiography.
The newspaper account of Russian women disguising themselves as men to enlist in the war effort as early as 1914 is available to read in Conflict and Cooperation: Documents on Modern Global History, edited by Tracey J. Kinney.
Midwives of the Revolution: Female Bolsheviks and Women Workers in 1917 by Jane McDermid and Anna Hillyar provides further context for the mobilization of women in 1917 as well as the role of women in the Bolshevik party.by
The April 1917 article in my monthly Smithsonian Russian Revolution series examines the struggles faced by the new Provisional Government after Czar Nicholas II abdicated. The new Prime Minister, Prince Georgy Lvov, a Russian nobleman, found himself politically isolated and unable to reconcile the competing demands of conservative and socialist political factions.
The rising star in Lvov’s government was Alexander Kerensky, Minister of Justice, whose first order of business was investigating former Czar Nicholas II. When Lvov’s government faced protests because of its determination to fulfill Czarist diplomatic and military obligations including Russia’s participation in the First World War, Kerensky orchestrated a coalition government with socialist parties and became Minister of War, events that became known as the April Crisis. Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik party, however, remained in opposition to this government, demanding an immediate end to hostilities on the eastern front.
Sources and Further Reading:
The quote at the beginning of the article is from Leo Tolstoy’s celebrated novel, Anna Karenina. Tolstoy and Lvov had been neighbours and shared a common disdain for the ostentatious lifestyle expected of members of the Czarist nobility before the Russian Revolution.
Lvov’s early life and career are discussed in detail in Orlando Figes’ history of the Russian Revolution, A People’s Tragedy. The book also discusses the difficult position faced by the Provisional Government in the Spring of 1917.
Accounts of celebrations of the establishment of the Provisional Government across Russia are included in War and Revolution in Russia 1914-1922 by Christopher Read.
Documents related to the Provisional Government’s arrest and investigation of the former Imperial family are translated and reprinted in The Fall of the Romanovs, a collection of primary sources about the Romanovs during and after the Russian Revolutions of 1917.
The memoirs of Alexander Kerensky have recently been reprinted in e-book form as The Catastrophe: Kerensky’s Own Story of the Russian Revolution
Lenin’s return to Russia is the subject of a recent book, Lenin on the Train by Catherine Merridale, author of Red Fortress, a history of Moscow’s Kremlin. Lenin’s writings and speeches are also available online.by
I discussed my new book Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting and some of my favorite royal books – fiction and non-fiction – with CBC books. The books I recommend include Our Queen by Robert Hardman, Monarchy and the End of Empire: The House of Windsor, the British Government, and the Postwar Commonwealth by Philip Murphy, Mrs Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn, Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette by Sena Jeter Naslund and The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak.by
My 3rd book, Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting, has been published by Dundurn Press in Canada. (The USA and UK release date is May 2).
How royal parents dealt with raising their children over the past thousand years, from keeping Vikings at bay to fending off paparazzi.
William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, are setting trends for millions of parents around the world. The upbringing of their children, Prince George and Princess Charlotte, is the focus of intense popular scrutiny. Royalty have always raised their children in the public eye and attracted praise or criticism according to parenting standards of their day.
Royal parents have faced unique challenges and held unique privileges. In medieval times, raising an heir often meant raising a rival, and monarchs sometimes faced their grown children on the battlefield. Conversely, kings and queens who lost their thrones in wars or popular revolutions often found solace in time spent with their children. In modern times, royal duties and overseas tours have often separated young princes and princesses from their parents, a circumstance that is slowly changing with the current generation of royalty.by
The March article in my monthly series for Smithsonian Magazine about the Russian Revolutions of 1917 is about the abdication of Czar Nicholas II, which took place nearly 100 years ago on March 15, 1917. Since becoming Czar in 1894, Nicholas II had remained in power through a number of crises including Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904 and Bloody Sunday in 1905. The difference in 1917 was that Nicholas II lost the support of the military during the First World War and his generals urged him to abdicate in the interests of continuing the war on the eastern front.
Click here to read “The Abdication of Nicholas II Left Russia Without a Czar for the First Time in 300 Years” in Smithsonian Magazine
Sources and Further Reading:
After his abdication, Czar Nicholas II caught up on reading, completing War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy for the first time while under house arrest. My article begins with a quote from the novel from Part 2, when Napoleon invaded Russia during the reign of Czar Alexander I.
Key documents concerning the abdication of Nicholas II including the telegrams from his generals, announcements by the Duma and the abdication manifesto itself are translated and reprinted in The Fall of the Romanovs: Political Dreams and Personal Struggles in a Time of Revolution
The Complete Wartime Correspondence of Tsar Nicholas II and the Empress Alexandra has been published in its entirety. Excerpts from the Imperial couple’s letters are also printed in A Lifelong Passion: Nicholas and Alexandra: Their Own Story
Dominic Lieven’s latest book discusses The End of Tsarist Russia: The March to World War I and Revolution. He is also the author of a political biography of Czar Nicholas II entitled Nicholas II: Twilight of the Empire
The impressions of foreigners resident in Saint Petersburg during the Russian Revolutions of 1917 feature in Helen Rappaport’s new book, Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 – A World on the Edge. Rappaport is also the author of a number of other excellent books about the last Imperial family including The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra and The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg
In The Last of the Tsars, historian Robert Service examines Nicholas II’s political views and his conversations with his household and guards after his abdication.
Numerous members of Czar Nicholas II’s extended family, household and social circle survived the Russian Revolutions of 1917 and fled abroad, where they wrote their memoirs about Russia’s last Imperial family. I include excerpts from three of these works in the article: The Education of a Princess by Czar Nicholas II’s cousin, Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, The Real Tsaritsa by Empress Alexandra’s friend, Lili Dehn and Thirteen Years at the Russian Court by the Imperial children’s French tutor, Pierre Gilliard.by
My latest article in my monthly Russian Revolution series in Smithsonian Magazine is about the February Revolution, which precipitated the downfall of the Romanov dynasty. Women played a key role in this political unrest.
“In the country’s urban centers, with men on the battlefield, women took on new roles in the workforce, as they did throughout Europe during the war. Between 1914 and 1917, 250,000 more women began working outside the home for the first time. By the outbreak of the February Revolution, close to one million female workers lived in Russia’s cities, but were paid half the wages of men and endured substandard living conditions. The journalist Ariadna Tyrkova wrote, “Day by day, the war has changed attitudes about woman. It has become increasingly clear that the unseen effort of a woman and her labour often support the entire economy of a country.””
Sources and Further Reading:
The quotation at the beginning of the article is from The Lower Depths, a play written by Maxim Gorky in 1901-1902, which became especially popular following the Russian Revolutions of 1917.
The letter to King George V from Czar Nicholas II quoted in the article is reprinted in A Lifelong Passion: Nicholas and Alexandra: Their Own Story. For more information about the relationship between King George V, Czar Nicholas II and Kaiser Wilhelm II during the First World War, see George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I by Miranda Carter.
Czar Nicholas II’s abdication manifesto, the telegrams from the Czar’s generals requesting his abdication, correspondence between Nicholas and Alexandra in February and March 1917 and documents concerning the Provisional Government’s assumption of power are available in The Fall of the Romanovs: Political Dreams and Personal Struggles in a Time of Revolution (Annals of Communism Series)
The description of women persuading the workers at the Nobel Engineering works to go on strike is reprinted in Women in Russia, 1700-2000 by Barbara Alpern Engel, p. 134.
Excerpts from the writings of journalist Ariadna Tyrkova are available to read in Russian Women, 1698-1917: Experience and Expression, An Anthology of Sources
An excellent book about Russian women’s lives prior to the Russian Revolutions of 1917 including legal status, political influence, fashion and daily life is Women in Russian History: From the Tenth to the Twentieth Century by Natalia Pushkarevaby