Toronto Star Interview: Shabby Toronto apartment was once home to Russia’s Grand Duchess Olga

Grand Duchess Olga painting in her Cooksville home

Grand Duchess Olga during her last years in Canada

Grand Duchess Olga, younger sister of Russia’s last Czar, Nicholas II, lived in Canada from 1948 until her death in 1960. Olga’s last home in Toronto has recently gone up for sale, demonstrating the changes she experienced over the course of her life, from her birth at the Peterhof Palace outside St. Petersburg, to her last months in a Toronto apartment.

I am quoted in an article about Grand Duchess Olga’s time in Canada in today’s Toronto Star. Click here to read “Shabby Toronto apartment was once home to Russia’s Grand Duchess Olga

For more on Grand Duchess Olga, see my article on this site, “From St. Petersburg to Toronto: The Life of Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna”

Friday Royal Read: The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport

The last Imperial family of Russia are one of the best documented families in history. Czar Nicholas II, his wife Empress Alexandra, their four daughters, Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia and their son, Grand Duke Alexei lived at a time when photography and newsreels captured the royal image and they all kept diaries and wrote numerous letters. The Russian Revolutions of 1917 and the murder of the entire family in 1918 resulted in an exodus of courtiers from Russia who wrote books about their time with the Romanovs.

Despite all these sources, the distinct personalities and achievements of Nicholas and Alexandra’s daughters are little known. In official photographs, the Grand Duchesses dresses alike, appearing interchangeable in public. Their murder when the eldest was twenty-two and the youngest was seventeen resulted in the public viewing them collectively as “the children” or martyrs rather than as individuals. In The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra, Helen Rappaport, author of The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg, Conspirator: Lenin in Exile and A Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert, and the Death That Changed the British Monarchy, reconstructs the lives Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia led behind palace walls.

Books about the Grand Duchesses are often dominated by their last days, deaths and the numerous claimants who captured the popular imagination. Rappaport keeps the focus firmly on the young women’s lives. (Readers interested in their deaths should consult her previous book, The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg). There is plenty of material from newspapers, letters and diaries revealing how the four young women were viewed during their lives.

Alexandra may have hoped to shield her daughters from what she perceived as the corrupting influence of court society but society was intensely curious about them. The years leading up to the First World War saw intense speculation about the princes they would marry and the potential for change to Russia’s semi-Salic succession laws.  The Grand Duchesses’ writings reveal that they had their own, more modest goals. Olga confided to a friend during the war that she hoped, “To get married, live always in the countryside summer and winter, always mix with good people, and no officialdom whatsoever.”

The most fascinating chapters of Rappaport’s book cover the war years because these sections reveal the full scope of the Grand Duchesses’s war work and impact on Russia. Like other young women of their social station, Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia found leadership opportunities during wartime that expanded their horizons. While other works on the Romanovs focus on how Olga and Tatiana trained as nurses alongside their mother, Rappaport also looks at their committee work and fundraising opportunities in detail. Tatiana, in particular, excelled at these activities. She chaired a committee for the aid of displaced refugees, wrote a newspaper article to increase awareness of this issue, collected donations from an international array of donors and did administrative work for her charities.

Rappaport devotes much of the first third of the book to Alexandra’s upbringing and the influence she had over her daughters. While this material is crucial to understanding the worldview of the Grand Duchesses, more material on Nicholas II’s childhood would have been useful here. The last Czar was an involved father who spent a great deal of time with his daughters and was undoubtedly also a strong influence over their lives.

The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra restores the individuality of Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia. They were among the most famous royal personages of their early twentieth century and continue to fascinate people around the world today. Rappaport has written the definitive biography of four young women who made a profound impact on their family and country during their short lives.

Next Week: Hereward: The English Outlaw who Rebelled Against William the Conqueror by Peter Rex

My column in today’s Globe and Mail about Prince Charles’s remarks on Vladimir Putin

My column in today’s Globe and Mail discusses Prince Charles’s remarks on Vladimir Putin. There’s a long history of royalty making critical remarks about Russia but still fulfilling their duties as constitutional monarchs.

Click here to read “A Future King and that Hitler thing” in the Globe and Mail

CBC Syndicated Radio Interviews about Prince Charles and Putin for May 21

Here’s today’s schedule of CBC radio interviews

WINNIPEG     — Up to Speed
HALIFAX   — Mainstreet
SASKATCHEWAN – Afternoon Edition
VICTORIA  — All Points West
THUNDER BAY  — Voyage North
KELOWNA — Radio West
EDMONTON   — Radio Active

Empress of the Night: A Novel of Catherine the Great by Eva Stachniak (Historical Fiction Review)

Since the publication of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl in 2001, the Tudors have dominated English language popular historical fiction. In addition to novels about Henry VIII and his wives, children and parents, obscure figures from the Tudor court have captured the imagination of novelists. Even Henry VIII’s confectioner is a main character in a historical novel, Suzannah Dunn’s The Queen Of Subtleties: A Novel of Anne Boleyn. The publication of Eva Stachniak’s first novel of Catherine the Great, The Winter Palace, reminded historical fiction readers that the Tudors do not have a monopoly on court intrigue and spectacle. In the The Winter Palace, Stachniak told the story of German Princess Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst’s unlikely path to the Russian throne as Catherine the Great through the eyes of her watchful servant, Varvara. Empress of the Night imagines Catherine as a mature ruler.

Readers expecting a conventional sequel to The Winter Palace will be disappointed by Empress of the Night. Stachniak does not resume Catherine’s story in the aftermath of the military coup that made her Empress but in her dying hours. Following a stroke, Catherine looks back on her life and reign. The last third of the novel covers the drama of the last year of Catherine’s life, including her desire to disinherit her unstable son, Paul, her attempts to secure a prestigious royal marriage for her eldest granddaughter, Alexandrine, and her relationship with her final lover, the young Platon Zubov. Stachniak’s  evocative writing shows the tensions within Catherine’s family and court.

While Catherine’s last months and hours unfold in rich detail, earlier periods of her life and reign pass by too quickly in the novel. While swift progress through Catherine’s life before becoming Empress makes sense because this material is covered in The Winter Palace, Catherine’s early reign does not receive enough attention. The creation of her law code takes place over a few pages and the aquisition of her famous art collection is alluded to in short scenes. Stachniak’s talents as a writer ensure that each of Catherine’s favourites emerges as a distinct personality but they seem to come and go at a dizzying pace before her last year.

Stachniak’s Catherine is steeped in Russian folk proverbs from her time learning the language and constantly struggles with conflicts between passion and power.  This interpretation of Catherine’s character evokes the complexities of eighteenth century Russia but does not do the historical Empress justice. In the novel, Catherine refers to her love of reading but does not mention, much less quote, her favourite French Enlightenment philosophers such as Diderot, Voltaire and Montesquieu. There is little sense of Catherine’s place among eighteenth century Europe’s Enlightened despots beyond Austrian Emperor Joseph II’s visit to Russia.

Empress of the Night provides an engaging portrait of Catherine’s Russia and her last year. Stachniak’s first novel, The Winter Palace, however, provided a stronger imagining of Catherine’s character. Her early reign passes by too fast in Empress of the Night to reveal her evolution from enlightened despot to determined reactionary in her final years. Both Stachniak’s novels reveal that Catherine’s Russia is an ideal setting for historical fiction. Hopefully, there will be many more Imperial Russian historical novels to come.

When Catherine the Great Invaded The Crimea And Put The Rest of the World On Edge

Portrait of Catherine the Great as a Legislator in the Temple Devoted to the Godess of Justice by Dmitri Levitsky, early 1780s.

Portrait of Catherine the Great as a Legislator in the Temple Devoted to the Goddess of Justice by Dmitri Levitsky, early 1780s.

My article in Smithsonian Magazine, “When Catherine the Great Invaded The Crimea And Put The Rest of the World On Edge” looks at the original annexation of the Crimea by the Russian Empire during the reign of Empress Catherine II in the late eighteenth century. Catherine presented herself to the world as an “enlightened” despot who ruled according to the law, and considered the welfare of her subjects.  Her foreign policy and treatment of internal dissent, however, demonstrated that she saw did not observe any constraints on her power. For centuries the Crimean peninsula and other regions of the modern day Ukraine have been one of Europe’s battlegrounds. Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin is following in a long tradition of Russian leaders expanding their political influence at the expense of Ukrainian autonomy.

Click here to read “When Catherine the Great Invaded The Crimea And Put The Rest of the World On Edge” in Smithsonian Magazine. 

Interested in learning more about Catherine the Great and The History of the Ukraine?

Books about Catherine the Great

Simon Dixon, Catherine The Great (2010).

Isabel de Madariaga, Catherine the Great: A Short History; Second Edition (2002).

Robert K. Massie, Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman (2011).

Books about the Ukraine

Anna Reid, Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine (2000).

Paul Robert Magocsi, Ukraine: An Illustrated History, (2013).

My article “150 Years Ago Sochi Was The Site Of A Horrific Ethnic Cleansing” in Smithsonian Magazine

Czar Alexander II

Czar Alexander II

As you watch the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi today, it is worth reflecting on the troubled history of the Caucasus region. My article in today’s edition of Smithsonian Magazine looks at Czar Alexander II’s decision to expel the Circassian people from Sochi and the surrounding region in 1864. This rapid expulsion resulted in the deaths of more than 600,000 people. Today, Alexander II is famous for abolishing serfdom in 1861 and his treatment of the Circassian people is comparatively little known. The expulsion of the Circassians and the abolition of serfdom both reflected the Czar’s preoccupation with the stability of the Russian Empire. Alexander II spent his entire reign attempting to stabilize Russia before falling victim to a terrorist bomb in 1881.

Click here to read the full article “150 Years Ago Sochi Was The Site of a Horrific Ethnic Cleansing” in Smithsonian Magazine.

I also wrote about the history of Sochi in the Ottawa Citizen. Click here to read “Sochi’s Bloody History.”

Interested in learning more about Czar Alexander II and the expulsion of the Circassian people from Sochi? Here are some of the books I consulted while researching my articles on Sochi:

Orlando Figes, The Crimean War: A History, (2010).

Amjad Jaimoukha, The Circassians: A Handbook (Caucasus World: Peoples of the Caucasus), (2001).

W. Bruce Lincoln, The Romanovs: Autocrats of All the Russians (1983).

Edvard Radzinsky, Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar (2006).

Walter Richmond, The Circassian Genocide (Genocide, Political Violence, Human Rights), (2013).

Sochi’s Bloody History

"A Scene from the Caucasian War" by Franz Alekseyevich Roubaud

“A Scene from the Caucasian War” by Franz Alekseyevich Roubaud

My latest column in the Ottawa Citizen discusses the expulsion of the Circassian people from Sochi and the surrounding region in 1864, which resulted in the deaths of at least 600,000 people from massacre, starvation and the elements. Although the Olympic Games in Sochi will take place on the 150th anniversary of these events, which the government of neighbouring Georgia has deemed a genocide, Russia has downplayed the bloody history of the region. Russian recognition of the death and displacement of the Circassian people in 1864 would transform the controversial Winter Games into the beginning of a process of reconciliation.

Click here to read the full article in the Ottawa Citizen

Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin by Catherine Merridale (Review)

The Moscow Kremlin is one of the world’s most recognizable landmarks. The imposing red brick walls and towers surrounding five cathedrals and four palaces appear to represent stability, enduring through Russia’s turbulent history. In Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin, Catherine Merridale, professor of contemporary history at Queen Mary University in London and critically acclaimed author of Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945, reveals that it is a miracle that the Kremlin is still standing in the twenty-first century.

The fortress endured a medieval Mongol invasion, a foreign occupation during the seventeenth century Time of Troubles, neglect after Peter the Great moved his court to St. Petersburg, a city wide fire following Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and bombardment during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Merridale’s exhaustive research, including visits to sections of the Kremlin rarely seen by the public, reveals that the how the Fortress and its significance has changed over the centuries. Whole buildings behind the walls have disappeared and other have been absorbed into new structures. With each new Russian ruler, the structure and symbolism of the Kremlin changed to reflect new ideas about the Kremlin’s place in Russian history and government.

Red Fortress is filled with fascinating details about the Russian leaders who left their mark on the Kremlin. In many English language works about the history of Russia, the personalities of the Grand Dukes of Muscovy and Czars of all the Russias who ruled prior to Peter the Great blend together, with the exception of the famous Ivan the Terrible, Merridale depicts each ruler as a unique individual with his own vision for the Kremlin. Ivan the Terrible’s grandfather, Ivan the Great (r. 1462-1505), who commissioned the modern red brick walls was “reputed to be so terrifying that his glance alone made women faint.”

Ivan the Great met his match in his second wife, Sophia, the niece of the last Byzantine Emperor. Members of Sophia’s household spread the rumour that “she nagged him twice a week” while an Italian poet described her as “a mountain of fat.” Sophia’s extensive knowledge of Renaissance European art and architecture transformed the Kremlin as she persuaded her husband to appoint Italian engineers, architects, cannon-founders and silversmiths to contribute to new buildings and defenses.

The founding of the Romanov dynasty in 1613 brought new Czars with new interests to the Kremlin. Peter the Great’s grandfather, Mikhail Romanov, the founder of the new dynasty may have been illiterate and dependent on his father in matters of state but he was fascinated by western technology such as mechanical clocks. Mikhail also commissioned the Terem Palace, which is now part of the official residence of the President of Russia. Peter the Great’s father, Aleksei I imported European science books for his library and installed a palace laboratory for science and alchemy experiments. Peter the Great himself had little use for the Kremlin as a seat of government but he recognized that it was the site of immense public interest, becoming the first Russian ruler to charge sightseers admission to tour the grounds.

Merridale’s narrative slows in the middle as the Imperial Russian court moved to St. Petersburg from 1713 to the abdication of Czar Nicholas II in 1917. During this period, Russia’s Czars were visitors to the Kremlin for major events such as coronations instead of permanent residents. When the capital returned to Moscow in 1918, the Kremlin was once again at the centre of events. Although Merridale does not draw direct comparisons between fifteenth and sixteenth century Muscovy and the twentieth century Soviet Union, readers will notice a number of parallels between the court of Ivan the Terrible and Stalin’s inner circle.

Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin ends with the Kremlin bells ringing to greet Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh during their unprecedented state visit to Moscow in 1994. The fall of the Soviet Union ushered in a new era for Russia’s most famous landmark. The Kremlin continues to change with the times, serving as the seat of President Vladimir Putin’s government and the most popular tourist attraction in Russia.

The Diary of Olga Romanov: Royal Witness to the Russian Revolution by Helen Azar (Review)

For decades after the murder of Russia’s last Imperial family in 1918, the public learned about Czar Nicholas II’s children through published memoir literature. There was demand for stories about the family life of Nicholas, Alexandra and their children so surviving relatives of the Imperial family and members of their household included this material in their memoirs regardless of how much time they actually spent behind palace doors. The result was a body of questionable received wisdom about the Czar’s daughters, Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia that persists to this day. Countless biographies of the Imperial couple and studies of their court describe the Grand Duchesses as “children” with little social life beyond their immediate family and few official duties.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s,  diaries and letters by the Imperial family and those who knew them well have been translated and published in volumes such as A Lifelong Passion: Nicholas and Alexandra Their Own Story, The Fall of the Romanovs: Political Dreams and Personal Struggles in a Time of RevolutionThe Diary of Grand Duchess Olga Nicholaievna 1913 and The Last Diary of Tsaritsa Alexandra, gradually revising longstanding popular perceptions of the Romanovs.  The Diary of Olga Romanov: Royal Witness to the Russian Revolution, translated and published with with other primary sources of the period selected by Helen Azar, allows Grand Duchess Olga to speak for herself, revealing a young woman coming of age at a time of war and revolution.

Olga was eighteen when the First World War broke out in 1914. In common with other young women of her generation, the Grand Duchess discovered leadership opportunities and personal fulfillment through war work. The diary describes her training as a nurse and duties at the Tsarskoe Selo hospital including organizing activities for the convalescents, assisting at operations and maintaining hospital equipment. The inclusion of the reminiscences of Olga’s colleagues at the hospital alongside her diary entries provide a sense of how the Grand Duchess and her war work were perceived by patients and fellow nurses alike. While the wounded men were honored to receive visits from the Czar’s children, they were confused by the sight of Grand Duchesses performing seemingly menial tasks such as sterilizing hospital equipment, wondering why they did not ask their attendants to do these tasks for them.

Olga also engaged in considerable charitable fundraising during wartime and sat on the boards of committees. Since Nicholas II spent much of the war at military headquarters and Alexandra was consumed by her own war work, political activities and ill health, Olga developed an active social life that revolved around her war work instead of her parents. Studies of the extended Imperial family, such as The Flight Of The Romanovs emphasize the increasing gulf between Nicholas and Alexandra, and the Czar’s relatives during the years immediately preceding the Russian Revolution but Olga maintained active relationships with her aunts, uncles and cousins, including those who had experienced disfavour from her parents.

In her diary, Olga describes spending time with her great-uncle Grand Duke Paul’s morganatic second wife, Olga Paley and enjoying poetry written by Pavel’s and Olga Paley’s son, Vladimir. There are teas with Grand Duchess Victoria, who Olga called “Aunt Ducky.” Victoria was the former wife of Alexandra’s brother Grand Duke Ernst of Hesse who remarried Nicholas II’s cousin, Grand Duke Kyrill against the wishes of the Imperial couple. Only after the murder of Grigori Rasputin by Prince Felix Yussupov, the husband of Olga’s cousin Irina, and Czar Nicholas’s cousin, Grand Duke Dmitri, in December, 1916 is there a marked decrease in visits between Olga and members of her extended family.

Olga’s diary and the accompanying documents provide glimpses of the life the Grand Duchess might have led if she had not been murdered with the rest of her family in 1918. Throughout the journal, Olga expressed indifference or irritation regarding the princes considered suitable marriage partners for a Grand Duchess at the time. She criticizes the Romanian royal family, which included her suitor Prince Carol, for not committing Romania to the allied war effort in 1914. Prince Konstantin Konstantonovich, whom Olga frequently encountered while visiting his sister at the Pavlovsk palace is dismissed in the diary as “a pest.” In contrast, Olga had warm feelings toward some of the patients she nursed in her hospital, most notably an officer named Dmitri Shakh-Bagov. In 1916, Olga’s aunt, Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna married a commoner and it’s possible that Olga would have endeavored to do the same if she had survived the revolution.

Olga’s diary ended the day of Czar Nicholas II’s abdication in March, 1917. Azar speculates that the Grand Duchess may have stopped writing in her journal because of depression but it is just as possible that was concerned that any post-revolutionary diary entries might compromise the safety of her family. Azar present Olga’s last months in captivity with her family through the diary of Nicholas II, memoirs of key figures and Olga’s letters to her friends. By the end of the book, Olga emerges as a complex figure who was never able to realize her full potential because of her death at the age of twenty-two. The Diary of Olga Romanov: Royal Witness to the Russian Revolution presents the last years of Olga’s life in her own words and the words of those who knew her best, shattering longstanding  stereotypes about the lives of Nicholas II’s daughters during the First World War and the Russian Revolution.