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 Revolution, The 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.


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