(History Friday is back – this is part one, of two.)
She wasn’t actually a princess, through it is the usual understanding that the sons and daughters of a ruling monarch are princes and princesses. But they did things differently in Russia; up until the Russian Revolution, the legitimate offspring of the Tsar were grand dukes or grand duchesses, born to the purple and far outranking mere princes and princesses, who seem to have been, in the Russian scheme of things, merely mid-ranked nobility.
This grand duchess was named Olga; the youngest of five children of Tsar Alexander III and his wife, the Tsarina Maria Feodorovna, originally Princess Dagmar, daughter of King Christian IX of Denmark. (Her older sister Alix was married to Albert, Prince of Wales.) Born in June, 1882, the infant Olga was not in the most robust of health. Her father as the Tsar of all Russians, and her mother being a veritable whirlwind when it came to duties social and administrative, Olga and her next-oldest brother Michael were raised day to day by governesses and tutors, as was customary for the upper classes. They had a comfortable, but rather Spartan lifestyle at Gatchina, the country palace of the Romanovs. She and her brother slept on plain cots, ate porridge for breakfast, bathed in cold water, rarely saw other children and had daily lessons – and private time for walks in the nearby woods with their formidable father. Olga excelled at painting and sketching – and in fact, for the remainder of her life, most always had a paintbrush in her hand, and as an adult earned a modest living from her watercolors. (a selection of her watercolors is here)
From all reports, including Olga’s own words, the three were very close; Olga adored her father, who always had time for her and Michael, and she was his favorite child. (Her relationship with her mother was formal – civil, but rather distant.) Tsar Alexander died suddenly when she was twelve – and she was devastated with grief. Olga’s oldest brother became Tsar Nicholas II. It was suspected by many at the time that Nicholas was not ready to assume the crushing responsibilities of that high office and was temperamentally unsuited for it in any case. This suspicion proved tragically accurate, but it took more than twenty years to play out.
At the age of 19, Olga married a distant cousin; a union which came as a surprise to all; Duke Peter Alexandrovich of Oldenburg was thirty-three, an inveterate gambler, a hypochondriac, and famously uninterested in romancing women. He may have been pushed into proposing by his ambitious family. Possibly Olga agreed to marriage in order to escape from the authority of her mother and avoid marriage to a noble or royal foreigner – which would mean leaving Russia. In any case, the marriage was never consummated. Following a honeymoon in the South of France and Italy, they moved into a palace in St. Petersburg, a stately home gifted to them by Nicholas II. Duke Peter and Duchess Olga maintained separate bedrooms at either end of the 200-room palace, although they maintained a courteous front in public and perhaps in private as well.
At a military review in 1903, Olga’s brother Michael introduced her to an officer in the Blue Cuirassier regiment, a regiment of which the Grand Duke Michael was the honorary commander. Captain Nicolai Kulikovsky was from a landowning Russian-Moldavian family with a tradition of military service (a grandfather had been a general in the Napoleonic wars). Some stories have it that Olga saw Captain Kulikovsky at a military review and importuned her brother to arrange it so that they were seated close to each other at a social function shortly thereafter. Soon after the meeting, she asked her husband for a divorce – a request which was refused. Duke Peter (who did have military duties of a cursory sort) did offer to reconsider the question of divorce after a period of seven years and generously made Captain Kulikovsky his aide-de-camp, which permitted him to move into their residence in St. Petersburg.
For a relatively sheltered, but not unintelligent daughter of royalty in the late 19th and early 20th century, Olga Alexandrova had quietly managed to get things her way; not a hundred percent, but still – close enough to it. For the next ten years, she and her husband got along; Duke Peter had a two-year long military assignment to the royal complex at Tsarskoye Selo, where Nicholas II and his Tsarina Alexandra lived with their growing family. Olga was a doting aunt to her four nieces. There was talk among society regarding her closeness to Captain Kulikovsky, based on nothing much more than occasionally being seen out and about together, and even daringly holding hands. As far as sexual scandal in high circles went, that was small beer.
And then – historical events intervened; a world war, which went badly for Russia, and then the Red revolution, which in the long run proved even more disastrous. When the war began, Captain, now Colonel Kulikovsky went to the southwestern front as was only expected – and Olga Alexandrovna followed … as a battlefront nurse in an understaffed Red Cross hospital, which was not … well, not entirely. It was expected for the women of the imperial family to take such an interest. The Tsarina Alexandra and her two oldest daughters also volunteered as nurses, although somewhat farther from the front.
After living apart from her husband for two years, the matter of a divorce was settled for Olga Alexandrovna and Duke Peter. Tsar Nicholas annulled the marriage in 1916, allowing Olga to finally marry her gallant Kulikovsky – a private wedding at a church in Kiev late in 1916, a wedding attended only by her mother, her older sister’s husband, four officer friends of the groom and two nurses from Olga’s hospital. This was her chance at something like a normal, settled married life, to include children. Olga became pregnant almost at once – just as the outer world around the Romanovs collapsed. Her brother Nicholas abdicated. He and his family and reduced household were under house arrest, first at one of their palaces, and then – ominously – to close confinement in the industrial city of Yekaterinburg. Other members of the extended family were luckier.
(To be continued)