Saturday, November 13, 2010

25 Chapters of My Life

Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna of Russia has been described as the last Grand Duchess largely because she was the last living distaff Grand Ducal members of the Russian Imperial Family.   Olga was the youngest daughter of Alexander III, and, thus, the youngest sister of Nicholas II.
On 1901, she married Duke Peter of Oldenburg, a member of the Russian branch of the German ducal family.  The marriage produced no children, which is not a surprise, as Peter preferred the company of other men. 
Olga fell in love with a Russian commoner, Nicholas Kulikovsky, but an official marriage did not take place until 1916, when her marriage to Peter was dissolved, and she received permission to marry Nicholas.  A year later, revolution engulfed Russia, bringing down the monarchy and murdering Nicholas and Alexandra, their five children, and other members of the Imperial Family.   Olga, Nicholas and infant son, Tihon, spent time in the Crimea with Dowager Empress Marie, and other members of the Imperial Family, all of whom had gathered at family estates.   But when an opportunity came for Marie to leave, Olga and Nicholas chose to move to another place, as Olga was expecting a second child, and she felt that her family should come first.  
Their own private peace was soon shattered.  The Kulikovskys were sheltered in the White-held Crimea, but as the Soviets moved further into the area, Olga and Nicholas knew that they, too, had to leave their beloved Russia.
More than a year after Empress Marie left Russia on board the HMS Marlborough,  Olga and her family, with the assistance of the Danish Consul, were able to obtain passage on the Hamburg, sailing from Novorossick to Turkey.  From Constantinople, they made their way to Bulgaria and Serbia, where they spent two weeks with King Alexander.  From Belgrade, the family traveled to Vienna, where they were met by Olga's aunt Thyra, the Duchess of Cumberland and her daughter. 
The final destination was Denmark, where Empress Marie now lived.   The ties to Denmark were strong, as Marie was the daughter of King Christian X of Denmark.
For the next 28 years, the Kulikovskys remained in Denmark, eventually purchasing a farm at Ballerup, outside Copenhagen.  Olga painted, Nicholas farmed, and their two sons grew up and married Danish girls.
Once again, war intervened.  Germany invaded Denmark, but the danger for Olga and her family occured after liberation.  In 1948,  due to a genuine fear of a Soviet threat, the family emigrated to Canada, moving to a farm in Ontario.
Nicholas died in 1958, Olga two years later.  Both are buried in the North York Cemetery in Toronto.

In 1964,  Ian Vorres wrote The Last Grand Duchess. Vorres's biography was largely based on conversations with Grand Duchess Olga. The book remains one of the most sought after royal biographies, although it has been republished several times.   Canadian-born Patricia Phenix's Olga Romanov - Russia's Last Grand Duchess was disappointing on several levels, despite the fact of Olga's descendants provided information.  But the author did always stay with the facts, and the book was an abysmal failure.

The most recent addition to the Olga canon of biographical material is 25 Chapters of My Life (Librario: √¶11.99).  This book is NOT an abysmal failure.  In fact, it's terrific.   
At the time of Olga and Nicholas's 25th wedding anniversary, celebrated in Denmark in 1941, the couple agreed to meet with several Danish magazines for an interview.  Billed-Bladet published a special issue commemorating Olga's life and the wedding anniversary.  Olga herself added her own recollections.  The interviews were published in early 1942 with the title Storfyrstindens Eindringer - The Grand Duchess's Memoirs.   In 2005, Olga's granddaughter, Xenia Kulikovsky Nielsen, gave permission to the memoirs to be published in Danish.  As the book sold well in Scandinavia, the family decided to have the book translated into English.
According to the intruction written by Xenia's son Paul,  the English edition is not a translation of the original Danish book, but it is based primarily on Olga's handwritten notes. The parts of the text that are not based on the note come from the original Danish book.
Karen Roth-Nicholls is to be commended on her translation - as Olga's memoirs come alive through words and photos.
The 25 Chapters begin with Olga's memories of her childhood and the Imperial family.  She was especially close to her brother, Grand Duke Michael. She writes of visits to Denmark, holidays at Gatchina (her favorite home), the train crash at Borki in 1888, which nearly killed Alexander III and other members of the family, her relationship with her brother George, her marriage, her faith,  travel, Rasputin, her position within the family, her second marriage, the revolution and flight to the Crimea, and eventually freedom in Denmark.
The book ends with the Grand Duchess' arrival in Denmark.
The memoirs are further enhanced with the publication of a selection of correspondence between Olga and Nicholas II and with her niece, Grand Duchess Tatiana.
Don't expect graphic details regarding Olga's first marriage.  It would not have been proper for the Grand Duchess to have told others about the reason why her first marriage failed.  One can only assume that she was truly unhappy and miserable with Peter.  No sex.  No children.  She finally found love and compassion with a Russian commoner. 
This is a very poignant book, rich with pathos and faith.  Olga was born into great wealth.  She did not know what true poverty was until she actually experienced it in her final years in Russia.   Her life was built on a fragile precipice.  The first shattering of glass came in 1888 with the Borki train derailment.   In 1894, her beloved father, Alexander III, died at the age of 49.   In 1917,  the Romanov glass house shattered, collapsing under the weight of a war and revolution.  A year later, Grand Duke Michael would be murdered in Perm  by the Bolsheviks.  A month after Michael's death, the Bolsheviks killed Nicholas II, his wife, Alexandra, their five children, and several loyal servants in a cellar in Ekaterinburg. 
25 Chapters of My Life offers a wistful insight into Olga's early life.  She was largely honest in her portrayal of her family and friends with one exception: her first marriage.  I can understand this.  It would have been difficult for a Grand Duchess to confide, even to a diary, the sadness of an unconsummated marriage.  She also avoided discussing many personal things that the more prurient reader might enjoy  ... like me ... personal details about her family, especially her demanding, autocratic, insensitive mother.
This is a highly recommended book, and a must have for all Romanov collections.

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