Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Diary of Olga Romanov by Helen Azar

Grand Duchess Olga Nicolaievna of Russia was 23 years old when she died in July 1918, murdered along with the rest of her immediate family at the hands of the Bolsheviks.

Olga was the eldest of five children of Russian Emperor Nicholas II and his wife, Alexandra. She was at the age where marriage would become a serious topic, especially as she was one of the most eligible young royal women.  Crown Prince Carol of Roumania was one of the more prominent suitors, but a meeting between the two families ended without an engagement.

Unfortunately for historians, Grand Duchess Olga did not confine her feelings about Carol to her diary because, according to Helen Azar, diaries "were not in any way intended or pouring out their souls, but rather to keep track of daily events."

This tracking of "daily events" features prominently in The Diary of Olga Romanov (Westholme Publishing: $26.00).   This may become a disappointment to readers who want more -- such as Olga's views on the early days of the war and the coming revolution.  She and her siblings lived a largely but not completely sheltered life.

 Olga began keeping a diary in 1905.  Her final entry was  made on March 15, 1917, shortly after her father's abdication.

The book is subtitled Royal Witness to the Russian Revolution, which is rather misleading as Olga confides little to her diaries about the political situation that led to her father's downfall. 

The common themes in these entries are the weather, going to religious services,  games, breakfast, dinner with family members, and her mother, Empress Alexandra's poor health.  The diaries entries are complemented by correspondence between Olga and her father, and excerpts from the memoirs of Kerensky, V.I. Chebatareva, a young nurse who worked as the same infirmary as Grand Duchess Olga  and Ana Vyrubova, Empress Alexandra's close friend. 

Olga and her younger sister, Tatiana, served as volunteer nurses in the early years of the war, where they witnesses the true horrors of war. There were unrequited romances with soldiers, and the distress of the news of that "Father Grigori was murdered, most likely by [Grand Duke] Dimitri." 

It is evident from Olga's entries and letters that she had a very close relationship with her father, and she was aware of the difficulties of her father's  role as Commander-in-Chief.  But she (as the rest of the family) was caught completely off-guard by the revolution and the end of the monarchy.  Her diary abruptly ends on March 15, 1917, the day of her father's abdication.  She ends her final entry with "Lili Dehn arrived here and is still in the Red Room."  Helen allows the rest of Olga's story to be told through others, including entries from Nicholas II's diaries.

I found this to be a clever stroke.  Olga chose to end the diary (we don't know why) but Ms.Azar believes Olga may have suffered from depression due to the collapse of the empire.  It was a clever stroke to flesh out Olga's own words with the words with of friends and family, and politicians such as Kerensky.   One can only imagine the fear and trauma that the family felt in the final months of their lives in Ekaterinburg.

The Diary of Olga Romanov is a truly special book, and Helen Azar should be commended for taking on such a worthwhile project.  For decades, historians and biographers had to be content with secondary and tertiary sources.  Now, as the Russian archives are open to historians, we can hear the voices of the Romanovs through their own words,

Helen Azar,  a librarian at the Free Library of Philadelphia,  specializes in  Romanov history.    She offers a concise albeit slightly flawed biography of Olga's life.  She repeats the canard that the succession to the throne was based on Salic law, established by Paul because he hated his late mother, Empress Catherine.

The succession to the Russian throne was Semi-Salic, not Salic law, which meant that all the eligible males in the Imperial family were ahead of the distaff Romanovs.  This is made clear in Article 30 of the Fundamental laws. "When the last make issue of the Emperor's son's is extinct, succession remains in the same branch, but in the female issue of the last reigning Emperor, as being nearest to the throne, and therein it follows the same order, with preference to a male over a female person; but the female person from whom this right directly proceeds never loses this right."

Articles 30-35 refer to female succession  Article 39 states "An emperor or empress succeeding to the Throne, at their succession and at their appointment, solemnly to observe the aforesaid laws on the succession to the throne."

Although  no legislation was ever promulgated, there were reports in the Anglo-American newspapers about Nicholas II's possible plans to amend the succession.  Canadian royal historian Carolyn Harris elaborated on this topic in her article, The Succession Prospects of Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaievna (1895-1918), published in Canadian Slavonic Papers (March-June 2012.)

At least two members of the Imperial family,  Princess Tatiana Constantinova and Princess Irina Alexandrovna renounced their rights to the throne at the time of their marriages.  The present head of the Imperial Family, Grand Duchess Maria became heir to her father, Grand Duke Wladimir, only after the death of Prince Vassily in 1989, as Prince Vassily was the last eligible male Romanov after Grand Duke Wladimir.  

I understand a second edition will have corrections to the few errors in the text.  I hope this oversight regarding the succession can also be changed.

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