Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Grand Duchesses Xenia and Olga Alexandrovna | Sisters of the Last Emperor of Russia

Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna of Russia was the eldest daughter and fourth child of Emperor Alexander III of Russia and Empress Maria Feodorovna. She was born on April 6, 1875 at her family home of the Anichkov Palace in St. Petersburg. At the time of her birth, she had two surviving elder brothers (one of her siblings, Alexander, had died in infancy in 1870): the future Emperor Nicholas II and the Grand Duke George Alexandrovich. She also had two younger siblings – Grand Duke Michael and Grand Duchess Olga.

A Young Grand Duchess Xenia
Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna was the youngest of Emperor Alexander III and Maria Feodorovna’s six children. She was their only child to be born during her father’s reign, as she came into the world on June 13, 1882 in Peterhof Palace, a little more than a year after her father took the throne. She was seven years younger than her sister, Xenia. Their mother, who was born as Princess Dagmar of Denmark, shared a loving and stable relationship with her huge, bear-like spouse. Maria was a doting and affectionate mother to her sons, who she spoiled and coddled even into their adult years, but while she cared for her daughters, she had a more distant relationship with them than her boys. The girls were much closer with their father than their dignified mother, particularly Olga, who shared a special relationship with the gruff Emperor. Xenia and Olga, along with their brothers, were educated in various subjects by private tutors, such as history and geography. The area of foreign languages was especially focused on and the girls became fluent in English, French, and German, along with their native Russian. They also learned how to cook, build, and make puppets for their personal puppet theatre. The young Russian princesses liked to ride, fish, draw, dance, play the piano, and engage in gymnastics. Every year, the girls would travel to Denmark with their family to attend their maternal grandparents’ summer family reunions at Fredensborg Castle. It was on these visits that Xenia, who was known as a quiet and shy tomboy, became close to her maternal cousin, Princess Marie of Greece, the daughter of King George I and his Russian wife, Queen Olga. Xenia and Marie developed a warm friendship that would last for the rest of their lives.

A Young Grand Duchess Olga
While Xenia was close to her cousin, Olga was fond of her closest brother in age – Michael. Olga, Michael, and their father all shared a special relationship and often went on hikes in the Gatchina forests by their home where the Emperor would teach his youngest children woodsmanship. Olga matured into a practical, down-to-earth young woman who favored comfort over luxury and was reserved in public but open and warm in private. But Olga and Xenia’s lives would change dramatically in the summer of 1894 when their beloved father fell gravely ill with a terminal kidney disease. The twelve year-old Olga and her nineteen year-old sister watched as their father gradually grew sicker and sicker, wasting away until he finally died on November 13, 1894 at the age of forty-nine. Alexander’s death had a tremendous emotional impact on young Olga, who grieved the loss of her loving parent and closest friend immensely. After their father’s death, their unready and unskilled oldest brother, Nicholas II, became the new Emperor and married his long-time love, the socially awkward and timid German princess, Alix of Hesse.

Grand Duchesses Xenia and Olga with their parents (both seated) and their three surviving brothers
 - Nicholas, George, and Michael
Olga and Xenia resumed court life, not as the daughters of the Emperor but as his sisters. Meanwhile, Xenia was settling into her life as a married woman with her paternal first cousin once removed, Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich. The two had been childhood friends and playmates since their earliest years (Alexander, who was known as “Sandro” by his family and friends, was also a good friend of her older brother Nicholas) despite the fact that Alexander was nine years Xenia’s senior. Romance bloomed between the two when Xenia was in her early teens and in 1890, the fifteen year-old Xenia asked her parents if she could marry Alexander. At first, the Emperor and Empress were hesitant to permit the match because they believed their daughter was too young and vulnerable at the time and they believed Alexander was too haughty and uncouth. But the couple’s affection for each other didn’t fade over the next few years, so, on January 12, 1894, Xenia’s parents finally agreed to the betrothal after Alexander’s father interceded. On August 6, 1894, the nineteen year-old Xenia married her childhood crush, the twenty-eight year old Alexander, at the Peter and Paul Chapel of the Peterhof Palace. Olga wrote of the happy occasion: “The Emperor [Alexander III] was so happy. It was the last time I ever saw him like that.” The newlyweds spent their wedding night at Ropsha Palace before leaving for their honeymoon at Ai-Todor, the Emperor’s estate in Crimea. It was during Xenia’s honeymoon that she received the news of her father’s death in November. 

Grand Duchess Xenia with her husband,
 Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich
Nicholas II’s wife, Alix of Hesse (who took the name Alexandra Feodorovna upon her marriage), was not liked by either the Russian people or her husband’s family due to her foreign ways and her inability to fit into the Imperial court. Unlike her mother, who never wanted Nicholas to marry Alexandra, Xenia got along well with her brother and her sister-in-law when they began their reign. However, Alexandra did eventually grow to begrudge Xenia because while the Empress was unable to bear a healthy son (her only son, Alexei, was a hemophiliac), Xenia had six robust boys with her husband. Xenia gave birth to her first child, her only daughter, a year after her wedding on July 15, 1895. In the following twelve years, she would produce six more children, all of whom were sons:

  • Princess Irina Alexandrovna (1895-1970) married: Prince Felix Yussupov – had issue
  • Prince Andrei Alexandrovich (1897-1981) married: (1) Elisabetta Ruffo-Sasso – had issue, (2) Nadine McDougall – had issue
  • Prince Feodor Alexandrovich (1898-1968) married: Princess Irina Pavlovna Paley – had issue
  • Prince Nikita Alexandrovich (1900-1974) married: Countess Maria Vorontsova Dashkova – had issue
  • Prince Dmitri Alexandrovich (1901-1980) married: (1) Countess Marina Sergeievna Golenistcheva-Koutouzova – had issue, (2) Margaret Sheila Mackellar Chisholm – no issue
  • Prince Rostislav Alexandrovich (1902-1978) married: (1) Princess Alexandra Pavlovna Galitzine – had issue, (2) Alice Eilken – had issue, (3) Hedwig Maria Gertrud Eva von Chappuis – no issue
  • Prince Vasili Alexandrovich (1907-1989) married: Princess Natalia Golitsyna – had issue

Grand Duke and Duchess Alexander and Xenia and their seven children

While Xenia raised her many children, she became very involved in a number of charities regarding poor working class children, tuberculosis patients, and widows and children of naval personnel. She also founded the Xenia Association for the Welfare of Children of Workers and Airmen and became a patron of the Xenia Institute, a boarding school in St. Petersburg. In August of 1899, Xenia and Olga faced another tragedy in the family when their older brother, George, died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-eight. His death hit his siblings particularly hard. It especially affected his mother, who lost her composure during the funeral and ran out of the ceremony, unable to bear the grief of the occasion any longer. Around a year later, in 1900, the eighteen year-old Olga went to the theatre and opera with her distant cousin, Duke Peter Alexandrovich of Oldenburg. Peter, who was fourteen years Olga’s senior, was the only child of Duke Alexander Petrovich of Oldenburg, a great-grandson of Tsar Paul I, and Princess Eugenia Maximilianovna of Leuchtenberg, a granddaughter of Tsar Nicholas I. Peter, who was known for his love of reading and gambling, took Olga by surprise when he proposed to her in May of 1901, despite the fact that the two barely knew each other. Olga was so shocked at the proposal that all she could say in response was a stunned “thank you”.

Grand Duchess Olga and her first husband,
Duke Peter Alexandrovich of Oldenburg
The engagement didn’t just surprise Olga – it surprised both the Imperial family and Peter’s family as well. Up until this point, Peter had never shown any interest in the female sex and it was largely assumed that he was homosexual. And yet, on August 9, 1901, the nineteen year-old Grand Duchess married her thirty-three year old cousin in St. Petersburg. But the marriage was a disaster from the first night; the newlyweds spent their honeymoon at the Oldenburg estate near Voronezh and instead of being with his bride, Peter left her alone and in tears the entire night to go gambling. The marriage remained unconsummated and the indolent Peter spent his time wasting his wife’s money on cards. Olga quickly began to realize that Peter had been pressured into the marriage by his aspiring mother (who Olga disliked and who Peter had a horrible relationship with) and he was only using her for her status and wealth, since he was clearly only romantically interested in men. When the couple moved into the Baryatinsky Mansion in St. Petersburg weeks after their wedding, they slept in separate bedrooms. Olga began to suffer from periods of depression due to her unhappy marriage, which caused her to lose so much hair that she had to wear a wig for two years.

Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna
Although Peter was considerate towards her, Olga was always miserable, as she dreamed of having a loving spouse and a happy family. She ultimately found her true soulmate in April of 1903 when she met an officer her own age by the name of Nikolai Kulikovsky during a royal military review at Pavlovsk Palace. The pair quickly fell in love and began to see each other in secret and exchange letters. A few months into her affair, Olga plucked up the courage to reveal her love for Nikolai to her husband and ask for a divorce. But Peter refused and said that he might rethink her proposition in seven years. However, Peter did do his wife a favor by making Nikolai his aide-de-camp and permitting him to live with Olga and himself. From 1904 to 1906, Peter was assigned to a military post in Tsarskoye Selo, a center of palaces next to St. Petersburg and the home of Nicholas II. Here, Olga was able to become closer to her brother the Emperor and her four royal nieces, especially the youngest, Anastasia. As Alexandra was often unwell, Olga would sometimes stand in for her sister-in-law during public events. But like her sister Xenia, their mother, and essentially every other member of the Imperial family, she resented her brother’s holy man, Rasputin, and the influence the “Mad Monk” held over the Imperial couple.

Grand Duchesses Olga (left) and Xenia (right) with their brother, Grand Duke Michael
A personal scandal rocked the royal family when Olga’s closest brother in both age and affection, Michael, secretly eloped with his long-time mistress, Countess Natalia Brasova. Natalia, who was a two-time divorcee, already had a son with Michael and despite the fact that Michael’s family hated his personal relationship with her, they were astounded when Michael married his mistress in late 1912. Nicholas II was so furious at his brother’s actions that he banished him in disgrace and removed him from the royal succession. Eventually, when World War I broke out in 1914, Nicholas allowed his exiled brother to return home to serve in the military. Both Xenia and Olga supported the war effort, as Xenia set up her own hospital train and opened a hospital for the wounded while Olga worked as a nurse at a struggling Red Cross hospital in Rovno before later working in Kiev. In October of 1916, Olga finally got her wish when Nicholas II annulled her marriage to Peter, which allowed her to marry Kulikovsky on November 16, 1916 in a small ceremony in Kiev. Olga was thirty-four at the time of her second marriage. But the crumbling political and economic state of the Empire began to consume Xenia and Olga’s lives and they, along with their mother, knew that the end was near. The sisters’ relationship with the Imperial couple fell apart completely when the Emperor and Empress’s controversial confidant, Rasputin, was violently murdered at the end of the year by members of the royal family, including Xenia’s son-in-law. In March of 1917 after revolution broke out, Nicholas immediately abdicated the throne without even lifting a finger, much to his relatives’ bewilderment. The sisters and their families fled with their mother to the estate of Ay-Todor in Crimea while Nicholas, his wife, and their children were placed under house arrest by the revolutionaries. Olga was pregnant with her first child at the time and on August 12, 1917, she gave birth to a son named Tikhon Nikolaevich. By this point, Xenia’s marriage to Alexander had become estranged. When Xenia was pregnant with her last child in 1907, Alexander had begun an affair with another woman. One year after that, Xenia started her own extramarital relationship with an Englishman. It was after the couple revealed their infidelity to each other that their bond weakened. For the rest of their marriage, they slept in separate rooms and maintained different lifestyles but despite their estrangement, they still retained some amount of love for one another.

Grand Duchess Olga with her second husband, Nikolai Kulikovsky,
and their two sons
After the Bolsheviks took power in Russia, they assassinated numerous members of the royal family, including Nicholas II, his wife, and their children along with his brother, Michael, in June of 1918. The news horrified Olga and Xenia, as well as their mother, who refused to accept her sons’ deaths and always maintained hope that they had escaped. With the Bolsheviks closing in and threatening the very existence of the remaining Imperial family, Xenia escaped to Britain in 1919 with her family and her mother to live in safety with her maternal aunt, Queen Dowager Alexandra. Olga, however, declined to leave her homeland, so after her sister and mother went into exile, she moved to the safety of the Caucasus (which had been cleared of the Bolsheviks by the royalist White Army) with her husband and their two-year-old son. Olga was pregnant with her second and last child during this time and in the large Cossack village of Novominskaya, Olga gave birth to another son – Guri Nikolaevich – on April 23, 1919. Eventually, the family had to move to Novorossiysk in November to escape the invading Bolsheviks and they soon had no choice but to flee the dangerous country, now renamed the Soviet Union, for a refugee camp on an island in the Dardanelles Strait. They made their way to Denmark, where Olga’s mother was now living, and arrived in Copenhagen in the spring of 1920. Here, they lived with the Empress Dowager at her estate of Hvidøre. Olga had trouble staying with her elderly mother in the Empress Dowager’s native country. Her mother expected Olga to serve her at all times, disliked her two young sons because she found them too rowdy, and didn’t even allow Olga’s husband to be in the same room as her, for she never accepted the fact that her daughter had married a commoner.

Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna
Unlike her mother, Xenia remained behind in Great Britain while her husband and most of her children (who were all grown and ready to start lives of their own) settled down in France. Xenia began to suffer financially in 1925 so her maternal first cousin, King George V, relieved some of her burden by giving her the home of Frogmore Cottage in Windsor Great Park. She visited her mother and sister in Denmark as often as she was able to until the Empress Dowager died on October 13, 1928 at the age of eighty after a serious illness. Her estate was sold and Olga used some of the money from the sale to buy a farm in Ballerup named Knudsminde. She moved here with her husband and sons, who were thirteen and eleven at the time, where they raised horses, cows, pigs, chickens, and many other animals. Olga was fond of her life as a simple housewife and enjoyed working on the land, caring for her home and children, and indulging in her favorite pastime of painting. Russian emigrants would often visit the farm, which quickly became a center for supporters of the deposed Russian monarchy. Olga and her family were close to the Danish royal family, her cousins through her mother, and would vacation with them every year.

Xenia's only daughter, Princess Irina Alexandrovna,
and her husband Prince Felix Yusupov
By the 1930’s, all of Xenia’s children were married and had children. Three of her sons married more than once and unfortunately, four of her sons became divorced. Xenia’s daughter, Irina, a beautiful woman with dark hair, deep blue eyes, and her mother’s shy persona, had the most stable marriage of all of Xenia’s children to Felix Yussupov, an extremely wealthy man who was known as wild, eccentric, and bisexual. The couple had fallen in love with each other in 1910 and married morganatically in early 1914, much to Xenia and Alexander’s displeasure. They had one daughter, Irina, in 1915 and were closer to each other than their own child. Xenia’s own marriage ended on February 23, 1933 when her estranged husband, Alexander, died in France at the age of sixty-five. When World War II began in 1939, Denmark, which had declared its neutrality, was invaded by Nazi Germany in April of 1940. The kingdom was occupied for the rest of the conflict and Olga’s sons became officers in the Danish Army, though both were captured as prisoners of war for a short period of time. During the war, Olga would constantly meet with and help Russian émigrés to encourage the ongoing fight against communism.

Grand Duchesses Olga (left) and Xenia (right) Alexandrovna
After the war ended, the Soviets occupied Bornholm and Olga and her family, wary of the threat the Soviets posed, moved across the ocean to the safety of Canada in 1948, where they lived on a farm in Halton County, Ontario. Their sons, who had both married Danish women, came with them along with Guri’s two children – a daughter and a son. But by 1952, the farm had become too hard to maintain for the aging Olga and her husband, who was suffering from poor health. They sold the farm and moved to a small house in Cooksville, Mississauga where they were occasionally visited by members of royalty, such as Queen Elizabeth II and her husband. By 1958, Nikolai was almost completely paralyzed and died on August 11, 1958 at the age of seventy-six. Olga’s health rapidly declined after his death and she was hospitalized for almost two years. Her mental state was so poor that she was unaware when her sister, Xenia, came to visit her. After she was released, Olga went to stay with two Russian émigré friends in an apartment in Toronto, as she could no longer take care of herself. On April 20, 1960, her older sister, Xenia, died at the age of eighty-five in her home in London and was buried in France with her husband. Seven months after Xenia’s death, Olga fell into a coma on November 21, 1960 and three days later, she passed away at the age of seventy-eight. She was buried with her husband in Toronto. Though most of the Romanovs died at the hands of the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution, a few of their descendants and their legacy still live on today in the form of the grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and all the way down to the great-great-great grandchildren of the Grand Duchesses Xenia and Olga Alexandrovna. 

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