Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Remembering Olga Nikolaevna and Her Sisters

November 3 was the 119th anniversary of the birth of Olga Nikolaevna Romanova, eldest daughter of the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II, and his wife, Alexandra Feodorovna.

I'm sure the tragic fate of Olga is known to most people. After the February Revolution of 1917 and the tsar's subsequent abdication, the Romanov family were detained in Russia. In July 1918 the entire family – Nicholas, Alexandra, their four daughters Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, and son Alexei – were brutally murdered in Yekaterinburg by the Bolsheviks of the Ural Regional Soviet. The Bolsheviks had come to power the previous October.

One of the things that draws me to the Romanovs' story is how through their responses of fortitude and love during the months of imprisonment leading up to their murder, they came to perceive more clearly the strengthening and transforming presence of God. This resulted decades later in their canonization as passion bearers by the Russian Orthodox Church.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I've been fascinated by the story of the Romanovs since high school, when I saw Franklin J. Schaffner's film Nicholas and Alexandra on Australian TV. Since then I've read numerous books on the Romanov family, the latest being Helen Rappaport's The Romanov Sisters, published earlier this year.

The Romanov Sisters is subtitled "The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra," implying that previously unknown or "lost" information about the young women has been unearthed. In reality, like the Romanov books by Robert K. Massie, Greg King, Carolly Erickson, and Peter Kurth, Rappaport's book relies heavily on the memoirs of a number of members of the Russian imperial court who had close contact with the Romanovs and who survived the maelstrom of the Russian Revolution so as to share their first-hand recollections. These people include the tsaritsa's close friends Anna Vyrubova and Lili Dehn; Pierre Gilliard, the French language tutor to the Romanov children; court official Count Paul Benckendorff, and the tsaritsa's lady-in-waiting Baroness Sophia Buxhoeveden. True, many of these accounts are highly subjective; they are memoirs, after all. What many of the more recent books about the Romanovs provide is balance and objectivity. Yet in terms of observations of the Romanov children, the memoirs mentioned above are the first and, in many ways, the last word. The gift of a good writer like Helen Rappaport is to weave the different observations and stories from these often forgotten and/or out-of-print memoirs into a single compelling narrative that resonates and appeals to contemporary readers. I'm happy to report that Rappaport accomplishes this task.

Right: Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana with a young wounded soldier and an unidentified doctor.

What I most appreciate about The Romanov Sisters are its chapters documenting the two eldest sisters' work as nurses, or "sisters of mercy," during the First World War. Olga and Tatiana were joined in this important and often difficult work by their mother. In time, the work proved too taxing for Olga, who unlike her more focused and practical sister Tatiana, found it increasingly difficult to cope with the trauma of some of the operations she witnessed. By 1916 Olga was taking on a reduced workload, mainly taking temperatures, writing prescriptions and machining bed linen. About the 20-year-old Olga at this time Rappaport writes:

A French journalist who had been granted the rare privilege of meeting Alexandra and the girls at their hospital remarked in 1916 that there was "something of the serenity of the mystic about Olga Nikolaevna." It was a trait that perhaps more than anything defined her Russianness and one that became more pronounced as the war went on. Olga seemed more and more lost in her own private thoughts about the kind of life, and love, that she longed for. One day at the hospital, she had confided to [her friend] Valentina her personal "dreams of happiness": "To get married, live always in the countryside winter and summer, always mix with good people, and no officialdom whatsoever."

You know, every time I start to read (or re-read) a book about the Romanovs I find myself hoping against hope that it will end differently; that somehow the family will escape Russia and be spared the brutal death that awaits them in the cellar of the Bolsheviks' "House of Special Purpose" in Yekaterinburg. One cannot rewrite history, of course, and so there was no marriage or home in the country or life without officialdom for Olga . . . or indeed any of her siblings.

Still, without in any way glamorizing or condoning the repressive autocratic system over which her parents ruled, I want to acknowledge and honor Olga Nikolaevna, her sisters, and the noble and good work that she, Tatiana, and their mother did as sisters of mercy. I do this by sharing (with added images and links) the following excerpts from The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport.


When Russia went to war in the summer of 1914, it was faced with a desperate shortage of nurses. With massive losses of almost 70,000 killed or wounded in the first five days of fighting, the Russian government predicted that at least 10,000 nurses would be needed. Stirred by patriotic duty, legions of the fashionable and aristocratic ladies of St. Petersburg – or rather Petrograd, as the city was quickly renamed – as well as the wives and daughters of government officials, and professional women such as teachers and academics, rushed to do medical training and embrace the war effort. By September, with the need for nurses increasingly acute, the Russian Red Cross had reduced the usual year-long training to two months. Many women did not make the grade and with it the right to be called sestry miloserdiya – sisters of mercy – as nurses were termed in Russia.

From the day war broke out the tsaritsa was determined that she and her two eldest daughters should play their part; in early September they began their Red Cross training, taking on the self-effacing titles of Sister Romanova, numbers 1, 2 and 3. Although Maria and Anastasia were too young to train they also were to play an active role, as hospital visitors. No one represented the female war effort in Russia more emotively than did the tsaritsa and her daughters through the two and a half long and dispiriting years of war that preceded the revolution of 1917. Everywhere – in newspapers, magazines and shop fronts – one prevailing, iconic image dominated – of the three imperial sisters of mercy soberly dressed in their Red Cross uniforms.

. . . During their training . . . Olga and Tatiana came under the watchful care of Valentina Chebotareva, the daughter of a military doctor, who had been a nurse during the Russo-Japanese War [of 1905]. "How distant they were at first," she recalled of the tsaritsa and her daughters' first days. "We kissed their hand, exchanged greetings . . . and that's as far as it went." But Alexandra soon told the staff that they were not to pay them any special attention and things quickly changed. During their training the three women were to observe [procedures] in the operating theatre and then graduate on to assisting during operations, but their primary duty in the first days was to learn how to dress wounds. The days were particularly long for Tatiana, as she was still completing her education and often had an early morning lesson. Immediately afterwards, and before they started work, the tsaritsa and the girls would stop to pray before the miracle-working icon of the Mother of God at the little Znamenie Church . . . before arriving at [the hospital] at around 10 a.m. to change into their uniforms and begin work.

Above: Tatiana (center) assisting in a medical procedure.

Right: Olga performing her duties as a Sister of Mercy.

Every morning Olga and Tatiana were tasked with changing the dressings of three or four patients each (though this increased as the war went on and the numbers of wounded went up) as well as undertaking the many menial tasks required of them – rolling bandages, preparing swabs, boiling the silk thread for stitching, and machining bed linen. At one o'clock they would return home for lunch and in the afternoon if the weather was fine they would sometimes go out for a brief walk, a bike ride, or a drive with their mother, but most often they returned to the hospital to spend time with the wounded, chatting, playing board games or pin-pong with them and in the summer months croquet in the garden with those who could walk. Often they simply sat knitting or sewing items for refugees and war orphans while the soldiers chatted to them; sometimes they went off and sneaked a cigarette in their rest room. Always, inevitably, the cameras would be taken out at every opportunity and photographs taken of themselves with their wounded officers and friends. Some of these were later reproduced as postcards sold to raise funds for war relief. Other photographs the girls carefully pasted into albums and shared with the wounded later.

. . . In the evenings some of the men gathered round the piano in the common room and sang – which Olga and Tatiana particularly enjoyed – but the best days were festivals or holidays, when they would be joined by Maria and Anastasia, and sometime even Alexey. On evenings when they went back home earlier the girls would often end up telephoning the hospital for one last chat with their favorites.

Above: The Romanov siblings in 1916.
From left, Olga, Alexei, Anastasia, Maria, and Tatiana.

The Romanov sisters and their mother were not spared any of the shock of their first confrontation with the suffering of the wounded and the terrible damage done to their bodies by bombs, sabres and bullets. Joined by [Alexandra's close friend] Anna Vyrubova in their training, they were thrown in at the deep end, dealing with men who arrived "dirty, bloodstained and suffering," as Anna recalled. "Our hands scrubbed in antiseptic solutions we began the work of washing, cleaning, and bandaging maimed bodies, mangled faces, blinded eyes, all the indescribable mutilations of what is called civilized warfare." Sometimes Anastasia and Maria were allowed to come and watch them dressing the wounds, and from August 16 the older girls began observing operations, at first civilian ones for appendixes and hernias, and the lancing of swellings. But soon they were watching bullets being taken out and on September 18 a trepanning for removal of shrapnel; five days later they witnessed their first leg amputation. Once qualified they would be assisting – Alexandra usually handing the surgical instruments to [the surgeon] and taking away amputated limbs, the girls threading surgical needles and passing cotton-wool swabs. On November 25 they saw their first wounded man die on the operating table; Alexandra told Nicholas that their "girlies" had been very brave.

Left: Tatiana and her mother assist in a medical operation.

. . . With Nicholas away for much of the time at Stavka – army HQ located at a railway junction near Baranovichi (in today's Belorussia) – Alexandra sent him regular updates on their daughters' progress. On September 20 she told him what a comfort it was "to see the girls working alone & that they will be known more and learn to be useful." They seemed to adapt quickly to the new demands made on them, and, as [their French language tutor] Pierre Gilliard observed, "with their usual natural simplicity and good humor . . . accepted the increasing austerity of life at Court." Gilliard was especially impressed with their thoughtful attitude to their work and the fact that they had no problem covering their beautiful hair in the nunlike nurse's wimple and spending most of their time in uniform. They weren't playing at being nurses – which from time to time Gilliard observed in other aristocratic ladies – but were true sisters of mercy.

Above: Tatiana and Olga working in a hospital ward.

Above: Maria and Anastasia visiting wounded soldiers.

Right: Tatiana with Vladimir Kiknadze, a 2nd lieutenant in the 3rd Guards Rifles Regiment.

. . . Precise and even bossy at times, Tatiana could, for some, seem too serious and – unlike Olga – lacking in spontaneity. But she was already ready to help others and her ability to apply herself in tandem with her altruistic personality made her admirably suited for nursing work. Whenever [the haemophilic] Alexey had been ill she had helped nurse him and followed the doctors' instructions with regard to medicines, as well as sitting with him. She was also unquestioningly tolerate of the demands of her mother; she "knew how to surround her with unwearying attentions and she never gave way to her own capricious impulses," as Gilliard recalled, which was something that Olga was increasingly prey to. Indeed, in everything she did Tatiana Nikolaevna would soon prove that she had perseverance of the kind her more emotionally volatile older sister lacked. Many of the nurses and doctors who observed her – as well as the patients themselves – later spoke of her as being born to nurse.

Left: The tsaritsa and her daughters photographed in 1913.

The outbreak of war so soon after the celebrations of the [Romanov dynasty's] Tercentenary had inevitably brought a complete turn-around in the popular perception of the Romanov sisters as lofty princesses. With their mother calling a wartime moratorium on the purchase of any new clothes for the family, official photographs of the svelte young women in court dress were replaced by images of the older sisters in uniform and their younger siblings in rather plain, ordinary clothes that belied their imperial status. Alexandra felt that the sight of herself and her daughters in uniform helped to bridge the gap between them and the population at large in time of war. Some saw this as a terrible miscalculation: the vast majority of ordinary Russians, especially the peasantry, still looked upon the imperial family as almost divine beings and expected their public image to project that. As Countess Kleinmikhel observed, "When a soldier saw his Empress dressed in a nurse's uniform, just like any other nurse, he was disappointed. Looking at the Tsarina, whom he had pictured as a princess in a fairy tale, he thought: 'And that is a Tsarina? But there is no difference between us.'"

Right: Empress Alexandra with wounded soldiers.

Similar expressions of distaste circulated among the society ladies of Petrograd who noted with a sneer how "common" the grand duchesses' clothes were, "which even a provincial girl would not dare to wear." They disliked this demystification of imperial women – and worse, their association with unclean wounds, mutilation and men's bodies. They were horrified to learn that the empress even cut patients' fingernails for them. Alexandra's neglect of protocol – her acting as a common nurse – was seen as a "beau geste," "a cheap method of seeking popularity." Even ordinary soldiers were disappointed to see the tsaritsa and her daughters performing the same duties as other nurses or sitting on the beds of the wounded, rather than maintaining their exalted difference. "The intimacy which sprang up between the Empress, her young daughters and the wounded officers destroyed their prestige," said Countess Kleinmikhel, "for it has been truly said: 'Il n'y pas de grand homme pour son valet de chambre' ['No man is a hero to his own valet"']."

Be that as it may, many wounded soldiers came to be grateful for the care they received from Alexandra and her daughters during the war. In August 1914 Ivan Stepanov, a nineteen-year-old wounded soldier of the Semenovsk Regiment, arrived at the annexe at Tsarskoe Selo with his dressings unchanged for over a week. Conscious of his dirty appearance he felt discomforted at the prospect of being helped by the nurses who surrounded him in the treatment room – one of them, a tall gracious sister who smiled kindly as she bent over him, and opposite her two younger nurses who watched with interest as his filthy bandages were unwrapped. They seemed familiar, where had he seen these faces? Then suddenly he realized. "Really, was it them . . . the empress and her two daughters?" The tsaritsa seemed a different woman – smiling, younger-looking than her years. During his time in the hospital Stepanov witnessed many such instances of her spontaneous warmth and kindness, and that of her daughters.

– Helen Rappaport
Excerpted from chapter 14, "Sisters of Mercy," of
The Romanov Sisters (St. Martin's Press, 2014)

Above: Alexandra, Tatiana and Olga – Sisters of Mercy.

Above: Grand Duchess Olga with her mother, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna,
and younger sister, Grand Duchess Anastasia.

Related Off-site Link:
Four Sisters: A Review of The Romanov Sisters – Lara Feigel (The Guardian, March 30, 2014).

Recommended Books:
The Diary of Olga Romanov: Royal Witness to the Russian Revolution – Helen Azar (Westholme Publishing, 2013).
Princesses on the Wards: Royal Women in Nursing Through Wars and Revolutions – Coryne Hall (The History Press, 2014).
Russia's Last Romanovs: In Their Own Words – Helen Azar (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013).
The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia – Candace Fleming (Schwartz & Wade, 2014).
The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg – Helen Rappaport (St. Martin's Griffin, 2010).
Nicholas and Alexandra – Robert K. Massie (Random House reprint edition, 2000).
Thirteen Years at the Russian Court: A Personal Record of the Last Years and Death of Tsar Nicholas II and His Family – Pierre Gilliard (Forgotten Books reprint edition, 2012).
The Real Tsaritsa – Lili Dehn (HardPress Publishing reprint edition, 2013).

See also the previous Wild Reed post:
Remembering the Romanovs

1 comment:

Jerry said...

This is so powerful and beautiful . . . congratulations on writing this Michael. You put into words what I wanted to say about the Romanovs.