The tragic story of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and his wife and children has been told and retold on countless occasions, numerous books have been written and film adaptations have been made. Nicholas’s story has become legendary, but the outcomes for his siblings were varied and it is these other five Romanov’s I will look at in this article.
The progress of the Russian Revolution and its deadly consequences advanced quickly, on the 8th of March strikes and demonstrations began in Petrograd (the name of St. Petersburg between 1914 and 1924) and they spread from there. Three days later 50 demonstrators were killed in the city and the Tsar, who was away at military headquarters in Mogilev, sent orders back to Petrograd to use force to crush any rebellion.
By the 12th of March the troops in the capital were refusing to fire on the protestors, the city garrison joined the revolution and the HQ of the Tsar’s secret police, the Okhrana, was set on fire. With the crisis deepening the Tsar made a last ditch attempt to go home and command the resistance personally. It was too little too late, on the same day the members of the Kadet party in the Duma (Russian parliament) formed a provisional committee to regain some level of control. Also on this day the Petrograd Soviet formed intent on having its own say on the formation of a new government.
The Tsar’s train back to Petrograd was stopped by a group of revolutionaries; it was at this point that he signed the instrument of abdication after being informed by his generals that it was the only way order at the front lines could be maintained. Initially the Tsar had ordered that his abdication was in favour of his only son Tsarevich Alexei, a council of regency would be appointed to rule the country until the boy reached his majority, being only 12 years of age.
The Tsar was quickly put off from this idea by the Imperial family’s doctor who declared that the haemophiliac Alexei would never be able to cope being removed from his family and set upon the throne of Russia whilst the rest of his family would be forced into exile. Having listened to this advice Nicholas quickly ordered the instrument of abdication to be altered so as to leave the throne to his brother, Grand Duke Michael. Clearly Nicholas still believed that the monarchy would continue, just without him at its head, the idea of Russia as a republic would simply not have occurred to him automatically.
Almost a week passed before the ex-Tsar was returned under escort to be re-united with his family at their home, the Alexander Palace in Tsarsko Selo. There he was greeted by the revolutionary guards not as Emperor of All the Russias, but as Nicholas Romanov. Although a republic was not formally declared until early September 1917 the rule of the Russian monarchy was over. The deposed Tsar and his immediate family remained at Tsarskoe Selo until August 1917 before being transferred to Tobolsk and then onwards to Yekaterinburg.
In October 1917 the Provisional Government collapsed in the face of a Bolshevik uprising, by the end of 1917 Lenin had established himself as the new leader of an all-socialist regime which led to the foundation of the USSR. Lenin and his comrades were bent on imposing their ideals onto Russia and fought a bloody civil war between 1918 and 1922 to firmly establish their power. In 1918 with the White Army (Lenin’s anti-socialist opponents) advancing on Yekaterinburg the decision was taken to execute the Tsar, his wife, children and remaining servants in by firing squad in the basement of the house in which they had been imprisoned. Not only had the Romanov dynasty been removed from power, but they were now seen by the Red faction (Lenin’s Bolsheviks and other far left socialists) as enemies of the state and any of them who they could capture and kill was a bonus to them. This put the lives of the Tsar’s siblings into grave danger; any of them remaining in Russia would face certain death at the hands of Lenin’s socialists.
Tsar Nicholas had been the eldest of a family of six siblings, the children of Tsar Alexander III and his Danish wife Tsarina Maria Feodorovna. Nicholas was born in 1868 and he was followed by; Grand Duke Alexander born in 1869, Grand Duke George born in 1871, Grand Duchess Xenia born in 1875, Grand Duke Michael born in 1878 and Grand Duchess Olga born in 1882.
The two bothers born after Nicholas did not live long enough to see the revolution which brought death and destruction to their family. Grand Duke Alexander died at only 10 months old in May 1870 from a bout of meningitis. Grand Duke George survived into adulthood but died in 1899 aged 28. He had been out riding his motorcycle and having not returned home after several hours his worried staff sent out a search party. He had fallen from the bike and lay dying by the side of the road; a peasant woman found him there and held him in her arms until he died.
Tsar Nicolas’s only surviving brother was the Grand Duke Michael, who was 15 years old when his eldest brother became Tsar in 1894. Michael was enrolled in the military and served as an officer in the Horse Guards Artillery. From the death of his brother Grand Duke George in 1899 until the birth of his nephew, Alexei in 1904, Michael was heir to the throne of Russia, which was excluded from passing to females. As heir to the throne he was close to his brother and often represented the Tsar in an official capacity at events and ceremonies which he could not attend himself.
In the early years of the 20th century the Grand Duke had a few ill-fated romances. In 1902 he met his first cousin, Princess Beatrice of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, they quickly fell in love. Sadly for the couple the Russian Orthodox Church refused to marry first cousins, and Nicholas II refused to permit a marriage between them. Beatrice went on to marry into the Spanish royal family and she too would experience revolution and civil war with the overthrow of the monarchy in that country in 1931.
Michael then fell for his sister Olga’s lady-in-waiting, Alexandra Kossikovskaya, who was known to her friends as Dina. As she was a commoner her marriage in the imperial family was, in the eyes of Tsar Nicholas and their mother the Empress Dowager, out of the question. Unfazed, Michael asked his brother in 1906 to grant him permission to marry Dina. This was refused instantly, Dina was duly dismissed from Grand Duchess Olga’s household and Michael was taken to Denmark from the remainder of the summer by his mother the Empress Dowager.
The Tsar’s secret police kept tabs on Dina over the months following the affair and when in September 1906 Michael returned to St Petersburg she was denied permission to travel and was kept well away from him. Their alleged plans to elope came to nought and Michael realised that the power of his brother as Tsar was irresistible and he gave up on Dina. She went to lie overseas and never married, always believing herself to have been cheated of her true love. Around this time there was also talk of him being wed to another of Queen Victoria’s granddaughters, Princess Patricia of Connaught, this too came to nothing and never seems to have been pursued enthusiastically by either party.
In late 1907 a fellow officer introduced Michael his wife, Natalia Wulfert who was a divorcee onto her second husband. A commoner with a daughter from her first marriage was thought of as possibly the least suitable type of person for a Grand Duke to be consorting with in the eyes of the Tsar and the Imperial Court.
This fact failed to stop a romance from blossoming, and within two years Michael and Natalia were lovers and she was separated from her husband living in an apartment in Moscow paid for by the Grand Duke. In 1910 and before her divorce came through, Natalia bore Michael a son, named George after Michael’s deceased brother.
In 1912 whilst traveling to the south of France for a holiday, Michael and Natalie managed to give the secret police whom always followed them the slip, and they managed to travel to Vienna without anybody knowing. Whilst there they were married in the Orthodox Church, a few days later Michael telegrammed the Tsar and his mother to inform them of the wedding.
Nicholas was furious; he stripped Michael of all of his official positions in Russia, banished him from the Empire and froze all his assets held in Russia along with seizing his estates. Over the next few months the newlyweds lived in a series of luxurious French hotels and for all the Tsar’s initial harsh response he did allow certain monies to be released from Russia on Michael’s behalf.
By 1913 the couple were in England and Michael took out a lease on Knebworth House outside London, he and Natalia were there as Europe hurtled towards war. Upon the start of hostilities Michael negotiated his return to Russia with the Tsar, Nicholas agreed that the Grand Duke and his wife could return to St Petersburg, and he left England by sea at Newcastle and travelled by land through Scandinavia to return to the capital. As Natalia was disbarred from living in any of the Imperial Palaces they took a villa in Gatchina which Natalia stayed in whilst the Grand duke went to the war front. Unlike his brother the Tsar, Michael was popular amongst the rank and file at the front and shared in their daily hardships which earned him much respect. In 1915 the Tsar gave Michael his estates back and also allowed Michael’s son George to be legitimated and the youngster came to be known as Count Brasov.
The war was going incredibly badly for Russia and Michael was suffering from stomach ulcers and other illnesses whilst steadfastly remaining at the frontline with his soldiers. In October 1816 his stomach ulcers got so bad that he was ordered to go the take a period of rest in the Crimea at his sister Xenia’s estate. Whilst there he wrote to the Tsar warning him of public resentment growing against the regime on almost all fronts and begged his brother to consider making changes to avoid a meltdown. As usual all such protestations were ignored.
Michael spent Christmas 1916 with his wife and son George at his private estate, Brasovo. It was whilst there that he heard of Rasputin’s murder and the attempted assassination of the Tsarina. From here on out plots against the regime were to be found at every level of society from members of the imperial government itself, down to the lowest factory worker. There would soon be no turning back from the abyss and Michael could see it all too well, only the Tsar was blind.
As the February revolution in 1917 kicked off Michael found himself trapped in St Petersburg unable to get back to his villa at Gatchina where his wife was. He managed to take refuge in the mansion of a family friend, Princess Putyatina who lived on St Petersburg exclusive Millionnaya Street. The house next door was stormed by the mob and its owner killed, other people involved in the old regime were being rounded up left right and centre. Armed guards were sent by Rodzyanko who was the leader of the Provisional Committee in the Duma to ensure the Grand Duke’s security in the face of mob violence.
Upon Nicholas’s abdication in Michael’s favour he refused to accept the throne unless it was the settled will of the people. Instead of attempting to take command, Michael decided to give the Provisional government his blessing and recognised them as the de facto executive authority in the country. To have done anything else at this stage would have probably been futile, the people were demanding an end to the monarchy now and in the end Michael would never have the chance to assume the throne.
Michael was then allowed to return to Gatchina to be with his family but was ordered to remain in the St Petersburg area. In April he was relieved of his military positions and in July Alexander Kerensky became prime minister. In August Kerensky placed the couple under house arrest at their villa in Gatchina and a republic was officially declared on the 1st of September. As the upheaval of the October Revolution began to occur Michael was able to secure permission to travel, however the Bolsheviks were alerted about his preparations to leave and so they were stopped from going anywhere and their cars were seized. By March 1918 the Bolsheviks were firmly in power in St Petersburg at least and ordered that Michael was to be moved to the former Smolney Institute, now Bolshevik HQ, in which he was imprisoned.
Later on that month Michael was sent away to the city of Perm, initially lodged in a hotel he was quickly imprisoned by the local soviet. Natalia remained in the capital and pressed for Michael’s release, in April he was allowed freedom within Perm and in early May Natalia travelled to join him. Before leaving St Petersburg she got her son George’s nanny to smuggle him out of the country with help from the Danish ambassador.
No sooner had Natalia arrived in the city than the situation changed again, the enemies of the Bolsheviks were advancing on the city and for her safety Natalia left Perm on the 18th of May, this was the last time she was ever to see her husband.
On the night of the 12th of June four men gained entry into Michael’s hotel and ordered him to accompany them at once. After putting up some resistance he realised the futility of his protests and agreed to go. The local police were in connivance with the four men so even if the Grand Duke had been able to contact the police they have told him to go. In the early hours of the 13th Michael was taken to the forest outside the city where he was shot dead and his body stripped and buried, his remains have to this day never been found.
Natalia and her daughter were eventually able to escape from Russia after being imprisoned. Fleeing initially to London she ended her days in Paris utterly penniless as a charity case in an attic box room in 1952.
The Tsar’s eldest surviving sibling at the time of the revolution was, Grand Duchess Xenia. She had been married to her first cousin once removed, Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich of Russia (Sandro), in 1894 at the Peterhof Palace in St. Petersburg. During the couples honeymoon her father, Tsar Alexander III fell ill and died making her brother Nicholas become Tsar. Between 1895 and 1907 Xenia gave birth to her and Sandro’s seven children.
In the early years of the 20th century Xenia established herself as a leading champion of many different charities in St Petersburg and across the Empire at large. She was the patron of the crèche society for working class parents to have a place to put their children whilst they worked. She was also involved with various hospitals and many other worthy causes.
Upon the outbreak of World War One in 1914 Xenia was in France and her mother the Empress Dowager was in England, they agreed to meet at Calais to head directly back to Russia. Although Germany was the enemy now the Empress Dowager was sure that the Kaiser would allow her and Xenia to pass through his Empire in her private train to reach Russia. When they arrived at Berlin they were informed that the line to Russia was closed and that they could advance no further. They were instead allowed to travel to Denmark, which was the birthplace of the Empress Dowager and from there they went by sea to Finland and travelled to St Petersburg from there.
Back home she threw herself into war work by providing a large hospital for wounded soldiers, and chaired other institutions relevant to the war effort. During the war she became extremely disheartened by the constant defeats which Russia seemed to be suffering. In 1916, Xenia with her husband and mother wrote to Tsar Nicholas warning him of the influence of his wife and her favoured priest, Rasputin, which they felt was detrimental to the overall good of the nation. Nicholas never even read their letters, it was the Tsarina who opened the letters and then accused Sandro of “crawling behind” the Tsar’s mother and sister.
Xenia saw the way things were going but her brother seemed unreachable and he was ruled by his wife who held great sway in the affairs of government. Xenia beginning to think that all may soon be lost took her own family to her late father’s estate in the Crimea far away from the capital. Toward the end of 1916 Xenia’s mother, the Empress Dowager, also left St Petersburg for the Maryinsky Palace in Kiev (today the official residence of the President of Ukraine), she never returned to St Petersburg.
Whilst in the Crimea Xenia learned of the murder of Rasputin which had taken place in the capital, her own son-in-law, Prince Felix Yussupov had been one of the main participants in the murder. By this point in time Sandro was living separately from Xenia, he had had an affair in 1907 during Xenia’s last pregnancy and she too began having an affair with an Englishman which lasted until the advent of the war.
At the beginning of 1917 with the collapse of the Russian Empire only weeks away Xenia returned to St Petersburg in a last ditch attempt to persuade her brother to return to his capital city from military HQ and take the government under his direct control. She also tried to persuade her mother to do the same, but the Empress Dowager was resigned to defeat by this stage and refused to leave her palace in Kiev.
She remained in St Petersburg as the Revolution erupted around her in late February and early March 1917. Upon hearing rumours that her brother had been forced to abdicate whilst on the imperial train she made a request to the Provisional Government to be able to see the Tsar. This was denied her, remaining in the capital for a few more weeks she was still there when the Tsar was returned to the Alexander Palace on the outskirts of St Petersburg. She was still refused to be allowed to go and visit her brother so on her 42nd birthday, the 25th of March, she departed St Petersburg for the last time and returned to the estate in the Crimea. Xenia arrived three days later and was joined there by Sandro, her mother and her sister.
It was in the Crimea that the family learnt of the Tsar Nicholas II’s execution at the hands of the Bolsheviks. Xenia and her family remained there; they were in fact trapped with little option to go anywhere else.
The Red Army approached the Crimea in early 1919, it is almost certain that the family would have been killed if they had been captured. However, help was at hand. King George V of Great Britain was the son of the Empress Dowager’s sister, Queen Alexandra. King George felt extreme guilt at the death of his cousin Nicholas II, as he could have saved him by offering asylum in Britain. He was not about to see his Aunt and other cousins murdered by the Bolsheviks, so he ordered the battleship HMS Marlborough to sail to Crimea and pick up the stranded members of the Imperial family. Initially they were taken to Malta, and then on to England.
Xenia decided to settle in England for the rest of her life. As the eldest surviving sibling of the late Tsar she was declared heiress to his estate within the United Kingdom. He had US$115 million deposited in four UK banks prior to the war; this would be worth over £2 billion sterling in 2012. Unfortunately, the bank of England explained to Xenia that her brother had used his personal fortune to help fund the war effort in Russia as the Imperial Treasury was insufficient. In 1919 there was a total of £500 left in the Romanov’s Bank of England account. Having left the Crimea with almost no possessions, Xenia quickly sank into an embarrassing financial state.
In 1925 her cousin King George found a home for Xenia by allowed her to stay in Frogmore House in Windsor Great Park. From time to time Xenia would visit King George V and Queen Mary and be entertained to lunch or dinner. The Empress Dowager left England for Denmark after a brief stay in England; she had her own private residence there, Hvidore Villa, which she had bought with her sister, Queen Alexandra, back in 1906 so they could spend part of the summer together and be near their father. Over the next decade Xenia often visited Hvidore as often as she was able to.
The Empress Dowager became ill in 1928 and by early autumn she was in rapid decline. Xenia was with her when she died at her Danish villa on the 13th of October that year and she was accompanied by many of the surviving members of the Romanov family at the deathbed. It was in these sad circumstances that Xenia was able to somewhat alleviate her financial stresses. The sale of the late Empress’s villa along with her jewels and other trinkets brought welcome security to Xenia.
Sandro, Xenia’s husband spent much of his time in exile living in France and rarely saw his wife for the remainder of his days, although they kept in touch through letters and it would appear from these that they were on friendly terms. Sandro died in the south of France in February 1933 and she travelled there to his funeral accompanied by their sons.
The now widowed Grand Duchess Xenia moved in 1937 to new accommodation, Wilderness House in the grounds of Hampton Court Palace which was given to her for life by King George VI as a grace and favour residence, prior to this move she had briefly taken possession of an extensive suite of rooms in Hampton Court Palace at the behest of King Edward VIII. Over the remaining years of her life she was frequently visited at Wilderness by her children and grandchildren and must have at last found a little piece of mind far removed from her glittering youth at the Russian Court and the tragic events which befell her loved ones in the course of the revolution. It was in London on the 20th of April 1960 that the Grand Duchess died, in comfortable surroundings surrounded by her family she was one of the lucky Romanovs.
Grand Duchess Olga was the youngest child of Tsar Alexander III and she was the closest to him, his death when she was but 12 years old was a particular tragedy to her. Olga was never close to her mother in her youth and so when in 1901 a marriage proposal came to her out of the blue from Duke Peter Alexandrovich of Oldenburg, who had apparently never shown any interest in women before. She said ‘yes’ possibly just to gain some independence from her mother.
The marriage was an unhappy one; never consummated it was a failure of a match, none the less Oldenburg refused to grant Olga a divorce when she asked for it. The Tsar gave them a mansion in St Petersburg and there they carried on their sham relationship for years. Olga fell in love with the officer Nikolai Kulikovsky and her husband knowing this fact appointed Kulikovsky as an aide-de-camp and he lived in their mansion with them. Olga and Kulikovsky became lovers and it was the second worst kept secret in St Petersburg society, the worst kept being that her marriage was never consummated, so society forgave her the former due to the latter.
Olga and Peter spent a great deal of time at Tsarskoe Selo and she was close to the Tsar’s children, he favourite niece was Anastasia whom she called, “the little one”. She grew closer to her eldest brother the Tsar over the years and grew very distant to Michael, she deplored his elopement in 1912 with Natalia and she never really spoke to him very much from that point onwards.
When war broke out Olga went to Ronvo in modern day Ukraine, she had in the past learned basic nursing and put her skills to good use at the understaffed hospital. As the Russians lost territory to the Germans her hospital was moved deeper into the Empire too Kiev, where she was joined by her mother and where the imperial family had the Maryinsky Palace. In 1916 the Tsar annulled Olga’s marriage and she was wed the same year to Kulikovsky in Kiev in a small ceremony, the only member of the family being there was her mother.
When the tsarist regime collapsed in 1917 Olga and her husband left Kiev for the Crimea along with her mother the Empress Dowager, and there they all met up with Grand Duchess Xenia. The family were placed under house arrest at their estate Ai-Tador on the orders of the local revolutionary forces.
When in 1919 the British Navy came to the Crimea and took control of the port towns they uplifted most of the imperial family who had made it to the coast. Olga and her husband refused to leave Russia though and travelled to the Caucuses which had been cleared of Bolsheviks by the White Army. It was there in a rented farmhouse that Olga gave birth to her second son on the 23rd of April 1919. Although she was by now aware that her brother that Tsar and his family had been executed they still had no idea about the true fate of Grand Duke Michael.
In November 1919 the White Army lost the upper hand, this propelled Olga and her family to flee to the Black Sea coast always just ahead of Bolshevik troops. Before she was evacuated she was informed by the Danish consul that her mother had arrived safely in Copenhagen. Initially they were taken to a refugee island near Istanbul in which they had to endure extremely primitive conditions. After two weeks they were evacuated from the island to Belgrade, where they were received by the future King Alexander I of Yugoslavia.
The Empress Dowager summoned Olga to Copenhagen and there she and her family lived with her mother, at first in the Amelianborg Palace and then Hvidore Villa. It was not always easy for her, the Empress Dowager wanted Olga to be at her beck and call and she never really liked Kulikovsky due to him being a commoner and found Olga’s sons irritatingly boisterous.
In 1925 Olga and her husband travelled from Copenhagen into Germany and visited Anna Anderson in Berlin. Anderson was the most serious in a string of people who claimed they were Tsar Nicholas’s youngest daughter Anastasia. Olga left with hope in her heart that this one might really be her beloved niece. However as soon as she sat down with Anderson, Olga knew that she was not Anastasia, and although she had some of the story right there were too many gaps, mistakes and obvious blunders, not to mention that Olga did not consider Anderson as even looking like Anastasia. She returned to Copenhagen with all hope extinguished that there were any survivors amongst her brothers family.
After the death of the Empress Dowager in 1928 Olga used her half of the money from the sale of the Hvidore estate to buy a farm 15 miles from Copenhagen. There she and Kulikovsky kept different animals and she was helped out in the house by her maid who had travelled with them from Russia. Over the years the farm became a centre for Russian monarchists and she maintained many connections with the old imperial regime survivors whilst living in Denmark.
During WWII Denmark was occupied by the German forces, many Russian émigrés who wanted to fight Russian communism joined the German Army to fight the USSR. Towards the end of the war Joseph Stalin’s regime accused Olga of conspiring against the USSR and as soviet troops moved through Germany and close to the Danish border the remaining Romanovs took leave of the country and went live in rural Canada.
In Canada they first lived in Toronto but then purchased a 200 acre farm in Halton County, Ontario. By 1952 Olga and Kulikovsky were elderly and the farm was too much work for them, their sons had moved on and after some of Olga’s remaining jewels were stolen they decided to sell up. From here the couple and Olga’s loyal maid ‘Mimka’ a 5 room house in Cooksville, Ontario and it was here that they spent the rest of their lives. Mimka suffered a stroke whilst at the house and Olga nursed her until she died there in 1954. In her small house there on the outskirts of Ontario she could still not escape her past, it became a magnet for Romanov imposters, but also more distinguished visitors. Marina, Duchess of Kent, Lord and Lady Louis Mountbatten and in 1959 Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh visited Toronto and invited Olga to a luncheon on board the royal yacht Britannia.
Kulikovsky died in 1958 after a long illness and Olga became increasingly infirm and unable to take care of herself. She was hospitalised at Toronto General in April 1960 which was the same month which her only remaining sibling Grand Duchess Xenia died in London. She never returned to her house and instead went to be cared for by Russian émigré friends in Gerrard Street, Toronto. It was there that the last Grand Duchess died on the 21st of November 1960 after slipping into a coma.