“Princess Olga – A Wild and Barefoot Romanov”
by Olga Romanoff, with Coryne Hall (2017)
Olga Romanoff, youngest child of His Highness the late Prince Andrew Alexandrovich of Russia, has just published her reminscences. This is the first book of memoirs in English by a Romanoff family descendant in many years.
Because we are The Russian Legitimist, we will first discuss the book from a legitimist viewpoint, with a few quibbles about titles thrown in. We will then review the book itself.
The Legitimist Angle
The author, Olga Romanoff (who was born in 1950), recounts how upset her great-grandmother, the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna (who died in 1928), was when in 1924 her nephew Grand Duke Kirill declared himself head of the dynasty and emperor in exile. As Olga explains, the Dowager Empress was dismayed because, despite the evidence, she refused to believe that her two sons (Emperor Nicholas II and Grand Duke Michael) and her grandson (Tsesarevich Alexei) had been murdered. Erecting this sad wall of denial was how the elderly and reclusive Empress tried to cope with the tragedy that had shattered her life. Kirill was next in the line of succession after Nicholas II, Alexei and Michael. Kirill’s declaration, which she deemed “premature,” was tantamount to stating that they were all dead, and it rattled her.
Nicholas II, Alexei and Michael had all been brutally executed by July 1918, which is when Kirill succeeded as head of the dynasty. Kirill, however, waited a full 6 years to say this, until he was fully convinced that the three had died. By 1924, he felt that he could wait no longer. Political events were shifting on the ground. In Russia, Lenin had just died, and a succession struggle was underway. The survival of the Bolshevik regime seemed to be in question. In the emigration, various generals were pushing the elderly and anti-legitimist Grand Duke Nicholas Nicolaievich, who was distant in the line of succession, to name himself tsar in waiting. Kirill, who agonized over the decision to declare himself emperor, concluded in the end that it was imperative to assert to the world that the dynasty had survived, that the dynastic succession laws were still in effect, and that according to these laws there was indeed still an emperor.
The reader of Princess Olga might well think that her father, Prince Andrew of Russia, and his branch of the dynasty shared the Dowager Empress’s dismay at the Kirill declaration. The reader, however, would be mistaken. Olga Romanoff’s grandfather, Grand Duke Alexander of Russia, had 6 sons. Her grandfather died long before Olga was born, but she describes him accurately in her memoirs as an “incredible” forward thinking man of huge abilities. Alexander was the son-in-law of the Dowager Empress, and his 6 sons were her grandsons. Grand Duke Alexander was a fervent legitimist and fully supported Kirill’s decision. In 1924, shortly after Kirill declared himself emperor, Grand Duke Alexander and 4 of his sons (including Prince Andrew, father of Olga Romanoff) signed a letter expressing their loyalty to Kirill as emperor and to Kirill’s only son Vladimir as grand duke-tsesarevich and heir. In a postscript to the letter, Grand Duke Alexander wrote: “Dimitri [another of his sons] is not with us, he works in New York and we have communicated this letter to him.” Later, this 5th son, Prince Dimitri Alexandrovich of Russia, acknowleged Kirill as emperor. The 6th and youngest son had no involvement with the letter, because he was a minor in 1924.
In his memoirs, Always A Grand Duke (1933), on the question of why Kirill was calling himself emperor, Grand Duke Alexander wrote:
“In fact, the explanation of the whole mystery is quite simple. It so happens that Grand Duke Cyril is the first in the line of succession to the throne of Russia while I myself am fortunately the tenth. Therefore, I may write books and articles, play contract and backgammon, attend cocktail parties and greyhound races, travel and have an all-around good time but he must keep the fires of the Monarchistic Idea burning. I say ‘he must’ because we both belong to a family which has for centuries maintained that nothing, not even the fear of ridicule, should interfere with the fulfillment of our duties. As Grand Duke Cyril sees it, his and his youthful son’s duty consists in providing an active leadership for the Russian royalists abroad and in revising the age-worn monarchistic precepts in a manner that would make them acceptable to the Russians in Russia.”
By the early 1930s, Grand Duke Alexander had died, and Stalin had consolidated power. The prospect of a Soviet collapse had become remote. Several of Grand Duke
Alexander’s sons lost interest in legitimism and turned their attention to making a living as exiles. One was Olga’s father Prince Andrew, who nonetheless, upon Kirill’s death in 1938, wrote promptly to his uncle Grand Duke Andrew expressing his recognition of Vladimir as the new head of the dynasty. Prince Andrew’s brother Prince Dmitri remained a committed legitimist during the 1930s, working closely with Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovich on various monarchist initiatives.
Olga Romanoff makes no mention whatever of the strong legitimism of her immediate family in 1924. She is not an historian, and perhaps these events are so distant that she had no awareness of them.
Olga Romanoff’s understanding of dynastic titles has gaps.
She is wrong to say that her father was an Imperial Highness but was happy just to be called Highness. Her grandfather, as a grand duke, was an Imperial Highness. Her father, a prince of the imperial blood rather than a grand duke, was a Highness. (Nor was her father the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in exile, something she states twice.)
Olga Romanoff’s book refers to her mother several times as Princess Andrew [of Russia]. But she was not Princess Andrew of Russia. Under the Romanoff house laws, if Prince Andrew had married a royal princess, his wife would have been Princess Andrew. But Olga’s mother was a British commoner. In 1911, applying long established dynastic laws, Nicholas II made clear that he would give permission to princes of the imperial blood (as opposed to grand dukes) to marry suitable commoners, but in such instances the prince would have to renounce his succession rights and the wife and children would have to receive new surnames and coats of arms. When Prince Andrew’s younger brother Prince Dmitri of Russia married a commoner in 1931 (a countess from a very distinguished Russian family), he sought Grand Duke Kirill’s permission to marry her (which was immediately accorded) and requested a morganatic title for his wife (which was immediately granted). But she was not Princess Dmitri. Similarly, Prince Vsevelod of Russia sought the permission of Kirill’s successor Grand Duke Vladimir to marry a commoner (the daughter of an English earl) and requested a morganatic title for his wife. Grand Duke Vladimir granted his permission, attended the wedding and created Vsevelod’s wife Princess Romanovsky-Pavlovsky. As a commoner, she was not Princess Vsevelod. The descendants of Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovich use the name Ilyinsky today because Grand Duke Kirill created the title of Prince Romanovsky-Ilyinsky for Dmitri Pavlovich’s morganatic son Paul.
The Russian Legitimist does not know for certain whether or not Grand Duke Vladimir, as head of the dynasty, accorded the morganatic title of Princess Romanovsky to Olga and her mother. If he did so, Olga would be Olga Romanoff, Princess Romanovsky. But otherwise, as the child of a morganatic marriage, she would have no title at all, unless given one by Grand Duke Vladimir. None of this is explained in the book.
Olga Romanoff’s stories and anecdotes tend to fall into two categories.
Some are second-hand accounts (or even more distant accounts) of stories she heard and now, many years later, has reconstructed from memory. These include her speculations as to who really killed Rasputin and her decision (based on a mysterious phone call) to absolve King George V from the accusation that he blocked Nicholas II and his children from coming to Britain as exiles during the one period, between the February and October revolutions, when they could actually have gotten out of Russia. For years, Prime Minister Lloyd George was given the blame for denying the imperial prisoners refuge in England. Edward VIII, as Duke of Windsor, repeated this version in his memoirs. But several decades ago, official British documents were released which made it clear that Lloyd George was willing to let them come, but that George V intervened to nix the plan. King George obviously did not intend to consign his first cousins Nicholas II and Alexandra and their innocent children to a savage murder. His hope no doubt was that they would go to Sweden or some other country, but not to Britain. But the time wasted by British dithering and delays and obfuscations sealed the fate of the man who had been the head of state of Britain’s loyal Russian ally during more than 30 months of the bloody carnage of the First World War. One suspects that George V was haunted for the rest of his life with guilt and remorse over the consequences of his decision to slam the door on Nicholas II, and so he should have been. But Olga Romanoff’s casual absolution of the British king based on the mysterious phone call from a likely conspiracy theorist is not at all convincing to us and is unlikely to be convincing to our fellow Russian Orthodox believers.
The second category of stories are those told to her directly by her father, Prince Andrew of Russia. These are of great interest. For example, we learn that Prince Andrew liked Rasputin enormously and thought he was basically a good man who had the gift of “laying on of hands” in a way that stopped the Tsesarevich’s bleeding. Andrew never forgave his brother-in-law Yusupov for the murder.
Prince Andrew is of interest because he was, by 1980, one of the three last living male dynasts of the Russian Imperial House. (Andrew’s children were not members of the dynasty). The other two were Andrew’s brother Prince Vasily of Russia, who died in 1989, and Andrew’s second cousin, Grand Duke Vladimir, the head of the dynasty, who died in 1992. At the latter’s death, the male dynasts died out in the male line, and the representation of the dynasty passed to the female line. Thus, one of the useful aspects of this book is that it gives a detailed account of the last three decades of Andrew’s life.
Andrew’s second wife was Nadine McDougall, of the Scottish family which established the McDougall Mills and prospered impressively in the flour trade. Their only child is the author. The author was very close to her father and conveys effectively his preference for simplicity in all things, whether social, culinary, or sartorial. He hated dressing up and preferred to wear his old farm clothes every day. He loved living at his wife’s manor house in Kent, and he rarely left England.
Andrew was 54 when Olga was born and was a “hands on” father. She writes that her parents were old when she was born, and she was brought up with old people.
As to her own life, the author of this book strikes the reader as excellent company. She seems direct, honest and down to earth. Her very good sense of humour conveys itself on page after page.
Olga was baptized in the Russian Orthodox faith but unfortunately she was never taught Russian. Her only language is English. In this respect, however, she is not dissimilar to the anglophone majority of the current membership of the Romanov Family Association. The anti-legitimist Nicholas Romanoff started the RFA in 1979, and he and his brother ran it until 2016. With the recent deaths of Nicholas Romanoff and his brother, the dozen or so men currently in the RFA are all American citizens, and only one of them (Olga’s 94 year old half-brother) speaks Russian. It is intriguing that, except for the 3 daughters of the late Nicholas Romanoff, all of the members of the RFA today are descendants of Grand Duke Alexander and Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovich, both fervent legitimists and supporters of Grand Duke Kirill.
One of the most interesting portions of the book has nothing to do with Russia. Olga inherited from her mother a historic house called Provender. Located near Faversham in Kent, it is a 30-room pile, parts of which are 700 years old. She runs it herself, except for a cleaning woman who works there 3 hours a week and a gardener who comes once a fortnight. When she inherited it, the place was in advanced decay. The projected costs to repair and renovate it were enormous. Olga Romanoff explains in great and impressive detail her tenacious and successful efforts to save this historic house from ruin and to keep it going. This was a daunting task, and her descriptions of the house are in some ways the best part of the book – the credit for saving it is owed to her alone.
Our various corrections aside, Olga Romanoff’s book is an enjoyable read. She writes fluidly and includes a wealth of amusing anecdotes. One of the traits of a good autobiography is the feeling that, by the end of the book, the reader has the impression that he knows the author. By this measure, she has succeeded.