The Romanovs in Red Cross uniforms

Written by Expert Contributor Gareth Russell

Nicholas II’s daughters, all slaughtered together in a cellar on one dreadful morning in 1918, have acquired a totemic significance in the century since their murder. For many conservatives and monarchists, the posthumous importance of the grand duchesses is obvious and inescapable as proof both of the unhinged viciousness of Communism and of the nostalgic appeal of the monarchy itself. For many others, the four girls are divorced from politics to stand in for the victims of totalitarianism everywhere. Their deaths in 1918 were part of a policy of terror, in which violence was, in and of itself, the goal. There was, after all, no firm political justification for executing the girls alongside their parents and little brother. None of the four sisters had ever held political office nor, under the rules of the Russian monarchy itself as instituted by the Emperor Paul in 1797, could they ever have done so. Keen to prevent a coup the likes of which had brought his mother to power and the expense of his father, Tsar Paul had instituted Salic Law in Russia whereby the throne could never again be held by a female Romanov nor by her direct descendants.[1] It could only, so he decreed, pass through the male line, which meant that even if the monarchy had been restored after 1917, as the Communists feared, by its own rules Nicholas II’s daughters, or any children they might have had, would be ineligible to wear the restored crown. As Trotsky himself later admitted, killing the last Tsar’s daughters was not because of any tangible political goal, but rather to shock Communism’s supporters and enemies into knowing that there was no going back.[2] This Rubicon would in part be flooded by the blood of the butchered princesses – who had once gazed out as icons of curated perfection in the family photographs printed by the monarchy for its subjects.

I often think that the Romanov grand duchesses are caught somewhere between those photographs and the horror of that cellar, where they huddled together in a terror which still brings a lump to my throat when I think of it. Yet, that tragedy has somewhat frozen the girls, trapping them like flies in amber, because we tend to think of them as homogenous girls in white dresses, bound by tragedy and almost indistinguishable from one another. However, by the time of their deaths, the three eldest sisters were no longer children and the eldest two had come-out as debutantes into Russian high society in the years before the Great War. They had adult lives, briefly, and they had even helped serve the Russian war effort between 1914 and 1916, which I would like to discuss here in the hope of shining a light on their personalities and achievements.

The four girls were born roughly two years apart, apiece. Olga, the most intellectual and religious of the four sisters, was born in 1895 – a charming photograph of her, glowering as only a disgruntled baby can, was taken visiting at Balmoral with her British great-grandmother, Queen Victoria. She was joined in 1897 by Tatiana, a dazzling beauty with an elegance and poise that never left her, to the point that even as the deposed royals were being jeered by a crowd, an observing socialist felt moved to congratulate Tatiana on her patrician dignity. Maria, born in 1899, was so well-behaved as a child that her Irish nanny joked that she must have had the smallest trace of Original Sin imaginable, something which could not be said of the rambunctious Anastasia, who arrived in June 1901, developing a flair for practical jokes, mimicry, and horseplay.[3] Her father used to sneak her cigarettes and she entertained the family by dressing up in his Jaeger pyjamas to perform skits.

A debutante’s “coming out” in a ball, with her hair worn up and her first floor-length gown, was a rite of passage for Edwardian daughters of the upper classes. Olga’s was held at the Imperial Family’s summer palace in the Crimea in 1911, while Tatiana’s was hosted in 1913 at the Anitchkov Palace in St. Petersburg by their grandmother, the Dowager Empress Marie, since their mother Alexandra considered the Petersburg elite to be self-absorbed, extravagant, and mind-numbingly dull. After this, the two eldest Grand Duchesses were considered adults, they began to be treated as such, and had some access to what we might now call their trust funds. Olga, in particular, proved a diligent philanthropist, discreetly paying the medical bills for disabled children she viewed on her journeys into the city. She was a passionate Russian patriot and regarded the prospect of marrying abroad as distressing. There were talks of Serbian, Romanian, and even British matches for the girls, but all of that came to nothing when the world tipped on its side with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

With the war upon them, the Tsarina was determined to be useful and she contacted the Red Cross with the request that they train her as a student nurse. Alexandra also financed the building of a military hospital in the grounds of Tsarskoe Selo, the Imperial Family’s private compound outside St. Petersburg. She did not want to delegate her work, however, and both her eldest daughters joined their mother to train as nurses. When they passed, Alexandra wrote happily to her sister, the Marchioness of Milford Haven (Lord Mountbatten’s mother), “We passed our exams and received the Red Cross on our aprons and got our certificates of sisters of the war time. It was an emotion, putting them on, and appearing with other sisters”.[4]

Often, in life, I find that those we expect to excel at certain things do not. Life tests us by surprises. Olga, with her more practical nature, had always been less enamoured with the glitter of high society than was her chic sister, Tatiana, and in light of that and her charitable enterprises, Olga was expected to prove the better caregiver of the two. Surprisingly, however, it was Tatiana who proved to be a hardier nurse. In fact, she proved tougher and more useful in the operating theatres than either her mother or elder sister. With the Tsarina Alexandra, it should be noted that the empress had suffered for years from heart palpitations and sciatica, which obviously meant that her usefulness in the hospitals was limited. After a year or so of exhausting work in the hospital, Tsar Nicholas had to intervene to force his wife to cut her hours. Olga, too, was let down by her body rather than her indomitable spirits – the poor Grand Duchess found herself retching, vomiting, and even fainting at the operations. In light of this, it made sense that Tatiana was trained to assist the surgeons, while Olga worked tirelessly in the wards, talking to the soldiers, and helping the other nurses wherever she could. The two sisters were on a shift together when a wounded soldier died in front of them. “All behaved well,” Alexandra wrote in one of her letters, “none lost their head and the girls were brave – they …  had never seen a death. But he died in an instant – it made us all sad as you can imagine – how near death is always is.”[5]

One soldier in the hospital had suffered a cerebral contusion. Every day, when the Tsarina came by his bedside, he would initially confuse her with his mother, who had recently passed away. Alexandra would sit by his bed and talk to him –  “he stares,” she told her husband, “then recognises me, clasps my hands to his breast, says he now feels warm and happy.”[6]  Alexandra was famously prudish, but as a nurse she changed the soldiers’ bandages without complaints, shaved around their wounds, helped the doctors with amputations, sterilised medical equipment, and she stayed late to cradle the wounded in her arms when they began to scream or cry out in their sleep. “One’s heart bleeds for them,” she wrote to her husband, “I won’t describe any more details as it’s so sad but being a wife and mother I feel for them quite particularly”.[7]

With Tatiana busier in the operating theatre, Alexandra and Olga befriended a young soldier who had been wounded in an attack on the Austrian lines. He was in the hospital for four months, but sadly without much sign of improvement. The patient spoke to them about his life at home, his service on the Front, and his family. Alexandra called in to see him when she began work at nine o’clock in the morning and she spent an hour or so with him in the afternoon. She and the other nurses eventually realised that the young man was going to die, so she decided that she did not want him to die on his own, hence the length and frequency of her visits to his bedside.

After a few months, she wrote to the Tsar at the Front, “My poor wounded friend has gone. God has taken him quietly and peacefully to Himself. I was as usual with him in the morning and more than an hour in the afternoon”.[8] To her intense distress, Alexandra was not there when the young man passed away. Earlier in the day, he had told one of the nurses that he was a little bit uncomfortable. Ten minutes later, the same nurse came back and said he took a few deep breaths and then gently passed away. “Olga and I went to see him,” Alexandra wrote that night. “He lay there so peacefully covered under my flowers I daily brought him, with his lovely peaceful smile – the forehead yet quite warm. I came home with tears… Never did he complain, never asked for anything, sweetness itself – all loved him and that shining smile… I felt God let me bring him a little sunshine in his loneliness. Such is life. Another brave soul left this world to be added to the shining stars above.”[9] She was distraught and, as grief often does, it rattled her to the point where she could not stop writing about it at length to Nicholas: “It must not make you sad, what I wrote,” she apologised, “only I could not bear it any longer.”

Both Maria and Anastasia were considered too young to join their mother and sisters as Red Cross nurses. In 1915, Maria technically had her debut into high society but, in light of the war, the Imperial Family declined to hold a ball to mark the occasion. Instead, she borrowed a gown from Tatiana to make her first appearance as an adult at a dinner held to celebrate Romania joining the First World War on the same side as Russia. She slipped as she entered, but eased any awkwardness by laughing at herself, which put the guests and servants at ease.[10]

Despite being too young to train, the Tsarina encouraged “the Little Pair” to visit the hospital regularly, in order that they could visit the wounded, talk with them, and cheer them up with conversation. One of the soldiers seems to have fallen in love with Tatiana and he later died fighting for the monarchists in the civil war which swept through Russia after the Romanov monarchy had been toppled first by a republic, which in its turn fell quickly to Communism. The Grand Duchesses, in their time helping the war effort, be it as nurses or visitors, left a vivid impression of capable, intelligent, and well-meaning young women who, I believe, might have done even more good over many more years had history and totalitarianism not intervened with such devastating cruelty to end their lives in July 1918.

About the Author:Gareth Russell is the author of several works of non-fiction, including “Young and Damned and Fair”, about Queen Catherine Howard; “The Ship of Dreams”, an account of the Titanic disaster which was named a Book of the Year by The Times, and “The Emperors: How Europe’s Rulers were destroyed by the First World War.”

[1] Known subsequently as the Pauline Laws, they replaced the Petrine succession protocols installed by Emperor Peter the Great earlier in the 18th century. Under the latter, an emperor or empress could designate their own successor, regardless of gender, something which had facilitated the succession of the empresses Catherine I, Anna, and Elisabeth, and the coup of Catherine II. The Pauline Laws were upheld by subsequent Romanov tsars, with Nicholas II incorporating some of them into the Fundamental Laws of the Russian Empire at the time of the 1905-06 constitutional reforms. This meant that, as late as 1906, their own father had installed or upheld legislation which meant that the grand duchesses could never have succeeded to the throne or passed a similar claim to their children.

[2] Orlando Figes, “A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891 – 1924” (London, 1996), p. 641; Gareth Russell, “The Emperors: How Europe’s Rulers were Destroyed by the First World War” (Stroud, 2014), pp. 190-1.

[3] Margaretta Eager, “Six Years at the Russian Court” (Reprint, Bowmanville, 2011), p. 52. 

[4] Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, “Memories of the Russian Court” (New York, 1923), pp. 105-6.

[5] Sir Bernard Pares (intro. and ed.), “The Letters of the Tsaritsa to the Tsar, 1914-1916” (Reprint, London, 1987), p. 41.

[6] Buxhoeveden, p. 193.  

[7] Pares, p. 41.  

[8] Pares, “Letters,” p. 53.  

[9] Ibid.

[10]  Russell, “The Emperors,” p. 115.

Gareth Russell

Expert Contributor

Educated at Oxford University and Queen’s University, Belfast, Gareth Russell is a historian, novelist, and playwright. He is the author of The Ship of Dreams, Young and Damned and Fair, The Emperors, and An Illustrated Introduction to the Tudors. He lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

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