Wiggle a book on the Romanovs, the former rulers of Imperial Russia, under my nose, and the odds are good that I'll make a lunge for it. Every now and then, I am very happy that I've read it, but all too often they tend to be rehashes of something else that someone else has written, and not very good. But once in a great while, I get a very pleasant surprise, and this slim memoir was one of them.
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25 Chapters of My Life is about the youngest sibling of Tsar Nicholas II, the last ruler of Imperial Russia. Olga Alexandrovna was born not long after the coronation of her parents as Tsar Alexander III and Empress Marie Feodorovna, and grew up in unimaginable privilege. With an adored English nanny to care for her, and an unusual closeness with her father, Olga grew up a happy spirited child, skilled in art and music, but all too aware of the world outside of palace walls. When she was twelve, her father passed away, leaving his son Nicholas as Tsar, and very much unprepared for the role. That death struck Olga very hard, and when she was eighteen her marriage was arranged for her -- to a man she hardly knew, much older than she was, and quite possibly a homosexual.
Prince Peter of Oldenburg belonged to a branch of minor German nobility that had married into the Romanov family, and Olga would be able to live and remain in Russia -- truth be told, it was so that she would remain as a sort of companion to her mother, Empress Marie. While the Grand Duchess does not reveal much about the intimate details, the marriage appeared companionable, but not at all passionate or loving. A few years after the wedding, she met Colonel Nicholas Kulikovsky, and it seems that the thunderbolt had struck -- she fell in love and went to her husband for a divorce.
Who, quite naturally for the time, refused. He did not want the scandal. Perhaps if Olga would be content to wait for some years, he would reconsider her request.
He did however, hire the young colonel as his aide, and a very curious menage-a-trois began...
Written as a series of magazine articles just before the Grand Duchess left for Canada after the end of World War II, this is a fascinating glimpse of Imperial Russia. Olga Alexandrovna recounts her life in Russia, her work as a Red Cross nurse on the front lines in World War I, and the terrifying times after the Revolution in March 1917. There are also smaller vignettes, such as the Biorki train disaster that nearly killed Olga and her immediate family; a hilarious account of a wolf hunt and the effect that it had on a visitor; Olga's impressions of her tutors and siblings; and most touchingly, the young soldiers that she helped to treat during the war. But the most revealatory may be a set of letters that Olga exchanged with her nieces, Nicholas II's daughters, that are filled with love and tenderness -- out of nearly all of the relatives, Olga was able to forge a strong and lasting friendship with Nicholas' wife, Alexandra, and became a close member of the family.
With the Revolution, Olga's life of privilege and wealth ended, but somehow, she managed to reforge her life, and made the very best of it. She would resettle in Denmark -- Empress Marie was a Danish princess by birth -- and then eventually move again to Canada. She filled her days with work, and especially painting, becoming a very skilled artist in watercolours and oils, and never looked back. Her own writings reveal that she was quite intellegent, and resourceful, with a eye for detail, and a wry sense of humour and for the ridiculous. Most of all, she is a survivor, and never once fell back on the role of being a victim, instead taking comfort in the love of her family, her faith and seizing each chance to recreate her life.
Originally published in Danish, and translated by Karen Roth-Nichols and introductions by Xenia K. Neilsen, and Paul Kulikovsky, this is a remarkable memoir, drawn not just from the original magazine articles, but notes that the Grand Duchess wrote, and letters from the State Archives in Moscow, Russia. The translation is very clear and vivid, and makes for enthralling reading. In addition to the narrative, there are numerous photographs, a genealogical chart showing Olga's relations and descendants, a bibliography and list of suggested reading, along with an overview of her life, along wtih an index of people and places.
For anyone interested in the Romanovs, this one is a must-read. It's not a particularly easy book to find -- it took me a while, and most online retailers are asking astronomical prices for it, but it can be found for a reasonable price at www.amazon.co.uk. The writing is clear, the story very human and heartfelt, and look at the lives of royalty that is almost never seen. Very much recommended, five stars overall.
Many thanks to Pestyside for adding this to the database for me.
25 Chapters of My Life: The Memoirs of Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna
Olga Alexandrovna, with Paul Kulikovsky, Karen Roth-Nicholls and Sue Woolmans
2009; Librario Publishing Ltd.
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