Letters Reveal Life of
Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna

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She was Canada's surprising link to imperial Russia, the ``last Grand Duchess'' living in exiled obscurity amid the bungalows of suburban Toronto during the 1950s.

But dramatic new light has been shed on the tragic early years of Olga Alexandrovna Romanov - youngest sister of the ill-fated Russian ruler Czar Nicholas II - with the discovery of 60 ``secret'' letters written from 1916-20, when Bolshevik revolutionaries overthrew the royal dynasty and executed nearly everyone in her family.

The collection of letters, described as ``unseen and unread outside of the immediate family, and written in English to avoid the Russian authorities,'' were recently acquired by a British antiquarian and are to be re-sold for an estimated $150,000 next week at a London auction.

One October 1916 letter to her older sister, Grand Duchess Xenia, details Olga's last visit with her brother ``Nicky'' and his son, Alexei, who ``feels quite a companion to his father, which is touching.''

A February 1919 letter, written after rumours emerged of the execution of Czar Nicholas and other members of the royal family, begins: ``Oh! Xenia dear - do you think it is true that all the poor relations who were imprisoned in Petersburg have been shot? We read it in the papers here . . . it seems so probable and yet so awfully impossible to believe and grasp.''

The letters also cover part of the two-year period during the First World War when Olga - eschewing the comforts of palace life - voluntarily served as a nurse in a military hospital.

In 2006, an elaborately engraved glass and silver bowl - presented to her in 1915 by her fellow hospital workers and kept as a cherished memento during her years in Canada - was scheduled to be auctioned in New York for an estimated $200,000.

But the sale was scuttled after Canadian heritage officials objected to the planned export of a historically significant object without a federal permit.

All of the church bells in Russia had tolled for Olga Alexandrovna when she was born in 1882, youngest daughter of Czar Alexander III and Empress Marie Feodorovna.

She was raised in a 900-room royal palace and enjoyed a life of boundless privilege and opulence before the Russian Revolution brought about the violent demise of the monarchy in 1917.

But unlike Nicholas and most other members of the royal family, who were put to death by the Bolshevik rebels in 1918, the Grand Duchess and her second husband Nikolai Koulikovsky escaped and settled in Denmark.

Strained relations between the Danish and Soviet governments forced another exile in 1948, and the Grand Duchess moved to Canada and a simple farm near Campbellville, west of Toronto, with her husband and two adult sons.

Locals came to know her as an unassuming and somewhat shabbily dressed farm wife.

``Money was never her main priority,'' Toronto writer Patricia Phenix, who authored a 2000 biography of Olga, told Canwest News Service in 2006. ``The thing that meant most to her was her freedom. She lived modestly, but she never forgot that she was a Grand Duchess.''

When the family gave up the farm in 1952 and moved to a small, five-room house in Cooksville - now part of the Toronto suburb of Mississauga - she shopped and had tea with neighbours while pursuing her passion for painting.

There were always rumours that the family possessed a cache of royal treasure. And Phenix has said that some Russian jewels were sold in the 1950s to prominent figures in Toronto society to help sustain the family's finances.

Despite her virtual anonymity in Canada, the Grand Duchess was not forgotten by her royal cousins in Europe. In 1959, when Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip visited Toronto on the royal yacht Britannia, Olga was invited aboard for a special luncheon.

She died in a Gerrard Street apartment on Nov. 24, 1960, and is buried in a North York cemetery, beneath a cross-shaped gravestone inscribed: ``The Last Grand Duchess of Russia.''

30 May, 2009
by Randy Boswell, Canwest News Service