OTMA—The Romanov Sisters

“Walking the streets of Ekaterinburg, and more importantly, going out into the Koptyaki Forest where the family’s bodies were dumped after they were murdered in July 1918, left an indelible impression on my mind and my creative imagination. I wanted, with a passion, to tell the story of those four lovely, much photographed but historically neglected sisters…”

HELEN RAPPAPORT

What were the Romanov sisters really like?

I have always been haunted by the story of the four Romanov sisters. They were constantly in my head after I visited Ekaterinburg in the summer of 2007 to research my first Romanov book, Ekaterinburg: The Last Days of the Romanovs.  Sense of place is very important to me as a writer, and I was particularly gripped by it when I went to Western Siberia.  Walking the streets of the city, and more importantly, going out into the Koptyaki Forest where the family’s bodies were dumped after they were murdered in July 1918, left an indelible impression on my mind and my creative imagination. I wanted, with a passion, to tell the story of those four lovely, much photographed but historically neglected sisters.

You only have to look at any of the illustrated books on the Romanovs to see how incredibly photogenic they were. It is impossible to resist the lure of those touching, and now iconic,  images of Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia in their pretty white lace dresses and large picture hats.  They are timeless and seem to represent not just the lost world of old tsarist Russia but also the ruthless and arbitrary brutality of the revolution that destroyed them.

Yes, their faces are familiar, but little has been known about the four Romanov sisters beyond the chocolate-box image of them produced for public consumption by the tsarist publicity machine. The many charming and informal pictures that the sisters took of each other – and Anastasia in particular was an avid photographer – show something of the happy and unpretentious personalities behind the public image. But in truth, the Romanov sisters have never been considered as anything more than the pretty set dressing to the much bigger and more dramatic story of their parents and their tragic haemophiliac brother. For they were born into a Russia where sons were essential for the survival of the dynasty and daughters were deemed of little consequence.

In November 1894, when Princess Alexandra of Hesse married the new tsar, Nicholas II, royalty gossips around the world were all agog.  She may have landed the biggest dynastic catch and the richest man in the world, but as far as the  Russian public was concerned, Alexandra’s primary duty as Empress of Russia was to produce a son and heir.  Instead, the birth of four daughters in quick succession, although a private joy to their doting parents, was a bitter public disappointment that increased with every daughter born: Olga in 1895, Tatiana in 1897, Maria in 1899. The arrival of Anastasia in 1901 was, inevitably, greeted with deep dismay. The continuing lack of a son brought the Russian throne to the brink of a succession crisis and provoked much superstitious talk among the peasantry of a curse on the Romanovs. 

Little attention was therefore paid to the four charming and vivacious young sisters who were growing up at the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo outside St Petersburg. Indeed, during the 1900s the political climate  in Russia became so volatile and the assassination threats against Nicholas II so worrying, that the Imperial Family was increasingly secluded from public view and the press was gagged from saying anything about their domestic life.

“A steady stream of carefully selected official photographs did nothing to convey the individuality of the imperial daughters…”

The Romanov sisters’ home life

At home the sisters grew up like any other happy, normal girls, prone to the same fights and squabbles and hair pulling (Anastasia in particular being fond of the latter).  They might have been cosseted with extravagant gifts from royal relatives and eminent statesman, but their mother – in the tradition of her own mother Alice and her much-loved grandmother Queen Victoria – imposed a rigorous English regime of frugality, hand-me-down clothes, iron bedsteads, plain nursery food and cold baths. The girls were educated in the necessary social graces and spoke French, Russian (among themselves) and English (with their parents), but they were never spoilt. All four enchanted visitors: they were pert, friendly, inquisitive, and clearly devoted to each other.

Ordinary Russians, however, were lucky to catch glimpses of the Romanov sisters in carriage rides around St Petersburg or at increasingly rare official engagements; abroad, the Romanovs as a family were not seen until a brief visit to Cowes on the Isle of Wight in 1909.  A steady stream of carefully selected official photographs did nothing to convey the individuality of the imperial daughters, serving instead to perpetuate an endearing but bland  image of them as dutiful, docile and uncontroversial. Such a homogeneous view was further compounded by Alexandra herself, who referred to her daughters, even into adulthood, as two anonymous groupings: ‘the big pair’ – Olga and Tatiana – and ‘the little pair’ – Maria and Anastasia. The girls followed suit, often referring to themselves collectively as OTMA in letters – by their first name initial.

Olga

Olga the eldest had seemed rather plain and serious as a little girl. Then at sixteen she turned into a beauty. She loved poetry and music and seemed something of a dreamer and a romantic. As she grew older and started falling in love with men she could never marry, she became prone to fits of melancholy. She always wore her heart on her sleeve and of all the sisters paid the price of her emotional vulnerability. Olga struggled with her temper too and during her difficult teenage years her relationship with her mother blew hot and cold. Part of Olga’s moodiness was the result of having to carry the onus of responsibility, as the oldest, always to set an example to her siblings..

Tatiana

Tatiana was Olga’s polar opposite: brisk and highly self-controlled she was a natural born organizer, prompting her sisters to nickname her ‘The Governess’. Having inherited her mother’s reserve she was often seen as haughty and detached by those who did not know her, but during the difficult war years she could always be relied on to get things done, and proved to be a gifted and dedicated nurse. Given different circumstances she had the talent to train in medicine. Her enigmatic Russian aristocratic beauty and fashion style made her a most desirable candidate in the royal marriage market. Yet despite her physical grace and allure and her at times imperious manner, she was the most intensely private of the Romanov daughters.

Maria

The third sister Maria in contrast had a wonderful warmth and openness; everyone remarked on her great, plangent blue eyes. She had an earthy, Russian quality that was demonstrated in a natural warmth and gregariousness. But she could be gauche and naïve at times and her trusting and generous nature made her vulnerable. Given her great love for children and family life, she would have made a devoted mother. But being naturally docile and submissive sometimes Maria suffered at the hands of her siblings, and in particular her manipulative and domineering younger sister, Anastasia.

Anastasia

Anastasia, the much-mythologized fourth Romanov daughter was the wild child of the family, an irrepressible force of nature who constantly entertained and demanded attention. Quirky, inattentive and a hopeless scholar she might be, but she was instinctive and intuitive and it was impossible to ignore her seductive personality. Her aunt Olga nicknamed her ‘Shvybzik’, a German term of affection meaning merry little one. She certainly had a gift for merriment and kept the family’s spirits up during the hardships of house arrest.

The arrival in 1904 of their brother Alexey – ‘The Hope of Russia’ – and with it the discovery soon after his birth that he had inherited haemophilia – passed down in the female line from Queen Victoria to his mother – had immediately cast a long shadow over the sisters’ lives and only served to further accentuate their subsidiary role.  Even though still young, the four sisters became their brother’s devoted carers, watching over him and trying their best to protect him from harm. 

The arrival in 1904 of their brother Alexey – ‘The Hope of Russia’ – and with it the discovery soon after his birth that he had inherited haemophilia – passed down in the female line from Queen Victoria to his mother – had immediately cast a long shadow over the sisters’ lives and only served to further accentuate their subsidiary role.  Even though still young, the four sisters became their brother’s devoted carers, watching over him and trying their best to protect him from harm. They learned to content themselves with each other’s company and they never complained. But unremitting anxiety about Alexey’s health and the numerous crises he suffered when he fell or banged himself came just at the point when the girls were developing a curiosity about the world around them and were longing to rush out and explore it. Life instead closed in on them and those four beguiling personalities were increasingly shut away from view. From 1907, when Alexey suffered his first serious haemophilia attack, instead of enjoying the company of young people of their own age, the girls’ lives were dominated by the presence of Grigory Rasputin, the man whom Nicholas and Alexandra looked upon as a spiritual advisor and healer and trusted as the only person who could protect their precious son from harm.

“Yet despite all the constraints placed on public and press curiosity about them, by the time they had entered their teens the four Romanov sisters were undoubtedly the most talked about princesses in Europe

When the Romanov Tercentenary was celebrated in 1913, Olga and Tatiana were clearly blossoming, and were at last seen on the public stage at a series of official public engagements.  The foreign press was awash with gossip about the men they might marry. From the moment she turned sixteen in 1911, every possible princely candidate was discussed for Olga, with Carol of Romania, Boris of Bulgaria, Alexander of Serbia and Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich of Russia all posited as suitable bridegrooms. Over in England, until her death in 1901, Queen Victoria had nursed the hope of a marriage between Olga and the Prince of Wales’s son and heir – the future Edward VIII. How different British history might have been with a Queen Olga and no Wallis Simpson.

But nothing came of a string of suggested matches – particularly that of Olga with Prince Carol of Romania.  Both sets of royal parents tried hard to bring the two young people together in the summer of 1914 but Olga did not like Carol and his roving eye would not have guaranteed a happy match for her.  In any event Olga adamantly refused to marry a foreign prince and leave Russia. When it came down to it, Nicholas and Alexandra, who had married for love and wished the same for their daughters, would not force her into a marriage of dynastic expediency any more than they would her sisters, who had all united in their desire to stay in Russia. Wistfully, Olga admitted that all she wanted to do was get married, have children and live in obscurity in the countryside somewhere, far away from the official world of the Russian court.  But the outbreak of war in August 1914 put paid to all talk of marriage.

Instead war threw her and her sister Tatiana into the path of a succession of handsome wounded army officers when they began training as Red Cross nurses to work in the military hospital set up by their mother at Tsarskoe Selo. War, of all things, finally opened up something of the world outside for all four sisters. Maria and Anastasia took up work as hospital visitors and regularly interrogating the wounded about the ‘outside life’ that they longed to be part of. All the girls supported wartime charities and soon their hospital work with the wounded became the focus of their daily lives. Olga and Tatiana both demonstrated great dedication in their nursing; but while the strain of her responsibilities and the disappointments of falling for men she knew could never marry eventually led to physical and nervous collapse for Olga, Tatiana proved to be an exceptionally gifted and courageous nurse who – had history been different – might have been a pioneer of women’s nursing.

Throughout their short lives the four Romanov sisters always found solace in each other’s company and after the revolution wished only for one thing: that they could all stay together as a family, somewhere in exile. They perceived of themselves as a unit, a foursome and this is how they wished to remain – a united family with their brother and parents. Although the homogeneous, self-effacing image today might be perceived as detrimental to the girls’ individuality, it was not viewed as such by them. They were happy in each other’s company and very reliant on each other emotionally. And during the rigours of house arrest and exile in 1917-18 that closeness protected and consoled them.

If there is one quotation that for me sums up the love and loyalty of the four Romanov sisters for their family, through the greatest adversity, it is this letter. It was written by Olga in Tobolsk when she, Tatiana, Anastasia and Alexey were waiting to join their parents and Maria, who had been sent on ahead to Ekaterinburg:

‘Mama, my beloved little soul, we have had no news from you, so we are waiting with great impatience … Yesterday there was a beautiful sunset and evening. The sky was so bright and full of stars… My darling loved ones, how are you surviving and what are you doing? How I would love to be with you. We still do not know when we shall leave. … May our Lord protect you my dear beloved Mama and all of you. I kiss Papa, you and M many times over. I clasp you in my arms and love you.

Your Olga’

In captivity 1917

Empress Alexandra with Olga and Tatiania 1917 – the last image

Sign up for Stories From the Footnotes of History

Please fill in this form to receive the latest stories in my Footnotes series — on hidden or little known & previously unpublished stories that I've uncovered during my research.

I will also send you regular updates in this newsletter about my work and speaking events.