The collective image of the daughters of Nicholas and Alexander is that of a group of four, frozen in time in a series of black and white photographs. The sisters played into the idea of a collective identity themselves, signing group correspondence “OTMA”, the first letter of each girl’s name. Their mother referred to them as “the leaves of a four-leaf clover”.
Their parents showed their love for them openly, unlike some royals of the time. Still, they were always eclipsed within the family by their brother and were somewhat unknown outside their circle in any real sense at all. Due to their mother’s delicate health and precarious emotional state – exacerbated by constant worry about their brother, Alexei – they lived a life isolated from the Russian court and their contemporaries. It’s easy to lose track of the fact that these were four distinct people with their own quirks, traits, and sadly unrealized goals.
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Olga (Born 1895)
The oldest of the Romanov children, Olga, was born a year after the marriage of her parents, Alix of Hesse and Nicholas II of Russia. At the age of six, she experienced a devastating bout of typhoid fever, and one that may have affected her health throughout her life. In the mode of many oldest children, she was considered compassionate and helpful, and expected – particularly by her mother – to keep the younger, rowdier children in line. It was not an easy task for her, for she was a bit shy, with a sudden temper.
She was also the most studious of all the children, and was very close with both her father and brother, both of whom she resembled. When she reached marriage age there were tentative talks about arrranging an alliance with a foreign prince. Of the gentlemen considered, Prince Carol of Romania was the strongest contender, but Olga found she neither liked nor loved him. Her parents, whose own marriage was based on strong attraction, shelved the idea and further talk of marriage was sidelined by the outbreak of World War I.
The war intruded on the routine existance of the entire family. Olga, eager to be of use, trained as a nurse, although she was forced to stop early due to her poor health. During the family captivity, it was said Olga retreated into her more introverted self, spending much time with her books and needlework.
More on Olga here.
Olga’s sixteenth birthday is described here.
Tatiana (Born 1897)
Said to be the most regal of the sisters, and the one who most resembled her mother, Tatiana combined Alix’s good looks with a ferocious competence. Her sisters, no doubt both amused and irritated by her businesslike – perhaps borderline “bossy” – abilities, dubbed her “the governess”. With her older sister Olga, she was part of the “Big Pair”.
Tatiana trained alongside Olga to become a Red Cross nurse during WWI. Hardier than her sister, she not only spent her days nursing, but ran her own refugee committee in the evening when she returned from the hospital. She even had a short romance with a wounded officer, which was cut off when the family was removed from their home by the Bolsheviks. Tatiana was extremely close to her mother, and was the one responsible for soothing the Tsarina during the family’s imprisonment. In their last months of captivity it was she who would push their increasingly fragile mother around in a wheelchair.
More on Tatiana here.
Maria (Born 1899)
Along with her younger sister Anastasia, she was known as one of the “Little Pair”. She was also considered the beauty of the family, although it seems absurd to pick one of the Romanov daughters over the others for that honor. Her blue eyes were so large that within the family they were known as “Maria’s saucers”. Like many middle children she was a people pleaser and peacemaker, and was both friendly and a little flirtatious. She wanted desperately to become a nurse like her older sisters, but was too young, and had to settle with being a patron of the hospital instead. She often wrote of her desire to marry and have a family. Although she was sometimes prone to periods of depression, within her larger family circle was considered the kindest and sweetest of the girls.
More on Maria here.
Anastasia (Born 1901)
Anastasia is perhaps the best known of the sisters, although that’s mostly due to the myths that swirled around after her death. She was the youngest of the girls, and very close to her older sister Maria. Outgoing and tomboyish, she was the yang to Maria’s yin. She was said to be particularly lively and mischevious, and not much concerned with propriety. Maria often had to follow Anastasia around and apologize for her hijinks. Although considered highly intelligent, Anastasia did not exhibit much interest in her schoolwork and preferred to run about outdoors. She had a quick temper, and was known to be a bit of a handful. Despite her high spirits and energy, she, like Olga, was overcome periodically with bouts of sickliness. Too young to be a nurse during WWI, she would visit the hospital with her sister Maria, and entertain the patients with jokes and games.
More on Anastasia here.
Although there were decades of speculation that one or more of the sisters survived the Bolshevik executions the night of July 17, 1918, recent identifications of remains on the site have debunked that idea. There is an excellent summary of the family’s life and last month’s on this blog post. If you are interested in the discovery and identification of the Romanov remains, the excellent “You’re Wrong About” podcast on Anastasia does a thorough job of explaining. They also have a great five part series on Diana, too.
Next week, we take a look at the Romanovs after the revolution.