‘The news that a revolution had broken out in St. Petersburg came like a veritable thunder bolt’

This extract presents the account of the younger sister of the ill-fated Tsar Nicholas II. Her privileged life suddenly changed in 1917, at which time she was working as a nurse, tending casualties of World War I. The February Revolution seemed to come out of nowhere and, as she relates here, she and her family were forced to flee to Crimea. But even there they were not safe…

Extract from 25 Chapters of My Life: The Memoirs of Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, Last Grand Duchess of Russia
By Paul Kulikovsky, Karen Roth-Nicholls and Sue Woolmans

Published by Strident Publishing

8th March 2017 marks the centenary of the start of the Russian Revolution, which saw the end of the Tsarist regime of Nicholas II and the introduction of Communism. The Russian Revolution was really a pair of revolutions – the February and October revolutions. So why the 8th March centenary when it’s called the February Revolution? Simple: in 1917 Russia worked to the Julian calendar, which is 12 days behind the Gregorian calendar that we (and Russia) now use.

The Flight to the Crimea

The news that a revolution had broken out in St. Petersburg came to those of us who worked in our hospital in Kiev like a veritable thunder bolt. We hadn’t heard a word – not even a rumour, but one morning it was all over the newspapers. We read the news over and over again and did not want to believe our eyes. Our patients were just as surprised and terrified as we were ourselves. They stared at us with bewildered eyes, and couldn’t stop asking what would become of them and the rest of us. We hadn’t a notion and barely knew what had happened. None of us could foresee how much it would disrupt all our lives.

My Mother immediately set off by train to the headquarters at Moghilev to see and speak with her eldest son, the Emperor. It was a trying journey for her…and it would have been many times more trying if she had known that it would be the last time she would be seeing Nicky. [Tsar Nicholas II.]

While Mother was away, the general mood in Kiev slowly changed. It was evident that the revolution was on the way. We discussed the situation and realised that we had to change our whereabouts. As soon as Mother returned to Kiev my brother-in-law, Xenia’s husband, suggested that we take her as far away as possible from the danger spot. We should take her to the Crimea where he owned an estate named Ai-Todor. It was situated on the Black Sea and here he believed that we would be in safety. He had already given his wife and children instructions to leave St. Petersburg and travel to the Crimea to join us there as quickly as they possibly could.

The next problem turned out to be how to get down there. The ordinary train connections were highly unreliable, but then with great efforts and through private connections my brother-in-law succeeded in procuring a special train which was made ready for immediate departure. My husband and I decided to accompany Mother and the others to the Crimea, but we intended to return immediately to our duties as soon as the whole family had been installed in their temporary home.

And then off we went. We set out late one night, but it was not from the station where it would have caused a commotion and where hundreds of helpless people were waiting for an opportunity to get away, but from a small wood a short distance from Kiev. We drove out there in the dark, found the train at the appointed spot, got in and away it immediately puffed. We were on our way for two days and stopped at a number of major stations. There our escort of a few soldiers stood at all the doors to prevent the wagons from being taken by storm by the crowds of demoralized people, who had decided to fish in troubled waters and who were waiting for an opportunity to get somewhere else where there was something going on. Thankfully, the journey went as planned, despite the many difficulties. All traffic was in a great state of chaos and we had the feeling that we were just waiting for our train to crash into another one which had been left on the tracks, because the staff could not agree to man it and drive it away. We still cannot really understand how our train avoided accidents and got through safely. It was such an emotional journey. As we approached Sevastopol the train slowed down and stopped at a previously arranged spot some distance from town. There some motorcars were waiting to drive us along the picturesque mountain road – some three hours’ drive – to our destination Ai-Todor […]

[…] After we had been there for three days we slowly started wondering what had become of Xenia and her children, but then they turned up safe and sound after a smooth though arduous journey from St. Petersburg. For the first week or so life seemed quiet and normal. We had the feeling that we had avoided a dreadful storm, and were in safety in our little cosy nook far away from the centre where the revolution was boiling. My mother and my sister would drive out or go for walks and enjoyed the early warm spring sunshine, which was especially early arriving that year as if it felt that we were in extra need of comfort. After a while our tingling nerves started to calm down. In March the chestnut trees were in bloom and wild yellow crocuses pushed their heads up between the stones. It was spring everywhere you looked. The only thing that worried us was the thought of my eldest brother and his family. We wished many a time that we had had them with us. The house wasn’t particularly big but we shared it as best as we could. My husband and I lived in a room downstairs next to one of my nephews. Mother, her maid and my eldest nephew lived upstairs. The rest of the family had moved over to the old house nearby.

But unrest also found its way to our little refuge. One night we were awakened by a violent knocking at our door – then it was opened and we heard the rattling of arms while a voice said: ‘Keep quiet and please put your hands on top of the blanket’. A sailor armed to the teeth stepped in, shut the door behind him and said: ‘In the name of the Provisional Government you are not permitted to leave this room!’ We were much too astonished at first to say anything so just lay there staring at this heavily armed guard.

What happened next?

The family survived this episode (whereas Tsar Nicholas II, his wife and children were murdered by the Bolsheviks) and fled to Denmark, only to find the Russian army on their doorstep once more during WWII…

25 Chapters Of My Life: The Memoirs of Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, Last Grand Duchess of Russia by Paul Kulikovsky, Karen Roth-Nicholls and Sue Woolmans is out now published by Strident Publishing priced £16.99.

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