On 17 July 1918, the Royal Family of Russia: Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra, Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia and Tsarevich Alexei were rounded up, led downstairs to the basement and brutally murdered one by one by members of the Bolshevik Party. Their death was tragic, brutal and unnecessary.
The Tsar’s abdication on 1 March 1917 and eventual murder was preceded by a series of events leading to a general distrust in the monarch. While the Tsar seemed unaware of his citizens’ wants as he continued to make disastrous decisions, one royal family member could have saved them from their fate: Olga.
Olga Romanov Alexandrovna was the first-born of the last Tsar of Russia. One of four sisters and a brother – Alexei – the heir, life for Olga was remarkably different to her sisters. Unlike them, she was the eldest and came close to the chance of becoming the next reigning monarch.
As the Tsarina struggled to produce a healthy male heir, in 1912 Tsar Nicholas began to put a motion for the line of succession to be changed. The solution was for Olga to be co-regent with her mother until Alexei was of age to rule by himself. He ordered this manifesto to be publicised throughout the country following the 1913 tercentennial celebrations, placing Olga in a position traditionally occupied by the male heir,thus announcing her political significance. American newspapers reported that ‘it is now considered that the law of succession may be changed in Russia to make it possible for Grand Duchess Olga to succeed the imperial family.’
Due to opposition from the Duma, these plans failed to materialise. Nicholas’ actions contravened the 1906 version of the Fundamental Laws, which the Tsar had, reluctantly, made in the Duma’s Fourth Assembly. The laws stated that no new law could take effect without the State Duma’s approval . The Duma blocked the change in succession, and it is speculated that the Amended Regency Act caused public opinion of the Tsar to deter, with many believing the act meant that the Tsar did not trust his male heir to rule Russia. It exposed an instability in the crown.
Olga appeared to be a born leader. Throughout her childhood she showed a keen interest in national affairs in comparison to her siblings; this was ignited in 1905 with the Russo-Japanese war. She told staff Mrs Eager that ‘I hope the Russian soldiers will kill all the Japanese; not leave even one alive’. Her opinion changed though, as Mrs Eager told her of the innocent women and children who were unable to fight. According to historians, Olga asked a few more questions, concluding that the Japanese were not very different from Russians. It is said that she then ‘never made another comment about being pleased about the Japanese dying’.
But it was during World War One that Olga became increasingly concerned for the country and their opinion of the monarchy. As she and her sisters volunteered on hospital wards, the friendships made opened her eyes to the general opinion of her father. She asked her lady-in-waiting ‘Why has the feeling in the country changed against my father?’, wondering if there were more ominous reasons for the ‘unrest and ferment that she sensed rather than knew about, which filled her with a growing anxiety’.
One of these friendships was with a young soldier named Mitya. Olga spent a lot of time with him, taking photographs of him and friends, having long conversations and eventually falling in love with him. Mitya claimed he would ‘slay Rasputin’ to save her family from embarrassment – an opinion remarkably different to that of her family.
But the war, nursing and her anxiety wore on Olga over time. Prone to depression throughout her life, it became clinical, leading to her discharging from the healthcare service. Her heartbreak over Mitya didn’t help – he left the hospital after healing to go and fight in the war again. Olga became reserved, shy, and slept often.
It’s this kind of compassion that many historians mark Olga with. Gleb Botkin – son of the family’s physician – remarked that Olga was ‘by nature, a thinker’ and ‘as it later seemed to me, understood the general situation better than any member of her family, including even her parents’. Much to the dismay and hurt of her German mother, Olga understood the country’s dislike of the Tsarina due to her German ancestry. When talking with another nurse about a wedding of friends and the ancestry of a groom’s German grandmother being kept hidden, she remarked, ‘of course he has to conceal it. I quite understand him, she may perhaps be a real bloodthirsty German’.
Perhaps if the line of succession did change in 1912, Olga would have become the Grand Empress. With no need for a male heir, and therefore no need for the mystic Rasputin to heal Alexei’s haemophilia, the fall of the Russian crown could have been delayed – or not as aggravated by these conditions. In fact, with Rasputin, Olga remarked that whilst his murder was ‘necessary’ it should never have been done ‘so terribly’ and was ashamed that it was done by her relatives. Again, Olga understood the political ramifications of Rasputin’s influence, but also, that his murder could bring more shame to a family already losing support, showing that she was sensitive to ideas and understanding of the political situation her family were in.
It will never be clear as to what future Russia could have had- there were so many components that led to the downfall of the monarchy after 300 years;serfdom, World War One, Rasputin, Nicholas’ strategy, socio-economic reasons. Whilst Olga was intensely sensitive and was far more aware of the issues and situation at hand at the time,it doesn’t mean that her reign could have saved Russia. That would be purely speculative.
What’s sure is that the line of succession, made in sexism, reproduced sexism. Russia’s greatest leaders under the monarchy have often been women: Empress Elizabeth and Catherine the Great. Olga could have been a name among them, but her fate was otherwise due to this sexist law. While monarchy is feudal, if Olga had been in control or next in line, perhaps the outcome of the Russian royal family would have been different, and less bloody, than the one that they got.
Aoifke Madeleine, History in Politics Summer Writer