The 19th century met a romantic end, meeting with the climatic change in technology and society. However, it was not as wonderful to the royal families who rule the world from palaces across Europe for they struggled to adapt. It was a time when the fall of a family was considered to be the end of an era of princes and princesses, and of castles and kings.
The Romanovs’ tragic story was not only about their royal lifestyle and fall from grace. Thanks to their love of photography, the significant moments of their humor, compassion, and love, in all their humanity, was captured.
2018 marks the 100th year since the execution of the Russian royal family. Read and discover the life of the Romanovs; how they lived and how they adapted to the fast-changing world around them.
The snowy nation of Russia has undergone a tumult of regime changes over the past 100 years starting from the centuries-long autocratic rule of the Tsars, the communism of the Soviet Union and up to today’s republican. It had its fair share of iconic and historic leaders through those years.
Today, Vladimir Putin has become the subject of much discussion due to his influential leadership. But as Putin is essential in today’s global politics, Russia’s ruler a century ago was just as important in the historic events leading to World War I. Know more about the world’s second largest empire at the turn of the 20th century as you read on.
Russia’s Nicholas II
Tsar Nicholas II, or Nikolai as he was called by his friends, is the last in the bloodline of Tsar in Russia. He was born in Saint Petersburg on the 18th of May, 1868. In contradiction to his father, Tsar Alexander III’s tough and conservative leadership, Nikolai was a sensitive child.
This photo of Tsar Nicholas II was taken after his abdication in March 1917. As he grow up, he travelled out of the country frequently where he meets royal relatives in their other homes in Denmark, Germany, Greece and England wherein he unknowingly met his future wife, who became to be known as Princess Alix.
The Good and The Bad
Through his years of ruling, Nicholas II became responsible for the numerous tragedies that took place within the borders of Russia, and had even commanded a losing war with the Japanese. These made him unpopular among his subjects and they saw him as an incompetent leader.
However, his diaries told a different story along with his hobby of photography. It told and showed his kind personality as well as his evident love for his family that it was difficult not to see him as man of sympathy. But as much as he was a “good guy,” it is not enough for a ruler of the world’s third largest empire. His rather incompetent governance eventually cost him his throne, his family and his life.
Tsar Nicholas II’s royal roots also have stems in Europe. He was closely related to the royal families of Europe to the extent that he looked almost identical to that of his first-degree cousin, King George V of the United Kingdom. Their mothers, Queen Alexandra of the United Kingdom and Empress Maria Fyodorovna were sisters.
This photo shot in Berlin shows both monarchs standing side by side in their German military uniforms.
Born as Princess Alix of Hesse and by the Rhine in Darmstadt, Germany on the 6th of June 1872, Alexandra Feodorovna was the Empress of Russia. She was granddaughter to Queen Victoria and was a daughter to the house of Hesse which rules the United Kingdom up to the present.
But despite her life of elegance and royalty, Alix grew up with a harsh tragedy on the onset. When she was a young girl, her mother and one of her sisters died in an epidemic. The trauma from the catastrophe affected her deeply. She still has family that accepted her and cared for her, nonetheless.
At Alix’s young age, her loss brought her closer to her British relatives. She spent lengths and lengths of time in visiting them. It was known that she was Queen Victoria’s most favored grandchild and the Queen once hoped that Alix would be Queen of England herself one day. But then, Alix was not able to go down this option.
She met Nicholas II on a visit to Saint Petersburg and immediately fell in love with him, her second cousin. Nikolai’s father was quite spiteful of Germany and has objected to their union at first. Later on, he eased up and accepted Alix into house as he lie on his deathbed.
Alix was required to convert to the Orthodox Church before marrying Nicholas II, and that conversion had her re-christened to Alexandra Feodorovna and became Tsarina, the Empress of Russia.
The union of Tsar Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna bore fruit to five children, with which the eldest four are all girls. Both had retained their connections to British royalty and to Queen Victoria herself as she was Alexandra’s grandmother, despite Tsar belonging to a succession of Russian monarchs and Alix belonging to German royalty.
It was due to this fact that their daughters grew to be bilingual and spoke fluent English amongst themselves, despite being wholly Russians. They grew up closely and fond of each other that they adopted a group name, OTMA, composed of the first letters of their names in the order of their birth: Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia. Their diaries and postcards to family and friends would often be signed with their group nickname.
The Big Pair
The four Romanov sisters were fond of each other and were best of friends within themselves. Among them, the older two were known as “The Big Pair” and the younger ones were called “The Little Pair.” The four of them together, they were penned as OTMA, putting all their first names’ first letters together in order of their birth.
The two oldest sisters Olga and Tatiana grew up together as best friends. They shared a room together and during the World War I, they volunteered together with their mother at the Red Cross. The photo was of Grand Duchess Tatiana on the left and of Olga Nikolaevna dressed in court dresses.
O for Olga
The eldest of the Romanov sisters, Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna of Russia, was born in Saint Petersburg on the 15th of November 1895. She was known for her bright humor, notable compassion and quick temper and she would often assume roles of responsibility within the family like caring for her sickly youngest brother Tsesarevich Alexei, as she was the eldest.
Olga was a sensitive and moody girl, but was a prodigious reader and a true patriot nevertheless. Her patriotism motivated her to and her sister Tatiana to do volunteer work at the Red Cross during World War I, and helped treat wounded Russian soldiers.
T for Tatiana
The second daughter of Nikolai and Alix was Grand Duchess Tatiana Nikolaevna of Russia. She was born in Saint Petersburg on the 10th of June 1897. Tatiana was perceived exceptionally for her beauty and was massively courted by suitors around Russia and even abroad. She was raised as humbly as her siblings, sleeping without pillows on hard cots and taking cold baths every morning.
Efficient and composed, she was proficient in her work at the Red Cross that she was made as head of a committee named after her, working for the aid and relief of war refugees during World War I.
The Little Pair
As Grand Duchess Olga and Grand Duchess Tatiana was “the big pair,” their younger sisters Maria and Anastasia made up “the little pair.” They also shared a room together and would often dress up in matching clothing, as they were that fond of each other. Despite their parings, all four of them were of dear relationship with each other that they even composed a nickname for their group.
They showed their funny side in this photo of them making faces for the camera in Tsarskoye Selo, around 1917.
M for Maria
The third of the Romanov sisters was Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna. She was born on the 26th of June 1899 in Saint Petersburg. Among the four sisters, Maria was known to be the most gentle and kind-hearted one, and would often take the liabilities of her sisters’ mischievousness.
There would be times that she as a young child would run off “to Papa” and would kiss a small portrait of his before going to sleep as she was exceptionally fond of her father. She makes up “the little pair” with her younger sister, Anastasia.
A for Anastasia
The last and youngest of the four sisters was Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna. She was born in Saint Petersburg just like her older sisters, on the 18th of June 1901. The youngest of the OTM group was known as playful and lively, and gives color to the life on the palace grounds with her lively character. She was often caught playing tricks on the palace staff and was a passionate and talented actress.
Anastasia’s portrayal in 20th Century Fox’s Animation Studios’ animated film Anastasia presents a fictional interpretation of what her life may have looked like after the Russian Revolution and was perhaps where she was best known for up to this date.
Heir to The Throne
Nikolai loved his daughters deeply but despite having them, he was very anxious to father a male heir. He now has four daughters and though they all have the right to a place in the order of succession to his throne, they will remain heir presumptive until a brother is born, following the male-preference primogeniture.
He was so anxious to the point that Anastasia’s birth made him take a long walk for self-composure before visiting his wife and their newborn child. After years of waiting, an heir was finally born on the 12th of August 1904. Alexei Nikoalevich came three years after Anastasia, and was therefore a big breath of relief for the Russian Emperor.
A Thorn Among Roses
Four daughters later, Nikolai and Alexandra now has a son, and would be the last of their union’s fruits to be bore. Another brilliant child, Alexei Nikoalevich carried the weight on his shoulders of all the hopes and dreams of the entire family. Even so, he was deeply cherished and nurtured by his parents and sisters.
Alexei’s tutors claimed that the entire palace’s mood would dramatically change when he was feeling well. Sadly, that occurrence was of rare opportunity. In the photo taken in 1908, Alexei stands with his sailor nanny Andrei Dereven’ko on the Imperial yacht Standart.
The Royal Disease
Alexei was born with hemophilia, also known as the Royal disease, which is a common genetic disorder to the royal families of Europe. It was believed that it had been passed down to him through his mother, whose older brother died of hemophilia-related complications when he was a child. Any injury, small or big, was instantly life-threatening and so Alexei lead a sheltered life.
The circumstances of anything bad happening to Alexei would have been catastrophic, as he was the Tsar’s only male child and stands heir-apparent to the Russian Empire. But Alexei being a child, he was just as curious and active as the others. Keeping him safe from inevitable injury was a chore, but the Tsars found a legitimate solution soon enough.
Being a hemophiliac, Alexei definitely needed more than extra care, so Nikolai and Alexandra assigned Petty Officer Andrei Dereven’ko and Seaman Klementy Nagorny, two sailors from the Imperial Navy, to watch him at all times and to keep him from hurting himself.
Alexei was prohibited from riding bikes himself, and so they would drive him around on theirs, sometimes even having to carry him on their arms from one place to another. His medical condition was a military secret, in honor of his delicate position as heir that only a few selected people know about it. But despite the Tsar and Tsarina’s careful selection, one person ended up being involved in the Russian Empire’s ultimate downfall.
Treatment of hemophilia was difficult and not that efficient at the beginning of the 20th century. For many times, Alexei had found himself hospitalized and on the verge of death just brought by minor injuries. His mother, Alexandra, cannot quite deal with the situation, having suffered death in her family as a child.
Meanwhile, there was this strange mystic and faith healer native to the frozen wastelands of Siberia who came to Saint Petersburg to treat some of the Romanov’s distant relatives. Alexandra gambled and was willing to give him a chance on Alexei. However, every single person they trust was a gamble for their lives.
A Marvel or A Fake
Much to everyone’s surprise, Rasputin’s mechanism seemed to have done wonders. He worked his practice on Alexei, who suffered an injury that the royal doctors believed to be his end. Rasputin prayed over the child and made a promise to Alexandra that he would live.
In just after a day, Alexei recovered like it was a miracle. His mother was made into an instant convert because of that. And with the exact same reason, Rasputin became a close companion to the royal family from that moment on. He also became a major source of influence to Nikolai and Alexandra, eventually.
Aside from Rasputin, there are many other members of the royal court. This wild-eyed mystic goes side by side with a group of loyal physicians, cooks, footmen, and other staff who followed the Romanovs wherever they went, allowing them to focus on their Imperial duties while ensuring them comfortable lives.
Among the people closest to the Royal Family was the children’s French tutor, Pierre Gilliard. Helping in the upbringing of the Tsar and Tsarina’s children, the Swiss-born academic was considerably a supplementary father figure to them all. His intimacy to the family made him willingly follow them into exile. Likewise, the Romanov siblings saw him as more than French lessons.
The Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo about 24 kilometers south of Saint Petersburg primarily served as the Romanov children’s humble abode as they grew up. Behind the rather lavish façade of the building, the family led an exceptionally modest life. The house staff and visitors were authorized to call the children by their first names in their parents’ pursuit of a grounded life for them.
In addition, they slept on military-style cots and were obligated to take cold baths every morning. Every time they do not have guests was an opportunity for the family to gather around a common table and eat meals informally; not being waited upon by servants. Despite all of that, OTMA’s childhoods were still not normal.
Around the World
The Romanovs travelled overseas periodically unlike most children of their age at the time. One of their travels to Finland during a summer cruise was captured in this photo circa 1908, where Grand Duchesses Tatiana, on the left, and Olga, in the center, were feeling the waves with their feet, accompanied by their mother’s lady-in-waiting and best friend, Anna Vyrubova.
Like Father, Like Children
In turns out that their father, Nikolai, set out on a world tour, and travelled extensively even by today’s standards. That example was carried onto the Romanov children, as they would travel often, seeing many parts of Europe for themselves during their lives.
In his younger days, the Tsar’s trip took him to Egypt, India, Singapore, Bangkok and Japan, where he saw even the extensive parts of the island nation. While he was in Japan, he even got a dragon tattoo on his right arm, but he had to cut his enjoyment short. A crazed Japanese police officer attacked and attempted to kill him, and it was later famed as the Otsu Incident.
With the King
Nicholas II’s visit to the Far East was not one-sided in the least bit. King Chulalongkorn of Siam visited Europe in 1897 and he made sure visit Nicholas II too in Saint Petersburg.
It is not just the of around-the-world travel privileges that the Romanov children enjoy. Unlike most children of the same age, they have their own military units. Like in Tatiana’s case, she was given the honorary rank of colonel, and was assigned a regiment of soldiers labeled as the Vosnesensky Hussars. In this 1912 photograph, she was wearing the regiment’s uniform.
Just the same, Olga was assigned a unit of her own, too. The big pair’s respective military units were a source of their unusual pastime.
The Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana and Maria Nikolaevna grew fond of inspecting their units and spend a lot of time chatting with the soldiers.
This photograph taken in 1911 shows the three duchesses with Pavel Voronov, an officer with which Olga fell in love with, who ended up marrying another woman.
Olga fell in love with Officer Pavel Voronov. However, he married someone else, and has left Olga in heartbreak and distress.
The 1912 photograph was of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, Grand Duchess Tatiana Nikolaevna of Russia, and officers Rodionov and Voronov taken at the Finnish archipelago, Imperial tennis park Virolahti.
The Romanovs remained true to their modest and simple lives and transforms back to it when they were not travelling or on official Imperial duties.
Alexandra was busy with her embroidery work while Anastasia is just standing nearby, captured in this photo.
To Each Their Own
No matter how close the Romanov sisters were with their close-knit group penned OTMA, each one of them still had clear and distinct personalities of their own. Just as shown in the photo, quiet and thoughtful Grand Duchess Olga is reading a book while her rather lively and cheeky sister Grand Duchess Anastasia looks on.
Oftentimes, Olga would read books Alexandra bought before she even got the chance, for Olga was such an avid reader. She would even joke that she was checking them to make sure they were fit to be read by the Tsarina.
Fever in the House
In 1913, all OTMA went through a typhoid fever outbreak which caused them to have to shave their hair off.
A photo from 1914 shows Tatiana spending time with Alexandra, her mother. It can be seen that Tatiana’s hair is just beginning to grow back out after she recovered from her illness.
Among their many travel expeditions, one of the Romanovs’ favorite ways to go about was aboard the Danish-built Imperial Yacht Standart. Grand Duchess Tatiana can be seen in this photo as she was aboard the Standart during their1912 summer cruise in the Finnish skerries.
Despite their sailing trips aboard the yacht being good times, those were not accompanied by good memories only.
The Start of The Downfall
While taking a vacation aboard the yacht two years later in 1914, the family received bad news. Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, and it was the firing shot that put the World War I into action.
This photo of Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana and Maria was taken that time in 1914 aboard the Imperial yacht.
The patriotic Romanov family are not ones to stand idly by as the World War 1 broke out. Together with Tsarina Alexandra, the big pair Olga and Tatiana trained in the Red Cross and volunteered as nurses in Saint Petersburg where they aided and treated wounded soldiers.
Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna can be seen wearing her nursing uniform in this photo taken around 1916 as she sits with her sister Anastasia and with her mother, Tsarina Alexandra.
Olga found working as a nurse difficult, as she was a sensitive person. On the other hand, Grand Duchess Tatiana attended to her role like a natural. Olga went on and performed administrative work at the hospital instead while Tatiana operated more complex medical procedures. She even insisted on executing “dirty work” next to the nurses she worked with.
Here is a photo of Tatiana in a Red Cross nursing uniform with soldier Dmitri Yakovlevich Malama seated on the wheelchair. Tatiana fell in love with him, but unfortunately, Dmitri died at the end of the war.
A photo of Tsar Nicholas II alongside his family during World War I, taken back in 1916
A Royal Visitation
A photo of Grand Duchesses Anastasia, Maria, Tatiana and Olga with Empress Alexandra as they went on an official visit to Sevastopol, taken in 1916
Up to that point, Tatiana and Olga lived rather sheltered, despite not being spoiled and not hesitating getting dirt on their hands as they helped treat gory wounds. They got to travel far places but there were still aspects of their lives unusually sheltered to the point that their naiveté reached ignorance. One day, a substitute replaced the regular driver who picks Tatiana and Olga up from their volunteer work at the hospital and drives them back home.
The big pair immediately took this opportunity for granted and went shopping in town. However, the fact that their father’s face appeared on Russian coins did not amount to much, as the girls had never used the money before and were not knowledgeable in proper conducts in stores. They seemed to have just opened their eyes to practical day-to-day life, but it did not last long.
On The Front Lines
While the big pair had their fair share of aiding in the war, the small pair was not old enough to take part in medical functions. Instead, Maria and Anastasia took part by entertaining the injured soldiers at the hospital, raising their spirits.
On the other hand, the Tsar left for the frontlines to take command of the army from the Stavka as the new commander in chief. This was in accordance to Rasputin’s suggestion and Alexandra’s emphasis, after an argument between Rasputin and the military Chief of Staff. Soon after, Alexei joined him there to learn military command. Unbeknownst to Nikolai, a mess was waiting to happen back home.
As the February Revolution came to an end in March 1917, everything was far from over for the Romanovs. In fact, it was just the beginning of their end. Russian Revolutionaries united as they marched upon the royal palace where they forced Tsar Nicholas II to relinquish the throne. In fear for his and his family’s life, they surrendered and were put to house arrest at their palace in Tsarskoye Selo.
This photo was taken in the spring of 1917, showing Grand Duchesses Maria, Olga, Anastasia and Tatiana Nikolaevna of Russia as they were held captive. It was known to be one of the last certified photographs of the OTMA.
The physical toils of their now captive living became too much to bear for some of the family. However, Tatiana managed quite well, as she had always been functional and calm. She assumed the responsibility of taking care of the family and eventually came up with an innovative plan.
Grand Duchess Tatiana does all kinds of chores, even carrying a litter of dirt during internment as was captured in this photograph taken in 1917 at Tsarskoye Selo.
The Romanovs had a pet dog named Ortipo that they loved so much, they even brought him with them as they fled and was held captive.
Here is a photo of the dog, Ortipo, with Grand Duchesses Tatiana and Anastasia taken in spring of 1917.
A photo of Nikolai and Alexei cutting wood at Tobolsk in the winter of 1917, still in captivity
As much as Tatiana was adapting well in their life under captivity, she was not planning for them to stay that way for long. She came up with an innovative plan wherein she sewn precious stones and jewels into the lining the family’s pieces of clothing.
It is with the hopes of their escape, that should they manage to flee successfully, they would at least have some of their fortune with them to help them get by.
As a ray of light in the Romanovs’ great crisis, the new provisional government had hoped to permit the family to leave the country. The Tsar immediately asked for asylum in the United Kingdom. However, the rebellious disposition of the people was provoking.
To keep the Romanovs safe from them, the provisional government transferred the family to Tobolsk. There, they continued to live in comfort still relative to what they were used to. But then, the fate of the Romanov family suddenly became sealed when the Bolsheviks and Lenin rose to power by 1918.
The Romanov family was taken to the basement of Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg on the 17th of July in 1918. They were moved there, only to be executed by a firing squad.
This photo taken in 1919 showed the wall having been torn apart by the investigators in search of bullets and other evidence. There were double doors leading to a storeroom but they were locked during the execution.
Loyal Til the End
The Romanovs were well-loved by their friends and loyal subjects, who did not leave them even in their downfall. These include Tutor Catherine Schneider and Tutor Pierre Gilliard, Imperial advisor Count Ilya Tatishchev, Countess Anastasia Hendrikova and Prince Vasily Dolgorukov.
All of them followed the Romanov family all the way to Tobolsk. However, they were not allowed to join the royal family at Ipatiev House. In the end, they were all murdered by the Bolsheviks, too, except for Gilliard.
The talks of the Romanov House, their fall and their deaths were forbidden subjects in the Soviet Union for years on end. Despite their good will, they were considered as figures of resistance to the Soviet government. Even historic accounts in favor of them were censored. The influence of the family and their heritage still remained, still, and Ipatiev House became a site of pilgrimage.
The Soviet government refused to accept this notion. They had the house demolished in the 1970s to which the pilgrims still kept coming in defiance, placing a simple wooden cross over the ruins and was repeatedly replaced each time it was taken down.
Later on, the fall of the Soviet Union started the construction of the church in commemoration of the family’s sacrifice. The Church of All Saints in Yekaterinburg still stands up to this date, catering to pilgrims of faithful Russian Orthodox believers.
Pieces of Evidence
Some years after the execution of the Romanovs, their burial site was discovered but was kept secret from the Communist government. After the fall of the USSR in 1991, their graves were excavated. DNA tests showed it contained 9 bodies; of the Tsar and Tsarina, 3 of the OTMA, and 4 of their entourage – no signs of the prince and one of his sisters.
This fact paired with rumors of Anastasia and Alexei’s escape raised hopes for the survival of the bloodline. However, another grave was found in 2007, with which DNA tests revealed the bodies of a boy and a girl around the ages of Anastasia and Alexei, and strains closely related to the rest of the Romanovs.
Today, Alexei and Anastasia are laid alongside the rest of their family in Saint Petersburg’s Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral.