Authors: Carolyn Meyer
SIBERIA, APRIL 1918
am Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanova, age seventeen, and I am trying not to show how afraid I feel.
Four days ago a string of peasant carts lined with filthy straw drove off through half-frozen mud and slush with Papa and Mama and my sister Marie. A handful of servants went with them, along with our own Dr. Botkin. They are being taken to Moscow, where Papa, once known to the world as Tsar Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, will be put on trial by the evil men who have seized power. Our brother, Alexei, is too ill to travel, and that forced Mama to make a wrenching choice: to accompany Papa or to stay here in Tobolsk. In the end she decided to go, taking Marie and leaving Olga and Tatiana and me here with Alexei.
“We’ll send for you, and you’ll join us when Lyosha is well enough,” Papa said. His face was drawn and haggard, but he
smiled so bravely that I cried, even though I said I wouldn’t.
We watched them go. Four days, and so far there has been no word.
We call ourselves “OTMA,” a name made up of our initials: Olga, Tatiana, Marie, and Anastasia. Olga and Tatiana, the two older sisters, are the Big Pair; Marie and I are the Little Pair. I miss Marie awfully. We have never been separated like this. We’ve always done everything together.
Alexei—Lyosha, as he prefers to be called—lies in bed and stares at the wall. He is thirteen, the only son and, until the terrible events of a year ago, the tsarevich, the future tsar. Wherever he went, the Russian people worshipped him, begging for the chance to touch him. They adored the tsar, too, and even kissed his shadow when he passed. He was their
, “Little Father,” and Mama was
. But that was before everything went so horribly wrong, before the people who call themselves Bolsheviks took over the government and forced Papa to abdicate. Now there is no tsar, present or future.
“Someone will rescue us,” Tatiana reassures us as the hours crawl by. “Our friends will see to it that our whole family is saved.”
I want to believe her.
From the window I stare down at the road, deserted now and bleak. The shutters are closed at the house across the street where Dr. Botkin’s son Gleb and daughter, Tatiana, wait for word from their father. I turn away.
“Grandmère Marie promised to take me to Paris last year for my sixteenth birthday,” I remind my sisters wistfully. “But she couldn’t because of the war. Maybe that’s where we’ll go, when we’ve been rescued.”
Alexei says no, we will probably go to England, where both Papa and Mama have cousins.
“England has already refused to offer us asylum,” Olga says. “I despise them for that. Our relatives have no concern for us.”
“I wish we’d be allowed to stay in Russia, at Livadia,” Tatiana says. Livadia is our beautiful palace on the Black Sea.
“You’re wishing for a miracle,” Olga says, and shakes her head. I know what she’s thinking:
There will be no miracle. No one will rescue us.
Olga is such a pessimist. What’s wrong with dreaming of Livadia? Or Paris?
Another gloomy day passes, and the guard delivers a telegram from Mama. They have not been taken to Moscow after all, but to Ekaterinburg. Mama does not explain why they are still in Siberia, why this change.
, she wires.
The waiting goes on. It feels as though it will never end. Easter comes and goes. We pray and pray. It’s all we can think to do.
At last a letter from Mama. We must be ready to leave soon, she’s written, and she instructs us to “dispose of the medicines.” This is our secret code and refers to the jewels we packed in a great rush during our last hours at Alexander Palace, concealing them among the things we were bringing with us—religious icons, family pictures, albums of photographs, trunks stuffed full of mementos collected over the years. The jewels were not found then, but we may not be so lucky, or our guards so careless, the next time.
Alexei and his dog, Joy, take positions by the door to alert us if anyone comes up the stairs while we’re “disposing of the medicines.” Tatiana is in charge. She is always the one in charge,
the organized one—we call her “the Governess.” Three of our ladies help us to sew the jewels into our clothing. We work industriously, almost cheerily, under Tatiana’s direction, covering diamonds with cloth to disguise them as buttons, stitching rubies and emeralds between the stays of our corsets, hiding ropes of pearls in the hems of our skirts. Trina, our real governess, sews gems into the flaps and pockets of Alexei’s jacket.
Olga is sitting quite still, staring morosely at her idle hands. Trina notices and places a velvet bag in Olga’s lap. When she opens it, out tumbles an exquisite pearl and diamond necklace. It was a gift from Papa and Mama for Olga’s sixteenth birthday.
Olga pulls off her old, worn sweater, and in her chemise she struggles to fasten the gold clasp behind her neck. I jump up to help her. She walks to the mirror above the bureau. Her image stares back, face pale and gaunt, eyes ringed with dark circles.
“Remember this?” she asks dreamily. In the dim lamplight the gems glow against the pallor of her skin. “Remember my pink gown?” She turns to us and smiles, a rare thing for her these days, and I’m struck by how beautiful she still is, in spite of everything that has happened. “Remember the ball at Livadia?”
Of course I do. Our beautiful new palace at Livadia, November 1911, six years ago: I remember as though it were just last night.
• • •
At precisely a quarter to seven, the great carved doors of the state dining salon swung open and the master of ceremonies
announced in a sonorous voice, “Their Imperial Majesties!”
Mama in a regal satin gown and diamond tiara and Papa in his pristine white naval uniform appeared at the top of the broad marble steps. Gathered in the salon below, the gentlemen bowed and the ladies sank into deep curtsies. Alexei, with the sailor-attendant who always accompanied him, followed our parents, drawing polite applause. Tatiana came next, tall and confident on the arm of her escort, Lieutenant Pavel Voronov, a junior officer on the imperial yacht. Marie, twelve, and I, just ten years old then, entered together, wearing pretty white lace dresses and ribbons in our long hair. I was very excited. I loved parties. I always wished there were more of them.
We joined the others at the foot of the stairs, waiting expectantly. Then Olga appeared and hesitated for a moment in the doorway. She wore her blond hair up for the first time, and she was dressed in her first ball gown, pale pink lace over darker pink silk, embroidered with tiny crystal beads. In the low neckline of her gown gleamed the pearl and diamond necklace that Mama had fastened around her neck an hour earlier. Papa had slipped a sparkling diamond ring on Olga’s finger. “You’re a young lady now,” he’d said, and kissed her cheek. She’d smiled, delighted.
Oh, I did envy her!
Six more years
, I thought.
Then it will be my turn, and Grandmère Marie will take me to Paris.
“The Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna!” cried the master of ceremonies.
The orchestra began to play, and Olga descended the steps, clutching the arm of her escort, Papa’s aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Nikolai Pavlovich Sablin. She smiled a little
nervously and nodded to the dozens of guests and Romanov relatives who had come to celebrate at her birthday ball. I thought she looked very beautiful.
Mama and Papa, Olga and Tatiana and their escorts, and Marie and I were seated at a round table in the center of the dining room, the guests assigned to smaller surrounding tables. The dinner went on for a long time, with many courses presented:
Sterlet au Champagne, Selle d’Agneau, Filets de Canetons, Faisans de Bohême
. All Mama’s doing, for Papa was not fond of elaborate French meals. He preferred plain Russian dishes.
cabbage soup, was one of his favorites, or suckling pig with horseradish. None of these were on the menu.
After the sturgeon in champagne and the duck with truffles and the other dishes, my favorite part of the dinner finally arrived: a dessert especially created for Olga’s birthday, miniature scoops of several flavors of ice cream presented in individual pastry baskets decorated with candied violets. But Olga hardly noticed it—she was gazing at Lieutenant Voronov. When she caught me watching, she blushed deeply and turned to her escort for the evening, Lieutenant Sablin. “My Hussars have received permission to wear the white pelisse!” she exclaimed. “Such an honor!”
Olga was the chief of the Ninth Hussar Regiment, and they did look dashing in their white jackets trimmed in black fur and worn thrown over the shoulder, but I was more interested in another long look that passed between her and Lieutenant Voronov. Marie, sitting beside me, was too busy with her ice cream to notice.
Papa rose, signaling that the meal had ended, and
announced, “Gentlemen, in honor of the sixteenth birthday of my daughter Olga Nikolaevna, you may ask the grand duchesses for the pleasure of a dance without first requesting special permission.”
The change from the usual formality made everyone smile. This was not to be as stodgy as most imperial balls! While servants swiftly cleared the dining room for dancing, the guests lined up to kiss their sovereigns’ hands. That took quite a while, as those things always did, but when it was finally done, the master of ceremonies announced a quadrille. Lieutenant Sablin asked Olga for the honor of the first dance, Lieutenant Voronov led Tatiana out on the floor, and two of the youngest officers from our yacht, the
, appeared and invited Marie and me to dance. Mama settled into an armchair to watch. Alexei, who had probably eaten himself into a stupor, was with her, and after a few minutes Papa joined his friends in another room to play bridge.
It was a beautiful autumn evening, and the glass doors to the terrace had been thrown open. The breeze was warm, there was a scent of flowers everywhere, and silvery moonlight glittered on the sea. Until two o’clock the next morning, the band played spirited quadrilles and energetic mazurkas and lively folk dances, and I danced every one of them. It was wonderful. I would have been happy to attend such a lovely ball at least once a week.
very year, from winter to spring to summer to fall, our family—the seven of us—moved from one palace to another, traveling either on the imperial train or on the imperial yacht. It does seem odd now, looking back, that I have no idea how many Romanov palaces there were. A dozen? Several dozen?
many, our enemies would claim. But our main residence, the one we always went home to, was Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo, the small, quiet “Tsar’s Village” a half hour’s journey from Russia’s capital city, St. Petersburg. But no matter where we were, we followed more or less the same routine. Papa had meetings with government officials and members of the imperial court, my sisters and my brother and I had lessons with our tutors, and Mama had her friends.
The autumn of 1911 was different, because it was our
first visit to the new palace at Livadia, our estate in Crimea on the Black Sea. The old palace where our grandfather, Tsar Alexander, died, long before we were born, had been torn down. We adored this new one, much more than any of the other imperial palaces that had belonged to generations of Romanovs. Nearly every day, we went for a hike along mountain paths or took an excursion in one of Papa’s motorcars. He kept several French vehicles in the palace garage, and I loved riding in the big open Delaunay-Belleville with the wind in my face. In the afternoons Papa played tennis with officers from the
. Lieutenant Voronov was usually one of them, which must have delighted Olga.
The commandant, Admiral Chagin, often came, too. He was a particular friend of Papa, and Mama was very fond of him, but he was gray-haired and portly and didn’t play tennis. He and Tatiana sat with Mama in the pavilion next to the court and watched. After Papa and Lieutenant Voronov had played one set, Marie and Olga were invited to play mixed doubles, the lieutenant and Olga on one side of the net, Marie and Papa on the other. Marie played poorly, but Papa made up for it. I wasn’t included, because I was still taking lessons and my shots always went completely wild.
“Keep practicing, Nastya,” Papa advised, but I was deeply irritated at having to sit and just
while the others played.
Meanwhile, Mama and Admiral Chagin discussed plans for the charity bazaar Mama was organizing for the benefit of the poor people of Yalta, the port near Livadia where the
was docked. Mama’s friend, Lili Dehn, helped with the planning, and Lili’s husband, an officer on the
assigned to recruit other officers to carry out Mama’s orders.
The bazaar was being held at the boys’ school in Yalta. Commodore von Dehn and his fellow officers set up display tables. Mama, assisted by Lili, had her own huge table in the center of a large hall, displaying a vast assortment of things she had created—pretty cushions and fancy boxes and framed portraits of OTMA and especially of Alexei—plus items made by OTMA that were deemed nice enough to be sold. We were to act as “salesgirls,” while Lili handled the money. All the important ladies of Yalta wanted to have tables close to Mama’s, to make them feel even more important.