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April 9, 2024 27 mins

History is fascinated by the possible escape of Anastasia Romanov, the Grand Duchess killed alongside her family in the Russian Revolution. But there was a Grand Duchess that DID escape - Anastasia's aunt, Olga Alexandrovna, who would hold onto hope that her favorite niece escaped as well.

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Episode Transcript

Available transcripts are automatically generated. Complete accuracy is not guaranteed.
Speaker 1 (00:00):
Welcome to Noble Blood, a production of iHeartRadio and Grim
and Mild from Aaron Mankie. Listener discretion advised. If you
were living in eastern Toronto in the year nineteen sixty,

(00:23):
you might have seen an old woman bustling in and
out of a little apartment that she lived in above
the local barbershop. She might have nodded at the patrons
of Ray's Barbershop and Gerrard Street East, which was located
a short walk away from Lake Ontario, with a view
to New York State across the water. The woman was

(00:45):
a widow who spoke with boundless love for her late husband.
She adored her grandchildren. She was an artist, often seen
with a paint brush in her hand. But this woman
also had unusual guests come visit her from time to time,
people whose bearing and dress appeared undeniably regal. Rumor had

(01:10):
it that when Queen Elizabeth the Second visited Canada, the
Queen herself invited the old woman onto the Royal yacht.
Rumor had it that if you looked closely around the mouth,
the old widow bore a slight resemblance to the Queen.
They were, after all, first cousins twice removed, and if

(01:33):
you looked even closer at the old woman's face, you
might have seen that she had a haunted look about
her eyes. Because this woman who lived above the local
barber shop in Canada was no ordinary widow. She was
Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, the last living member of Russia's

(01:55):
once fearsome Romanov dynasty, not the only descendant, but the
last person alive who had actually lived during the Romanov's
three hundred year reign. She was the final vestige of
a lineage that had ruled Russia from sixteen thirteen to
nineteen seventeen. Grand Duchess Olga was a decorated nurse who

(02:20):
served on the front in World War One, a mother
who escaped Russia while pregnant with a child in tow.
But most of all, she was the last living remnant
of the dynasty that had ended in revolution and the
gruesome murder of her brother's entire family, including most famously,

(02:42):
the little Princess Anastasia. Grand Duchess Olga had called the
young Anastasia the little One, and she had loved the
girl with all of her heart, and Grand Duchess Olga
had been deceived later in life by Anastasia, Ja's most
famous pretender, and after all of that, there she was

(03:06):
in Toronto at the end of her life. You can
almost see her, aged seventy eight in nineteen sixty, the
year JFK was elected president, when Elvis Presley and Chubby
Checker played on the radio. It was there that Olga
Alexandrovna lived and eventually died, above the clippers and hair

(03:28):
shavings of the barber shop below. The public had been
obsessed with the possible survival of the little Grand Duchess Anastasia,
but the public largely ignored this other Grand Duchess of
the Romanovs, who was still living in their midsts. The
one survivor left behind. I'm Danish Schwartz and this is

(03:53):
noble blood. The Grand Duchess Olga was born on June thirteenth,
eighteen eighty two, at the Peterhoff Palace in Saint Petersburg.
She was the youngest and last child of her father,
Czar Alexander, the third of the Romanov dynasty, and her mother,

(04:14):
Grand Duchess Dagmar Baby. Olga's birth was heralded with a
one hundred and one gun salute, a sign of how
cherished she would feel in her youth before it would
all get taken away with the revolution that was still
decades in the future. At this point, Olga had a
very happy childhood. Her big, burly father adored her, and

(04:37):
she adored him. He was everything to her. In her
own words, some observers even remarked that they were soulmates.
Olga lived more simply than we might imagine of a
Russian royal. Her biographer Ian Vores notes that she slept
on a slim mattress with one hard pillow, but then
he goes on to tell us that she spent her

(04:59):
days a in a nine hundred room palace, so she
still lived far more opulently than most. The resident palace
ghost of Oga's childhood was Paul the First, the assassinated
son of Catherine the Great. Even as a child, Olga
was even keeled in the face of death. I never

(05:20):
did see his ghost, she would later tell her official biographer,
and it made me despair. I would have liked to
meet him. Olga's beloved father was unusually doting and present
for a Czar of Russia, but he was also gone
too soon after a shockingly short bout of kidney disease.

(05:41):
He died in Olga's mother's arms in eighteen ninety four,
when he was forty nine years old. Olga was only twelve.
It was the first of a long series of heartbreaks
that fate had in store for her. Olga's brother took
the throne as Nicholas the Second, twenty six years old,

(06:02):
and everyone agreed ill prepared for the rule. He was
to be the last Czar of Russia and the end
of the three hundred year rule of the Romanovs, but
Olga didn't know that yet. She had her own personal
problems to deal with. In nineteen oh one, just before
her nineteenth birthday, the same year her niece Anastasia was born,

(06:26):
Olga was attending a seemingly normal party. Suddenly she was
swept unceremoniously to a sitting room upstairs. Inside was Duke
Peter Alexandrovitch, a distant cousin of hers, who was fourteen
years older. Olga didn't understand what she was doing alone
in a room with him, and what he did next

(06:47):
made even less sense to her. In Olga's own words,
I was just tricked. I saw old cousin Peter, standing there,
extremely ill at ease. He did not look at me.
I heard him stammer through a proposal. I was so
taken aback that all I could say was thank you.
She had gotten engaged without realizing what was happening. The

(07:11):
proposal was a shock, largely because everyone at court and
across Saint Petersburg assumed that Peter was gay. He probably was.
Olga's marriage to him would go unconsummated. Olga spent the
night of her betrothal crying. The problem wasn't only that

(07:32):
Peter had no interest in women. He was a gambler who,
according to Olga's biographer quote, loathed pets about the house,
open windows and walks. Seems like a fun guy. So
poor Olga, once the beloved, littlest daughter of her father,
the Czar, was married to a man who could not

(07:53):
make her happy. She was so depressed that she lost
her hair for some time and had to wear a wig.
Unable to focus on domestic bliss, Olga focused instead on
a white villa she had built for herself, called Olgino.
It was where she spent her happiest times. Out near
the peasant classes, Olga discovered an interest in nursing and

(08:17):
a passion for helping the poor and wretched. It was
a passion that would hurt her years later, when a
woman in ill health pretending to be Anastasia would try
to trick her. And perhaps Olga's life would have gone
on that way, happy at her villa, lonely at home,

(08:37):
if not for the fateful day in nineteen o three
when she spotted Nikolay Kolokovski. He was the tall man
standing in a guard's uniform at a military review, and Olga,
with all of the quashed love she had felt in
her youth rising up in her heart, met his eye. Suddenly, unexpectedly,

(09:00):
Olga's life became a love story. Suddenly she was a
fairytale princess meeting her prince charming. She described it as
love at first sight. Quote. I was twenty two years old,
she said, and I loved for the first time in
my life, and I knew that my love was accepted
and returned. Of course, there was still the small matter

(09:24):
of her being married. Olga knew she needed to take
care of that, so, flushed with the urgency and passion
of new love, she cornered her husband in the library
at home, just as he had once cornered her at
a party with his unwelcome proposal. She told her astonished
husband that she was in love and she needed them

(09:45):
to get divorced. Olga was surrounded by his books and
backlit by the open door. Her husband had no sexual
attraction to her, had never pretended to any from the
moment of their proposal Throughout the two years thus far
of their marriage. She must have been flushed there in
the library, requesting her freedom from him. I can imagine

(10:07):
her excited round cheeks, the hair on her neck standing up.
Though history does not remark upon her as a great beauty,
to modern eyes, she was beautiful. One photo of her
as a young woman shows her with a delicate, long
neck encircled by a single strand pearl necklace, her expression

(10:28):
somewhere between serene strength and coming fear, her long hair
flowing down her back. There in the library, she stood
facing her husband. But Peter, of course, said that they
could not get a divorce right then, maybe in time
seven years. He proposed a sabbatical that would waste the

(10:51):
best years of her life with him. Yet Olga's husband
was calculating not cruel. A gambler to the last, took
on another kind of gamble, probably hoping for a win
win scenario. He appointed his wife's great love to be
his own aide, moving Nikolay Kolokovski into their house. Olga

(11:14):
spent over a decade as a married woman who lived
alongside a man who was the love of her life,
a strange but not unworkable domestic drama. If only that
had been the greatest challenge of her life. During those
years married to Peter but in love with Kolokovsky, Olga

(11:36):
did have familial love in her life as well. In particular,
she took a liking to her brother Nikki's children. The
Emperor Nicholas the second had four daughters, and Olga's favorite
was the youngest, like Olga had been herself, Little Anastasia,
Olga said, was always my favorite. I liked her fearlessness.

(11:59):
She never went or cried even when hurt. She was
a fearful tomboy. Goodness only knows which of the young
cousins had taught her how to climb trees, but climbed
them Anastasia did, even when she was quite small. Anastasia
was feisty, bold, spirited, Olga lovingly called her quote the

(12:20):
Little One. Aunt Olga would take the Little One and
her sisters out to see the world beyond the palace gates.
She delighted in Olga's impish talent for imitating palace guests,
even as inside Olga's own heart she wondered whether she
would ever get to have children herself. Her husband had

(12:42):
never slept with her, and the man she loved lived
in the home with them, but they could not share
a bed. And then war came for the world, and
the problem of marriage, childlessness and true love was shunted
aside for Olga as it was for the rest of Russia.
In nineteen fourteen, she left to serve as a nurse

(13:05):
on the front. It was astonishing the tsar's own sister
donning a nurse's uniform as the Great war raged, kneeling
to apply a tourniquet, her hands splashed with wounded soldier's blood.
And yet it's completely true. Olga had always had a
soft spot for the infirm, even when her brother Nikki

(13:28):
was losing favor with his people. As Russia retreated and
soldiers died and morale nosedived, she continued to care for
the wounded. At one point, an angry fellow nurse attempted
to kill the tsar's sister by smashing a giant glass
jar of vasileene on her head, but Olga escaped intact.

(13:52):
It was to be the story of her life. She
escaped intact, even when her family did not. As the
nineteen tens wore on, Olga's brother was becoming increasingly unpopular.
As tzar, he could not please his people, but he
was able to offer one final gift to his youngest sister.

(14:15):
In nineteen sixteen, he granted her the long awaited annulment
from her husband, Peter. She immediately married her longtime love Kolikovski,
but there was no grand Russian wedding for Olga. She
spoke her vows wearing a Red Cross uniform. Yet she
felt that quote something like new strength came to me.

(14:38):
And then and there, in that chapel, standing beside my
beloved Kukushkin, I resolved to face the future, whatever it brought.
That future was to be darker than she might have imagined.
In the bitter cold of winter nineteen seventeen, the February
Revolution succeeded in ending the Russian monarchy, Olga's brother Nicholas

(15:03):
abdicated the throne. It was a dangerous time to be
a Romanov. Olga and her now husband fled south, but
their train was intercepted and they were captured. Olga thought
she was going to die. She was a dynastic Romanov,
the non creepy soulmate of her father, the late Czar Alexander,

(15:26):
A loving sister recently gifted the blessing of love by
her brother, who was being hunted by the revolutionaries. The
soldier who held Olga and her husband in captivity did
not make eye contact with her. He did not want
to look at those he might have to murder. But
the Soviets could not decide between Sevestopol and Yalta, whose

(15:52):
duty it was to chop off Olga's royal head. So
Olga and her husband Nikolay were essentially placed under house
arrest in Crimea while Olga feared for the rest of
her family. What had become of her brother, her nieces,
the Sarvich, her only nephew, and what had become of
the little one Anastasia. Olga heard horrific rumors about what

(16:17):
might have happened to her brother and his family, but
she didn't want to believe them. The Emperor and his
family had disappeared, Olga and her mother hoped against hope
that they had escaped, perhaps to England. If you want
the story on that possible escape, go back to a
very early episode of Noble Blood called Our Dearest Cousin Nikki.

(16:43):
The Russian sky seemed dark, almost bloody. Olga gave birth
to her first child, a son, essentially under house arrest.
She was pregnant again when she and her husband managed
to escape, this time to the Caucuses. They kept fleeing,
facing extreme danger. At one point, Olga and her two

(17:05):
boys were kicked out of a moving train into a
freezing night, but Olga's story was to survive. At last.
She and her little family wound up in Denmark, where
they finally settled into their exile in nineteen nineteen. Her mother, Dagmar,
had been Danish. Only later would Olga really let herself

(17:29):
hear about the brutal end to her brother's family, the
story that would enrapture the world. They were brought into
a basement by Bolshevik revolutionaries and shot and then bayoneted
until they were all dead. The myth of The Survival
of the Lost Romanov Anastasia is full of wild hope,

(17:54):
painful delusion, Disney and Broadway musicals, but most of all pretend.
Anyone familiar with the historical stories about Anastasia's possible survival
will be familiar with the name Anna Anderson. If you
aren't an Anastasia enthusiast listener, then you should know that

(18:14):
Anna Anderson was the most famous of the women who
came forward claiming to be the beloved lost daughter, the
sole survivor of the Russian Revolution, the miraculously enduring Anastasia.
And the reason that Anna Anderson was the most famous
impostor of all was in large part the perceived acceptance

(18:38):
of her as Anastasia by Anastasia's own dear aunt, Olga.
In October of nineteen twenty five, Olga left Denmark, not
as a refugee this time, but as a seeker. She
was headed to Berlin to visit a young, very ill
woman who claimed to be her niece, Anna sion Stasia.

(19:01):
The young woman had been pulled from a canal. In Berlin,
Olga found her very thin, frail in a hospital bed.
Though the young woman seemed to understand Russian, she would
speak only German. Still, she had the same joint problem
that Anastasia had in her feet, she knew a nickname

(19:22):
that only the Imperial nieces would have known. And most
of all, in the moment when the Grand Duchess Olga
saw her, Olga told the Danish ambassador that her heart
told her this was the little One, or did she so.
Much of the truth of the story of Olga's meeting

(19:44):
with Anna Anderson wound up recanted and changed later, perhaps
in service of truth or perhaps out of embarrassment, which
means that we can't be entirely sure. What actually happened
is that, after meeting the girl, Olga did not dismiss her.
She wrote five letters to the girl imploring her to

(20:07):
get well. She also asked her own people to investigate
the matter more deeply, writing in a letter that she
could not definitively say the woman wasn't Anastasia. So the
question is, did Olga believe the pretender? History doesn't know.
Olga's own memoirs were written after the fact, after Olga

(20:32):
had decided to insist that she had never believed Anna
Anderson and never had a moment's hesitation, but here's what
I think. We have to remember who we're dealing with.
Olga Alexandrovna was, according to her granddaughter, quote, kindness itself
to anyone in need. This was the daughter of the

(20:54):
tsar who found happiness serving the peasants at her villa,
the brother of the Emperor, who had worked as a
humble nurse to wounded soldiers at the front. The woman
who later in life would respond to every letter she
received in Toronto quote, be they from kings or crackpots.
It's no surprise that Olga would give a frail, wounded

(21:18):
woman in Berlin the time of day, if only for
a brief time, whether or not she believed she was
her niece. And I think this too. When Olga was
traveling to Berlin beside her husband, all she could see
was the little one in her mind. God, how badly
Olga must have wanted the story to be true. Let

(21:41):
Anastasia be alive for just a moment more, she must
have been thinking as she stepped into that hospital room,
Let me, for one moment pretend. Ultimately, both Olga and
the world rejected Anna Anderson's claim, recognizing the younger woman

(22:01):
for what she was. An impostor. Years later, DNA evidence
would make that undeniable. It's hard to avoid noticing that
one of the most interesting parts of Olga's life was
the way it intersected with the life of a more
famous person, Anastasia, more famous because her tragic life was

(22:23):
cut short, and cut short brutally at only seventeen. Olga
escaped both her niece's fame and her fate. She was
blessed with a long and mostly happy life, but after
twenty five contented years spent in Denmark on a dairy
farm with her husband and children, the Romanov name did

(22:47):
come to haunt Olga again. In nineteen forty eight, fearing
extradition to the Kremlin. After World War II, sixty six
year old Olga and her family fled to Ontario. Her
sons married women who were not from royal families, and
Olga loved her grandchildren. She painted charming in bright scenes

(23:08):
of Russian folk life, replete with colorful flowers and teas.
She was not above using her quote nepo baby status
as a Romanov to help place her paintings in galleries.
Queen Elizabeth the Second owned nine paintings by her cousin Olga.
Olga outlived her husband, but she loved him to the last.

(23:31):
As her health deteriorated, fittingly, she was watched over by
a former Imperial guard who had also found himself in Canada.
Still she carried the weight of her history. I always laugh,
she said, for if I ever start crying, I will
never stop. And at the very end, on November twenty fourth,

(23:54):
nineteen sixty, at seventy nine years old, Olga died. The
last living Romanov who had been quote born in the
Purple to a sitting emperor, died above Ray's barbershop in Toronto,
a reminder that history, with all its great heights and
terrible falls, is never really far away. That's the story

(24:24):
of Grand Duchess Olga, the last surviving Romanov. But keep
listening after a brief sponsor break, to find out what
really happened to her little one, Anastasia. If you've seen

(24:44):
the Disney or Broadway musical, you are probably familiar with
the legend of the survival of the young Romanov daughter Anastasia.
People love a story and a fantasy of a missing
princess who managed to survive a massacre. It's fascinating, but
what actually happened to Anastasia. For a long time, the

(25:06):
world did not know for certain, and in that gap
of knowledge, many pretenders stepped in with compelling stories people
wanted to believe, including a young woman in Berlin named
Anna Anderson who was institutionalized in a mental hospital after
a suicide attempt, a woman who was most likely a

(25:27):
Polish factory worker with a history of mental illness in
nineteen ninety one. DNA evidence that was discovered in Russia
was analyzed and reported to the public in nineteen ninety four,
which proved definitively that the remains of Anna Anderson had
no genetic overlap with the remains of Zar Nicholas and

(25:48):
his wife. Anderson had been an impostor. On top of
disproving the pretender, it was also announced that Anastasia's bones
had been discovered alongside her parents, so the saddest story
of Olga's favorite niece was the true one. She had

(26:08):
been shot and killed, her remains identified. The discovery was
made more than thirty years after Olga's death, so Olga
never had to know for certain about the tragic fate
of her little one. She could always hope. Noble Blood

(26:40):
is a production of iHeartRadio and Grimm and Mild from
Aaron Manky. Noble Blood is hosted by me Danish Forts,
with additional writing and researching by Hannah Johnston, Hannah Zewick,
Courtney Sender, Julia Milani, and Armand Casam. The show is
edited and produced by Noahmy Griffin and rima il Kaali,

(27:04):
with supervising producer Josh Thain and executive producers Aaron Mankey,
Alex Williams, and Matt Frederick. For more podcasts from iHeartRadio,
visit the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen
to your favorite shows.
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