Why I’m toasting Russia’s Last Grand Duchess today
In Toronto’s North York cemetery, not far from the grave of hockey and coffee legend Tim Horton, “The Last Grand Duchess of Russia” lies beneath an Eastern Orthodox cross as white as a Russian winter.
In this city of immigrant tales, the story of Her Imperial Highness Grand Duchess Olga of Russia is one of the most fascinating–and fantastical.
Born June 14, 1882, at Peterhof Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia, Olga was the youngest daughter of Emperor Alexander III, sister of Tsar Nicholas II, aunt of the royal children – including the mysterious Anastasia – murdered by revolutionaries in 1918.
If you watch old movies [Nicholas and Alexandra (1971), Ingrid Bergman as Anastasia (1958) or Alan Rickman as Rasputin (1996)], collect Disney animated flicks (Anastasia, 1997), have danced at weddings to Boney M’s Rasputin (click here to sing along with lyrics), or have bought a faux Faberge eff from the shopping network, chances are you know something of the highly romanticized Romanov dynasty.
Living with the constant threat of assassination hanging over her own Romanov head, Olga spent much of her childhood in relative isolation on a rural estate with only a few bodyguard soldiers for company. Despite the phenomenal wealth and status she was born to, she would prefer a rural lifestyle, simple food and the company of soldiers to the end of her days.
It’s hard to know where to begin in describing Olga’s tumultuous life. Bombed on a train with the rest of the family the first time she left home at age 6, Olga was only 12 when her father died and her brother became Tsar. She didn’t like public appearances, feeling like an “animal in a cage–exhibited to the public”, but did her duty often standing in for her sister-in-law at functions when Alexandra was preoccupied with the health crises of her haemophiliac son.
Revolutionary attacks, wars. Through all this–and a sham first marriage to an ambitious and homosexual Duke (which she may have agreed to simply to prevent being married off outside the country)–Olga established a hospital and trained as a nurse. In 1903 she fell in love with an untitled commoner, military officer Nikolai Kulikovsky, and spent the next 13 years trying to get an annulment from the Duke.
Finally married to the love of her life, Olga would never again be far from Kulikovsky. She nursed under artillery fire at a Red Cross hospital near the front lines, service for which she received the Order of St. George.
Could there have been any worse time to be pregnant and giving birth than in Russia between 1917 to 1919? On the run and under house arrest in the Crimea after the Russian Revolution, mourning the slaughter of her brother and his family and terrified for their own lives, Olga gave birth to two sons.
The Kulikovskys ultimately spent years in exile in Olga’s mother’s native Denmark, some of those years under Nazi occupation. In 1948, threatened by Stalin’s regime, the Kulikovskys were accepted by Canada as agricultural immigrants and moved to a farm in Halton County, Ontario. Olga farmed, nursed her paralyzed husband and sick maid/companion Mimka, moved to a modest home at 2130 Camilla Road, Cooksville, dealt with regular Romanov imposters and lunched with her first cousin Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip when they pulled into Toronto on the royal yacht.
Olga didn’t last long after Kulikovsky died. In April 1960 she was hospitalized at Toronto General Hospital, released into the care of friends, dying November 24, 1960, at their apartment above a hair salon on Gerrard Street East. After a funeral at Christ the Saviour Church on Manning, she was buried beside Kulikovsky at North York Cemetery. Viewed as a defender of the Orthodox faith in the face of godless communism (her murdered relatives are revered as martyrs), Olga’s grave gets a lot of visitors, especially on her birthday.
Why would I go? Because I’m in awe that, despite everything that happened and everything she had to do, Olga managed over the course of her lifetime to squeeze off 2,000 paintings. Sold to support her favorite charities and to subsidize her family’s income, Olga’s artwork is still widely collected and exhibited today.