Anastasia and Her Sisters
CHAPTER 1 Olga’s Secret LIVADIA, 1911
Every 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? Too 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 Standart. 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 watch 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 Standart was docked. Mama’s friend, Lili Dehn, helped with the planning, and Lili’s husband, an officer on the Standart, was
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.
On the day of the bazaar, people came by motorcar, carriage, horse, mule, or foot from surrounding estates and villages to buy items made by the imperial family. Ordinary Russians and poor peasants, even the rugged-looking Tatars coming down from the mountains, flocked to the bazaar for a look at the tsar and tsaritsa and their children. Papa was there, smiling and chatting, and Mama smiled and chatted, too, though she felt ill. The most popular person, drawing the biggest crowds, was of course Tsarevich Alexei.
There was even a bit of scandal, when a pretty young girl named Kyra Belyaevna, daughter of a good family, asked to take part in the event with a table of her own, selling fine linen handkerchiefs bordered with delicate lace. Some of the older ladies didn’t like her, saying that she dressed too daringly, was too friendly, and attracted too much attention with her bright eyes and musical laugh. When several of the ladies insisted that she not be given a table, she begged Admiral Chagin to intervene. The admiral gallantly took her request to Mama,
who thought Belyaevna was being judged too harshly and sent word that she must be allowed to stay. A number of gentlemen and naval men suddenly found themselves in need of a lace-trimmed handkerchief, and crowded around her table. Even the old admiral seemed to be enchanted. I decided the ladies must be jealous.
The bazaar went on for three days and raised lots of money for Mama’s cause, but Mama herself was so exhausted that she spent the rest of the week in bed. Even Lili Dehn, who was always full of energy, looked weary.
• • •
None of us wanted to leave Livadia, but early in December we said good-bye to the officers of the Standart and boarded the imperial train for the long, monotonous journey north into winter. The great black locomotive moved s-l-o-w-l-y—a horse could run almost as fast—across the flat, treeless steppe, a distance of a thousand miles. I was always excited at the start of a train trip but thoroughly tired of it by the end.
Our train was a rolling palace in miniature. Mama and Papa’s private car contained a bedroom, a sitting room for Mama, a study for Papa, and a bathroom. My sisters and I and our brother shared bedrooms and a bathroom in another car; the bathtub was specially constructed so that water didn’t slosh out when the train rounded a curve. A third car was for Mama’s ladies-in-waiting and Papa’s aides and our governesses. The dining car seated twenty at a long, narrow table; at one end were a kitchen and a little room where Papa and his friends gathered before dinner for zakuski—hors d’oeuvres, Mama called them, preferring the French term—while the
train chuffed through the darkness. A car for the servants and a baggage car completed the train.
A second train that looked exactly like the first—dark blue cars with the double-eagled Romanov crest embossed in gold on the sides—traveled either ahead of us or behind us. It was actually a dummy train. A revolutionary or an anarchist planning to throw a bomb would not know on which train the tsar was traveling. I had no idea then what a revolutionary or an anarchist was, but I did understand there were men who hated my father because he was the tsar, and who might cause something terrible to happen to him, just as they had blown up Papa’s poor uncle Sergei a few years earlier. What I did not understand then was why they hated Uncle Sergei enough to kill him. I simply could not fathom why all of us had to be guarded wherever we went—four girls and a little boy who had nothing to do with the government. And how could anyone possibly hate Papa, the kindest man in the world?
No one could answer any of those questions to my satisfaction.
• • •
Keeping a diary, making an entry every single day, was something all of us were expected to do. Mama kept a diary, and so did Papa. I therefore assumed that everyone did. At some time during the summer of 1911, I had become curious about what my sisters were writing in their diaries. Marie’s lay on a shelf near her bed, and in less than a minute I had leafed through it and discovered there wasn’t a thing in it that wasn’t almost exactly like mine. Tatiana’s was hidden but easy to find—under her pillow—and it was full of lists of things to do, birthdays
and name days of family and servants who might require gifts, various projects she had dreamed up and intended to organize. Olga’s, lying in plain sight on her desk, included notes about books she was reading—she was particularly interested in English writers, like Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters—and the latest piano piece she’d been working on. Hardly worth the trouble of reading.
Boring. Every single one of the diaries was boring. I didn’t bother to look at them again for months.
But then, just after we’d returned from Livadia to Tsarskoe Selo, I needed an address book that I thought one of my older sisters had left somewhere. Olga was practicing in the music room and Tatiana was with Mama in her boudoir, and not wanting to disturb them I went alone into their bedroom to look for it. On a shelf among Olga’s prayer books I noticed a book with a black leather cover stamped with a gilt cross. I thought it was a book of devotions. I have no idea what led me to open it, but what I found was a notebook disguised to look like a book of devotions. It was not. It was another kind of diary. The rest of us kept diaries so dull that anyone could read them without finding anything the least bit shocking. But the first few lines were enough to tell me that Olga’s notebook was not for the eyes of anyone but Olga. I began to read.
Livadia, 4 November 1911
What happiness! I am sixteen, and last night at my birthday ball I danced three times with Pavel Alexeyevich. For a few moments we stood on the balcony, and he took my hand. We were surrounded by people, we dared not kiss, but I was happy. For one perfect night I could allow myself to be in love and to know that Pavel returns that love. For one perfect night we danced and let our eyes speak the words that we could not say aloud.
Pavel Alexeyevich was Lieutenant Voronov, and Olga was in love with him!
I knew I should not read the diary. The contents were private. I worried that I would be caught and she would be very angry. It was wrong to read it!
I closed the book and returned it carefully to its place among the prayer books, promising myself that I would not look at it again.
Within days I had broken my vow. I found Olga’s secret notebook, and from then on I could not stay away.
Livadia, 10 November
We will be here for another month, and it is pure bliss! I see Pavel nearly every day, and we have even had a few moments alone to talk when everyone was busy at the bazaar. P. gave me a lovely lace handkerchief as a gift—of course I know that he bought it from that girl everyone was making such a fuss over.
Livadia, 12 November
Tanya has noticed. We were in our bedroom dressing for dinner, when she asked suddenly, “Do you think I don’t see how you look at him?” I pretended not to know whom she was talking about.
She calls him “your lieutenant” and says I gaze at him like a sick puppy! She also reminded me that there’s no future for me with him. “You won’t ever marry Pavel Alexeyevich or anyone else of his class.” Her words exactly.
I asked who had said anything about marrying him, and assured her I am not contemplating marriage at the age of sixteen, any more than she is at fourteen.
She said that if my crush on Pavel is obvious to her—she insists on calling it a “crush”—then it is surely obvious to Mother as well.
I asked if Mother had said anything. Tanya said no, but then she said, “I’m warning you—if she does take notice, you can be sure it’s the last you’ll see of him. Lieutenant Voronov will be transferred to Vladivostok before you can snap your fingers.”
I know that Tanya is right, and I have resolved to be more careful.
Livadia, 14 November
The afternoon tennis matches continue, and I follow darling P. with my eyes and ache for a few minutes alone with him. But that does not happen. I hate the thought of leaving here, for it will be spring until I see him again.
I put the notebook back where I had found it. I could hear Olga practicing on the piano, but there was a chance that
Tatiana might come in and find me. I wondered if she knew about the notebook-disguised-as-prayer-book. When did Olga even have time to write in it?
A little further investigation revealed that she slept with the lace-trimmed handkerchief under her pillow. Poor Olga! I worried about her and how her heart might be broken.