Caught forever in a moment of time, they are the tragic family whose terrible end in World War One still appals and fascinates today. The children of the last Tsar of Russia died alongside their parents in Yekaterinburg one hundred years ago this summer. And yet Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia and Alexei had lived most of their lives in imperial splendour.
They had been born to Nicholas II, Tsar of All the Russias, and his wife, Alix of Hesse, who had married soon after his accession in November 1894. Their family would grow up amid all the splendour of the last days of the Russian Empire although, behind palace doors, the children experienced a more simple way of life that involved hard beds and household chores. For there was much more to life than glitter and gold for the children of the last Tsar.
Olga, 1895 – 1918
Olga, the eldest child of the last Tsar and Tsarina of All the Russias, was born on 15 November 1895 at the Alexander Palace in St. Petersburg with her great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, among her godparents. Olga quickly grew into a kind and caring child. Noted for her compassion from an early age, her tutors found her bright and capable, but she also had a noted temper.
As she entered her teenage years, Olga became a sought-after bride among the royal houses of Europe. She was suggested as a match for the future Edward VIII as well as Crown Prince Alexander of Serbia and the heir to the Romanian throne, Carol. Olga fell in love with a Russian military man, Pavel Voronov, in 1913 but he was soon married to someone else. At the start of World War One, Olga looked for a way to help others and ended up training as a Red Cross nurse.
Tatiana, 1897 – 1918
Born on 10 June 1897 at the Peterhof Palace in St. Petersburg, Tatiana quickly became close to her older sister, Olga, and the two were known as ‘’the big pair’’. The second of the Tsar’s daughters was also the most decisive and was known to take charge in the imperial nursery from an early age. As she grew up, Tatiana was feted as the most beautiful of the royal children and was regarded as hard working, reserved and deeply religious.
Like Olga, Tatiana took an interest in nursing and trained with the Red Cross when World War One broke out. And, just as her sister had done, she enjoyed several friendships with soldiers which may or may not have crossed over into romance. As a potential royal bride, she was linked to Crown Prince Alexander of Serbia.
Maria, 1899 – 1918
Maria, the third daughter of Nicholas and Alexandra of Russia, was born on 26 June 1899 at the Peterhof Palace, St. Petersburg. Her mother’s letters revealed that her third child sometimes felt left out and was prone to bouts of insecurity. She was also intelligent and showed a natural talent for art and drawing.
Maria developed several crushes on soldiers as she grew up at the Russian court, and she became the subject of unrequited love herself when Prince Louis of Battenberg, later Earl Mountbatten of Burma, fell for her. He would keep a photo of her near him until his death. Too young to train as a nurse during World War One, Maria instead visited wounded soldiers during the conflict.
Anastasia, 1901 – 1918
Anastasia was born on 18 June 1901 at the Peterhof Palace, St. Petersburg. She was named after a 4th-century saint, and in honour of her birth, her father pardoned students who had been imprisoned for rioting despite his disappointment that his fourth child was another girl. Anastasia was described as energetic and vivacious in her early years, with several members of the imperial staff labelling her the naughtiest of the five children.
She formed a double act with Maria, the sister closest to her in age, and they were known as ‘’The Little Pair’’. She was also very fond of her younger brother, Alexei. Along with Maria, she visited soldiers during World War One although Anastasia was more prone to health problems than any of her sisters.
Alexei, 1904 – 1918
The last Tsarevich of Russia was born on 12 August 1904 at the Peterhof Palace in St. Petersburg to widespread celebrations. The longed-for heir to the Russian imperial throne was christened on 3 September that year with his sister Olga joining a line of monarchs including King Edward VII and King Christian IX of Denmark as a godparent. Alexei was doted on by his family, but their joy at his arrival was soon tempered by the realisation that he had haemophilia. He suffered numerous heavy bleeds, several of which left him gravely ill, and in the quest to find a cure for him, his mother turned to the mystic, Rasputin.
Alexei was described as a sweet, sensitive and contemplative child who loved to play jokes and from an early age, he was aware of his status as a Tsar in waiting. He was treated with servility by many of those around him while from an early age, his father took him to government meetings, and he began to gain military experience. Alexei was approaching adolescence when his family was taken into captivity.
United by a tragic end
Until the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917, they had all expected to live a royal life along the lines of that experienced by their predecessors. All that changed as their father fell from power, and they, along with their parents, were taken into captivity on a journey that ended with their executions on 17 July 1918. Now, they are forever united by a tragic end, beautiful faces staring from a picture of a time long since past.