Her Imperial Highness Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna of Russia, watercolour artist and farmer (born 13 June 1882 in St. Petersburg, Russia; died 24 November 1960 in Toronto, Ontario). Grand Duchess Olga was the sister of the last czar of Russia. She and her family fled to Denmark following the Russian Revolution of 1917 and then to Canada after the Second World War. Hundreds of thousands of Russians immigrated to Canada in the first half of the 20th century. They included industrial and agricultural workers and members of the former Russian aristocracy.
Birth and Family
Olga was the youngest daughter of the five surviving children of Emperor Alexander III of Russia and Empress Marie Feodorovna (nee Princess Dagmar of Denmark). She grew up in the Gatchina Palace, near St. Petersburg. Olga was educated at home and had a close relationship with her father, sharing his love of the outdoors. In 1894, when she was 12, her father died, and her eldest brother succeeded to the Russian throne as Emperor Nicholas II. Olga frequently visited Nicholas and his family.
On 9 August 1901, 19-year-old Olga married Duke Peter of Oldenburg, a distant cousin. The marriage allowed Olga to remain in Russia, and she received one million rubles, as well as an annuity of 100,000 rubles a year, from her brother Nicholas. Olga was unhappy, though, and later revealed that they had never had sexual relations: “I shared his roof for 15 years and never once were we husband and wife.” Peter was also a hypochondriac who gambled away much of Olga’s fortune. They divorced in 1916.
The First World War and Second Marriage
In 1914, Russia entered the First World War as an ally of Great Britain and France against Germany and Austria-Hungary. Olga left St. Petersburg for the Eastern Front and trained as a nurse. She worked in military hospitals near the front lines in Rovno, then Kiev, and received the Order of St. George after coming under enemy fire. On 16 November 1916, she married Colonel Nikolai Kulikovsky (1881–1958) in Kiev. Olga later recalled, “After the ceremony, we drove back to the hospital and all had dinner together. All my comrades, the doctors and nurses, were so pleased for me and wished us happiness with all their hearts. We were so happy.” Olga and Nikolai had two sons, Tikhon (1917–93) and Guriy (1919–84).
The Russian Revolutions of 1917
On 15 March 1917, Nicholas II abdicated the Russian throne following military defeats on the Eastern Front and workers’ strikes in St. Petersburg. Nicholas, Alexandra and their children were placed under house arrest at the Alexander Palace by the new provisional government and later sent to Siberia. Olga and her new husband, Nikolai, left Kiev for Crimea with her mother, the Dowager Empress Marie. After the Bolshevik Revolution brought Vladimir Lenin to power in November 1917, more of Olga’s relatives were placed under house arrest in Crimea. Olga, however, was not detained because Nikolai was a commoner. (See also Canadian Intervention in the Russian Civil War.)
Escape from Russia
On 16 July 1918, Nicholas, Alexandra and their five children were murdered by the Bolsheviks. Olga was concerned that Crimea was like a “mousetrap” that could snap shut on the remaining members of her family at any time. Olga, Nikolai and their son Tikhon left for Novominskaya in the Caucasus Mountains, which was not yet under Bolshevik control. Their second son, Guriy, was born there. With the help of the Danish consul, the family left the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk on a passenger ship filled with Russian refugees.
Olga, Nikolai and their sons arrived in Denmark in 1920. There, Olga was reunited with her mother, who had been rescued from Crimea by a British battleship in 1919. Olga, Nikolai and their sons lived in Copenhagen at Hvidore Palace until her mother’s death in 1928 and then purchased a farm in Ballerup. Olga received a small inheritance from the sale of her mother’s jewellery collection and Danish property, while Nikolai worked for an insurance company.
Emigration to Canada
At the end of the Second World War, Soviet Russian troops occupied the Danish island of Bornholm. Olga worried about her family’s safety. After a brief period in the United Kingdom, Olga and Nikolai moved to Canada as agricultural immigrants. They were among the hundreds of thousands of Russians who immigrated to Canada following the Russian Revolution and Second World War.
Did you know?
Many members of the Russian aristocracy, including the Ignatieffs, immigrated to Canada following the Russian Revolution. Olga’s distant cousin, Duke Dimitri of Leuchtenberg, moved to Canada in 1931 and operated a ski chalet in Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains.
On 2 June 1948, Olga and Nikolai left Liverpool for Canada aboard the Empress of Canada. They were joined by their sons, Tikhon and Guriy, their Danish daughters-in-law, Agnete and Ruth, and their grandchildren, Xenia and Leonid, as well as Olga’s devoted companion and former maid, Emilia Tenso. The Empress arrived in Montreal on June 10. Olga later described the long train journey from Montreal to Toronto to her biographer, Ian Vorres, stating, “The immense spaces I saw deeply impressed. I felt at home. Everything spoke to me of the vastness I had known in Russia.”
Campbellville and Cooksville
Olga and Nikolai stayed briefly in Toronto, where they attracted considerable press attention. They soon purchased a farm in Campbellville, between Guelph and Milton, where they kept cattle, pigs and poultry. Olga was a talented watercolour artist, and the sale of her paintings, including Canadian landscapes, provided an additional source of income for her family. In 1951, there was an exhibition of her work at Eaton’s Art Gallery in Toronto.
In 1952, Olga and Nikolai moved to a smaller five-room house at 2130 Camilla Road in Cooksville (now part of Mississauga). In an interview with Vorres, Olga explained their decision to leave the farm in Campbellville: “I had grown to love the place. It was so spacious. It breathed of freedom…It was heavenly to spend my leisure rambling about those woods and fields. I could paint out of doors there. But my husband found it harder and harder to carry on. Our sons were gone [to Toronto], and hired labour was not easy to come by.”
Olga was active in the Russian Canadian community and attended church regularly at the Russian Orthodox Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Toronto. She also welcomed royal visitors to her Cooksville home, including Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent and Lord and Lady Mountbatten. In 1959, Olga received a royal invitation to attend a luncheon on The Royal Yacht Britannia in Toronto during a cross-country royal tour by Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
Nikolai died in 1958. In April 1960, Olga was admitted to Toronto General Hospital and diagnosed with cancer. She spent her last months in the home of her friends Colonel Konstantin Martemianoff and his wife, Ziniada, an apartment on Gerrard Street in Toronto above a beauty salon run by their daughter Galina. Her funeral at the Russian Orthodox Christ the Saviour Cathedral was attended by hundreds of Russian Canadians. Olga is buried with Nikolai and their son Tikhon in York Cemetery.