Exile in Ontario: How the Russian royal family came to an end in Toronto

Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna went from living in a palace to dying above a barbershop
By Chris Bateman - Published on October 16, 2017
a woman sitting on a chair and two Toronto houses
At the age of 79, Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna died at her friends’ apartment on Gerrard Street East, in Toronto. (Paul Gilbert/angelfire.com)

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​On November 24, 1960, after three centuries in power, the Romanov line came to an end above a barber shop in the east end of Toronto.

It was there, in a small apartment belonging to a friend, that Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna died, a continent and an ocean away from her homeland. She represented the last direct link to the Romanov family, which had ruled Russia from 1613 until the revolution of 1917. The fall of the Romanovs and the execution of much of the royal family forced her dramatic escape from Russia — and put her on the long road to Ontario.

Grand Duchess Olga was born on June 14, 1882, to Tsar Alexander III, Emperor of All Russia, and Empress Maria Feodorovna, the sister of Queen Alexandra of England. The youngest of four, she was the last Russian “purple baby” — a child born to a reigning monarch. (Her eldest brother, Nicholas, the heir to the throne, and brothers Alexander, George, Michael, and sister, Xenia, were born before their father became tsar.)

As a child, Olga lived surrounded by opulence. She had hundreds of servants at her disposal in the sprawling Gatchina Palace, located near St. Petersburg. “I used to climb 80 steps to kiss my parents goodnight, and then 80 more to go to my own room,” she told her Canadian biographer, Ian Vorres, in the 1950s, during one of her few in-depth interviews.

When her father died in 1894, Olga’s eldest brother, Nicholas, became Emperor of All Russia and the head of a monarchy that was increasingly unpopular. Nicholas II’s early reign was immediately marred by disaster — during his coronation in 1896, more than 1,300 people died in a crush to receive commemorative mugs filled with candy.

When she was 19, Olga married Duke Peter of Oldenburg, a man 14 years her senior. There were rumours that Peter was gay and that the marriage was one of convenience for him. Although the union wasn’t a particularly happy one, she enjoyed life on Peter’s estate — at least until she met Nikolai Kulikovsky at a military parade in 1903. The blond-haired, blue-eyed cavalryman was a friend of her brother Michael. “It was love at first sight,” she told Vorres. The pair, who were the same age, began a love affair that caused a minor scandal in Russia. Eventually, Nicholas II annulled Olga’s unconsummated marriage to Peter, making it possible for the two to marry. It was to be one of his last acts as Emperor.

In 1917, Nicholas was forced to abdicate, and communist revolutionaries later seized control of the country. The royal family was placed under house arrest near Yekaterinburg, where they were executed and buried in unmarked graves in 1918.

Olga and Nikolai were lucky at first. Olga, who had been working as a Red Cross nurse since the outbreak of the First World War, was stationed in Kiev. The two attempted to flee south by train, but were intercepted between Yalta and Sevastopol in Crimea. “We were actually saved by a technicality,” Olga recalled. “Communist headquarters in Sevastopol and Communist headquarters in Yalta could not decide whose responsibility it was to chop off our heads.”

While the couple was under house arrest, Olga gave birth to their first child, Tikhon; she was pregnant with her second when she and Nikolai stole away one night, headed for the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk. They avoided detection by moving from town to town under the cover of darkness, sleeping in rented accommodation, spare rooms, an abandoned monastery — anywhere that was safe, even if just for a few nights. Guri was born on the road. “When I looked at that pale bundle in my arms, I never thought he would survive,” she said.

Despite the constant threat of capture, the royals managed to escape Russia aboard a crowded refugee ship in 1919. They travelled to Turkey, then to Denmark, the home of Olga’s mother, Dowager Empress Marie. There, Olga and Nikolai lived in a small villa and for 25 years ran a dairy farm, safe from the Soviet authorities. 

The couple might have remained in Denmark for the rest of their lives, but after the Second World War, Soviet authorities pressured the Danish government to make them leave. Sir Edward Peacock, the Canadian-born director of the Bank of England and a friend of King George V, Olga’s first cousin, arranged for their move to Canada.

In 1948, Olga and Nikolai, both 66 years old, and the families of their two adult children sailed to Halifax aboard the SS Empress of Canada. “I immediately felt at home in Canada,” she said. “The vast open spaces remind me of Russia and gave me a feeling of comfort.”

Olga and Nikolai settled on a 200-acre cattle farm near Campbellville, Ontario, roughly halfway between Milton and Guelph, and continued working as they had in Denmark. The locals, it seems, were relaxed about their new royal neighbours. “The prosperous farmers and their wives have tactfully ignored [the] titles of the past,” reported the Globe and Mail in 1950. “[They] treated Col. Kulikovsky and his lady as they would have treated any other newcomers.”

While Nikolai worked the farm, Olga spent considerable time painting — many of her countryside scenes and still lifes were featured in a well-received exhibition at Eaton’s College Street store in 1951. She knew her famous name drove interest in her work, and she unashamedly exploited what she called the “snob appeal” of her paintings. She painted what art dealers told her would sell, and her signature was always prominently displayed.

In his 70s, after 10 years on the Campbellville farm, Nikolai grew increasingly frail, so the couple moved to a small five-room cottage in Cooksville. The house, which still stands, was “crammed with paintings, flower pots, an endless array of faded photographs and other mementos of Imperial days,” her biographer reported. A large painting of Olga’s father, Tsar Alexander III, dominated the living room.

Nikolai Kulikovsky died at home in 1958, at the age of 76. “I was in a way relieved to see him go and escape from his suffering,” Olga said.

Now alone, the Grand Duchess filled her days painting and tending a small vegetable patch in the yard. Her children and grandchildren visited often. Tikhon worked for the Ontario Highways Department in the Mississauga area, and Guri lived in Ottawa.

A steady stream of letters — up to 30 a day — kept her busy. “I insist on replying to all of them, be they from kings or crackpots,” she said. Both were represented in her mailbox. At the time, the bodies of the Romanovs remained undiscovered, and fraudsters played on the possibility they might have survived the executioner. In Denmark and in Canada, several people claimed to be members of her brother’s murdered family. A British Columbia man insisted he was Alexei, Olga’s nephew, and another well-known imposter, Anna Anderson, claimed to be Olga’s niece, Anastasia.

Olga found Anderson’s claims, which were seriously investigated, particularly upsetting. “It is a tragic joke,” she said. “And what is most tragic of all is that the joke will continue because people like mystery.” (None of the imposters were who they claimed to be. The bodies of the Romanovs were discovered and forensically identified in the 1990s and 2000s.)

Although Olga lived modestly, she maintained contact with European royalty and aristocracy. She dined with earls, countesses, duchesses, and princesses when they visited Canada, and received gifts from Finland, Denmark, and Japan on her name day and at Easter and Christmas. When Queen Elizabeth II — her first cousin twice removed — paid a royal visit to Canada in 1959, she invited Olga aboard the HMY Britannia in Toronto.

Though she was prominent in social circles, Olga remained private and seldom gave interviews. She never went back to Russia, either. “Even if I could return I wouldn’t. You would never see me again,” she said. 

In 1960, Olga became unwell and was admitted to the Toronto General Hospital. After her condition stabilized, she was released into the care of Konstantin Martemianoff and his wife, Sinaida, who lived on Gerrard Street East in Toronto. Aptly, Konstant was a former officer of the Imperial Guard, the unit once responsible for protecting the Russian royal family.

Grand Duchess Olga died in the Martemianoff’s home on November 24, 1960, at the age of 79. Her body lay in state in an open casket at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral on Glen Morris Avenue, where her funeral was held November 30. Wreaths and condolences arrived from around the world, but few foreign dignitaries or consular officials attended the service — the optics during the Cold War would have been too problematic. 

“If I were invited as a private individual I would have attended the funeral with pleasure,” said Stathis Mitsopoulos, the Greek consul in Canada. “However, I cannot attend as an official representative of my country since my government has recognized the Communist regime.”

Before being lowered into the ground at York Cemetery, her casket was draped in the flag of Imperial Russia and sprinkled with a handful of Russian soil.

Despite the bloody murder of her family and the forced estrangement from her country, Olga never appeared dour or sullen. She joked often, and in her old age, her face was furrowed with deep wrinkles and laughter lines.

“I always laugh,” she said, “for if I ever start crying I will never stop.”

Chris Bateman is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the National Post, Spacing, and Toronto Life.

Mondays at 10 p.m. on TVO, watch Empire of the Tsars, a series that traces the Romanovs, the dynasty that ruled Russia for more than three centuries.

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