‘Papa spoke a lot about his mur­dered Ro­manov cousins’

Princess Olga, the last Ro­manov, tells of her ‘wacky’ child­hood, royal love ri­vals and the tragedy of her Rus­sian legacy

The Sunday Telegraph - - REVIEW - Princess Olga: A Wild and Bare­foot Ro­manov, Royal House of Wind­sor, Queen Dar­ling Buds of May Down­ton Abbey.” Down­ton so Harper’s & Aus­tralian Princess

Princess Olga Ro­manov is strid­ing around in jeans and a blue gilet, clutch­ing a phone to her ear. I have just ar­rived at Proven­der House, her 13th-cen­tury man­sion in the Kent coun­try­side, which she opens at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals to the pub­lic. “No, you can’t come to­day,” she is ex­plain­ing through grit­ted teeth to a would-be visi­tor on the other end of the line. “It’s just too cold.”

She cuts the call short. “You have to be so po­lite,” she sighs. It is not the first ad­jec­tive I would use to de­scribe her. Colour­ful, def­i­nitely. En­ter­tain­ing, with­out ques­tion. When the weather im­proves, beat a path to Proven­der. She plays to a tee the ec­cen­tric owner of a mi­nor stately home. “If an­other per­son asks me why the oak-pan­elled din­ing room is called the Oak Room…” she mur­murs men­ac­ingly.

But it’s much more ex­otic than that, be­cause this great-niece of Tsar Ni­cholas II of Rus­sia, al­most the last sur­vivor of her gen­er­a­tion of the im­pe­rial fam­ily, isn’t play­ing. She has no side. This, she re­flects later, in a rare mo­ment of in­tro­spec­tion be­tween gales of laugh­ter and oc­ca­sional bar­rages of less-than-po­lite lan­guage (when her dogs scoff some choco­late bis­cuits when her back is turned), is just the way her pe­cu­liar up­bring­ing has made her.

“Feisty” is how her pub­lish­ers re­fer to the 66-year-old mother of three in their pre-pub­lic­ity for her muchan­tic­i­pated mem­oir,

due out this au­tumn. There will, she hints, be rev­e­la­tions in the book, not just about her “wacky” child­hood but also about the be­trayal of the de­posed Tsar by his Bri­tish first cousin, Ge­orge V. In a re­cent in­ter­view on Chan­nel 4’s

she broke down in tears on cam­era when dis­cussing how the king him­self had first of­fered, then re­scinded, safe pas­sage to the Rus­sian royal fam­ily, ef­fec­tively sign­ing their death war­rant.

The book will be timed to mark the cen­te­nary of the Oc­to­ber Revo­lu­tion. Olga – “Call me Olga,” she in­sists, “no one gives a stuff about ti­tles any more” – is the only daugh­ter of the Tsar’s el­dest nephew, Prince An­drei Alexan­drovich, who es­caped im­pris­on­ment on a Bri­tish naval frigate, and there­fore avoided the sub­se­quent ex­e­cu­tions.

“Papa used to say to me that one day ev­ery­thing would be OK, but he never went back to Rus­sia. He spoke a lot about his mur­dered cousins. They were brought up to­gether. They were all the same ages.”

In­stead, Prince An­drew Ro­manov, as he styled him­self there­after, set­tled in Eng­land and made his own way in the world. The only pos­ses­sions the flee­ing fam­ily had been able to take with them were some jew­els, which were quickly sold to their Wind­sor cousins.

Prince An­drew’s first wife, with whom he had three chil­dren, died in 1940 in the Lon­don Blitz, but he mar­ried again in 1942, to Na­dine McDougall, a wealthy heiress from the flour-milling fam­ily. Olga, their only child, was born when her fa­ther was 54. She grew up at Proven­der, a ram­bling, 30-room ar­chi­tec­tural trea­sure trove, set in 35 acres, which was in her mother’s fam­ily. She was schooled at home by gov­ernesses.

It must have been lonely, I ven­ture. “I had nan­nies and don­keys and ponies and huge teddy bears,” she replies ro­bustly. “One of my nan­nies did bril­liant tea par­ties, chris­ten­ings and wed­dings for the bears in the cherry or­chard. It was mixed with

Her mother was a ter­ri­ble snob, Olga re­calls. She once supplied

with a pho­to­graph and a list of her daugh­ter’s ac­com­plish­ments so that she could fea­ture in a list of Euro­pean royal princesses suit­able as brides for the then bach­e­lor Prince Charles. “She made them up. It said I was a good ten­nis player. Can’t hit a ball to save my life. It made me so an­gry.“

In terms, Princess An­drew, as Na­dine be­came on her mar­riage, was the Dowa­ger Count­ess. But what about Olga? “I think I might have been Lady Sy­bil. [For those who missed it, she was the rebel who ran off with the chauf­feur.] That sort of thing. We didn’t have a chauf­feur, but I was just as bad.”

An ap­pear­ance on the Aus­tralian re­al­ity TV se­ries in 2005, dol­ing out ad­vice to royal wannabes, no doubt be­smirched the fam­ily name. Long be­fore then, she once found her­self the love ri­val of Princess Anne. When both vied for the af­fec­tions of a dash­ing young Scot­tish of­fi­cer at a High­land ball, Olga got a swift kick in the an­kle from her cousin.

The call from Buck­ing­ham Palace to set up a date with Prince Charles never came. “He’s a good per­son. He should have had the courage to marry Camilla in the first place. She’s a good egg.”

With their shared crown of blonde hair, there is def­i­nitely some­thing of the Duchess of Corn­wall about Olga. Both are stuff-and-non­sense coun­try­women who speak as they find and care not a jot about po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness.

In 1975, Olga mar­ried Thomas Mathew and they brought up their two sons and a daugh­ter in Scot­land. A third and youngest son, Tom, died from a rare heart de­fect at 18 months. She is not one to dwell on pain or mis­for­tune. “He’d be 29 now,” she says sim­ply. Nei­ther will she talk about her mar­riage, which seems to have ended by 1989.

Af­ter Prince An­drew’s death in 1981, her mother lived on alone at Proven­der, but in 2000, as she ap­proached her 92nd birthday, Olga came back to care for her. Her child­hood play­ground was in such a state of dis­re­pair that the GradeII* listed build­ing – “it’s only not Grade 1 be­cause Mother re­fused to let the in­spec­tors, who she re­garded as trades­men, over the front doorstep” – was on the “At Risk” reg­is­ter.

“She was keep­ing up ap­pear­ances that it wasn’t true. Ev­ery time I came home, there would be gaps where the fur­ni­ture had been. Mother was pen­ni­less and sell­ing things to sur­vive.”

When Princess An­drew died, Olga de­cided to take on the mam­moth task of res­cu­ing Proven­der. “I’d al­ways thought I’d sell the house, but as I walked round with my dogs, look­ing at things, I thought, ‘You know it’s re­ally quite nice.’ It is home, af­ter all.”

With the help of ar­chi­tect, his­to­rian and TV pre­sen­ter Ptolemy Dean, she set about rais­ing grants to do the nec­es­sary works, and find­ing her share of the fund­ing. “I sold Rus­sian stuff left to me by my fa­ther. It was bloody, but there was no other way for­ward.”

The Proven­der visi­tors see to­day is as much a shrine to the Ro­manovs as it is a stun­ning piece of English his­tory. In 1998, Olga went to Rus­sia for the first time, for the rein­ter­ment of her great-un­cle, Ni­cholas II. “My fa­ther had adored Peters­burg and talked so much about it, so it was like go­ing to a place I knew well.”

This year’s cen­te­nary of the Rus­sian Revo­lu­tion, she says, is not “my sort of thing”. Next year, the 100th an­niver­sary of the mur­ders of the Tsar and his fam­ily, is far more sig­nif­i­cant to her. “I am as­sum­ing that the Rus­sians will take the op­por­tu­nity to bury the bones that they have of his two chil­dren, Alexei [Ni­cholas’s son and heir] and Maria.”

And if they do, she wants to be there. Yet just how Rus­sian does this Bri­tish-born, Bri­tish-raised princess re­ally feel? She waves a typ­i­cally dis­mis­sive hand. Feel­ings, her odd up­bring­ing has taught her, are not some­thing to be aired in pub­lic.

“I can only say three words in Rus­sian – yes, no and dar­ling.” But, mo­men­tar­ily, she soft­ens. “Ev­ery night, when he put me to bed as a child, my fa­ther would kiss my hands and cheeks and say some­thing in Rus­sian. When I go to Rus­sia now, there are oc­ca­sions when I can hear words that he used to say to me.”

Princess Olga’s great-un­cle, Tsar Ni­cholas II, and his fam­ily in 1914

Princess Olga at Proven­der House, and with her fa­ther, Prince An­drew, above

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