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she broke down in tears on camera when discussing how the king himself had first offered, then rescinded, safe passage to the Russian royal family, effectively signing their death warrant.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