Katrina Clarke | Nov. 25, 2014 | Toronto Star
The sister of the last Czar of Russia was born in a St. Petersburg palace, grew up with thousands of servants and occasionally sported goose-egg-sized diamonds.
She died in a now run-down apartment above a beauty salon on Gerrard St. E. in 1960.
Russia’s Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna Romanov was the youngest daughter of Emperor Alexander III of Russia. During the 1917 Russian Revolution, her incredibly wealthy and powerful family was overthrown and her brother’s family was murdered, forcing Olga, her husband and two sons to flee to Denmark and eventually Canada.
Today, the shabby East Toronto unit where the Grand Duchess died can be yours — for $539,000, according to an MLS listing.
Her last days were spent in the apartment eating ice cream, surrounded by minimal possessions and taken care of by Russian friends who owned the building. She died at 78, of cancer.
“I’ve always considered it a Cinderella story in reverse,” said Patricia Phenix, author of Olga Romanov, Russia’s Last Grand Duchess. “You can’t get much higher and you can’t get much lower.”
Olga, born in 1882, and the rest of Imperial Russia’s royal family were worth at least $300 billion — some say $1 trillion, said Phenix. “It’s like Bill Gates on steroids.”
Olga spent her childhood in places like Peterhof Palace, often called the “Russian Versailles” for its opulence and grandeur. As a young adult, she lived in a four-storey, 200-room home with its own church and coach house, a gift from her brother, Czar Nicholas II, after her 1901 marriage.
She was close to her nieces, including Grand Duchess Anastasia, and often threw parties for the young royals. Men such as the mystical adviser Grigori Rasputin pursued her.
But despite her proximity to limitless power and wealth, Olga “was always a rebel, and she was always someone who questioned things,” said Phenix. She was critical of her brother’s rule.
“She wasn’t particularly impressed with the trappings of the monarchy, the affluence, the jewels.”
During the First World War, she worked in an army hospital. In 1916, after her first marriage was annulled, she wed commoner Nikolai Kulikovsky and had two sons.
From 1919 on, life took a drastic turn as the family fled post-revolution Russia for Denmark. They lived there on a farm, despite the offer of a grand Danish home, and in 1948 left for another farm in Canada. Some experts say they feared for their ongoing safety in Denmark; others that they were forced out.
“She was determined to create a new life for herself,” said Carolyn Harris, who teaches history at the University of Toronto’s school of continuing studies, though some surviving relatives clung to shreds of their old lifestyle.
It’s unclear what exactly happened to Olga’s family fortune, but it appears the family land was all but gone following the revolution, and some jewels were sold off into an already flooded market. Olga’s maid smuggled jewels to Canada, some of which she sold to Rosedale matrons, Phenix said.
Phenix said Olga used to allow neighbours’ children to play roughly with Faberge figurines worth thousands of dollars.
“She chose to live simply,” said Olga Cordeiro, the Grand Duchess’s granddaughter, who now lives in Hamilton. “(In Canada) people would call her Grand Duchess or Your Highness, things like that, and she would say, ‘Just call me Olga.’ That was her tag line.”
Cordeiro said the tradeoff of life in Canada was no longer living in a “fishbowl” ; imperial court life never seemed to appeal to her grandmother.
In Canada, the family lived modestly, first on the farm in Campbellville, in Halton, and then a small home in Cooksville, now part of Mississauga. But Olga still had brushes with royalty. In 1959, she received an invitation to meet Queen Elizabeth II in Toronto, for which she begrudgingly bought a new dress.
“She was just an old lady who was a friend of the family,” said Nick Barisheff, whose mother owned the apartment and took Olga in after her husband died and her health deteriorated.
Barisheff, then 15, remembers feeding Olga vanilla ice cream — the only food she desired — with a spoon. She was bedridden by then and lived in the unit for less than a year before she died on Nov. 24, 1960.
Upon her death, Olga had only an orange china cup and saucer, a Faberge dog and a framed photo of her husband in the sparse room, said Phenix. Her clothes were valued at $50 and her money, $200,000, was left for her sons, she said.
While the tale may seem sad, Cordeiro doesn’t see it that way.
“She had an unshakeable optimism,” she said. “Whatever circumstance she found herself in, she accepted it. She probably called that small apartment in Toronto her home.”