Location Spotting in The Last Grand Duchess
She pictured the Semi-Circular Hall at its best: a thousand dinner guests seated at round tables beneath the glittering chandelier; the echoing strains of a string orchestra accompanying Bolshoi dancers who drifted between the tables as if floating on air. She closed her eyes, affixing the image in her mind. That was how she wanted to remember it. As a place of beauty and joy.
The Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo was the primary residence of the Last Romanovs -- located 15 miles from St. Petersburg, it had been considered a summer residence by prior royals, but Nicholas and Alexandra preferred the seclusion of the Palace and its grounds to the bustle of St. Petersburg's Winter Palace. Following the abdication of Nicholas II, the Romanov family was kept in Alexander Palace under house arrest, where they and their also-imprisoned household passed the time performing plays, digging vegetable gardens, and holding lessons for the younger Romanov siblings.
The Mauve Room
In the daylight, the boudoir was light and airy, a comforting, modern space utterly unlike the cluttered bedrooms or formal drawing rooms in the rest of the palace. To Olga, it was a refuge, where she and her sisters spent their evenings with their parents: to share their small victories and defeats, to laugh at those problems which seemed too great to fix.
The Mauve Room in the Alexander Palace was Alexandra Feodorovna's sanctum sanctorum: her escape from the world, where she and her family could gather at the end of long summer days. Early on in their reign, Nicholas and Alexandra chose the Alexander Palace as their primary residence and renovated their living quarters to suit their tastes: when their infrequent guests arrived, they were horrified by the middle-class tastes of the Imperial Couple. With its catalog furniture, tacky knickknacks and purple walls, the Mauve Room looked more suited to an everyday Victorian family rather than to the Tsar and Tsarina of All Russia. Still, Alix loved her cozy sanctuary: it was where she could frequently be found in conversation with her spiritual advisor, Grigori Rasputin.
Unlike the overwhelming opulence of the ballroom at the Winter Palace, Anichkov felt modern and elegant, its simplistic white walls lending the space a monochromatic beauty. Enormous marble vases sat in the window alcoves, displaying sunbursts of greenhouse flowers, perfuming the air with thoughts of a Crimean summer.
Anichkov Palace was the St. Petersburg Residence of Maria Feodorovna, Dowager Empress of Russia. Immense and imposing, the baroque building was the site of many Romanov family occasions, as the Dowager Empress took on many social functions on behalf of the reclusive Tsar and Tsarina. In February 1914, Anichkov Palace hosted Olga and Tatiana's coming-out ball - a year late for Olga, because Empress Alexandra felt it wasteful to host a ball for one daughter when they'd have to repeat it in a year's time for the second. The ballroom was packed to the brim with the Dowager Empress's guest, but when it came time to dance, Olga and Tatiana -- shut away for so long in the seclusion of Alexander Palace -- realized they didn't know a soul.
"I've never liked St. Petersburg." Mamma glanced down, straightening her ivory gloves at the elbow, her face hidden by the salt-spray of feathers that topped her hat. "A bog, your father calls it... why Peter chose to build his city here, I'll never understand."
The truly splendid Winter Palace in St. Petersburg - now the Hermitage Museum - was the site of many official functions for the Last Romanovs, not least of which was Nicholas II's official declaration of war on Germany in 1914. In 1905, the square in front of the Winter Palace was the site of the Bloody Sunday massacre, when soldiers fired on unarmed protesters who'd come to the Winter Palace to present a petition to the Tsar. When the smoke cleared, an estimated 1,000 people had been killed by Nicholas's Imperial Guard, but the protesters, unaware that Nicholas was in Tsarskoe Selo and knew nothing of the day's events, assumed Nicholas had given the order and blamed him for the carnage. The next day, a strike swept through Russia, resulting in the 1905 Revolution - and though the Revolution was quelled by Nicholas's signing of the October Manifesto and the formation of the State Duma, the events of Bloody Sunday changed Nicholas forever in the eyes of his people.
The ward smelled of contradictions, the antiseptic tang of disinfectant combined with the earthy scent of unwashed men; the freshly laundered cotton of bedsheets and bandages undercut by an iron whiff of blood. In each ward, cots were lined one by one beneath the ancient eyes of Mamma's gilded icons, brought down from the palace; from the common room down the hall, strains of a string quartet echoed from the horn of an ancient gramophone.
The Annexe Hospital was created as an overflow space to serve wounded officers during the First World War. Converted out of an outbuilding originally intended for infectious patients, the Annexe, with its small wards and well-heeled patients, was considered a suitable space for Olga, Tatiana, and their mother Alexandra to train and serve as Red Cross nurses. All three passed their courses (trained under the illustrious Dr. Vera Gedroits), but Tatiana in particular excelled as a nurse, going on to assist Dr. Gedroits in complicated surgeries. Olga, meanwhile, found the work too mentally taxing - instead, she became invaluable as a ward sister, helping patients with more day to day tasks. It was at the Annexe, too, where Olga met and fell in love with Dmitri Shakh-Bagov - a young man she called Mitya ("my darling").
Felix Yusupov's palace sparkled in the noon sunlight, its marigold facade set back from the steep granite embankment of the Moika River. Inside, Felix and Irina's apartments were sumptuously decorated, the monochromatic design of each room putting Olga in mind of the spectacular jewels that sat in the Yusupov family vault: citrine in the ballroom and amethyst in the dining room; emerald in the library and sapphire in the sitting room.
Moika Palace was the St. Petersburg home of the Yusupov family. Beautiful and butter yellow, it contained more than 40,000 works of art prior to the Russian revolution, and contained, well, palatial apartments, including Felix and his wife Irina's jewel-toned rooms. But the mansion's basement contains its most infamous room: a small cellar where Felix Yusupov and Dmitri Pavlovich lured Grigori Rasputin to his death.
Alexander Palace (again)
Olga opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling, the clock on the mantel betraying, with its mournful ticking, the fact that she'd slept long past breakfast. She detangled herself from her covers, unsurprised to find that Tatiana had gotten up and dressed without waking her. A year ago, Olga would have chastised herself for falling victim to the sin of idleness, but now, there was no reason to wake early. Olga's work ethic meant nothing anymore: not to a palace frozen in time.
After Nicholas II abdicated at Stavka in March 1917, he was informed that his family had been imprisoned at Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo - their home and favourite royal residence. Though the news surely came as a comfort to Nicholas, knowing that his family had been allowed to remain in familiar surroundings, he was shocked upon his return from the front to find the palace a much changed place: the electricity had been remporarily shut off, and many of the palace servants had chosen to leave rather than be placed under house arrest with the imperial family. Still, the Romanovs made the best of their situation, planting a vegetable garden in the palace grounds and watching Alexei's collection of Pathe films - until in response to an attempted coup by the Bolsheviks, the Provisional Government moved the family farther from the capital.
A movement between the houses caught Olga's eye: there, beside a low-slung building, a woman tugged at the hand of her small child. Her colourful dress and headscarf marked her as a peasant - Olga recognized the style from portraits that hung in the halls of the Catherine Palace, portraits that Papa had walked past with a gleam in his eye. The real Russia, he'd say quietly, and as a child Olga hadn't understood what he meant. Even now, the traditional Russian dress looked foreign to her, more accustomed as she was to the corsets and waistcoats of European fashion.
Pokrovskoe is a small Siberian village best known as the home of Grigori Rasputin. During his early days as Alexandra's confidante, Rasputin became something of a curiosity amongst the St. Petersburg elite; consequently, the village became a pilgrimage site for Rasputin's followers, so much so that Rasputin built the only two-storey house in the village for overnight guests. During the Romanovs' last voyage down the Tura River, Alexandra allegedly commented that Rasputin had predicted that she would visit his hometown once in her life; watching it slide by from the deck of her steamship prison, the former Empress had no doubt expected it would be under vastly different circumstances.
Without the usual complement of housemaids to keep on top of the cleaning, the sunlight that streamed through Freedom House's picture windows caught on streaks in the unwashed glass. Dust, tracked inside from the hemmed-in courtyard, settled into the crevices of every room, clouding up when they sank into cushions and fading the blankets and carpets they'd shipped in from Alexander Palace, fine materials that ought to have glimmered in the fading season's sun.
The Governor's Mansion in Tobolsk - ironically named Freedom House during the Russian Revolution - is the second of the three houses that served as prisons for the Imperial Family. Built in the 1790s by a successful merchant, the house had large rooms but, critically, a terrible heating system which rendered it frigid during the dark Siberian winters. During the Romanovs' imprisonment, the home played host to forty five retainers, as well as to a regiment of Revolutionary soldiers and the family itself. The Romanovs left in April 1918.
Ipatiev House was immense and charmless, a heavy, hulking structure carved into the side of a sloping hill. As Olga climbed out of the lorry, she took in the building: only its top windows were visible above the double fence that had been built around the perimeter, its roof slick with rain. She watched Matveev's narrow back as he led her and her siblings to the door. What reason did they have to bring Mamma and Papa to Ekaterinburg rather than Moscow, after all? She eyed the mansion, unwilling to look at the guards that flanked her path - with a jolt, she realized that all the windowpanes had been painted over with white.
Ipatiev House was the last of the Romanovs' residences. Located in Ekaterinburg, a small city in the Ural Mountains, Ipatiev House -- known by the Bolsheviks as the House of Special Purpose -- was large and foreboding, with painted-out windows and a double-height fence. Here, the Romanovs met their final fate, in a basement room in the early morning hours of July 17, 1919, along with several members of their household. The house was demolished in 1977; the Church on the Blood was built where the house once stood.
Rave Reviews for Turnbull's Debut Novel
“Brimming with scandal and an equal amount of heart…a sweeping yet intimate look at the lives of some of history’s most notorious figures from Vanderbilts to the Prince of Wales… A must-read.”
New York Times bestselling author of When We Left Cuba and Next Year in Havana