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Court Circular

The Last Grand Duchess Final Cover.jpg

The Last Grand Duchess

Available in Hardcover, Paperback, Audiobook,

and eBook!

The saga of the Romanovs is a long one, and it's no surprise that a book about Grand Duchess Olga would have a fairly extensive cast of characters. Here, you can learn more about the historical figures involved in the final years of Imperial Russia and in the early days of the Russian Revolution. 



A flash of movement caught her eye and she looked up: Papa was sitting on the greenhouse roof, staring across at Freedom House's windows. She wondered at his insistence on wearing his colonel's uniform... what purpose did it serve, now that Lenin had signed the Brest Litovsk Treaty? Maybe he was the only uniformed officer left in all of Russia: the last one fighting, from his lonely perch atop a glass roof. 

Tsar Nicholas II was the last imperial rule of Russia, and to say he was unsuited to his role as emperor of the world's largest country would be an understatement. Naive and highly suggestible, yet convinced of his own importance as an autocrat, Nicholas was a reactionary ruler -- better suited to the life of a gentleman farmer than as a head of government. In 1905, the events of Bloody Sunday led to a revolution which transformed Nicholas from an absolute ruler to a constitutional one, however, Nicholas constantly chafed against the restrictions imposed upon him by his government. But for all his faults, Nicholas was a devoted husband and father: when the government began talking about the political importance of marrying Olga to the head of some other European power, Nicholas insisted that his daughter be allowed to marry for love. 



Olga propped a pillow beneath Mamma's head. "You're welcome," she said, but before she could turn away Mamma gripped her wrist. 

"I've been a good mother to you, haven't I?" she asked, staring up at Olga with sudden clarity. "To you and your sisters? To Alexei?"


See that look of world-weariness on Alexandra Feodorovna's face? Despite the fact that she'd been known in childhood as "Sunny" for her cheery disposition, that morose expression had become quite permanent by the early 1900s, and who can blame her? Her one duty to Russia was to bear sons, and by the standards of the time she'd failed: she'd produced four beloved daughters, but no heir to the throne. In 1901, she turned to faith healers in the hopes of bearing a son, and in 1904, it seemed to work: she gave birth to Alexei, the long-awaited Tsarevich of Russia. Unbeknownst to the rejoicing public, however, Alexei suffered from a secret affliction - one which the world's leading doctors seemed incapable of curing. Desperate to allay her son's suffering and secure the Romanov dynasty, Alexandra turned to a controverisal healer who would eventually seal her fate as the Martyred Empress of Russia: Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin.



There, in that ballroom, was the life she was destined to lead -- the life of a grand duchess. Her life, if she had the courage to reach out and take it. She'd spent too long living on the margins of her parents' expectations: on the margins of her brother's illness, and on the margins of her own comfort. Her life was here, in the glittering fray. 

Eldest daughter of Nicholas and Alexandra, the last Emperor and Empress of Russia, Olga was known to be passionate and headstrong -- truly a woman ahead of her time. Though well aware of her duty as a daughter of the tsar, Olga exacted a promise from her parents when she became of marriageable age: that she would be allowed to marry for love. Little did she know that her quest for love would be interrupted by the most seismic event of a century: the First World War.



Across the room, Tatiana was already speaking to the guests at her table, laughing and smiling as she doctored her tea with milk. She looked so at ease: though the rest of the table was dressed in the latest finery from Europe, Tatiana's plain dress accentuated her beauty, making her fit in amongst their casual elegance. How did she make it look so easy?


Olga's second sister and closest confidante, Tatiana (known as "The Governess" by her sisters) was sociable and vivacious, and longed for a life outside the strict social circles defined by her mother. She was a tireless supporter of the war effort, heading up multiple charitable causes whilst also taking on a full nursing schedule at the Annexe hospital. Strong willed, and considered the most beautiful of her sisters, Tatiana hated being reminded of her imperial status: more than once, she rebuked Palace retainers for referring to her as "Your Imperial Highness." 



Maria crouched next to her, attempting to fasten her sash as she watched Anastasia's progress. "Can worms fall in love?" Olga stifled a smile. Of her sisters, only fourteen-year-old Maria could ask the question and mean it wholeheartedly. 

Nicholas and Alexandra's middle child, and one-half of the "Little Pair", Maria was universally known as the sweetest of the Romanov daughters -- so much so that when she once stole biscuits from the tea-tray, Nicholas remarked that it was a relief to know that she was only a human child... not as much an angel as she appeared. Though she was known disparagingly by her family as "Fat Marie", Maria was a true beauty, with luminous blue eyes and striking features: indeed, Louis Mountbatten, Admiral of the British Fleet, so wanted to marry her as a young man that he kept a picture of her by his bedside until his own death in 1979. 



They walked down the hallway, still arguing over Anastasia's worms. She was determined to create a worm empire, Anastasia told them: a race of worms so intelligent they could unlock doors... Olga, linking arms with Maria, smiled. With her irrepressible energy and wild ideas, Anastasia had long since earned her nickname Shvybzik: The Imp.  

Olga's youngest sister Anastasia is the best known of the Romanov children today because of the enchanting animated movie about her. But in her lifetime, Anastasia was the family spark-plug -- mischevious and witty, she was known as "The Imp" by her siblings for her habit of playing practical jokes. Anastasia is also widely regarded as an  originator of the selfie -- like all her sisters, she was a hobby photographer, and in 1913 she took a photo of herself in the mirror using her boxwood brownie. Do yourself a favour and google "Anastasia Selfie" and check out the photos of her acting like a typical Insta-teenager. 



Alexei picked up the spade. "Need help?" he said brightly. Over the past few weeks, Alxei had finally recovered from the measles that had kept him bedridden for so long. Pale though he'd become, Olga was relieved to see him in the garden, ready to stretch his growign muscles. He began turning the earth, his gaunt cheeks flushed with effort but his expression serene, his movements steady as he braced himself against the spade. 

Alexei was, of course, Nicholas II's heir apparent, but he was also Olga's adored only brother. Solemn and thoughtful, Alexei resented the fact that he was not allowed to roughhouse with boys his age, but his parents kept him on a short leash for a very good reason: Alexei had been born with hemophilia, a painful and lifethreatening condition known as the "royal disease" for being passed down by Queen Victoria's children through Europe's imperial families. But despite his parents' attempts to keep him safe, Alexei frequently injured himself, either by accident or through his own restlessness, and the resulting "bleeding attacks" were so painful that he spent months on end bedridden and in agony. Only one man seemed capable of healing Alexei: Father Grigori Rasputin, a wandering holy man whose electric gaze and deep voice seemed to put Alexei in a state of calm. To  Alexei's parents, Rasputin was nothing short of a miracle worker... to the rest of Russia -- unaware of Alexei's condition -- Rasputin was seen as something else entirely.

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She wore a high-necked tea gown, her dark hair pinned up in an elegant pompadour with cotton-ball wisps escaping at her temples. She carried an elaborately embroidered black shawl with an endlessly trailing fringe, and she repositioned it in the crooks of her elbows as she met Tatiana's admiring gaze. 

"Magnificent, isn't it?" she said, holding out her arm to let the light sparkle on the jet beading. "Made by blind nuns. But I keep tripping over the ends of the silly thing, it's far too long. I'll take my own eye out if I'm not careful." 

Nicholas II's youngest sister Olga Alexandrovna took an active interest in expanding her nices' social circles, hosting tea parties and social gatherings with St. Petersburg's bright young things in the hopes of coaxing Olga and Tatiana out of their shells. Aunt Olga, whose 15 year marriage to Peter Alexandrovich of Oldenberg was cordial but passionless,  trained as a combat nurse during the First World War, serving in one of Russia's medical "flying columns", where she was awarded the Order of St. George for personal gallantry.



Grandmamma took Olga and Tatiana by the hand, her eyes bright. "I want you both to have fun," she said, squeezing firmly, and Olga felt a rush of affection for her glittering grandmother. "Some of Russia's most important families are here, and I want you to meet them all. You belong in this room, the both of you. You belong here, with us." 

Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna -- known as 'Society's Empress' in contrast to her reclusive son and daughter in law - was a force of nature. Born Princess Dagmar of Denmark, Maria married Alexander III and soon  impressed Russian society with her quick grasp of the Russian language, her impeccable fashion sense, and charisma. Philanthropic and social, Maria was beloved as Empress, and utterly devastated at the untimely loss of her husband; particularly given her tumultuous relationship with her son Nicholas II's wife, Alexandra of Hesse. After the revolution, Maria escaped to Crimea, and thence to Copenhagen; she never gave up hope of rescuing her son and his family, and staunchly refused to believe that they'd been assassinated by the Bolsheviks.  



Dmitri was incorrigible. People had been predicting their engagement for years - the handsome grand duke and the beautiful grand duchess, destined to be. Both recovering from heartbreak; both leading lights for the new generation of Russian aristocracy. Could tonight be the night they finally reached an understanding? Olga looked around the ballroom: the strangers here certainly hoped so. 

Like his best friend Felix Yusupov, Dmitri Pavlovich participated in the assassination of Grigori Rasputin, seeing it as the only way to save the Romanovs from his toxic influence. Due to his family connection to the Tsar Dmitri was banished to the Persian front as punishment rather than arrested, a move which saved him in the end: when Revolution broke out, he was able to escape to England and thence to France, where he had a brief and torrid affair with designer Coco Chanel. 




Side by side, Felix and Irina Yusupov sparkled. They resembled a couple from one of Aunt Olga's fashion magazines, their world-weary expressions makign them look as though their young marriage had already exhausted any novelty it might briefly have held. 

Felix Yusupov is best known for participating in a certain political assassination (more about that in THE LAST GRAND DUCHESS), but did you know he was also one of Russia's wealthiest men before the war? And that he owned a pet macaw? And that he occasionally frequented Moscow's nightclubs dressed in his brother's mistresses dresses and his mother's jewels?  Historians are divided on whether Felix and his best friend Dmitri were romantically involved, but Felix's wedding - to Olga's cousin Irina - was the last Imperial wedding before the fall of the Romanovs. 



He held her hand a moment too long, stroking the back of her palm with his thumb, and for a split second the commotion around them melted away. Still standing in the landau's footwell, she was half a head taller than Pavel: were she to shift, ever so slightly, he would be able to wrap his arms around her and lift her out of the carriage. 

Olga met Pavel Vronov on board the Standart, her father's magnificent yacht, in 1913, and fell head over heels for the junior officer - so much so that her mother, knowing the match to be impossible, arranged for Pavel to marry a woman of a more suitable rank. But before the heartbreak, Pavel and Olga enjoyed a romance beneath the Crimean stars, Olga joining Pavel as he performed his duties on the boat. More than one retainer suspects that Olga and Pavel arranged to "meet" when Olga and her family left the ship for Livadia Palace - every morning, she could be seen at the balcony, watching through binoculars at a white-suited sailor staring back from on deck.  When he married, Olga wished him well despite the heartbreak, writing in her diary: "May God grant him happiness, my beloved."




 She looked at Carol, waiting for the telltale quickening in her breast - but was it nerves that made her stomach drop as she watched him drain another glass of wine? Were Carol to ask for her hand, Olga wasn't sure what the answer would be. 

Carol II of Romania was seriously considered as a love match for Olga Romanov, but Olga and Carol pretty much despised each other on sight: spoiled and imperious, with a long list of mistresses (and more than one illegitimate child), Carol was too fast for Olga, who once deliberately sat out in the sun to ruin her complexion before one of his visits to the Russian court. When he ascended to the Romanian throne in 1930 in a coup d'etat (after he'd been taken out of the line of succession thanks to a scandalous affair), Carol was corrupt and decadent, who developed a cult of personality that purported him to be descended from God. 

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She pictured Dr. Gedroits' gray eyes flashing with disapproval: with her curt demeanour and preference for men's clothing, Princess Vera Gedroits had not become Russia's first female military surgeon without adopting some measure of ferocity in the way she treated her staff. 


Dr Princess Vera Gedroits was the first female military surgeon in Russian history, the first female professor of surgery, and the first openly gay woman to serve as the Imperial Physician. Dr. Gedroits was an expert on abdominal wounds -- something that other military surgeons had thought impossible -- and developed a life-saving operation for treating abdominal wounds that was later adopted by the Russian Army and the Russian Society of Military Doctors. They presented as male, used male pronouns, and pursued romantic relationships with women, none of which seems to have limited their illustrious career. 1909, they were invited by Empress Alexandra to become the senior resident physician at the Tsarskoe Selo Court Hopsital and attending physician for the Imperial children. When World War I broke out, Dr. Gedroits trained the Empress, Olga and Tatiana as Red Cross nurses, and soon met the partner she would have for the rest of her life - Countess Maria Nirod, another nurse who served in the Annexe hospital alongside Olga. 



Though most of the officers who passed through the Annexe maintained high levels of decorum, some occasionally descended into bawdiness, heard through the walls, in the common room. Clearly, such bawdiness didn't extend to Shakh-Bagov: he looked mortified at the thought of presuming anything inappropriate. The thought amused Olga. The grand duchess, scandalizing the soldier. 

Dmitri Shakh-Bagov ("Mitya") was Olga Romanov's last love. Mitya was a Georgian adjutant who came to the Annexe Hospital after being wounded in service to the Tsar. We don't know much about Mitya historically, but we know his name was Dmitri Shakh-Bagov: Mitya -- "Darling" -- was Olga's nickname for him. Mitya is mentioned in many eyewitness accounts of Olga's time as a Red Cross Nurse: indeed, one of the other nurses at the Annexe Hospital, Valentina Cheborateva, tells us that Mitya offered to assassinate Rasputin for Olga's sake.



Kerensky reached into his fraying jacket to pull out a cigarette and a box of matches. He fitted the cigarette into the corner of his mouth and struck a match against the side of the box -- a flame roared briefly to life, then sputtered before it reached the cigarette. His hands shook as he tried again, and failed to light it. With a noise of disgust, he pulled the cigarette from his lips, and Olga realized he was just as anxious as she felt. 

As Minister of Justice of the short-lived Provisional Government, Alexander Kerensky was responsible for the welfare of the ex-Tsar and his family during the months following the February Revolution. Prior to the Revolution, he'd been the leader of the socialist opposition in the State Duma, known for styming Nicholas II's conservative policies. Following Lenin's seizure of power, Kerensky fled to France, and later to the United States; he died in 1970 in New York City, one of the last witnesses to -- and key players of -- the Russian Revolution.



Alexei leaned close, his sleeve brushing against hers. "He's a criminal, did you know?" 

Olga scoffed. Short little Pankratov, with his milk-bottle glasses and puppy fat? "A bookkeeper for criminals, perhaps." 

Appointed Commissar of Freedom House - the Romanovs' residence-in-exile in Tobolsk - Vasily Pankratov was a revolutionary and member of Narodnaya Volya (The Peoples' Will), the group responsible for the assassination of Nicholas II's grandfather in 1881. Sentenced to 20 years' hard labour following the assassination, Pankratov spent 14 years in Schlisselberg Prison before being banished to Siberia for the end of his sentence.  



Unlike Matveev, who was still seething at the door, this guard was neither overawed at the sight of Papa nor apologetic; neither welcoming nor hostile. He stood, his gray jacket banded with red around his upper arm. His shoulders were rounder than Olga had expected, as though he spent his life bent over books rather than the barrel of a gun. To Olga, this man, with his thick goatee and arched eyebrows, exuded calm: a professional, unlikely to flinch under pressure, rather than a brute-strength soldier.


Bolshevik, revolutionary, and executioner. Yurovksy was in charge of Ipatiev House, the final residence of the Imperial family, and was tasked with executing Nicholas II and his family: whether with Lenin's knowledge or not, history's never been able to say conclusively.



Summoned from the four corners of the globe, the world's leading doctors strode through the halls of Alexander Palace confident that they could cure Alexei of the hemophilia attacks that struck him down with alarming regularity, but it was Father Grigori's prayers that pulled Alexei back from the brink -- Father Grigori, who stood vigil over Alexei long after the doctors had thrown up their hands in despair. No one could explain why Father Grigori succeeded where medical science failed, but to Olga and her family the answer was simple. It was faith -- pure, unwavering faith -- that allowed Father Grigori Rasputin to accomplish literal miracles. 

You know that face. Those eyes. You know him from the myths, the songs, the stories -- and of course, the movie. While he doesn't have a wisecracking bat sidekick, you can bet that Rasputin makes an appearance... meet him, along with the rest of the Imperial inner circle, in THE LAST GRAND DUCHESS. 

Rave Reviews for Turnbull's Sophomore Novel

“Turnbull's sweeping novel illuminates the fall of the Romanovs in an intimate and unforgettable tale that transports the reader to the heart of Imperial Russia. A poignant, engrossing story that historical fiction readers will love!”

Chanel Cleeton

New York Times bestselling author of  The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba and Next Year in Havana

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