«Although I was a champion Russian vodka drinker, these days I actually prefer French champagne!»
By Kristina Moskalenko
What did you do during history lessons at school? I used to draw moustache or glasses on portraits of kings and queens in textbooks. In other words — history was often quite boring for me. But it is different when you meet history in flesh, hear what “history” thinks, see how “history” lives… and here she is, HRH Olga Romanoff at her homely best; residing within her 33 roomed mansion.
33 rooms is the size of the Provender House in the charming Kent countryside, where our “history” lives — descendant of the Russian Royal Tsardom, the Romanov’s family, HRH Princess Olga Andreevna Romanoff. She’s invited “Russian Roulette” to discuss her upcoming book and eccentric childhood; the sumptuousness of Russian balls; living with horses and dogs at Provender House; her terrible taste in TV and men and how she was a put forward as a candidate to be the bride of the Prince of Wales, Charles himself!
After a walk through 13th century opulent chambers, dining rooms and lounges, we pass as in a time tunnel through to 18th century drawing rooms and 19th century music chambers, dressing rooms and bedroom suites. With little irony, the Princess and her beloved dogs preferred to settle in a cosy warm kitchen. Olga then presented me with her cordial treats: plump grapes, mature cheese, soft bread and delicious pate.
Would you like a glass of wine or a glass of water? You can have either?” — HRH broached tactfully.
Her slender athletic figure had dressed down in simple jeans and a turtleneck.
“Lots of people expect a Princess to wear a tiara every day at home. People are peculiar,” she laughed. “I get up at 6:30 — 7am, go out and deal with my two ponies, go push the wheel barrow, pick up horse poo, come in, have breakfast with the dogs, take them for a walk, come back, do exercises and so on. Five times a year I get scrubbed up, use a make up artist and squeeze into a ball-gown. I only do five balls a year, so this is ok. I like being with my friends, I like the fact that some of my children occasionally scrub up and come to the ball with me. I am quite fond of the Admiral Lord West of Spithead at the Russian Debutante Ball in London, he and his wife are very jolly” she smiled. “It is a good night out and I find it good fun.”
Olga sighed, poured herself some wine and presented me with an order: “Please help yourself. This is Camembert and a rather nice Scottish cheese I found, and a quite nice pate. Please, keep eating, it is local. I like the marmalade”.
Here I must salute the local producers within Kent! Their produce is ripe, delicious and colourful, even more so when served by a Princess, accentuating its pedigree.
“We used to spend a lot of time at the Dorchester and Claridge’s, when I was young,” she continued in a voice that would sounded like an experienced musician who could play a dramatic tune yet could break into a light-hearted, humorous spring at a moment’s notice. “My mother used to say it was a good value. All these places have changed now, and are not the same. The Ritz used to be wonderful for tea yet now has so many extra tables and tourists. Nowadays, one can hardly walk across the room. It lost its je ne sais quoi; filled with quite dreary people. In the past, it was always well dressed people looking attractive, now they allow people in jeans, shorts and mini-skirts. The end of an era of glamour. That’s it!”
Really? No glamour in the Dorchester? Princesses surely know best? So I took pause, agreed, and thought I would google historic photos of Dorchester in its heydey, when I got back to the office.
Nadine Sylvia Ada McDougall (1908–2000) / (C) National Portrait Gallery, London
Princess Olga Romanoff is the sole daughter of the marriage of Nadine Sylvia Ada McDougall and Prince Andrei Alexandrovich of Russia. The Princess’s father was son of Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich of Russia and his wife Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna. In simple terms, this makes Olga’s father, the nephew of Tsar Nicholas II. Olga was born in 1950 in England, when her mother was 42 and her father had just turned 56.
“I had both my Coming Out Ball and Wedding Breakfast, at the Dorchester. My Debutante Ball was in 1968 and I remember I was given a choice by my parents of having a ball, or, building a swimming pool, here at the Provender House. I chose the ball, because I knew I would not be living here all my life so the pool would have been wasted. I knew my mother would not go near it, or my father would not go in it. And I also thought a ball would be rather good fun. Indeed, so did my mother! So everybody my parents owed anything to was there. I was into the novelist Georgette Heyer, so it became a Regency costume ball. The Regency costume on very thin women, like I was, looked perfectly fine. If you got up to a size 14, you looked bad but if you were size 16, like my mother was, you looked terrible. However men looked wonderful. In that era they wore buckskin breeches and boots up to the knee. My mother did not like clubs so we had a dance floor built downstairs which was obviously very dark. She asked to turn the lights up, because she wasn’t having any “hanky panky” on the dance floor. It was a bit tiresome but my mother was into virginity — I woudn’t have been a good bargaining chip if I wasn’t a virgin — so all the time the lights kept going on. That’s what people were like back then. It was like going to Ascot. In the Royal Enclosure there used to be a certain code: you were not allowed to be divorced, bankrupt or ex-bankrupt or have been in jail. Nowadays, you get all three. They had to change the law about ‘divorcees’ when the Queen’s sister got divorced, didn’t they?”
As for Prince Charles’ proposition of proposing to Princess Olga, once again, this was the handiwork of her mother, Nadine Sylvia Ada McDougall.
“Harpers Bazaar did a section in 1967 to find a suitable foreign Princess for Prince Charles. I was one of five, or six. There was also a girl from Luxembourg. I was, in fact, the wrong religion — I am Russian Orthodox — so I was out in the first round.” She then reflected and laughed, with the carefree nature of an adolescence, “Why on earth, would anyone have wanted to marry me then, let alone now? I had only met the man twice in my life and it would never have worked. I am too selfish, opinionated, and I don’t put up with shite. He would not have wanted to marry me, plus I liked bad boys.” Her mischievous smile now was wide as a moat. “To go for a nice man like Charles, with all his responsibilities, would never have crossed my mind, although my mother would have been just so pleased… So, no way. It was mother’s pipe-dream. I always did admire Prince Charles and Camilla. I thought their publicity as a result of Diana was most unfortunate. I don’t believe one should wash dirty linen in public. It was bad for Camila, and I imagine it was hell for poor old Prince Charles. By the way, Diana wasn’t a Princess. It annoys me enormously when people refer to her as “Princess Diana”, because, in fact, she was the Princess of Wales.”
According to Olga’s understanding, you only are Princess by Christian name, if one’s father was a Prince. Olga’s mother was Princess Andrew, not Princess Nadine. Therefore, Olga was Princess Olga and Diana would actually have been the Princess of Wales or Princess Charles. “To call her Princess Diana is totally incorrect and annoys me”, a bemused Olga exhaled.
“You know, some people buy titles these days. However, what they might not know is that these titles are not real” said Olga, as she instructed her cute, over excited dog Ronnie to climb down and away from the exciting smells on the table. “I mean, the title might be real, but it means nothing. The titles being sold off are defunct, the families are, generally dead, so it makes no difference. These titles aren’t used anymore. Some people in Britain have more than one title, so they sell off a few and keep the main one. It doesn’t bother them, at all. Hah! That’s an idea., but I can’t sell mine no! It’s my identity.”
The Royal jewellery of Romanov House is also an important part of Princess Olga’s identity.
“When I travel in Russia, I do not feel sour grapes because I think all these palaces should belong to me. After all, I would not have been born, if there had not been Revolution. My father would still be married to his first wife, he wouldn’t have met my mother. Occasionally I have a curious feeling in England when I see Romanov jewels on other people’s necks. My grandmother, Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna of Russia, the elder daughter of Emperor Alexander III of Russia and Empress Maria Feodorovna of Russia (née Princess Dagmar of Denmark), in 1919 managed to bring some of the family jewellery to the UK. Most of the jewellery was left in Russia. My grandmother auctioned her jewels in the 1940’s, before I was born. They was bought by George V’s wife, Queen Mary. Which means, occasionally, on a Royal family neck, one sees something one recognises.”
How would Olga recognise them, if the auction was before she was born?
“My grandmother had an inventory book and did paintings herself, lifesize. I had it for some time, but had to sell the book. I had to sell a lot of heirlooms to be able to repair this house.”
From time to time Princess Olga sold parts of her family archive to keep this 13th century house from dilapidating, and keep it maintained. However, there are precious heirlooms she will never part with. Among them — a celebrated etching pen her grandfather used to write her father’s birth date on the window of the Winter Palace.
“My father was born in the Winter Palace. When I first went to St Petersburg in 1998 I felt Russian. My father had told me about St Petersburg, it felt like home. It was better than expected. So when in Russia, I feel Russian. The Russians I know suffer melancholia. I suffer too. I hate winters and autumn. Although I do not fall into a depression as such, I feel a tinge sometimes. Papa suffered it badly. I can’t say a thing in Russian, I find English hard enough. I know four words in Russian: Da, Net, Spasibo, Dushka. Papa called me “Dushka”. Before the Revolution that was how you addressed your children, or, lover. It’s like “Darling”. Papa spoke five languages … they used to say about Romanoff men that they could speak five languages and yet were silent in them all.
They were not great talkers. I love cossack music and I was brilliant in vodka shots! I could do six at once. My daughter and I had competitions at balls. Too old for that, now. Champagne is what I adore these days.”
Having done with the wine, we switch to coffee with dates. When we steer towards the topic of age, Olga recalled her childhood.
— My book “Princess Olga, a Wild and Barefoot Romanov” comes out in October. It is about my wacky childhood and differentiates between running around barefoot here, wild, with my governess, to my father’s childhood, born and bred in the Winter Palace with the pomp and circumstance of old Russia. For the first three years of his life he was dressed as a girl. From the age of four Father dressed in naval uniform and went from a lovely warm nursery with an English nanny to a cold dormitory with a tutor, a hard bed and navy-like treatment. He went from comfort to discomfort, quickly. My mother had had a terrible time at boarding school from the age of 8. This was just after World War I. That school sounded like hell. They were not allowed to hold onto railings, because they would put fingermarks on the polished wood, so they had to walk in the middle of the stairs. They had to carry buckets of water in all weather, because they were used like slaves. They lived in a dormitory with no heating. Bear in mind, these were delicate young children. My mother had terrible chilblains on her hands and feet which were bound with rags, so she could not move properly. She had weak lungs as a result, and was always getting pneumonia. Terrible cruelty, but at the time they thought it was the thing to do.”
Her experiences made Olga’s mother swear if she had a girl, she would not let her go to a boarding school.
“In the 1950’s it was eccentric. I had governesses and tutors come to teach me how to write and play tennis. When kids of aristocrats were tiny, they would have a nursery governess, until 7-8 years of age, From 8-11 they would go to the local primary or village school, at 11-12 years of age they were sent to boarding school. In England, all children went to school, except me. All my friends went to school, but I was at home. At times it was lovely, at times it was lonely. I asked my mother to go school, and the answer would be: “No, I want you to stay at home, it is a better education and you wouldn’t like school”. When my daughter started her primary school in Scotland, she told the teachers her mommy never went to school, and they thought that I was a special needs individual. So when I attended parents evening, for the first time, to see my daughter’s work, there was relief from the teachers that I looked normal, even though they suspected there might be huge flaws underneath! After WWII, unless a child had severe problems, it was unheard for kids not to go to school.”
Olga had four children. The youngest did not survive. It is hard for her to talk about this, but she does, while she speaks about her second son Francis Mathew. “When my son Fran took part in the Ukrainian “The Batchelor” TV Show in 2012, he lived in Kiev for 18 months and I used to stay with him. I agreed to go to Crimea to take part in the documentary about my family’s palaces, because I had actually never seen them. They took me to Livadia Palace, which was interesting. We got kicked out of the chapel in Livadia, because I was lighting candles and saying a prayer while the crew was filming me. Out came a priest from behind the altar who was livid with me. Massandra Palace, I found fascinating, as it was built by three different architects. It had a real English rose garden. The house I wanted to see most was my grandfather’s place, “Ai-Todor”. Upon arrival, it had a huge wooden fence all the way around and an enormous gate with a little door. We rang and rang until a babushka came out and told us off. I then asked to see the director, and I explained to him who I was, and was allowed in. It had been turned into an abused children’s home. Upon entry, we walked into the woods and saw many graves. There used to be a chapel here, where my father and his first wife married under house arrest. When entered the house, the rooms were packed with bunks for children, looking quite happy. In the dining area we saw the old frescos which had the same decor. It was amazing. Now, this place is a spa. We went to walk on the path between Ai-Todor and Livadia, and found a stray dog, it was trying to lick me. I thought: “God, that is all I need — to get rabies on a path, where my family had long walks and talks”. It was May and very cold, the crew kept apologising for the weather. So British…” she laughed.
So what about Britishness of Olga herself? Born and raised in a quiet Kent, what typical British stereotypes apply to her?
“I like reading newspapers and watching TV with a dog on either side. I like soap-operas. I have watched “East Enders” since its very beginning. I find it always nice to see people far worse than yourself, makes one feel better. My children think my taste is appalling. Here is photo of me at one of the balls with a fur. I used to quite like that photograph, but my daughter said: “You can’t used it for your book, ‘cause you look like a drag queen”. So I didn’t. I fox hunt. When I lived in Firenze, I had a boyfriend, Alfio Rapisardi, now 93. I went back and saw him 14 years ago. He planned to come over and see me fox-hunt. However, he could not eventually make it, so I send him photos and he made a painting of me on my little black horse. He was famous for his horses and nudes in the 60’s and 70’s, they were all over the restaurant ceilings in Italy, a bit like Michelangelo. In the 30 years between knowing him and seeing him his nudes have literally become pornographic. There I am wearing weird colours, but I always say: “It’s lucky I am clothed, because otherwise this picture would have had to stay in the trunk… forever!”.
When Olga reminisces about the men in her life, it suddenly feels hot in her kitchen, so she suggested we get some fresh air at the garden, up to three acres of it!
“My father planted this walnut tree from the nut in 1964 and see how beautifully it’s grown! The squirrels planted the other walnut trees” she laughs. Pa was such brilliant gardener and chef. As we have three acres of wilderness, we often have events here. It is a nice, peaceful and serene location, because small children and dogs can’t run astray.
We can prepare any type of banquet, I actually have my team of caterers.”
As Olga discussed her event planning, I notice the house was becoming a bit lurchy, or lop-sided.
“Well, they started building it 700 years ago. The basement was not there then. This means I have had to keep an eye on it and this means more running costs. As a result I invite paying guests to spend weekends here. I hire a chef and a ‘Smile’ ! Ha, just imagine my great grandmother, when she lived here, had as many as 20 people here as full-time staff — butlers, kitchen maids , you name it!”
With this last thought she bundled her dogs in to the passenger trunk of her old jalopy, and drove me to the station. As we engaged in these whirlwind memories of Romanov past, of its golden hey-dey, a beautiful world of manners and society, peculiarities and eccentricity she got carried away discussing her memories of the golden pedigree of the times and accidentally dropped me off at the wrong station. As intriguing, eccentric, and funny as her ancestors, Princess Olga: an true Romanov.
Buy «Princess Olga, A Wild and Barefoot Romanov: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Princess-Olga-Wild-Barefoot-Romanov/dp/085683517X
HRH PRINCESS OLGA ROMANOFF ESTATE: http://www.provenderhouse.co.uk
Provender House, Provender Lane, Norton,
Nr Faversham, Kent ME13 0ST
Telephone: 07773 790872
Photos: Egor Piskov, Kristina Moskalenko