Thanks to the classic animated movie, everyone and their uncle knows the story of Princess Anastasia, the daughter of the last Tsar of Russia. Often overlooked, but equally compelling is the story of her older sister Tatiana. Grand Duchess Tatiana Romanov’s life is a tale of glamour and tragedy and mystery. But more importantly, it is the tale of a fiercely compassionate woman who met a terrible fate. Read on to learn more of the joys and sorrows of a princess who became a saint.
Tatiana was born into the Romanovs, a dynasty that had ruled Russia for three hundred years. And no, she was not related to the James Bond character. Her father was Tsar Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia. She was his second daughter, after Olga. Her younger siblings were Anastasia, Maria, and Alexei. Her official title in English was “Grand Duchess,” though she was more like what we'd call a princess.
But as you'll see, this princess's life was no fairy tale.
From the moment Tatiana was born, her family expected her to be the image of a perfect royal—and by all accounts, she certainly looked the part. Tatiana was the most beautiful of the Tsar’s daughters, with auburn hair, striking gray eyes, and a pale complexion. People who met her often wrote that you could tell from just looking at Tatiana that she was a king’s daughter, based on the way she carried herself.
When the princess grew older, there were many suitors vying for her attention. Out of all the Tsar’s daughters, she looked the most like her mother Alexandra. But Tatiana Romanov wasn’t just a pretty face...
Princesses usually carry an elegant aura, but Tatiana Romanov was super glamorous, even compared to her siblings. She was the most stylish and fashionable of the Romanov children. People said that any dress Tatiana wore would instantly look amazing—in other words, the girl could slay. In addition to her excellent taste in clothes, she was also a skilled hairdresser. She would style her mother’s hair when there was no professional hairdresser available. However, in spite of her dazzling aesthetic sensibilities, the princess led a surprising lifestyle.
Tatiana Romanov’s family was the richest and most powerful in Russia. So it might surprise you to know that her parents didn't raise her with a glitzy, extravagant lifestyle. Her father made her sleep on a camp bed without pillows and only allowed her cold baths. The Romanovs wanted their children to be practical and sensible, and by all accounts they were successful.
Tatiana seemed to have it all: She had good looks, stylish clothes, and not to mention she was a literal princess. You would think that this would all go to a young girl’s head—but Tatiana was actually very humble. The princess hated terms like “your highness” or any other royal title. A lady in waiting once used that term while they were sitting at a table together. Tatiana responded by saying she was crazy for using such an over-the-top expression.
Tatiana Romanov had no ego at all, and in fact, she once wrote to her father: “I pray that God makes me a better person". Sadly, none of this would save her from her grim fate.
Tatiana Romanov was very serious about her faith. She studied theology intently, and would frequently read the Bible. Her faith inspired much of the humanitarian work that she would do later on, and the egalitarian way that she treated non-royalty. She insisted that people call her "Sister Romanova the Second". But while behind closed doors, Tatiana was the image of an ideal princess, sadly there were cracks in her perfection.
While her father Nicholas thought it was important to teach Tatiana the importance of responsibility and austerity, to a certain extent he had to shelter her from the outside world. As we will see later, being a princess was a dangerous job in Russia. Because of this, she had no clue what life was really like for everyday Russians. For example, she wasn't aware that people needed money to live; she thought that her governess’s salary was merely a present, rather than how she paid for groceries.
It was that kind of ignorance that doomed her family in the end, but for Tatiana at least, we can have some sympathy.
Tatiana’s parents named her after a character in Eugene Onegin, a verse novel by famous Russian author Alexander Pushkin. Like the girl in the novel, Tatiana had an older sister named Olga. Her fictitious namesake was a naive character, but intelligent and compassionate in a way that made her a heroine in Russia. Tatiana Romanov demonstrated throughout her life that she was quite worthy of that name.
There's one difference between the two of them though: In the novel, Tatiana got a happy ending.
Tatiana was particularly close with her elder sister Olga. The rest of the family referred to them as “the Big Pair". In their diaries, they called themselves “we 2". Conversely, their younger sisters Maria and Anastasia were “the Little Pair". The four sisters called themselves “OTMA,” which would’ve made a really cool band name. And if OTMA actually had been a Haim-style sister band, they had an obvious frontwoman…
All kids have a tendency to give each other mean nicknames, especially siblings. No one dared to give Tatiana a cruel moniker though. Her siblings called her “the governess” because she was both imperious and kind. The Romanov bunch made her their unofficial leader, in spite of the fact that she was not the eldest. She acted as a representative for them when they wanted to ask their parents for favors.
The beautiful Tatiana was the apple of her father's eye—but this was not always the case.
Though Tatiana ended up being her parents’ favorite, at first her birth caused them some nervousness. Her mother felt pressured to have a boy to carry on the Romanov name. When she saw that she had given birth to another girl, Queen Alexandra asked, “What will the nation say?” Russian law held that a woman could not be Queen (Tsarina) unless all male heirs were deceased.
Everyone heaved a sigh of relief when little Alexei was born a few years later. However, the future heir to the throne found himself in danger from the very start.
Like so many European royals in this period, Tatiana’s mother Alexandra was a descendant of England's Queen Victoria. This meant that Tatiana Romanov was related to another famous royal family. More pertinently, this also meant that she carried the gene for hemophilia. Tatiana was not a hemophiliac, but her mother was, and this condition was a danger for all of Alexandra’s children.
Tatiana Romanov’s parents managed to produce a male heir in 1904, and they named the child Alexei. But there was a problem that put Alexei’s fate, and that of the whole kingdom, into jeopardy. As his mother feared, the boy was a severe hemophiliac. It put a great deal of stress on Queen Alexandra, but she was often too bedridden to care for her son. Therefore that duty fell to Tatiana, as the “governess” of the group, to look after her ailing brother.
But little Alexei’s condition kept on getting worse, and he suffered from internal hemorrhaging. Alexei needed help, and the Queen was willing to accept any help at all—even from sinister sources.
In 1907, Tatiana’s mother asked for help from a man by the name of Grigori Rasputin. Yes, the same Rasputin made famous by countless movies and one 80s dance group. Rasputin was a holy man who led the Tsar’s family to believe he could perform miracles, kind of like an early 1900s faith healer. While there were a number of...unpleasant rumors about this man, they were willing to try anything. Would it pay off?
(Spoiler Alert: No, it wouldn't. It went so, so badly)
Tatiana and the rest of her family were astonished to find out that Rasputin was in fact the real deal...or so it seemed. After Rasputin prayed over Alexei, the bleeding stopped. And this wasn’t a fluke: Rasputin did the same thing again in 1912. Historians are still skeptical that he actually had healing powers (you think?). However, as far as the Romanovs were concerned, this man was a bonafide miracle worker.
Rasputin would come to exercise a powerful influence over Tatiana Romanov’s entire family—with chilling consequences.
After Rasputin saved her brother’s life, Tatiana was eternally grateful to the holy man. She became good friends with him, and even kept a notebook of his sayings. By the time Russia had entered WWI in 1914, Rasputin was everyone’s BFF. It made sense for Tatiana Romanov, as a person of faith, to believe that her brother improved by spiritual means. But soon some evidence would come to light that her friend was not who he said he was…
Tatiana’s governess was suspicious of the holy man. Sofia Ivanovna Tyutcheva claimed that she had seen Rasputin touching and caressing the princesses, and hanging around the nursery while the girls were in their nightgowns. And it was worse than that; there is evidence that Rasputin may have made inappropriate advances on one of the children’s nurses.
Queen Alexandra ignored these objections. She was still enamored with her son’s savior—but then things started to get even weirder…
Rasputin became increasingly close with the queen and her family. The Russian people began to notice his influence over Tsar Nicholas, and as casualties from the conflict with Germany mounted, they blamed the Tsar for Russia’s misfortunes. Additionally, the Romanovs became the subjects of terrible rumors, and the word on the street was that Rasputin was sleeping with the Queen and/or her four daughters. So what did the Tsar do to his son’s healer?
Tsar Nicholas was not happy with the whispers of his wife and daughters sleeping with Rasputin. To make the peanut gallery calm down, he sent Rasputin away from St. Petersburg in 1916. Tatiana and the other children were very upset that their friend had to go, and they remained in contact. She and Rasputin became pen pals while the mysterious monk visited British Palestine.
Unfortunately for Rasputin, this correspondence would soon be cut violently short.
Opponents of Rasputin saw him as a charlatan who had manipulated the Tsar and his family. Allegations of impropriety swirled in regards to Rasputin and his female followers. People even compared him to the Antichrist. What came next felt inevitable: A group of Russian aristocrats shot Rasputin in 1916. There is a legend that Tatiana was present at his execution, disguised as an army lieutenant.
Historians generally believe that this story is unlikely to be true, but for any Hollywood screenwriters out there: I'd watch that movie.
In spite of the lewd nature of the allegations against Rasputin, Tatiana Romanov remained loyal to her friend. When the news of his passing reached the Romanovs, all of the children wept for his loss. Tatiana attended the funeral and gave a signed icon that she buried with him. Perhaps the princess sensed that Rasputin's brutal end would be an omen of more terrible things to come for her family. After all, political instability had been gripping Russia for years...
We don’t know for sure if Tatiana Romanov witnessed the execution of Rasputin (and if so, what she was even doing there). However, a few years earlier she definitely was witness to another shocking execution. In 1911 Tatiana attended the opera with her father Nicholas and her sister Olga. Several other prominent Russians were in the audience, including former Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin.
Tatiana and her family settled in and were preparing to enjoy the third act when suddenly someone shot Stolypin! The former Prime Minister didn’t pass until three days later, but this sight mortified Tatiana and demonstrated that the country was increasingly becoming politically unstable. It's a small blessing that she didn't realize how similar her own end would be.
When Tatiana Romanov was just 13, she became an honorary colonel in the Russian army. This was largely a symbolic post, but as was characteristic of Tatiana, she took the job very seriously. Her regiment was the 8th Voznesensky Uhlans, so she changed her signature to “Uhlan". The new role excited her, but the men she commanded decided to initiate her in a way she found shocking.
The cavalrymen under Tatiana Romanov’s “command” immediately noted the princess’ combination of regal nature, religiosity, and childish innocence. They decided to haze her by exposing her to lewd material. One of them anonymously sent her a cutout picture of Michelangelo’s famous sculpture of David. You know, the one with the exposed...delicate area.
The princess reacted with shock and annoyance, though her sister Olga thought it was hilarious. Afterward, Tatiana decided that she still wanted to have a role attached to the Russian army—after all, it was filled with cute boys—but maybe not as a colonel. She soon found a different way to do that.
When WWI broke out in 1914, Tatiana decided to carry her weight to help with the effort. During this time she trained to be a Red Cross nurse along with her mother and her sister Olga. Queen Alexandra and the Big Pair tended to many wounded men who made it back home from the front. Tatiana Romanov discovered the horrors of armed conflict...but also the seeds of possible romance.
Many of the soldiers flirted with this attractive young princess. She was growing up, and she couldn't ignore boys forever...
You would think that a young princess who had spent her whole life sheltered from the real world would not necessarily make the greatest nurse. However, Tatiana excelled at her work. Seeing blood made her sister Olga feel queasy, but Tatiana complained that she was not allowed to work on more serious cases. She wanted to do everything that she could to help, and did not shirk from what she saw as her duty.
In addition to all of the dashing cavalrymen vying for Tatiana Romanov’s attention, she received interest from other European nobles. Her suitors included Alexander, the prince of Serbia. Alexander’s father tried to persuade Tatiana’s father to have the pair married when Tatiana was only 16. Tsar Nicholas told the Serbian king very politely that his daughter was a bit too young for that. Besides, Tatiana was a bit busy focusing her attention on someone else…
Tatiana Romanov had a romantic liaison with one of the men she met while working as a nurse. This hunky new man’s name was Dmitry Malama, a Russian cavalry officer and decorated hero. The princess took care of Dmitri’s injuries in 1914. Tatiana was so smitten that she even wrote to her parents about him—and they shared her high opinion of him. Tatiana’s mother wrote, "I must say a perfect son-in-law he would have been—why are foreign Princes not as nice!"
She had a point though—what could possibly be more dashing than a royal officer on horseback?
Tatiana was absolutely smitten with this gallant hero, and Dmitri returned the interest. Her new boyfriend was a smooth operator, and he got her lavish gifts, including a pet. In 1914 Tatiana received her new pet French bulldog, whom she christened Ortipo. From then on, Ortipo slept in the room with Tatiana and Olga. When Ortipo perished, Tatiana was devastated, but don't worry: Dmitri went and bought her yet another puppy, which she also named Ortipo. However, Dmitri wasn’t the only man vying for Tatiana’s attention…
Another soldier who allegedly courted the Grand Duchess was Vladimir Kiknadze. However, she feared that if the public knew who she was flirting with it would damage her reputation. Princesses like her were supposed to wed princes like Alexander, not common folk like Vladmir or Dmitri. So she nipped this romance in the bud while concentrating her energies on other projects...
If it wasn't already evident from her tireless work as a nurse, Tatiana Romanov was a fiercely compassionate humanitarian. One of the causes that she cared about the most was the displacement of Russian civilians during the conflict. So the Russian government created a charity called the Tatiana Committee in her honor. The committee looked after refugees of the conflict on the Eastern front. They raised money in part by selling postcards with Tatiana’s likeness.
If only her father had an ounce of her compassion, he might have saved his family from the storm that was coming.
Initially, the Tatiana Committee only helped widows and Russian refugees. But by 1916 the Committee expanded rapidly and they used the Grand Duchess’s name and image to help a variety of other humanitarian victims. This included Armenians, Greeks, and Ottomans. By the end of the conflict, Tatiana’s team helped millions of people in eastern Europe and the Middle East.
This probably made Tatiana Romanov pretty popular, but the same could not be said for her father the Tsar…
By 1917 it seemed as if the struggle against Germany would never end. Moreover, the Russian people were starving and angry at Tatiana’s father the Tsar for sacrificing Russian lives in a fight they were no longer invested in. In 1917 a new provisional government overthrew the Russian monarchy and Tsar Nicholas stepped down. This was the beginning of the Russian Revolution. Tatiana’s life was about to change dramatically.
At first, the Romanovs were able to live a fairly peaceful life. They were allowed to keep their servants and their large estate, just not their political power. They were going to be fine—or so they thought. Unfortunately for them, later that year Bolsheviks overthrew the original provisional government. The Bolsheviks were a communist faction led by Vladmir Lenin, and they were a lot more aggressive about their hatred of the Tsar. So began Tatiana Romanov's tragic fall from grace; one that eventually ended in a cramped, dusty basement.
The Bolsheviks decided to move the royal family to the cold and remote city of Tobolsk, Siberia. Siberia is where Russia traditionally exiled political prisoners. This is when Tatiana began having a truly miserable time. During her captivity, the princess became extremely thin. However, what made her really angry was the fact that she couldn’t work!
Oh, Tatiana—pretty soon, you're going to have much, much worse problems than that.
In 1918, the revolutionaries decided to split up the royal family. They sent Nicholas, Alexandra, and Maria to Yekaterinburg while Tatiana and the other children stayed in Tobolsk. Her little brother Alexei was unable to move because of his hemophilia, and this time there was no miracle worker to help him. Her mother knew that Tatiana was the one to take care of her brother, so that is exactly what she did. In the meantime, she began to plan ahead.
Tatiana Romanov’s family possessed a number of valuable pieces of jewelry, and there was no way that they were going to let them fall into Communist hands. So Tatiana and her sisters sewed them into their clothes, probably hoping to someday escape with them. They wrote to their relatives to inform them that their heirlooms were safe, using coded language. They referred to these jewels in letters as “medicines". Smart move. Sadly, it would all be for naught.
Tatiana was still a perfect, sweet little angel. In spite of the fact that the guards watching her were against everything her family stood for, she still found time to socialize with them, and they usually acted friendly in return. One day, however, they did something to completely scandalize the innocent young princess. During her captivity, one of the guards told her a joke with some, ah...crude language.
Apparently, this caused her to turn pale white and flee the scene without saying a word. If only that was the worst she received from her Bolshevik guards...
The Romanov children eventually reunited with the rest of their family at Yekaterinburg, and Tatiana finally saw her parents again after spending a month away from them. The princess probably saw this as a reason to hope that things would soon get better. But unfortunately, this reunion was short-lived.
During her time in captivity, Tatiana continued to assume responsibility and effectively took on the role of spokesperson not just for her sisters, but for the whole family. Just as her siblings used her to ask their parents favors, Nicholas and Alexandra also got Tatiana to ask questions to the guards on their behalf. Probably stuff along the lines of “when can we go home?”
However, the Bolsheviks were tightening their grip over the country as Russia plunged into internal conflict. If there was a light at the end of the tunnel, it was not there yet. In fact, the Romanovs' nightmare was about to get even worse.
Eventually, the guards started giving the Romanovs the silent treatment. They also removed a little boy who lived on-site and had befriended Tatiana’s brother Alexei. When the Bolsheviks took away the boy, it was of course Tatiana who went to ask for them to allow him to come back. She had no idea of course that the true reason for these actions was not simply to punish them. The revolutionaries had something far more sinister in mind...
The Bolsheviks never actually told Tatiana’s family what their fate would be. One day they were simply told to gather up their things. The guards claimed that there was unrest nearby and the royal family would have to relocate to the basement for their own safety. They didn't realize what was happening until it was too late. But what many people don't realize is: The execution actually went horribly wrong.
The guards had difficulty doing their grisly task because the jewels sewn into Tatiana and her sisters' clothes acted as armor, so they didn't actually die immediately like the Tsar and his wife. As if that moment wasn't horrific enough, Tatiana had to watch her parents' end before finally succumbing to the second round of bullets.
What Tatiana and her family did not know was that the reason for their execution was probably because the Bolsheviks feared that a rescue party was coming. The Czechoslovak Legion (which was fighting against the Communists) was less than a week away from Yekaterinburg when the Romanovs met their ultimate fate. Unfortunately, it was too late for Tatiana and her family. However, the conflict in Russia continued in earnest...
The man who loved Tatiana so much to give her a puppy continued to fight for her family’s cause long after their romance had ended. Dmitri Malama fought against the Bolsheviks with the pro-monarchist “White Russians” against the Communist “Reds". In 1919 he gave his life in action while fighting against Red Russians in Ukraine. Ultimately the Bolshevik faction triumphed, and by 1922 Russia became the Soviet Union.
The Bolsheviks buried the bodies of the Romanovs in an unmarked grave, and the Soviet Union did not publicize their passing. In fact, they didn’t even acknowledge the execution of Tatiana’s family for eight long years. This led to speculation that some of them might possibly still be alive. Soon some evidence arose that gave credence to these claims.
In 1922, a patient at an asylum in Berlin claimed that one of her fellow inmates was Tatiana. The woman later changed her story and claimed to be Tatiana’s sister Anastasia. For decades she was able to fool the extended royal family into believing she was in fact Tatiana’s little sister. Rumors like this persisted until someone was finally able to identify the Romanovs' grave.
The Soviet Union kept the location of her grave a secret for many years. In 1938, Joseph Stalin forbade all discussion of the matter. But in 1989, the Berlin Wall came down. Then in 1991, Communist rule collapsed and the archives finally opened. Finally, the world could know the truth. Tatiana Romanov's body was exhumed along with most of her family that same year.
However, there were still two missing bodies: Alexei and Maria.
In 2007, researchers finally discovered the bodies of Tatiana’s siblings, Alexei and Maria. In 2008 DNA testing proved conclusively that the Romanovs perished in Siberia, and all their bodies were accounted for. Anyone pretending to be Tatiana or Anastasia was proven to be a pretender.
In 1998, Tatiana Romanov and her family (minus the still-missing Alexei and Maria) finally had a state funeral and proper burial, 80 years after their execution. Their final resting place is at the Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg.
In 1981, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia canonized the entire Romanov family, including Tatiana. There is now a church at the site of Tatiana’s execution, called the Church of Blood in Honour of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land.
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