In the spring of 1914, court gossips began whispering about an engagement between eighteen-year old Olga and Prince Carol of Romania. Why else, they speculated, would the Imperial Couple plan to visit there? Indeed, a union between Olga and the prince would be advantageous for Russia. Romania was too closely aligned with Germany. Marriage to a Romanov might break their alliance.
Aware of the talk, Olga turned to Pierre Gillard. Since learning the truth about Alexei’s illness, the French teacher had been taken into the Empress’ confidence. Now, Olga hoped to wheedle the truth out of him.
“Tell me… monsieur,” she asked. “Do you know why we are going to Romania?”
Flustered, Gillard replied, “I believe it is a courtesy visit.”
Olga brushed his answer aside. “Oh, that’s the official reason… but what’s the real reason? I know… that you know it.”
“All right!” she exclaimed without him saying another word. “But if I don’t wish it, it won’t happen. Papa has promised not to make me… and I don’t want to leave Russia.”
“But you could come back as often as you like,” Gillard pointed out.
“I’m a Russian,” she replied resolutely, “and I mean to remain a Russian.”
Weeks later, the family sailed for Romania. En route, Olga sat on the upper deck, her face tilted toward the sun, hoping for a burn. She wanted to look as unattractive as possible to the young prince. She obviously succeeded. By the time she arrived at the Romanian port of Constanza, she was “very flushed,” noted one observer.
Although it was brief visit – less than twenty-four hours – the day was packed with activities. There was a morning cathedral service, a state luncheon, a military review, and a formal tea – all given with pomp and fanfare. Flags flew. Cannon boomed. And crowds of Romanians gathered to stare at Olga. Could this Russian girl be their future queen?
That evening, the King and Queen of Romania held a banquet in the Romanovs’ honor. Despite its opulence, it was an awkward and uncomfortable meal. Ill at ease, Alexandra made “brave efforts to be as gracious as possible,” recalled one guest. Nicholas chain-smoked nervously between courses. And Olga and Prince Carol, seated next to each other, had little to say. She replied to his bored questions with “cold reserve,” while he fidgeted with his silverware.
Her sisters were no help. Giggling and elbowing each other, they kept winking slyly at the couple.
Only Alexei and Prince Carol’s little brother, Nicholas, enjoyed the evening. As high-spirited as the tsarevich, Nicholas taught Alexei how to spit grape seeds into the punch bowl when everyone’s back was turned.
Hours later, the relieved Romanovs sailed away, their plans for a royal wedding abandoned. “Olga Nicholaievna,” wrote Pierre Gillard, “had won.”
Material not included in The Family Romanov: Murder, rebellion and The Fall of Imperial Russia , by Candace Fleming, copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.
Photo Credit: Romanov Collection, General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.