Cinderella Romanova. And This is No Fairytale

For the last couple of months, many of us prisoners became engulfed to varying degrees by a crisis that manifested itself in a multitude of ways: for some it was in a social way, for others, financial, for yet others it is existential (the state of worry and a feeling of deep psychological discomfort when faced with the existential question of the meaning of life O.L.). I heard complaints from my acquaintances along the lines of, “its is boring to sit at home, my money is running out, everything is irritating me, we can’t travel overseas”, and the like. I relate to them with understanding and sincere compassion. All of us have been put into this limiting waiting regime. My heart shrinks from pain when someone falls into despair after losing their relatives or their business, into which they invested their remaining energy and means. To simply tell them, “Hold on, and this will pass”, would of course be a valid argument, but only a verbal one and therefore is not quite convincing.

And I remembered the role model story of “Cinderella Romanova”—that is what Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna was called in émigré circles. She lived through tough times, having lost her relatives and her homeland, yet she found enough strength in herself to live through it all and rejoice at every God-given day.

Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, 1901. Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, 1901. On the nineteenth of April, 1890 in St. Petersburg, a baby girl was born to a family of the Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich and the Greek Princess Alexandra Georgievna. The baby-girl’s godmother was the Empress Maria Fedorovna, the wife of Alexander III. The girl was named Maria, in honor of Maria Fedorovna and in the honour of the newborn’s grandmother, the spouse of Emperor Alexander II. But the girl was not destined to know the fullness of her mother’s love, as her mother died during premature labour when Maria was only eighteen-months old. That happened near Moscow, at Ilyinskoe Manor, where the family was staying as guests of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich and his wife Elisabeth Fedorovna. The grief of losing his wife was so great for Paul Alexandrovich that for several months he didn’t want to see his new born, first son Dmitri, who in turn himself almost died together with his mother during her labor. Six years later, when his heart had thawed, Paul Alexandrovich became infatuated with Olga Valerianovna, wife of an imperial adjutant. They had a son together and as a consequence of that and with great scandal too, Olga divorced her husband and went on to marry Paul Alexandrovich. This morganatic marriage cost him all his titles and ranks, and his punishment was to be exiled from Russia. Many years later, having received a royal pardon, he returned to his Motherland.

Grand Duchess Elisabeth Fedorovna with her niece Maria, her husband Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich and Grand Duke Paul with his son Dmitri. Grand Duchess Elisabeth Fedorovna with her niece Maria, her husband Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich and Grand Duke Paul with his son Dmitri. Maria and Dmitri grew up under the guardianship of Sergei Alexandrovich and Elisabeth Fedorovna or aunt Ella, as they called her. The children were brought up by English nannies and Maria didn’t speak Russian until she was six years old. Years later she would write in her memoirs:

“I was deliberately kept ignorant about the high status which was mine through birth right. I was treated in quite a simple manner, which was done to balance out the grandeur and splendour that surrounded me. This same simplicity was required of me in my relations with other people, especially with those who were lower than me in status”.

Twice a week a priest came to teach God’s Law and at seven years old, during her first confession, she repented for stealing a few chocolate candies and shed many tears because of it. Until February 1905 the life of Maria and Dmitri was measured and flowed peacefully. Aunt Ella kept them no more than a step away from herself; she took them abroad with her, along with a full staff of governesses and servants. When they got a bit older, they accompanied Elisabeth Fedorovna to festal church services. It was during the Russo-Japanese war, and Elisabeth Fedorovna was opening hospitals in Moscow—she sent field hospitals and dressing points to the front-line, and created committees for widows and orphans of war. They arranged a warehouse in the Kremlin, where from all of Moscow they collected bed linens and dressings. Maria came to work in the warehouse on Sundays. When the wounded started to arrive in Moscow, Elisabeth Fedorovna often visited them, taking her niece with her, and they spent whole days in hospitals.

Maria Pavlovna as a child. Tsarskoe Selo. Maria Pavlovna as a child. Tsarskoe Selo. Strikes and student demonstrations were flaring up with worrying frequency, and suicide bombers had activated as well. Once during the night, a few nights after Christmas, Maria and Dmitri were woken up upon their uncle’s orders and were told to dress quickly so as to leave the Neskuchny Palace. “We are moving to the Kremlin,” said Sergei Alexandrovich. having met the children in the vestibule.

“The horses at full speed rushed us into the night. The curtains in the carriage were lowered. Adults were silent and we did not dare ask any questions. We knew the road to Kremlin very well, and although we didn’t see anything, we suspected that we were going there down a bypass route. Behind us in the silence of the streets the galloping sounds of the escort’s hooves were heard,” remembered Maria Pavlovna.

The killing of her uncle Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich was a shock to her; she was only fifteen-years old at the time. On a February day, when the deafening explosion shook the neighbourhood so much that everything trembled in the palace, Maria with a worried curiosity clung to the window.

Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich with his wife, nephew and niece Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich with his wife, nephew and niece     

“The killing of her uncle Grand Duke Sergey Alexandrovich was a shock to her; she was only fifteen years old at the time

“The Aunt Ella’s sled, which had been waiting for them downstairs to take them to the warehouse of the Red Cross, came closer to the stairs. Our aunt had run out of the house with a cloak around her shoulders. Mademoiselle Helen was running after her in a men’s coat. Both were without hats. They got into the sled and it shot off at once,” as she would recall years later.

The scary event that affected not only the lives of her relatives, but also the course of Russia’s history had permanently remained in her memory:

“We saw Aunt Ella rush to the corpse which was lying on the snow. She picked up her husband’s body parts and put them onto the army stretcher, which was hurriedly brought from her warehouse. Soldiers from the barracks situated opposite the palace covered the body with their overcoats, lifted the stretcher to their shoulders, brought it in the shelter of the Chudov Monastery and put it in the church adjoining the palace in which we lived. Only then we were allowed to be brought in. We descended to the ground floor and along the small hallway reached the internal door which lead to the monastery. The church was filled with people, everybody stood on their knees, many cried. Close to the steps of the altar, right on the stones lay the stretcher. It looked almost empty; what the overcoats had been covering looked like a small heap. A boot was poking out from underneath one side of the blanket. The drops of blood were slowly dripping to the floor, forming a small dark puddle. My aunt stood on her knees close to the stretcher. I did not dare to look at her.”

Maria with her brother Dmitri Maria with her brother Dmitri The self-control with which Elisabeth Fedorovna lived through those days amazed young Mary and she took it as a role-model behaviour to follow for the rest of her life.

“A few times our aunt asked after our uncle’s coachman. He was laying in the hospital; his condition was hopeless as he was wounded by the very same bomb which killed our uncle. At around six o’clock in the evening Aunt Ella went to pay a visit to the wounded man and so as not to disturb him, instead of the mourning garb wore the same elegant blue dress in which she was seen earlier that day. Not only that, but when the coachman asked after her husband, she had enough courage to answer him with a smile that it was the Grand Duke himself who sent her to check on how the coachman was feeling. The poor man died calmly that very night,” as Maria Pavlovna recalled.

And one more thing:

“The day after the murder, she put on her mourning clothes, left the palace in a carriage and did not return for a long time. It turned out later that she had gone to prison to meet the killer! My brother and I in some way admired such a noble act.”

The Grand Duchess Elisabeth Fedorovna with her niece and nephew Maria and Dmitri The Grand Duchess Elisabeth Fedorovna with her niece and nephew Maria and Dmitri Elisabeth Fedorovna gave the killer the New Testament, having said that she forgives him in Sergei Alexandrovich’s name. Later she submitted a request to Emperor Nicholas II asking him to pardon the terrorist, but her petition was not satisfied. Elisabeth Fedorovna from then on never took off her mourning clothes and seldom travelled.

“It is as if she were reborn. Being strong-spirited, she overcame the crisis and returned to life, having become a stronger soul, more active, wiser and more patient with people,” Maria Pavlovna wrote many years later.

Soon after the shock she had lived through, she was sent to St. Petersburg together with her brother, where the members of the imperial family enveloped them in a healing atmosphere of calmness and coziness. They were invited to their home plays, opera, picnics, horse rides and balls. But Maria Fedorovna preferred cross-stitching to noisy entertainment. More than anything she liked to sit and do embroidery in the drawing room of the Alexander Palace, where in the evenings the whole family gathered to listen to the Emperor reading chapters of the novel, War and Peace, aloud. Talking about politics was considered to be in poor taste. Different stories were told during teatime, the girls teased one another and when looking at Maria’s cross-stitching work, praised them and lamented that they are not as patient and skilled in it themselves. The Empress, cradling in her hands the new-born Tsarevich Aleksey, whispered with a smile to her daughters in English, “I always tell you to be more patient and to persevere”.

In 1906, the engagement of the sixteen-year-old Maria Pavlovna to Prince Wilhelm Duke of Södermanland, the son of King Gustav the fifth and the heir of the Swedish throne, was announced. It was decided that the wedding would take place in two years’ time. In the meantime, Maria studied Swedish, and not far from Stockholm the construction of an English style castle began, which was a wedding gift from her aunt Ella. The whole court of Sweden, headed by the King Gustav V, was invited to the wedding, which took place in September 1908 in Pavlovsk. The Bride wore jewels: a diamond tiara, necklace and earrings, which at some point in time belonged to Empress Catherine II. The earrings turned out to be so heavy that they had to be attached by carefully wrapping them around the ears with a piece of golden wire. Maria couldn’t bear this process very long; she took off the earrings during the wedding lunch and hung them on the edge of her glass.

The wedding of Maria Pavlovna and the Swedish prince Wilhelm, 1908. The wedding of Maria Pavlovna and the Swedish prince Wilhelm, 1908.   

It was not a secret for anybody, including the newlyweds themselves, that the marriage was arranged out of monarchic and dynastic considerations. They had no tender feelings for each other. They tried to be an exemplary family, but it worked with a stretch and even the birth of their son Lennart in May 1901 did not strengthen their union. After four years together Maria left her husband. The decision was not an easy one as their son, the heir to the throne, remained in Sweden. To jump ahead, it is worth mentioning that once he reached adulthood and in his turn faced with the choice between “the crown or love”, Lennart chose love: He married the daughter of a factory owner and lost his right to become the King of Sweden.

“I was happy to be returning to Russia,” recalled Maria Pavlovna. In 1914 she received the official divorce papers. The next stop in her life was the First World War.

She made the decision to go to the front-line as a sister of mercy and underwent special training for it.

She made the decision to go to the front-line as a sister of mercy and undergwent special training for it in one of the city’s hospitals. “Departure to the front-line was to take place on the ninth of August,” she wrote to aunt Ella. Her aunt in return told her that she will most definitely come to St. Petersburg to see her niece off.

Maria Pavlovna with her husband and her son Lennart Maria Pavlovna with her husband and her son Lennart “That morning I put on my uniform for the very first time; I recall how embarrassed I felt when I went outside. After breakfast, my aunt took me to the chapel of Peter the Great where a revered icon of the Savior was located. Whilst we were inside, the footman in the meantime must have told passers-by about who we are, because as we were leaving the chapel, we found ourselves surrounded by a crowd of people. “Oh, our dear, you are also going to war. God bless you” wept one old woman. Others, in tears, joined in by expressing their good wishes: “Thank you… You will take care of our soldiers… May God come to your aid…Give us the strength, O God, to overcome the enemy!..” Aunt Ella, the Great Duchess Maria and my half-brother Vladimir Paley, all set off in the evening to see me off at the railway station. The train started moving and you could hear the last good wishes and parting words. We noticed that many were crying on the platform. But my heart felt light, even joyful. It was the first night that I took out the bedding myself from a modest-sized travel bag. I rarely travelled without a maid before. When I hung my black apron and grey cotton dress on the wall of my compartment, I thought how easily and simply my life had changed and how light and natural it felt. Thinking about this, I plunged into sleep and I dreamed about great accomplishments,” remembered Maria Pavlovna.

She would spend two and a half years at the military hospital in Pskov and for the rest of her life she would consider this time as the happiest period of her life, because she was happy to be doing “useful and needed work”. She was always, as it is called, “in high spirits”; she laughed and joked during the walkthroughs, and the wounded in return laughed backed and gave her the nickname “joyful sister”. Within the hospital walls was its own special world, which death often visited, where people always suffered and were tormented, and doctors and nurses were perceived as people who are close to God.

“She was always in high spirits during the walkabouts, she laughed and made jokes and for that she got called “joyful nurse”

“I was the head nurse. That is, under my supervision there were twenty-five women and I had to ensure that they did their work well. I protected their interests and took care of them. I never had to give out orders before,” remembered Maria Pavlovna. “On the contrary, from my early childhood I was taught to be obedient and to submit myself [to the will of other people]. It was natural for me to execute the orders of others, but I could never order people around myself,” remembered Maria Pavlovna. “I was brought up with the values of modesty and humility and always considered others to know better than I”.

Maria Pavlovna before her departure to the front, 1914. Maria Pavlovna before her departure to the front, 1914. She usually gave out orders through her assistant, sister Zandinu. That simple Russian woman evoked in her genuine interest and a feeling of deep respect:

“She treated me with reverence and protected me. She came to me to report in the mornings during breakfast. She never sat down in my presence, despite me offering her a chair every time.”

There was not enough personnel in the hospital and for that reason Maria Pavlovna had to work in the operating room and in the dressing room, and if necessary, to conduct simple surgery as well—to remove a bullet or to amputate a finger.

“The wounded arrived from the frontlines in a terrible state; only after two or three baths could you wash away the dirt gathered over many months of staying in the trenches. One had to shave off their hair, burn their clothes. The frontline was only 250 kilometres away from Pskov but as a rule, the wounded got to us only after a couple of days of travel in freight cars without medical attention. Their clothing would be soaked through with coagulated blood and puss, which got so hard as if it were made of stone. Taking off such a dressing was equally agonizing for both sides—for the patient, as well as for the nurse,” wrote Maria Pavlovna.

“Her hands got tough, her face got used to the cold water, and face cream and face powder seemed like attributes of a faraway fairy-tale land

Her hands got tough from constant work with disinfectants, her face got used to the cold water, and face cream and face powder seemed like attributes of a faraway fairy-tale land. She would wake up very early so that she could go to the morning church services in the closest women’s monastery before work. And in the beginning of December 1915, when the hospital management talked her into taking a two-week break, she went to see her relatives—first to St. Petersburg and then to Moscow, to her favourite aunt Ella.

“She wanted a hermit’s life and secretly hoped that I would replace her and head her ‘baby’. Had it not been for the revolution, perhaps I would now be the abbess of the Sts. Martha and Mary House of Charity,” recalled Maria Pavlovna.

Maria Pavlovna in hospital amongst the wounded. Maria Pavlovna in hospital amongst the wounded.     

Having returned to the hospital, she discovered that among new patients was Archimandrite Michael, an old acquaintance of aunt Ella. Fr. Michael’s spiritual father was father Gabriel, who in turn was the father-confessor of Elisabeth Fedorovna. In his youth Fr. Michael was appointed as the dean of a seminary in a large provincial city. During the riots of 1905, a student shot him in the back and injured his spine, and from then on he was paralyzed from the waist down. Fr. Michael turned out to be one of key figures (of which there had been a few) who significantly aided in Maria Pavlovna’s spiritual development; those people “gave what nobody else did—the possibility to develop”.

“In discussions with him I understood that Orthodox Christianity is part of Russian soul, that it is tightly linked with the psychology of the people, which it is marked by its breadth of views and filled with simple and wise poetry… He brought my faith back to life,” she remembered.

Winter of 1916 turned out to be incredibly severe; frosts that began back in November were gathering pace with every passing day. On the Velikaya River they sawed ice for hospital needs, and the queues of peasants’ sledges loaded with transparent lumps screechingly ascended the high coast. The hospital was replenished with new patients and there was such shortage of medicine that even gangrene had to be operated on with bare hands, because there was a shortage of rubber gloves. “Our spirits were down. We were working out of inertia. Our patients were depressed and bore their sufferings with difficulty,” remembered Maria Pavlovna. During those days they recieved a message about the murder of Grigory Rasputin, which was a difficult tribulation for Maria Pavlovna as her brother Dmitri was involved in the crime. Maria hurriedly left for St. Petersburg. Dmitri’s punishment exile to the Persian front. Seeing him off at the railway station, she desperately looked at his familiar facial features so dear to her heart, trying to memorize them in detail; she understood that they may never see each other again.

The revolutionary situation snowballed. In the beginning of March, rumours about hunger riots and shootings that were taking place in Petrograd [St .Petersburg was renamed to Petrograd from 1914 to 1924] reached the previously calm Pskov, where Maria Pavlovna continued to labour. And soon it became known that the Emperor had abdicated himself and his heir from the throne, all in favour of the Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich. “I froze on the spot. I felt as if a part of my flesh had been torn out of me,” remembered Maria Pavlovna concerning the events of the fourteenth of March. And on the seventeenth of March an official confirmation was released about the abdication of Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich. Soon decree number one became public; it was issued by the Workers and Soldiers Union representatives, without the knowledge of the Temporary government. This decree rejected the disciplinary subordination of soldiers and forbade officers from addressing the soldiers using the informal personal pronoun form of “you”.

“On the frontlines, soldiers began to mutilate, torture, and kill their own officers. I myself was an officer and my position was becoming dangerous,” recalled Maria Pavlovna, who was an involuntary a witness to how a crowd of drunk soldiers in broad day light beat up and threw a general of the Pskov garrison into the river. With every passing day it became evident that she should leave the hospital. On the twenty first of March, having read the manifesto of the Temporary government, the hospital soldiers like all military divisions had taken an oath to the new regime. “I became the enemy of my own people, to whom I had dedicated all my time and energy,” remembered Maria Pavlovna. On the eve of her return to Petrograd she was packing her things into her suitcase, and then she clearly realised that everything she had so lovingly collected had now turned into “expensive junk”.

On the eve of her return to Petrograd she was packing her things, and when looking through them she clearly realized that the past way of life was over.

All hospital staff came to the railway station to see Maria Pavlovna off. When saying goodbye, each one of the nurses kissed her hand as was the custom of bygone days. The train to Petrograd was a scary sight: Everywhere—on the roof tops, on the platforms, even in the buffets soldiers sat with their rucksacks and rifles, people crowded in the passages. It was not safe to travel in these conditions, but no other choice remained.

“Sister Zandina resolutely announced that she will travel with me all the way to Petrograd… Somehow we got inside the train carriage and took our places inside the cabin, which was booked by the military headquarters for themselves with great difficulty. A military officer, having closed the door behind us, sealed it. After our arrival to Petrograd the seal had to be removed by the railway station military commandant. That seal was our only protection,” recalled Maria Pavlovna.

Sergei Mikhailovich Putyanin, Maria Pavlovna’s second husband. Sergei Mikhailovich Putyanin, Maria Pavlovna’s second husband. They arrived safely in Petrograd, despite the train being a few hours late. The seal was broken by the commandant’s assistant. Nobody was there to meet Maria Pavlovna at the railway station. The emperor’s rooms that she usually passed through were closed. A footman without his livery was waiting outside and instead of a car there was a hired old carriage with two old and weary mouse-gray horses. Maria Pavlovna tiredly climbed the high step and sat on the worn-out seat. Her nose was struck by the smell of mould. The carriage started to move. Everything around seemed alien and scary. The streets were quiet and deserted and the Sergiev Palace on Nevsky Prospect [the main street of Petrograd], where Maria Pavlovna arrived, now looked like a crypt. The life of the city had become dull and colourless—the streets were barely cleaned; crowds of soldiers and seamen were wondering about aimlessly and the well-dressed people who had carriages and automobiles were hiding in their homes. There were no police on the streets. Chaos was everywhere. She moved to Tsarskoe Selo, away from the horror that Petrograd instilled in her. There she met her old acquaintance Sergei Putyanin, who had to leave the frontline as his position was becoming dangerous.

“In the depth of my heart stirred feelings that were previously unknown to me. Everything was collapsing around us, we were living in uncertainty and fear, but our youth and mental energy was living a life of their own… We wanted happiness, we wanted to take everything from life that it could only give. That is how on the ruins of the old world we risked trying our luck and started a new life,” remembered Maria Pavlovna.

They were engaged in August of 1917 and their modest wedding took place amidst a small circle of friends at the beginning of September in Pavlovsk, where at that time Maria Pavlovna’s grandmother, Olga Konstantinovna Grecheskaya, was based.

This is what Maria Pavlovna remembered about her “honeymoon”:

“My husband’s parents, who were spending a few months in Moscow, had to leave that city and return to Petrograd. They started living with us, and Duchess Putyanin took care of the housekeeping, which was becoming an increasingly harder thing to do. From the beginning of winter we ate almost no meat and only rarely did we get some horsemeat. White bread cost ridiculous money; the sale of it was deemed illegal and the buyer risked a big fine. That’s why we bought buckwheat flour. The dark bread was rationed, and every time the amount dispensed was reduced. It was baked from flour to which at first bran was added; later they started adding sawdust. It not only tasted bad but was also dangerous for your health.”

The banks were nationalized, deposits were confiscated, and in order to survive they had to sell things. The elder Putyanins managed to take Maria Pavlovna’s diamonds out of the Moscow Bank before the confiscation of the Royal family’s private property began. Maria’s mother-in-law made herself something like a jacket to wear under her dress, and a large part of the jewellery was sewn into it. Tiaras that were impossible to straighten were hidden into the lining of hats. When there was a need for money they had to sell something, and that was not a simple undertaking—first of all because it was not easy to find buyers, and secondly because they were afraid to attract attention to themselves. They sold only small jewellery, the remaining jewellery they stored at home, which was quite risky.

Maria Pavlovna showed real craftiness in keeping these things safe. For example, in order to hide the antique tiara with long diamond pendants she bought a large bottle of ink, poured out its contents, and having broken apart the pendants, placed them at the bottom of the bottle. Then she poured paraffin over them and poured back the ink. That inkbottle stood on the table for many months for everybody to see, without arousing the slightest hint of suspicion. Some jewellery was hidden in homemade paperweights, others in cacao tins.

Maria Pavlovna working. Maria Pavlovna working.     

“Constant fear, need and hardship became a normal, almost natural state of events. The passive lockdown life was depressing and was getting on my nerves. Those endless discussions about the same things—either about food we didn’t have then or about our former luxury! During the days without food, which I must admit started to happen more often, such discussion invoked in me an impotent, quiet anger,” wrote Maria Pavlovna about the events of 1918.

She was expecting a child then. Her son was born a few weeks before he was due. They arranged with the doctors that she would get to the Petrograd hospital, but she couldn’t get there and for that reason the birth was assisted by a random Tsarskoe Selo midwife. Thankfully, the midwife didn’t ask any unnecessary questions—it was a dangerous time for the Romanovs—some members of the family were in exile, and some had hurriedly fled the country.

“Had I only known then that exactly as I was giving birth to my son, my beloved Aunt Ella was perishing in a mineshaft in Alapaevsk,” Maria Pavlovna wrote with sadness many years later.

The new-born was named Roman. He wasn’t even a month old when his family fled abroad. The upcoming travel was dangerous, as those who had no documents (and no members of the family had them) could be shot by any soldier without any investigation or court judgement of the act.

In order to provide money for the trip for the whole family, Maria Pavlovna sold a few small pieces of jewellery and in addition sewed a few diamond broches into a corset and a hat, in case of unexpected expenses. After fleeing from Petrograd in the beginning of August 1918 and a few torturous months spent in Odessa, where the Spanish flu was raging, Maria Pavlovna and her husband could only get a seat on the train to Bucharest in November. Her husband’s parents and baby Roman remained in Odessa, cut off by the nationalists who were active on the Odessa-Kiev war front, and so they waited for a convenient moment to cross the border.

“When I arrived in Romania, I didn’t yet realize just to what extent we, Romanovs, were unwanted there. Any link to us and even more so any support for us would endanger people. The only exception was the Royal family. They didn’t allow me to even suspect that my stay could arouse the government’s displeasure. Their generosity didn’t end with me alone; they were not afraid to show their hospitality to the other members of my family. Only later, when forced to compare other people’s treatment of me, did I fully pay respect to them… The destiny of Romania depended to a large extent on the great Empires—America, England, and France. These empires welcomed the revolution in Russia with delight; the latter two hoped that the new democratic government would be more successful in continuing the war with Germany, and all three counted on the establishment of a regime that would exclude the Romanov dynasty. Democracy was fighting and was reaping the fruits of victory. Europe was adjusting to the new order, and Romania was adjusting to Europe.” That’s how Maria Pavlovna understood what was taking place around her.

Soon a letter from her brother arrived: Dmitri, having fled Russia, found refuge in London; he lived at the Ritz Hotel, his means of existence being the money that he received from the sale of the palace in Petrograd in 1917. He insistently advised his sister to move to England with her family. A few months had passed before the elder Putyanins with baby Roman arrived in Bucharest. During their family meeting it was decided that Maria Pavlovna and her husband would go to London first to look around and find decent accommodations to rent, while grandmother, grandfather, and Roman would come to the already prepared “nest”. No less than half a year passed before it was possible to get a visa, buy tickets, get to London, get settled there and rent a comfortable flat. Towards summer Putyanin prepared to depart for Romania to get his parents and baby.

“But then a letter from my mother-in-law arrived—our boy had died. He was barely one. The letter had very few details; we found out later how it happened. He felt well, was gaining weight and was developing well, but in the hot weather he got an upset tummy. Nothing worrying at first, but day by day he felt worse, there were convulsions, and he died,” Maria Pavlovna related.

Before that there was news about the shooting of her father and three uncles. She hid her grief from her London friends and avoided them, as she was afraid of pity and condolences.

“I hated the thought that I was the living embodiment of tragedy,” she admitted later.

The summer ended, autumn began, and Maria Pavlovna remained indifferent to everything, continued to avoid people and didn’t take off her mourning bonnet. Because of their financial difficulties it was decided in the autumn of 1919 to move in with Dmitri and to share expenses. Maria Pavlovna still considered their exile to be temporary, but worried about the future: the stock of diamonds was melting before their eyes, there wasn’t a very large return from the sale of them, and at the same time the family had no monetary foundation as, simply put, nobody worked.

A fragment of Maria Pavlovna’s embroidery. A fragment of Maria Pavlovna’s embroidery.   

The stockpile of diamonds was melting before their eyes and at the same time the family had no monetary foundation as, simply put, none of them worked

“Out of my heart’s simplicity I thought that it could be put right: I will work,” decided Maria Pavlovna. When she was a child she was taught how to sew, embroider and knit. Now was the time to use those skills. As it was fashionable in London then to wear knitted sweaters and dresses, so Maria Pavlovna bought some yarn and knitting needles. Her first work was ruined as the sweater was immense in size. She started doing the second one and this time guessed the size right but went amiss on the knitting density and wore that sweater herself. The third work she made bold to offer to a buyer. With a paper wrap under her shoulder she came to a specialty shop where handmade things were bought.

“Not having the slightest idea who I was, the owner of the shop was simply surprised by my offer. I untied the wrap and put the sweater in front of her, and with a beating heart watched as she studied it. The sweater was bought for twenty-one shillings paid in cash and most importantly, I was asked to bring more. I often heard that one’s first earned money brings special, incomparable joy. It was pleasant that my work was liked and that I was asked to bring more, but I didn’t feel joy—I was embarrassed, because I hadn’t worked all that much for this amount of money and there was a feeling that I had surpassed someone who needed them more,” remembered Maria Pavlovna.

She knitted constantly now, but she never earned more than six pounds a week. Having understood that in London it was hard to realize her potential, she moved to Paris with her husband and brother. To be more confortable Dmitri lived in a hotel, and Maria Pavlovna and her husband rented a spacious flat of four rooms in a good location. She found a job for her husband in a bank and occupied herself with sewing—she sewed for herself and took orders.

“I had convinced myself long ago that we were the root of the troubles that had befallen us, but how to get those roots out and make sense of them myself? The ends were all intermingled and I couldn’t wait to find out the verdict that History would declare,” wrote Maria Pavlovna.

Having put away needle and silk, she sat on committees for hours, went to different organizations, prepared charity plays, sold tickets, got money. Everywhere around her she saw neediness, such neediness and woe that the blood froze in her veins. She looked for ways to help the needy, but her own helplessness brought her to despair.

Soon her husband’s parents arrived from Bucharest. Her mother-in-law began to take care of the household duties and help Maria Pavlovna with needlework until, through trial and error, she could find a practical use for her abilities.

“In spring 1921 I organized a charity sale at my friends’ house. I could use the premises on certain days and those days coincided with the end of Passion Week. My compatriots who were believers in Christ were appalled that I chose those days specifically. The handcrafted things of the refugees themselves were offered for sale too; they simply had no other opportunity to show them to the public. There were only three days to do everything and as I had no assistance, I won’t even mention how much time and energy was spent on preparation. On Holy Thursday I went to church for Holy Communion. The Church had always defended the throne, yet now the clergy was fawning on the community and with notable diligence showed us their indifference. The clergy of the Parisian church didn’t even have the courage to conduct the mourning service for the imperial family using their full royal titles. Many things remained to be done at my friends’ house, and in order to be ready for the sale on time at noon we had to leave the church earlier. But a lot of people had come to receive Holy Communion, and I was afraid that having queued up I would not have enough time for everything. I sent somebody to say to the priest that I need to come to the Holy Communion among the first people and of course explained the reason why. He agreed and at the right time sent a temple servant to guide me through the crowd. While getting through the crowd after the servant I caught unfriendly glances on me, and at the front of the queue heard indignant exclamations, unfitting for such a place. I had no other choice then, but for a long time I could not forgive myself that I asked for special treatment. The sale itself was very successful, which was helped by the beautiful house and the fact that the public stood face to face with the refugees and witnessed what they were capable of. But unkindness continued to pour out upon my head. Wanting to show the guests and first of all my compatriots that I share everybody’s destiny and am not afraid of work, I displayed a few of my own works too; I was, of course, misunderstood and accused of self-promotion. It was not the only unfortunate incident; later there were similar ones, and perhaps it was to be expected, because almost all the people I stumbled upon had their share of grief and hardship. I didn’t give up and continued working. I learned a lot along the way and witnessed the courage, love of life, and patience of these suffering homeless people.

On the assumption that my husband would look after our financial affairs better than I, I entrusted him with the money, but his responsiveness to other people’s requests and lack of experience got the better of him. My jewellery was sold one piece after another; with a frightening speed the supply that seemed inexhaustible at the beginning was melting, and there was no income. Work, work alone could save us from empty projects, complete ruin and relieve us of this wretched existence”, related Maria Pavlovna.

Embroiderers of Kitmir house. Embroiderers of Kitmir house.     

Using the money she recieved from selling the family jewels, Maria Pavlovna opened a workshop called “Kitmir” in 1921. Together with her mother-in-law she came up with this name in the honour of their beloved Pekingese dog of the Russian ambassador. Maria decorated handmade dresses with elegant embroidery. The clothes became popular and word of mouth about Madame Kitmir spread quickly among the Parisian fashionistas.

Word of mouth about Madame Kitmir spread quickly among the Parisian fashionistas

“Psychologically we were interesting, but from an intellectual perspective there was nothing remarkable about us. All our talk was about one thing: the past. The past was like a dusty diamond, through which you would look at the light, hoping to see the play of sunrays. We talked about the past, looked back into the past. The past taught us lessons, we ceaselessly regurgitated the old times, looked for the guilty parties. We could not imagine our own future in any shape or form. Life was walking next to us and we were afraid to touch it. We were going with the flow, we tried not to think about the reasons and the meaning of what was taking place as we were afraid to come face to face with our own ineptness. Life posed new questions and put forth new demands, and all of it was passing us by. We were malleable and so adjusted to the changing circumstances, but seldom were we capable of putting down roots in those new times,” she wrote.

Soon the workshop recieved a large order.

“I was captivated by Channel’s personality, by her bubbling energy and her vivid imagination,” related Maria Pavlovna. At that time she had brought a few motley shirts from the Faroe Islands and was struck by the idea of using this pattern for embroidery on silk blouses. And once I came in right at the heat of her argument with Madame Batai, who brought in her embroideries. Both were studying the pattern pieces of the pure silk, raspberry coloured blouse. Channel was shooting down the price. I remember the end of that unequal duel: “Mademoiselle Channel, if I can make this blouse 150 franks cheaper, will you give me the order?” I asked. What moved me to make such an offer I didn’t know then, neither do I know now. Channel looked at me. “But of course,” she said, “only it is sewing machine work. Do you know anything about sewing machine embroidery?” “I know nothing,” I honestly admitted, “but I will learn”. “One can always give it a try”, said Channel with a flicker of doubt in her voice. I hunched over the sewing machine for many days, tirelessly pressing my foot on the pedal; there were no windows in the workshop, the lighting was dim, and the air was full of suspended dust and oil,” remembered Maria Pavlovna.

Maria Pavlovna hired two embroiderers from amongst the Russian émigré women and the embroidery work done by seamstresses of “Kitmir” made a real splash. Soon the workshop became the exclusive provider to the fashion house Channel. Maria Pavlovna worked day and night, fell asleep at the sewing machine, sometimes losing consciousness, fainting from hunger, yet at the same time she rejoiced:

Soon the workshop became the exclusive provider to the fashion house Channel.

“The work came by very timely; it would allow me to lead a productive life, require my energy and imagination; and I needed something to load myself with and distract myself from the thoughts about my own persona. I had stayed in the clouds too long, and now was the time to act; I had to have faith in myself and rely on my own strength. It was also necessary to return the independence and freedom of my hands that I had during the war.”

When “Kitmir’s” business was steaming ahead, Maria Pavlovna increased the number of embroiderer staff, employing solely Russian émigré women, and Putyanin quit his private banking job where he bad worked for more than a year and made himself the accountant of his wife’s workshop.

“The success of the embroideries so surpassed my expectations that it literally stunned me. Due to my inexperience I overestimated my own energy levels and the working capacity of my small workshop. Orders started falling on us, but how to fulfil them if there were only three or four of us? We tirelessly worked for a few weeks, especially me and my mother-in-law. Sometimes after midnight I would be pushing the pedal of the sewing machine with only one thought in my tired head: Tomorrow we have to deliver it,” recalled Maria Pavlovna.

This life itself taught her to be constantly active as a means of survival.

Knitting was one of Maria Pavlovna’s favorite activities. Knitting was one of Maria Pavlovna’s favorite activities. But the ironed out Parisian life started to get one crack after another: “Kitmir” went bust; the perfume shop that Maria Pavlovna had opened was not profitable; the trading of Swedish glass wasn’t coming together. And her second marriage, although she married for love, turned out to be an “unequal union”.

“The union happened as everything around was collapsing. But once the immediate danger passed and one had to come to terms with living in an ordered society, that’s when the differences in tastes and characters were discovered,” Maria Pavlovna explained her final breakup with Putyanin.

Her life abroad is clearly divided into three periods. The first lasted almost three years, and according to her own view it would be right to call it, “life in a dream”, when “the footing was solid, but the eyes didn’t see”. The only thing that troubled her was her bereavements, but the troubling life around her touched her superficially, if at all. Towards the end of the first period, she felt as if she was stepping onto shaky ground and before her was abyss.

Maria and Dmitri Romanov. Maria and Dmitri Romanov. The second period was the awakening, the time for re-evaluation and responsible decisions, studies and enterprising impulses. These years, willingly or unwillingly, were full of struggles as life showed itself in stark contrasts: early ripe hopes and disappointments, temporary successes and failures, beliefs turned to ashes and the gradual building up of a new world. Towards the end of the eighth year, bruised and having lost their fortune, she closed that chapter, having become in her own opinion a completely different person.

The third period of exile started with her departure from France in 1929. Maria Pavlovna consciously broke with Europe, and despite her unknown destiny, believed in herself and was not afraid to look life in the eye.

Maria Pavlovna with her son Lennart, 1947. Maria Pavlovna with her son Lennart, 1947. “I have long ago left Russia, but my heart remained there, its destiny would not leave my mind. My own losses no longer meant anything to me; I could judge the situation with the dispassion I had acquired over the last couple of years. I separated myself from all politics. It seemed implausible that the destiny of Russia could be influenced by politicians in exile as they have already proved their ineptness. No matter how torturous a route Russia was going through, she would always remain on the map of the world. Our duty, the duty of Russians, was to leave all our personal interests, leave behind empty hopes and wait until our Russia would pass through the trials. We might be refused return, and we will not take part in the rebuilding of the country, but even from afar we can be useful if we stop holding onto our biased beliefs. I felt that such a preparation for the future is the only right line to adhere to,” wrote Maria Pavlovna.

She lived in USA for almost twelve years, then went to Argentina. She wrote and published a book of memoirs, earned her living by drawing and photography, and never stopped her needlework.

After the second world war she returned to Europe, moved in with her son at the estate he inherited on Mainau island, Lake Constance. There, on a rainy December morning of 1958, ended the life’s path of the Grand Russian Duchess, the Swedish Duchess of of Södermanland, Duchess Putyanin, Madame Kitmir, and simply a woman with a “useless education and strict upbringing”, who had been torn by emotions, dashed around the world in search of herself, and at the end of her life insisted with a smile that “to hold up through trials is a delightful experience”.

Maria Pavlovna and her former husband Wilhelm (back of the photo) at her granddaughter’s wedding (the daughter of her son Lennart), 1949. Maria Pavlovna and her former husband Wilhelm (back of the photo) at her granddaughter’s wedding (the daughter of her son Lennart), 1949.     

Olga Lunkova
Translation by Anastasia Starukhina


Catherine Jeanne Baklarz-George7/12/2020 8:27 am
Dear Sirs and Madams: I am inquiring about Archduke Ferdinand’s family history and that of his attachment to the Orthodox Church, if any. “Cinderella” story really made me cry because her truth may be perhaps a truth we are living in today, and may become the future of America, unfortunately. My grandfather used to talk a lot about Franz Joseph and that he was his cousin. My husband is a great historian and in his many conversations with my grandfather learned of these things. I am just looking for more! thank you.
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