Grand Duchess Olga Constantinovna of Russia later Queen Olga of the Hellenes (3 September [O.S. 22 August] 1851 – 18 June 1926), was the wife of King George I of Greece and, briefly in 1920, regent of Greece. Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, is her grandson.
A member of the Romanov dynasty, she was the daughter of Grand Duke Constantine Nikolaievich and his wife, Princess Alexandra of Saxe-Altenburg. She spent her childhood in Saint Petersburg, Poland and the Crimea, and married King George I of Greece in 1867 at the age of sixteen. At first, she felt ill at ease in the Kingdom of Greece, but she quickly became involved in social and charitable work. She founded hospitals and help centers, but her attempt to promote a new, more accessible, Greek translation of the Gospels sparked riots by religious conservatives.
On the assassination of her husband in 1913, Olga returned to Russia. When the First World War broke out, she set up a military hospital in Pavlovsk Palace, which belonged to her brother. She was trapped in the palace after the Russian Revolution of 1917, until the Danish embassy intervened, allowing her to escape to Switzerland. Olga could not return to Greece as her son, King Constantine I, had been deposed.
In October 1920, she returned to Athens on the fatal illness of her grandson, King Alexander. After his death, she was appointed regent until the restoration of Constantine I the following month. After the defeat of the Greeks in the Greco-Turkish War of 1919–22 the Greek royal family were again exiled and Olga spent the last years of her life in the United Kingdom, France and Italy.
Olga was born at Pavlovsk Palace near Saint Petersburg on 3 September [O.S. 22 August] 1851. She was the second child and elder daughter of Grand Duke Constantine Nikolaievich and his wife, Grand Duchess Alexandra, a former princess of Saxe-Altenburg. Through her father, Olga was a granddaughter of Tsar Nicholas I, a niece of Tsar Alexander II and first cousin of Tsar Alexander III.
Her childhood was spent at her father’s homes, including Pavlovsk Palace and estates in the Crimea. Her father was a younger brother of Alexander II, and her mother was considered one of the most intelligent and elegant women of the court. Olga was particularly close to her older brother, Nicholas, and was one of the few members of the imperial family to keep in touch with him after he was banished to Tashkent.
As a child, Olga was described as a simple and chubby little girl with a broad face and big blue eyes. Unlike her younger sister, Vera, she had a calm temperament, but she was also extremely shy. For example, when interrogated by her tutors during lessons, she burst into tears and ran from the classroom.
In 1862, Grand Duke Constantine Nikolaievich was appointed viceroy of Russian Poland by his brother and moved to Warsaw with his wife and children. The stay in Poland proved difficult for the Grand Duke, who was the victim of a nationalist assassination attempt the day after his arrival in the Polish capital. Although Constantine embarked on a program of liberalization and re-instated Polish as an official language, Polish nationalists agitating for reform were not appeased. Finally, an uprising in January 1863 and the radicalization of the separatists pushed the Tsar to recall his brother in August. Olga’s difficult experiences in Poland marked her profoundly.
The young King George I of Greece visited Russia in 1863 to thank Olga’s uncle Tsar Alexander II for his support during George’s election to the throne of Greece. Whilst there, George met the then twelve-year-old Olga for the first time.
George visited Russia again in 1867 to meet with his sister Dagmar, who had married Tsarevitch Alexander (later Alexander III) the year before. He was determined to find a wife and the idea of an alliance with a Russian grand duchess, born into the Eastern Orthodox Church, appealed to him. Olga fell in love with George, but she was nevertheless anxious and distraught at the thought of leaving Russia. Her father was initially reluctant to agree to their marriage, thinking that at the age of fifteen she was too young and, being close to his daughter, concerned by the distance between Greece and Russia. For her part, Grand Duchess Alexandra was much more enthusiastic than her husband and, when some members of the imperial family noted the extreme youth of her daughter, she replied that Olga would not always be as young. Eventually, it was decided that Olga and George would marry when she had reached her sixteenth birthday. Meanwhile, she would continue her schoolwork until her wedding day.
Olga and George married at the chapel of the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg on 27 October [O.S. 15 October] 1867. After five days of festivities, they spent a brief honeymoon at Ropsha, south-west of Saint Petersburg. Over the following twenty years, they had eight children.
Throughout their marriage, George I and Olga were a close-knit couple, and contrary to the prevailing custom spent much time with their children, who grew up in a warm family atmosphere. With age, however, George I argued with his sons and Olga lamented the quarrels that divided the family periodically. In private, Olga and George I conversed in German because it was the only language they both spoke at the time of their marriage. With their offspring, they spoke mainly English, although the children were required to speak Greek among themselves, and Prince Andrew refused to speak anything but Greek to his parents.
The life of the royal family was relatively quiet and withdrawn. The Athenian court was not as brilliant and sumptuous as that of Saint Petersburg, and days in the Greek capital were sometimes monotonous for members of the royal family. In spring and winter, they divided time between the Royal Palace in Athens, and Tatoi Palace at the foot of Mount Parnitha. Summers were spent on vacation at Aix-les-Bains in France, visiting relatives in the Russian capital or at Fredensborg and Bernstorff in Denmark, and relaxing at Mon Repos, Corfu.
Olga remained nostalgic for Russia. Her room was filled with icons from her homeland and, in the palace chapel, she sang Slavic hymns with her children. She often visited Russian ships that were docked at Piraeus and invited the Russian sailors to the royal palace. She was the only woman in history to bear the title of Admiral of the Imperial Russian Navy, an honor given to her on marriage. She was honored in the Greek navy by having a ship named after her.
Olga was genuinely popular and was extensively involved in charity work. On arrival in Athens, her immediate patronages included the Amalieion orphanage founded by the previous queen consort Amalia of Oldenburg, and the Arsakeion school for girls located on University Boulevard. With her personal support and the support of wealthy donors, she built asylums for the terminally ill and for the elderly disabled, and a sanatorium for patients with consumption. She founded a society to help the poor, a kindergarten for the children of the poor, and a soup kitchen in Piraeus that doubled as a cooking school for poor girls that was later expanded into a weaving school for girls and elderly women in financial difficulty. She was patron of two military hospitals and endowed the Evangelismos (Annunciation) Hospital, Greece’s largest, in downtown Athens. She built the Russian Hospital in Piraeus in memory of her daughter, Alexandra, who died in Moscow in 1891. Although aimed primarily at Russian sailors, the hospital was open to all seamen visiting Greece, with consultation fees set at the low rate of thirty lepta and medicines being free. Olga also supported the establishment and funding of hospitals during the conflicts between Greece and its neighbors, including the Greco-Turkish War of 1897 and the First Balkan War (1912–13). For their work for the wounded, Olga and her daughter-in-law Crown Princess Sophia were awarded the Royal Red Cross by Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom in December 1897.
Before Olga’s arrival in Greece, there were no separate prisons for women or the young, and she was instrumental in the establishment of a women’s prison in the capital and, with the support of wealthy philanthropist George Averoff, one for juvenile delinquents.
Shortly after Greece’s defeat in the Greco-Turkish War of 1897, shots were fired at Olga’s husband and daughter by disgruntled Greeks in 1898. Despite the failed assassination, Olga insisted on continuing her engagements without a military guard. Her son Nicolas wrote in his memoirs that one day he spoke of the importance of public opinion to his mother, and she retorted, “I prefer to be governed by a well born lion rather than four hundred rats like me.” Olga’s interest in political and public opinion was limited. Although she favored Greece’s Russian party, she had no political influence over her husband and did not seek political influence in the Greek parliament