Knowing your place: the boundaries around relationships in pre-Revolutionary Russia

Lately I have read pieces both in fiction and non-fiction which have claimed my grandfather, Pavel Voronov, “stepped over the line” when in the presence of the Grand Duchess Olga, daughter of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. These pieces have been very obviously written through a contemporary Western lens, most probably by authors who have no idea of the etiquette and mores of Imperial Russia. In the West we have been conditioned to accept the behaviour of contemporary Royals, such as the British Royal Family, as the norm. It was very different in Imperial Russia. So, this week I am reposting a post from a couple of years ago, which will give those interested a bit more information:

The first time I Googled my grandfather, Paul Woronoff – or Pavel Voronov as he was known in Russia – was the first time I heard of his connection with the Romanovs. I had, of course, read my grandmother’s book Upheaval but the Paul in her book was so distant from the Dadu that I knew, it was as if I was reading about a totally different person.

I called my Russian grandparents Dadu and Babu, because when I was learning to talk I could never pronounce Dadushka and Babushka.

My grandfather is supposed to have been one of the love interests of the Grand Duchess Olga, eldest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II. I am not disputing that she had a crush on my grandfather, but I doubt that he realised it. In fact, I believe he liked her in the same way anyone would like the young daughter of their employer.

I have read so many comments over the years from people sighing over this fated love affair and proposing various “what if” scenarios, but what few people consider is the class system in Russia at the time. A relationship between my grandfather and the Grand Duchess would not only not be permitted, it would be unthinkable. Literally. My grandfather, knowing his place in society, would not even have dreamt of such a connection. It sounds odd I know, especially in this day and age when the class system has all but crumbled around the world and “royalty” today marry who they please. But in pre-Revolutionary Russia it would have been a scandal beyond anything you can imagine.

One has to remember that this sort of protocol was ingrained into families. Children were brought up knowing who they could associate with, what class they belonged to. My grandfather’s family, although noble, were not part of the old nobility, the “boyare” which automatically pushed them down a rung on the class ladder. They were new aristocracy, “dvoryane”. As many of the nobility, they did not have a title, they were not a wealthy family, but they did have their name included in the list of aristocrats in Russia. (My thanks goes to my friend Svetlana for this information – you can follow her on Instagram @sly_tortilla).

My grandmother’s family, on the other hand, were titled and very wealthy. But my grandmother was female and the youngest of the siblings so, as long as she married into the nobility, it was probably acceptable. I do know my grandparents were very much in love with each other, right up to my grandfather’s death in 1969.

My grandfather was lucky to have served as a naval officer on the Tsar’s yacht, the Standart. As a result he became quite close to all of the members of the Imperial Family. The young Tsarevitch Alexei, was his favourite. My grandmother was a Maid of Honour to Empress Alexandra and the Dowager Empress Marie. My grandmother also knew the Grand Duchesses and corresponded with Grand Duchess Tatiana and Grand Duchess Olga. But neither of my grandparents would have thought of any of the Imperial Family as friends – not with the same connotation we have of friends today. It would not have been their place to do so.

I cannot remember who sent me this photo of my grandfather with Grand Duchess Olga, so I unfortunately cannot acknowledge them.

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This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Michael Berglund

    Thanks as always Alexandra

    1. Avatar photo

      Thank you for reading!

  2. Jonathan Glass

    Thank you for sharing this. I learned a lot about the class system of early 20th century Russia and the relationship between your grandparents and the Romanovs.

  3. Elise McCune

    This is a very informative post about the class system in Russia at the time when your grandfather was a naval officer on the last Tsar’s yacht, the Standart. When reading fiction books, ‘inspired’ by certain people or incidents in history, also non-fiction books and articles, it is worth remembering that these are often written, as you said, ‘through a contemporary Western lens’.

  4. Cheryl McManus

    Very interesting!! Goes to show you, believe nothing unless you were there! You can put 5 people in a situation and they will all have different opinions and observations of the same room!! I am glad you came forward and and are trying to clear up the misinformation going around on the internet!! Taught me a lesson, read all with a grain of salt!!

    1. Avatar photo

      Thank you for reading!

  5. Andrei Beanov

    Greetings Alex , I have studied the Romanovs for 50years and never found any evidence that PV did anything ‘inappropriate’ or ‘overstepped the boundaries’. He knew his ‘station in life’ and conducted himself well. PV knew he could never ‘reciprocate’ Olgas feelings . I dont believe Nicholas had PV ‘removed’ out of Olgas life either , he just fell in love with OK. Olga had a ‘crush’ on PV for at least 5 years that I can see . After PV married , her ‘crush’ became Molokhovets. (see ).
    Olga was only about 13/14 here :

    Regards and Best Wishes in your research.

    1. Avatar photo

      Thank you Andrei! I am sure you are correct. I have correspondence between my grandparents which confirms they were deeply in love with each other. Thank you for reading my blog!

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