Have you ever seen this photograph before? It is, quite possibly, the single most important photograph ever taken in the 20th century.
The woman on the far right, holding a baby, is Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna Romanova. The young man in the back is Crown Prince Carol. The photograph was taken on July 14, 1914, in Constanta, Romania.
Although no one quite knew it at the time, the meeting depicted in this simple photograph would later change the lives of millions of people around the world.
Paging General Paget
In July 1878, a British nobleman and decorated officer named Arthur Paget married a wealthy American woman named Mary Stevens, affectionately known as “Minnie” to her friends.
The two quickly became a “power couple,” she hosting galas and parties with members of high society while he was promoted to the rank of general and Commander in Chief of all British forces in Ireland, then under “Home Rule”. By all accounts, General Paget was a ruthless and brutal man, but for whatever reason, he was trusted by King George V of England.
One of Paget’s secret jobs was to deliver letters between King George and Queen Marie, the wife of King Ferdinand of Romania. Marie was a member of the British royal family, her father the Duke of Edinburgh, and her mother was Grand Duchess Maria of the Russian Romanov dynasty.
The letters that General Paget carried back and forth between Queen Marie and King George were primarily concerned with negotiating the delicate relationship between the two countries (Romania and Britain).
At the time, the Triple Alliance between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy ensured that each country would defend one another in case of attack while the Triple Entente similarly ensured that Russia, France, and Britain would defend one another. Ostensibly, Romania was officially part of the Triple Alliance, but there was a growing move to join the Triple Entente.
In early 1914, Queen Marie of Romania traveled to Russia in order to visit her mother and other relatives. She formed a “triple alliance” of her own with two of her female relatives, her sister Victoria Melita (known as “Ducky” to her friends) and Grand Duchess Vladimir, in order to improve relations between Romania and Russia.
But Marie and her “triple alliance” also had another goal in mind: finding a suitable husband for Grand Duchess Olga, the eldest daughter of the Russian Tsar, Nicholas II.
For all these reasons and more, Marie was in high spirits on June 14, 1914, when Tsar Nicholas and his entire family boarded their royal yacht in the city of Odessa to travel to Constanta in Romania.
Tsar Nicholas of Russia had a close relationship with Prince Carol, partly due to their family ties and partly because Nicholas was heartily sick of the female dynamics of his own household. Although Nicholas loved his wife and four daughters very much, he was desperate to sire a male heir as Russian law strictly forbade his crown from being inherited by a woman.
What few people outside the royal family knew was that his one and only son, Alexei, was born with hemophilia, a crippling blood disease that put his survival in peril on a daily basis. Alexei had to be closely watched 24 hours a day and was completely forbidden from strenuous activities.
Prince Carol of Romania, in contrast, was a hale and hearty 21-year-old young man, much given to very “masculine” pursuits like drinking, shooting, and driving cars at high speed. As far as Tsar Nicholas was concerned, Carol was the perfect suitor for his eldest daughter Olga, then age 19.
Prince Carol came from the right bloodline, he was a member of the Orthodox faith, and the marriage would be politically strategic for both Russia and Romania, which then shared a common border.
For her part, Queen Marie was hoping that marriage would help her wild son “settle down”, while Tsar Nicholas was hoping that any male children that resulted from the union would serve as a kind of “insurance” in case anything happened to the fragile Alexei.
Unfortunately, Olga had a far different impression of Carol than did her father. Even before Olga and Carol met in person, Carol’s reputation had preceded him. Carol had been photographed numerous times, always with a drink in one hand. He was also known to be quite fond of the ladies, a nice way to say that he was very sexually active.
When the two royal families met, Carol was acting “sarcastic” and “unpleasant.” Olga, who had been raised with the exquisite manners befitting a royal, initially tried to be pleasant, but Carol continued to act like a jackass.
When it came time to take the historic photo, Olga rushed over to pick up her young cousin and thus not have to stand near Carol. Peering at us from the back row, Prince Carol has a rather sullen look on his face, clearly not happy to be there at all.
Exactly two weeks after the Romanovs returned home to Russia, Archduke Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in the streets of Sarajevo, an event that soon snowballed into what we now refer to as World War 1.
Romania was ostensibly neutral at the outbreak of war but soon joined the Triple Entente that included Russia. By the end of 1916, both Russia and Romania had suffered heavy losses at the hands of Germany, and the Romanian royal court was holed up in Iasi, the last pocket of territory still under their control.
In Russia, there was a growing discontentment with the war. By early 1917, troops began deserting, and huge crowds of people surrounded the royal palace in Petrograd to demand that Tsar Nicolas abdicate. Three days later, Nicholas relinquished his throne, and his family was effectively placed under house arrest while an interim government took control.
Not sure what to do with them, the interim government was willing to let Nicholas and his family travel to England to live in exile with their royal relatives, but King George rescinded his offer to take them in because it was feared that it would exacerbate tensions in Ireland where the situation was extremely tense following the Easter Rising. The interim Russian government also approached France to see if they would take the Romanovs, but France too declined due to the ongoing fighting.
The Romanovs were then moved to a small house in the remote city of Tobolsk deep in the Russian interior with the plan that they would leave for Japan the following spring.
Unfortunately for the Romanovs, a few months after they arrived in Tobolsk, a sickly but extremely passionate Vladimir Lenin arrived in Moscow to lead what became known as the October Revolution based on the ideas of Karl Marx, better known today as Communism. The Communists then moved the Romanovs to the city of Yekaterinburg in order to thwart any potential rescue attempts by pro-monarchy forces.
The details of what happened next are still disputed, but what is absolutely clear is that the entire Romanov family was murdered on July 17, 1918, by Communist forces. Nicholas, his wife, and all five children were shot and then stabbed with bayonets before being buried in an unmarked grave near Sverdlovsk.
Even though all hopes for returning the Romanovs to the throne was now over, it wasn’t until June 16, 1923 that the Communists won the civil war and establish the Soviet Union.
Had any direct descendants of the Romanovs survived, including a Queen Olga of Romania, the Communists may have never been able to successfully consolidate power.
Subsequent events such as the annexation of Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina in 1940 may have never happened either, but without a magic crystal ball, we’ll never know.
Instead, Olga was shot to death in Yekaterinburg and Prince Carol continued his scandalous ways, engaging in a highly-publicized affair with half-Jewish “Magda” Lupescu that led to his wife divorcing him in 1928.
Carol became widely despised in Romania, a key factor that led to the rise of “Marshal” Antonescu as the fascist leader of Romania and the country’s subsequent disastrous alliance with Nazi Germany.
Captured on Film
The momentous occasion of the Russian and Romanian families was caught on (silent) film, which you can see here:
The video shows the families positioning themselves for the famous photograph. If you look closely, you can see Carol in the background, smoking a cigarette and looking utterly bored. Olga, meanwhile, is beaming as she poses with her beloved sisters and father.
An estimated 18 million people died in World War 1, including some 600,000 in Romania and 3 million in Russia.
AND NOW YOU KNOW!