Grand Duchess Olga Konstantinovna of Russia, Queen of the Hellenes
Queen Olga of the Hellenes was born Grand Duchess Olga Konstantinova of Russia, on September 3, 1851 at Pavlovsk Palace, St. Petersburg. She was the elder daughter of Grand Duke Konstantin Nicolayevich of Russia (a son of Tsar Nicholas I) and Princess Alexandra of Saxe-Altenburg. She had 5 siblings:
- Grand Duke Nicholai Konstantinovich (1850) – married Nadezhda Alexandrovna von Dreyer, had issue
- Grand Duchess Vera Konstantinovna (1854) – married Duke Eugen of Württemberg, had issue
- Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich (1858) – married Princess Elisabeth of Saxe-Altenburg, had issue
- Grand Duke Dimitri Konstantinovich (1860) – unmarried
- Grand Duke Vyacheslav Konstantinovich (1862) – unmarried
Olga grew up at her father’s estates in St. Petersburg and the Crimea, as well as some time in Poland where her father served as Viceroy. She was educated privately at home.
In 1863, she first met her future husband who had just been elected King George I of the Hellenes. The two met again four years later, and she quickly fell in love. The couple married in the chapel of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg on October 27, 1867. Just sixteen years old, Olga was now Queen of the Hellenes. Over the next 20 years, Olga and George had eight children:
- King Constantine I (1868) – married Princess Sophie of Prussia, had issue
- Prince George (1869) – married Princess Marie Bonaparte, had issue
- Princess Alexandra (1870) – married Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich of Russia, had issue
- Prince Nicholas (1872) – married Grand Duchess Elena Vladimirovna of Russia, had issue
- Princess Maria (1876) – married (1) Grand Duke George Mikhailovich of Russia, had issue; (2) Admiral Perikles Ioannidis, no issue
- Princess Olga (1880) – died in infancy
- Prince Andrew (1882) – married Princess Alice of Battenberg, had issue
- Prince Christopher (1888) – married (1) Nancy Leeds, no issue; (2) Princess Françoise of Orléans, had issue
Being so young, Olga was not prepared for her new life as Queen, in a new country. But she made efforts to earn the love and respect of the Greek people, wearing a dress of blue and white – the Greek national colors – for her arrival, and quickly learning to speak Greek. Used to the splendor of the Russian court, life in Greece was quite different, and almost boring in comparison. But Olga adjusted and was a very hands-on mother, and threw herself into charity work which she thoroughly enjoyed. From the moment she arrived in Greece, she took on several patronages previously held by the previous Queen Amalia. Particularly drawn to helping those in need, she worked tireless to improve conditions for the poor and orphaned. She also became patron of several military hospitals, and helped establish the Annunciation Hospital in Athens. She also built a Russian Hospital in Piraeus, which served Russian soldiers and any other soldiers visiting Greece. During the Greco-Turkish War of 1897 and the Balkan Wars, Olga established hospitals to serve the wounded, and was awarded the Royal Red cross by Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom in December 1897. She also retained her love for Russia, and often entertained Russian sailors at the Royal Palace.
Despite her charity work, Olga occasionally courted controversy in Greece. Realizing that many wounded soldiers were unable to read the Bible due to the archaic Greek in which it was written, she arranged for a new version to be published in Modern Greek. This was not authorized by the Greek Holy Synod and caused a huge uproar, with calls for excommunication for anyone involved in the project, including Olga. By the end of the year, all remaining copies had been confiscated and no longer allowed to be circulated.
Olga’s husband, King George, was assassinated in Thessaloniki on March 18, 1913. Olga arrived in the city the next day to accompany her husband’s body back to Athens. She retained a wing of the Royal Palace in Athens, but spent much of her time back in Russia. When World War I began, Queen Olga was in Russia, where she established a hospital at Pavlovsk Palace to treat wounded soldiers.
Olga remained in Greece even after the fall of the Russian monarchy in 1917. Following the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks invaded Pavlovsk Palace but she remained unharmed. Initially, they refused to let her leave Russia, and at the time, Greece was in no position to offer any help. Her son, Constantine, had been deposed and sent into exile, and one of his younger sons, Alexander, had been chosen to replace him. Finally, with help from the Danish government, Olga was able to leave Russia, traveling to join her family in Switzerland in 1919.
In October 1920, her grandson, King Alexander, developed septicemia from a monkey bite. Gravely ill, he called for his mother, but the government would not permit Queen Sophie to return. It was, however, negotiated, that Queen Olga could travel to Athens to be at her grandson’s bedside. Sadly, she arrived just hours after Alexander died on October 25. The next several weeks saw significant changes in the political landscape of Greece. Prime Minister Venizelos was defeated in a general election just days after Alexander’s death. The following month, the new Prime Minister asked Queen Olga to serve as Regent. And three days later, a referendum was held, in which her son, King Constantine I, was restored to the Greek throne. Queen Olga served as Regent until his return to Greece on December 19, 1920.
In September 1922, following another coup, King Constantine I abdicated in favor of his eldest son and rightful heir, King George II. Constantine and his family, along with Queen Olga, left the country and went into exile in Italy. George II would only serve for 18 months before the monarchy was deposed. Unlike the other members of her family, Queen Olga was held in very high esteem by the Greek people, and was the only member of her family to be given a pension by the new government.
Queen Olga spent her remaining years in the United Kingdom, shuttling between the homes of her son, Christopher, and her daughter, Marie, as well as the royal residences of the British Royal Family. Olga remained very close to her sister-in-law, Queen Alexandra, and was particularly close to her nephew, King George V. After several years of ill health, Queen Olga died on June 18, 1926.
Again, as a sign of the respect in which she was held, the Greek government offered to provide a lavish funeral and burial in Greece. Her children, however, declined the offer. Following a funeral at the Orthodox Church in Rome, Queen Olga’s remains were placed in the crypt of the Russian church in Florence, beside those of her son, King Constantine I. In 1936, after the Greek monarchy was restored, Queen Olga was re-interred in the Royal Cemetery at Tatoi Palace.