Interview with Xenia Kulikovsky, the granddaughter of the Grand Duchess of Russia and great-granddaughter of the Russian Tsar
Nadia Knudsen, journalist
Xenia Kulikovsky, the granddaughter of the Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna and great-granddaughter of Alexander III and Empress Maria Feodorovna, lives in Denmark, on the outskirts of Copenhagen, where she was born on 19 June 1941 and where, by the will of fate, she returned 20 years later with her baby son in her arms. We are talking about the vicissitudes of Xenia’s fate, whose life was closely intertwined with the life of her grandmother Olga Romanova, the younger sister of Nicholas II, sitting over a cup of fragrant tea in the living room of her villa.
Xenia, tell me, is it true that the musicians of a Russian orchestra in Denmark call you their talisman?
This is a virtuoso ensemble of Russian folk music, our balalaikas. Every year, except two pandemic ones, my husband and I go to Copenhagen for their solo concerts and enjoy it beyond words! The orchestra is 85 years old, and, you know, it feels like they are not getting old – such a prowess in their songs, such a refined mastery of performance, the heart just fills with joy. And they really call me their talisman and they always book the best places in the front row for us with pleasure. But it was my grandmother Olga Alexandrovna, the last Grand Duchess of Russia, who helped them take their very first steps towards success.
Could you, please, tell us more about how it all happened?
I remember from childhood that the Knudsminde estate was crowded, life, as they say, was in full swing. There were a farm, a stable, vast land tracts where mostly young people from the Russian immigrant families worked, and after work they liked to relax on the lawn and sing songs. Olga Alexandrovna consulted with her husband Nikolai Kulikovsky, and they shared boards, logs, window frames, roofing materials, and the musicians quickly built a summer house, where many young people gathered – some of them even came from Copenhagen. Among them was Evgeny Pavlovsky, a musician, the son of a Russian officer in the tsarist army, a Siberian. He was thinking of organising an ensemble of Russian folk songs with balalaikas, and he immediately succeeded with ease. They took root here, learned new songs in that summer house on weekends, joked, fell in love, sat by the fire until dawn.
It was back in 1936, so it can be said that my grandmother facilitated the birth of the orchestra, for a start giving them roof and shelter in the full sense of the word. And by the time when in 1948 the Kulikovskys had to sell the Knudsminde estate and emigrate to Canada with the whole large family, Evgeny Pavlovsky’s orchestra had already grown stronger and moved to Copenhagen. Such is the story.
I know that you are an Orthodox person. Do you visit the Russian church?
No, I don’t speak Russian, it just so happened, but I try to live like a Christian and follow the commandments. And I named both of my sons in honour of the Orthodox saints Peter and Paul. They baptised me at the insistence of my grandmother Olga Alexandrovna in July 1941 (I had just turned a month old) in the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Alexander Nevsky, in the very one that was built in 1883 in the centre of Copenhagen and presented by Tsar Alexander III to his wife Maria Feodorovna, nee Princess Dagmar of Denmark.
Moreover, I was baptised by the Russian priest Leonid Kolchev, who once was the confessor of Maria Feodorovna. Naturally, I could not remember how I was baptised, but it remained in my memory that when I was already four years old, my grandmother Olga often took me with her to visit this church for Sunday services. I remember how I was dressed up in the morning in a wonderful dress, patent leather shoes, because it was a festive occasion for me to come to church, like for all parishioners, Russian emigrants. I remember that beautifully dressed ladies sat on chairs to the right and left of the church altar during the service, and we as children were always given sweets and delicious cookies, so that we would not make noise during the service.
Were you named Xenia, also at the insistence of your grandmother Olga, in honour of her older sister Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna, who was famous for her beauty and grace in the royal family of Alexander III? Did you meet her as a child?
Yes, this is true, my name is very Russian, and most likely I owe it to my grandmother.
Firstly, because my mother was Danish and it was hardly her idea. And secondly, in the large Kulikovsky family, the grandmother was always the leader. In addition, I was her first granddaughter and her most beloved one, she spoiled me and, when I grew up, she often took me to sketches in the forest and to the city running some errands, where she bought me sweets and ice cream.
And I met the Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna, but in London, I was then seven years old. My grandmother’s older sister, being married to Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, cousin of Alexander III, chose to stay with her children in England when they, along with the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, her retinue and Romanov family members, were rescued from Crimea in April 1919 on the British Battleship HMS Marlborough.
In the spring of 1920, Olga Alexandrovna, with her husband Nikolai Kulikovsky and two babies in her arms, reached Denmark. They settled with the Dowager Empress, in the royal residence of Amalienborg, and then moved with her to Villa Hvidøre. According to my grandmother, her sister, Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna, came here more than once with her children to see her mother. But that was all long before I was born.
They say that the Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna was, as it were, disinherited, moreover, it happened through the fault of her sister.
That is not entirely true, they were connected by good relations. I remember that in 1948, due to forced emigration to Canada, we stopped on our way in London and spent six weeks at the Frogmore residence, where we were hospitably looked after by the family, including the Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna. Although, to tell the truth, I remember her as a kind of capricious and always dissatisfied aristocrat. Which was in sharp contrast to my grandmother Olga, who was always optimistic, kind and very caring person.
Inheritance… I don’t presume to judge here, but the fact is that 155 thousand Danish crowns (a lot of money at that time) received in 1929 from the sale at four Danish royal auctions of the personal property of the Empress Maria Feodorovna were deposited by Xenia Alexandrovna on her sister Olga’s account, with the so-called investment account of the Bank of England.
You spent your childhood in the family circle at the Knudsminde estate, where you were born. Do you remember what you dreamed about when you were a child?
I remember that as a child I wanted to be a rider, I had a passion for horses. My grandmother Olga bought me a pony, and my grandfather Nikolai, with the assistance of artisans, made a cart for me, and I rode around the estate in it. I was then six years old.
And my grandfather had his own chaise drawn by an Icelandic horse. He could no longer go around his possessions on horseback – age affected him. He brought all the workers from the field and the farms for lunch in this chaise, and they all sat down at the table together: that was the tradition of the Kulikovsky couple.
There were always a lot of people on the estate, there were nurses, maids, cooks, I remember we had a large kitchen with a real stove. It was located downstairs, where we also had food pantries. And there was a special elevator cabin for lifting prepared food. And I remember how once I enjoyed bread with my favourite raspberry jam, which kind Russian cooks often treated me to, and they suddenly, jokingly, put me in this elevator cabin and lifted me up – the maids gasped in surprise. I was about five then, probably not older.
My life was closely intertwined with the fate of my grandmother Olga Alexandrovna. I was born on her estate in Denmark to the family of her youngest son Guri and his Danish wife Ruth Schwartz. By the way, the eldest son Tikhon was also married to a Dane, and all three families lived in peace under the same roof in a spacious three-story mansion of the Knudsminde estate, which was bought on the outskirts of Copenhagen in 1930 against a part of the inheritance received after the death of my great-grandmother Maria Feodorovna.
The estate had marvellous meadows, fields, a dairy farm, stables, a garden and greenhouses; they kept cows, piglets, rabbits, chickens, geese, planted sugar beets and oats. The farm and workers were managed by my grandfather, cavalry colonel Nikolai Kulikovsky, and the house and domestic staff were supervised by my grandmother. In addition, she spoke Danish and conducted all the affairs, so that she was, as it were, “the staff of life”.
Everything went well, the sons, having received an excellent education, having served in the royal guard, chose the career of military officers, started their families, got children – that were me and my brother Leonid who was born in 1943. It has always been Olga Alexandrovna’s dream to live as a big family, surrounded by her children and grandchildren.
But in 1948, everyone had to leave the family nest, lovingly organised by Olga Alexandrovna, overnight and, without waiting for the consequences of the “Kremlin note” about the extradition of the Grand Duchess to them, with the active assistance of the Danish King Frederick IX, all three families were forced to emigrate to Canada, where they early bought a land parcel located 80 km from Toronto, near the beautiful Lake Ontario. And soon they built a house where the Kulikovskys lived all together. We didn’t live in poverty, we adapted ourselves to the new country, my grandfather Nikolai began to breed racehorses, I went to school, the first grade, and my father taught at the university.
However, not everyone had successfully passed the emigration test, and the marriages of Olga Alexandrovna’s sons came apart at the seams. And despite the birth of the third son Alexander in 1948, my father, like Tikhon, left the family. In December 1956, taking two youngest children, Leonid and Alexander, with her my mother returned to Denmark. I stayed with my father, and after entering college, I moved in with my grandmother.
And how did Olga Alexandrovna’s life turn out in Canada?
The Canadian period of life was as comfortable as in Denmark. My grandmother was still active as an artist, her paintings were exhibited and successfully sold, and being a parishioner of the Orthodox Church in Toronto, in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, she painted several icons for the iconostasis, and even stamps were issued in Canada based on her sketches. They tried not to showcase their status and did not declare loud that they were directly related to the last Russian Tsar Nicholas II, but the authorities, of course, knew about it.
I remember that in 1952, during an official visit paid to Canada by the English Princess Marina of Kent, my grandmother Olga was invited to a reception held on the ship Britannia, and in 1959 she was also invited, along with her son Tikhon, to a reception on the occasion of the official visit to Canada of the Princess Elisabeth of Denmark, a first cousin of the present Danish monarch, Queen Margrethe II.
I had a funny episode connected with Olga Alexandrovna’s special status. I fell in love with my classmate, he drove me one late evening to my grandmother’s house, and the car had already slowed down at the house, the last kiss, when suddenly out of nowhere a policeman with a flashlight appeared right there and shined into the windshield! The embarrassment was terrible, but as it turned out, he just wanted to make sure who was at the Grand Duchess’s house at such a late hour, friend or foe. He apologized for the trouble and disappeared, but I realised then that she was guarded behind the scenes.
You got married early and became the mother of your first child at 19.
Yes, but love doesn’t choose whether it’s due time or not. My Canadian husband Ralph Jones was three years older than me and soon we became the parents of our son Paul Edward. Shortly before that, in November 1960, my grandmother Olga passed away; by that time she had been a widow for two years, as my grandfather died in 1958.
I was unable to cope with such trials, so I agreed with my father to live with him at the first after the birth of my baby. His second wife Elena was not happy with this, we didn’t get along with her, so one day when dad was not at home, she just sent me out of the room! I lived with my friends for several weeks, then I made a reasonable decision and, leaving Canada forever, flew to Denmark with my son.
How did you manage to find a job there without speaking Danish and with a baby in your arms?
As they say, hunger breaks stone walls. When you are young, full of energy and the brightest hopes, everything comes easily, if you are not lazy. I diligently learned Danish, the skills of which I still had, and speaking English and French perfectly after Canada, I was able to get a job as an executive assistant at a large shipyard in Copenhagen, Burmeister & Wain.
Was it the one where at the end of the last century the luxurious yacht Standart was built by order of the Emperor Alexander III, your great-grandfather?
That’s right, but the ship was launched by Nicholas II, who by that time succeeded to the throne after his father. Together with his wife, the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, and little Olga, they left the harbour of Copenhagen for the Scottish port of Lys, first on a test sail, and then at full steam went to Paris, where the ceremony of consecrating the Alexander III bridge, generously donated to France by Russia in connection with the conclusion of important agreements, took place.
And what changes then happened in your life?
In 1962 I met my second husband Finn Larsen, a Dane. We have a daughter, Vivian, and a son, Peter. At first, I was a housewife, then I studied as a jeweller and got a job in a large women’s clothing boutique Fønsbek as a seller in the imitation jewellery department, and later, in January 1964, I passed a competition and was hired as a telephone operator for an international line in the large metropolitan telephone company KTAS.
But the happiness in my second marriage was short-lived, because my husband eventually became interested in both wine and ladies. And someday, with three children in my arms, I had to part with him. I moved to Albertslund, not far from the capital city, where I got a job at the Post kontor & Telegraf postal office.
And there you met your future husband Aage Nielsen, with whom you have been living happily for over 40 years, right?
Yes, you are right. After my divorce in 1973, I had never dreamed of meeting such an intelligent, charming knight that fate had given me. And although Aage is much younger than me, he won my heart with a storm of feelings! Love is manifested by deeds, and Aage, without hesitation, moved in with me, helped raise three children. Love works wonders!
In 1978 we bought this villa, and in 1981 our daughter Vibeke was born, and we got married. Since then we have been living in happiness.
I noticed that you have two birch trees in your garden, and in the kitchen there is a green oilcloth with chamomile flowers on the table, at which the whole family must like to drink tea in a very Russian manner with apple jam, which you make from apples that you pick in your garden. Which is no longer Danish. Did you get these genes from your grandmother?
Yes, these are my Russian roots, and I am proud of them. Birch trees were the first thing we planted when we bought a house. And this is in memory of my grandmother, who loved her homeland very much, yearned for it and even emigrated from Denmark to Canada, because that country, due to its nature, very much reminded her of Russia. The same endless expanses, birch trees, harsh winters, wolves, which, as I remember, sometimes howled at night near our first estate at Toronto. She dived into nostalgia, and it can be seen from the pictures. And her last painting finished in 1959 is called Russian Easter Table.
What does lineal relation with the Russian royal Romanov dynasty mean to you?
Good question. What is important is not the external, but what values you carry inside: moral, family, spiritual values, and what you pass on to your children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. Can you instill in them respect for their roots, for the history of the great family, love for Russia? At least, they are interested in it.
If a good wizard could fulfil your three cherished dreams, what would you wish for?
I would ask for some health and to see again the beauty of the palaces near St. Petersburg, especially Gatchina, where my grandmother Olga grew up. And to hear the Kremlin chimes on the Red Square. These are my deepest desires!