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Tuesday 2 July 2013

The Diary of Olga Romanov - An Interview With Helen Azar

I am delighted to present an interview with Helen Azar, librarian, translator and author of The Diary of Olga Romanov, Royal Witness to the Russian Revolution, which will be released this autumn. Based on more than five years research, the book includes not only the original diary of the Tsar's eldest daughter, but also letters and memoirs of the Grand Duchess, who was brutally murdered with her family in 1918. 

(My questions are in italics)

          The Diary of Olga Romanov is clearly a wonderful primary source, providing insight into the events surrounding the Imperial Family and the Russian Revolution. Does it create a different impression of the Imperial Family than the one which is usually presented?

The format of my book is deliberately a full-circle type of story, which begins with the discovery of the family’s remains in Koptyaki forest, then goes back in time to find out how events unfolded which led up to that eventuality, And this story of course is told through the words of Olga herself, as well as those close to her.
The reader will get a very intimate insight about Olga’s and her family’s daily life during the war years, then during the start of the revolution and later in their exile. With the hindsight 20/20 knowledge of the family’s ultimate fate, the experience of reading this book will be somewhat similar to that of Anne Frank’s diaries, but with the additional perspectives of those involved in the heroine’s story.

          Because of the brutality of their murder, the daughters of the Tsar are often presented as a group of innocent young girls, children even, who are barely distinguishable from one another. Does the diary bring out Olga’s individuality and reveal a great deal more about her character?

During the course of several years that I worked on the translations of these diaries, I felt that I personally went from perceiving Olga Nikolaevna Romanov as just a footnote, as she often appears in history books or biographies, to a real flesh and blood human being who actually lived in the not-so-long-ago 20th century. 

Despite the fact that for the most part Olga mundanely recorded her daily activities in her diaries - with not an overwhelming amount of emotions or personal feelings –there are many subtle glimpses into her personality and intimate thoughts, which offer the reader a lot of insight. 
While translating, I learned to read "between the lines" and started to see the teenager and the young woman who was not so different from girls I know personally – from her school girl crushes to her hopes and fears.

From her diaries I also learned that despite what has often been said about the imperial children, they did have a lot of casual, as well as close, friendships and a rather busy social life. In Olga's case at least, some of these people even seemed to be intimate friends of the opposite sex, although these relationships were clearly chaste, albeit flirtatious.  
Although we should not judge the person Olga was based solely on her diaries, we do get a lot of information as to what her daily life was like, how she socialized, what kinds of things she liked and disliked, what committees she was involved in, what books she read, what she felt about her parents, siblings and friends. Very often, Olga did use “we”, “we 2”, “we 3” and “we 4”, because the sisters did do a lot of activities together and were generally very close.

I want to add that often, the post-teenaged Olga’s diary entries sounded to me like a much younger girl’s, which would cause me to do a double-take and once again mentally calculate her age at the time she wrote these lines. However, I am convinced that this was probably just an attempt at consistency for contemporary diary writing. In this sense, Olga’s letters to friends and relatives during the same time are much more age appropriate, and emotional.

A strange thing that happened during my work on the diaries was that although I had long been very familiar with the history of what happened to Olga and her family, I would still catch myself thinking "I can't believe they actually killed this girl.” I started to feel almost as if this murdered person was someone I knew personally. It was a very strange feeling about someone I never met, someone I only knew through her diaries. This is how powerful these pages proved to be.
      She obviously wasn’t a child, since she was 22 years old at the time of her death and had lived   through the horrors of war and revolution. Does the diary paint a vivid picture of her work with the wounded and the effects of war on her family?

 Yes, absolutely. Almost every single entry contains some description of her work at the infirmary, including detailed descriptions of the patients’ conditions, how they were treated, etc. Of course I did not include all of that in the book, but the reader will definitely get the idea of what a huge part of her life the infirmary and its patients were for several years. One can say that it was basically her entire life for almost three years, between mid-1914 until early 1917. 

  How does Olga deal with the revolution and her father’s abdication?

 Olga stops writing in her diary abruptly in March, 1918, with no explanation whatsoever. This was around the time her father abdicated. Towards the end she writes scattered entries, including about her illness (measles) but never mentions her father’s abdication or any of the other important political events going on around her. I think that her omission is deliberate and tells us as much about her feelings as if she had actually written about it. We learn of Olga’s further life through her father’s diaries and other people’s memoirs, which also gives us as much insight as if she continued writing herself. The points of view of those close to her give us yet another perspective on Olga as a person.

     Many myths and a good deal of speculation surround the ‘healer’, Rasputin and his role in the downfall of the Russian monarchy. What was Olga’s attitude towards him?

Olga mentions Rasputin in her diaries only occasionally, and it doesn’t appear that he was a huge part of their lives.  When she does talk about him, it is always in sincerely affectionate terms. Olga seemed genuinely devastated when Rasputin was missing and later turned out to have been murdered at the end of 1916, and it was clearly not just out of sympathy for her mother or brother, but from her own obvious fondness of him.

One thing I learned from her diaries was that neither Olga nor the members of her circle called Rasputin “Father Gregori” or some other term evidently imagined in popular books and media. In her diaries she always referred to him by his first name and patronymic, Gregori Yefimovich, or even simply Grigori.

      Many people believe that character is revealed through handwriting. Did anything particular strike you about Olga’s handwriting or her writing style?

To be honest at first the only thing I noticed that although very elegant, Olga’s handwriting was very difficult to read. I almost gave up right there and then, but fortunately ended up persevering.

One of the most obvious things that struck me was that Olga would occasionally write in some sort of a code, which at first I mistook for another language, perhaps Armenian, but which turned out to be something she probably made up. Most likely they were thoughts she wanted to keep private, but you can imagine how curious that made me! At this point I don’t think we will ever be able to crack this code and what she wrote using it will be lost in annals of history.

I am convinced that having worked from the actual photocopies of the diary pages as opposed to the printed version did give me a lot more insight to Olga’s state of mind. When her handwriting became sloppier I could tell that she was upset or frustrated, she would also cross words out more often, or make mistakes, with dates for example. This was not something that was obvious to me immediately but took some time to see. 

In my translations, I tried to stay as close as possible to Olga’s style and the “feel” of her original writings – such as her manner of expression and even her use of capital lettering, abbreviations, etc., which is the reason why occasionally the text may sound a little awkward  or appear inconsistent.
The translation of these diaries and the ultimate book project based on them was my first major effort of such length, and shortly after I started this project I realized that it was a lot more time consuming than I initially imagined. But as my brain got used to Olga’s handwriting and I was able to decipher it a little faster, things got more efficient and consequently less frustrating. As I completed each entry I felt a small sense of accomplishment and after a while I even started to have a peculiar (albeit delusional) feeling of propriety/possessiveness about Olga, as if I now knew this girl better than anyone else.

Once in a while I would even unexpectedly experience strange episodes of sadness (due to hind sight 20/20 of course) being aware of what Olga’s future held for her - the impending events she was not conscious of while writing the lines I was now looking at.
      What do you think your readers will gain from reading this book?

Besides the diaries themselves, the additional material this book contains will give the reader a better and more objective understanding of what was actually happening in the imperial family’s lives at the time.  I think that the reader will wind up with a much better sense of who the eldest daughter of the last Tsar of Russia (as well the members of her family), was as a human being, as well as of the historical events that surrounded her at the time she wrote down her words. 

   Are you now working on a new book or do you have any plans for future projects related to the Romanovs or other royalties of the era?

At this time I do not a have a concrete plan for my next project, but I do have a couple of ideas, which will most likely involve translations of other primary material never published in English. The Russian archives contain an enormous amount of these treasures. I will keep everyone updated on my Facebook page.

 Thank you very much, Helen. I look forward to reading the book as soon as it is available.

The book, published by Pen & Sword in the UK, and Westholme in the USA, is available for pre-order via Amazon now.


Tess said...

Many thanks for such a thoughtful interview. I had no idea that Olga
used a code for complete privacy.

"I can't believe they actually killed this girl.”...

Unknown said...

I'm just discovering these awesome books.. thanks for the wonderful interview.