Historical Notes: The last of the Hampshire Romanovs

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The Independent Culture
BY 1878 the political outlook for Alexander II, Tsar of Russia, was bleak. The enlightened ruler who had presided over emancipation of the serfs in 1861 was now scorned by conservatives for his reforms, derided by liberals for his reluctance to make further democratic concessions, blamed by nationalists for humiliation at the congress of Berlin, and shadowed by revolutionaries who vowed to assassinate him.

Estranged from his consumptive wife, he was at odds with his heir, later Tsar Alexander III, because of an affair with Princess Katherine Dolgorouky, almost 13 years his junior. The liaison had already produced three children, one of whom only lived a few days. In September that year he became a father again at the age of 60 with the birth of another daughter, named Katherine after her mother.

In May 1880 the Tsarina died. Six weeks later the Tsar married Princess Katherine, conferred on her the title Most Serene Highness Princess Yourievsky, and legitimised their children. It was just in time, for in March 1881 he was killed by a terrorist bomb. A year later the widow and her children left Russia to settle in Paris, moving to Nice in 1888.

Princess Katherine, the youngest, was a sickly, undersized child with a congenital heart defect. In October 1901 she married the wealthy Prince Alexander Bariatinsky, and they had two sons, Andre and Alexander. After several years of an aimless, spendthrift lifestyle, her husband died suddenly in 1910. She and their sons settled on his estates near Kiev, which she helped to finance by arranging and performing in concerts. While running a stall at a charity bazaar she met an officer, Prince Serge Obolensky, whom she had known briefly as a boy in France, and they married in 1916.

After the Bolsheviks seized power Serge left their palace near the Crimea to join a rebel force of Tartars and former guards officers, she and her sons had to flee from the revolutionaries, and at length they were reunited in Moscow. Assuming new identities, they escaped from Russia and joined the elderly Princess Katherine Yourievsky, who had feared that they had all been killed. Having lost most of their assets in Russia, Prince and Princess Obolensky were obliged to earn their living.

They settled in London, and he found various jobs in commerce and industry, while she hired a professional music teacher and became an accomplished concert singer. They drifted apart and were divorced in 1924, although they remained friends. By the age of 50 Katherine, stricken by asthma and heart trouble, had to give up her singing career and moved to Hampshire.

With her broken accent, her conversation was difficult to understand, and she became something of a recluse. In spite of her ex-husband's payment of an allowance, rumours that one of the Royal Family (believed to be Queen Mary) sent her a quarterly cheque, and a gift of pounds 300 a year from Sir Henry "Chips" Channon, MP for Southend, she lived in apparent poverty.

After her last servant died, a retired Southsea cafe owner volunteered out of pity to act as an unpaid handyman around the house. She had a weekly standing order for spirits at a Havant off-licence, and reportedly sold her last piece of jewellery for pounds 40 and a bottle of gin.

Eventually she could no longer look after herself and went into a nursing home, where she died on 22 December 1959, aged 81. Eight mourners, including her ex-husband (who died in 1978, at the age of 88), saw her laid to rest one week later at St Peter's Church, North Hayling, a world apart from the glittering imperial Russia of her birth.

John Van der Kiste is the author of `The Romanovs 1818-1959: Alexander II of Russia and his family' (Sutton, pounds 19.99)