Olga was the eldest daughter of the tragic last Tsar, Nicholas II, and his wife, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. Her birth on November 15, (O.S. November 3) 1895 brought both disappointment and joy to her family and people. She was not the longed-for imperial heir (by law, this had to be a son), but she was, from the start, a beloved daughter and princess. Nicholas wrote in his diary: "A day I will remember for ever . . . at exactly 9 o'clock [p.m.] a baby's cry was heard and we all breathed a sigh of relief! With a prayer we named the daughter sent to us by God 'Olga'!" His sister Xenia noted: "The birth of a daughter to Nicky and Alix! A great joy, although it's a great pity it's not a son!" Nonetheless, as Alexandra's sister, Ella, wrote to their grandmother, Queen Victoria of England: "The joy of their having Baby has never one moment let them regret little Olga being a girl."
Olga was soon joined by her sisters Tatiana (1897), Maria (1899), Anastasia (1901), and, finally, by her brother, the long-awaited tsarevich, Alexis (1904). The children grew up in a tender family. In striking contrast to many other royal couples, Nicholas and Alexandra were devoted spouses and affectionate parents. Olga was especially close to Tatiana. Like the rest of the family, Olga also doted on her little brother, Alexis, tragically afflicted with hemophilia.
Olga was an intelligent, thoughtful, strong-willed and forthright girl. From her early childhood, she was known for her kindness, but also for her hot temper. As a little girl, she became impatient with a portrait painter and told him: "You are a very ugly man, I don't like you one bit!" She defended the rights of eldest children. When she learned the Biblical story of Joseph and his coat of many colors, she sympathized, not with Joseph, but with his older brothers. She loved reading and was interested in politics. Clever and witty, she was capable of amusing repartee. When her French tutor, Pierre Gilliard, taught her the formation of French verbs and the use of auxiliaries, she answered, "I see, monsieur. The auxiliaries are the servants of the verbs. It's only poor 'avoir' which has to shift for itself."
Olga adored her father. Her relationship with her mother was more difficult. During her adolescence, she often found Alexandra trying, while the Empress repeatedly reprimanded her eldest daughter for episodes of bad temper and capricious or rambunctious behavior. Nonetheless, Olga blossomed into a gentle, generous young woman. She took her religious faith very seriously and put it into practice through charity work. On one occasion, while out for a drive, she saw a young child using crutches. She made inquiries and discovered that the child's parents were too poor to afford treatment. Olga (by now already in command of a substantial part of her fortune) set aside an allowance to cover the child's medical bills.
Plain as a child, Olga had grown into a lovely young woman, with a fresh complexion, light chestnut hair, and bright blue eyes. There were rumors of matches with Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich of Russia, Crown Prince Carol of Romania, Edward, Prince of Wales, eldest son of Britain's George V, and Crown Prince Alexander of Serbia. For her part, Olga fell in love with a series of Russian officers. In 1913, she fell in love with Pavel Voronov, a junior officer on one of the imperial yachts, but their differing ranks made marriage impossible. Voronov soon became engaged to a lady-in-waiting. On his wedding day, Olga wrote: "God grant him good fortune, my beloved...it's sad, distressing."
With the onset of World War I, Olga's life spiraled towards tragedy. During the war, Alexandra, Olga and Tatiana worked as nurses, caring for wounded and dying soldiers. Intensely patriotic, Olga was very dedicated and caring, and enjoyed meeting and talking with the other nurses, women from many different walks of life, whom she would never have encountered under normal circumstances. Yet all the tragedy took a heavy toll on her mental equilibrium. Suffering nervous strain, fits of rage and emotional exhaustion, she was obliged to give up nursing.
Meanwhile, Olga seems to have realized Russia was heading towards disaster. "She was by nature a thinker," Gleb Botkin, the son of the family's physician, Yevgeny Botkin, later recalled, "and as it... seemed to me, understood the general situation better than any member of her family, including even her parents. At least I had the impression that she had little illusions in regard to what the future held in store for them, and in consequence was often sad and worried."
In any case, the sad ending to her story is all too well known. Amidst the horrors of revolution and captivity, Olga suffered ill-health and deep depression. She was only 22 when she was murdered, along with her family, by the Bolsheviks. It was certainly a terribly tragic end to a young, promising life. Yet, like the rest of her family, she had heroically tried to deepen her faith and bear her sufferings with charity towards her enemies. She would win a final triumph when she was eventually canonized (together with her parents and siblings) by the Russian Orthodox Church as a holy martyr and passion-bearer.