Princess Marina Petrovna of Russia was born on 11 March 1892 as the daughter of Grand Duke Peter Nikolaevich of Russia and Princess Milica of Montenegro, known as Grand Duchess Militza Nikolaevna of Russia. Her father was a grandson of Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. She was her parents’ eldest child and two more sisters named Nadejda and Sofia – who died young – and a brother named Roman would follow. Marina was born in Nice where her parents were living because of her father’s tuberculosis. He had been advised not to father children as he may infect his wife and any children. He was overjoyed at the birth of a healthy daughter. Marina did not see Russia until she was four years old when she and her parents returned for the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna. They settled at Znamenka where Roman was born in October 1896.
Marina had her own wing with her own nurses and caretakers, and she grew up behind palace walls. Her family spent the summer in Znamenka and the autumn in Crimea while the other seasons were spent in France. Marina grew up with a love for drawing, and she spent hours with her father, sketching together. She also became interested in archaeology and ethnology. In 1904, the family moved to St Petersburg where they lived in a mansion on the Neva. Marina was now 13 years old and fluent in Russian, French and English. Her education continued with religion, history, geography and physics. She remained most devoted to her arts and enjoyed accompanying her father to museums. In 1907, the family moved to an even grander mansion – but still no palace – on the Fontanka. Just after her 16th birthday, she was allowed to go into town with a lady-in-waiting. She would enjoy six social seasons before the outbreak of the First World War. After officially being presented at court, she would now receive invitations for official events.
On 1 August 1914, Germany declared war on Russia and the following day Marina was present in the Winter Palace when the Tsar declared war on Germany. Not much later, Marina’s family left for Kiev where they were installed in a palace. Marina and her cousin Elena Georgievena signed up for nursing classes, and as soon as she had her diploma, she went to work in the Pokrovski convent. She would later say, “Nursing was the only skill I ever learned and was good at.” It gave her a taste of a life she was never meant to see and her age – she was now 23 – had also made her realise she might never marry. Marina threw herself into her nursing and even left for the Persian/Turkish front in 1916. She later said, “It was hell on earth. The wounded were everywhere, in the snow, under the trees, next to each other, on top of each other… with the most horrific injuries.” Marina was ordered to head a field hospital near the front at Trabzon, and it was a year with many ups and downs for her. By the end of the year, she had become seriously ill with lung disease – not surprising considering that many diseases ran rampant at the front.
Marina developed a special bond with the doctor that was treating her, though she never mentions him by name in her letters. He was older and married, but he was “her” doctor. Nevertheless, the Imperial Russian Court was very far away. In March the following year, she was ordered to return to Tbilisi and Marina was forced to say goodbye to “her” doctor. But just as she was on her way, the news arrived that the Tsar had abdicated. She arrived in Tbilisi the following morning and went straight to the Governor’s Palace. Marina and her mother were told to go to the Crimea while the Tsar had agreed to Nadejda’s marriage to Prince Nicholas Orlov just before abdicating. The small wedding took place in the Crimea and Marina wore her nurse’s uniform. The palace they had known since their childhood was still in good condition and Marina’s apartments overlooked the sea.
Shortly after their arrival, their rooms were searched for the first time. Several of her letters and diaries were confiscated, and guards were placed at the doors. Nadeja went to live on Malta and managed to avoid this, and because the family was not officially under arrest yet, they were able to visit her. Several other family members began to arrive, such as the Tsar’s mother, Maria Feodorovna and her daughter Xenia. It was becoming a tight squeeze. Marina spent most of her time painting and sculpting. In March 1918 came the news of a treaty and soon German soldiers stood on their doorstep. Despite this, life became somewhat more normal until the news came that the Tsar and his family had been murdered. Maria Feodorovna refused to believe it, until her dying day. News of more murders – such as that of Elizabeth Feodorovna – and several Grand Dukes began to arrive. The family began to wonder if there was any point in staying. In April 1919, the remaining members of the family and several staff members boarded the HMS Marlborough. Their first destination was Constantinople – now Istanbul – and they were eventually scattered all over Europe. Marina ended up in Paris with her cousin Elena and her husband and child.
Marina tried to make a name for herself with painting and millinery. A man she had met in the Crimea – a Prince Nicolas Volkonsky – wrote several letters to her, hoping to marry her. Marina certainly felt something for him, but when meetings were constantly being postponed, she began to have doubts. He claimed poverty while Marina assured him that she too lived like a pauper – she even used public transport. The letters continued for a while, but the two were unable to meet. Slowly, Marina wrote less and less, as did he. In early 1924, he wrote his last letter. He was killed in February by a police officer. Marina dressed in mourning for a year despite the fact that their engagement was never officially announced.
It wasn’t until 1926 that she met the man she was to marry. Alexander Golitsyn was from a Russian noble family, and he too was building a new life in France. Marina felt like she had met her soulmate. Her family’s main concern was his lack of money, but Marina couldn’t care less. The wedding date was set for 2 February 1927 – three years and a day since Volkonsky’s killing and shortly before Marina’s 35th birthday. Not much later, the two newlyweds moved to the Province to a house overlooking the sea. She had received some money from her aunt Elena – the Queen of Italy. They had enough money left for a driver who also worked as a handyman around the house. They mostly kept to themselves though Marina never felt ashamed of their supposed poverty. Marina became known as an eccentric, but she shook off other people’s comments. She was not shocked when Nadeja began to show a preference for women though she did not understand what two women could do together – two men she could understand.
By 1936, she began to feel less safe in France, and they moved to Venice where her royal uncle ruled. Just two years later, they returned to France to a mountain of unpaid bills. They spent the war years quietly and sold their car when more money was needed. Sometimes she invited German soldiers and sold them some eggs. She also received a never-ending stream of letters from her mother, which she eventually stopped answering. Her mother passed away in 1951 while her father had passed in 1931. Marina continued to paint and also write though she was never quite successful. They continued to live quietly and simply as Alexander’s health deteriorated. He died in a hospital in Toulon on 24 March 1974.
Alexander left her little, but she received help from an anonymous friend. Marina would survive him for seven years. She spent these years mostly alone – by her own choice. She had lost contact with most of her family. As the end neared, she spent most of her time in bed. She apparently called the fire department to ask for a glass of water but when a friend arrived later that day, she was dead – it was 15 May 1981. Marina was buried with her husband at the Russian Orthodox Cemetery in Nice with none of her family present. Shortly after her death, her house was ransacked.1