One day, someone, I cannot recall who, told me of a distant cousin of mine, a Romanov, who had lived her entire life in Moscow and still lived there. I answered that it was perfectly impossible, that no Romanov could have lived in the Soviet Union at the time of the Soviets, and, worst yet, at the time of Stalin. And yet, the person insisted.
So I once again went to consult the wise man of the Imperial Family, the eldest of the Romanov and the greatest expert on the matter: my cousin Nicholas of Russia. He had indeed heard of this cousin, and she had made an appearance in Saint Petersburg during the translation of the ashes of Nicholas II to the Peter and Paul Fortress. Many family members doubted her authenticity. Nicholas, on his part, believed her to be authentic. But who was she? “She would be the grand daughter of your scandalous great-uncle, the Grand Duke Nicholas Constantinovitch”.
I decided, before writing his biography, to go meet Talya. And so we find ourselves walking along the very large Kutuzov Boulevard that links the capital to the suburbs. We arrive on a wasteland spiked with dilapidated buildings. We reach the indicated address. At the building’s entrance, a group of babushkas and children encircle a very tall woman, still beautiful, elegant in her blue silk blouse and black silk skirt. I do not know who she was but, I tell myself, with such class she is worthy of being part of the Imperial Family.
Cousin Talya, for it is she, takes me to her minuscule apartment on the fifth floor. She only speaks Russian but my friend Andrei translates. At first, she seems wary; she repeats that I am the first of her kinsmen to ever visit her. She is not convinced that I believe in her authenticity. I reassure her. Now I must to disarm another source of mistrust. She is afraid that I would write awful things on her grandfather, the Grand Duke Nicholas. I retort that I have come to her seeking truth, and that I bear no prejudice. And so she recounts how, during the Revolution, Nicholas was able to return for the first time since his exile to Saint Petersburg, known then as Leningrad, and that it was precisely on the occasion of her birth, Talya, daughter of his son, that he found the time to baptize her before returning to Tashkent to die there.
It was her that pointed me to the truth regarding her grandfather; she was the base for my biography on him. But how had she survived under Stalin? By changing her name. Her mother, to protect her, had given her the name of her second husband, Andropov, Natalya Andropov. The KGB must have been aware of her identity, but they left her alone. And so she told me of her life. She showed me photos, an incredible portrait of herself in which she was superb, she still was. She had become a circus artist; she would climb a vertical wall on a motorcycle and go around the ring like that. She had an immense success. She spoke in length of the siege of Moscow, when the authorities had sent her with other artists to distract the troupes holding the siege against the Nazis. It was a golden era, she said, we had so much fun me and the other artists, my friends. She remained vague on her personal life, and I did not insist. She spoke lengthily of her life under Stalin. There was an entire neighbourhood in Moscow which had remained truly bohemian; artists, jobless people would meet up, drink a lot, sing, have fun and love. Talya was a formidable personality. Always, children would come into her apartment and she would give them a piece of candy or some instructions. She obviously commanded over it all. A princess of the Imperial Family, completely isolated and solitary in her minuscule apartment, and yet, more of a princess than any other.
We promised each other we would meet again. A month later, she would get struck by a motorcycle while crossing the street and die. She would only have had the time to meet me, and hence indirectly take her place in the Imperial Family.