The Emperor Alexander II told Olga “to love her new country twice more than her own”, but she was ill-prepared for her new life. Aware of her youth, she chose to retain the services of her governess to continue her education. On arrival at Piraeus, Olga wore blue and white, the national colors of Greece, to the delight of the crowd.
On the way to the capital, popular unrest was such that Olga, who was not accustomed to such demonstrations, was close to tears. Unable to speak Greek, and with little time for rest, she attended official functions over several days. Overwhelmed, Olga was found sobbing under a staircase cuddling her teddy bear a few days after her arrival in the kingdom while she was expected for a formal event. In less than a year, she learnt Greek and English. On the advice of her mother, she took an interest in the archeology and history of Greece to gain public support.
Throughout their marriage, George I and Olga were a close-knit couple, and contrary to the prevailing custom spent much time with their children, who grew up in a warm family atmosphere. With age, however, George I argued with his sons and Olga lamented the quarrels that divided the family periodically. In private, Olga and George I conversed in German because it was the only language they both spoke at the time of their marriage. With their offspring, they spoke mainly English, although the children were required to speak Greek among themselves, and Prince Andrew refused to speak anything but Greek to his parents.
The life of the royal family was relatively quiet and withdrawn. The Athenian court was not as brilliant and sumptuous as that of Saint Petersburg, and days in the Greek capital were sometimes monotonous for members of the royal family. In spring and winter, they divided time between the Royal Palace in Athens and Tatoi Palace at the foot of Mount Parnitha. Summers were spent on vacation at Aix-les-Bains in France, visiting relatives in the Russian capital or at Fredensborg and Bernstorff in Denmark, and relaxing at Mon Repos, Corfu.
Olga remained nostalgic for Russia. Her room was filled with icons from her homeland and, in the palace chapel, she sang Slavic hymns with her children. She often visited Russian ships that were docked at Piraeus and invited the Russian sailors to the royal palace. She was the only woman in history to bear the title of Admiral of the Imperial Russian Navy, an honor given to her on marriage. She was honored in the Greek navy by having a ship named after her.
Olga was genuinely popular and was extensively involved in charity work. On arrival in Athens, her immediate patronages included the Amalieion orphanage founded by the previous queen consort Amalia of Oldenburg, and the Arsakeion school for girls located on University Boulevard. With her personal support and the support of wealthy donors, she built asylums for the terminally ill and for the elderly disabled, and a sanatorium for patients with consumption. She founded a society to help the poor, a kindergarten for the children of the poor, and a soup kitchen in Piraeus that doubled as a cooking school for poor girls that was later expanded into a weaving school for girls and elderly women in financial difficulty.
She was patron of two military hospitals and endowed the Evangelismos (Annunciation) Hospital, Greece’s largest, in downtown Athens. She built the Russian Hospital in Piraeus in memory of her daughter, Alexandra, who died in Moscow in 1891. Although aimed primarily at Russian sailors, the hospital was open to all seamen visiting Greece, with consultation fees set at the low rate of thirty lepta and medicines being free.
Olga also supported the establishment and funding of hospitals during the conflicts between Greece and its neighbors, including the Greco-Turkish War of 1897 and the First Balkan War (1912–13). For their work for the wounded, Olga and her daughter-in-law Crown Princess Sophia were awarded the Royal Red Cross by Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom in December 1897.
Before Olga’s arrival in Greece, there were no separate prisons for women or the young, and she was instrumental in the establishment of a women’s prison in the capital and, with the support of wealthy philanthropist George Averoff, one for juvenile delinquents.
Shortly after Greece’s defeat in the Greco-Turkish War of 1897, shots were fired at Olga’s husband and daughter by disgruntled Greeks in 1898. Despite the failed assassination, Olga insisted on continuing her engagements without a military guard. Her son Nicolas wrote in his memoirs that one day he spoke of the importance of public opinion to his mother, and she retorted, “I prefer to be governed by a well born lion rather than four hundred rats like me.” Olga’s interest in political and public opinion was limited. Although she favored Greece’s Russian party, she had no political influence over her husband and did not seek political influence in the Greek parliament.
An Orthodox Christian from birth, Queen Olga became aware, during visits to wounded servicemen in the Greco-Turkish War (1897), that many were unable to read the Bible. The version used by the Church of Greece included the Septuagint version of the Old Testament and the original Greek-language version of the New Testament. Both were written in ancient Koine Greek, but her contemporaries used either Katharevousa or the so-called Demotic version of Modern Greek.
Katharevousa was a formal language that contained archaized forms of modern words, was purged of “non-Greek” vocabulary from other European languages and Turkish, and had a (simplified) archaic grammar. Modern or Demotic Greek was the version commonly spoken. Olga decided to have the Bible translated into a version that could be understood by most contemporary Greeks rather than only those educated in Koine Greek.
Opponents of the translation, however, considered it “tantamount to a renunciation of Greece’s ‘sacred heritage'”. In February 1901, the translation of the New Testament from Koine into Modern Greek that she had sponsored was published without the authorization of the Greek Holy Synod. The price was set at one drachma, far below its actual cost, and the edition sold well. To mitigate opposition to the translation, both the old and new texts were included and the frontispiece specifically stated it was for “exclusive family use” rather than in church.
At the same time, another translation was completed by Alexandros Pallis, a major supporter of a literary movement supporting the use of Demotic in written language. Publication of the translation started in serial form in the newspaper Akropolis on September 9, 1901. Purist theologians and Ecumenical Patriarch Joachim III of Constantinople denounced the translation.
A faction of the Greek press started accusing Pallis and his Demoticist supporters of blasphemy and treason. Riots, peaking on November 8, were started by students of the University of Athens, partly motivated by conservative professors. They demanded the excommunication of Pallis and anyone involved with the translations, including Olga and Procopios, the Metropolitan bishop of Athens, who had supervised the translation at her personal request.
Troops were called in to maintain order, and conflict between them and the rioters resulted in eight deaths and over sixty people wounded. By December, the remaining copies of Olga’s translation had been confiscated and their circulation prohibited. Anyone selling or reading the translations was threatened with excommunication. The controversy was called Evangelika, i.e. “the Gospel events” or Gospel riots, after the word Evangelion, Greek for “Gospel”, and led to the resignation of the metropolitan bishop, Procopius, and the fall of the government of Georgios Theotokis.