From Russia, with love...
As the centenary of the abdication of the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, approaches, Liadan Hynes traces the story of the tsar and his wife - from their meeting as teenagers to their execution at the hands of the secret police
My dream is some day to marry Alix. I have loved her a long while and still deeper and stronger since she spent six weeks in St Petersburg." So wrote Nikolai Alexandrovich Romanov, future last Tsar of Russia, in a diary entry in 1892. It seemed unlikely that the future emperor would be permitted to marry the obscure German princess Princess Alix of Hesse - his parents did not view the match favourably.
Nicholas's father, Tsar Alexander III, was a dominant figure, an absolute autocrat known for bending iron pokers or cutlery when he wished to really emphasise a point. It was a daunting act to follow for his shy eldest son.
Born on May 18, 1868, by adulthood, Nicholas was a slender figure of five foot seven, with a gentle, kind manner. Life was largely a round of ice-skating, dinners, parties and balls. The future Imperial couple first met when Princess Alix, as she was known, was 12, and Nicholas 16, at the wedding of her sister to his uncle in St Petersburg. They would not meet again for a further five years.
From the outset, the granddaughter of Queen Victoria had not made a favourable impression on the Russian court. "Badly dressed, clumsy, an awkward dancer, atrocious French accent, a schoolgirl blush, too shy, too nervous, too arrogant - these were some of the unkind things St Petersburg said about Alix of Hesse," recounts her biographer, Robert K. Massie.
In 1894, Alexander III's health began to falter. He decided the stability of marriage would be good for his son, and as Princess Alix was the only woman he would countenance, Nicholas's parents gave way.
At a family wedding in Coburg, the future tsar proposed. Despite their mutual love, at first he was unsuccessful, Alix refusing to change her religion. Her grandmother Queen Victoria soon arrived and persuaded her there was not that much difference between Orthodoxy and Lutheranism. When she finally accepted, the two lovers cried together like children, Nicholas wrote in a letter to his mother.
Alix's arrival in Russia was followed shortly after by the death of Nicholas's father. "What am I going to do? I am not prepared to be a Tsar. I never wanted to be one," an anguished Nicholas beseeched his brother-in-law. The wedding of Nicholas II and the newly renamed Grand Duchess Alexandra Feodorovna took place one week after the funeral. Despite such unpromising beginnings, Massie writes that "the marriage that began that night remained unflawed for the rest of their lives. It was a Victorian marriage, outwardly severe and proper, but based on intensely passionate physical love".
From the first, Nicholas's reign was hampered by trouble. The day after his coronation an open-air feast for the people of Moscow ended in a stampede which killed hundreds. The Tsar was persuaded not to cancel a ball the following night, and while his new wife danced with eyes red from crying, it was a move that seemed shockingly callous to his people. Keen to spend time alone with her new husband, she was slow to issue his large family their usual invitations to dine, setting up the backs of the large Romanov clan. Difficult pregnancies meant she often took to her bed long before the birth, afterwards nursing her children and staying close to the nursery, all of which took her out of public circulation.
The first real blow to Nicholas's popularity was the Russian-Japanese War of 1904-5. Humiliating defeat led to strikes, and on Bloody Sunday, January 22, 1905, soldiers opened fire on a peaceful protest. Violence and strikes spread throughout the country, and by mid-October a general strike had broken out. The Tsar was forced to allow the establishment of the Duma, an elected parliament with a constitution.
Throughout this difficult time, the royal couple had one occasion of celebration. On August 12, 1904, after four daughters - Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia - finally Alexis, their son, was born. "Alexis was the centre of this united family, the focus of all its hopes and affections," the children's tutor, Pierre Gilliard, would later recall. By nature he was a "happy, high-spirited infant", recounts Massie.
At six weeks old, the baby began to bleed from his navel. Their beloved son was diagnosed with haemophilia. The disease meant Alexis could die from as little as a nosebleed - cuts in areas where it was impossible to apply pressure were particularly dangerous.
The child was forbidden the normal playthings of young boys - friends his age, outdoor sports. At times of greatest agony, the boy would lie screaming, begging his mother to help him. Alexandra would sit powerlessly by his bed for days. When medicine failed, she threw herself into the Church, spending hours in prayer. Most surprisingly, the medical condition of the heir was shrouded in almost compete secrecy. His parents might have benefited from public sympathy, but they feared the weakening of the family's rule if it was known the Tsarevich suffered from such a debilitating condition. It was a crucial error. Keeping the secret left Russians baffled as to the hold the much hated Rasputin later exercised over the Empress.
The Tsar's family spent much of their time at Tsarskoe Seloe, a palace 15 miles from St Petersburg. Daily family life involved lessons, cosy teas in the Empress's boudoir (everything mauve, her favourite colour), walks in the grounds. After breakfast with his daughters, Nicholas would retire to his study to work. Alexandra spent the morning in bed, reading and writing letters. Unusually for a royal couple, they shared the same bed. Despite this cosy family existence, enabled by a staff of thousands, the worry over the Tsarevich's situation had undermined the health of the Empress, and left her increasingly unable to take part in public life.
Autumn 1912 was a turning point in the lives of the royal family. On a carriage ride with his mother during a family holiday, Alexis began to complain of pain. What followed was one of the worst episodes of the boy's illness, caused by a serious haemorrhage in the thigh and groin. For 11 days he suffered, unable to sleep. "His cries of "Mama help me? Won't you help me?" must have been an exquisite torture. When hope seemed lost, and the last sacrament was administered, Alexandra turned to Rasputin, imploring him by telegraph to pray for the boy. He replied immediately, "God has seen your tears and heard your prayers. Do not grieve. The Little One will not die. Do not allow the doctors to bother him too much."
One day later, the haemorrhaging stopped. Whatever the truth, from then on in the Empress's mind the welfare of her son was inextricably linked to Rasputin. When he first arrived in St Petersburg in 1905, Gregory Rasputin was dressed in the clothes of a peasant, filthy and unwashed. Despite this, he still managed to bed numerous ladies of the court. He came to the city as a starets, as Massie describes "a man of God who lived in poverty, asceticism, and solitude, offering himself as a guide to other souls".
He had not, as was typical, renounced worldly temptations or goods. Originally he was introduced to the royal couple by a family member. Alexandra would become passionately loyal, Nicholas tolerated him. Whether it was luck, a form of hypnosis, or something else, the fact remained that an appearance by Rasputin at Alexis's bedside had the repeated effect of improving the boy's condition. Beyond the palace walls, his behaviour could be lewd in the extreme; drinking to excess, womanising, violent sexual attacks on women, public exposure, boasting of kissing the Empress. He came to be hated by the aristocracy and the people of Russia who, during the war, blamed him and 'the German woman' for their country's woes. Rumours abounded that the Empress and Rasputin were lovers, although no real proof has ever been unearthed.
The outbreak of World War I was initially greeted with a huge wave of patriotism and a rush of love for the Tsar, who spent much of his time at headquarters.
The Empress's letters to her husband at this time reveal that, even after two decades of marriage, Alexandra still held passionate feelings for her husband. "Sleep well, my treasure... I yearn to hold you in my arms and rest my head upon your shoulder... I yearn for your kisses, for your arms and shy Childy (Nicholas) gives them me (only) in the dark and wify lives by them."
As Russia fared badly, Nicholas decided in 1915 to take personal command of his troops. It was a decision that was to have calamitous consequences. His absence from government created a vacuum into which his wife stepped, ruling on his behalf, with Rasputin at her ear.
She was a disastrous ruler, inexperienced and with bad judgment. Most harmfully, Rasputin's suggestions for government ministers were successfully pushed by the Empress. As Russia's situation worsened, it became increasingly clear to all but the Imperial family that something would have to change.
In December 1916 Rasputin was murdered by members of the aristocracy. He died in a suitably fantastical manner, only passing after being poisoned, shot, beaten and finally drowned. Bread riots broke out on March 8, and the Tsar began to return to the capital on the morning of March 13. Two days later, an aid took telegrams to his train from his generals, asking that he abdicate.
On the evening of March 15, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated in favour of his brother Michael. It was a week before Nicholas, by then Prisoner Romanov, was returned to his family at the palace of Tsarskoe Selo. Having until then exhibited a calm demeanour, upon reaching his wife, alone in the privacy of their rooms, he finally broke down. "Laying his head on his wife's breast, he sobbed like a child," reports Massie. After five months, the Imperial family was moved to Siberia to Tobolsk, where they would see out the winter, living for eight months in a two-storey house surrounded by a wooden fence. The people of the town were still favourable towards the Tsar and gifts of food were sent. Alex's letters from the time were full of homey details; mending clothes, reading books, school lessons, and needlework. To alleviate the boredom of the grand duchesses, then aged from 22 to 16, the family and their staff engaged in amateur dramatics. "In this atmosphere of family peace, we passed the long winter evenings, lost in the immensity of distant Siberia," the tutor Gilliard later recalled.
At first, the Bolshevik revolution of the winter of 1917 was a far off event. The first sign of change wrought by the new political climate was a new set of guards. Fired up by the revolution, they taunted the family with obscene carvings and drawings about the place. The family was put on soldiers' rations, and for the first time in his life, Nicholas was forced to draw up a family budget.
After eight months, the family was moved again, to Ekaterinburg in the Urals, and a residence ominously titled 'The House of Special Purpose'. Five rooms on the upper floor had been set-aside for the family and their servants. This was essentially a jail. The windows were painted to block out the view, and aside from one afternoon walk in the garden they were restricted to their rooms.
Their new guards were rough in their handling of the Imperial family. For some of their captors, however, such close proximity to this united, loving, family unit led to a change of perspective. "All my evil thoughts about the Tsar disappeared after I had stayed a certain time amongst the guards," one later recalled. "His eyes were kind and he had altogether a kind expression... the Tsarita was not a bit like him. She was severe looking and she had the appearance and manner of a haughty, grave woman."
In July, these men were replaced by a squad of 10 secret police. On July 16, 1918 the Tsar and his family had retired to bed at 10.30pm. At midnight, they were awakened and told to dress and go downstairs. Their guard explained that the White Army was approaching and they were to be moved. Led to a small semi-basement room, they were told to wait until the cars arrived.
When all were settled, the guards re-entered, carrying revolvers. Nicholas died standing up from his chair, shot in the head as he attempted to shelter his wife and son. After the first gunfire, Alexis, lying in his father's arms, tried to clutch feebly at the Tsar's coat. He was kicked to death in the head. His sister Anastasia was killed with bayonets and rifle butts.
Many women would later claim to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, most convincingly a woman calling herself Anna Anderson. This claim was definitively disproved by genetic testing comparing her to the current Prince Philip, whose grandmother was Alexandra's sister. The bodies were dismembered and placed in a bonfire in a nearby mine shaft.
No real effort was ever made to rescue the Imperial family during their months of captivity, but the White Army reached the town within days of their murder.