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Alexandra: The Last Tsarina

Alexandra: The Last Tsarina

3.9 25
by Carolly Erickson

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Tsarina Alexandra-hauntingly beautiful, melancholy, obsessed with the occult-was blamed by her contemporaries for the downfall of the Romanovs. But her true nature has eluded previous biographers. Using archival material unavailable before the fall of the Soviet Union, acclaimed historian Carolly Erickson's masterful study brings to life the full dimensions of the


Tsarina Alexandra-hauntingly beautiful, melancholy, obsessed with the occult-was blamed by her contemporaries for the downfall of the Romanovs. But her true nature has eluded previous biographers. Using archival material unavailable before the fall of the Soviet Union, acclaimed historian Carolly Erickson's masterful study brings to life the full dimensions of the Empress's singular psychology: her childhood bereavement, her long struggle to marry Nicholas, the anguish of her pathological shyness, and her increasing dependence on a series of occult mentors, the most notorious of whom was Rasputin. With meticulous care, Erickson has crafted an intimate and richly detailed portrait of an enigmatic historical figure. Unfolding against the turbulent backdrop of Russian history in the last decades before the Revolution of 1917, this engrossing biography draws the reader in to Alexandra's isolated, increasingly troubled interior world. In these pages, the tsarina ceases to be a remote historical figure and becomes a character who lives and breathes.

Intimate, rich in detail, carefully researched and informed by a generous imagination, Erickson's page-turning account of Alexandra and her times is a gem of biographical storytelling, as vivid and hard to put down as an enthralling novel.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Carrolly Erickson is one of the most accomplished and successful historical biographers writing in English.” —London Times Literary Supplement
Aristocrats blamed Alexandra, the last tsarina, for the fall of the Romanovs, but few of her contemporaries fully understood the wife of Nicholas II or comprehended her real part in the history of his regime. In the gifted hands of Catherine the Great biographer Carolly Erickson, Alexandra comes alive as a haunted, introspective woman who is constantly searching for wise counsel and constantly misled.
Publishers Weekly
The wife of Nicholas III, the tsar who was overthrown in 1917 by the Russian Revolution, Alexandra has long been viewed by Russian historians as narrow-minded, reactionary and hysterical. But in this entertaining, if not completely convincing, account, Erickson (Bloody Mary) paints a sympathetic portrait of the German-born empress. Erickson humanizes the granddaughter of Britain's Queen Victoria by detailing the romance between the two young cousins, "Alix" and "Nicky." One of the book's strengths is its emphasis on the private life of the court. Erickson also draws attention to the difficulties the husband and wife faced as they struggled to produce a male heir, first having three daughters before they sired the hemophiliac Alexis. "Unless help came from a divine source," Erickson writes, "he would surely succumb to one of the terrible attacks of bleeding." Though the rest of the story is familiar Alexis's illness led the family to an increasing fascination with the occult and the spiritual healer Rasputin this accomplished historical biographer tells it with style and suspense. At times, Erickson sacrifices historical accuracy for drama, e.g., when she attempts to elicit sympathy by saying that Alexandra looked middle-aged at 33, although that was not rare for a mother of four in pre-revolutionary Russia. But small glitches aside, Erickson's popular biography will satisfy readers seeking the scoop on Russia's last empress. (Sept.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Erickson is the author of many popular historical biographies, only one of which (Great Catherine) dealt with Russia. When the German princess Alexandra of Hesse-Darmstadt (1872-1918) married the heir to the Russian throne in 1894, she assumed a role for which she was not suited, by temperament or by upbringing, as well as an obligation to support her clearly weaker husband. The author depicts her subject as rejected from the start by the Russian court and oblivious to the political situation in her adopted country, with a strong desire for a "normal," loving family life. As a result, Alexandra gradually withdrew into the mystic tradition of Russian Orthodoxy, and her illnesses isolated her ever further from the troubles abroad in Russia. The book quotes extensively from Alexandra's letters and from memoirs left by her friends and contemporaries. Though less expansive in its coverage of the era than Robert K. Massie's Nicolas and Alexandra (1967), this work makes a complex time accessible to general readers and is most suitable for public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/01.] Marcia L. Sprules, Council on Foreign Relations Lib., New York Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Russia's last empress receives compassionate but by no means uncritical treatment from biographer Erickson (Josephine: A Life of the Empress, 1999, etc.). Alexandra's term for herself-"Pechvogel," or "bird of ill omen"-seems an all-too-apt description for her star-crossed life. A German-born granddaughter of Queen Victoria of Britain, she lost her mother Alice, the Grand Duchess of Hesse, when she was only six. After her marriage to Czar Nicholas of Russia, she found herself beset by ill health and viperish tongues. Debilitating migraines, sciatica, and shortness of breath resulted from several exhausting pregnancies. Her depression was deepened by her interfering mother-in-law, the dowager empress; by a sophisticated, French-speaking court that regarded her as an interloper; and by a populace who called her the "German Whore" and scorned her inability to produce a healthy male heir. That last failure so upset Alexandra (or "Alix," as Erickson calls her familiarly) that she came to rely increasingly on Father Gregory, the infamous Rasputin, whose mere presence could stop her hemophiliac son's hemorrhaging. The irony, Erickson shows, is that Alix's shyness and imperiousness masked a romantic and selfless woman. Against the matchmaking conventions of her time, Alix rebuffed all marriage overtures until she could wed her true love, Nicholas, and throughout her marriage she sought to bolster the confidence of this sensitive, weak man. While warm, affectionate, and even amusing at times, she was drawn most easily to situations where self-sacrifice was required-whether on behalf of her children or the soldiers she nursed. Ironically, her protective instincts couldn't save herself or herfamily from execution by the Bolsheviks in 1918. Once again, Erickson demonstrates her skill in limning a forceful royal who tried unsuccessfully to alter history and escape fate. Book-of-the-Month Club/History Book Club main selection; Quality Paperback Book Club/Literary Guild featured selection

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St. Martin's Press
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First Edition
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.86(d)

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IN THE DARKENED BEDROOM OF THE NEW PALACE IN DARMSTADT, ALICE, Grand Duchess of Hesse, lay dying. She was only thirty-five, but looked fifty, her white face with its sharp features gaunt, her eyes deeply sunken in their sockets, her heaving chest narrow and bony.

For the past month Alice had exhausted herself nursing her family through an epidemic of diphtheria, sitting beside their beds through the long nights, holding their hands, coming when they called out to her. The weakest and youngest of the children, her four-year-old daughter May, had been the most severely ill, and when she died, the pain Alice felt, she wrote her mother Queen Victoria, was "beyond words."

Her other stricken children—fifteen-year-old Victoria, twelve-year-old Irene, ten-year-old Ernie and six-year-old Alicky—had all survived, though Ernie had for a time been given up for dead; her husband Louis, robust and thickset, had lain in bed for several weeks in a semiconscious state, unable to eat and barely able to speak, until gradually, under her unceasing care, he began to recover his strength.

Though most of her family and many of her servants succumbed, Alice herself had at first seemed immune to the terrible disease, as if willing her body to resist it so that she could spend herself in nursing the others. But after several weeks of overwork, lost sleep and anxiety she too experienced the painful sore throat, fever and throat-tightening constriction that were the hallmarks of diphtheria, and she took to her bed, unable to do any more for her ravaged family.

They stood by her bedside now as she struggled for breath, clutching the bedclothes and straining to fill her congested lungs. She had hada severe attack, and Louis had felt it necessary to notify the state officials and to request prayers in all the churches of the small German principality of Hesse. A telegram had been sent to Queen Victoria at Windsor telling her that Alice's condition was worsening. And the children had been summoned to stand by their mother's bed, and to say their prayers for her.

The youngest of the children, sweet-faced, golden-haired Alicky, stood next to her brother Ernie, her mainstay and closest companion, watching the events in the silent room. Her expressive gray-blue eyes were troubled, for all was loss and confusion in her world—her little sister dead and in her small coffin, her mother near death and beyond her reach, her governess Orchie, always so self-possessed and calm, upset and in tears. Even the nursery itself, spare and homely, was particularly sad and bare, for all the toys had been taken away to prevent their carrying infection.

Several crosses hung from the walls in the sickroom, together with verses from the Bible. There were pictures of Balmoral and of Windsor Castle and its grounds and portraits of Alice's sisters and brothers, and several tapestries in the fashionable William Morris style. Dominating the room was a stained glass window, dedicated to the memory of Alicky's brother Frederick, or "Frittie," who at the age of three had fallen from that very window to his death on the terrace below. Alicky was too young to remember Frittie, she had been an infant when he fell, but she knew that her mother grieved for him and she and the other children went every year to visit his grave. On Frittie's memorial window were the comforting words from the Bible, "Suffer the little children to come unto me." Alicky, lonely and fearful, had much need of comfort, for as the hours passed her mother grew weaker, her every breath an effort.

Throughout Hesse prayers were being offered up for Alice, the Landesmütter (Mother of the Country), who had earned the respect of her husband's subjects by nursing the sick, visiting the poor and founding hospitals and schools. Since her marriage to Grand Duke Louis, Alice had thrown herself into the cause of social betterment, never satisfied with what she had done and always striving to do, as she said, "the little good that is in my power."

Alice had created a stir in quiet Darmstadt, introducing the Art Nouveau style in the grand ducal palace, playing duets with Johannes Brahms (Darmstadters preferred Mozart), substituting informality for formal etiquette at court, even holding daring religious views that aimed, as she said, to separate the historical Jesus from such "later embellishments" as the resurrection. Though her outraged mother-in-law called Alice "a complete atheist," and the quiet Darmstadters clucked their tongues over her outspokenness ("Providence, there is no Providence, no nothing!" Alice burst out when her favorite brother Bertie was gravely ill, "and I can't think how anyone can talk such rubbish"1), Alice maintained her opinions truculently, and dared others to refute them.

A new and more liberal spirit had come to Hesse with Alice, but in her efforts to make changes and to air her advanced views she had brought disruption and controversy, and even as she lay on her deathbed there were whispers—respectful, quiet whispers—that her demise would restore a welcome peace to the community.

For Alice's rigorous commitment to modernity was rooted in a mental and spiritual restlessness that made others uneasy. There was something hard and flinty at her core, an icy toughness of mind, that was seemingly at odds with her overall charitableness. She was unforgiving. Demanding a great deal of herself, she demanded as much of those around her, and constantly found them wanting—especially her warm-hearted, stolid husband Louis, who disappointed her at every turn.

Alicky, young as she was, understood something of her mother's uniqueness. Alice was not like other mothers; she did not adorn herself or curl her hair or wear colorful gowns. Her gowns were always black, and her only ornaments were a large gold cross on a chain and a mourning brooch with locks of her father's hair and Frittie's inside. Her pale face bore a perpetual expression of preoccupation and sorrow, a haunted look. She was often very tired. Even when she took the children on a vacation to the seaside, as she had only a few months before they had all come down with diphtheria, she did not rest or play with them, but went to visit hospitals and schools, taking Alicky with her to give away nosegays of flowers.

She was always helping people, and she was always full of sorrow. This much Alicky knew of her suffering mother.

The following morning Louis sent another telegram to Queen Victoria at Windsor. "I see no hope," Louis wrote his mother-in-law. "My prayers are exhausted." The queen's own physician Jenner, whom she had sent from England to treat Alice, added his terse assessment. "Disease in windpipe extended, difficulty of breathing at times considerable; gravity of condition increased."

The date on the telegrams, December 13, carried an ominous implication. Seventeen years earlier Alice's adored father Prince Albert had died of typhoid on December 14, and ever since the anniversary of his death had been marked with prayers and solemnities by his ever-grieving widow and their children. December 14 was feared as a fateful day, and though Alice herself was unaware of the date, or of much else, she did rave in her delirium that she saw her dead father, along with May and Frittie, standing together in heaven welcoming her in.

A little after midnight, early on the morning of the fourteenth, the patient began to cough and choke. The swollen membrane in her mouth was so thick she could no longer swallow, and could barely talk. Her face, even though bathed in warm candlelight, was chalk-white, her lips bloodless. Her attendants heard her whisper "May ... dear Papa" before becoming unconscious. By sunrise she was dead.

To the beat of muffled drums the Grand Duchess of Hesse's funeral procession made its slow way along the narrow, cobblestoned streets of Darmstadt to the chapel in the Old Palace. There were many mourners, each carrying a lighted torch. Alicky, her brother and sisters did not follow the coffin but were allowed to watch from a window as the mourners assembled in the courtyard below. Later, the children were told how hundreds of people came to see their mother in the chapel, taking off their hats as a sign of respect and leaving flowers and wreaths. The tributes were eloquent, the tears heartfelt.

A letter arrived from Windsor Castle.

"Poor Dear Children," Queen Victoria wrote, "you have had the most terrible blow which can befall children—you have lost your precious, dear, devoted Mother who loved you—and devoted her life to you and your dear Papa. That horrid disease which carried off sweetlittle May and from which you and the others recovered has taken her away from you and poor old Grandmama, who with your other kind Grandmama will try to be a mother to you."

The queen sent particular wishes to "poor dear Ernie," who was bound to suffer acutely since he was so close to Alice. "God's will be done," she concluded. "May He support and help you all. From your devoted and most unhappy Grandmama, VRI [Victoria Regina Imperatrix, Victoria Queen Empress]."2

Alicky and her sisters were measured for mourning clothes, and wore identical black dresses, black stockings and shoes. Their fourteen-year-old sister Elizabeth, or Ella, who had been spared sickness and who had spent the last month away from the palace, now rejoined the family, and together the five children and their father spent a mournful Christmas.

Snow drifted down over the narrow streets of Darmstadt, settling on the gabled roofs and piling in deep drifts in the palace park. Orchie let the children play in the snow, bundled warmly against the cold, their ears covered with fur hats and their hands encased in mittens. As the days passed, though they continued to grieve, there were hours in which their sorrow lifted, and they remembered how to skate and build snow forts and ride their sleds down the gentle slopes of the hills.

One day in January Alicky, Irene and Ernie were playing in the garden, and Alicky began to chase the two older children, who ran across an area where seedlings were growing under glass. Ernie and Irene knew how to avoid the glass, but Alicky, too young to be cautious, crashed through it. Blood began to pour from her lacerated legs, and she screamed in pain and fear.

Later, bandaged and soothed by Orchie, Alicky ceased to sob, but her injured legs healed slowly, and she could not run without limping. Over the following weeks she continued to cry every night for her mother, and to say her prayers for her. All in all it was a season of scars, emotional and physical, and it would be a long time before the deepest of them would begin to heal.

ALEXANDRA. Copyright © 2001 by Carolly Erickson. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

Meet the Author

Distinguished historian Carolly Erickson is the author of Rival to the Queen, The Memoirs of Mary Queen of Scots, The First Elizabeth, The Hidden Life of Josephine, The Last Wife of Henry VIII, and many other prize-winning works of fiction and nonfiction. Her novel The Tsarina's Daughter won the Romantic Times Reviewer's Choice Award for Best Historical Fiction. She lives in Hawaii.

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Alexandra 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 25 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this biography. Having read almost every biography of Alix written in English, I feel like in this one, she is somewhat vindicated. I liked how the author used more psychological reasoning as to why she did some of the things she did. For someone who "knows the story," it was a fairly quick read. If one was not familiar with the story of Alix of Hesse, one would no doubt want to find out more--not only about her, but her family and the political situation of the time.
Eleroo More than 1 year ago
Engagingly written. New information about this enigmatic personage. "Nicky" was more than just a nice guy in the wrong role. He was inept but possessing royal arrogance. It is still amazing how this couple "slipped into revolution" with no sense it was on the horizon.
LoriGustafson More than 1 year ago
I have read many books about the doomed Romanovs, and never before have I had an opportunity to see Alexandra in this light. The author has done a wonderful job bringing the Tsaritsa to life, allowing the reader to see her as woman and mother in addition to living the part of the wife of Russia's last autocrat. Most often, the perception of Alexandra as haughty and aloof became the reality to those who were not given this valuable insight. Alexandra has become an icon of history in her own right, a minor German princess thrust into being the mother of all Russia. I found this book thoroughly enjoyable, moving, frustrating at times, only because we all know what happens at the end of every story about this tragic family. This is the first book I have read that has told Alexandra's story. I feel as if I understand her more now. Hers is a tale both worth telling and reading.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Erickson did such an amazing job on "Great Catherine" that i've decided to read this bio for my History of women in Russia course.
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Interesting account of the Russian Revolution through the eyes of the doomed empress.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Same sad story, but with new insights. Alexandra's miserable in-laws, the vicious courtesans, the hatred thrust upon her from the very start of her marriage...
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Never before has a biography appealed to me, yet when I began reading the first few sentences of "Alexandra: The Last Tsarina" I realized that the people in history were not really that boring (imagine that). In conclusion, I DEFINTLEY recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good read that delievers intellect as well as longetivity.
Guest More than 1 year ago
C. Erickson is a wonderful biographer. I never was interested in bios until I read her novel "Great Harry". That book was so great, I have bought and read all her other bios I could find. Alexandra was not a disappointment. I look forward to anything else Erickson will write!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Erickson explores and relates a more psychological analysis of the Empress Alexandra. Instead of writing her off as a control freak, Erickson provides an insight of Alix's nature. The information on her early life and its relation to her development was most enlightening.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Is lead in.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Me too and walks out
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
And im not really alex i wanted him to be free to