Alix and Nicky: The Passion of the Last Tsar and Tsarinaby Virginia Rounding
For the first time since Robert Massie’s classic Nicholas and Alexandra, comes a penetrating and deeply personal study of the lives of the last Russian Tsar and Tsarina that gives profound psychological insight into their marriage and how it shaped the events that engulfed them
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For the first time since Robert Massie’s classic Nicholas and Alexandra, comes a penetrating and deeply personal study of the lives of the last Russian Tsar and Tsarina that gives profound psychological insight into their marriage and how it shaped the events that engulfed them
Few characters in history are as fascinating or controversial as Nicholas and Alexandra. From their passionate love to their horrifying execution, they are alternately viewed as innocent victims of Bolshevik assassins or blamed for causing the Revolution themselves.
Much has already been written about their lives. But acting as a curator of the many conflicting histories, acclaimed author Virginia Rounding offers a different kind of biography, with an intimate look that probes the souls of these unforgettable figures, and tells the story of their passion and its consequences for Russia. Through newly revealed letters and diaries, Rounding explores the Empress’s ill health, examines the enigmatic triangular relationship between Nicky, Alix and her confidante Ania Vyrubova, and looks anew at the reasons behind their reliance on the infamous Rasputin. Her conclusions are surprising.
With eloquence and compassion, Rounding makes these characters come alive, presenting them in all their complexity and ardor, guiding the reader into their vanished world.
“[Rounding] paints a vivid portrait of a sensual and intellectual woman.” Washington Post on Catherine the Great
“An engrossing bio [Grade:] A” Entertainment Weekly on Catherine the Great
“Brings Catherine alive, and not least in her relations with the men she drew to her side.” Foreign Affairs on Catherine the Great
“[The author] captures the distinct experience of each of these women and offers a vivid portrait of their world, in both its splendor and its seaminess.” The Boston Globe on Grandes Horizontales
“Ms. Rounding skillfully describes the rise and fall of second-empire Paris, combining historical accuracy with a thoughtful analysis of the dangers of the demi-mondaine . . . Evocative, lively, and ultimately heartbreaking.” Richmond Times-Dispatch on Grandes Horizontales
“Well-researched, intelligent, and compassionate.” Kirkus Reviews on Grandes Horizontales
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Read an Excerpt
Setting the Scene: The Romanov Tercentenary
The final curtain is about to drop,
Some fool in the gallery still clasps his hands;
Around their bonfires, cabmen stamp and hop.
Somebody’s carriage! Off they go. The end.
—Osip Mandelstam, 1913 (tr. Robert Tracy)
AT NINE O’CLOCK on the morning of May 19, 1913, the firing of cannon, the clashing of cathedral bells, and the cheering of expectant crowds welcomed the stately appearance of the steamship Mezhen, flying the imperial flag with its double-headed eagle, steaming up the Volga to the city of Kostroma, birthplace of the three-hundred-year-old Romanov dynasty. As the Mezhen slowly approached the specially constructed landing stage, a procession bearing the wonder-working icon of the Fyodorovsky Virgin emerged from the Cathedral of the Assumption, golden vestments glinting in the occasional rays of morning sun breaking through the clouds. Everyone on the imperial ship crossed themselves, as both procession and ship advanced slowly toward the Ipatyev Monastery, the very place from which Mikhail Romanov was summoned in 1613 to become the Tsar of Russia.
At a quarter to ten the imperial family—Tsar (or Emperor) Nicholas II; his wife the Tsarina (or Empress) Alexandra; their four daughters, the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia; and their son, the Tsarevich, Alexei—disembarked, to be greeted by the city’s official delegation and offered bread and salt, traditional symbols of hospitality. They then climbed into the waiting cars and were driven the short distance to the monastery, the road flanked by a double line of soldiers, holding back the dense crowds.
At the monastery, the Emperor was greeted by another procession, this one headed by Tikhon, the Archbishop of Kostroma and Galich. Here were also gathered representatives of the local peasantry and descendants of those who had come to beg Mikhail Romanov to accept the throne, at the end of the “Time of Troubles,” three hundred years earlier. They carried objects dating from that momentous occasion, including a cross and an icon that the Emperor and his family duly kissed. They then followed the procession into the grounds of the monastery and toward the Cathedral of the Trinity, in front of which they found other members of the wider imperial family, the array of tall, imposing, and bearded Grand Dukes, most in military uniform, with their assorted wives, mothers, and children. The Empress and her son, both afflicted with physical ailments and unable to stand for long periods, went straight inside the cathedral, while all the other members of the family and their retinue set off again, this time to meet the procession coming from the town with the wonder-working icon, followed by a crowd of thousands. Absolute silence fell as Tsar and procession came face-to-face, broken only by the discordant clashing of the ancient monastery bells.
The Emperor crossed himself, right to left in the Orthodox fashion, and kissed the holy icon, as did his daughters. Then all entered the cathedral to hear the liturgy, followed by a Te Deum. After the lengthy service Nicholas and his daughters went to visit the house of Tsar Mikhail, which had been turned into a museum for the occasion, and where many objects that had belonged to the first Tsar were on display. The Empress was not feeling well enough to go to the museum, and remained in the cathedral with her sister, the Grand Duchess Elisabeth (known to the family as Ella), dressed as usual in her elegant grey habit, as the abbess of her own order of nuns. After a series of farewells, the immediate family returned on board the Mezhen, where they lunched in private.
This brief glimpse of the imperial family afforded to the citizenry and ecclesiastical dignitaries of Kostroma, when the last in the line of Romanov tsars came to venerate the memory of the first, can be examined, like a photograph, to reveal much about the apparently straightforward scene. Central to it is the figure of the forty-five-year-old Tsar himself. Slighter than many of his Romanov uncles and cousins, of medium height, his brown beard and moustache carefully tended, his face lined—sometimes he could look very weary, though the creases around his eyes also came from laughter—nearly always in military uniform and often with a cigarette in his hand, he presented a picture of affable dignity. Very conscious of his own status as autocrat, anointed by God, he nevertheless appeared modest and—overwhelmingly—charming. So many people who met Nicholas (or Nicky, as he was known within the family), whether friend or foe, testify to that charm. “With his usual simplicity and friendliness,” wrote his Prime Minister, Vladimir Kokovtsov. “A rare kindness of heart,” commented Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov. “A charm that attracted all who came near him,” wrote British Ambassador Sir George Buchanan, who added that he always felt he was talking “with a friend and not the Emperor.” “Charming in the kindly simplicity of his ways,” said his niece’s husband, Felix Yusupov. Nicholas’s eyes, in particular, attracted people to him. His cousin, Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich (a poet, also known by his initials “KR”) wrote of “that clear, deep, expressive look [that] cannot fail but charm and enchant.” Yet the color of these attractive eyes seems to be in dispute. His early biographer Sergei Oldenburg refers to his “large radiant grey eyes” which “peered directly into one’s soul and lent power to his words”; Hélène Vacaresco, who met Nicky when he was still Tsarevich, also wrote of his “large grey eyes.” The English historian and scholar Sir Bernard Pares, on the other hand, who also met the Tsar, refers to the “beauty of his frank blue eyes.” More strangely, Kokovtsov, who had the chance to stare into those eyes many times, writes that they were “usually of a velvety dark brown.” In Serov’s famous portrait, painted in 1900, the eyes are a grey-blue, matching the color of his uniform.
Charm—the art of pleasing other people, and the desire to please—seems never to have been a characteristic of Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna (Alix or Alicky to friends and family). Though possessed of many fine qualities (the chief of which consisted in wholeheartedness and utter loyalty toward any cause, or person, in which she believed), she was also afflicted by self-consciousness and an extreme shyness, which led her to hold herself aloof. Footage that has survived of her at public ceremonies shows her repeatedly bowing her head at the crowds—but stiffly, like a puppet, and only from the neck. Even taking into account the jerky nature of early film, she looks strained, unnatural, ill at ease—quite unlike her genial husband. An attractive woman with fine features and auburn-tinged hair, she was too tense, her mouth too set, her gait too rigid, for her natural endowments to be fully appreciated. And at intervals throughout her life—almost constantly from 1908—Alix had been an invalid, spending much of her time lying down (as can be seen in the family photograph albums) and frequently absent from public occasions. The Romanov tercentenary was important enough for her to make an effort to overcome her physical debility and participate, but even here she could not do so fully. And so, despite her great attachment both to her husband and to the Russian people, she remains at a distance, detached, in her own private space.
As is so often the case, Nicholas and Alexandra’s strengths were also their weaknesses. Alix’s wholeheartedness and loyalty made her inflexible, unable to adapt to changing circumstances, and tenacious in clinging to those in whom she put her faith, unwilling even to consider opinions contrary to the ones she had decided to adopt. Conversely, it was Nicky’s desire to please, to charm, that contributed to his reputation for indecision, so anxious was he to make each person he received feel that he had treated them well and listened to them attentively. It was not until after a person had left his presence that he could act in opposition to what he had just heard—and had appeared to agree with. On August 15, 1905 the English journalist W. T. Stead met with Nicky’s mother, Dowager Empress Maria Fyodorovna, and rather daringly told her a story that had been going the rounds:
Once two Ministers came to see the Emperor. He received first one and then the other in the presence of his wife. Minister No. 1 brought a long elaborate report, full of all the wearisome platitudes of such official documents. (“Yes, indeed,” said [Maria Fyodorovna].) He read it to the close and finished up setting forth definite recommendations that this, that and the other should be done. The Tsar listened attentively and then said: “Thank you so much for your excellent report. I have heard it with much pleasure and your recommendations are exactly in accord with my conclusions.” Exit Minister No.1 in high glee. Enter Minister No. 2. Another long wearisome report concluding with definite recommendations to do this, that and the other which are exactly opposed to the recommendations of Minister No. 1. The Tsar listened attentively and then said: “Thank you so much (‘Oh, how wicked,’ [Maria Fyodorovna] cried.) for your admirable paper. I have heard it with much pleasure and your recommendations are exactly in accord with my own conclusions.” Exit Minister No. 2 in high glee. Then the Empress said to her husband: “But this is nonsense. These two Ministers have proposed exactly opposite things and you know it is impossible to agree with both of them.” And the Emperor said: “My dear. You are quite right. I absolutely agree with you.” And then they both burst out laughing.
Having to negotiate the claims represented by both parents were their five children. Olga, Tatiana, and Maria, and to a lesser extent Anastasia and Alexei, all shared something of their father’s need to please, and both parents had inculcated in them a strong sense of duty. This conflicted with a natural desire to assert their own feelings and sense of independence, and as a result their relationship with their mother could be both stifling and, at times, stormy. Of the five, the youngest girl, Anastasia (who, at the time of the visit to Kostroma, was almost twelve years old), seemed the most free of their mother’s rather repressive influence. She adored her father (so did they all, but Anastasia’s letters to her “golden, good, darling Papa” are among the most effusive; “Love you always, everywhere,” she writes in a letter dated May 8, 1913), and she seems largely to have avoided the fate shared by her sisters of being the one to keep her mother company when she was not feeling well enough to join in family activities. She was a mischievous, tomboyish child, often to be found up a tree or hiding in a cupboard. She still enjoyed playing with toys, taking particular delight in a variety of little flasks and pots given to her and her brother by one of the imperial doctors. She had no trace of her mother’s shyness; “If you happened to be sitting next to her at table,” recorded one court official, “you had constantly to be ready for some unexpected question. She was bolder than her sisters and very witty.” She was also, according to one of the tutors of the imperial children, Pierre Gilliard, “extremely idle, though with the idleness of a gifted child.” The sister nearest to her in age and her usual companion, Maria, was far less sure of herself. A very sweet and loving girl, with something of the devotion of an affectionate family dog (her sisters rather cruelly dubbed her “fat little bowwow”), she was sturdy and pretty, with “large and beautiful grey eyes” and “a happy Russian face.” She had a very good memory and whenever the girls needed to remember something, they allotted the task to her. The oldest sister, Olga, was, at seventeen, a complex character, less amenable and tractable than at first appeared, more than capable of holding her own in conversation. Pierre Gilliard considered her very gifted intellectually—far more so than her sisters—and was disappointed that she did not make the most of these gifts. She was also a very talented musician—a talent inherited from her mother—and possessed the ability to play the piano by ear. She showed little inclination to move from girlhood into adulthood, and took no particular trouble over her appearance. The daughter most attentive toward Alix was the second oldest, the sixteen-year-old Tatiana. She was in many ways most like her mother (in appearance she resembled her maternal grandmother, Princess Alice of Hesse)—reserved, sensitive, her self-restraint rather ineffectively concealing a desire to take the lead, to control others as she controlled herself. Her sisters recognized this controlling tendency in her by nicknaming her “the governess.”
In Kostroma, as throughout the tercentenary celebrations, the girls’ duty lay in accompanying their father as much as possible, bolstering the idealized image of the imperial family, rather than tending their invalid mother, which task was relegated on this occasion to their aunt, the Grand Duchess Elisabeth. Alix herself, in a letter written a few months earlier to her old friend Bishop William Boyd Carpenter, formerly a chaplain to Queen Victoria, alludes to the public role her daughters are beginning to assume on her behalf: “My children are growing up so fast and are such real little comforters to us—the elder ones often replace me at functions and go about a great deal with their Father—they are all five touching in their care for me—my family life is one blessed ray of sunshine excepting the anxiety for our Boy.” The four girls were dressed in their trademark identical white dresses and picture hats (though they did take care to personalize their outfits through the judicious addition of a ribbon or other minor detail); it was chilly enough on the visit to Kostroma, however, for them to need to cover their summer dresses with warm dark coats for at least part of the time. The two eldest were now considered old enough to wear their hair up, though Tatiana had recently had hers cut off after she had contracted typhoid fever as a result of drinking contaminated water at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg.
Also staying behind with Alix, rather than engaging in all the activities at Kostroma, was the boy about whom she was so anxious, the eight-year-old heir to the throne, Alexei. A boisterous and energetic child when well—a fact that in itself caused his mother endless anxiety—he already had a strong sense of himself as the future Tsar, and his natural inclination would have been to be alongside his father. But, a sufferer from hemophilia, he had nearly died following a series of minor accidents the previous autumn, and was still not able to walk normally. So although he did his best to keep up with his siblings, he had to spend part of his time lying or sitting next to his mother. In some ways this was no hardship, as each enjoyed the other’s company. Despite his illness and the constraints it placed upon him, the little boy was of a very sunny temperament and loved by all. “Alexei Nikolaevich was the centre of this united family,” recalled Pierre Gilliard, “the focus of all its hopes and affections. His sisters worshipped him and he was his parents’ pride and joy. When he was well the palace was, as it were, transformed.”
Curiosity, at least as much as adulation, had brought the crowds to the landing stage at Kostroma (this was one of the few places on the triumphal progress that year where the crowds seemed genuinely enthusiastic and of a good size), for the chance to glimpse the Tsar and his family in the flesh was rare. Portraits and photographs of the imperial family abounded, but the images were carefully controlled (this being one aspect of public relations in which the Empress took an active interest—particularly as it did not involve actually having to meet anyone). The family had spent the earlier part of 1913 at Tsarskoe Selo, fifteen miles outside St. Petersburg, in the intimacy of their own apartments in the Alexander Palace. Existence at Tsarskoe Selo, and at the other royal palaces, was highly ordered. For the children, it was dominated by lessons and outdoor activities; for the Tsar it was similar, except that for lessons was substituted work. The children’s lessons generally began at nine o’clock in the morning and continued for two hours, before a break of one hour that usually involved a walk, ride, or drive (depending on the time of year and the weather). More lessons followed, until lunch at one. Two hours of every afternoon were spent outside, the Tsar joining in his children’s exercise and play whenever he had time—which was not, in fact, very often, for he was extremely conscientious over his work and his ministers tended to deluge him with reports; he also insisted on performing quite menial tasks himself and refused to employ a personal secretary. When the girls were not undertaking physical activity or lessons, they would be engaged in reading, needlework, or some other improving pastime—for their mother, a Victorian by conviction as well as by descent, believed in the adage “The devil makes work for idle hands,” and hated to see her daughters sitting around doing nothing. Except when prevented by ill health, she applied the same stricture to herself; even when lying on her sofa, she would be busy writing letters, stitching, or reading. The girls also drew and painted, and loved amateur dramatics. Anastasia was given to more original occupations; in 1913 she was preoccupied with breeding worms.
This period, this year in particular, was a vibrant one in Russia; both the economy and the arts were flourishing, new ideas were in the air, and there was a sense that anything could happen. Against this background—when one looks beyond the palace gates to see something of what was going on in the two Russian capitals—the private life of the imperial family can appear remarkably circumscribed and insular. Many of Olga and Tatiana’s contemporaries were desperately trying to achieve the perfect physique and (imaginary) flawless complexion of the famous ballerinas, such as Tamara Karsavina and Anna Pavlova, by applying the cold creams, scents, and soaps constantly advertized in Russian middle-class magazines of the period, such as Field and Town and Country. And, rather than amateur dramatics and needlework, it was the tango that fascinated the fashionable young ladies of Moscow. “Our faces are like the screech of the streetcar warning the hurrying passersby, like the drunken sounds of the great tango,” declared the cubo-futurist manifesto of 1913 called Why We Paint Ourselves. Several avant-garde artists (including David Burliuk, Natalia Goncharova, and Mikhail Larionov) had taken to painting the jagged, geometric forms of so-called rayonist art on their faces and other body parts and then walking around the city streets, in an attempt to shock and make (literal) exhibitions of themselves. Late in the year the futurist film Drama in the Futurists’ Cabaret No. 13 was made, and December saw the production of the cubo-futurist antiopera, Victory over the Sun, in St. Petersburg’s Luna Park. The libretto of this notorious piece was written by the radical Futurist poet Alexei Kruchenykh with a prologue by fellow Futurist Velimir Khlebnikov; the music was by avant-garde composer Mikhail Matushin and the costumes and sets designed by the artist Kasimir Malevich. “Some actors spoke only with vowels, others only with consonants, while blinding lights and ear-splitting sounds rocked through the theatre in an effort to give man ‘victory over the sun’: freedom from all dependence on the traditional order of the world.” The performances were sponsored by the Union of Youth and, along with Mayakovsky’s tragedy Vladimir Mayakovsky, were the sensation of the season, selling out despite the extremely high prices. All this was indeed worlds away from the domestic entertainments at Tsarskoe Selo, where the girls performed extracts from the French classics for their own close circle where “traditional order” reigned supreme, and where the reading matter of even the seventeen-year-old Olga was carefully censored by her tutor. In Paris The Rite of Spring was premiered by the Ballets Russes, featuring the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky, while in Russia Leon Bakst designed the costumes for the ballet Jeux, which concerned a flirtation during a game of tennis. Late in 1913 Vsevolod Meyerhold opened a new studio in St. Petersburg, where actors and students of drama explored experimental theater and where Meyerhold adopted his alternative persona of “Doctor Dapertutto” to distinguish his experimental from his official self as director of the imperial theater. In the field of literature, notable events of 1913 included the publication in book form (it had previously appeared as a newspaper serialization) of Andrei Bely’s symbolist novel Petersburg, and of Osip Mandelstam’s first collection of verse, Stone. The journal Argus, which specialized in accounts of exotic and far-flung adventures (including that of Captain Scott’s to the Antarctic) appeared for the first time. And during that year the writer Maxim Gorky returned to St. Petersburg from exile.
1913 was also a year marked by technological progress and vision; to name but three examples, experimental shafts were dug in Moscow to explore the feasibility of an underground railway, the Romanov irrigation canal was opened in the steppe of Samarkand, and Captain Boris A. Vilkitsky took two icebreakers on the Arctic Ocean Hydrographic Expedition, during which a huge uncharted archipelago was discovered, which he named Nicholas II Land. (It is now known as Severnaya Zemlya, or Northern Land.) The economy was buoyant, there had been bumper harvests in the previous two years, and the state treasury was in very good shape. Five years earlier, the then prime minister Pyotr Stolypin had said: “Give us twenty years of peace, domestic and foreign, and you will not recognize contemporary Russia,” and it looked as though his prediction was on the way to being fulfilled. On the other side of the coin, however, there were over twenty-five thousand homeless people in St. Petersburg, the populations of both the capital and of Moscow, the old capital, having nearly doubled since the beginning of the century.
The use of modern publicity methods had reached its height during the tercentenary celebrations. Pictures of the Tsar and his family had appeared on postage stamps, commemorative coins, and other souvenirs, including written accounts of the Tsar’s everyday habits. Unfortunately, such publicity could in itself be a double-sided coin, running the danger of associating the lofty image of the Tsar with the commonplace. As Richard Wortman has pointed out, “Descriptions of the tsar’s personal life gave him an aspect of the ordinary that was devastating to the worshipful admiration the tsar still hoped to command.” The imperial couple themselves, however, remained oblivious to such ambivalences.
As many as one and a half million commemorative roubles were issued on the occasion of the tercentenary, making them accessible to a far wider public than had been the case for any previous imperial celebration. But unfortunately the rise in production brought a concomitant decline in quality. The coins portrayed a bust of Nicholas in the uniform of the Imperial Rifles, with his brother, Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich (known to the family as Misha) on the obverse, wearing the Monomakh Cap, the crown of the Russian Grand Princes and Tsars from Dmitry Donskoy to Peter the Great. A breakdown of the die after the minting of the first fifty thousand resulted in Misha’s image being flattened, giving him a ghostly look. The tercentenary medal, which also bore images of Nicholas and Mikhail, was judged by at least one commentator, Alexander Spiridovich, the chief of palace security, to be “as ugly as possible.”
The issue of postage stamps on January 1, 1913, bearing portraits of the tsars was a first for the Russian Empire, though faces of monarchs had begun to be printed on stamps in other countries in the middle of the previous century. Nicholas, a keen philatelist, had happily given his consent to the practice being introduced in Russia. A problem emerged with the fact that the stamps had to be postmarked when used on an envelope, and many postmasters felt this would be a desecration of the face of the Tsar and so left the stamps uncanceled. The newspaper Zemshchina (Populace) the organ of the extreme right-wing Union of the Russian People, even pointed out that the law specified sentences of penal servitude for anyone defiling the imperial image. In response, the government suspended the series in February 1913, but resumed printing later that year.
Similar problems were connected with other artifacts. Permission was granted, for instance, for the production of scarves bearing a portrait of the Tsar, but only with the proviso that the scarves should not be of the right size to be used as handkerchiefs—there should be no blowing of noses on the Tsar!
Nicholas was particularly attracted to the medium of film, as through it he was able to establish direct visual contact with a mass audience without jeopardizing either privacy or security. Between 1911 and 1914 the censors approved more than a hundred requests submitted by firms such as Pathé, Khanzhonkov, Drankov, and Gaumont to screen newsreels of the Tsar. The films showed the Tsar at various ceremonial occasions, including the tercentenary celebrations in St. Petersburg and Moscow, military reviews, launching of ships, and receptions of foreign dignitaries.
The censors wanted to ensure that the screening of such films should take place with appropriate dignity, and therefore prescribed that newsreels of the Emperor and his family should be presented separately from other films and without musical accompaniment. The curtain should be lowered before and after a showing of the imperial family and the films should be projected by hand, at a speed that ensured the characters did not look comical in their movements.
The danger for the Tsar was that all these modern genres of publicity held the possibility of demeaning his image and associating him with the everyday and the ordinary. Again, as Richard Wortman has pointed out, such devices may have been appropriate in helping to popularize Queen Victoria’s “homey grandmotherly character,” but she was not, like Nicholas, seeking to uphold an absolute autocracy.
The tercentenary celebrations had opened in St. Petersburg on February 21, Jubilee Day, with a twenty-one-gun salute being fired from the Peter and Paul Fortress at eight o’clock in the morning. On the day before, the imperial family had left Tsarskoe Selo to install themselves in the Winter Palace. The main public event of February 21 was a procession along the Nevsky Prospekt from Palace Square to the Kazan Cathedral. The whole processional route was festooned with triumphal decorations, the Winter Palace and Admiralty being adorned with vast double-headed eagles and portraits of the Romanov tsars. The side façade of the Admiralty had been entirely draped in imperial purple displaying the Romanov coat of arms, topped by a huge crown. These decorations had been put in place on the previous evening, but almost immediately a fierce storm had blown up and dislodged the Admiralty drapings. On Jubilee Day the wind continued to play havoc with the decorations along the processional route, which was lined with troops, with the populace behind. Nicholas traveled in an open car, with Alexei next to him, both in military uniform. The two Empresses, Alexandra and her mother-in-law, followed in another car. Next came the four daughters, then the suite and the maids-of-honor.
Outside the Kazan Cathedral, a semicircle of flags and banners of the Union of the Russian People, a right-wing and strongly anti-Semitic organization founded in the wake of the 1905 revolution, was flamboyant in its display. Members of the Union had come from all over Russia, several thousand of them having processed early that morning from the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, at the far end of the Nevsky Prospekt, to the cathedral. All sorts of other people had joined the procession en route and were massed outside the cathedral to await the Tsar and his immediate family. The rest of the imperial family was already assembled inside, along with military and civic dignitaries, the diplomatic corps, and selected members of the public. According to Major-General Alexander Spiridovich, the head of the Emperor’s personal security police, the main focus of the expectant congregation was the rumor that the Empress’s “Friend,” the so-called “starets” or “elder,” Grigory Rasputin, was in their midst. Everyone was looking round, trying to identify him, in a scene reminiscent of a story by Nikolai Gogol, the senators and other bigwigs quite as indignant at seeing the peasant “elder” in the cathedral as they would be at meeting their own nose dressed in the uniform of a state councilor. His actual attire, according to the Chairman of the State Duma, Mikhail Rodzianko, consisted of “a dark raspberry silk peasant shirt, high patent-leather boots, wide black trousers, and a black peasant’s coat.” Having located the interloper, Rodzianko furiously ordered him out, accompanying him to the door to ensure his departure. Three months later Rasputin turned up for the celebrations in Kostroma, where he was admitted to the cathedral on the Empress’s orders, despite the fact that he had officially been refused a ticket. He was also seen walking around the town, in the company of a bishop.
For the liturgy at the Kazan Cathedral, the Patriarch of Antioch officiated, at the head of many other clergy. The proceedings included the reading out of an imperial manifesto, granting amnesties to prisoners and the cancellation of tax arrears owed by the peasantry. Two days later there was a ball at the Hall of Nobles, attended by Nicky, Alix, Olga, and Tatiana and most of their adult relatives. Alix made an enormous effort to overcome her debility and managed to participate in the opening polonaise. The imperial couple and their daughters left before supper was served. The Petersburg celebrations concluded three days later with a state banquet at the Winter Palace.
Despite all the effort that had gone into devising and organizing these celebrations, it was felt by some of the participants, including General Spiridovich and Prime Minister Kokovtsov, that there had been something rather lackluster about them (symbolized by the weather wrecking the decorations) and that there had been a disappointing lack of enthusiasm from the onlookers. Nicholas and Alexandra themselves were not unaware of this, and attributed it to the disagreeable and cynical nature of the capital and its inhabitants. For this is where there is some unexpected congruence between the attitudes of the imperial couple and of some of the avant-garde artists of the time, particularly Malevich—in the tendency to conceive of the “real” Russia as existing not in the sophisticated circles of the two capitals (and especially not in the western-influenced, “unnatural,” and artificially constructed St. Petersburg) but as residing in “the people,” the rural peasantry, dedicated—or so it was imagined—to orthodoxy, autocracy, and fatherland. It was partly this belief that led to the Tsar’s insistence that the tercentenary celebrations should extend beyond the main urban centers and into southern Russia, and to the imperial journey down the Volga.
Prior to the arrival at Kostroma, however, even this journey seemed rather disappointing, with the numbers turning out to see their sovereign being rather less than expected. The imperial family set out from Tsarskoe Selo on May 15, and, traveling by rail and road, visited Vladimir and Nizhny Novgorod, where they embarked on the Mezhen and set off along the Volga. The weather had again proved unconducive to a festive atmosphere; a bitingly cold wind had been blowing along the river, and the imperial family had kept out of sight on the steamship, not making any attempt to greet the groups of peasants gathered hopefully at various points along the bank. Late in the evening of May 18, the Mezhen arrived at Krasnoe, twenty-six miles downstream from Kostroma, and there it spent the night, in preparation for the celebrations described at the beginning of this chapter.
After Kostroma, the family traveled on to Yaroslavl and Pereslavl, where the Empress, feeling unwell all the time, was reunited with her close friend Ania Vyrubova, who, having no official position at court, had been unable to join in the tour until that point; she had, however, been invited to Pereslavl by the local nobility. The tour culminated in Moscow, with a triumphal entry (the imperial family having arrived by train at the Brest station in the afternoon, there to be greeted by their relatives, suite, officials, and courtiers) on May 24. After the official reception at the station and despite worries over security, the Tsar mounted a horse—he was an excellent horseman—to ride at the head of the procession. No one watching could have been unaware of the risk Nicholas was taking in being so exposed; a terrorist bomb or bullet could easily have turned the celebration into a catastrophe. But he was determined that his people should see their Tsar. Bernard Pares, who was among the onlookers, wrote subsequently: “The Emperor showed his personal courage when he rode into Moscow some twenty yards in front of his escort, followed by his family in an open carriage. There was an anxious hush till the outbreak of bells announced that he had reached the Kremlin.” As he rode along, the Tsar constantly raised his hand to his cap in greeting, while the Empress and the girls bowed left and right, and the Tsarevich happily saluted everybody. There was a mixture of jubilation, the crowds ceaselessly cheering, and fear on the part of the authorities, as evinced by Pares’s “anxious hush” and Spiridovich’s recollection that “nerves were tense in the extreme.” Spiridovich himself walked on the left of the Emperor, alert to every movement of the crowd, while the prefect of Moscow was on the Emperor’s right. Fortunately no untoward incidents occurred and Nicky’s sister Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna was able to write in her diary: “It was magnificent, a mass of people, and everything, thank God, went off splendidly.” When the cortege arrived at the Kremlin’s Iversky Gate, with all the bells of Moscow’s “forty-times-forty” churches resounding in the air, the Tsar dismounted, the Empress and the children descended from their carriage, and all followed the time-honored custom of going first into the chapel in front of the gate, the shrine of the miraculous icon of the Iversky Virgin, to venerate the icon and to pray, before proceeding to the Cathedral of the Archangel to pay their respects at the tomb of Tsar Mikhail. Rasputin, it seems, was haunting these celebrations, too. “Rasputin was standing by the entrance, everyone saw him, except for me!” reported Xenia.
Apart from when he was sitting in a carriage, little Alexei had to be carried by one of the Cossack bodyguards; there were those in the crowd who reacted to this sight by exclaiming with pity and making the sign of the cross. Alix was also visibly unwell, her face covered with red blotches. She nevertheless managed to take part in the ball held two days later at the Moscow Hall of Nobles, where, in a dazzling ballroom filled with flowers and greenery, she looked both beautiful and majestic as she danced the polonaise (or, rather, walked it, this traditional formal opening to a ball consisting of a stately progress through all the rooms) with Alexander Samarin, the leader of the Moscow nobility. Olga and Tatiana wore their customary white dresses and modest pearl necklaces, Tatiana’s newly growing hair tied up with a velvet ribbon. The sisters opened the ball with a waltz, at which they acquitted themselves admirably. More virtuosic and flamboyant were the children of Nicky’s Uncle Pavel, Dmitry and Maria, who danced the newly fashionable Boston. Alix struggled on for as long as she was able but departed after an hour, using a lift that had been specially constructed for her, while her husband and daughters remained until nearly two o’clock in the morning. Later that day the family left Moscow, convinced after their experiences in the old capital and especially in the towns along the Volga of the popularity of the monarchy among “the people.” As Spiridovich recalled,
Back home, the imperial family lived for a long time on memories of this journey. They would recount delightful and touching episodes to everyone. And such episodes were numerous. The people, foreign to politics, uncontaminated by revolutionary propaganda, had everywhere received the Emperor cordially, lovingly, with cross and prayers, as the Lord’s Anointed.
Was this not evidence that people such as these really loved their Tsar?
“The people love us,” the Empress said frequently, after this journey.
The rest of the year took its usual pattern, with a trip to the Norwegian fjords on board the imperial yacht Standart in early summer, followed by some weeks spent at Peterhof on the Gulf of Finland, before the annual removal to the palace at Livadia, near Yalta, for the late summer and early autumn. The trip to the fjords, though enjoyable, was marred by Alexei’s continuing ill health and the fact that he had to wear a special contraption to help straighten his leg. He was only allowed to have this contraption removed when the weather became very hot, and then he had to hop about on one leg; most of the time he played quietly in the sand, a shadow of the lively child he had been in earlier years. Yet even now, when his movements were necessarily limited, he was unable to prevent further injury to himself, developing when back at Peterhof in July a hemorrhage “from waving his arms around too much” while playing. A visit from Grigory Rasputin had its usual calming effect, however, the pain in his elbow beginning to ease after Grigory had talked with him for a while. At Livadia in the autumn, just as he was finally recovering from the aftereffects of the previous year’s illness, he had yet another accident, falling off a chair on which he had been standing in the schoolroom and banging his right knee. As ever, this resulted in a hemorrhage under the skin and a swelling that spread from below his knee to his calf and ankle. He was soon unable to walk, and the swelling pressed on the nerves of his leg, giving rise to excruciating, shooting pains. In addition to the usual bed rest, the child was subjected to a course of high-temperature mud baths in an attempt to aid his recovery.
The wider Romanov family was plagued by marital difficulties and irregularities throughout Nicholas’s reign, and the tercentenary year presented no exception. In January Nicky’s younger brother Misha had, as one of the consequences of his morganatic marriage to a divorcée, been relieved of the duty of becoming Regent in the event of the Tsar dying before Alexei had attained his majority. In the autumn it became clear that the marriage of the young Maria Pavlovna (who in May had danced the Boston with her brother) was a disaster, and she had taken refuge with her father, Grand Duke Pavel Alexandrovich, in France. Pavel himself, “the nicest of the four uncles of the Tsar,” according to Nicky’s cousin and brother-in-law, Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich (known as Sandro), had for several years lived in exile, being another member of the imperial family to have disgraced himself by marrying a divorced commoner; Dmitry and Maria, his children by his first, deceased wife had been brought up mainly by Alix’s sister Ella. Pavel now wrote to Nicky, asking permission to be allowed to begin negotiating his daughter’s divorce. The Empress was also disapproving of the engagement announced in October of Nicky’s niece Irina (the daughter of his sister Xenia) to Felix Yusupov, who had a reputation for fast living and amorous adventure; she would never have let one of her own daughters marry him, Alix declared to her sister-in-law. Nicky’s other sister, Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, looked back on the checkered marital history of the Romanovs with despair. “What example could we give to the nation?” she asked in her memoirs. “Little wonder that poor Nicky, lacking support on all sides, became a fatalist. He would often put his arms round me and say, ‘I was born on Job’s day—I am ready to accept my fate.’”
Alexei’s illness meant that the family stayed longer in Livadia than usual, not returning to Tsarskoe Selo until December. On Christmas Eve Nicky and his daughters traveled to St. Petersburg to spend the evening with his mother, his sister Xenia, and her children at the Anichkov Palace. Even a “simple” family outing such as this involved hours of police preparation and tight security. For a number of years after the revolution of 1905, when assassinations of public figures were a frequent occurrence, it was considered too unsafe for the Emperor to travel into the capital unless absolutely necessary. It was not until 1910 that restrictions on his travel had begun to be relaxed, the information gathered by the security forces and secret police suggesting that terrorists posed no immediate threat to his life. But this did not mean that General Spiridovich and his team could relax their vigilance.
The agreed procedure was for the Tsar to announce his intention of making a journey to St. Petersburg to the Palace Commandant, who would in turn inform Spiridovich. The latter would then travel into the city himself, either early in the morning if the imperial visit was to take place later in the day, or the night before. There he would meet with the prefect of the city to discuss the required security arrangements; he was able to request more men from the city’s police to back up his imperial security team, in order to monitor the whole route and to keep under observation any characters deemed suspicious. Any disputes between the two forces were referred to the Palace Commandant, who had the final say. These arrangements were working well by 1913, though it had taken some time to get them right. When Nicholas first began to make these occasional forays into the city in 1910, the conflicting priorities of the two police forces had the potential for disaster. While the imperial security police were concerned above all else with keeping the Emperor’s specific route as secret as possible, the city police were keen to demonstrate their zeal by preparing that route meticulously—by, for example, spreading sand along the roads to be traversed by the imperial vehicle—and thus inadvertently advertising the route to all and sundry, including any would-be assassins. To overcome this problem, the security police would inform the city authorities of one route and then send the Emperor by another. Clearly that could only be a short-term solution; eventually communications were improved and a coordinated response to the Tsar’s travel plans developed.
In the first section of her Poem Without a Hero, Anna Akhmatova envisages characters from the Petersburg of 1913 returning as shades wearing carnival masks; the atmosphere is frivolous yet filled with foreboding. During the autumn of that year, when the imperial family was at Livadia, Prime Minister (or Chairman of the Council of Ministers) Kokovtsov made two visits there to present his report to the Tsar. On neither occasion did the Empress emerge from her rooms; whether she was indisposed or whether she wished to avoid Kokovtsov, who had fallen out of her favor by being insufficiently pliable, the minister could not tell. He did make a perceptive comment about such visits in general: “I felt that though the ministers were received as guests their hosts were most cordial at the moment of their departure.” Kokovtsov had recently returned from a visit to Berlin, where he had concluded that preparations were being made to “let loose a war upon Europe.” He reported these observations to Nicholas, who had himself been in Berlin in May to attend the wedding of Kaiser Wilhelm’s daughter; this was the last time he ever saw his cousin Willy. “His Majesty never interrupted me during my report,” wrote Kokovtsov, “and kept looking straight into my eyes as if to probe the sincerity of my words. Later, turning to the window near which we were sitting, he looked for a long time over the spreading sea before us; then, seeming to awaken from a reverie and again looking steadily into my eyes, he said simply: ‘God’s will be done.’”
Copyright © 2011 by Virginia Rounding
Meet the Author
VIRGINIA ROUNDING is a translator and writer who lives in London. She studied Russian at the University of London. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Catherine the Great and Grandes Horizontales.
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