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Set against the backdrop of this most cataclysmic century, The Flight of the Romanovs is a must-read for anyone interested in this fascinating dynasty, Russian history, and the history of European royalty.
About the Authors:
John Curtis Perry is Henry Willard Dennison Professor of History at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Constantine V. Pleshakov is Director of the Goepolitics and Pacific Studies Center at the Soviet Academy of Sciences.
Death of a Tsar
March 1, 1881
At 1:45 on Sunday afternoon, March 1, 1881, Alexis Volkov, a soldier of the Pavlovsky Regiment who was guarding the squat regimental barracks facing Aptekarsky Lane in St. Petersburg, heard an explosion from the direction of nearby Ekaterininsky Canal. Although not particularly alarmed, he shifted towards the canal as far as his position as a guard permitted. Within several minutes, a second and louder explosion shook the air. Volkov could see smoke slowly rising over the water and small knots of people rushing about. In several minutes two sledges, one bearing a mangled, mortally wounded Emperor Alexander II, passed by way of Aptekarsky and Millionnaya Street to the Winter Palace. Grand Duke Michael Nikolaevich, who before the attack had been following his brother, the tsar, at some distance, was now sitting next to the dying master of the world's largest empire, cradling his inert body against his chest, and fulfilling his imperial brother's murmured last command: "Quickly, home ... to the palace ... die there ..."
Just the day before, Alexander, the liberator of the serfs, having recently changed his own life by marrying his longtime mistress, had decided to change Russia's political order. He had signed a manifesto declaring that a number of members of the state council would hereafter be elected. This would be the first, cautious step toward a constitutional monarchy. Emperor Alexander II had decided to yield full autocracy, the legacy of his imperial ancestors.
That night hehad played cards with his wife. She asked him not to attend the military parade the next day, March 1st. "Why shouldn't I go?" the emperor said in a merry voice. "I cannot live in the palace like a hermit."
Now Cossacks carried the tsar up the great Palace's white marble staircase, leaving a trail of droplets of blood. Minutes later, the sovereign lay unconscious on a sofa facing the window of his first-floor study in the Winter Palace, heavily hemorrhaging: A grenade had crushed both of his legs below the knees. His right leg was still booted, his left, a shapeless bloody mess. Blood drenched Alexander II's face and his abdomen was torn open. So forceful had been the explosion that broken pieces of the tsar's gold wedding ring, a symbol of his notorious second marriage, had imbedded themselves in the flesh of his right hand, although the hand itself had otherwise been unhurt by the grenade. Grand Duke Michael Nikolaevich, in full parade uniform, stood at the head of the deathbed, looking at his brother and weeping. For a while, he was the only Romanov to watch the tsar's agony.
Despite many threats and attempts on his life over the past fifteen years, Alexander II had taken on no real cloak of security. He had chosen not to surround himself with bodyguards and detectives; he continued to enjoy long solitary walks along the Neva embankment, elbowing his way through his subjects when necessary, but always preserving a sense of dignity and calm. Six past attempts on his life had failed; the sovereign had seemed to enjoy the firm protection of God. Now Alexander's violent death forever shattered the likelihood of any tsar ever again mingling freely with his people.
In chaos and panic, people ran in and out of the emperor's increasingly crowded study where he lay prostrate, three doctors hovering helplessly nearby. Servants carrying basins of reddened water came out of the study, and people in the hallways and on the stairs stopped them in order to dip their fingers or moisten their handkerchiefs in the precious blood. The rigid protocol and organization of court life had momentarily collapsed. Young officers, complete outsiders, having received the news of the attack, rushed to the Winter Palace to peer in at the deathbed. Only their own sense of discretion and decorum prevented them from approaching the dying tsar.
One person stood in the chamber as solemn and solid as a rock, and everyone else there was eager to witness the exact magical moment when all the gigantic authority, both social and sacral, would flow from the agonized Alexander II into his son, who would thus be transfigured from the Grand Duke Alexander Alexandrovich into His Imperial Majesty, the Emperor Alexander III. When he had arrived on the scene, the heir asked the court physician, Sergei Botkin, how long the sovereign would live. "Ten or fifteen minutes," Botkin answered. Alexander Alexandrovich, his stoic composure momentarily shattered, exclaimed, "What have we come to!" He then sobbed and embraced his uncle, Michael Nikolaevich.
The heir had arrived at the Winter Palace as the terrible rumor was already spreading over the central blocks of St. Petersburg. Crowds already packed his route—the elegant Nevsky Prospect, the wide passage under the majestic arch of the General Staff building, and the huge semicircular Palace Square. Alexander Alexandrovich had heard the two ominous explosions while he and his wife, Maria Fedorovna, were going in to lunch at their Anichkov Palace residence. A Cossack, galloping into the courtyard of the Anichkov, quickly broke the news. "A sledge!" the grand duke roared, tearing down the stairs.
Silence had fallen over the center of the city, interrupted only by occasional outbursts against the "students," as terrorists were called. Women spat at officers, "You, the military! You've failed to save our tsar!" Alexander Alexandrovich, slowly driving through the crowds in his sledge, a huge figure next to his tiny wife, could not move any faster. When the officers in the mob solemnly saluted him, he returned the salute and his wife bowed.
A rare case of a son's conservatism and a father's liberalism alienated the two Alexanders. The son did not believe that the reign of Alexander II had been a model reign, nor that the life of Alexander II had been the model life of a Christian monarch. Standing by the deathbed of his father and ending the grand ducal stage of his life, Alexander Alexandrovich's grief undoubtedly fought with other, equally powerful, emotions.
Looking at his father's mangled body, Alexander Alexandrovich was sure of one thing: The hydra of the revolution must be crushed, if the Romanov dynasty were not to be extinguished. His father might be just the first victim of the fanatics. Alexander Alexandrovich must protect his family.
Yet almost everything Alexander II had done angered his son. His sweeping reforms—emancipating the serfs, shaking up the administrative apparatus, creating self-rule for territorial units—all seemed to be misconceived. In Russia, reform was taken by radicals as a sign of weakness, a faltering of the autocracy embodied by the imperial house. And a sign of weakness perhaps it was. Alexander II himself had declared, "Let us liberate the serfs from above or they will liberate themselves from below."
Alexander II's reforms had given Russia its first free press, trials by jury and limits on corporal punishment. They had also nourished an exuberant cultural life, with Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky its primary exemplars. Reform had brought railroads, the telegraph, steamships and factory machinery, with capitalism winning the country. But reform had also spawned the dragon of Russian revolution with its inflammatory leaflets, terrorist networks and bombs. Alexander II had met the challenge with dignity. He saw to it that the revolutionaries were pursued, but only within the limits of law.
To Alexander III the fruits of his father's rule were a lesson. His father had unleashed the vermin, had been too chivalrous to crush them, had been too proud to stop his daily walks. And now here he lay—the sacral monarch, the "tsar," or Caesar, something more than a European king, a quasi-divine figure—anointed by God, yet bleeding and dying. With the premature death of Alexander II, the first and only great reformer tsar since Peter the Great, the Romanovs would lose an opportunity to lead Russia into modern life.
The son stood beside the father's couch and scowled. A young woman ran into the study and fervently embraced the dying tsar, paying no attention to his brother or his children. She was his former mistress and new wife, Princess Ekaterina Yurievskaya. She administered some medicine to him.
The doctors pronounced the sovereign dead at 3:35 P.M. The esoteric status of tsar passed from father to son. As the imperial standard was slowly lowered, the great crowd massed outside the palace fell silently to its knees on the snowy pavements.
* * *
The grand dukes of Russia hurried to the funeral from all over Europe. The emperor's sons, Vladimir and Alexis, were already in St. Petersburg. Two of Alexander II's other younger surviving sons from his first marriage, Sergei and Paul, had heard the news in Paris. Sergei was calm, but the emotionally fragile Paul, completely undone, had to be carried to the train. Alexander II's younger brother, Nicholas Nikolaevich Senior, with his own sons Nicholas and Peter, sped to Russia on an express train from Cannes. In Berlin, the Russian Embassy staff members met them on the station platform to demonstrate their grief, and the old German kaiser, William I, sent his aide-de-camp to represent him there. In Verzhbolovo, the frontier station, the grand dukes put on their gray military uniforms with black mourning bands. The train passed through the heavily guarded frontier, and pressed on into the great Russian plain, with sentries posted along the tracks emerging suddenly out of the spring mist.
Five days later, on March 6th, a memorial mass was held at the Winter Palace. The emperor's grief-stricken widow was hardly able to stand unsupported. When escorted to the open coffin, she discovered that the emperor's face was covered by a veil. She bent, abruptly tore the veil away and started kissing the face of her husband. On the evening of the same day she came again to the coffin, bringing a wreath made of her own hair, celebrated for its beauty, and put it into the hands of the corpse, her last gift to him. The body of the emperor then had to be taken to the small yellow-walled cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, where every ruler since Peter the Great lay encased in his or her plain sarcophagus and where Alexander II would now have his final resting place.
The funeral itself, an affair of much greater pomp, took place two weeks after the emperor's death. On the day of the funeral, at the Saltykov entrance to the Winter Palace, two groups awaited the arrival of the new imperial couple, Emperor Alexander III and Empress Maria Fedorovna. On the right side of the wide staircase, the Romanov grand dukes and grand duchesses were assembling. On the left stood a tiny group of mourners, ignored as much as possible by the others: Alexander II's second wife, Yurievskaya, with her three children, ages nine, eight and three, all dressed in black, the princess hiding her face behind a black veil.
The doors of the Winter Palace now opened, and the imperial couple stood in the huge lobby, appearing to approach their own family, the grand dukes and duchesses. Then Alexander III, about to descend the stairs, looked back to see Princess Yurievskaya, his stepmother, raising her veil. With the great steps of a giant, Alexander approached his father's widow and said something to her. Maria Fedorovna, the new empress, hesitated, not knowing whether it was appropriate in her new role to talk to the controversial woman. If the empress chose to give a hand to the princess instead of an embrace, the late emperor's young widow would be obliged to kiss her daughter-in-law's hand. Princess Yurievskaya then quickly approached her; they faced each other for a moment and suddenly the empress embraced the princess, both crying. The princess nodded to her children and they kissed the empress's hand. But the emperor, unwilling to endorse the rapprochement, was already in the doorway, and the empress hastily followed him.
The grand dukes left, and Princess Yurievskaya with her three children remained standing as if turned to stone. Another private memorial mass was planned for her to attend in the cathedral. A social leper, she was not to mix with the rest of the royal family for the funeral.
All the churches of St. Petersburg now tolled their bells, filling the air with their solemn mournful tones. A three-gun salute from the cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul signalled the mourners to assemble there at half-past ten. Sleighs began to converge there. Thickly falling snow blurred the outlines of the great buildings of the monumental city. Wind piled the snow up against the legs of soldiers stationed along the Neva; they shivered despite their fur caps and heavy overcoats. Cossacks on station, their horses half buried in the deepening drifts, guarded the path cleared across the frozen surface of the river. The temperature had plummeted to twenty degrees below zero.
The Romanovs intended the funeral to display the power and majesty of the dynasty; within the cathedral the white marble tombs of earlier Romanovs demonstrated its continuity as well. Flowers in bunches and wreaths from the crowned heads of Europe—many of them part of the Romanov extended family—and from all parts of the empire, from rich and poor, high and low, old and young lay round the glittering bier. Decorating the walls were emblems and symbols of the provinces the "Tsar of All the Russias" had governed: Moscow, Kiev, Vladimir, Novgorod, Siberia, Poland, Estonia, Finland, Georgia and so on, from the Baltic to the Pacific and from the Arctic Ocean to the Pamir Mountains. The cloth of silver that illuminated the dark ecclesiastical vestments and the brilliant sparkle of foreign military uniforms provided the only other color in a sea of black wool, fur, lace and crepe.
The space was not enormous; aside from the imperial family, only the diplomatic corps, special foreign visitors and the greatest Russian dignitaries could be admitted. Britain's Prince and Princess of Wales (she the sister of the new empress) and the Crown Prince of Germany, the highest ranking foreigners, entered just after the Metropolitan (Archbishop) had begun to intone the requiem mass.
As the long service drew to its close, the priestly choir sang "Eternal Memory," the last hymn to accompany a tsar to the realm of the dead. Its richly textured sound seemed to soar to the very heavens. It was time for the family to bid their farewells.
First the emperor, then the grand dukes and grand duchesses, bent and kissed the slain sovereign. Foreign relatives followed suit. The ambassadors had started to approach the coffin to pay their respects when they were halted. From the depths of the cathedral, assisted by the Minister of Court, Count Alexander Adlerberg, a young woman under a long veil was coming: Princess Yurievskaya, defying convention by her presence. She knelt at the coffin and put her head against it, staying there for several minutes; then standing, leaning on Count Adlerberg's arm, she slowly withdrew. The diplomats moved forward.
After Alexander III folded the imperial cloak of gold and ermine into his father's coffin, eight aides-de-camp carried forward the lid which was covered with flowers and bore the late tsar's sword and helmet. The lid was then bolted on. The emperor, the grand dukes and the foreign princes raised the coffin, carried it a few paces to its final resting place, and the Metropolitan pronounced a benediction. The coffin was then lowered to the roaring guns of the fortress saluting the dead monarch six times, with the rolling fire of musketry filling the silence between the deep reports of the guns. During these military honors, the members of the imperial family filed past the open grave as they left the cathedral, tossing earth on the coffin as was the Russian custom.
Along Millionnaya Street the new emperor returned from Sts. Peter and Paul in an open sledge, with his petite empress Maria Fedorovna sitting next to him. Under minimal convoy the emperor was going to the Anichkov Palace, where he had lived as heir. The air in the Winter Palace still smelled of death. Alexander III wanted to start afresh. The first thing he would do would be to flee from the city founded by the greatest of his ancestors, Peter.
* * *
Much of the Romanov family drama unfolds in St. Petersburg, Peter the Great's city, created by his steely will, named for his patron saint, the apostle, a city of contrasts wrought by the interplay of water, sky, light, fog, clouds and earth, stone thrust into swamp. Peter chose a Dutch name as if to declare his intention of building a Western European city. The "Venice of the North," the "Palmyra of the Snows," foreigners called it with astonishment, responding to the city's monumental character. According to legend, Peter's ghost sometimes rises from his white sepulchre at Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral to walk again through his city, built upon the bones of thousands of laborers who died at their task.
Water dominated the St. Petersburg of the Romanovs. The canals and the Neva flooded the city every year, and the salty spice of the sea, along with the richer odors of mud and tar, permeated the air. In winter, November to April, snow covered the ground, its whiteness constantly renewed. Workers scraped the icy pavements and cordoned off the streets to shovel the roofs. The jingling of troika harness, the whistling of the sea breezes and the solemn toll of church bells gave Petersburg its characteristic sounds.
The great squares afforded generous spaces for the play of light as well as for the passage of people. Pastel greens and creamy yellows gave color to the facades, especially nurturing to the eye during the long monochromatic winters. In June, the magic of the "white nights," when the sun sets for less than two hours, offered a sense of freedom, even abandon, but summer was offset by the grim harshness of January, with frigid winds sweeping in from the Gulf of Finland over the frozen rivers and canals, stinging the cheeks, driving people to huddle beneath their coats and caps and scurry for the warmth of shelter. The heat of summer, from which the rich and privileged sought refuge in their country houses and estates, would bring epidemics of typhus and cholera, especially to the city's dark corners, its hovels and tenements and overcrowded crime-ridden slums, where diseases festered and a street fight might erupt over a few rotten turnips.
St. Petersburg's classic severity, its majestic grandeur, made it seem almost un-Russian to those who did not live there, but its massive uniformity and disciplined regularity well expressed the autocratic spirit that Peter and his successors endeavored to implant in the realm. Being "new," the city lacked any sense of medieval Russia, and at its core at least it had none of the unplanned natural growth, the congeniality and warmth that age alone can give. Moscow symbolized Russia in a way that St. Petersburg never could. But the Romanovs after Peter did not identify with Moscow and spent little time there.
Under Alexander II, the Russian imperial court had reached the apex of its splendor, the most magnificent in Europe. The crown jewels were undoubtedly the world's richest; only the Persian and the British might even compare. The jewels were used by the sovereign and his consort but not personally owned by him, remaining the property of the state. The 194-carat Orloff diamond, the Polar Star, a pale red ruby of 40 carats, and the Imperial Diadem, which held 13 enormous pearls and many smaller ones, as well as 500 diamonds, were only some of the more notable pieces. These crown jewels were brought out only for state occasions, but personally owned jewels were another matter and some of them, too, were truly extraordinary. Empress Maria Fedorovna, wife of Alexander III, often wore a necklace made of 36 diamonds weighing a total of 475 carats. The center diamond of the string alone weighed thirty-two.
Russians had started mining their own precious stones in the seventeenth century when the Romanov dynasty was founded. Before that, gems came from southern Asia and elsewhere. European Russia, the heart of the nation, held no minerals. Even the pearls of the northern rivers were usually small, irregular in shape and dull in luster. But as Russians began to move eastward and to settle in the Urals, they discovered new sources of precious and semiprecious stones—first, in 1635, malachite; followed by jasper, sard, and agate, topaz, amethyst, and beryl. Peter the Great and Catherine both pressed for more, Peter to ornament his new capital city, Catherine in order to indulge herself in huge basins and urns carved from single blocks of jasper, porphyry or other exotic stones. Diamonds were not discovered in Russia until 1829; emeralds followed shortly, as did rare semiprecious stones like green garnets and alexandrite. The great Yakutia diamond mines which now figure so importantly in the world market were not opened until 1949. So despite the riches available from Russian mines, many of the Romanov jewels had therefore been collected at even more extravagant cost, over centuries and from all over the world.
Court rituals reflecting the ancient imperial and churchly traditions of Byzantium further enhanced the splendor of the jewels and the dress. To these Byzantine influences were added the personal taste of Catherine the Great and the style of eighteenth-century France. Catherine created the patterns of the Russian imperial court, and after her no one dared or cared to attempt to change them. The furniture in the state rooms remained in the same arrangement; the footmen carried the same braziers of incense from room to room; messengers wore the same archaic red and gold liveries with ostrich-feathered caps; and, as one court lady remembered, "for all I know the same plates for hot bread and butter on the same tea table were traditions going back to Catherine the Great."
Perhaps it was comfortable to fall into the pattern, knowing that a page would always present a dish of sweets in the same fashion or that a card table would always be set in the same corner with a glass of wine on it because that was Catherine's wish. Everything in the palace that pertained to anything beyond the personal life of the monarch and his immediate family was prescribed and performed according to a rigid and intensely conservative etiquette.
Prince Christopher of Greece, a Romanov through his mother, Olga Constantinovna, remarked that
the palace of Tsarskoye Selo [located outside St. Petersburg] was the most beautiful in Europe, a storehouse of treasures. Plates of old Chinese porcelain, whose value was literally beyond price and which formed part of a collection presented to Catherine the Great by the Emperor of China of her day, were inlaid into the solid amber walls of one room; another room was walled in rarest lapis lazuli. The great banqueting-hall which ran the whole width of the palace, two stories high, was of blue and silver and lighted only by thousands of candles. The picturesque Abyssinian guard always stood at the door on State occasions, six coal-black negroes presented to the Czar by Menelik, Emperor of Abyssinia. Tall, splendidly built, in their wide trousers and scarlet turbans, they stood immobile as though they had been cast in bronze.
The palaces, with their severe formality and cold splendor, resembled museums more than homes, the public spaces to be supplemented by private retreats where the monarch and his family actually lived. The Winter Palace where Alexander II died stretched for half a mile along the Neva, its size and opulence providing a material symbol of the power and wealth of the Romanov autocracy. Yet it represented fantasy, not reality, and what took place within was all carefully choreographed and never left to chance; the setting and the ceremonies were intended to overawe both Russians and foreigners and to impress upon them the majesty, power and taste of the Russian imperial institution embodied by the Romanovs.
Guests would arrive and enter the palace by one of a number of great carpeted marble staircases. Huge windows opened onto the river, admitting a flood of light enhanced by the reflections cast by the sun dancing on the surfaces of the water. Winter froze the Neva into a mass of ice, covered with snow. In daytime, light from out-of-doors interplayed with the richly veined marble walls of the vast high-ceilinged reception halls, cathedral-like spaces with gilded mirrors, inlaid doors and highly polished parquet floors. An army of liveried servants waxed the floors daily, skating along with a brush attached to one foot. Imperial greenhouses supplied the great halls with orchids and other flowers, sometimes brought by train from the Crimea. The delicate fragance of orange blossoms sweetened the air. Palm trees lined the main staircase and the corridors. A winter garden roofed with glass provided a place where trees and shrubs could flower throughout the coldest times and fountains soothed the ear with their murmuring sounds. One empress even kept a cow in this space so that she might enjoy fresh milk daily.
The Winter Palace also had its own theater seating several hundred people. There the leading artists of the day, both Russian and foreign, would sing, dance or act. Sometimes members of the imperial family would themselves perform in the best tradition of private amateur theatricals which European royalty so much enjoyed. Using the pen name "K.R." (he romanized his name with a "K" rather than a "C"), the Grand Duke Constantine Constantinovich, an actor and playwright as well as a poet, translated the plays of Shakespeare into Russian for performance there. In a performance of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, the young future Nicholas II played the title role, other parts being played by other members of the family.
Connected to the palace was a large building called the Hermitage whose special purpose was to house the collections of paintings, sculpture and myriad objets d'art amassed by the Romanovs over three centuries. Today the whole building complex is known as the Hermitage, and it houses one of the world's greatest art collections.
In the palace at night, illumination was provided by thousands of wax candles placed in wall sconces and crystal chandeliers, an innundation of light into a sea of darkness. Pillars of malachite, porphyry, onyx and jasper punctuated the wall spaces. Huge vases, specially made in imperial factories for imperial use, marble statuary, and finely fashioned chairs, tables and cabinets were generously scattered throughout, although the vast space left ample room for literally thousands of people to circulate. An imperial reception at the Winter Palace might have three thousand guests who ate, drank and danced. To this glittering setting the guests would bring their own colorful contribution, the ladies blazing with jewels, dresses cut low to display the bosom and shoulders, the married women wearing sparkling jeweled diadems, the girls wearing flowers in their hair. Military officers wore their richly decorated dress uniforms, often with crested helmets. Court officials wore short breeches, white silk stockings and much gold braid.
The tapping of an ivory-tipped ebony wand by the master of ceremonies signalled the appearance of the emperor and empress. First the imperial couple would be greeted in the Malachite Hall by the entire imperial family, the diplomatic corps and the highest court officials, and then perhaps receive presentations in the throne room. At a large event the imperial party, including perhaps a dozen or more grand dukes and grand duchesses, would process throughout the enfilade of great rooms, bringing momentary silence to the conversation, deep bows and curtsies, as the imperial party made its way slowly through the guests, massed tightly together. The opening dance, a polonaise, was always led by the emperor, but to call it a "dance" may be somewhat misleading—its stately tempo was more akin to a parade. Its measured dignity, though, seemed entirely appropriate to the occasion. "Our procession," one grand duke recalls, "had to pass through all the halls with six chamberlains in front of us announcing our approach. We circled the palace three times, after which the dancing began in every hall, quadrille, waltz and mazurka being the only dances approved by etiquette."
Supper would be served at midnight at small tables, the imperial couple themselves not sitting but moving from table to table to chat with the guests and perhaps to take a sip of champagne. Alexander II liked champagne but drank only moderately because he suffered from asthma. At a reception or a ball, the point was for the emperor to appear to drink and eat with as many guests as possible. A socially accomplished imperial person was not unlike an actor, always in control, fusing dignity with affability, authority with charm. A few well-chosen words could put anyone at ease and the trick was to move from one person to another with a remark that might bring both of them into the conversation. A highly trained memory was an immense imperial asset. But everything did not always go smoothly. One guest remembers that at all the great imperial banquets, "a court official stood behind the chair of every royal guest to hand the champagne for the toasts. This was a matter of solemn ritual. The wine was first poured out by a footman, then it had to be passed to a page who, in turn, passed it to the hander.... The hander was usually distinguished, aged and tremulous, so between them they managed, as often as not, to upset the contents of the glass all over you. I can still remember my sister's distress when her favourite pale blue velvet Court dress turned a vivid green in patches after her hander had spilt six glasses of champagne over it."
Amid the grandeur and formality of this glittering environment, Alexander II presided over a large extended family whose lives were predictably regimented and formal as well. Nicholas I, Alexander II's father, had sired a family of four boys and three girls. Had it not been for his fertility (and that of the empress, his dear "Mouffy"), the Romanovs would have become extinct well before the twentieth century. In the mid-eighteenth century, at one point there were only two Romanovs beside the ruler. All twentieth-century Romanovs are descendants of the awesome Nicholas I, the "Iron Tsar."
Of all ruling Romanovs, at least since Peter the Great, Nicholas most epitomized autocracy. Unusually tall, with an "Olympian profile" and piercing eyes making even brave men tremble, Nicholas seemed more monument than mortal man. Loving, perhaps, but stern, he treated his children as if they were raw recruits and he a drill sergeant. Although Nicholas sought to embody Russia, paradoxically his tastes were foreign and he and his court presented themselves as part of the greater European royal family, a way of enhancing the lordly separation between the tsar and his subjects.
The Romanovs were hardly even Russian in blood. In order to maintain a claim to the imperial succession, a grand duke was obliged to marry royalty. Mere nobility would not suffice. If he chose to marry outside royalty, the marriage was considered "morganatic," that is, his wife and their children would not enjoy his lofty status. The rest of the family judged morganatic marriage scandalous because the individual who did it obviously chose the gratification of personal desires over the retention of his place in the succession, love over duty, thus shattering his emotional as well as hierarchical relationship to the throne and to the rest of the family.
As a result, since Peter, most Romanovs had married foreigners. For generations the various small states of Germany provided Romanov brides, all of them born "royal." Each German princeling was proud of his status and would try to emulate, on as large a scale as he could afford, the splendors of the environment and routine of Versailles. "Pumpernickel courts," Thomas Carlyle, the Victorian essayist, called them contemptuously. But Protestant German royalty provided brides (and grooms also, when needed) not simply for Russia but for all the royal houses of northern Europe. Baden, Wurtemberg, Saxony and Hanover were all possible sources, but tiny Coburg took pride of place. Bismarck dismissed it derisively as "the studfarm of Europe." The result was that everyone in Europe who was royal, Romanovs included, was related, at least if they were not Roman Catholics, and the relationships were kept close by continued intermarriage. Northern European royalty comprised one large German extended family. The great poet Alexander Pushkin allegedly liked to illustrate Romanov intermarriage with foreigners with a bottle of water, some red wine and a few glasses. Setting the glasses in a row, he would fill up the first with wine, proclaiming "that glass is our glorious Peter the Great: it is pure Russian blood in all its vigor. Just look at the crimson glow!" In the second glass he mixed wine and water in equal amounts. In the third he put one part wine and three parts water, continuing in this fashion, mixing each new glass in the same inverse progression. If we were to take this beyond Pushkin's time, by the seventh glass, representing the blood of Alexander III, the "German" water was barely tinged by the "Russian" wine, now only one sixty-fourth of the contents.
In 1881, at the time of Alexander II's assassination, all of his male Romanov relatives—his three brothers and his nephews, his five surviving sons from his first (non-morganatic) marriage—all held the title of grand duke, and their wives, sisters and daughters were all grand duchesses. Like an emperor or empress, a grand duke or grand duchess was expected to patronize the arts and to support charities, and to live in a grand manner. The presence of a grand duke or grand duchess at any gathering, no matter how inconsequential, was enough to transform it into an event. The tsar's charisma extended to the whole family.
Although they might walk along the granite quays of Petersburg, even alone or accompanied only by a dog, grand dukes were conspicuous, always subject to popular scrutiny, and the tsar's secret police kept a careful eye on them. Their role was not easy. If they showed energy and eagerness to serve, that ambition might provoke jealousy and excite suspicion. If, on the other hand, they did too little, they might be judged self-indulgent and hedonistic. Though they were usually mere figureheads of army or navy administration, public opinion nonetheless would judge grand dukes harshly for anything that went wrong. Grand dukes had responsibility without authority. The real purpose of the grand duke was to stand by in case he should be called to the throne.
Family tradition dictated the pattern for the education of grand dukes. As imperial children they were educated by tutors and could not be sent to schools. Thus their exalted positions isolated them from other children of their own age. In his first years, a Romanov male spent his time in the hands of women, cared for by a procession of wet nurses and nannies with whom his emotional attachments could become strong, especially as he received little time or attention from his mother. Travel and court duties tended to separate imperial parents, mothers as well as fathers, from their children.
From the time of the Emperor Paul in the late eighteenth century, every grand duke was given nominal command of a guards regiment at birth. Real education for a Romanov boy thus began at age six or seven when he would be abruptly, and often painfully, thrust into an entirely male and military environment. The overwhelming importance of the military arts within grand ducal education reflects the centrality of the military to the Romanovs and throughout aristocratic Russian society.
The military prized physical fitness and the vigorous outdoor life. Military culture developed its own aesthetic, with brilliant uniforms and sparkling decorations, drills and maneuvers executed with choreographic flourish and mathematical exactitude, all conveying a sense of rationality and order, romance and heroism, but bearing little relationship to the brutal reality of war. But the purpose of this activity was to promote unthinking conformity, not to simulate the conditions of combat. Unlike the chaos of war or even of civil administration, the parade ground offered a mechanical elegance susceptible to tight control. The Romanovs loved it and even the flinty Nicholas I could weep at the sheer beauty of a skillfully performed lunge of massed bayonets or a thundering cavalry figure eight.
One of the Iron Tsar's grandsons, Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich (Sandro), recalls:
to the age of fifteen my education resembled the training in a regiment. My brothers Nicholas, Michael, Sergei, George and myself lived as in barracks. We slept on narrow iron beds, only the thinnest possible mattress being allowed over the wooden planks. I remember that even in later years, after my marriage, I could not become accustomed to the luxury of a large bed with double mattresses and linen sheets, and ordered my old hard bunk to be put next to it.
We were called every morning at six o'clock. We had to jump out of our beds immediately, for a severe punishment swiftly followed an attempt to sleep "just five minutes more."
Kneeling in a row in front of the three ikons, we said our prayers, then took a cold bath. Our breakfast consisted of tea, bread and butter. Any other ingredients had been strictly forbidden, lest we should develop a taste for a luxurious life.
A lesson in gymnastics and practice with firearms filled another hour, particular attention being paid to the handling of a mountain gun placed in the garden.... At the age of ten I would have been able to take part in the bombardment of a large city.
From eight to eleven, and from two to six, we had to study and do our homework.... Our educational program, planned for eight years, consisted of lessons in religion (Old and New Testament, Divine Service, history of the Greek Orthodox Church, comparative history of other churches), Russian grammar and literature, foreign literature, history ..., geography, mathematics ..., natural history, French, German, English, calligraphy and music. On top of that we were taught the handling of all sorts of firearms, riding, fencing, and bayonet fighting.
Tutors punished poor performance: "The smallest mistake in spelling of a German word deprived us of dessert."
And this was not all. Training continued at the luncheon table when the children were interspersed with the guests and expected to converse with them. "Laughing at poor jokes and simulating a vivid interest in the political developments abroad entered into our obligations of hospitality, and developed in us a sense of self-relying resourcefulness." One was not to talk too much or too loudly and never across the table. Grand ducal children rarely saw their parents alone, especially at meals. Even without guests, people were always in attendance, equerries and ladies-in-waiting who lived in the palace and sat at table. Children lived in their own quarters separate from the adults, and they were not expected to leave that domain unless dressed properly and prepared to behave with decorum. This was then the usual pattern for royal and aristocratic children throughout Europe.
Royal children seldom had the opportunity to play with their contemporaries, with the exception of brothers and sisters or cousins. And so although constantly surrounded by people, they often suffered from loneliness. The fact that they were children, not adults, was usually given scant consideration.
On coming of age at sixteen, a grand duke swore an oath in the presence of the emperor to obey the laws of succession to the throne and to respect the institutions of the imperial family, although he would usually not gain full control of his wealth and income for another five years. The idea was to break him in gradually to this life of extreme privilege.
The education of grand duchesses was deemed far less important than that of grand dukes. They were brought up like royal women elsewhere in Europe, learning to sew, knit, and to embroider on silk and satin, to play the piano and perhaps the harp, to sing, to draw and paint, to recite, dance, and to take part in amateur theatricals. Learning how to enter and to leave a room was important, as was the ability to make conversation, and in several languages at that. Grand duchesses were brought up to be attentive to the sick and aged; organized work for charities would be an important part of their daily lives.
Obviously for anyone with any intellectual interests or abilities, the prescribed routine was inhibiting. To move outside it caused trouble; being conspicuous aroused envy and provoked criticism. One grand duchess declared that "an intellectual mediocrity was both a refuge and a protection; and this was true not only in Russia but in princely circles everywhere."
The grand ducal families and some other Russian aristocrats in the late 1800s developed a taste for things English, what Vladimir Nabokov called "the comfortable products of Anglo-Saxon civilization." Pear's soap and fruit cakes, playing cards and puzzles, striped blazers and collapsible rubber bathtubs were among the "snug and mellow" things to be acquired in the English shop on Nevsky Prospect. These English tastes were not confined to the Russian aristocracy; the daughters and granddaughters of Queen Victoria carried to their marriages throughout Europe chintz-covered furniture, vases full of fresh flowers, and a passion for opening the windows to fresh air. Their houses looked like Tudor manors or Mayfair mansions, and meals followed the English pattern of hearty breakfasts, family luncheons, afternoon tea, and dinner in the evening.
English nannies brought to Russia all the customs and crochets of their own country, indoctrinating their charges into the proper British way of doing things, injecting into the children's English the dropped aitches of cockney speech, and cowing all the other servants. Nannies are one reason why English became the favored second language among European royalty. Some of the Romanovs even learned English before they learned Russian. Outside the family they usually spoke Russian, inside the family more rarely.
Royalty does not use surnames; the Romanovs simply used Christian names and patronymics. Thus Alexander II was Alexander Nikolaevich, Alexander son of Nicholas; his father the Emperor Nicholas I was Nicholas Pavlovich, Nicholas son of Paul. Because the same names tended to be used over and over, nicknames supplanted them. Thus Alexander Alexandrovich was known generally to the family as "Sasha," at least until he became Alexander III, when few presumed any longer to call him anything but "Your Majesty."
Three of Alexander II's brothers, Constantine, Nicholas and Michael, each formed his own branch of the imperial clan, and these were known respectively as the "Constantinovichi," the "Nikolaevichi," and the "Mikhailovichi." Grand Duke Constantine Nikolaevich came to be well known both as the most politically liberal Romanov of his generation and for his interest in the navy. One of his sons, Constantine, would become the poet "K.R."; one of his daughters, Olga, would become Queen of Greece.
Alexander II's next younger brother, Nicholas Nikolaevich, the third son of Emperor Nicholas I, was a well-known gourmet and served in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, commanding the Russian forces in the European sector with no particular distinction. After the war, he suffered the acute embarrassment of being charged with financial irregularities, of receiving bribes and embezzling money from the government. He had only two sons, but one of them was an army commander like his father; Nicholas Nikolaevich Junior, known in the family as "Nikolasha," would serve as commander-in-chief of the Russian armies during the early months of World War I.
The Mikhailovichi, a much larger group, were sometimes called "the Caucasians" by the rest of the family because father Michael spent much of his career as viceroy of that region of the empire, attempting to pacify its unruly and diverse nationalities. To be called "Caucasian" was something of a putdown, reflecting the attitude that people so distant from European Russia must be cultural barbarians. Furthermore the Mikhailovichi, it was commonly said, had Jewish blood on the maternal side, causing anti-Semites in the rest of the family to look down their noses at them.
During the war with Turkey, Grand Duke Michael Nikolaevich served with enthusiasm, if not with great success, as counterpart to his brother Nicholas, commanding the Russian forces on the Asian front of the conflict. Michael, in his absorption with military matters, was probably more like his father, Nicholas I, than were any of his brothers. Though the youngest of his generation, he would become the doyen of the grand dukes, the venerable family patriarch, living until 1909, dying at seventy-seven, an age old by Romanov standards.
Each of these brothers had his own career or material ambitions, and this posed a problem for the sovereign, especially as the family began to proliferate. Romanov family harmony suffered from the overlapping ambitions for office of its male members and from the social ambitions of its female members, also vying for opportunities for their menfolk upon which their own prestige ultimately rested. The heir to the throne and his offspring could enjoy the expectation of ultimate leadership. For the rest, the only open career was the military, either army or navy, with a limited number of top positions. As a result, cousin was obliged to compete with cousin. To these career rivalries could be added those emerging from the clash of personalities, making family politics potentially stormy. Only a strong tsar could maintain order within the family. Alexander II was not by nature that sort of personality. Furthermore, the family believed that he had compromised his moral authority.
For fourteen years Alexander II had enjoyed a passionate affair with the young Ekaterina Dolgorukaya. Ekaterina had begun to see the emperor in the Summer Garden facing the Neva River in St. Petersburg, where he enjoyed strolling like a simple mortal among the lime trees, clipped allées and white marble statues. The two began to meet frequently in the secluded paths of different parks, and within a year, on July 1, 1866, in the Babigon Pavillion at Peterhof Palace, they became lovers.
Then Alexander II began to realize that he wanted more and he promised to marry Ekaterina when he became free. He suspected that his ailing wife would not live much longer. Ekaterina began to come to the Winter Palace three or four times a week, opening a side door with her own key and going to a ground floor room to await the emperor. She was seventeen. He was forty-seven.
Alexander gave his mistress the title of Princess Yurievskaya, as well as three children, George, Olga and Catherine. By entitling Ekaterina, he provoked general dismay among the family, especially the imperial womenfolk. A steady flow of rumor maintained that the parvenu princess was venal, taking commissions for lobbying this or that project.
Terrorists, dissatisfied with the scope and tempo of the emperor's political reforms, had begun to pursue Alexander; he had several narrow escapes from violent death. Thus for security reasons, he brought his second family to the Winter Palace, to live under the same roof as his empress, Maria Alexandrovna. The empress's rooms lay directly below those of her rival, and the sound of children's footsteps overhead was a constant reminder to Maria Alexandrovna, now an invalid, of her husband's infidelity.
Clearly her husband had loved his future empress when they were first married. He had chosen her after their first brief meeting even though she was only fifteen, from a minor German state, and rumored to be the illegitimate fruit of her mother's liaison with a lowborn man. Alexander's parents thought he could have made a stronger match. But despite numerous children, over the years the couple drifted apart; she spent more and more time abroad.
Then tragedies ensued: first, consumption claimed their eldest son, Nicholas, and then the emperor became caught up in the romance with Ekaterina. Maria Alexandrovna proved to be unable to face these challenges directly. She retreated into religion and ill health. Alone, she died on May 22, 1880, and on July 6th, to the disgust of his first family, Alexander married Ekaterina.
The marriage was morganatic because the bride, although an aristocrat, was not of royal blood. This meant that her children had no succession rights and that, although she was the emperor's official wife, Ekaterina was not an empress. Nonetheless Alexander insisted that his grown children from his first marriage openly meet his second family.
Although the emperor could marry the woman he loved, he could not live a happy and quiet life because terrorists continued to stalk him. The irony was that Alexander II was genuinely willing to share some of his absolute power. "Am I a wild animal that I must be so hunted?" Alexander cried, after yet another unsuccessful attempt on his life. He was shot at; he was the target of bombs. Would-be assassins even stuffed dynamite beneath a dining room of the Winter Palace itself, though the explosion failed to catch the tsar. Old women predicted doom, whispering that the names of the emperor's first five sons when written in a column formed a prophetic acronym. Read down, the first letter of each name (Nicholas, Alexander, Vladimir, Alexis, Sergei) spelled "na vas," "at you," or, with some imagination, "get you!" When read up, "savan" or "shroud."
Now it seemed that the old women proved to have been prescient; Alexander II was gone. Russia needed new leadership to take it into the changes required if the nation were to compete successfully with its rapidly modernizing rivals, especially the newly united Germany. The House of Romanov needed another Peter the Great, a leader with intelligence, imagination and ruthless determination both to guide the nation and to govern the family.
|Ch. I||Death of a Tsar, March 1, 1881||3|
|Ch. II||The Muzhik Tsar, 1881-1894||25|
|Ch. III||Nicholas II: Family and Nation, 1894-1904||65|
|Ch. IV||A Faltering Monarchy, 1905-1914||91|
|Ch. V||The Great War, 1914-1917||109|
|Ch. VI||"The Crown Falls from the Royal Head," February 22-March 3, 1917||145|
|Ch. VII||The First Week of the Republic, March 3-March 11, 1917||159|
|Ch. VIII||"The Mood Smells of Blood," March-October 1917||171|
|Ch. IX||Firestorm, October 1917-January 1919||191|
|Ch. X||"Open the Gates!" February 1919-February 1920||211|
|Ch. XII||"We Should Act!"||267|
|Ch. XIII||"Always Be Visible"||299|
|Ch. XIV||"Escape Contact with Allies at Any Cost"||313|
|Ch. XV||The End of the Line||329|
|Ch. XVI||"Eternal Memory"||347|
Posted June 26, 2000
Flight of the Romanov's was one of the best books I have read lately. Lately, most the the titles published on the subject of the Russian Imperial Family center on the Tsar and his immediate family. This book is different because it tells the, sometimes remarkable, story of the minor members of the Imperial family, how they escaped (or didn't as the case may be), and lived in exile. This is brilliant work that is necessary reading for all avid students of the Russian Imperial family.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.