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Once a Grand Duchess
Xenia, Sister of Nicholas II
By John Van der Kiste, Coryne Hall
The History PressCopyright © 2013 John Van der Kiste and Coryne Hall
All rights reserved.
'A sense of happiness seemed to linger'
Nothing is more beautiful than this city of gold, on a horizon of silver, where the sky retains the paleness of dawn,' wrote Théophile Gautier in 1858 when he caught his first sight of St Petersburg. This was the city of Grand Duchess Xenia's family and forebears since its inception by Peter the Great in 1703, on marshland seized from the Swedes, where the mouth of the River Neva meets the Gulf of Finland. By the nineteenth century it was one of the most beautiful capitals in Europe, elegantly classical with wide boulevards, enormous squares and majestic canals. For over six months in winter the city of St Petersburg froze in sub-zero temperatures under layers of ice and snow, with only four hours of daylight. In summer there were the 'white nights', twenty-two hours of daylight when the sun glistened on the golden domes of the churches and the city was bathed in the silvery-pearl haze so admired by Gautier. St Petersburg was very cosmopolitan. Along the 3-mile waterfront of the Neva, Italian architects had built splendid baroque palaces for the nobility, the largest and most lavish being the Winter Palace, the setting for the Imperial Court. This was the world that would form Xenia's earliest memories. Here she would come to realize that, as a child of Russia's ruling dynasty, she was a Grand Duchess, part of the most important and powerful imperial family in the world.
In the mid-nineteenth century the gorgeous Winter Palace was the residence of her grandparents, Tsar Alexander II and his wife Empress Marie Alexandrovna, formerly Princess Marie of Hesse. In the summer of 1864 Alexander II, seeking a wife for his heir, approached King Christian IX of Denmark with a proposal for his eldest unmarried daughter, Princess Dagmar, to marry the Tsarevich, Grand Duke Nicholas Alexandrovich. At almost twenty-one, this sensitive youth had become a well-read adult with his father's liberal leanings, marked artistic interests, and little in common with his more boisterous brothers.
As a child Dagmar was less pretty than her elder sister Alexandra ('Alix'), who had married the Prince of Wales in 1863, but she had more personality, a sharper wit and wider interests, as well as the same sense of style and love of fine clothes. According to one of their playmates, Bernhard von Bülow, the future Chancellor of Imperial Germany, Dagmar was livelier and cleverer than her sister, 'but desperately hard-headed'.
Accompanied by Count Stroganov and a large suite, the Tsarevich travelled to Copenhagen to meet the Danish royal family. A betrothal was virtually a foregone conclusion, but the two young people also fell deeply in love. Amid lavish family celebrations it was announced that they would marry in the spring of 1865. Yet it was not to be. On a visit to southern Europe Nicholas was confined to bed for several weeks while being treated for an abscess; he became too weak to return home and by Christmas he was evidently dying. Princess Dagmar and members of her family joined the sorrowing relations at his bedside at Nice as, on the evening of 24 April 1865 [NS], the thin, wasted young heir slipped away. After a suitable period of mourning a devastated Dagmar, knowing what was expected, dutifully transferred her affections to the new Tsarevich, the Tsar's second son Alexander.
Brought up as a soldier, noted one anonymous contemporary, 'without any political education, with a poor knowledge of languages for a man in his position, and with a disposition more given to self-indulgence than to work, the new heir-apparent found that time was above all things necessary to adapt himself to the altered state of things'. Little attention had been paid to his education; as he was not heir to the throne, his tutors had made no effort to groom him as a future sovereign. They had thought him sluggish and ponderous beside his quick-witted elder brother. Uncomely, uncouth and bad-tempered, he was regarded as the ugly duckling of the family, clumsy, lacking in manners and too keen to use his fists. Court officials had always slighted or ignored him, and it must have given him satisfaction to consider that now he would be treated with more respect.
The two young people were not really in love. Dagmar was still coming to terms with the loss of Nicholas, while Alexander was in love with Princess Marie Mestchersky. Although he also knew that, as the eldest surviving son and heir, he could never marry her, Alexander needed considerable prompting as to where his dynastic duty lay. Princess Mestchersky was banished abroad and the new Tsarevich was sent to Copenhagen to propose to Princess Dagmar.
In the autumn of 1866 Dagmar arrived in St Petersburg to prepare for her new role as wife of the heir to the imperial throne. She was received into the Orthodox Church, and took the name Grand Duchess Marie Feodorovna. On 28 October they were married at the Winter Palace. In the family Dagmar was always 'Minny' while her husband was 'Sasha'. They made their home at the Anitchkov Palace on the Nevsky Prospekt, one of St Petersburg's main thoroughfares. Carlo Rossi's baroque building had lavishly decorated state rooms, a private chapel and a ballroom. Outside was a small garden with a pond. In 1874 Monighetti added a Winter Garden over the projecting front vestibule.
As their youngest daughter Olga would remark many years later, her parents had little in common, yet they complemented each other so well that their marriage could not have been happier. Hating pomp, ostentation and court balls, Sasha was happiest at home. Dagmar enjoyed the high society life of St Petersburg and positively sparkled at court occasions. She loved riding and was a keen horsewoman, while he was not merely unsuited to mounting a horse with his great bulk, but also afraid of them.
During the next sixteen years they had six children. The eldest, Nicholas, destined to be the last Tsar of Russia, was born on 6 May 1868. Alexander was born on 26 May 1869 and died of meningitis on 20 April 1870, and a third son George followed on 27 April 1871. Three years elapsed before Dagmar was enceinte once more. She always suffered from nausea during her pregnancies, and her physician Dr Hirsch advised her to eat raw ham in bed each morning. As her confinement drew closer she told her mother, Queen Louise of Denmark, that this time she felt particularly fat and awkward as well.
The coming of spring, when the ice in the Neva broke, allowing the river to flow again, was always eagerly awaited by all St Petersburg. To signal the start of 'navigation', cannons were fired from the SS Peter & Paul Fortress, from where the commander sailed forth in a decorated barge to present a crystal goblet of Neva water to the Tsar. It was around the time this event was being anticipated that at 4am on Tuesday 25 March 1875, at the Anitchkov, Dagmar gave birth to a daughter, who was named Xenia.
'On the 25th day of the present month of March our well-beloved daughter-in-law H.I.H. the Czarevna, ... wife of H.I.H. the Cesarevitch ... brought into the world a daughter ... who has received the name of Xenia,' ran the words of the manifesto issued by Alexander II. 'We welcome this increase of our Imperial Family as a new grace of Providence ... and in announcing it to our faithful subjects we are convinced that they will raise with us fervent prayers to God for the happy growth and prosperity of the new-born Grand Duchess. We order that everywhere the title of Imperial Highness shall be given to our well-beloved granddaughter the new-born Grand Duchess....' The parents were delighted that the latest addition to their family was a daughter.
In accordance with Orthodox tradition, the parents did not attend Xenia's christening, which took place on Thursday 17 April, the Tsar's birthday. At the service in the Winter Palace church, conducted by Their Majesties' confessor, the little Grand Duchess wore a christening gown made by her mother from cotton and lace. It had a detachable bib on which Dagmar embroidered a tiny double-headed eagle, the imperial crown and the year of Xenia's birth. The gown was worn by all Dagmar's children and a new bib was made for each baby. Xenia's godparents were her grandmother the Empress Marie Alexandrovna, her grandfather King Christian IX of Denmark, her father's brother Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich and Princess Thyra of Denmark, her mother's younger sister. Xenia also received the customary gift, a gold crucifix.
The nursery at the Anitchkov consisted of five sparsely furnished rooms. Anastasia Grigorievna ('Nastya', or 'Na') was engaged as Xenia's nanny. The baby may also have come under the care of Kitty Strutton, an Englishwoman who had nursed her father, as English ways had been fashionable at the Russian court for some years. Dagmar engaged a wet-nurse, as she had done for her sons.
From England, the Princess of Wales wrote full of concern for her sister's health:
... thank God that it is all over and you got through it well, and that you have a little girl!!!! ... My thoughts and prayers were with you in those moments, I think – since you did telegraph me that very morning....
... did you suffer much? My poor little Minny – or did you have a little chloroform this time? You did promise that you would....
Xenia or something like that the little child is called, yes that is a beautiful name, who has thought of it? I almost imagined that you yourself wanted to nurse her!!!!! I cannot help laughing when I think of my blessed father's daughter's breasts dripping!!!???? No, the thought of seeing you little Minny with the little one at your breast!!! is much too amusing to be true!! and think how I have always wanted it so much myself!! What do the boys say to little sister? [English in the original] Sasha could honestly really have written to me, I wanted it so much????? ...
In June, when Xenia was almost three months old, Sasha was sent abroad to represent the Tsar on official business. Dagmar took the children to Peterhof, the imperial summer estate on the Gulf of Finland. Around the Grand Palace, with its long canal and cascades of fountains stretching down to the sea, were numerous villas: Marly, Monplaisir, The Hermitage and the Farm, but the Tsarevich and his wife always used The Cottage, a pretty yellow and white neo-Gothic villa, a riot of small rooms with verandas, gables and balconies, which Xenia's brothers loved to explore. From there, Dagmar took the three children to visit their grandparents in Denmark, where they were later joined by Sasha.
The Princess of Wales took a special interest in Xenia as, according to the western NS calendar, she was born on the same date as Alix's son, who had died within twenty-four hours. 'Your sweet little Xenia is surely a dear little thing,' Alix wrote on 26 October. 'I am really curious to see her. Please do have yourself photographed with her, so that I can see what she looks like!!!!'
A few months later she enquired: 'How are your sweet children keeping? I fear that your sweet Nicky has forgotten me, which would make me sad as I love that angelic child. Little Georgie can of course not remember me, and I do not know baby Xenia yet, which is a pity!'
The following spring, when Xenia was in the arms of her nurse at Livadia in the Crimea, they met a small boy who introduced himself as Grand Duke Alexander Michaelovich. This was Xenia's first meeting with her future husband.
Despite the presence of Nastya, Xenia was raised under her mother's direct supervision. As she had few official responsibilities, Dagmar was able to devote plenty of time to her family. 'All three children lay by the side of me on the bed', she told Queen Louise in 1877, 'and Nicky told a little story.' Xenia had inherited her mother's lively intelligence and something of her charm of manner but had nothing of Dagmar's outgoing personality. She was very close to Nicholas and Georgie and when their French tutor, Monsieur Duperret, returned from a visit to Paris, he even brought a present for little Xenia – 'a small bird which looks almost alive', Nicky told their mother.
On 21 November 1878 Xenia's brother Michael was born. Although Xenia became the favourite daughter, 'Misha' as the family called him was undoubtedly his parents' favourite son.
Dagmar had the last word with regard to the children's upbringing. They were raised in a Spartan manner, as their father had been, sleeping on camp beds, rising at 6am and taking a cold bath. Occasionally they were allowed a warm one in their mother's bathroom. For breakfast they had porridge and black bread, mutton cutlets or roast beef with peas and baked potatoes at lunch, and bread, butter and jam at tea, with cake kept as a treat for special occasions. They were not brought up in luxurious surroundings; while Nicholas and George had their own sitting room, dining room, playroom and bedroom, they were very simply furnished, the only finery being an icon surrounded with pearls and precious stones. Nevertheless Dagmar impressed on them throughout childhood that a happy family life was the most important thing, with the minimum of discipline for its own sake. When the children were a little older they dined with their parents, and friendly family arguments often escalated into battles in which they threw bread at each other. Alexander's aunt, Queen Olga of Württemberg, was grossly affronted at this lack of discipline.
Xenia became her mother's constant companion and received regular presents from Aunt Alix in England. 'I will give your little Xenie [sic] the little white dress with the ribbons pulled through,' the Princess of Wales told her sister in 1879. There seems to have been a mishap though, as Alix continued, 'the other two [dresses] were ordered by you. I am sorry, they were certainly so smart – but it wasn't poor Loue's fault....' It was customary for both parents to see the boys mid-morning to discuss their lessons and activities for the day. At bedtime, Dagmar saw her sons for a shorter period. Sometimes the children were allowed into her rooms while she dressed for dinner. She let them choose her gown and watch while Sophie, the Danish maid, went through the daily ritual of brushing and arranging her hair, before winding ropes of perfectly matched pearls around her neck.
All the children were brought up to believe in and respect the word of Tsar Alexander II, whose decision on any matter was final. Unfortunately, this smothered both their individuality and their independence of thought. Dagmar was well aware that, after her children, the next heir was her brother-in-law Vladimir and his ambitious German wife, the former Princess Marie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, who, while taking the name Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna ('Miechen'), still had not renounced her Lutheran faith. Dagmar and Sasha disliked her pro-German attitude and distrusted her friendship with Bismarck, for whom she was rumoured to be a secret agent. Relations between the two women would always be distant. There was no such rivalry between Sasha and his younger brothers – Alexis, who was to become the head of the Russian navy, Sergei, a future governor-general of Moscow, and the more scholarly Paul. The brothers had one sister, Marie, who had married Queen Victoria's second son Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh. She found the courts of England disappointingly provincial and lacking in splendour compared with the palaces of St Petersburg, and always relished her visits back to the land of her birth.
Sasha adored his young family, liking nothing more than a good romp. He insisted that they be brought up as normal healthy children. As they grew older he took pleasure in being with other children as well, and he soon became Uncle Sasha to a whole tribe of nephews and nieces, delightedly leading them into mischief.
Outside the Anitchkov nursery, events were taking place which would have a significant effect on Xenia's future. By this time Sasha's relations with his own father were becoming less cordial. The Tsar and Tsarina had drifted apart. Since the death of her eldest son she had become more ardently Orthodox, and her health, never good, deteriorated further. The distance between husband and wife left him open to the temptations of a mistress, and his affair with Catherine Dolgoruky, who was soon 'his wife in all but name' and bore him several children, created a gulf between father and son. Sasha and his brothers all deeply loved and revered their mother, and were outraged at their father's cavalier treatment of her. Moreover, owing to a complete difference in outlook between father and son, the Tsarevich had no involvement with affairs of state. Though he was permitted to attend ministerial meetings, he was easily influenced by his mother's confessor, Father Bashanov, and the ambitious, archconservative Constantine Pobedonostsev, who between them, impressed on him that reform was dangerous and the autocracy of Russia must be preserved at all costs. He was at odds with his father's policy and was soon associated with the reactionary opposition, and it was apparent that once he came to the throne all reforms would stop.
Excerpted from Once a Grand Duchess by John Van der Kiste, Coryne Hall. Copyright © 2013 John Van der Kiste and Coryne Hall. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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