The Tsarina's Daughter
By Carolly Erickson
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2008 Carolly Erickson
All rights reserved.
My story begins at the extreme edge of memory, on a snowy January afternoon when I was six years old, and it seemed as if all the bells in all the churches of St. Petersburg were ringing at once.
I remember my father lifted me up so I could see over the top of the balcony railing, and I felt the freezing wind on my face and saw, through the greenish-yellow fog, a crowd of people such as I had never seen before.
The mass of people, all singing and shouting and waving flags and banners, seemed to stretch as far as I could see, all across the Palace Square and beyond, out toward the corners of the avenues and even along the bridge across the river.
"Batiushka! Batiushka!" they were shouting. "Little Father!" Though the noise of their shouting seemed to dissolve into the resonant clanging of the bells and the singing of "God Save the Tsar."
It was my name day, or near it, the Feast of the Holy Martyr Tatiana of Rome who lived in the time of the Caesars, and at first I thought they were all shouting and singing to celebrate my name day feast, so I waved and smiled and thought, how kind they all are, to show such joy at my feast day.
But of course it was not my name day that they were celebrating, it was something much more important, as I found out later.
My father put me down but I could still see through the open stonework of the balustrade and I could still hear the tremendous commotion. People began singing "Holy Russia" and chanting "Hail to the Russian army and fleet" and clapping as they chanted, though their poor hands must have been raw from the cold. Mother led us back through the glass doors into the White Hall and we thawed ourselves in front of the fire.
She smiled at us and gave us hot milk and plates of warm buns with honey and icing. We were all happy that day because she had just told us a wonderful secret: that we would soon have a baby brother.
There were four of us girls in the family, in that winter of 1904. I was six, as I have already said, Olga had just turned eight, fat little Marie was four and the baby, Anastasia, was two and a half. Everybody said we needed a brother and mama assured us that we would soon have one, no matter what stories our Grandma Minnie told. (Grandma Minnie was unkind to mama, and always said she could only have girls.)
"Is it because our little brother is coming that all the people are shouting and all the bells are ringing?" I asked.
"No, Tania. It is because they love Russia and they love us, especially your dear papa."
"I heard Chemodurov say it was because of the war," Olga said, in her most grown-up, know-it-all voice. Chemodurov was my father's valet and the source of all Olga's information at that time.
"Hush! We leave such things to your father." Mama spoke crisply, and gave Olga a look that made her frown and sulk, though she did obey and said nothing more.
"How was your dancing lesson, Tania?" mama asked, changing the subject. "Did you manage to avoid stepping on Olga's feet?"
"Professor Leitfelter says I am a good dancer," I said proudly. "I keep good time with my feet."
Olga and I went to dancing class twice a week at the Vorontzov Institute for Young Noblewomen. With forty other girls, all of us dressed in identical long white pinafores and pink linen underskirts, we stepped and twirled, promenaded and bowed to the music of a grand piano, while our dancing master walked up and down, correcting our form and clapping his hands irritably when we failed to keep in step.
I loved dancing class. Everything about it pleased me, from the beautiful high-ceilinged immaculately white ballroom in which it was held, with its grand marble columns and its immense chandeliers, to the gold-framed portraits that looked down on us from the walls while we danced, to the grace of the best dancers and the carefree feeling the movements brought out in me.
Among those other girls I was no longer a grand duchess, fussed over by nursemaids and servants. I was just one of forty identical girls, treated no differently from the others just because I was the emperor's daughter. (Professor Leitfelter was equally strict with us all.) For as long as the class lasted I yielded, happily, to the flow of the music and drifted away.
On the following day the immense crowds formed again in Palace Square and out beyond it. Once again the church bells rang and the people sang and shouted, and my father led us all out onto the balcony to receive their tribute.
"I've never seen anything like it," my father said to us all at tea that afternoon. "Such huge demonstrations of support, such outpourings of love and affection for the nation —"
"And the dynasty. Don't forget that," my mother interrupted. "It is for the house of Romanov, and for you, Nicky."
My father smiled gently, as he always did when reminded that he, the emperor, was the focus of veneration.
"My people are loyal," he said. "They may complain, they may go on strike and march in protest and even throw bombs, but when the nation needs them, they respond. I'm told there are crowds like this in every town," he went on. "Men are rushing to volunteer for army service. Contributions are pouring in, tens of thousands of rubles. And all because we are at war with Japan."
"We will win, won't we, papa?" I asked.
"Of course, Tania. Only the British have a finer navy than we do. Though Cousin Willy has many fine ships as well." Mama's cousin Willy was Kaiser Wilhelm, ruler of Germany. I had seen pictures of him in mama's study, a burly, angry-looking man. Mama didn't like him.
For many days the crowds came to cheer and sing, and we all went out on the balcony to smile and wave. But papa, who always looked a little sad except when he was taking a long walk or riding his bicycle or chopping wood, began to look very sad, and before long the noise and the singing stopped, though there were still many people in Palace Square, looking up toward the balcony or talking among themselves.
Olga told me that some of our big Russian ships had been sunk by the Japanese. A lot of men had drowned, she said, and I thought, no wonder papa looks sad.
"There is a war. A terrible war. And we are losing. Chemodurov says so."
I remember being confused, and being sorry to see my father's sad face (for he could be very jolly), and the next thing I remember was the day my baby brother was born.
On that day, in the morning, we children were sent upstairs to the nursery, out of the way, and were told that mama had gone into Grandma Minnie's bedroom, to lie in her bed.
"All the tsars of Russia have been born in that bed," our nursemaid told us. "Your father, and your grandfather, who was strong as an ox, and your sainted great-grandfather, the one who was blown all to pieces by that awful man."
It was not long before the guns in the Peter and Paul Fortress began going off and we knew that our little brother had come into the world. We were allowed to go downstairs to see mama and the little baby. Mama was lying back on the soft pillows of the bed and looking very tired, the way she looked when her head hurt. Yet she looked beautiful, with her lovely face softened by fatigue and her rich dark blond hair spread out all over the lace-trimmed pillow. She smiled at us and held out her hands.
Beside the bed a golden cradle flamed in the sunlight. Next to the cradle sat one of the nursery maids, gently rocking it with her foot. I remember peering down into the cradle and seeing there, beneath a purple velvet coverlet embroidered in gold, our new brother, asleep.
"Alexei," mama said quietly. "We are going to call him Alexei. The eighth Romanov to sit on the throne of all the Russias. Now, that is something to celebrate."
The wicked contraption was brought up to the nursery by our manservant Sedynov not long after Alexei was born, the awful device that was supposed to make me learn to sit up straight.
In those first days after my brother's birth, mama was ill and in bed downstairs and Grandma Minnie took charge of us in the nursery upstairs. Grandma Minnie was not kind and loving like mama, she slapped our hands with a stick when we displeased her and once even raised her riding crop like a whip when Olga refused to mind her.
"You girls have been too indulged," she said the day the device was brought into the nursery. "Now you will be made to behave like well-bred young ladies, young ladies who do not speak out of turn or cross their legs or slouch." She glared at me. "Yes, Tatiana, I am talking about you. You slouch. You must be trained to sit up straight."
She had Sedynov bring the contraption over to where Olga and I were standing. It was a long steel rod with leather straps at the top and bottom. Following her instructions he fastened the rod to my back, along my spine, buckling the straps at my waist and around my forehead.
I couldn't move, it was hard even to breathe at first, so tightly was I bound.
"No! No! Take the horrid thing off!" I shouted, wriggling and struggling, trying to loosen the leather belt, all the while growing very red in the face. I could hear Olga laughing as she watched the spectacle.
"Sedynov! Take it off at once!" I cried out again.
The manservant, who was fond of us and had served us all our lives, looked up from under his beetle brows at Grandma Minnie, who frowned at him, and then at me. Of course he had to obey grandma, who was, after all, the Dowager Empress.
"I'll stand straight, grandma, I promise, just take this thing off me!"
"You'll wear it for four hours every day until your spine straightens, just as I did when I was little. My sister and I both," she said with a glance at Olga, who immediately stiffened her back and held her chin high, in hopes of avoiding the torture I was undergoing. Grandma Minnie had been Princess Dagmar of Denmark before she married my grandfather Emperor Alexander, and her sister had been Princess Alexandra, now Queen Alexandra of England. Grandma Minnie often said that the reason she and her sister had married so well was that their posture was beyond reproach — though in fact, as I now know, it was because, besides being princesses, they were both very beautiful women.
The steel rod became the bane of my existence for the next few months. I was forced to wear it for many hours every day, and even when it was taken off my back felt stiff and sore and I could not bend my head down without pain.
"I'm sorry to have to do this, mistress," Sedynov murmured whenever he strapped the steel rod on. "But it is your exalted grandmother's command."
"Yes, Sedynov, I understand. You must do as you are told."
"Thank you, mistress. I will pray for you."
The maidservants also felt pity for me, sly Niuta giving me sympathetic looks and kind Elizaveta putting sweets in the pockets of my pinafore when she thought no one was watching. Shoura, our chief maid and dresser, sometimes unfastened the cruel rod for an hour at a time when she knew for certain that Grandma Minnie would not be coming into the nursery to see what was going on.
We were accustomed to discomfort in the nursery. Olga, Marie, Anastasia and I all slept on narrow, hard camp beds — the kind of beds soldiers sleep on in their barracks. It was a tradition, Grandma Minnie said, and tradition had to be maintained. All the imperial daughters of the Romanovs — though not the sons — had slept on hard camp beds for many generations, ever since some long-ago emperor decreed that his daughters would not be allowed to sleep in comfort on featherbeds until they were married.
"I don't see why we have to suffer just because some ancestor of ours made his daughters suffer," Olga remarked one night as she got into her narrow bed next to mine. "After all, we belong to ourselves, not to the past."
But the force of tradition was strong, and the camp beds remained in the nursery.
In truth, all that went on in the upstairs nursery, where we four sisters spent most of our waking and all of our sleeping hours, was just then far less important than what went on in our new brother's nursery downstairs. All attention was on him, as the long-awaited heir to the throne.
And there was a secret about him, an alarming, potentially fatal secret, that only the family and a few trusted others knew: Alexei had the bleeding disease — what the Russians call the "English disease" — and was very ill.
When he was first born he began bleeding from his tiny navel, and had to wear a bandage across his belly. The bandage kept turning red with his blood, and had to be changed every half-hour. Whenever I was taken in to see the baby and mama I watched the nursemaids changing his bandage, again and again, and I thought, soon he will have no more blood in him. But I didn't say that to mama, for she was so pale and so filled with worry that I didn't want to add to her fears.
Dr. Korovin and the surgeon Fedorov hovered near the cradle, watching Alexei and talking to one another. I heard them use the word "grave" a lot, and I imagined that they meant they were digging a grave for Alexei. As it turned out, they were saying that his condition was "grave," but I was too young to understand this, and thought the worst.
I had two cousins with the bleeding disease, Aunt Irene's sons Waldemar and Henry. They had come to visit us at Tsarskoe Selo several times, and they were both pale and thin, though Waldemar was very lively and liked to jump on the net with us and run fast when we played ball. A few months before Alexei was born, mama told us that Henry had died, and she asked us to pray before the icon of the Holy Mother of God for Waldemar, who she said might die too.
Henry, mama said, fell down and bumped his head on a chair, and his head began to bleed inside and would not stop. I imagined his head swelling up like a balloon, growing bigger and bigger and finally exploding, with all the blood flying out in all directions. It was horrible, I had nightmares about it. I wondered, would Alexei's head swell up too, and explode? Whenever I went into the nursery I watched for signs that his head was growing bigger. But all I saw was the bandage around his middle, and sometimes he seemed to hold one leg straight out and one of the nursemaids would massage it.
My father's uncles were often in the nursery, especially the tall, thin, rather sour Uncle Gega and the imposing Uncle Bembo, bespectacled and bewhiskered, who had a little silver-backed notebook that he took everywhere and was always writing things down in it. Uncle Gega said little but when he did speak, he shouted, jarring mama's nerves and making her wince. Uncle Gega was married to Aunt Ella, mama's sweet-faced, affectionate older sister who always looked beautiful though Niuta said she made her own clothes — something no well-bred titled lady ought to do.
"That child has something wrong with it," Uncle Gega shouted, peering down into Alexei's golden cradle. "Look at the way its leg sticks out! As if it were broken. Can't it be fixed?" He glared at the surgeon Dr. Fedorov, who shrank from his sharp gaze and turned to his colleague.
"Stop that muttering and give me an answer!"
"Your Excellency, the tsarevich's limbs are — are —"
"Are still developing," Dr. Korovin said with an air of professional finality.
"I don't like the look of him," was Uncle Gega's parting remark, as he swept out of the room without so much as a nod to mama.
Alexei cried a lot. I could hear his wails even in the night nursery upstairs, and I imagined that his head might be filling with blood and hurting him. I wondered if his pain could be as great as mine, when day after day I had to submit to the strapping on of the cruel steel rod and the sharp, torturous straightening of my spine.
We were standing in the Blue Salon of the Winter Palace, in front of the high arched window that looked out across the icebound Neva toward the looming Peter and Paul Fortress on the opposite bank. I stood next to Grandma Minnie and could feel her eyes on me, inspecting my posture, my behavior, my expression.
"Smile, Tatiana," she often said. "Well brought up girls don't frown. Girls who frown never find husbands."
I knew that she was examining me from the crown of my head to the felt boots I wore — peasant boots — because the palace floors were ice cold and without my felt boots my toes turned blue. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Tsarina's Daughter by Carolly Erickson. Copyright © 2008 Carolly Erickson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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