The early 1850s until the late 1920s marked a turbulent and significant era for Russia. During that time the country underwent a massive transformation, taking it from days of grandeur under the tsars to the chaos of revolution and the beginnings of the Soviet Union.
At the center of all this tumult were four women of the Romanov dynasty. Marie Alexandrovna and Olga Constantinovna were born into the family, Russian Grand Duchesses at birth. Marie Feodorovna and Marie Pavlovna married into the dynasty, the former born a Princess of Denmark, the latter a Duchess of the German duchy of Mecklendburg-Schwerin.
In From Splendor to Revolution, we watch these pampered aristocratic women fight for their lives as the cataclysm of war engulfs them. In a matter of a few short years, they fell from the pinnacle of wealth and power to the depths of danger, poverty, and exile. It is an unforgettable epic story.
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From Splendor to Revolution
The Romanov Women, 1847-1928
By Julia P. Gelardi
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2011 Julia P. Gelardi
All rights reserved.
A SPLENDID IMPERIAL COURT
Nothing as meaningful and sacred as the coronation of a Romanov tsar could take place anywhere but in the very heart of the Russian Empire. Even resplendent St. Petersburg, Peter the Great's creation and the most western city in the empire, was unworthy. Only historic Moscow, the most Russian of cities, would do. Since the days of old Muscovy hundreds of years before, sentiment about rulers had changed little in the heart and soul of the average Russian. "Russians had been taught" from their cradle "to regard their ruler as an almost god-like creature. Their proverbs embodied this view: 'Only God and the tsar know,' 'One sun shines in heaven and the Russian tsar on earth,' 'Through God and the tsar, Russia is strong,' 'It is very high up to God; it is a very long way to the tsar.'" Coronations in Moscow were "intended to bring home to the minds" of the emperor's "subjects in the most vivid manner the Heaven-appointed nature of his functions and inheritance." Thus, in accordance with tradition and mindful of the sacredness of the occasion, the Empress Marie Feodorovna traveled to Moscow for the coronation of her husband, Emperor Alexander III. It was May 1883, two years after he had ascended the Russian throne.
Widespread excitement surrounded the emperor and empress's coronation. Hundreds of thousands of their subjects descended upon Moscow to celebrate the momentous event that spring day. Festivities officially began when Russia's "little Father and little Mother"— the thirty-eight-year-old emperor and his thirty-five-year-old empress — made their majestic state entry into the city. A journalist who witnessed the scene from the Kremlin ramparts observed the royal retinue in their carriages to have been of "interminable length." Not just long, the procession was of incomparable majesty, a dazzling and awe-inspiring sight. An impressive array of royalty, nobility, dignitaries, and soldiers processed before packed crowds, producing a rarely seen panorama of splendor. Crowds continually gasped with admiration over such sights as the imposing chevalier-gardes with their silver cuirasses and white tunics, along with the Cossacks with their long red lances, looking "perfectly wild and uncivilized." Especially arresting in appearance were the Asiatic deputations from the Russian Empire's far-flung provinces. These exotic representatives with their lyrical titles included the Khan of Khiva and the Emir of Bokhara who wore "high fur caps" and jewels flashing on their belts and headpieces. Even prancing horses made an indelible impression, thanks to their eye-catching harnesses embedded with glistening semiprecious stones.
Most spectacular of all was the imperial family. The colossal frame of the bearded Emperor Alexander III was impossible to miss. His subjects were awed to see him astride a white charger and dressed as a Russian general, his head topped by an Astrakhan cap. Following the emperor were his sons, the fifteen-year-old heir, the Tsarevich Nicholas, and twelve-year-old Grand Duke George. Riding next to Alexander III and enjoying a special place of honor was his brother-in-law, the Duke of Edinburgh, in the scarlet uniform of a British general. Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna, the emperor's only sister, accompanied her husband the duke, second son of England's venerable Queen Victoria.
When the Empress Marie Feodorovna appeared amidst the pealing of bells and the booming of cannons, the crowds reverently crossed themselves and greeted their empress with a thundering ovation. The emperor's petite, dark-haired consort made her way in a gold carriage, "a veritable mass of glass and gilding ... drawn by eight perfectly white horses in gold harness, each horse led by a groom in blue velvet and white plumed casques." With the empress sat her sister-in-law, thirty-one-year-old Queen Olga of Greece, and Marie Feodorovna's elder daughter, eight-year-old Grand Duchess Xenia, who, according to an eyewitness, looked "astonished at the homage that was being paid to them." Following Marie Feodorovna's carriage were those of the Romanov grand duchesses, including Marie Feodorovna and Marie Alexandrovna's sister-in-law, twenty-nine-year-old Marie Pavlovna ("Miechen"), wife of the emperor's brother Grand Duke Vladimir. Like her imperial counterparts, Miechen dazzled the crowds in her white gown and glittering diamonds and pearls.
Spectacular as the procession was, there was a palpable, underlying tension, for the imperial family was under threat from Russian terrorists, known as the Nihilists. A number of the distinguished guests noted this anxious atmosphere, including Mrs. Frederic Chenevix Trench, wife of the military attaché to the British embassy in St. Petersburg. Mrs. Trench was impressed by the gorgeous pageantry of the coronation entry, but she was even more struck by Marie Feodorovna's brave face before her adoring subjects. "On the very morning of the entry," recalled Trench, "several anonymous letters had been received by both the Emperor and Empress telling them to prepare for the worst if they persisted in their intention of going in state to the Kremlin ... Yet, there sat the Empress with a smile on her face, not knowing at what moment there might be a desperate attempt upon her own or upon the Emperor's life. Not only did the imperial couple receive such letters of warnings, but many of the attendants who were to form part of the pageant, and the little pages and postilions who accompanied the Empress's chariot, each received separate letters telling them that they would not reach the Kremlin alive." Mary King Waddington, wife of a French diplomat and guest of the emperor and empress, also noticed the "highly charged atmosphere" and surmised why the Empress Marie Feodorovna, behind the smiles and bows looked "grave and very pale." Waddington concluded that "it must have been an awful day for her, for she was so far behind the Emperor [in the procession], and such masses of troops in between, that he might have been assassinated easily, she knowing nothing of it."
Despite these sinister threats, Alexander III and Marie Feodorovna, their entourage and the imperial family, including Marie Alexandrovna, the Duchess of Edinburgh; Queen Olga; and Miechen, survived their state entry and made their way unscathed to the Kremlin, the medieval walled citadel dominating the banks of the Moscow River. Mrs. Waddington thought the Kremlin with its "great crenulated wall ... quantities of squares, courts, churches, palaces, barracks, [and] terraces," along with its "gilt domes, pink and green roofs, and steeples," presented a unique and splendid vision. The color "pink predominated," she observed, most likely because of the "rose flush of the sunset which gave a beautiful color to everything." For the following three days the emperor and empress remained secluded in the Kremlin on a religious retreat. In the meantime, "more and more stringent measures," noted Mrs. Trench, were "taken to prevent any un-authorised person from entering the walls of the Kremlin, for, as the all-important day of the coronation draws near, no amount of precaution seems too minute to counteract and prevent any possible machinations of the Nihilists."
On the day of their coronation, the emperor and empress emerged. They "walked under a splendid canopy held aloft on long golden staffs by sixteen generals, whilst sixteen other officers held the silken cords which steadied it. The Metropolitans of Novgorod, Moscow, and Kieff, who had prayed all night ... came forth with their clergy to meet the imperial pair." Inside the Cathedral of the Assumption, "the deacons swung their censers to and fro. Clouds of incense rose in the air and the censers danced in them like balls of molten gold. All around was a sea of eager and excited faces." Inside the cathedral, the brilliant gold and precious stones that adorned much of the interior dazzled observers. Vying for attention were exquisite frescoes and sparkling icons along with the gorgeously vested clergy. The coronation ceremony began with Queen Olga of Greece and the Tsarevich Nicholas leading the imperial procession into the cathedral. As Alexander III and Marie Feodorovna entered the cathedral, nearly all eyes were firmly fixed on them. "I could see," recalled Mrs. Trench, "that the poor Empress was very much agitated; her chest was heaving with emotion, and she was nearly as white as her silver dress." Mary Grace Thornton, daughter of the British ambassador to Russia, thought the Empress Marie Feodorovna had possessed "a certain stateliness" on her coronation day. "She was very pale," recounted Thornton, "but I thought that I had never seen her look more sympathetic."
Emperor Alexander III first crowned himself. Marie Feodorovna then knelt humbly before her husband, whereupon Alexander lifted his crown from his head and placed it on hers momentarily. Afterward, he took Marie Feodorovna's own crown and held it in place on her head. Once the emperor crowned his wife empress, Marie Feodorovna unexpectedly embraced Alexander in a touching moment. Grand Duke Constantine ("K.R."), Queen Olga's brother, was moved by the sight, confiding in his diary: "I cannot describe, cannot express how touching and tender it was to see these embraces of husband and wife and kisses under the imperial crown — this ordinary human love in the glitter and radiance of imperial majesty." The emperor and empress then took Holy Communion, signaling the end of the ceremony. The imperial couple walked from the cathedral to receive their subjects' wild acclamation. Church bells rang to signal great rejoicing.
In a letter to her mother, Queen Louise of Denmark, Empress Marie Feodorovna described the coronation experience: "I felt myself literally as a sacrificial lamb. I wore a silver train and was bare-headed having only a small pearl necklace on my neck ... We had a truly blissful feeling on return to our rooms when everything ended! I had the same feeling as right after I had given birth to a baby."
The Duchess of Edinburgh's eldest daughter and the empress's niece Missy recalled the splendors of the coronation years later. Three relatives made a vivid impression on her — Marie Feodorovna ("Minnie"), Marie Pavlovna ("Miechen"), and her own mother, Marie Alexandrovna. "Aunt Minnie," wrote Missy, "is crowned with a tiara of sapphires so large that they resemble enormous eyes; cascades of pearls and diamonds hang round her throat down to her waist ... Close behind the Empress stands Aunt Miechen. More gorgeous than the sunset is her gold-embroidered orange gown. Each time she moves the pear-shaped pearls of her diadem sway gently backwards and forwards. She is not thin enough for classical lines but she wears her clothes better than any other woman present; her shoulders are superb and as white as cream; there is a smartness about her that no one else can attain. And there beside her stands my mother curiously at home in that radiant assembly, much more at home than she is in London or Windsor. Her gown is deep gentian blue, trimmed with sable, and the rubies she wears are like enormous drops of blood." The young Missy was unaccustomed to standing for so long in church; and as if to encourage her young daughter, the Duchess of Edinburgh, looking at Missy, put "a finger to her lips: 'Patience,' she seems to say. Little Protestant that I am, I must not disgrace her."
Such was the splendor and success of the festivities that it lulled the four grand dukes — the Tsarevich Nicholas and his brother George, their uncle Serge, and cousin Alexander Mikhailovich ("Sandro"), into believing that Russia had entered a new, more peaceful phase. Complacency prompted Grand Duke Serge to say with confidence: "Just think, what a great country Russia will have become by the time we will have to escort Nicky to the Cathedral of the Assumption!"
Whatever one thought of the present or future in connection with the spectacular events in Moscow, there was no doubt that Alexander III and Marie Feodorovna's coronation underscored "the popular spiritual bond between the masses and the tsar at the same time as it presented the church as the institution expressing the nation's spirit." Indeed, the emperor and empress's crowning emphasized the truly Russian character of the occasion, for Moscow, with its numerous distinctive church onion domes, stood out for its ties to Orthodoxy, the Christian faith professed by Russians.
Orthodoxy was promoted even further under Alexander III's reign. This energetic promotion of Orthodoxy was hardly surprising, considering both the emperor and his empress held deeply religious views. Sandro concluded that the empress's "blind faith in the truth of every word of the Holy Scripture gave something more than just courage." Alexander III and Marie Feodorovna were not the only Romanovs who were sincere adherents to the Orthodox faith, for many in the family were of like mind. For the Romanovs, Orthodoxy bound church with state, as the Duchess of Edinburgh's governess Anna Tiutcheva noted at the Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna's christening in 1853: "There is some strange mixture of the divine and worldly in these half secular, half religious court celebrations. The most sacred church sacraments are carried out, and it is necessary to point out that the members of the Imperial family always attend them with a sort of deepest devotion."
Thirty years later at the solemn coronation, young Missy caught this feeling of deep faith as she watched her mother. Having calmed her young daughter during the long ceremony, Marie Alexandrovna then turned "again towards the priests, as one enraptured by some great revelation, fervently she makes the sign of the Cross." Of the occasion, Missy wrote: "Mamma is at home here; Mamma belongs to them; her soul is theirs, Mamma is part of Russia." And so it was as well, with the other matriarchs: Empress Marie Feodorovna, Queen Olga, and Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna.CHAPTER 2
THE EARLY YEARS
The Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna was born into the world's wealthiest and most illustrious family. The Romanov dynasty had reigned supreme over Russia since 1613, leaving a profound mark upon their empire. Autocrats with unlimited power, Romanov tsars ruled over a "vast and complex domain" that "at its height in the mid-nineteenth century ... would stretch almost halfway around the globe, from Prussia's eastern frontier to Canada's northwestern boundary and, even, to California." The story of the Romanovs "is a tale of glory and pathos, of heroism and cowardice, of victory and defeat," and included giants of history such as Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and Alexander I.
The grand duchess's father, Tsarevich Alexander, was poised to join this exclusive pantheon, but the burden of having to rule Russia was evident early in his life. The future tsar's tutor wrote to him that: "There is, alas, no doubt, that the crown of Russia is the hardest to wear ... As an autocrat, the Tsar can do everything, but he remains answerable for all he does to God ... Far from being an unlimited privilege, autocracy is a fearful responsibility." Despite the heavy burden that lay before the young man, Alexander exhibited a genial personality. Intelligent, good-looking, and affable, twenty-one-year-old Tsarevich Alexander had impressed the twenty-year-old Queen Victoria during a visit to London. The queen found Alexander "frank ... and merry" exhibiting an "open countenance with a sweet smile." When it came to dancing with the future tsar, Victoria confessed: "I never enjoyed myself more." One contemporary British journalist on a visit to Russia concluded that "Alexander's face" was nothing short of "kindly." The Comte de Morny, the French envoy to Russia, noted Alexander's amiability commenting that: "He is worshipped by his people ... I have no doubt that he will confer great benefits to his people in every respect."
With Princess Marie of Hesse, Tsarevich Alexander found a love match. He married her despite strong rumors that his bride was fathered not by Louis II, Grand Duke of Hesse, but by his master of the stables, Baron August de Grancy. Once ensconced in St. Petersburg, Marie embraced her Russian life, becoming a loving wife and mother and a fervent convert to the Orthodox religion.
Tsarevich Alexander and his wife, Marie, welcomed their daughter, the Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna, into the world at her birth, on October 5/17, 1853, at Tsarskoe Selo, the sprawling imperial estate some sixteen miles south of St. Petersburg. "The little girl is a great delight to the Imperial family. She was eagerly expected and wanted," recalled the grand duchess's governess, Anna Tiutcheva. The family was composed of eight children, six boys and two girls. The sons were Grand Dukes Nicholas (b. 1843) ("Nixa"), Alexander (b. 1845) ("Sasha"), Vladimir (b. 1847), Alexei (b. 1850), Serge (b. 1857), and Paul (b. 1860). Another daughter, Alexandra, had died young; hence, Marie Alexandrovna was the only girl among six boys. Through the years, the grand duchess became her younger brothers' closest friend. She was their champion, and her governess noted that Marie Alexandrovna "cannot stand when someone reprimands any of her brothers. This brings her to the state of real despair."
Excerpted from From Splendor to Revolution by Julia P. Gelardi. Copyright © 2011 Julia P. Gelardi. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
Dramatis Personae xv
Part I Splendor (1847-1905)
1 A Splendid Imperial Court 3
2 The Early Years 9
3 Bridal Travails 23
4 Marie Alexandrovna and Miechen 36
5 Rossiiskaia Imperiia 50
6 A Russian in Queen Victoria's Court 63
7 Hellas 75
8 Hounded to Death 86
9 The Idol of Her People 99
10 The Maternal Instinct 110
11 Love in the Air 123
12 The Beginning of the End 136
13 A Failure to Understand 149
14 In Mourning 160
15 Love and War 174
Part II Revolution (1905-1928)
16 The Year of Nightmares 187
17 Scandal 201
18 A Delusory World 215
19 Discord 224
20 Grandeur and Pain 237
21 A Terrible Blow! 248
22 On the Eve 259
23 Poor, Doomed Russia! 271
24 Nearing Implosion 285
25 Ignominy 298
26 The Most Dire Catastrophes 309
27 The Triumph of Madness 324
28 Endure, Endure, and Endure 341
29 Via Dolorosa 357
30 A Miserable Fragment of the Past 371