Childhood and growing up
The family of Alexander III: (standing left to
right) Maria Fiodorovna embracing Grand Duke Mikhail, Grand Duke Nicholas and Grand
Duchess Xenia, (seated) Alexander III holding Grand Duchess Olga and Grand Duke Georgy. St
Petersburg. 1888–90. Photograph by Levitsky
Grand Duke Nicholas Alexandrovich was the first child of Tsesarevich
Alexander Alexandrovich (the future Alexander III) and his wife Maria Fiodorovna, the
former Danish Princess Dagmar. He came into the world on 6 May 1868, on the day when the
Orthodox Church commemorates the Old Testament figure of Job "the
Long-Suffering". This became a portent for that strange sense of doom that many
around him noted. During the difficult years of his reign, the Emperor referred to the
coincidence on several occasions, speaking of his inner preparedness to suffer the trials
that befell him one after another in his public and private life.
That was all in the
future, however. For the moment fate seemed to have granted Nicholas an exceptionally
happy childhood and youth. His upbringing differed from that of the majority of his
crowned predecessors in being much more family-oriented, more "homely".
Tsesarevich (a title given to the Russian heir apparent) Alexander Alexandrovich and his
wife evidently preferred the intimated, cosy world of their own family to the glamorous,
but in many ways cold and stiffly formal life of St Petersburg high society. Perhaps for
that reason, for the young Nicholas, and for his younger brothers and sisters, his parents
were above all "papa" and "mama", and not imperious figures at the
pinnacle of an immense state, as, for example, his formidable grandfather Nicholas I was
for his children.
Grand Duke Nicholas Alexandrovich. 1872
Grand Duke Nicholas Alexandrovich. 1878
The atmosphere of simplicity, sincerity and warmth that reigned in the Anichkov Palace
was to a large extent responsible for the highly appealing human aspects of the last
autocrat's character. His exceptional personal charm was unanimously noted later, even by
those who were highly critical of his behaviour as a statesman.
Yet the Grand Duke's untroubled early years also had their dangerous side: for someone
destined to become the ruler of one of the world's great empires, Nicholas too long,
almost to the moment when he ascended the throne, retained a perception of life that might
be said to be limited by his nursery walls. Many contemporaries also noted a certain
infantile aspect to his mental make up. His interests in life were limited to a small
circle of intimates. In their company he found the necessary support and even protection
from a unknown and frightening world, whose hostility was already making itself clearly
felt to the Russian imperial family even as Nicholas grew up.
With every successive decade the mood in the nation's public life became ever more
threatening for the inhabitants of the imperial palaces. Shortly before Nicholas was born,
an unprecedented event took place. When Dmitry Karakozov fired at Alexander II in April
1866 it literally stunned the Russian people - a mere mortal had raised his hand against
God's Anointed. A year later a Polish émigré named Berezowski shot at the Emperor during
his visit to Paris.
The aura of near-mystic veneration that had surrounded royal power in Russia since
ancient times was melting rapidly away. Only recently the Russian autocrats had been able
to stroll practically unguarded along the banks of the Neva and the streets around the
Winter Palace, responding to the greetings of the passers-by. By the late 1870s that was
simply impossible - the Tsar was literally a hunted man. In April 1879
Alexander Solovyev loosed off five bullets at the Emperor from close range, but
failed to hit him. Towards the end of that year, on 18 November, the "People's
Will" group tried to blow up the imperial train, wrecking a stretch of railway. The
Tsar had, however, already passed the spot. At six in the evening of 5 February 1880,
the very time when the royal family were due to enter the dining-room, an explosion rocked
the Winter Palace itself. The man behind it was Stepan Khalturin who had gained access to
the palace as a stoker and managed little by little to smuggle enough dynamite into the
room below. Again it was only a stroke of fortune that the Emperor was not hurt.
Nonetheless, on 1 March 1881, the death sentenced passed by the executive committee of
People's Will was carried out. The mysterious prediction of the fortune-teller who once
told Alexander II that there would be seven attempts on his life had come true.
This tragedy was an important turning-point in the formation of Nicholas's character
and personality. Together with his younger brother Georgy he was present at his
grandfather's deathbed. "My father took me up to the bed," the last Emperor
would recall. "Papa," he said, raising his voice, ‘your ray of sunshine is
here.' I saw the eyelashes tremble. My grandfather's eyes opened. He was trying to smile.
He moved a finger. He could not raise his hands, nor say what he wanted to, but he
undoubtedly recognised me…"
The shock of this experience would remain with Nicholas to the end of his days. Even in
distant Tobolsk he remembered it. "The anniversary of Apap's [Alexander II's]
death," he wrote in his diary on 1 March 1918. "At two o'clock a memorial
service was held for us here. The weather was the same as it was then - frosty and
The death of the Tsar-Liberator overturned the traditional pattern of life at the
imperial court. Alexander III disliked the Winter Palace and it stood empty, used only as
the venue for official ceremonies and grand court balls. As a rule, the new Emperor
preferred the more modest Anichkov Palace on Nevsky Prospekt to which he was accustomed,
having lived there while still Tsesarevich. Gradually, however, the new chief residence of
his reign became the isolated fortress-palace situated in the relatively remote town of
Gatchina, some thirty miles outside St Petersburg. It seemed the most reliable retreat in
the present troubled times. Increased security, special safety measures whenever the
family moved from place to place, and contact only with the extremely small circle of
people that his autocrat father allowed to get close - all this left a lasting mark on
Nicholas. In 1884, on the eve of his coming-of-age, the secretary of state Polovtsov
confided to his diary that "in view of the unvaried, secluded life of the sovereign's
sons, the heir to the throne should have been given the opportunity to see more
people." The Emperor's response to such suggestions was that "his sons see those
people who visit him, but regrettably he is visited by members of a single, narrow
That is not to say that Nicholas did not have his own circle of acquaintances. He
certainly did, and apart from his brothers and his first cousins once removed Grand Dukes
Alexander and Sergei Mikhailovich, there were young people of his own age - the children
of two of his father's intimates, Count Sheremetev and Count Vorontsov-Dashkov, the
minister of the court. The members of this youthful company got the nickname
"potatoes" from the potatoes baked in the embers of a bonfire that were a
favourite ending to summer evenings in the Gatchina park. This little group retained its
childish character for too long, however. Even as an adult, just two years from the
throne, Nicholas could spend a whole evening with one of the "potatoes" playing
hide-and-seek or chase.
Since Nicholas was destined from birth to hold the supreme position in the state, his
education and upbringing were the objects of the most fixed attention. Systematic
instruction began for him at the age of eight following a special programme devised by
Adjutant General Danilovich, whom Alexander III entrusted with supervision of Nicholas's
studies. The programme was divided into two parts. The course of general education,
planned for eight years, corresponded in general terms to that of the gymnasia (grammar
schools), although with substantial modifications. It is a curious fact that while both
Alexander II and the future Alexander III wholeheartedly supported the movement to reform
the gymnasium education with more teaching of the classical languages, Greek and Latin, as
well as mathematics, those subjects were not included in the programme to prepare the
future Tsar. Instead he received extended instruction in political history, rissian
literature, geography and the basis of mineralogy and biology. Particular emphasis in the
first eight years was placed on studying modern European languages. Nicholas had a perfect
mastery of English and French; lesser fluency in German and Danish. From childhood he
loved historical literature and fiction, which he read in both Russian and foreign
languages, and even admitted that "if I was a private individual, I would devote
myself to historical researches." With time his particular tastes in literature
established themselves: Nicholas was fond of browsing in Pushkin, Gogol and Lermontov,
while he loved Leo Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov.
The course of higher education, originally intended for four years, and then extended
to five, included the study of polytechnic, economic and legal disciplines, combined with
an extensive programme of purely military sciences.
His teachers, who included prominent figures in the state and the forces, as well as
respected scholars, were selected very carefully and represented a truly brilliant
constellation of specialists. The role of spiritual and ideological mentor to the
Tsesarevich indisputably fell to Konstantin Pobedonostsev, an expert in the law, who gave
Nicholas courses in jurisprudence, public, civil and criminal law. Canon law, theology,
the history of the Church and of religions were presented by Proto-Presbyter Yanyshev. Ye.
Zamyslovsky taught political history. Nikolai Bunge, an economics professor, minister of
finance in 1881–86 and chief minister in 1887–95, taught Nicholas statistics and
political economics. Nikolai Girs, Russia's foreign minister in 1882–95 introduced the
Tsesarevich to the complex world of international relations in Europe. Academician Nikolai
Beketov gave him a founding in general chemistry. Infantry General Genrikh Leyer, a
professor and corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences, editor-in-chief of the
multi-volume Encyclopaedia of Military and Naval Sciences and A Review of Russia's Wars
from Peter the Great to the Present Day, was entrusted with the courses in strategy and
military history. The military engineer General Cesar Cui, better known as a
composer, gave lessons in fortifications. The history of the art of warfare was presented
by A.K. Puzyrevsky. This venerable company also included professors from the General Staff
Academy, Generals Dragomirov, Obruchev, Gudima-Levkovich, Lobko, and others.
Nicholas studied a lot. By the age of fifteen he had more than thirty lessons a week,
not counting the hours spent each day in preparation. Even in summer there was little
change to this way of life. During the educational process his teachers were not allowed
to give him marks on his progress or to ask questions in order to test his knowledge, but
on the whole their impression was positive. Nicholas distinguished himself for his
application, his pedantry and his innate orderliness. He always listened attentively and
took his studies seriously. According to secretary of state Polovtsov, even the strict
Pobedonostsev praised his abilities and worried only about the fact that the young man was
"still being kept in the position of a child." Alexander III's heir, like all
his children, had an excellent memory. He easily committed to mind what he heard or read.
It was sufficient for him to meet a man just briefly (and there were thousands of such
encounters in his life) so as to remember not only his name and patronymic, but also his
age, pedigree and length of service.
Nicholas's inherent sense of tact and delicacy made dealing with him a pleasant affair.
General Lobko, who lectured to the Tsesarevich on military administration, was genuinely
delighted by his pupil's ability to establish "truly human, and not dry, formal
relations". These qualities were overlaid with a fine education - due in no small
part, it seemed to many, to the "Jesuit" Danilovich. His influence was to a
considerable degree believed responsible for "that unusual restraint, which," as
General Mosolov wrote, "was the main distinguishing feature of Nicholas II."
Convinced that "an abundance of impressions leads to excessive distraction",
Danilovich adopted a fairly rigid policy of restriction in questions of education,
something that on more than one occasion provoked complaint from others no less concerned
about the formation of the future ruler's character. General Gudima-Levkovich, who taught
the Tsesarevich tactics, is even known to have observed on this score that Danilovich was
turning his charge into "a restrained, careful old man, and not a sprightly
youth". It was the feeling of many that Nicholas was not receiving enough knowledge
of real life, contact with people and direct personal impressions.
Nicholas's intensive study of military subjects was combined with active service with
the guards. As early as the age of seven, he was promoted to the rank of ensign and
enrolled in the Life-Guards Yerevan Regiment. In subsequent years he was enrolled by turns
in various guards regiments and given the next officer's rank. Nicholas was particularly
thrilled when he was inducted into the glorious Preobrazhensky (Transfiguration) Regiment
which at that time was commanded by his favourite uncle Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich.
He spent two of the annual military camps in the staff of that regiment.
"I have become terribly used and fond of the service; especially those great
fellows the soldiers!" he wrote in one of his letters of March 1889. "I am
certain that this summertime service has been of tremendous use to me and since them I
have noted great changes in myself." The heir to the throne served two more summer
seasons in the Hussars and one in the artillery.
According to contemporaries, he was popular in the guards regiments who appreciated his
surprisingly equable character and goodwill towards his fellow officers, irrespective of
their rank or position.
The Tsesarevich was not one to be put off by the hardships of camp life. He was hardy,
strong and undemanding as regards creature comforts. He also genuinely loved the army.
When he first took part in major army manoeuvres near Lutsk in 1890, he delightedly
informed Alexander Mikhailovich: "The troops made the kind of impression on me that I
simply couldn't have imagined… The whole time the weather was cold and rainy. The
terrain was difficult for manoeuvres, the length of marches enormous. Yet, despite all
those adversities, at the parade all the troops presented themselves looking as, God
grant, they might always remain from now on. There were 128,000 men in the formation and
468 artillery pieces, that fired a salvo as the imperial standard was raised… Every gun
fired off three shots within two minutes and the whole blended with a stunning shout of
hurrah! It was pleasant to see and sense that might concentrated in a small space and to
realise that it was only one tenth of our entire army. My heart has rarely pounded so
strongly, I can assure you."
Nicholas's military career reached its peak on 6 August 1892 when he was promoted to
the rank of colonel. The premature death of Alexander III meant that his son was never
destined to become a general of the Russian army as all his predecessors on the throne,
and the majority of grand dukes, had been. It was not done for Emperors to give themselves
The complete course of education for the heir to the throne ended earlier - in 1890.
Shortly before his twenty-second birthday Nicholas wrote with satisfaction in his diary:
"Today I ceased my studies finally and for ever." Like the absolute majority of
people, he was genuinely glad to leave his student years and embark on something new,
leaving what seemed the most exhausting stage in his life for one that promised to be
cheerful and untroubled.
Following a long-established tradition, the heir apparent's education culminated in a
long foreign journey. As a rule, the purpose was to present the future Russian autocrat to
the courts of a monarchic Europe. Alexander III chose to disregard this custom, however,
and on 23 October 1890 Tsesarevich Nicholas and his brother Georgy set off on what was
then an exotic voyage to the East. They were accompanied by a small retinue and joined in
Athens, after two weeks, by a cousin, Prince George ("Georgie") of Greece.
The route was to take them around Asia, sailing several seas and oceans. Visits to
Egypt and India were planned, to be followed by Ceylon, Singapore, Java, China and Japan.
Nicholas preferred to make the return journey through Siberia, declining the tempting
suggestion that he visit America, which he believed he could safely leave for some time in
This voyage in a young company on close, good terms brought a lot of delights and
impressions. As time went on the holds of the ships became filled with Eastern gifts and
offerings - expensive fabrics, craft items, exotic fruits, drinks, and even animals.
(There were elephants, a black panther, monkeys and a great many birds.) There were only
two occurrences that really clouded the travellers' enjoyment - the illness of Grand Duke
Georgy, who proved unable to stand the heat in India and was obliged to quit the
expedition in Bombay as early as 23 January, and an unpleasant incident in the small
Japanese town of Otsu that very nearly cost Nicholas his life. On 29 April the young men
visited a temple and dined with the governor. As the party were boarding rickshaws to
return to the ship an infuriated policeman attacked the Tsesarevich with a sabre. (One
version claims that he was a religious fanatic, another a jealous madman.) He struck
Nicholas a powerful blow on the head, the mark of which would always remain. Prince
Georgie rushed up in time to prevent him striking again. Every year afterwards the
imperial family attended a service of thanksgiving to commemorate the Tsesarevich's
deliverance, but many contemporaries saw this incident as an inauspicious portent for
Nicholas's future policy as a whole. While his interest in Oriental affairs never wavered,
the Emperor clearly had no great sympathy for the Japanese, something that quite possibly
affected his attitude on the eve of the armed conflict between the two countries in 1904.
On 11 May, having cut short his journey at his father's insistence, Nicholas arrived
back in Russia, where "after viewing the foreign lands of the East", as
Alexander III put it in his official message to him, he was to play his part in the
day-to-day affairs of the state. The task that his father entrusted to him was related to
the construction "of a railway right across the whole of Siberia that is to connect
the Siberian regions with their abundant natural bounties to the network of domestic rail
transportation." Tsesarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich attended the laying of the
foundation stone of Vladivostok Station, to be the terminus of the great railway across
The journey to St Petersburg - by way of Khabarovsk, Nerchinsk, Chita, Irkutsk, Tomsk,
Tobolsk, Surgut, Omsk and Orenburg - took about two months. It was only on 4 August that
the Tsesarevich, full of new impressions no less strong than the foreign ones, found
himself back in the capital. "Think yourself, where was I to find the time in
Siberia," he justified himself to Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich for not having
written, "when even without that every day was crammed to the point of exhaustion?
Despite that, I am in such raptures about what I saw that only in speaking can I convey my
impressions of that rich and wonderful land, little famed up to now and (shame to say)
almost unknown to us, Russians. There's nothing to be said about the future of Eastern
Siberia and the South Ussuri region in particular."
In 1892 Alexander III involved the Tsesarevich in the work of the State Council and the
Committee of Ministers so that he could acquaint himself directly with those highest
institutions of the empire. Yet he clearly did not consider his son ready for any sort of
independent role. When, at roughly this same time, Count Witte suggested naming Nicholas
the chairman of the Committee for the Construction of the Eastern Siberian Railway, which
would have been a customary step in the gradual engagement of the heir in current affairs
of state, the Emperor was astounded and blurted out: "But he's still just a boy. His
judgements are completely childish. How can he be the chairman of a committee?." At
that point no-one, Alexander III included, could have imagined that the sturdy autocrat
had only two more years to live.
St. Petersburg. 1894
Fate did not grant Nicholas those years close to the throne of his father during which
the heirs to the Russian throne, gradually learning about affairs, mastered the difficult
skills required to run the state. On the other hand it gave him an excess of something
else - a rare sense of the warmth and comfort of the family that came out of his
childhood, a cosiness he wanted to recreate in his own adult life. Inspired by the example
of his parents, Nicholas was already dreaming of marriage when he was just twenty and felt
"the need to build and establish his own little nest".
Alix of Hesse. Darmstadt.
His choice fell on Alice Victoria Helen Brigitte Louise Beatrice, daughter
of Grand Duke Louis IV of Hesse-Darmstadt and the British Princess Alice. After losing her
mother and a younger sister at the age of six, the girl had been brought up mainly at the
court of her grandmother, Queen Victoria, and spent the greater part of her childhood and
youth in England. The Princess's early misfortune evidently left a mark on her. She was
painfully shy and withdrawn, opening out only in the company of those closest to her, when
she turned into a real Spitzbube - hoyden - as they called her at the German court.
Alix, as she was known, first appeared in Russia in 1884 among the relatives who came
for the marriage of her elder sister Ella (Elizabeth Fiodorovna) to Grand Duke Sergei
Alexandrovich. It was there that she originally met the Tsesarevich and this encounter
marked the start of a childish romantic crush that subsequently grew into a stronger
emotion. "Alix, Nicky" - at that time they secretly scratched their names on a
window of the Italian House at Peterhof.
It is striking that in the next ten years they saw each other only twice. Their second
meeting took place only in 1889, the next another five years later, in Coburg already.
Between those times there were only fantasies and memories, a correspondence conducted
through Ella that stoked their passions, and the disapproval of parents who were left more
than cold by their son's choice.
That is not, incidentally, to imply that the Tsesarevich's heart never inclined in
other directions. Back in childhood he had begun exchanging letters with Princess Victoria
of Wales, whom he found increasingly attractive. "She truly is a wonderful
being," he wrote to Alexander Mikhailovich, "and the more and the deeper you
penetrate into her soul, the clearer you see all her merits and virtues." Then, for a
while Princess Olga Dolgorukaya (Dietrichstein after her marriage) entered his field of
vision. After that came a long involvement - from 1890 almost to the time of his betrothal
to Alix - with the rising star of the imperial theatre, the ballerina Mathilda
Kschessinska. There was gossip about the relationship, but no-one in Nicholas's family
ever took it seriously: the Tsesarevich was too responsible, too much a man of duty to
ever link his destiny to a dancer. Alexander III took a tolerant attitude to his son's
dalliance, and perhaps even hoped that Kschessinska would help him to forget the stiff
German princess he and his wife disliked.
Against the expectations of his parents, who had themselves looked around for a
suitable match and were inclined towards Hélène d'Orléans, the daughter of the Comte de
Paris, Nicholas only became more determined.
"In the evening in Mama's rooms, three of us including Aprak [Princess
Obolenskaya] discussed the family life of young society people today," he wrote in
his diary for 21 December 1891. "This conversation unintentionally touched the most
sensitive chord in my heart, touched on the dream and the hope by which I live from day to
day. A year and a half has already gone by since I spoke to Papa about it in
Peterhof, and since then nothing has changed, either for the worse or for the better. My
dream is one day to marry Alix of H. I have long been in love with her, but more
deeply and strongly since 1889 when she spent six weeks in Petersburg! I resisted my
feelings for a long time, trying to deceive myself into believing that my cherished dream
could not be realised. But when Eddy quit or was rejected [Alix turned down the suit of
the son of the Duke of Edinburgh], the only hindrance or gulf between her and me is the
question of religion! There is no other hurdle besides that. I am almost convinced that
our feelings are mutual! Everything is in the will of God. Trusting in His mercy, I look
to the future calmly and resignedly." A later conversation in which his mother spoke
of Hélène of Paris placed Nicholas, by his own confession, "at a fork in the road:
I myself want to go the other way, but it seems Mama wishes me to follow this one!
What's to come of it?"
In those same early months of 1892 his romance with Kschessinska was blossoming
("I never thought that two identical feelings, two loves could find room in the
heart at the same time," he analysed his emotions, the dream and the reality), yet
the ballerina was still unable to obscure the distant and barely perceptible image of the
Princess: "Now my love for Alix of H. is already into its fourth year and I
constantly cherish the thought, if God grants, that one day we shall marry…"
The year 1894, which proved a turning-point in Nicholas's destiny, began with great
alarm - Alexander III came down with influenza with complications as the doctors
diagnosed, and for several weeks the state of his health caused his loved ones serious
anxiety. Later the Emperor apparently recovered and even returned to his former way of
life. Recalling this period, Sergei Witte wrote that "the sovereign himself did not
acknowledge his illness. Generally, the royal family has a strange half custom, half sense
of not acknowledging one's own illness and of avoiding treatment as far as possible, and
this habit was particularly strongly developed in Emperor Alexander III." He attended
the necessary ceremonies, stood through long church services and sat through gala dinners.
Ever more obvious to those around him, though, were his paleness, puffy face, and the fact
that he rapidly became fatigued.
By the summer the seriousness of his condition was obvious - chronic kidney disease as
had already been precisely diagnosed brought about a sharp decline in his general state of
health. From time to time the Emperor suffered from strong pains in his lower back that
almost made him lose consciousness, but even in August, when the disease was at its
height, he inspected the troops at their camp in Krasnoye Selo and attended
the manoeuvres. Professor Zakharyin, when he arrived from Moscow, insisted on a very
strict diet, a course of treatment and an urgent change of climate. He prescribed the
Crimea, but Alexander, disregarding advice as usual, took his family off to Poland, to the
hunting grounds of Bialowieza and then Spala.
Worsening health and the concern about the future that now depended less and less on
his own will prompted the Emperor to turn his attention to questions he had long been
putting off. Above all, he resolved not to hinder his children's happiness. He gave his
consent to his daughter Xenia's marriage to Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich (Sandro),
whom he evidently held in no great affection and, contrary to the general opinion of him
as "a most attractive young man in all regards", believed in his heart to
be a totally unsuitable match. Their marriage took place on 25 July 1894 and Alexander
III, overcoming his indisposition, took part in the lengthy ritual required by court
ceremonial. He also gave way to Nicholas's long-held wish, on the one hand striving
to hasten his son's marriage and thus strengthen the family's future, on the other not
seeing other possible brides at that time.
The matter now lay only in obtaining the consent of Alix, who had till then refused to
accept Orthodoxy. It was to be resolved in Coburg during the wedding celebrations of her
brother Duke Ernest Louis of Hesse and Princess Victoria Melita of Edinburgh (known as
Ducky), to which the Tsesarevich was sent as head of a Romanov delegation. With him to
represent the Russian Empire were three brothers of Alexander III, Grand Dukes Vladimir,
Sergei (both with wives) and Pavel, Father John (Yanyshev), the royal family's chaplain,
and Yekaterina Schneider, who had taught Ella Russian and, if things went as hoped, would
do the same for Alix.
The possible betrothal of the Russian Tsesarevich was the subject of general interest
and tense expectation that even overshadowed, as it were, the main event - the actual
wedding ceremony for which members of the greatest royal houses in Europe had gathered. A
part was also played in the match-making by the 75-year-old Queen Victoria, an
acknowledged authority among the European monarchs, and by one of her numerous
grandchildren - Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany.
On 8 April, the fourth day of Nicholas's stay in Coburg, after another round of
persuasion, tears and agitation, Alix gave him her consent. "A wonderful,
unforgettable day in my life, the day of my betrothal to my dear, darling Alix," the
Tsesarevich wrote in his diary that evening. "After 10 o'clock she came to Auntie
Miechen [Maria, wife of Grand Duke Vladimir] and, after a chat with her, we talked between
ourselves. Lord, what a weight has slipped from my shoulders. What a joy we have succeeded
in bringing to dear Papa and Mama! I have been walking around all day as if in a trance,
not fully conscious of what exactly was happening to me! Wilhelm sat in the next room and
waited for us to finish talking with uncles and aunts. Alix and I immediately went to the
Queen and then to Aunt Marie's where the whole family were all over us for joy. After
lunch we went to Aunt Marie's chapel and attended a thanksgiving service Then we all set
off for Rosenau where a ball was arranged for little baby "Bee" on the occasion
of her birthday! I wasn't in the mood for dancing and I walked and sat in the garden
with my fiancée! I can't even believe that I have a fiancée. Came back at ¼ past 6.
There was already a heap of telegrams. Dinner was at 8. We drove to see the illuminations,
then went upstairs for a court concert. The Bavarian Regimental Strings played superbly.
In the evening we sat together again in our drawing-room."
Nicholas Alexandrovich with
his bride Alix of Hesse. Coburg.
20 April 1894
The happy news of the engagement delivered to Russia that same day brought a telegram
in return from his parents and after a few days which Nicholas and Alix spent admiring the
spring countryside at Coburg and Darmstadt, there was a personal letter from Alexander
III. "My dear Nicky," his father wrote, "you can imagine with what feeling
of joy and with what gratitude to the Lord we learned of your betrothal. I confess that I
did not believe in the possibility of such an outcome and was sure of the complete failure
of your attempt, but the Lord guided you, strengthened and blessed; and great gratitude to
Him for His kindness. If you could see the joy and excitement with which everyone received
this news. We immediately began getting telegrams and are still deluged with them… Now I
am sure you are enjoying yourself twice as much and all you have been through, although
forgotten, has I am sure been of use to you, demonstrating that not everything is obtained
so easily and at no cost, and particularly such a great step that decides your whole
future and all your subsequent family life! I cannot imagine you as a bridegroom. Not to
be with you at such a time, not to embrace you, not to talk to you, to know nothing and to
wait only for a letter with details." Agreeing that God's will was in it all, Maria
Fiodorovna sincerely seconded her husband and wrote that dear Alix was already "quite
like a daughter" to her and she wished that she would call her not "Auntie"
as before, but "dear Mama".
Nicholas was happy. All his thoughts at this time were with his beloved fiancée.
"She has so strongly changed in her attitude towards me these last days that I am
brimming over with joy," he wrote. "This morning she wrote two sentences in
Russian without one mistake. … It is so unaccustomed to be able to come and go without
the slightest restriction… But it is so sad to leave her, even for just one night…
What sorrow to be forced to leave her for a long time; how good it was for us to be
together, simply paradise."
The wedding was planned for the following spring, but as early as June, barely able to
bear even that short separation, with his father's permission Nicholas set off on the
yacht Pole Star to his beloved in England. Their idyll - marked by an exceptional
openness of feelings and relations in which there were no secrets, not even the affair
with Kschessinska, which Nicholas did not feel he had to hide - was full of the simplest
things and unsophisticated amusements. They went walking and riding, took trips on the
yacht, met relatives. In late July the Tsesarevich returned home, for the wedding of
Sandro and his sister Xenia, bringing with him the happiest memories, a mass of
photographs and, as always, his diary, in which Alix had written her messages for him: in
English "I dreamt that I was loved, I woke and found it true and thanked God on my
knees for it. True love is the gift which God has given - daily stronger, deeper, fuller,
purer." "Love is caught. I have bound his wings, love. No longer will he roam or
fly away. Within our 2 hearts for ever love sings." and in German "Ich bin Dein,
Du bist mein, des sollst Du gewiss sein. Du bist geschlossen in meinem Herzen, Verloren
ist das Schlüssellein, Du musst nur immer drinnen sein."
Nicholas Alexandrovich. 1894.
Photograph by D. Zdobnov
An ominous background to the joyful expectations of the forthcoming
wedding was created by Nicholas's father's rapidly worsening condition. After the Emperor
again caught a chill while hunting in September 1894 the inflammatory process in his
kidneys became so acute that there was no longer any hope of a recovery. When Alexander
reached the Crimea his condition was practically hopeless. All the imperial family
gathered at Livadia where the man who had even recently seemed the very embodiment of
strength was dying an agonising death. The Tsesarevich's fiancée was urgently summoned
from Germany. She arrived nine days before the Emperor's death, managed to obtain his
blessing, and spent the particularly hard final days together with the others.
Princess Alix of Hesse. 1894.
Photograph by D. Zdobnov
The death of his sincerely loved and profoundly respected father (literally in the arms
of Father John of Kronstadt, a priest with a saintly reputation) was a great trial for
Nicholas. The young Emperor, an exceptionally restrained individual who rarely let his
feelings show, could not conceal the tears in his eyes even from outsiders. Still many
years later he continued to draw mentally on the image of his father, often, according to
the testimony of many, asking himself the same question — how would he have acted in
II with his wife Alexandra Fiodorovna.
St Petersburg. 1894. Photograph by A. Pasetti
The day after Alexander III passed away, Alix was anointed with holy oil in a ceremony
attended by the immediate family to mark her conversion to Orthodoxy and adopted the name
Alexandra Fiodorovna. The possibility was discussed that they should marry quietly here in
Livadia "while dear Papa is still beneath the roof". The majority of the
relatives rejected it. Nicholas's uncles regarded the wedding an event of state importance
and insisted on a public ceremony in St Petersburg. The ceremony took place on 14 November
1894, exactly two weeks after Alexander III's funeral, on Maria Fiodorovna's birthday,
when the Church allowed a little relaxation of the mourning.
The joy of the event was, of course, overshadowed by still-fresh grief, but Nicholas's
long-cherished dream of starting his own family with the woman he loved had come true.
"The day of my wedding!" As usual he recorded the impressions of the day gone by
in his diary. "I put on Hussars uniform and at ½ 11 went to the Winter Palace with
Misha. Nevsky was completely lined with troops for when Mama and Alix drove down. While
they were putting the last touches to her dress in the Malachite Room, we all waited in
the Arabian Room. At 10 past 12 the procession began to the great church, whence I
returned a married man. My supporters were Misha, Georgie, Kirill and Sergei. In the
Malachite Room we were presented with a huge silver swan from the family. After changing,
Alix joined me in a coach harnessed in the Russian manner with a postillion and we drove
to the Kazan Cathedral. There were swarms of people on the streets we could barely get
through! On arrival at the Anichkov Palace we were met in the courtyard by an honour guard
drawn from the Life-Guards Uhlans. Mama was waiting in our rooms with bread and