Childhood and growing up

Within the family circle

Under the burden of power

The time of difficult decisions





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. 188890. 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.

     1872  1878 .

Grand Duke Nicholas Alexandrovich. 1872

B     1872  1878 .

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 migr 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 sunny."

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 clique."

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 188186 and chief minister in 188795, taught Nicholas statistics and political economics. Nikolai Girs, Russia's foreign minister in 188295 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 military ranks.

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 the future.

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 Siberia.

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.

    . . 1894Grand Duke Tsesarevich
Nicholas Alexandrovich
.
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".

 

 . . 1888Alix of Hesse. Darmstadt. 1888

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 Hlne d'Orlans, 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 Hlne 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 fiance! I can't even believe that I have a fiance. Came back at 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."

        . . 20  1894 . Grand Duke Tsesarevich
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 fiance. "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 Schlssellein, Du musst nur immer drinnen sein."

   . 1894Grand Duke Tsesarevich
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 fiance 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 this situation?

 II    .  . . 1894Nicholas 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 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 salt."


Childhood and growing up Within the family circle Under the burden of power The time of difficult decisions

1998 Liki Rossii Publishing House. All right reserved. , 1998.