Nevertheless in the matter of the alienation of the Tsar's family from the remaining
members of the imperial house she was considered the guilty party. She was also accused of
exercising a baleful influence over the Emperor, who due to his supposed weakness of
character was entirely under her thumb, although that too was far from the truth of the
relationship that had formed between the couple.
There were few who displayed any genuine warmth of affection towards Alexandra
Fiodorovna. Foremost among them was, of course, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, the
husband of her sister Ella, together with Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, his wife
Elizabeth Mavrikiyevna, and his brother Dmitry Konstantinovich, as well as Nicholas's own
brother Mikhail and sister Olga.
The love between Nicholas and Alexandra Fiodorovna withstood both the test of time and
the numerous blows of fate. Their correspondence testifies to the astonishing depth and
constancy of the emotion that bound the pair together for ever. Yet, despite the harmony
of their hearts, their marriage was not destined for that complete family happiness that
was the lot of Alexander III and Maria Fiodorovna. Alexandra Fiodorovna was never in good
health: she had bad legs and could not ride on horseback nor play tennis or badminton
which had become very popular among members of the imperial family and the St Petersburg
aristocracy. The Empress found it difficult to walk and often preferred to cover even
short distances by carriage. She spent much time sitting at home and on occasion,
especially during her pregnancies, the doctors recommended that she restrict her movement
in general. Nicholas, who since childhood was fond of physical exercise, gymnastics and
walking for hours, found himself tied to his wife and quite often pushed her around the
park or garden in a Bath chair. Such excursions with his beloved "other half"
were perceived, incidentally, as a pleasure and not an imposition. Far more than missing
out on possible amusements, the royal couple were concerned about the birth of an heir to
the throne - a question of exceptional importance for any dynastic marriage.
Nicholas II, Alexandra Fiodorovna
with their daughter Olga. St. Petersburg. 1896
According to the laws of the Russian Empire, the throne passed only along the male
line, and therefore the birth of a son to the ruler was an absolute condition for ensuring
a stable succession. Coupled with Nicholas's natural desire, shared by most men, to have a
son, this created an atmosphere of tense expectation within the imperial family. Their
first child, however, turned out to be a girl - Olga, whose birth on 3 November 1895 was
announced to the inhabitants of the capital by a 101-gun salute. The delight of the young
parents and their relatives was unbounded. "You can imagine our immense happiness: we
have acquired a wonderful little one who it is so nice to care for," the Empress
gushed in a letter to one of her sisters.
Disquiet and finally open alarm came later, when the Empress gave birth to one girl
after another. The couple's second daughter, Tatiana, came into the world on 29 May 1897;
the third, Maria, on 14 June 1899; the last, Anastasia, on 5 June 1901. They were all
wanted and loved, and Alexandra Fiodorovna, who took pleasure in expending her time and
energy on her children, nursed them herself. But with every year that passed the question
of an heir became ever more pressing.
EmperorNicholas II. 1894
The lack of a son in the imperial house created a state of dynastic uncertainty. It is
interesting that after Tsesarevich Georgy Alexandrovich passed away at Abas-Tuman in June
1899, Mikhail, the youngest of the brothers, was named heir to the throne but was not
awarded the title of Tsesarevich. This was the cause of talk in high social circles,
especially those close to the Dowager Empress. The reason was, however, a simple one:
Nicholas and Alexandra Fiodorovna hoped that they would soon produce an heir apparent.
Instead, within a short time, the imperial family was plunged into a sort of dynastic
In November 1900, the Emperor, who always enjoyed astonishingly good health and
toughness, fell seriously ill for perhaps the only time in his life. The doctors diagnosed
typhoid, a grave, even life-threatening disease. There were moments when Nicholas's
condition caused alarm. The situation was complicated because the Empress was expecting
another child that might have been a boy. The illness caught the Tsar in the Crimea and an
unofficial meeting was held there of senior state officials who were in the region .
Sergei Witte, the minister of finance, stressed that the fundamental laws of the Empire
required that in the event of the sovereign's death the throne should pass to the existing
heir - Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich. If after a few months the Empress should
nevertheless give birth to a son, Witte stated, "only Grand Duke Mikhail
Alexandrovich himself as Emperor should judge how to proceed in that event. It seems to
me… he is such an honest and noble man in the highest sense of the word, that, if he
considers it beneficial and just, he will himself abjure the throne in favour of his
Emperor Nicholas II and his son Alexis.
Inscribed: Nicky with his son. St Petersburg. 1905
Subsequently, it was to this very episode that Witte attributed Alexandra Fiodorovna's
unwavering dislike of him. As it was, the complications that arose rapidly passed and
Nicholas was soon back on his feet, while the child when it was born proved to be another
girl - Grand Duchess Anastasia. Nevertheless, that episode brought home to the Empress how
insecure her family's future was without a male heir. Rumours circulated that the royal
couple were contemplating changing the laws on the succession along the English lines,
which would mean the imperial throne passing to their eldest daughter, Olga. But the
very suggestion evoked such profound disapproval, even among those as loyal to the Emperor
as Pobedonostsev, that it had to be abandoned - such a decision might have provoked a deep
split within the dynasty and the ruling circles with unpredictable consequences.
The Empress agonised over her inability to give her husband, and the state that he
embodied, a son and heir. She sensed ever more keenly the growing undertone of hostility
in court and high society spheres and began to display even more noticeably the nervous
and unbalanced aspects that had always been present in her character. Alexandra Fiodorovna
started to seek psychological support in religion and her faith rapidly took on a quality
of mystic exaltation.
The Empress found comfort and gained hope for the birth of a son in meetings and talks
with various members of the clergy, holy fools and pious wanderers (always part of the
Russian spiritual tradition), who through mysterious revelations had access to higher
The most striking figure among them, until the appearance of Rasputin, was Monsieur
Philippe (Vachot), a native of Lyons. A wise man and spiritualist who undoubtedly
possessed hypnotic powers, he was presented to the Russian royal couple during their stay
in France in 1901. The following year he visited Russia several times and was received by
"the first family" with exceptional trust. According to some accounts,
"there was nothing remarkable about the man except his pale blue eyes, half-hidden by
heavy lashes, that nonetheless sometimes flared up and gleamed with a strange
softness." Philippe claimed that he could tell the sex of a child while it was still
in the womb and predicted that the Empress would soon be delivered of a son. In 1902 as a
consequence of his suggestions Alexandra Fiodorovna, clearly in a state of high nervous
tension, even began to experience all the symptoms of pregnancy. Rumours spread widely and
circles close to the court began awaiting the birth of an heir. At the end of the summer
the Empress agreed to be examined by a well known specialist, the court obstetrician
D.O. Ott who (as Alexander Polovtsov, a member of the State Council wrote)
"immediately informed her that she was not the slightest bit pregnant… This episode
did not, however, in the least shake the imperial couple's faith in Philippe, who
continues in their eyes to be an excellent, inspired man." This attitude to the
theurgist continued right up to his death in 1905.
Alexandra Fiodorovna also sought aid in the traditions of Russian Orthodoxy. She was
especially hopeful of help from Serafim of Sarovsk, whose canonisation in 1903 was to a
large extent due to the insistence of the imperial court. The decisive factor was
evidently that the priest, who died in 1833 and had long been venerated by the common
people, was particularly known for helping women suffering from infertility with his
According to Witte, who supposedly had the story from Pobedonostsev himself, the Chief
Procurator unexpectedly received an invitation to lunch with Their Majesties "and
after lunch the Emperor in the presence of the Empress announced that he wanted K.P.
[Pobedonostsev] to present by the day of the feast of Serafim, which was due in a matter
of weeks, a decree proclaiming Serafim of Sarovsk a saint. K.P. informed him that saints
are proclaimed by the Holy Synod, after a series of investigations… At that the Empress
remarked that ‘the Sovereign can do anything'… The evening of the same day K.P.
received a friendly note from the Emperor in which he agreed with K.P.'s argument that it
could not be done at once, but at the same time he ordered that by the feast of Serafim
the following year the holy man of Sarovsk be made a saint. And so it was done."
The canonisation of Serafim in July 1903 was accompanied by three days of tremendous
festivities for which more than 200,000 pilgrims gathered from all corners of Russia. The
Emperor participated directly in the ceremony of the translation of the new saint's relics
to the Annunciation Cathedral and (unlike the other bearers who changed on the way) he
carried the coffin throughout, while Alexandra Fiodorovna, despite her leg problems, stood
through the almost five-hour service.
"During this celebration," Witte continued, "there were several
instances of miraculous cures. The Empress bathed at night in a spring of healing water.
It is said they were sure that after four Grand Duchesses the Sarovsk saint would give
Russia an heir. That came about, which finally and unconditionally planted a faith in the
sainthood of the truly good holy man Serafim. A large portrait appeared in His Majesty's
study - a likeness of Saint Serafim."
It is hard to say whether the intercession of the newly-created saint helped or
Monsieur Philippe's prediction did indeed come true when on 30 July 1904 Alexandra
Fiodorovna gave birth to her last child, the long-awaited Tsesarevich. It is not
surprising that the joy of parents who had waited nine years for that day was truly
boundless. "There are no words to thank God sufficiently for the comfort he has sent
us in this year of difficult trials!" the happy father recorded in his diary.
They named the boy Alexis, in honour of the seventeenth-century Tsar Alexis
Mikhailovich, whom Nicholas particularly esteemed. For almost two centuries a sort of
taboo had existed around that name in the House of Romanov - they avoided giving it to
heirs to the throne recalling the sombre tale of Tsesarevich Alexis, the son of Peter the
Great, who was killed on his father's orders in 1718. Since that time the name had been
considered unlucky for the dynasty. Possibly in this blatant flouting of long-established
custom Nicholas was expressing his instinctive dislike for the Reformer Tsar.
General A.A. Mosolov , who was head of the secretariat at the Ministry of the Imperial
Court, recalled once asking the Emperor about his attitude to the founder of the Empire,
Tsar Peter I. After a short silence, Nicholas replied: "Of course, I acknowledge the
many services of my forebear, but I confess that it would be insincere if I were to echo
your enthusiasm. He is an ancestor whom I like less than others for his fascination with
Western culture and his trampling on all the purely Russian customs. You cannot implant
something foreign immediately without adaptation. Perhaps that time was indeed necessary
as a transitional period, but I do not find it attractive."
On 11 August the Tsesarevich was baptised with all due ceremony and Nicholas recorded
with satisfaction in his diary: "A momentous day… The christening began at 11.
I was told later that little Alexis behaved very calmly. Olga, Tatiana , Irina and the
other children first appeared in public and stood through all the long service very well
indeed. Chief godmother and godfather were Mama and Uncle Alexis."
Sadly, as was almost always the case with Nicholas and his wife, the happy days with
the "little treasure", as their son was affectionately known in their immediate
circle, proved too short. As early as 8 September, a minor injury that could not be made
to stop bleeding for a long time revealed the terrible truth - the newly-born heir to the
throne suffered from haemophilia, a hereditary genetic disorder. That meant that his life
was under constant threat: a scratch or slight bruise could prove fatal. A distinctive
characteristic of haemophilia is that it is an exclusively male disorder - women do
not suffer from it, but are the carriers who pass it on in their genes. One such carrier
was the Russian Empress's glorious grandmother, the British Queen Victoria, and at that
time haemophilia was sometimes referred to as "the Victorian disease". Through
her the House of Hesse-Darmstadt was afflicted with this terrible legacy, something of
which Alexandra Fiodorovna must have been aware. Her elder brother Frederick died of
haemophilia at the age of three; her elder sister Irene, who married the Kaiser's brother,
Prince Henry of Prussia, in 1888, gave birth to several haemophiliac sons.
The awareness that she was unwittingly responsible for her son's sufferings and the
constant threat to his life severely affected the Empress psychologically. Despite the
Tsesarevich's parents doing all they could to conceal his illness, it soon became fairly
widely known in circles close to the court. The enduring antipathy towards Alexandra
Fiodorovna meant that, instead of the sympathy naturally due to a mother faced with such a
tragedy, she was given the blame for the degeneration of the dynasty. In high society, in
the milieu of the grand dukes, they began to talk of "the inadmissible lack of care
with which the choice of a bride for the heir to the throne was handled." For the
imperial family difficult years, full of tension and alarm lay ahead.
A complete end was put to all the social amusements, tremendous receptions and
festivities of earlier times. The splendid court balls, adorned by all the senior
nobility of the Empire, became a thing of the past. From now on there were only purely
official celebrations and events dictated by protocol, and the Empress attended even those
fairly rarely. The life of the royal family became even more secluded, hidden from outside
eyes, visible only to a few.
Nicholas loved his son beyond measure and shared his wife's disquiet. In a certain
sense his position was even harder: his alarm over Alexis was made heavier by alarm about
the Empress herself, whose psychological health became increasingly a matter for concern
as the years went on. Nicholas bore his cross with truly Christian humility. His endurance
and dignity were supported by a deep and genuine faith, the like of which was probably not
possessed by any of his crowned predecessors.
Emperor Nicholas II
in fancy dress. 1905
Compared to the religious obsession of Alexandra Fiodorovna, the Emperor's faith was
much calmer, lacking her exaltation. In Nicholas it combined naturally with an unwavering
devotion to all things Russian, to traditions that went back into the depths of the
centuries. The outward expression of this was the dislike of Peter the Great that has
already been mentioned and a clear preference for the legacy of old Muscovy. This
preference made itself felt in literally everything: in Nicholas's reign the
"Neo-Russian" style that drew on the traditions of construction before Peter the
Great began to dominate in public architecture, especially places of worship; many archaic
rituals were revived in court ceremonial, particularly in religious contexts. There were
even plans to replace the uniforms of all those who served at court, from footmen and
cooks to high officials, who, it was proposed, would wear Russian seventeenth-century
costume. This idea had to be abandoned due to the tremendous expense involved in its
implementation, but the Emperor's taste for the traditional dress of his ancestors found
an outlet in more modest undertakings - the fancy-dress balls of the early years of
the twentieth century, the last great balls at the imperial court.
It is well known that the Emperor disliked the use of foreign words in official state
documents. "The Russian language is so rich," he commented on one occasion to
General Mosolov, "that it permits the substitution of Russian expressions for foreign
ones in all instances. Not one word of non-Slavonic origin should disfigure our
language… I underline all the foreign words in a report with a red pencil. Only the
Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not succumb to the pressure and continues to be
The same loyalty to national traditions characterised Nicholas's everyday life, his
tastes and habits, making itself felt at times even in trivial matters. "Like his
father, Emperor Alexander III," the aide-de-camp Mordvinov recollected, "Tsar
Nicholas Alexandrovich was not fond of clothing that restricted his movement and preferred
in his domestic life old clothing, that was well-worn and as a result much mended. When
people came to see him he received them in his study, also dressed with complete
simplicity - either in a grey double-breasted jacket or sometimes in the crimson silk
shirt of the Imperial Family's Fusiliers, of which he was very fond because it was not
only comfortable, but also national, Russian. During the war he invariably wore a very
unattractive khaki shirt of coarse, thick soldier's cloth and a soldier's greatcoat of the
Modest and unpretentious (like, incidentally, the other members of his family),
Nicholas was also very restrained in his eating habits, and preferred plain Russian dishes
to all kinds of delicacies. Refined culinary works of art were served only at official
court dinners and celebrations.
There was, however, a dangerous political aspect to the Emperor's attachment to all
things truly Russian. He was deeply and sincerely convinced that autocratic power was as
much a pillar of national existence from time immemorial as the Orthodox faith. In his
eyes the triad encapsulated in the slogan "Orthodoxy, Autocracy and National
Character" was a reality replete with profound meaning. From that sprang the
Emperor's unwavering conviction that despite political shocks the people - and above all
the country's many million peasants - continued to remain loyal to the throne, because
that was inseparable from loyalty to the Motherland. That conviction was not destroyed
even by the collapse of the monarchy and the revolutions of 1917. Nicholas and Alexandra
Fiodorovna left this life in the certainty that everything that was happening was darkness
and delusion, that the nation had simply gone astray, the way people fall into sin, while
in the depths of its heart the sacred flame of monarchist feeling still burned. In the
final analysis that belief proved fateful for the dynasty and the monarchy.