Childhood and growing up

Within the family circle

Under the burden of power

The time of difficult decisions





Within the family circle

Семья Романовых (справа налево): великая княжна Ольга, Николай II, Александра Федоровна с наследником цесаревичем Алексеем на руках, великая княжна Татьяна; сидят великие княжны Мария (слева) и Анастасия. Петербург. 1904. Фотографы Боассон и Эггер

The Romanov family: (right to left) Grand Duchess Olga, Nicholas II, Alexandra Fiodorovna with Tsesarevich Alexis in her arms, Grand Duchess Tatiana; seated: Grand Duchesses Maria (left) and Anastasia. St Petersburg. 1904. Photograph by Boasson and Egger

In the first years of his reign, the circle of people who made up Nicholas's private life remained much the same as when it formed in Alexander III's large family. The young Emperor's diary entries continually contain mentions of strolling, riding and swimming with his younger brother Mikhail, to whom he was very close in that period, as well as meetings and conversations with his beloved sisters Xenia and Olga. Xenia's husband, Sandro, was one of the most welcome guests of the imperial family, as were the Tsar's numerous uncles, cousins and second cousins. Towering above them all was the figure of the Dowager Empress Maria Fiodorovna, whose authority was generally acknowledged to be unassailable. For a long time her advice, opinions and desires retained the status of parental precepts for a son who was now the occupant of the throne.

As time went on, however, this attitude became increasingly clearly a thing of the past. Several factors played an important role in this: the nature of Nicholas's own immediate family with its tendency to look only inwards; the character of the young Empress Alexandra Fiodorovna - she failed to establish good relations with her mother-in-law, who for her part was not fond of her son's wife; and various disagreements and even family scandals with close relatives. Gradually Nicholas's day-to-day contact with people unrelated to his official duties became increasingly narrowed down to his "little family" - his adored spouse and the children, in whose company alone he felt himself truly free and easy.

В петергофском паркOn one of the avenues in the park at Peterhof: (left to right) Alexandra Fiodorovna, King Christian IX of Denmark, his daughter the Dowager Empress Maria Fiodorovna, Nicholas II and Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna. Peterhof. 1896

Relations between Empress Alexandra Fiodorovna and high society, including the majority of the Romanovs, ultimately boiled down to one plain fact: she was not liked. "Haughty" and "perpetually unamused", to judge by the sour, moody expression that many memoirists noted on her face, she kept herself aloof and seemed unapproachable. She was unable to make small talk or to smile as a person in her position should. The aide-de-camp Mordvinov, one of those closest to the royal couple, was among the very few who grasped that "the Empress within the circle of the family or close acquaintances and the Empress during receptions, in a company only half-familiar, were two different individuals. The former was infinitely more attractive. At home she lost her customary shyness; she joked and laughed with both the children and the guests, played a lively part in the games, and became very nimble-witted in the general conversation."

Members of the House of Romanov: Grand Duke Pavel Alexandrovich (first from left), Empress Alexandra Fiodorovna (third) and Emperor Nicholas II with Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich behind them. Члены дома Романовых From right to left: Grand Dukes Vladimir and Sergei Alexandrovich, Grand Duchesses Anastasia Nikolayevna (third) and Maria Pavlovna (fourth), with Duke George of Leuchtenberg. Tsarskoye Selo. Late 1890s

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.

Императрица Александра Федоровна. 1894–1896Empress Fiodorovna.
1894–1896

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 and their daughter Olga. St. Petersburg. 1896Nicholas 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.

Император Николай II. 1894

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 crisis.

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 nephew."

 Император Николай II с сыном Алексеем. 1905 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 truths.

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 prayers.

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.

Император Николай II в карнавальном костюме 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 incorrigible."

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 same kind."

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.


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.