Ever since I was a teenager and I watched a documentary about Anastasia, the missing daughter of the last tsar of Russia, I was intrigued by the fact that Russia had once been ruled by royals. Of course, throughout my whole childhood and up until the break up of the Soviet government, all I had known about “Russia” was that it was called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and was the most evil place on earth, filled with “godless Communists” with nuclear warheads pointed at us day and night.
But, there was a more tragic history that brought about the birth of the USSR. And that tragedy involved the demise of an imperial family, the Romanovs, that had ruled the vastness of Russia for 300 years. The book I just finished reading is about the last tsarina of Russia, Alexandra. The book is entitled “Alexandra: The Last Tsarina” by Carolly Erickson.
Born Her Grand Highness, Alix Viktoria Helena Luise Beatrice of Hesse, “Alicky” as she was nicknamed by her family, was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom; her mother was Princess Alice, having married Louis IV, the Grand Duke of Hesse in the German empire. Alix’s mother died of diptheria when Alix was just six years old and ever after, the venerable Queen Victoria took a keen interest in the rearing, education, and marital prospects of her granddaughter.
The book illustrates a life-long theme of struggle for the young princess as she grew into adulthood. There was much pressure for her to marry, beginning at the age of 15 and she turned down many promising prospects, including the future king of England, Albert Victor, the son of the Prince of Wales, because she happened to be in love already, much to the consternation of her hectoring grandmother. Alix had fallen in love with the young heir to the Russian throne, Nicholas. And neither sets of parents were happy about it. Alix married very late for her station in life as a royal princess.
Nicholas’s parents, the reigning tsar, Alexander III and the wildly popular and beautiful empress Maria, the daughter of the King of Denmark, tried with constant deliberation to keep Nicholas away from Alix and Queen Victoria exerted her considerable influence, in steering Alix clear of the Russian tsarevich. Reading the book, the author, with care, explained why what seemed like a most natural and passionate match was under such strict scrutiny.
Neither family was fond of the other although they shared relatives. Queen Victoria did not want to see Alix vanish into the vast and crude Russian empire where Germans were viewed with suspicion. Alexander and Maria wanted their son and heir to marry into France so they could secure a political alliance. Alexander did not see Alix as a compatible spouse for his son as Russia’s future empress. As it turns out, both sets of parents would end up tragically right in their assessments. But, Victoria finally relented to her strong-willed granddaughter’s insistence on seeing “Nicky” and Alexander, in failing health, realized there was no convincing his son to make a more politically auspicious match for the future of the empire.
But that wasn’t the end of Alix’s barriers to marrying the future emperor of Russia. The book outlines her considerable struggle in the religious requirements for marrying Nicholas. She would have to convert to Russian Orthodox Christianity and, as she thought at the time, give up her Lutheran faith. It was on that basis, that after being given permission to ask for her hand in marriage, Nicholas was turned down a few times by Alix, who felt devastated at the prospect of having to give up her religion. However, Alix’s sister, Elisabeth, had married the Russian Grand Duke Serge, and convinced Alix that while she would have to officially convert to Russian orthodoxy, she could still, privately, hold true to her Lutheranism. After Alix was comforted by this news, she agreed to marry Nicholas and her name was changed from Princess Alix of Hesse to Her Imperial Highness, the Grand Duchess Alexandra by order of the failing tsar, Alexander III even before she and Nicholas were married.
By then, things were getting desperate. Alexandra had trouble learning the Russian language and her arrival for the first time in Russia in any official capacity happened with the sudden death of Alexander III. Three short weeks after the death of the tsar, Nicholas and Alexandra were married. And before that, the whispers had already started about the fair haired, blue eyed German woman who was to become empress. Russian peasants, their lives ruled by suspicion, eyed Alexandra as she arrived in Russia behind the funeral cortege of Alexander III and gasped, “She comes to us behind a coffin!” and viewed her arrival as a bad omen. Bottom line: Alexandra never had the chance to become popular with the Russian people.
The book portrays Alexandra in mostly favorable light as the author delves into the early years of her reign. It wasn’t easy. The dowager empress, Nicholas’s mother, Maria, was still young and vital at the age of 46 and was ridiculously popular among the people. She took advantage of Alexandra’s shyness and unpopularity and declared herself above the new empress in precedence in receiving lines, at dinners, and even in the royal household. She sat next to her son and dictated the arrangements of his life down to the furnishings of the palace rooms he and Alexandra shared. Alexandra’s shyness and insecurities with the Russian language and even with French, surprisingly, the official language at the royal court, were interpreted by her ladies in waiting and by the people in general as snobbery and haughtiness.
And then came the children. Alexandra was under enormous pressure to bear a son to secure the succession for the Romanovs. She bore four daughters in a row (Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia) and each birth caused her greater and greater anxiety. The author writes that when word of the impending birth of the royal heir was given to the public, many thousands of people would throng the palace gates in St. Petersburg and await the 300 cannon volleys that would announce the birth of a male heir to the throne. Audible groans and angry shouts rose up when the cannons would stop booming after 100 volleys, signaling the birth of yet another daughter. In this way of writing, Erickson, with skill and through exhaustive sourcing by letters and books written by Alexandra’s contemporaries, manages to capture and convey to the reader the absolute misery and terror the empress encountered on a daily basis in her official life, especially before giving birth, finally, to a son, Alexei, in 1904, nine years after becoming empress.
Erickson also takes great care into providing intimate and sad details about the dichotomy of Alexandra’s official and private lives. Behind palace doors, she was frugal even though she lived in the midst of unbelievable opulence and splendor in the world’s wealthiest royal court. She was religiously devoted to Russian orthodoxy, and she was quiet. She attended to her children daily, reading to them, encouraging her daughters to sew for the poor, and was altogether more involved with her children than was ever expected for a royal, or, even for any mother for her era and station in life. She sought comfort in her children and invested all her passion and devotion to her husband when the world outside was so cold and vicious toward her. She befriended a few of her ladies-in-waiting and the book goes on to detail how surprised some of them were to learn and see, firsthand, how Alexandra’s personal warmth and concern for her household staff was so diametrically opposed to the public’s perception of her as cold and uncaring. In truth, even as people scrawled crude graffiti on the buildings of St. Petersburg calling their empress the “German Bitch,” Alexandra worked in her own quiet way to set up charities, hospitals, and economic relief for the peasants she never came into contact with.
No story about Russia’s last empress would be completely told without two major themes: the revelation that the heir to the Russian throne had hemophilia and the arrival of the mystic monk Rasputin into her sphere. The two go hand-in-hand and Erickson writes about these two central themes of Alexandra’s later life as empress with fresh perspectives. When Nicholas, Alexandra, and the royal household discovered that Alexei had what was then called the “English bleeding disease,” Alexandra found herself in a precarious position of absolute terror not only as a mother but as the responsible person for the succession of the royal family. She, through her grandmother, Queen Victoria, had carried the gene for hemophilia into the Romanov dynasty and she would be blamed if it became public. The royal doctors prepared Nicholas and Alexandra for the very real possibility that their son would not survive into adolescence. This plunged the empress into a religious fervor and she sought the counsel of several Russian mystics, finally finding answers she needed in Rasputin, whom she believed with unmovable faith could heal her son. Diaries used as source material for the book do document that Rasputin had a wondrous calming influence on Alexei and with every bleeding crisis, Rasputin’s mere presence would cause an unexplainable recovery, even on a few occasions when it seemed positively certain that Alexei was dying from internal hemorrhaging. That Alexei lived to be a couple of weeks shy of 14 years old is a miracle, itself, for the era. The public, and even the royal family, the dowager empress Maria, among them, despised Rasputin and his influence over Nicholas and Alexandra. Rumors abounded that Rasputin and Alexandra were sexually involved and that Rasputin had also had sexual relations with the daughters of the tsar. None of this has ever been substantiated, yet the smear campaign in leftist literature and crude graffiti continued with vehemence until Rasputin was murdered by members of the royal family.
By the time of the revolution, Alexandra was violently hated by the Russian people. She made many of her own mistakes. She was married to a weak ruler who had never been properly trained for his destiny in life and preferred farming over ruling. Yet, she encouraged his hard line stance of autocratic rule when, at the dawn of the twentieth century, such authority was being cast off all over the world. When Nicholas abdicated in 1917, Alexandra was alone with sick children suffering from the measles, at her palace in St. Petersburg. Frightened of what might happen to her and with revolting soldiers roaming the streets of the capital, she continued to nurse her children and to comfort frightened servants. When loyal household guards surrounded the palace in the freezing cold night in preparation to ward off an attack by revolutionaries, Alexandra went outside, walking up and down the lines, thanking them for their loyalty and comforting them with soup and blankets.
The final several months of Alexandra Romanov (as she was called derisively after being stripped of her royal authority) were filled with unending humiliation and dashed hopes. The provisional government of Russia attempted, in vain, to secure emigration for the Romanovs to England. Alexandra and Nicholas’s own royal relative, King George V, refused them entry, fearful that their mere presence in Britain would cause a revolutionary uprising there, threatening his own throne. Alexandra’s other hope, Denmark, also declined the royal family refuge, although they sent a battleship to rescue the dowager empress Maria, whose father had been king there.
The smuggling of the Romanovs to SIberia is part of well-written history. What Erickson does is highlight personal details from Alexandra’s own diaries–which the Soviets took great care to preserve–and the eyewitness accounts of her contemporaries, including household servants and soldiers. There is a story where a guard sat next to Alexandra one day while she was outside and when Alexandra’s lady in waiting rose to protest, Alexandra waved her off while she conversed, in Russian, with the soldier. The soldier, filled with anger and disgust for Alexandra, asked her why she didn’t care about the Russian people and why she had never travelled widely within her own country. Erickson goes on to write that, with calm and candor, Alexandra explained that she had to take care of her four daughters and that she was often ill herself and that she loved Russia, regardless of what he thought. At the end of the exchange, it was noted that the guard stood up, took Alexandra’s hand and admitted that he had been wrong about her and from that point on, treated her with respect, despite being ridiculed by his fellow guards for doing so. But, it was just one soldier in a vast revolutionary state dead set against letting her or her family survive.
Alexandra and her family were woken up in the early hours of July 18, 1918 and told to assemble in a basement room. With rumors of rescue by the White Russian army in the air for weeks, she and Nicholas thought they were being moved to yet another location. Their household guard arranged Alexandra and 13 year old Alexei on chairs and asked the rest of the royal family and their loyal household servants to stand behind them for a photograph. The book notes that Alexandra poised herself regally when she heard they were to be photographed as proof they had not been kidnapped. Instead, it was announced that they were to be executed. As Alexandra began to make the sign of the cross, a bullet was fired right into her head and she toppled over onto the floor. The ensuing murder of the former tsar, their four daughters, and the heir to the throne came in a flurry of gunfire and screams. A 300 year old dynasty was over and a once young, shy German princess desperately in love with a Russian royal was brutally slain at the age of 46.
ALEXANDRA: THE LAST TSARINA. Written by Carolly Erickson. 372 pp. Publisher: St. Martin’s Press.