On October 20, 1894, at half-past two in the afternoon, Alexander III of Russia died of nephritis at his Livadia Palace in the Crimea. The once powerful emperor lay in agony, his massive frame wasted. His last hours were passed with his family until, with a dying breath, he uttered a short prayer and kissed his wife. Alexander was only forty-nine. Although he had been unwell for months, his premature death came as a shock, both to his family and to his empire.
"Sandro, what am I going to do?" the new emperor, Nicholas II, tearfully asked his cousin and brother-in-law, Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich. "What is going to happen to me, to you ... to all of Russia? I am not prepared to be a Tsar. I never wanted to become one. I know nothing of the business of ruling. I have no idea of even how to talk to the ministers."
The twenty-six-year-old man who stood weeping on his cousin's shoulder in the dim light of an October sunset was the eighteenth sovereign of the Romanov Dynasty to accede to the Russian throne. By blood and marriage, he was related to the royal houses of Great Britain, Spain, Sweden, Germany, Denmark, Romania, and Greece. The wealthiest man in the world, he possessed an empire that stretched across one-sixth of the land surface of the globe and encompassed 140 million subjects. As an autocrat, Nicholas II was responsible to no one. Imbued with a deep belief that his was a role ordained by God, he relied only on his own conscience for guidance as his empire entered the turbulent waters of the twentieth century.
Yet it is hard to imagine a man more incapable of this onerous burden than Nicholas II. Shy, thoughtful, and exceptionally polite, Nicholas came to the throne obsessed with the idea that he was ill prepared to rule and was pursued by fate. Even the date of his birth-May 6, 1868, the Feast of St. Job in the Orthodox liturgical calendar-played into this self-fulfilling prophecy. Like Job, Nicholas felt himself tested and tried at every turn, a victim of divinely mandated misfortune. With a tragic sense of fatalism, Nicholas would ascribe every catastrophe that befell his empire to "God's will."
Nicholas was the eldest of six children born to Alexander and his wife, Marie Feodorovna. A second son, Alexander, lived less than a year; a brother, George Alexandrovich, followed in 1871; a sister, Xenia Alexandrovna, in 1875; another brother, Michael Alexandrovich, in 1878; and a second sister, Olga Alexandrovna, in 1882. Alexander III had dominated his family in much the same way he did his empire: his word was law, his decisions uncontestable. Capable of great warmth and indulgence, he was, at the same time, "ruthless even with his children," recalled an official at court, "and loathed everything that savored of weakness." He despised his eldest son's gentle character, once loudly complaining, "You are a little girlie!" Nicholas feared the unpredictable behavior that followed his father's drunken carousals; when Alexander became violent, his wife gathered their children and escaped to an apartment in St. Petersburg's Tauride Palace.
Marie Feodorovna provided a warm refuge, but her protection took the form of an oppressive cocoon that stifled maturity, and Nicholas remained innocent and childish. The cloistered world of the imperial palaces, with their fawning servants and gold-braided courtiers, did little to encourage independent thought. Instead, Nicholas was subject only to emotion, relying on instinct and on passion in making important decisions. From his sixth birthday on, a string of teachers, military instructors, generals, and government officials tutored Nicholas in history, Russian literature, the classics, geography, arithmetic, science, languages, and religion, yet it was an education conceived along idiosyncratic lines. On his father's orders, instructors were not allowed to question him, nor were his studies graded, leaving Nicholas's mistakes and opinions unchallenged. The role of his mother was equally damaging. Fearing the loss of her dominance, Marie Feodorovna personally selected men of limited capabilities, arranging lessons so that Nicholas never saw the same tutors for more than two successive days to avoid any lasting influences.
Nicholas had an excellent memory. He spoke Russian, French, German, Danish, and English, the latter with a perfect accent; his Russian, as Prince Andrei Lobanov-Rostovsky noted, was even tinged with "a slightly English accent." In May 1890, he jubilantly recorded in his diary: "Today I finished forever my education!" Short, with blue eyes and a chestnut beard and mustache, Nicholas made his first forays into official life, though the results were far from encouraging. One Russian referred to him derisively as "just a little, fair officer. He comes up to my shoulders." The wife of an American diplomat noted, "The men of the Imperial Family are such large, tall, fine-looking men that the Russians will find it difficult to connect the idea of majesty with one who is so small." He lacked, recalled one courtier, "the inspiring presence of his father; nor did he convey his mother's vibrant charm." At official receptions, his boredom gave offense. Yet his father, himself poorly trained, did nothing to prepare Nicholas for his eventual role. When Nicholas was twenty-three, Alexander III dismissed his son as "nothing but a boy, whose judgments are utterly childish."
Like any other young aristocrat, Nicholas joined the Imperial Army, immersing himself in the carefully regulated world of the Russian military. He had a liaison with the prima ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska, but his true passion lay elsewhere. He first met Princess Alix of Hesse und Bei Rhein in 1884 at the wedding of her sister Elizabeth, known as Ella, to his uncle, Grand Duke Serge Alexandrovich. After a week together, the sixteen-year-old tsesarevich was utterly convinced of his love for the shy and solemn golden-haired girl, but it was to be five years before they met again. Alix spent that winter of 1889 with Ella and Serge, and Nicholas lavished her with attentions, much to the consternation of his mother, who, recalled one aristocratic lady, "made no attempt to disguise her displeasure at her son's infatuation." St. Petersburg society thought her ill humored and unsmiling, but Nicholas was determined. "My dream is to one day marry Alix H.," he confided to his diary.
The politically unimportant German state of Hesse, stretched along the banks of the Rhine and centered round the medieval city of Darmstadt, had long provided brides to the Romanov Dynasty. Only six when her mother, Queen Victoria's second daughter, Princess Alice, died, Alix had been raised according to the dictates of her powerful grandmother. Under her direction, Alix developed into a shy but serious young woman with a stubborn will and belief in the superiority of her own morality and intelligence. Her cousin Princess Marie Louise later complained that "from her earliest childhood, there was that strange, impregnable obstinacy that nothing could overcome." She never developed the social skills necessary to her rank, giving the impression of boredom, of disinterest, and of distinct unease. The most powerful influences in her life were her mother, her grandmother, and her sisters. Her father was easily dictated to, and her brother Ernie was equally submissive. These models of feminine power, weak men, and domination characterized her youth and later marriage.
Alix was confirmed into the Lutheran Church at sixteen, and her devotion to her faith became for Nicholas an almost insurmountable obstacle. "I can never change my religion," she wrote to his sister Xenia Alexandrovna. This was welcome news to Nicholas's mother, who "remained in a negative state of mind" over her son's obsession, according to one official; she even "forbade" him to meet Alix during her 1890 visit to Russia. Nicholas was persistent, and circumstance conspired in his favor when, two years after her father's death, he traveled to Germany to attend the wedding of Alix's brother Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig IV to his cousin Princess Victoria Melita of Edinburgh, known as Ducky within the family. Conspiring with him were Alix's brother and her sister Elizabeth, his aunt Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna-known in the family as Miechen-and his and Alix's mutual cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm II. Nicholas's efforts weakened her resolve, and changing personal circumstances ultimately led her to accept his proposal.
Six months later, Alexander III's death brought Nicholas to the throne. Alix, who had come to the Crimea to receive the dying emperor's blessing for the betrothal, converted to Russian Orthodoxy, embracing her new faith with a fervor bordering on exaltation and taking the new name of Alexandra Feodorovna. A week after Alexander III's funeral, the couple wed, beginning a marriage that was one of history's greatest love stories. For twenty-four years, husband and wife remained true to each other. "Even after many years of marriage," remembered Prince Christopher of Greece, "they were like young lovers."
Few Russians took to the empress, nor did members of her husband's own family, particularly his difficult mother, who regarded her with jealousy and treated her with barely disguised contempt. In contrast to her husband, Alexandra at least looked the role. "A real Empress she is," declared one diplomat, "tall, golden haired, and a pink and white face." "Much of her beauty comes from exquisite coloring," recalled one woman, "and there is about her a subtle charm impossible to picture and difficult to describe." The woman was particularly struck by her expression: "a singularly wistful and sweet sadness that never went quite away even when she smiled."
Alexandra flung herself into her new role, filled with enthusiastic ideas that were often met with scorn. Increasingly, noted one aristocrat, she suffered "from the misinterpretation of everything she said and did, and even her thought, her unspoken word, was a source of eternal suspicion and persecution." As she fell under Orthodoxy's spell, Alexandra grew even more serious. "There had always been something strained about her," recalled her cousin Queen Marie of Romania. "She had no warm feeling for any of us and this was of course strongly felt in her attitude, which was never welcoming. Some of this was no doubt owing to shyness, but the way she closed her narrow lips after the first rather forced greeting gave you the feeling that this was all she was ready to concede and that she was finished with you."
The Russian court, with its scandals, gossip, and flaunted love affairs, shocked Alexandra. "Most Russian girls," she complained, "seem to have nothing in their heads but thoughts of officers." Inevitably, Alexandra struck those she encountered as "very distant and unapproachable," as Princess Anatole Bariatinsky recalled. The St. Petersburg ladies who attended her first reception left with distasteful impressions: her shyness was ascribed to haughtiness, her dislike of ceremony to indifference or hatred of Russia. Society mocked her, as did members of the imperial family: Grand Duke Nicholas Mikhailovich made no secret of his feelings, deeming the empress "the Abominable Hessian," "the Hessian Tigress," and, most amusingly, "the woman who wanted to set Christ straight."
Through her influence, Nicholas began a gradual withdrawal from society. Residing for most of the year in the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo, fifteen miles south of the capital, the imperial family remained hidden from the outside world. Nicholas and Alexandra valued the sanctity of their family and regarded public duties as an encroachment on their private lives. Four daughters came in quick succession: Olga was born in November 1895, followed by Tatiana in 1897, Marie in 1899, and Anastasia in 1901.
Olga most resembled her father, with her light chestnut hair and blue eyes. Her broad face and slightly turned-up nose detracted from her beauty, though, as Gleb Botkin, the son of an imperial physician, recalled, her personality made her "the most attractive" of the girls. She was not only the quietest of the children, but also the most intelligent. The tutor Pierre Gilliard noted that she "possessed a remarkably quick brain. She had good reasoning powers as well as initiative, a very independent manner, and a gift for swift and entertaining repartee." Her serious nature echoed that of her mother. Alexandra imbued all of her children with a sense of purpose, but Olga, as the first, bore the most criticism. She could be willful, "very straight-forward, sometimes too outspoken," as a member of the court recalled. Resenting this treatment and armed, as Anna Vyrubova wrote, with "a strong will" and a "hot temper," Olga occasionally clashed with her mother. Confined to a world where even simple friendships were rare, she sought solace in religion.
With her lean figure and fine features, Tatiana most resembled her mother. Proud and refined, she impressed everyone with her grace and character. "She was a poetical creature," recalled the empress's friend Lili Dehn, "always yearning for the ideal and dreaming of great friendships." In manner, Tatiana was "gentle and reserved," according to Anna Vyrubova, "kindly and sympathetic," looking after her younger sisters and brother with "such a protecting spirit" that they called her "the Governess." Of all the girls, it was Tatiana who most inherited her mother's sense of authority and acceptance of their privileged positions, and Alexandra indulged her second daughter, confiding in her in a way she found impossible with the headstrong Olga. Tatiana tried to emulate her mother's religious piety but was unable to exhibit the same depth of feeling; instead, she assumed the role of caretaker, surrounding her mother with constant attentions. In contrast to her mother, however, Tatiana was the most social of the sisters, and her natural charm and beauty made her immensely popular with her father's subjects.
Marie was the most beautiful of the sisters, with thick, golden hair and deep blue eyes so large that within the family they were known as "Marie's Saucer's." Modest and warm-hearted, she was, recalled one courtier, "kindness and unselfishness personified." She flirted with the young officers surrounding the family, slipping into their dining room to chat about their families. Marie paid little attention to her lessons, preferring walks in the park. Of all the girls, she seemed the most confined by her position. Her dream, she said, was to marry and raise a large family. Like Olga, Marie was headstrong, "energetic and determined to get her own way," recalled Alexander Mossolov. As a third daughter, Marie suffered from the idea that she had been unwanted, and her elder sisters exacerbated the situation, refusing to include her in their activities and, as courtiers recalled, treating her like an outcast and calling her "fat little bow-wow."
The idea that she, too, had been unwanted undoubtedly resulted in the famously roguish behavior of the youngest daughter, Anastasia, deemed "the most amusing" of the four by one courtier. Her small, boyish frame was suited to her wild pursuits: she climbed trees and refused to come down, terrorized her tutors with practical jokes, and made frequent, often barbed, comments at those around her. Her cousin Princess Nina Georgievna remembered her as "nasty, to the point of being evil." Short and somewhat overweight as a girl, Anastasia eventually developed into a beauty, with auburn, shoulder-length hair and, as Tatiana Botkin recalled, "the most extraordinary blue eyes of the Romanovs, of great luminescence." Although the least intellectual of the children, Anastasia was perhaps the brightest of the five. General Count Alexander von Grabbe remembered, "Whenever I talked with her, I always came away impressed by the breadth of her interests. That her mind was keenly alive was immediately apparent." Her aunt Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna later said, "Her teachers called it laziness. But I am not so sure. I think books as books never said much to her."
Excerpted from The Court of the Last Tsar by Gregory King Copyright © 2006 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Excerpted by permission.
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