Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich

Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich, son of Alexander II and Maria Alexandrovna, lover of Alexandra Zhukovskaya, daughter of Vasily Zhukovsky
Born: 1850, St Petersburg
Died: 1908, Paris

Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich was the fifth child and fourth son of Alexander II and Maria Alexandrovna. He was born in St Petersburg on 2 January 1850. Alexei was destined for a naval career and started training on warships at the age of ten. He commanded the Russian naval forces on the River Danube during the Russo-Turkish War (1877–78).

When he was a young man, Alexei fell in love with Alexandra Zhukovskaya, the daughter of the poet Vasily Zhukovsky. Her father had spent twenty-four years at the imperial court, teaching Russian to the German wife of Nicholas I and then tutoring their son, the future Alexander II. After resigning in 1841, Zhukovsky went to Germany for medical treatment, where he married Elisabeth von Reutern, the daughter of Gerhardt Wilhelm von Reutern. In November 1842, his wife gave birth to a daughter called Alexandra.

Alexandra Zhukovskaya was raised by her father and became known for her intellect and great beauty. After Vasily Zhukovsky died in Baden-Baden in 1852, Alexandra and her brother Pavel were looked after by the imperial family. Pavel, who went on to become a chamberlain and a successful artist, was adopted by Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna. Alexandra often visited the court, where she played with the emperor’s children. In 1858, at the age of sixteen, she became a lady-in-waiting to Empress Maria Alexandrovna.

Alexei fell in love with Alexandra Zhukovskaya when he was nineteen and she was twenty-seven. They kept their affair a secret and met mostly at the Anichkov Palace, home of Tsarevich Alexander and his wife Maria Fyodorovna, where they enjoyed performing in amateur theatricals. At one domestic performance on 30 March 1870, Alexandra performed a scene from Otto Nicolai’s opera The Merry Wives of Windsor, alongside Baroness von Driesen and Countess Sheremetev. The orchestra was led by the famous Bohemian conductor Eduard Nápravník. That same night, Alexander played a role in a performance of Johann Strauss’s Carnival in Venice, also featuring Count Grabbe and Prince Golitsyn.

In 1870, Alexei decided to flee abroad and marry Alexandra Zhukovskaya without the emperor’s permission. They are rumoured to have concluded a secret and illegal marriage in Switzerland. A lack of money and the need to continue in service, however, forced them to soon return to Russia. The marriage was annulled, while the Orthodox priest who married them is said to have been defrocked. Alexandra was then found to be carrying Alexei’s child.

Prince Sergei Volkonsky once recalled a visit paid to his family estate in 1871 by Grand Duchess Maria Fyodorovna and a small retinue, which included Alexandra Zhukovskaya, who was still lady-in-waiting to Empress Maria Alexandrovna: “After their departure, there was a great discussion. When talking about Zhukovskaya, everyone for some reason lowered their voices. My mother said that the poor thing had to sit down and rest on every bench. Many years later, I learnt that she was carrying the child of Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich and that … they had asked the empress permission to marry, but had been refused.” As a result, Alexandra Zhukovskaya was forced to leave the imperial court.

Alexei’s tutor, Admiral Konstantin Possiet, began to notice his ward’s strange indifference to everything around him. Torn between duty and conscience, he often pleaded sickness or drank. His parents worried about their son’s way of spending the time. Alexei turned to his sister-in-law, Maria Fyodorovna, who was known in the family as Minny. Although they had always been close, there was nothing she could do to help.

Alexei continued to regard Alexandra as his lawfully wedded wife. A photograph to her is signed To my dear little wife from her faithful husband. This probably explains the reason why Alexei remained a bachelor all his life, unable to promise God to love and honour another woman while his first wife’s fate was still uncertain. This belief in his marriage to Alexandra helped to reconcile him with his own conscience.

On Alexandra’s advice, Alexei began writing a diary during a cruise on the River Volga. Desiring to “do something to please my dear little wife every day,” the grand duke poured out his love on the pages, which he then gave to Alexandra to read. The passages reflect the depths of Alexei’s feelings. In June 1869, he writes that when reading a letter from her, his feelings “spoke so strongly that I feared I would lose my mind. I wrote you the whole truth, because I do not know how to write banal phrases. I wrote down all my innermost thoughts, which I never thought I would tell anyone. I found it painful and terrible to think that I should go away from you without knowing whether I will see you again. I repeat, you are my pride and hallowed object.”

Throughout the entire river cruise, Alexei remembered their walks together at Pavlovsk and their final meetings, words and promises. He complained of loneliness without his “angel.” “I could not sleep for a long time, I wanted to see you and to forget the whole world with you, you. I want you alone and they have taken you away from me, I curse all people and everyone in this world.” All this may have been the reason why Alexander II decided to send his increasingly desperate son on a visit to the United States in 1871 – a tour unexpectedly extended into a round-the-world voyage lasting two years.

The first Russian royal ever to visit the United States, Alexei received a tour through post-Civil War America that emphasised the nation’s cultural unity. While the enthusiastic American media breathlessly reported every detail of his itinerary and entourage, Alexei visited Niagara Falls, participated in a bison hunt with Buffalo Bill Cody and attended the Krewe of Rex’s first Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans. As word of the royal visitor spread, the public flocked to train depots and events across the nation to catch a glimpse of the grand duke. Some speculated that Russia and America were considering a formal alliance, while others surmised that he had come to the United States to find a bride.

The tour was not without incident. Many city officials balked at spending public funds on Alexei’s reception and there were rumours of an assassination plot by Polish nationals in New York City. More broadly, the visit highlighted American domestic problems, such as political corruption and persistent racism, as well as the emerging cultural and political power of ethnic minorities and the continuing sectionalism between the North and the South.

On the eve of his departure on 20 August 1871, the emperor and other members of the imperial family came to bid Alexei farewell. The squadron was commanded by Admiral Possiet and headed by a frigate called the Svetlana. The following day, under a clear sky with a low wind, they lifted the anchor and left St Petersburg for two years. Alexei took the first watch on the Svetlana, from six o’clock to midnight. Possiet wrote: “Grand Duke Alexei appeared to be extremely sad on the first night. This soon passed, however, and by the time we arrived in Copenhagen, he had begun to return to his normal state, which I recently find to be far more serious than before.” On 26 August, they called in at Copenhagen, where Alexei performed his official and family duties by visiting the crown prince and princess. The squadron left the Danish capital on 1 September.

In the French port of Marseilles, Alexei and a company of Russian sailors went on a wild spree. The local police instituted proceedings against the grand duke, but another naval officer, Yevgeny Alexeyev, went in his place and paid the fine. Alexeyev was later richly rewarded with a series of rapid promotions, going on to become the governor of the Far East in 1903 and commander-in-chief of the Russian army and navy in 1904. Admiral Possiet’s travel log describes the large quantities of strong Madeira wine purchased by Alexei when they called in at the Portuguese island on 24 September. They were not slow to begin consumption of the wine and Alexei “could not always be called entirely sober.”

From every port, Alexei wrote emotional letters home to his mother. This convinced his father that that the voyage should be extended. On 31 August, Alexei sent an impassioned plea from Copenhagen: “I do not feel that I belong to myself or can abandon [Zhukovskaya and the expected child]. There is a feeling in this world, which nothing can overcome. This feeling is called love … For God’s sake, mother, do not destroy me, do not sacrifice your son. Forgive me, love me, do not cast me into an abyss from which there is no way out.”

On 12 September, Alexei wrote again to his mother: “The more I pray, the more I feel that God will only forgive me when I fulfil my duty to Him with my conscience. Otherwise, He will not forgive me. You know that. This is not the voice of youth or passion, but a calm, honest and implacable feeling … I am too proud and honest to withstand this feeling. I do not want to be the shame and disgrace of the family … For God’s sake, do not destroy me. Do not sacrifice me for the sake of some preconceptions, which will themselves fall away in a few years’ time. You must understand what it feels like to have a wife and child and to abandon them. To love this woman more than anything else in the world and know that she is alone, forgotten, abandoned by everyone, suffering, about to give birth at any minute. While I remain a beast called a grand duke, who might and ought, by my position, to be a low and nasty person, which no one will dare say to his face … offer me a ray of hope, I cannot live like this, I swear to you by God … Help me, return my honour and life, it is in your hands.”

Alexei also wrote to Alexandra Zhukovskaya, who had been banished from Russia to give birth abroad. He asked “dear Minny” and his elder brother Sasha to offer her support: “What a terrible feeling it is to be far away from her. Minny, you yourself have children, you must understand what it means to have a wife and child and to leave them. It is too awful!”

Alexei’s brothers tried to help him. They reported his sufferings to their parents, who refused to change their mind or to legalize the relationship. Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich finally wrote to Alexandra Zhukovskaya himself: “Dear Alexandra Vasilyevna! I have spoken at length with the empress about everything that has happened. Neither she nor the emperor agree to a marriage. That is their final decision, which neither time nor circumstances will change, believe me. Now, dear Alexandra Vasilyevna, please allow me, in view of our long friendship and your long-standing affection for me, to speak straight to your heart. Do you remember when I visited you after seeing off my brother? When we parted, I took both your hands and, looking straight into your eyes, asked you if you really loved my brother. You replied that you did. I believed you – how could I not believe you? You now know the situation he is in. You also know the firm will of my parents. If you really do love my brother, this makes me pray to you on my knees not to destroy him, but to give him up, voluntarily and unequivocally.” Alexandra heeded the request.

On 14 November 1871, Alexandra Zhukovskaya gave birth to a son in the Austrian town of Salzburg. The baby was christened Baron Alexei Seggiano. In March 1884, Alexander II gave the boy the official name and title of Count Alexei Alexeyevich Belyovsky-Zhukovsky (after the estate of Belyov, the favourite place of Vasily Zhukovsky).

In 1875, Alexandra Zhukovskaya was engaged to a guards officer from Saxony called Baron Christian-Heinrich von Wöhrmann (1849–1932). By this time, she already possessed a handsome dowry. But Alexei did not abandon his wife and son. After her marriage, Alexandra received a generous cheque and a lifetime pension. The grand duke was appointed the personal controller of her finances.

Alexandra married Baron von Wöhrmann on 25 November 1875, becoming Alexandrine de Wöhrmann, Baroness Seggiano. The marriage was performed by Archimandrite Kallinikos Stamadaris of the Greek Orthodox church in Munich, while the fee of one gulden and fifty-two kreuzer was paid by Ozerkov, the Russian consul in Bavaria.

The following order, marked confidentielle, appears in the correspondence of the Ministry of the Imperial Court: “Award Baroness Alexandra Vasilyevna von Wöhrmann, née Zhukovskaya, owing to the services of her late father, an annual lifetime pension of twenty-five thousand roubles, from one part of His Majesty’s own capital, as of 13 November this year, to be paid in three instalments, the first payment to be made on 13 March 1876.” The order was signed by Count Adlerberg, minister of the imperial court, on 27 December 1875.

Alexander II also wrote Alexandra a cheque for 27,083 francs. She signed the receipt in her own hand: “Receipt given that I have received, from the Ministry of the Imperial Court, via the Imperial Mission in Rome, a cheque for twenty-seven thousand and eighty-three francs (27,083). Rome, 16 (28) December 1875. Baroness Alexandrine de Wöhrmann, née Zhukovskaya, Seggiano.” A telegraph from Rome to the Ministry of the Imperial Court in St Petersburg confirmed that the cheque had been delivered.

On 22 May 1875, when he was holidaying with his family in the German resort of Bad Ems, Alexander II signed a decree in which “His Imperial Majesty sanctions the apportionment of five-hundred thousand roubles from one-fifth of His Majesty’s own capital to be paid to Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich.” The money was transferred to Alexei’s bank account. Perhaps feeling that the cheque was insufficient, the emperor instructed Alexei to pay Alexandra the annual sum of twenty-five thousand roubles, in three instalments, for the rest of her life.

Another dossier, begun on 2 June 1875, shows how Alexei created a “capital of 100,000 roubles in silver for the minor Baron Alexei Seggiano. This capital is not to be touched until Baron Seggiano, born on 26 November 1871, reaches the age of twenty-five. The interest is to be used to acquire 4% gilt-edged securities from the State Bank. Alexei.”

Alexei did not forget about his former lover: “I order my own office to immediately wire abroad, to Baroness Alexandrine de Seggiano, thirty thousand thalers.” As the grand duke did not have any cash in hand, he proposed raising the sum against the shares that he owned or by selling his shares. Alexandra was paid a cheque for thirty thousand thalers, after which she gave a pledge to accept no more payments from Alexei. This letter was signed by Schilling and forwarded to Dresden.

In 1896, when he reached the age of twenty-five, Baron Alexei de Seggiano came into his capital of 100,000 roubles and the accumulated interest. Before then, he had lived in Wiesbaden, where he was taught by a Russian Orthodox priest, Alexander Smyrnopulos, who received a monthly salary of 750 German marks paid by the grand duke. The priest was responsible for the count’s education between 1888 and 1889, before the Holy Synod appointed him to the Russian Orthodox Church in Constantinople. The boy’s uncle, Pavel Zhukovsky, also contributed to his education.

Alexandra lived in Germany for the rest of her life, dying in Wiesbaden on 26 August 1899. After her death, Alexei continued to look after his son, who was kindly treated by the whole Romanov family.

Although the young Alexei grew up in Germany, he attended military academy in Russia, serving as an aide-de-camp to his uncle, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich. In 1894, though possibly earlier, he married Princess Maria Troubetzkaya (1872–1954). The daughter of Prince Pyotr Troubetzkoy and Princess Elizaveta Beloselsky-Belozersky, members of two prominent aristocratic families, Maria was a lady-in-waiting to Sergei’s wife, Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fyodorovna, who was known in the family as Ella. Alexandra Zhukovskaya attended the wedding at Ilinskoe, the country residence of Sergei and Ella near Moscow, where she was accorded every respect by the imperial family.

The couple had three daughters and one son – Elizaveta, Alexandra, Maria and Sergei. Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna, wife of Nicholas II, was godmother to Elizaveta (1896–1975), while the Dowager Empress Maria Fyodorovna and Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fyodorovna were godmothers to Alexandra (1899–1994) and Maria (1901–1996). The godfather of Sergei (1904–1953) was his uncle, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, who attended the christening shortly before he was murdered in Moscow in 1905.

Elizaveta and Alexandra often visited the imperial family at Tsarskoe Selo, where they played with the tsar’s eldest daughters, Olga and Tatyana, who were the same age. The two sisters were very close and began to appear in society before 1917. Their families now live in New York, where they own an entire collection of miniature Fabergé Easter eggs, presented by the Romanovs to their goddaughters.

After the death of Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich in 1908, the rest of the family continued to look after his grandchildren. By 1895, the “special capital” of 100,000 roubles formed back in 1875 had grown to 345,000 roubles, after allowing for the payment of various debts. In 1910, six members of the Romanov family – Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, her three sons (Kirill, Boris and Andrei), Grand Duke Pavel Alexandrovich and Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich – were appointed the legatees and trustees of Grand Duke Alexei. They awarded a sum of 1,008,125 roubles (508,125 roubles in interest-bearing securities and 500,000 roubles in cash) to the count and his family, who renounced all claims of inheritance. Alexei was paid the direct sum of 400,000 roubles, while the remaining 608,250 roubles were deposited in accounts at the State Bank for his children. Alexei’s wife Maria was allowed to live off the interest from this capital after his death.

After the revolution, Maria fled from Russia with her children. They travelled through Odessa, Constantinople and Italy to Germany, settling near the town of Baden-Baden, where the Troubetzkoy family had a villa. The children grew up in Baden, where there was a large colony of Russian émigrés.

Alexei was unable to escape from Russia with his family. After qualifying as a biologist, he disappeared during the purges, possibly dying in Tbilisi in 1932 or 1933. His only son Sergei married Nina Botkina and died in Los Angeles in 1953. They had a daughter, who now lives in France.

The three girls all married Russian émigrés. Elizaveta married Arthur Lourié. Maria married twice – first to Vladimir Sverbeyev and then to Vladimir Yanuchevsky – and wrote memoirs of her father and brother. She remembers Sergei’s christening, when his godfather, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, presented the family with an icon of St Sergius the same size as the infant, as was the custom at that time. Her mother claimed that a day before he was killed in a bomb attack, Sergei warned her husband not to report for duty the following day, as he had received a death threat: “He did not fear for his own life. But Alexei had a young family...” The following day, the grand duke was murdered.

Whenever Sergei and his wife Ella went abroad, they always brought back presents for Alexei’s family and even their servants. The children usually accompanied them when they travelled to Ella’s hometown of Darmstadt, when they no doubt visited their grandmother in nearby Wiesbaden. When they were in Moscow, the family was always invited to stay at the governor-general’s residence on Tver Street or the Nicholas Palace in the Kremlin.

The descendants of Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich now live in New York and France. A direct descendant of Tsar Alexander II, Alexei Teissier from New York now holds the title of Count Belyovsky-Zhukovsky. His mother, Maria Gika Perevostchikov, is Alexei’s great-granddaughter.

Although Alexei had many other affairs, both in Russia and abroad, he never again found true love. He remained a bachelor – the only son of a Russian emperor never to marry. As the naval minister and head of the Russian fleet, he was held responsible for the defeat at the Battle of Tsushima and stripped of all his posts on 2 June 1905. He died of pneumonia in Paris on 14 November 1908 and was interred a week later in the newly rebuilt Grand Ducal Burial Vault of the St Peter and St Paul Cathedral.

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