Empress Maria Fyodorovna

Born: 1847, Copenhagen
Died: 1928, Hvidøre (Denmark)

On 26 November 1847, there was an addition to the family of Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg and his wife, Princess Louise of Hesse-Kassel, who lived in the Yellow Palace on Amalie Street in Copenhagen. A baby girl was born to the couple, who, although regal, were not directly related to the Danish royal family. Back then, no one could have guessed that the father of the new princess would one day become the king of Denmark – or that she would become the empress of Russia.

On 7 March 1848, when the little girl was already three months old, she was christened Marie Sophie Frederikke Dagmar. The first three names were in honour of Marie Sophie Friederike of Hesse-Kassel, Queen Dowager of Denmark. The widow of King Frederick VI, Marie Sophie was the maternal aunt of Prince Christian of Glücksburg.

The last name, Dagmar, was a tribute to the romantic interest of the Danish national liberals in the Middle Ages. The popular medieval ballad Queen Dagmar Lies Ill in Ribe was based on the life of Princess Drahomira (“Dagmar” in Danish), daughter of the king of Bohemia, who married King Valdemar II of Denmark in 1205. Although Dagmar was the name by which the princess was generally known, within the small family circle she was simply called “Minny.”

Dagmar grew up at the Yellow Palace alongside her two elder brothers Frederick and William and an elder sister called Alexandra. In 1853, a younger sister, Thyra, was born. She was followed five years later by another brother, who was called Valdemar.

In 1852, Dagmar’s father was elected the heir presumptive to the Danish throne. But little changed in the ways and life of the Glücksburg family, who continued to reside in the relatively modest Yellow Palace. They avoided appearing at court, evading contact with the king’s morganatic wife, a former ballet dancer called Louise Rasmussen. King Frederick VII was well aware of this and was happy to keep the heir’s family in the background. So Princess Dagmar and her brothers and sisters spent most of their childhood inside their own family circle, rather than at court functions.

All this changed in 1863, when a series of momentous events took place. In March, the eldest daughter, Alexandra, married the Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VII of England. The whole family visited London and Windsor for the wedding. That same year, the second eldest son, William, was elected king of the Hellenes, becoming King George I of Greece. Finally, in November 1863, King Frederick VII of Denmark died and Dagmar’s father became King Christian IX.

The following summer, Copenhagen was visited by Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich, eldest son of Tsar Alexander II and heir to the Russian throne. He had fallen in love with photographs of Dagmar and wanted to see if the images corresponded to reality. In a letter to Empress Maria Alexandrovna on 24 August 1864, Nicholas wrote that Dagmar was more beautiful than he had imagined. Two weeks later, on his twenty-first birthday, he proposed to her in the Bernstorff Palace Gardens.

On 25 October 1864, Dagmar wrote to her brother William: “Oh, how grateful I am to God for his mercy to me. I now pray only that he sends me strength and gives me the opportunity to make him, beloved Nixa, as happy as I want him to be, with all my heart, and to be worthy of him. Ah, if only you could see and know him, you would understand what bliss fills me, at the thought that I can call myself his fiancée!!!!”

After visiting Denmark, Nicholas travelled to the south of France and spent the winter in Nice. Like his mother, he suffered from weak lungs. Dagmar began preparing for her new life in Russia. She started learning its language and customs, while a Russian priest, Father Ioann Yanyshev, was sent to the Danish court to prepare her for the necessary conversion to Russian Orthodoxy. While they were apart, Dagmar and Nicholas wrote to each other in French.

The story actually began twelve years earlier, in 1852, when Dagmar’s father became the heir to the Danish throne. Jens Peter Trap, cabinet secretary to King Frederick VII, writes: “At the start of June [1852], Prince Christian, together with his wife and children, left to take the alkaline waters at Schlangenbad near Nassau. This resort was chosen because the Russian empress was also planning to be there. While she was there, she displayed a close interest in the family of Prince Christian. Seeing the two eldest princesses, she said to Princess Louise: ‘We shall reserve one of them for ourselves.’”

Tsar Alexander II initially wanted to marry his son and heir to the eldest girl, Princess Alexandra. But Queen Victoria also wanted Alexandra as a bride for her eldest son and, in 1862, she became engaged to Edward, Prince of Wales. It seems likely that this was when it was decided that the other daughter would marry the tsarevich. The evidence is Dagmar’s history jotter for 1862, which contains the words of a Russian prayer and the Danish translation.

Why was Russia so anxious to establish marital ties with Denmark? The reasons were, of course, political – even though everything suggests that the planned match between Dagmar and Nicholas would have been a marriage of love. Both genuinely believed that they were in love with one another – despite the fact that they had only spent a few weeks in each other’s company. Before any mutual personal affection developed, however, the political aspects of the proposed marriage had no doubt already been weighed up in both capitals. The heir to the Russian throne could not marry without considering the potential political gains. And it is doubtful that the Tsarevich became the owner of a whole collection of photographs of Dagmar in the early 1860s on his own initiative. Both mothers probably exchanged photographs with the aim of gently nudging their children in the right direction.

It is not hard to understand Denmark’s reasons for seeking closer ties with the House of Romanov. The tense relations with the German states and the recent war, which had ended in defeat and the loss of the southern duchies, forced Copenhagen to look for powerful friends. Russia was one of the countries capable of preventing the Germans from swallowing up the rest of the weakened kingdom.

Russia was equally interested in strengthening its ties with Denmark. The fate of the Baltic Fleet largely depended on its ability to pass freely through Øresund and other Danish straits. Although Tsar Alexander II enjoyed good relations with his mother’s brother, King Wilhelm I of Prussia, the Russian military were growing increasingly anxious at the prospect of Denmark’s annexation by Prussia. Were that to happen, Berlin would control the exit from the Baltic Sea to the world’s oceans. Prussia was also attempting to unite the other German principalities under her own command, adding to Russian fears of a powerful Germany in the centre of Europe.

By establishing marital ties with the Danish dynasty, Russia could clearly demonstrate – without taking any steps hostile or offensive to Prussia – that she was in favour of maintaining the continued sovereignty of the Danish monarchy. In doing so, the Romanovs would only be following the recent example of the British, who had also married into the Danish royal family. In light of the growing power of Prussia, it only made sense for Russia to acquire similar ties in Western Europe.

These plans came under threat at the end of 1864, when Nicholas took a trip to Italy and contracted what was wrongly diagnosed as rheumatism, but actually turned out to be tuberculosis. In April 1865, his health suddenly deteriorated. Dagmar hurried to Nice, accompanied by her mother and brother Frederick. They arrived in Dijon on 22 April, where they met Alexander II, who had also come from St Petersburg to see his son. The next day, Dagmar was allowed to see Nicholas. But the following day, on 24 April 1865, the tsarevich died.

Nicholas’s last hours were described in a letter written by Anna Tyutcheva to her sister Ekaterina: “The struggle between death, life and youth was terrible. At the patient’s head stood the empress, with the emperor at his feet. On one side, Grand Duke Alexander; on the other, the tiny princess, holding the hands of the dying man... When he passed away... his fiancée could not be torn away from his body, which she kissed in a convulsive embrace…”

Dagmar wrote to her father from Nice: “I will never, never forget his look – how he looked at me when I went in to him – no, never!! The poor emperor and empress! How good they were to me in my grief; and his poor brothers, especially the eldest, Sasha, whom he loved so much – and not only as a brother, but also as his only and best friend. Oh, how hard it is for him, the poor thing, how awful it is for him now to become the person his beloved brother was!”

Dagmar accompanied Nicholas’s grieving parents to Heiligenberg in Hesse-Darmstadt, where they spent several days together. This was where the idea was first muted of Dagmar marrying the new heir to the Russian throne, Nicholas’s brother Alexander, known in the family as “Sasha.”

After Dagmar returned to Denmark, the Russian imperial couple continued to support the idea of their engagement. In one of her replies to the empress, Queen Louise suggests they all wait until the official year of mourning has come to an end: “You yourself know the human heart and young people. Who can say now whether, by that time, there will not be a change in Sasha’s feelings, which came to him in the first moments of pain and anguish. Let Sasha, without persuasion and coercion, mull everything over on his own, with himself and with God. Let him tell her his decision himself, so that she might also assay herself and give her reply.”

When the time came, Tsarevich Alexander was indeed unable to repeat the proposal that he had made in a state of grief a year before, straight after his brother’s death. For some time, he had fallen secretly in love with Princess Maria Mescherskaya, one of his mother’s ladies-in-waiting. When the year of mourning ended in the spring of 1866, he refused point black to marry Dagmar. But his father had other ideas. Explaining that duty came before personal feelings, the emperor ordered his son to travel to Denmark and offer Dagmar his hand in marriage.

That summer, Tsarevich Alexander visited Denmark and proposed to Princess Dagmar, who gave her consent. On 29 June 1866, a special service of thanksgiving was held at St Isaac’s Cathedral in St Petersburg, celebrating the news of the new heir’s betrothal. Russia began preparing to welcome the woman who now carried the official title of “Highly Named Bride of the Heir Apparent and Tsarevich Grand Duke Alexander Alexandrovich.”

On 10/22 September 1866, a large crowd gathered at the quayside in Copenhagen to see Dagmar off on her voyage to Russia on board the Danish royal yacht Schleswig. It was a clear autumn day and, as the ship set sail, warm rain fell. Hans Christian Andersen was among the crowd and wrote the following words: “Farewell, Princess Dagmar! Grandeur and splendour await Thee; Thy wedding wreath conceals an imperial crown. Let God shine His sun on Thee and Thy new country; then, from the tears now evoked by parting, a pearl will emerge!”

Dagmar was accompanied to Russia by a retinue of thirty persons, including her brother, Crown Prince Frederick. Four days later, the Schleswig arrived at Kronstadt, where it was welcomed by a deafening cannon salute from twenty Russian naval vessels. On board the Alexandria, the princess was welcomed to Russia by the imperial family – Tsar Alexander II, Empress Maria Fyodorovna, Tsarevich Alexander, Grand Duke Vladimir, Grand Duke Alexei and Grand Duchess Maria.

Tsarevich Alexander described the event in his diary: “Approaching the Schleswig, both steamships halted. Papa, Vladimir, Alexei at the helm, Grabbe and Baron von Plessen and I went on the cutter to meet Minny. We boarded the Schleswig and I once again embraced my darling and Fredy... and returned to the Alexandria. There was such common joy, yet at the same time everyone remembered dear Nixa, to whom she belonged.”

The Tsarevich continued his diary entry for 14/26 September 1866: “Approaching our squadron, a salute began from all the vessels and forts. The sight was magnificent. Many ferries packed full of people came out to greet us. Novosiltsev and the Kronstadt merchants also boarded the steamer. About half twelve, we were at the Peterhof Quay, where there was another magnificent reception. Mama set off in a carriage with Minny and Maria, while we all went behind the chariot on horseback. Troops lined the alleyways... Arriving at Alexandria, we went to the Small Chapel, where there was a service. Afterwards, we breakfasted at the Farm. At half two, everyone went to the railway station, while Mama and Minny went straight to Tsarskoe Selo on horses. They were accompanied all the time, in turns, by the Convoy, Cossack Guardsmen, Ataman and Urals.”

From St Petersburg, Alexander II, Tsarevich Alexander and the grand dukes travelled by special train to Alexandrovka Station on the Warsaw Railway Line. There, they mounted horses and waited for Empress Maria Alexandrovna and Princess Dagmar to arrive. The imperial family was greeted by the commandant of Tsarskoe Selo and specially invited guests. One of the rooms at Alexandrovka Station was decorated with flowers and Danish and Russian flags. Tea and dessert wines were brought from Tsarskoe Selo.

The triumphant entrance of the Danish princess into Tsarskoe Selo began at Alexandrovka Station. Everything took place in strict accordance with “The Most Highly Confirmed Ceremony for Meeting Her Royal Highness, Princess Maria Sophie Frederikke Dagmar of Denmark, Highly Named Bride of the Heir Apparent and Tsarevich Grand Duke Alexander Alexandrovich, in Peterhof and Tsarskoe Selo,” promulgated on 13 September 1866. The whole procedure was based on the official ceremony for meeting the present Empress Maria Alexandrovna, formerly Princess Maximilienne Wilhelmine Maria of Hesse-Darmstadt, in 1840.

Troops lined the entire route followed by the cortege. By 1 pm, His Majesty’s Uhlans, the second, third and fourth squadrons of His Majesty’s Hussars, the first battalion and rifle company of the Izmailovsky Regiment, Cavalry Guards and the Cuirassier Regiment had taken up their assigned positions. At the very end of the route, in the parade ground in front of the Catherine Palace, facing the central gates, stood the legendary Preobrazhensky Guardsmen.

The way to the Catherine Palace ran along the main alley of the picturesque Alexander Park – past the recently completed Arsenal Pavilion and across the whimsical Chinese Bridge. To the left of the carriages, completing the magnificent vista, Dagmar suddenly saw the austere Neoclassical outlines of the Alexander Palace, painted in light yellow tones and decorated with white columns. The left wing of the palace was already fitted out with new apartments for the heir and his bride. The Tsarevich took a close interest in their decoration, writing in his diary: “Went by drozhky to the Alexander Palace. Work has moved forward and is almost finished. My half has turned out very well and will be nice. The rooms for my wife are also very nice and upholstered with chintz. Went round all the rooms and halls.”

Dagmar did not immediately move into the Alexander Palace. For now, taken aback by the pomp and splendour of the official welcoming party and the beauty of the autumn landscape, the young Danish princess could only briefly admire her future home. The beautiful views, magnificent palaces, charming park buildings, diverse, picturesque military uniforms – everything harmonised brilliantly, supplemented by the unusually fine weather. One of the local newspapers observed: “The weather, usually dull and rainy at this time of year, was remarkably fine and bright. On the morning of 14 September, the sun appeared on a clear and transparent horizon. The whole day, there was not a single cloud in the sky, and the sun sparkled, like in countries endowed with good climates.”

By two o’clock, all the guests had assembled in the Catherine Palace – mostly courtiers living in Tsarskoe Selo. Everyone stood in their strictly assigned places. Next to the Main Staircase, in the Silver Room (Cavalry Dining Room), were the members of the imperial suite. To the other side of the main entrance, in the White (State) Dining Room, was a delegation from the nearby towns of Tsarskoe Selo and Pavlovsk. Civil servants were in the Portrait Room, while in the Amber Room and the Picture Hall, by order of Alexander II, was an additional inner guard of honour, comprised of His Majesty’s Cavalry Guards and the 1st Hussars Sumy Regiment. In the White (Petite) Dining Room and the Drawing Room of Emperor Alexander I, the princess was greeted by members of the State Council and Senate. The clergy, headed by Father Bazhanov, Their Majesties’ confessor, waited in the “room next to the chapel staircase” (the Waiters’ Room). Finally, “in the drawing room in Empress Elizabeth Alexeyevna’s half” (the Blue State Room), courtiers and ladies were specially dressed for the occasion in “high” (closed) dresses.

Just after three o’clock, a cannon salute announced the arrival of the imperial family. In the White (State) Dining Room, Dagmar was welcomed by the delegation from Tsarskoe Selo and Pavlovsk, who offered her the traditional Russian gifts of bread and salt on a silver plate. In the Waiters’ Room, the clergy met the princess with the Cross and Holy Water. Father Bazhanov made a short welcoming speech in German, before leading everyone to the palace chapel for a short service of thanksgiving for Dagmar’s safe arrival. “After a Te Deum, Their Majesties and Highnesses, followed by the court, proceeded to Empress Maria Fyodorovna’s half, where, after bowing to the imperial couple, they passed into the private rooms intended for the stay of Her Royal Highness, the Princess of Denmark.”

After a short period of rest, the imperial family and the Danish prince and princess dined in the Chinese Room. The members of the suite ate in the Picture Hall. At eight o’clock, everyone went for an evening carriage ride round Tsarskoe Selo. Music was played and the whole town was decorated with illuminations and flowers. The Gostiny Dvor Shopping Arcade, the Cathedral Garden and the Town Hall looked particularly elegant.

Such an important event as the arrival of a future empress of Russia was widely covered by all the country’s leading newspapers. The Petersburg Leaflet informed its readers: “The St Petersburg correspondent of the Moscow Bulletin wrote on 14 September: this morning, Princess Dagmar rode along the alleys of Tsarskoe Selo... her wonderful, large, dark eyes shining. The portraits of Her Highness look like her, though her gaze ... is as soft as velvet, deeper and more thoughtful... The princess is of medium height. Her oval face is fine and soft, like that of a fifteen-year-old girl; only in the outlines of the chin is there something imperceptibly characteristic.”

Such were the first Russian impressions of their future empress. The young princess, meanwhile, was overwhelmed by the dazzling chain of events, stiff protocol and new sensations from her first day in Russia. She wrote in her diary: “I will never forget the kindness with which everyone received me. I did not feel like an outsider or a foreigner: I felt that I was their equal, and it seemed to me that they felt the exact same towards me... I cannot describe what happened inside me when I first stepped onto Russian soil, I was so agitated.”

This momentous first day ended in the Chinese Room, where the imperial family took tea in the evening. Afterwards, the members of the younger generation – Alexander, Dagmar, her brother and the grand dukes – went to the princess’s apartments, where they “sat and chatted.” The Tsarevich wrote: “When my brothers and Fredy had left, I remained with Minny and managed to speak with her a little on our own, which happens so rarely, and there is so much I want to say to her... After sitting and talking until ten o’clock, we parted and, before leaving, accompanied Minny to her rooms. After hugging her, we went home. I sat and wrote my journal, then undressed and prayed fervently to God, thanking Him with all my heart, that I have finally awaited the moment my dear darling Minny has come to us in Russia. God bless us!”

The following morning, Tsar Alexander II and the Tsarevich received ministers who had arrived with reports from St Petersburg. The empress and her daughter Maria walked in the park. The whole family then gathered for breakfast. The Tsarevich noted: “Minny slept longer, because she was tired out yesterday.” After breakfast, Alexander and Dagmar walked along the colonnade of the Cameron Gallery. At one o’clock, they went to Pavlovsk to visit Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich. They read and discussed Dagmar’s forthcoming ceremonial entrance to St Petersburg with the grand duke’s daughter, Olga, the future queen of Greece. They then visited the Pavlovsk Farm and “Nixa’s favourite place near Krik, where his portrait and an inscription hang.”

The couple returned to Tsarskoe Selo for dinner, which was served, as usual, at six o’clock. Afterwards, the Tsarevich went with his brothers Vladimir and Alexei and Prince Frederick of Denmark to Dagmar’s rooms, where they “chatted until a quarter past eight.”

That evening, a fete was held in the imperial park, with boating on the pond. The alleys were filled with an enormous number of people. The harbinger of the imperial chamber issued special instructions to admit all members of the public into the park. The only restrictions were on small children and on riding on horseback or in carriages.

On 17 September 1866, the St Petersburg Bulletin published a detailed description of the festivities at Tsarskoe Selo: “On the evening of 15 September, there was a magnificent illumination at the Large Pond in Tsarskoe Selo. The weather was as fine as it was on the day of the princess’s arrival: a completely clear sky, warm, and so still that not a single leaf on any tree rustled... During the illuminations, the pond assumed a truly magical appearance, the kind one rarely has the occasion to enjoy. Picture to yourselves a wide lake of irregular outlines, with islets in the middle overgrown with forest, surrounded by thousands of lights on the shoreline. Reflecting in the water, they framed the lake with a girdle of fire. At various places along the shore stood small vessels with masts, decorated, from the mast down to the very waterline, with multi-coloured lanterns.”

All the park pavilions lining the shores of the pond were illuminated. “The lines of light running along the walls of the buildings, along the exterior decor, combined so harmoniously and elegantly that the stone and iron, from which the buildings were made, these pavilions, bridge and bathhouses, completely disappeared, leaving only an elegant pattern of light. On the Orlov Obelisk, in place of the sphere above the cupola of the Bathhouse, spherical Bengal lights burnt as bright as the sun, casting the scarlet reflection of the dawn onto the sky. An entire column of Bengal lights beat from the lake.”

The imperial family enjoyed the illuminations from the pavilion on the island. Directly opposite their island, “on the background of the dark trees, burnt the elegant monogram A. M. D., surrounded by flickering flowers and crowned with a flaming crown.” The planners of the firework show managed to conjure up the most audacious fantasies in light. On the precipice of a small cape, standing out against the smooth surface of the pond, “the name Dagmar shone in red and white” on the ground. Amid the dynamic festival of light, small boats moved up and down the pond, illuminated with magic lanterns. Orchestras and choristers stood in various sections of the park.

At nine o’clock, a cannon salute announced the end of the fete. The imperial family returned to the Catherine Palace, where evening tea was served in the Chinese Room. At half past ten, everyone retired to their rooms. The Tsarevich wrote in his diary until midnight, noting that “the whole time, I went hand-in-hand with Minny.”

The following day, 16 September, was not as dramatic as the two previous ones. The family mostly walked around Tsarskoe Selo, rode to Pavlovsk, chatted and took tea. At six o’clock, a banquet was held for the members of Princess Dagmar’s retinue in the Arabesque Hall of the Catherine Palace. Afterwards, there was no “evening gathering.” The couple drank coffee in a small family circle in the Lyon Drawing Room.

The most important day was 17 September, when Dagmar made her public entrance into the capital of the Russian Empire. After the official ceremonies were over, the Tsarevich “went riding round the town with Papa, Minny and Maria. We saw the Schleswig, which was moored on the English Embankment. The sailors and officers from it and the other Danish vessel were at the Anichkov Palace during the procession.”

On Sunday 18 September, the family attended the changing of the Preobrazhensky Guard. Specially for the princess, the orchestra performed a Danish march. After walking round Yelagin Island, they went to the theatre in the evening.

The following day, the whole family visited the Peter and Paul Cathedral. The Tsarevich wrote in his diary: “We went straight to dear Nixa’s tombstone. This was the first time that Minny had been at the grave of my dear brother, who was so close to her heart.” After visiting the fortress, the empress and Dagmar returned to Tsarskoe Selo. They were joined in the evening by Alexander II and the Tsarevich, who had remained in the capital for a meeting of the State Council.

The imperial family stayed in Tsarskoe Selo until 25 October. The emperor and the heir sometimes went to St Petersburg in the morning, to attend meetings, receptions and reviews. On such occasions, the Tsarevich always found the time to drop into the Anichkov Palace, to examine the course of the redecoration work in their future residence: “Examined the whole middle floor and the chapel, which is moving forwards and, I hope, will be fine. Then tried out the lift... Went round the entire upper floor, where the female and male servants will have their apartments. Then went to the middle floor. Consulted with Gibert and Bogolyubov about how to hang the gold plates in the Grand Dining Room. The drawing rooms are almost ready, also upholstered with material and furniture. Her study has also been upholstered, though the furniture is still not ready. The bedroom and dressing room are the same. My study is completely finished; besides the furniture, the carpet has also arrived. The library is already standing. All the books and shelves have been brought. The Petite Dining Room is very nice. All the carved wooden dishes will be kept here. From there, we descended by lift to the floor below and went to the stables. Work is proceeding.”

At Tsarskoe Selo, everyone did their best to entertain and amuse the princess, surrounding her with care and attention. The Tsarevich’s diary constantly mentions walks in Pavlovsk, hunting parties at Tsarskaya Slavyanka, boat trips and balls: “Minny enjoyed herself immensely and danced without stopping.”

A long life lay ahead of the princess, filled with many joyful events – her wedding to Alexander, marital love and the birth of their children. But these first days in Russia, at Tsarskoe Selo, forever remained the happiest hours of her life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of Maria Fyodorovna’s favourite paintings was a small watercolour by Franz Teichel depicting her arrival in Russia. This picture always hung in her dressing room at the Anichkov Palace.

On 12/24 October 1866, Dagmar converted to Russian Orthodoxy in the chapel of the Winter Palace, becoming the Grand Duchess Maria Fyodorovna. A fortnight later, on 28 October/9 November, she married the Tsarevich Alexander in the same place.

For various financial and domestic reasons, Dagmar’s parents were unable to attend the wedding. The Danish royal family was represented by Dagmar’s brother Frederick. Queen Louise sent her daughter a letter of advice, preparing her for her wedding night: “For Minny – to be read upon completion of your evening toilette on your wedding night. The most important hours of your life will soon be dawning! And I am so far away from you and can only put down in writing what I told Alix on her final evening, when she was with me at Windsor. Difficult moments await you, and you will think them horrible, but because all this seems inscrutable, we must accept it as a duty laid on us by the God, to whom we are all bound, ordaining each of us to give ourselves up to the will of our husband in everything. And not to protest even at the most unimaginable things, but to convince ourselves that such is the will of God. You will also experience physical tortures, but, my Minny, we have all gone through this, and I asked him to take care of you in this first fatiguing time, when you will need to summon all your powers to get through these official celebrations, when everyone present will be looking at you with double attention! God will not forsake you! You are beginning a new life! Good night! Your mother says her most fervent prayers for you.”

After dealing with the trauma of her first wedding night, the next task of Maria Fyodorovna was to give birth to a future male heir. Her first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage after she went horse riding while on a visit to Denmark in July 1867. Her second pregnancy passed without complications and, on 6/18 May 1868, she gave birth to a boy in Tsarskoe Selo.

Two days later, Alexander wrote to his father-in-law, King Christian IX: “Dearest parents, rejoice with us at our great happiness, sent to us by the good Lord, who has presented us with a dear little son, comprising all our joy... Minny was terribly afraid at the presence of my father at the birth, but was later glad of it, for he helped her a lot.” Maria Fyodorovna may not have entirely agreed with the last sentence, confessing in her diary that the presence of her father-in-law at the birth “embarrassed me horribly.”

The baby was called Nicholas in honour of both his great-grandfather, Nicholas I, and his late uncle Nixa. Tsar Alexander II wrote to King Christian from Tsarskoe Selo on 9/21 May 1868: “The birth of little Nicholas is the fulfilment of all our prayers. You will probably understand why we gave him this name, which is doubly precious to us.”

Two months after the birth of Nicholas, Maria Fyodorovna was back dancing at balls. Alexander wrote in his diary on 19 July 1868: “Friday. Peterhof... Minny and I went to a ball at the English Palace at a quarter to ten. There were quite a lot of people there and the ball was very lively. I played at whist... I won a tidy sum – around forty-three roubles. Only returned home with Minny at half past two. She was very pleased with the ball and enjoyed herself immensely.”

The birth of Nicholas brought new concerns and duties. His parents visited the nursery several times a day and were always present at his evening bath. After luncheon, Maria Fyodorovna often brought the baby into his father’s study, where they played with him.

In 1869, Maria Fyodorovna gave birth to a second son, who was named Alexander. But the child fell ill and died of dropsy at the age of only eleven months in 1870. The following year, Maria had a third son, who was called Georgy. Four years later, in 1875, Marie Fyodorovna gave birth to her first daughter, Xenia. She was followed by Mikhail in 1878 and Olga in 1882, who was born when Maria and her husband were already emperor and empress of Russia.

Even before their wedding, Alexander and Dagmar spent much time together. After they married, the couple only parted when the Tsarevich had to be present at the daily audiences given by his father, Tsar Alexander II, or, more rarely, at meetings of the State Council.

Maria Fyodorovna usually rose one-and-a-half or two hours after Alexander, at around nine or ten o’clock. She had a bath, dressed, and took coffee or tea in her chambers, or in her husband’s study, if he was at home. The grand duchess then received visitors. At one o’clock, the couple always had luncheon together.

Like her husband, Maria Fyodorovna was not indifferent to the fine arts. They both collected paintings and works of decorative and applied art, which they often presented to one another. Around 1868, Maria renewed the regular drawing lessons that she had taken back in Denmark, under the influence of her mother, Queen Louise of Denmark. She and Alexander often sketched together. The Tsarevich writes in his diary on 22 July 1868: “After changing, I went in to Minny and read and drew there.”

In the mornings, when her husband was occupied with official business, Maria Fyodorovna often drew under the guidance of Alexei Bogolyubov, a professor from the Imperial Academy of Arts. Alexander wrote in his diary on 27 November 1868: “Minny went to draw with Bogolyubov and Princess Kurakina, while I went to my chambers and received first Zinoviev with a report on the court and, after him, Stürler with a report on the stables. He remained with me until one o’clock. Then I went in to Minny and had luncheon in my study with her, Princess Kurakina and Bogolyubov. We then smoked, chatted and looked at the new picture by Karlis Huns, which I bought. We then went to the lower rooms to look at all the old pictures from the Anichkov Palace, and selected some of them to be hung in my rooms. We then went in to the little one, where I arranged an icon-case for him, hung up his image, and presented him with an icon-lamp. Returning upstairs, Minny continued to draw until half past four. We then went to walk in the garden with all the dogs, it was very cold. Returning indoors, we drank tea, then Minny read to me, while I drew. At a quarter past six, I went to sleep until a quarter to seven, then dressed and went to dine with Minny alone. After dinner, we said goodbye to the little one... Around eight o’clock, Minny and I set off for the opera... After the performance, we returned home. I ate roasted chestnuts in oil, and went to bed at half past twelve.”

After lunch, depending on the time of year and the weather, Alexander and Maria Fyodorovna took a walk or went horse riding at a parade ground. Their youngest daughter, Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, remembered that her mother loved horses and, unlike her father, was a fine rider who spent much time at the court stables. At Shrovetide, Maria Fyodorovna enjoyed going for the traditional troika rides.

This, however, did not daunt the grand duchess’s love of the sport. In his memoirs, Count Sergei Sheremetev, her husband’s aide-de-camp, remembers the time they went parforce hunting (hunting with dogs on horseback). Maria Fyodorovna “delighted in riding on horseback, jumping across ditches and streams, clearing obstacles, and was difficult to keep up with… she was in her element on a horse and was not afraid to demonstrate it.”

After a walk, Alexander and Maria Fyodorovna either received visitors or went visiting themselves. At four o’clock, they had tea while out visiting or, if they were at home, in Alexander’s study. While they chatted, the Tsarevich smoked. Count Sergei Sheremetev claimed that, in 1887, Maria Fyodorovna also smoked. Later, in the 1900s, she smoked a great deal.

The couple worked together at the same writing desk. The Tsarevich went through his official business, while his wife, at the other end of the table, wrote letters. One of their favourite pastimes was looking at albums of photographs and drawings. Before dinner, both spouses, particularly Alexander, liked to take a short nap. At six o’clock, they ate together in the dining room or, especially in the first years of their marriage, attended a family dinner at the Winter Palace.

Returning home around seven o’clock, the couple sat in Alexander’s study: “I wrote my journal, then Minny came in to me and read the newspapers … I smoked, wrote my journal and read, while Minny read the foreign news.”

Judging by the number of periodical publications that she received over the years, reading newspaper and magazines was virtually a full-time job for the empress. The List of Foreign and Russian Publications Subscribed to for Her Imperial Majesty Empress Maria Fyodorovna in 1906 lists twenty-six Danish, German, British and French periodicals and ten Russian publications. In first place are Russian Archive, Russian Olden Times and the Historical Bulletin. Maria Fyodorovna’s love of reading history journals was instilled in her by her husband. In 1917, the dowager empress paid 294 roubles from her personal funds for Russian periodicals from the Berezovsky Bookstore.

Reading was one of the family’s favourite pastimes. Alexander’s diary entries are full of such phrases as “worked and read with Minny … after tea, we conversed. I smoked and then drew, while Minny read to me … conversed and read … we read until twelve, then went to bed … went in to Minny to read, and ate fruit … Minny went to bed, and I read to her until half past twelve … spent the evening alone with Minny, drank tea and read.”

Alexander and Maria Fyodorovna often read his diary together. On 12 November 1866, after dining at the Winter Palace, “we smoked in Mama’s study and looked at Zichy’s drawings. At seven, we said farewell and went home. I smoked and wrote my journal. Minny was in my study and looked at my journal, which we wanted to read together.” At the end of Alexander’s diary for 1868/69, there is a short note added by his wife: “Had the fortune to be present at the conclusion of this journal. Maria [née] Dagmar.”

At eight o’clock, the Tsarevich and his wife dressed and went to the theatre. The only exception appears to have been when Alexander went to see La belle Hélène in male company. He writes in his diary on 10 November 1866: “At a quarter to nine, I set off for the Théâtre Français, while Minny spent the evening with the ladies. Returned home at a quarter to twelve. Found Minny at her toilette. She then showed me her art of turning cartwheels.”

The couple also attended the opera. Maria Fyodorovna’s daughter Olga remembered that her mother loved the theatre, especially the opera. Even the coronation festivities evoked operatic associations with the empress, who wrote to Queen Louise of Denmark on 19/31 May 1883: “An hour later, we had to pass back again in our mantles and with crowns on our heads, through all the halls, to the Palace of Facets, where we dined, sitting on thrones. All the first courtiers served us, while Valdemar was allowed to stand behind our backs, with assistants. This was somewhat disconcerting, of course, but I regarded it all as more like a production of one of Wagner’s operas, in which we were playing the main roles.”

Music was another popular pastime. Alexander writes: “Played with Minny on the piano and cornet … at nine, Minny and I went to play on the piano and cornet.” In summertime, they often went to outdoor concerts in Pavlovsk or listened to music at Peterhof. Music was constantly present in their lives. Dinner parties and family meals were accompanied by an orchestra from one of the guards regiments. Even in 1918, under house arrest in the Crimea, Maria Fyodorovna still managed to play the piano.

When they stayed at home, the couple played at cards: “Little party with Minny, we played at rams, which I won … after tea, we sat down to play roulette and I kept the bank … drank tea, then played at rams and twenty-one … played at whist with Papa, Vladimir and Vasily Perovsky. I, of course, lost every one. Minny played at rams with the others … went in to Minny, who had just returned from a card-playing party.”

Alexander and his wife sometimes visited the circus or went to a ball, as Maria Fyodorovna was particularly fond of dancing. The Tsarevich writes in his diary on 14 November 1866: “At ten o’clock, my wife and I went in a four-seat carriage to a ball given by the Buchanans [British ambassador and his wife]. Almost the whole family and Papa were already there, and the dancing was just starting. There was quite a crush and some heat. I danced the first quadrille with Lady Buchanan, but then did not dance any more the whole ball. Minny enjoyed herself immensely and danced without stopping. We only went in to supper at half past one. The dances then began again, with even an English dance. I was terribly bored and did not know what to do with myself. Minny danced like a madwoman... I only said farewell to the hosts at a quarter to four and went home with Minny. I was very tired and not in a good mood. I did not even want to say goodnight to Minny, I was so annoyed at her. Undressed, wrote my journal and only went to bed at a quarter to five. Minny, the darling, had specially stayed awake, in order to wait for me and say goodnight. For a long time, I was still in a bad mood, but I eventually felt sorry for her, and we made up.”

The years passed and their children were born and grew up, claiming more of their time and attention. Maria Fyodorovna tried to accompany her husband everywhere he went, and they both attempted to spend as much time as possible with their family. Alexander wrote in his diary on 6 March 1880: “Was with Papa in the morning, returned home at half eleven and went with Minny and the children to the church service. We then had luncheon and, at one o’clock, Rosenbach came with a report. At half one, went with Minny to my craft school, where we went round the workshops and the work of the students, who have made enormous strides. Went from there with Minny to Mama at the Winter Palace and then, returning home, skated with Minny and the children in the garden. At seven o’clock, attended the evening service in our chapel with Minny and the children, then dined together.”

Regular attendance at church services and the strict observation of Orthodox rites represented the spiritual component of their daily lives. Alexander, Maria Fyodorovna and their children attended mass on Sundays and all church holidays. There were daily services on the first week of Lent and Easter Week: “7/19 March. Friday [first week of Lent]. In the morning, went to Papa for the reports. At half eleven, returned home, and went with Minny and the children to the service, then we had luncheon... Dined at home at seven o’clock. The children took confession with Ivan Rozhdestvensky before dinner. At nine o’clock, Minny and I went to the service at the Winter Palace, then asked forgiveness of one another. We then took confession; first Papa and Mama, then Vladimir, Alexei and I in the small chapel. Only returned home at a quarter to eleven, talked some more with Father Yanyshev in Minny’s study. At half eleven, I went for a bath, while Minny took confession in our bedroom.”

When Maria Fyodorovna lived in Gatchina following Alexander’s death in 1894, the Sunday liturgy was an excuse for a ceremonial outing. Alexander Mordvinov, Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich’s aide-de-camp, recalled: “Sundays witnessed the empress’s ‘minor outings’ to the palace chapel. Besides the members of her closest suite, various heads from Gatchina were invited.”

Like her husband, Maria Fyodorovna opposed Alexander II’s love affair with Princess Ekaterina Dolgorukaya. In 1874, she was with the emperor at Livadia in the Crimea, while her husband had gone to England with his mother. Back in St Petersburg, she wrote to Queen Louise of Denmark on 30 November/12 December 1874 about her father-in-law’s lover: “One thing in particular, which occurs daily in front of everyone’s eyes, angers and outrages me to the very depths of my soul. You will have to guess who I refer to, for it is not really appropriate to put it down in black and white. I doubt anyone has an idea of the presence of a certain young woman, for she never shows herself until darkness falls. But every single day, in the evening, when we are sitting in the empress’s salon after supper and Hans Madsen [His Majesty] is smoking a cigar, I see this lady dropping in on us through the window on the empress’s balcony. And, to my regret, I know very well who she is. What shamelessness – in the absence of his sick wife, to so brazenly defile her balcony! Can you imagine? If I had not seen it all with my own eyes, I would never have believed it. I would not have even entertained the thought, let alone talked about it.”

Maria Fyodorovna went even further than her husband, who dared not openly contradict his father. She described what happened during an attempt to introduce their own children to the tsar’s second family: “They were virtually stolen from me, in an endeavour to befriend them with those awful little illegitimate brats. But I rose up like a real lioness defending her young. This resulted in a serious confrontation between me and the emperor.”

Maria Fyodorovna described the death of Tsar Alexander II in a letter to her mother on 4/16 March 1881: “Can you believe that all this horror is true? ... The poor, completely innocent emperor – my heart was in pieces at the sight of him in such a terrible state. The face, head and upper part of the body remained untouched, but the legs were all broken and torn away at the knees... For my poor, beloved Sasha, this is the heaviest blow! ... My peace and tranquillity have come to an end as, from now on, I can never be calm for Sasha again.”

The assassination of Alexander II shook the whole of the Russian establishment, particularly the Third Department, which was responsible for the safety of the emperor and his family. A series of measures were put in place to strengthen the security system. On 27 March/8 April 1888, the residence of the imperial couple was hastily moved to Gatchina Palace, which was located in the nearby countryside and easier to guard than the crowded capital.

Maria Fyodorovna’s report back to her sister Alexandra shows that the move was more like a flight of panic: “Today was a terrible morning. We received a mass of visitors, besides the entire diplomatic corps, so I had no time at all to get together. I did not even pack my things, which, as you understand, annoys me immensely. And then off we set off at breakneck speed – me in complete despair at having to leave my dear Anichkov, my home, in order to be buried alive in this enormous prison! Perhaps, with time, things may get better here, once we have at least settled in a bit, for the rooms are small and cosy, but for now I cannot even imagine that I will really have to live here. Everything here inspires depression and despondency; at least the sunshine fills the snowy fields and woods with its light. The boys are delighted at moving to a new place that they did not know before. The two youngest, unfortunately, had to be left in the town for now, as little Misha is too stuffed with the cold to go outside. It is great luck that they did not move with us, because the rooms are cold and the workers still need a lot of time to put everything in order, as we moved out so quickly.”

Ten days later and slightly calmer, Maria described life at Gatchina in a letter to her brother Frederick: “I am now very pleased that we have moved here. The weather is as wonderful as ever and we walk for unusually long periods in the enormous park, only an unimaginable amount of snow has fallen and we are forever up to our knees in it. Sasha truly adores country life and it really is much easier for him here, as he can move about without an enormous escort, although the entire park is flooded with soldiers, Cossacks and mounted Cuirassiers, which always leaves a painful impression! One might think there is a war going on nearby!”

Now that she was empress, Maria Fyodorovna could no longer indulge in the various activities she had once engaged in when her husband was still the heir to the throne, such as turning cartwheels or dancing all night at balls. Youthful spontaneity gave way to social restraint. Thanks to her innate sense of tact, she was able to manoeuvre through the minefield of relationships within the larger Romanov family. With her kindness, poise and self-control, the new empress was the personification of comme il faut.

Maria Fyodorovna did all she could to pass these qualities on to her children, introducing them, from an early age, to the court rituals and ceremonies. Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna remembered the traditional five o’clock teas at Gatchina: “A company of ladies from St Petersburg sometimes visited the empress; the family tea party was then transformed into something recalling an official reception. The ladies would sit in a semi-circle around the empress, who poured out tea from a beautiful silver teapot, set before her by an immaculately schooled lackey.” Olga recalled that her mother was always “terrified that someone would cross the boundaries of etiquette and decency.”

Moving to Gatchina in 1881, “the emperor and his family selected, for their premises, the smallest and most inconvenient rooms, previously earmarked for the servants. They were in the upper floor of the Arsenal and were so low that the emperor’s great height meant he could freely touch the ceiling with one hand.”

Count Sergei Sheremetev recalled: “Between these rooms was the tiny study of the empress... This room lay between the dining room and the bedroom, and it was very difficult to turn around inside it... At the very doors to the bedroom stood an armchair next to a piano, with a stool in front. The emperor invariably sat in this chair and drank coffee after luncheon, while the empress, sitting on a small couch, conversed with one of those present.”

Sunday dinners at the Arsenal were held in an informal setting: “The court orchestra played at dinner, and the emperor himself often requested a certain piece, to which he drew everyone else’s attention... We had hardly risen from our places, before the table was quickly whisked away, almost at the wave of a magic wand. Everyone remained in the room... The hall was large enough to make everything convenient. The couches and the same table and chairs were arranged next to the billiards table and around one of the columns. Decanters with liqueurs, brandy, curacao and anisette appeared on the table. The empress immediately sat down, while the emperor walked up and down, talking with those playing billiards, or went up to the table with the decanters.”

Maria Fyodorovna was particularly fond of birds – as she was of “nature in general and everything that fills it.” Describing life at the Anichkov Palace in the 1900s, Alexander Mordvinov remembered that, in one of the premises, there was an enormous cage “with a countless multitude of little birds, of which the empress was a great lover.”

Outwardly, besides the move from St Petersburg to Gatchina, little changed in Maria Fyodorovna’s everyday life after she became empress. The number of commitments linked to her role as patroness of various committees, societies and institutions grew, of course. Her official and social workload increased. But while her husband was still alive, she did not meddle in politics and never discussed any of his decisions with him.

It was only after the death of Tsar Alexander III, when the burden of ruling the country fell to their twenty-six year-old son, Nicholas, that Maria Fyodorovna ventured to give advice on Russia’s domestic and foreign policies. To the astonishment of those who knew her, “she acted skilfully. She gave advice and studied the international situation, deriving much useful information from conversations with ambassadors and ministers.” As Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna confessed decades later: “For me, my mother’s ability to solve such questions was a real revelation.”

Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna writes in her memoirs that her mother was often busy and therefore not always aware of what her two youngest children – Olga and Mikhail – were getting up to. When it came to disciplining their younger children, however, Maria Fyodorovna was far stricter than Alexander III.

After succeeding his father as emperor, Alexander’s list of official duties increased and the couple was forced to spend more time apart. Every autumn, they went with their children to visit Maria Fyodorovna’s parents in Denmark, joining other relatives from all over Europe. Because of his great workload, however, Alexander was always obliged to return to Russia earlier than everyone else.

In Denmark, the family delighted in the freedom denied to them in Russia. The empress and the children could walk around Copenhagen in complete safety, without a police bodyguard, visiting the zoo or dropping into shops. After Denmark, they travelled to Livadia in the Crimea. Towards winter, they returned to St Petersburg and their beloved Gatchina. Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna remembered that, at the insistence of Maria Fyodorovna, they moved back to the Anichkov Palace for Christmas, “in order to throw themselves into the busy social life of St Petersburg.”

In the late 1880s, storm clouds suddenly began to gather in the life of Alexander III and Maria Fyodorovna. On 1 March 1887, a terrorist plot to kill the emperor and empress was uncovered. A year and a half later, on 17/29 October 1888, the imperial train crashed at Borki. The carriages were flung off the rails and it was a miracle no one was killed. Maria wrote in her diary: “Sebastopole... Our miraculous rescue from a terrible rail disaster... I woke up early, after quite a calm night, but saw that the weather was dull and cold. We went to breakfast at 11.15, were merry and happy, when suddenly – a strong jolt, then another, even worse. We were all thrown backwards, and our dining carriage no longer existed. But our God performed a miracle and kept us all together, so that none of us suffered. Eternal Glory to His Mercy for protecting all my loved ones, but what sorrow!”

In 1891, the year that Alexander and Maria celebrated their silver wedding anniversary, the family experienced two more misfortunes. At the start of the year, Grand Duke Georgy Alexandrovich, who was accompanying his elder brother Nicholas on a tour of the east, fell dangerously ill. He was later found to have tuberculosis. When the Tsarevich continued the journey without Georgy, he was almost killed during an assassination attempt in Japan on 29 April 1891.

Three years later, the storm clouds broke. In January 1894, Alexander III caught influenza, leading to complications in the lungs. After contracting pneumonia, his health gradually worsened. Maria Fyodorovna wrote to her father, King Christian IX of Denmark, on 4/16 September 1894: “Sasha and I regret so much that we cannot come and see you this year. I so hoped that we might, as poor Sasha has not been well all summer. I think that he did not want to visit you and become a potential patient – and neither could he enjoy himself at yours the way he did in previous years! ... I hope to God that he gets better. It torments me to see poor, dear Sasha so changed, always tired and unhappy, and me not able to do anything to help him... We think of you all the time and envy the happiness of my dear brothers and sisters, who are with you in our beloved old Bernstorff, dear to all of us as the home of our childhood.”

Despite all the efforts to save him, Alexander III died at Livadia on 20 October 1894. Throughout the final, agonising week, Maria Fyodorovna nursed her dying husband, never leaving his bedside. She wrote to her mother: “Thank God, in the final days he let me do everything for him, as he could no longer do anything himself, and did not want to let the chamberlain help him. Every evening, he thanked me so touchingly for my help.”

All prayers, church services and efforts were in vain. “My life is broken forever, for how can I imagine living without he who was everything to me!” For the next ten years of her life, Maria Fyodorovna always wore black (the only exception being her son’s coronation). Despite her love of balls, she did not hold a single one again until 1914.

On 27 October 1894, Maria Fyodorovna left Livadia by foot, following her husband’s coffin. She did not return to the Crimea for another quarter of a century – and even then under forced circumstances. In a letter to her brother Valdemar from Ai-Todor on 4 May 1917, the dowager empress writes: “I have still not been to Livadia, which will be very difficult for me to see again, after an absence of twenty-two years! I never planned to come here again, to the Crimea, which I so loved before, when we lived happily here with my dear, beloved Sasha. But after the indescribable pain that I experienced, losing him here, and all those heartrending memories, I could not imagine it possible to live here again.”

Life was no easier for the dowager empress in St Petersburg. After twenty-eight years of family life, Maria Fyodorovna had to grow accustomed to living on her own. The only thing that saved her from loneliness was her bubbling personality. She had always been busy, throwing herself into charity work and social activities: “She exploited her secretaries unmercifully, but did not spare herself either.”

Many people remembered the empress’s kind heart: “Like her children, Maria Fyodorovna was probably without equals anywhere else, in terms of demands on her heart and her keen ability to help. She was always particularly angered when she was dissuaded from doing so, and then attempted ... to provide assistance completely independently, in secret. As I was told, not without some regret, by the manager of Her Majesty’s financial affairs, her secretary Count Golenishchev-Kutuzov, the empress’s kindness very often meant that she was forced to forego a new dress or other expenditure deemed necessary for someone of her status.”

It has to be said, however, that Maria Fyodorovna was never short of funds. Alexander Mossolov, the head of the Court Chancellery, recalled that, although the dowager empress was paid an annual allowance of 100,000 roubles, “Nicholas II told his mother that ... he himself would meet all the expenditure on her keep and the upkeep of her court.”

After Maria Fyodorovna was widowed, she attempted to stick to her established daily routine. As before, she received visitors in the morning: “27 February/12 March. Thursday. Received many heads and trustees ... 28 February/13 March. Friday. Received many courtiers ... 4/17 March. Tuesday. Received Kulomzina, then there were thirty-two ladies with their daughters. Glad I got through it ... 13 /26 March. Thursday. The whole first half of the day again received visitors, which made me very tired.”

In an effort to entertain her granddaughters, Maria Fyodorovna “sometimes held dances for young people at the Anichkov Palace and one children’s morning with games on the Easter days.”

Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna remembered: “Every morning, with the exception of Lent, independent of where the dowager empress was living at that time – at Gatchina Palace or Anichkov Palace – she was brought a large, extravagantly decorated sheet, with a list of all the amusements and receptions taking place that day in the capital. Sometimes, acting on some whim, my mother would decide to see a certain play or to go to some dinner party.” [46] She was usually accompanied by her younger daughter.

As aide-de-camp to Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich, Alexander Mordvinov closely observed the everyday life of Maria Fyodorovna and her youngest children. He claimed that “the life of the dowager empress in Gatchina was very humdrum, monotonous even. The empress, Mikhail Alexandrovich and his sisters rose very early, no later than eight o’clock. Luncheon was at one and dinner was at eight, to which all the members of the suite, who were at the palace, were invited. These invitations were delivered daily to each one by the footboy, who appeared in the morning in his picturesque headwear of black, yellow and white ostrich feathers. The empress and her family generally took afternoon tea separate from everyone else.

“The intervals between the main events of the day were filled with receptions of representatives, reports by the chiefs of various establishments headed by the empress and the grand duke, small promenades in the palace parks and excursions for various reasons to St Petersburg or Tsarskoe Selo.

“On red-letter days and Sundays, when there were more guests, they lunched either upstairs in the White Room, next to the Small Throne Room of Emperor Paul, or downstairs, in the extensive premises of the Arsenal. The Arsenal was hung with hunting trophies and Zichy’s marvellous watercolours, vividly conveying various episodes from the hunting life of Alexander II. There was also an enormous mechanical organ, as well as a wooden climbing frame and bars, which was once used for the games of the royal children.

“On all other days, the empress lunched and dined in the Bathroom of Empress Maria Fyodorovna, wife of Emperor Paul. The old marble bath was not itself visible. It was filled to the top with flowers and concealed by green bushes. Cooked by Maximov – the best of all the court chefs, famous for his mastery and, most importantly, his inventiveness – dinners always lasted quite long and were always tasty and delicate.

“After dinner, they went into another room, where the empress either played cards or conversed with those present. At around midnight, everyone went to bed...

“For some of the winter months, the empress moved to the Anichkov Palace in St Petersburg, where there were more opportunities for Her Majesty to receive the many people she wanted to see. The empress loved company...

“At the Anichkov Palace, they lunched in the dining room and, from there, usually went to the late emperor’s modest study, where the windows looked onto Nevsky.

“Every autumn, the empress went to Denmark which, like the sea, she loved deeply. For summer, she moved to her cottage in Alexandria, near Peterhof, built by Tsar Nicholas I. The start of summer and spring, however, she usually spent at Gatchina. At that time of year, the Gatchina parks and environs were truly charming.

“It was a rare day when the empress and her milieu did not go on an outing somewhere, for a distant picnic, until the very evening... Getting out of the automobile somewhere in the woods not far from Gatchina, everyone set off in groups on some far, lively walk. The empress also walked a lot, picked flowers, berries and mushrooms... After the walk, everyone gathered again at the appointed hour and travelled back to the nearest ‘teahouse,’ where luncheon, tea and dinner was waiting for us. Collapsible tables were sometimes simply arranged somewhere in a picturesque meadow in the forest. Alongside, fires were lit or a portable kitchen stove was set up.

“The empress and the grand duchesses particularly loved to cook some ingenious dish themselves, frying the mushrooms they had collected in some special way. They always returned home very late, in the darkness, happy and contented. They sometimes travelled as far as Zarechye, where there was a lot of trout, as the empress, like her sister, Queen Alexandra of England, adored angling.”

After the death of her husband in 1894, Maria Fyodorovna received the title of dowager empress and was allowed to retain all her former privileges and positions, including the right to take precedence at official ceremonies. This inevitably caused a conflict with the new empress, Alexandra Fyodorovna, who was known in the family as “Alicky.” At court ceremonies, Maria Fyodorovna would enter on the arm of the emperor, while Alexandra Fyodorovna followed in second place, accompanied by a grand duke. Anna Vyrubova recalled in her memoirs: “The Dowager Empress after the death of Alexander III relinquished with rather bad grace her position of reigning Empress. In fact, she never did relinquish it altogether, always taking precedence on public occasions over Alexandra Fyodorovna.” This annoyed the younger woman and, “after a series of misunderstandings, their relationship, unfortunately, was only of face value... there were no kindred feelings between them.”

Before the coronation in May 1896, Maria Fyodorovna presented her daughter-in-law with several dresses to wear in Moscow. Alexandra Fyodorovna showed her independence by not wearing any one of them. The dowager empress expressed her indignation in a letter to her sister, Princess Alexandra of Wales, on 28 May/9 June 1896: “Alicky bore all the celebrations unusually well. But imagine, she did not put on a single one of my wonderful, beautiful dresses. I regret that I was so stupid, throwing away good money that I can ill afford. I find it incomprehensible that she could do this at all, especially if you bear in mind that I spoke to Nicky about it first. It is such a demonstration of cheek, rudeness, heartlessness and unceremonious behaviour, the like of which I cannot recall. I would never have dared to act like that with my mother-in-law. Oh well, all this is now in the past and nothing can be done. Perhaps she did not do mean to do anything wrong, perhaps this is simply the absence of a keen sense of tact – something you cannot acquire later, if you have not been born with it.”

Shortly after the coronation, on 2 July 1896, Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich wrote in his diary that “muted antagonism has broken out between Empress Maria and her daughter-in-law.” Some time later, this “muted antagonism” grew into open hostility between the supporters of both women. Anna Vyrubova blamed the members of the two rival courts for causing animosity, remembering that, at the dowager empress’s court, “everything done by the Empress Mother was right, and everything done by the shy and retiring Empress was wrong.”

In St Petersburg, society was also unwilling to accept the new empress. There was too great a contrast between the vivacious and sociable Maria, who adored dancing and parties, and the shy, provincial Alexandra, who lived only for her family and religious devotions. The aristocracy wanted balls and festivities, while the new emperor and empress were happy to retire within its own narrow circle.

As their new apartments were still being decorated at the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo, Nicholas and Alexandra initially lived with Maria Fyodorovna at the Anichkov Palace in St Petersburg. This close proximity allowed the dowager empress to influence and advise her son. She was very flattered whenever he sought her assistance in various affairs of state: “Nicky and Alicky spend their afternoons and evenings with me, which touches me to the bottom of my heart. Of course, they would probably much rather be alone together downstairs, but they have never once let me think that – quite the opposite. She is now quite close to me, very gay and no longer shy with me, although it is very difficult to fathom her nature. Nicky is dear and kind. As always, he speaks with me and asks about everything, which brings me such delight. To think, if things were any different, I would find it twice as hard and painful right now.”

Maria Fyodorovna never did manage to fully understand her daughter-in-law. Although both women were outwardly civil to one another, their characters were too different. After several months at the Anichkov Palace, the young couple moved to Tsarskoe Selo. Over time, Alexandra’s influence on Nicholas increased, while the power of his mother weakened.

Following the advice of Konstantin Pobedonostsev, Nicholas II attempted to continue his father’s course of preserving the autocratic system of government. Like Alexander III, he rejected all proposals for elected representatives to share in the running of the country. Although Maria Fyodorovna generally supported his policies, serious disagreements arose between mother and son at the turn of the century, when Nicholas and his ministers stepped up their campaign to russify the non-Russian inhabitants of the empire.

In 1899, Nicholas II issued the February Manifesto, stripping the Finnish Diet of its legislative powers. In 1901, the Finnish army was abolished, forcing natives of the Grand Duchy of Finland to serve in Russian regiments instead. These and other acts of russification provoked staunch resistance in Finland. In order to contain the popular discontentment, the governor-general, Nikolai Bobrikov, asked to be given extraordinary powers, including the right to banish unruly elements.

While all this was happening, Maria Fyodorovna was in Denmark. At the request of her brother, Crown Prince Frederick, who sympathised with the Finns, she wrote to Nicholas on 1 October 1902, condemning his policies, defending the Finns and pointing out the injustice of Bobrikov’s actions. Maria Fyodorovna’s letter to her son is written in unusually strong terms: “Once again, I have to warn you and advise you not to approve Bobrikov’s latest request. His plan means the establishment of military tribunals, i.e. the introduction of a state of emergency, which will give him the authority to arrest, accuse and imprison those for whom he has a dislike, and to exile them without trial or justice! I ask you to refrain from approving this plan. Think, only, what responsibility you are taking on and what sufferings you will be sending down on the heads of unfortunate and completely innocent people, if you accept this devilish plan – and for what? What exactly have these unhappy Finns done, for them to be persecuted in this way? In the name of God, think carefully about this and put a final end to the outrages created by Bobrikov. The only way is to remove, as far away as possible from this country, Bobrikov – whose name alone has become an object of hatred for the entire population.”

Nicholas II, who was in Livadia at the time, summoned Bobrikov and was convinced by his arguments. On 20 October 1902, he sat down to write his mother a deliberately endearing and courteous reply, in which he nevertheless clearly stated that Bobrikov’s request would be met. Maria Fyodorovna was unused to having her son reject her advice in this manner and complained in a letter to her sister a week later: “This is all incomprehensible and more than deplorable. It would have been better to have kept quiet, for, as you see, words did not help; imagine, I am writing about this now and my heart is ready to burst out of my chest – so close do I take this unhappy story to heart. I do not even mention that I was humiliated in front of people who know that I was only doing all I could – but in vain. I am ashamed of this and exasperated – nevertheless I do not regret writing the letter, my conscience is clear – I spoke the truth, I did all that was in my power. If I was not listened to, I am not to blame. And yet there will not, and never will be, a blessing on unjust actions. One thing alone worries me – the future of my N[icky].”

Maria Fyodorovna attempted to guide her son in a more liberal direction – in contrast to the more conservative views of Alexandra Fyodorovna. In 1903, she managed to save Sergei Witte from losing his job at the ministry of finance. After the murder of Vyacheslav von Plehve in 1904, she pushed for Count Svyatopolk-Mirsky to be appointed the new minister of the interior. Pavel Milyukov, the leader of the Constitutional Democratic (Cadet) Party in the Duma, noted that, through Maria Fyodorovna, “some of the liberal tendencies of Fredensborg are seeping through into St Petersburg.”

During the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05), Maria Fyodorovna initiated the introduction of modern sanitary trains with mobile operating theatres. The clerks and workers of the Putilov Iron Works in St Petersburg collected money and built, at their own expense, six carriages for the Empress Maria Fyodorovna Sanitary Train. The carriages were presented to the dowager empress in June 1904.

The Empress Maria Fyodorovna Sanitary Train operated for over one and a half years – from 12 July 1904 to 3 February 1906. Over that period, it made thirty-four journeys, including two from the front all the way back to St Petersburg, covering a total of more than forty thousand miles. 12,157 sick and wounded servicemen were treated in the train (5% of patients were officers and 95% were common servicemen). The availability of first aid kept the mortality rate to an absolute minimum, with only thirty-six deaths in one and a half years. The average number of patients was 142 men a day. Over this period, 147 emergency operations were carried out.

Thanks to Maria Fyodorovna, the Russian Red Cross opened warehouses of foodstuffs, warm clothes and medicines in the towns closest to the theatre of war – Chita, Blagoveshchensk, Khabarovsk, Vladivostok and Port Arthur. Twelve field hospitals were founded, each with twenty-five or fifty beds. Several hundred Red Cross doctors and nurses were sent to work in them. The Red Cross commandeered the steamship Tsaritsa, which had a military hospital for 192 places on board. On its first voyage from the port of Odessa to Vladivostok and Port Arthur, the Tsaritsa delivered one and a half million pounds of warm clothes, medicine and equipment for three field hospitals.

At the initiative of Maria Fyodorovna, there was a nationwide campaign to raise funds for the Red Cross in 1904 and 1905. Many wealthy people responded, including the Emir of Bukhara, who gave 100,000 roubles, and Count Orlov-Davydov, who donated 25,000 roubles. The Moscow City Duma allocated 17,000 roubles, while the merchants of Nizhny Novgorod raised 20,000 roubles. The Chernihiv Zemstvo gave 5,000 roubles. The Khan of Khiva sent two thousand fur coats, sewn at his own expense, and 10,000 roubles as pensions for wounded soldiers, for which Maria Fyodorovna awarded him the Red Cross medal after the war.

Pyotr Stolypin needed several years to restore order inside the country. All this time, in the interests of their own security, the imperial family avoided living in St Petersburg and from travelling across Russia. Maria Fyodorovna was only able to return to the Anichkov Palace at the start of 1910, when she was deeply touched by the welcome she received from the townsfolk. As she wrote to her brother, Prince Valdemar, on 4/17 February 1910: “I am so glad to be back again in my dear Anichkov, where I spent five years. Everything is just as it was when I left. I am deeply touched that all the inhabitants are so well disposed and so glad to see me again in the city, when I thought that their hearts would be hardened and that they would not show their feelings. I am especially amazed at the cabdrivers, who greet me with the greatest benevolence and with smiles on their faces.”

Gradually, Maria Fyodorovna began to spend more and more time abroad. In early spring 1907, she visited Queen Alexandra in London, where she had not been since 1873, when she had visited Great Britain with her husband. After her spring trip, Maria Fyodorovna joined her sister in London almost every year. She would leave Russia in May and spend the summer in England. At the end of each summer, she and Alexandra travelled to Denmark. The two sisters lived in a small country house to the north of Copenhagen called Hvidøre, which they had acquired in 1906 as a place to stay whenever they were in Denmark.

Alexander Mordvinov recalled: “Hvidøre is a small stone villa on the seashore, an hour’s drive from Copenhagen. It was acquired a long time ago by our empress, along with her sister, the queen of England, who also paid long visits to her homeland, which both sisters loved deeply. The villa itself was no different from the other country houses and had nothing resembling a ‘palace’ about it. The usual honorary sentries did not stand at the driveway. The entrance was guarded only by plainclothes policemen. The inside was very cosy and beautiful, though modern in the English style. There was no room in it either for a retinue or for even the majority of servants. Neither was their any heating for the cold months. The two sisters had one joint lounge, in which each had an individual writing desk, which they had used back in their childhood.

“At Hvidøre, the empress and the queen led the lives of completely private individuals, which they always preferred, and could relax better than anywhere else. Only on Sundays or other holidays were all the foreign relatives visiting the Danish court invited, along with their suites, to dine with the king. The rest of the time, they were left to themselves and complete freedom... Everything ceremonial was confined to those modest family dinners on Sundays, at which there was often no music and to which, besides the royal visitors and their retinues, only two or three people were invited from the town – often completely non-aristocratic people, whom the king wanted to pay some special courtesy.”

On 6 May 1910, King Edward VII died and Maria Fyodorovna hurried to England herself to be with her sister. She lived with Alexandra at Buckingham Palace throughout the funeral and returned for the coronation of the new king, George V, on 22 June 1911.

Back in Russia, Maria Fyodorovna grew increasingly concerned for her son and grandchildren, who were effectively cut off from the rest of the country. She worried that the court had discarded all its representative duties, designed to strengthen the position of the dynasty by securing the loyalty of both the common people and the social elite. In a letter to her sister written on 27 February/11 March 1912, the dowager empress describes her fears for the future of Russia and for her son, living in Tsarskoe Selo under the sole influence of Alexandra Fyodorovna: “She should be more indulgent to her nearest and dearest, be more meek and mild, and not forget her obligations in this world, of which she has many, but which she no longer recalls at all. All this is incomprehensible, yet I am sorry for her, for she completely lacks mental composure, she is comme une âme en peine, which brings her true suffering. For she lives only for herself, sees only her closest friend, who flatters her and, on the other hand, convinces her that no one loves her. How awful and what a sin to inspire such thoughts in her! A[licky] thinks that her friend is the only one who loves her and wishes her well. What a shame, because that one is stupid and empty and only repeats the gossip and old wives’ tales that she herself happens to hear. What an unhappy life for my poor Nicky, whom I truly venerate – you would never know to look at him, he always has a happy and contended appearance, and he does not complain at all, like a true Christian. Ah, if only he had demonstrated more will from the very start, rather than indulging her every whim, everything would probably be quite different. But now he is under her thumb, and there is nothing to be done about it, for he believes her every word as if it were the Gospel.

“But I ask you not to pass this on to anyone, for I never speak about it, I just suddenly wanted to talk to you about it, because I am full of concern for the future, for what will happen to us if everything remains the way it is. She herself complains that no one likes her, yet she does nothing for this, as for eight years she did not want to live here, in the city, and did not hold a single reception, nothing at all. I have never seen anything like it, she only appears at parades, in order to show her son. Before, when she was ill, no one said anything, but now, thanks be, she is more or less well again, so she has the strength, but not the desire.”

Finally, Maria Fyodorovna decided to take matters into her own hands. On 14/27 February 1914, for the first time in twenty years, she held a ball at the Anichkov Palace. Maria described the event in a letter to her sister twelve days later: “My ball was, fortunately, a success, judging by the responses (I myself always think that my guests are dying of boredom). I was racked with doubts before taking this decision, as the last time I held a ball was twenty years ago, with my blessed Sasha! I really did not spare myself; still, it was nice to see how happy my guests were to congregate here again, after so many years. At first, I felt like I was lost in a forest, for I hardly knew any of the new generation, but then I went round and conversed with all the guests, at least I greeted every one of them. Nicky [and] Alicky, happily, also came with the two eldest, who were simply delighted and threw their hearts and souls into it. She watched the dancers and went home at eleven o’clock, she looked very tired, poor thing. Nicky, Olga and Tatyana stayed until the end, until almost four o’clock. Both girls are simply charming, I am proud of them. How beautifully they danced, what noble postures they have, how they enjoyed themselves. Everything was so lively and beautiful.”

In January 1914, Maria Fyodorovna held an interview with Vladimir Kokovtsov, the minister of finance: “You must understand my fears for the future. My daughter-in-law does not like me; she thinks that I am jealous of her power. She does not perceive that my one aspiration is to see my son happy. Yet I see that we are nearing some catastrophe.”

In May 1914, Maria Fyodorovna travelled to England for her annual visit to Queen Alexandra. She was still in London when Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia and the First World War broke out in July. As the hopes for peace faded, Maria Fyodorovna hurried back to St Petersburg. But when she reached Berlin, she was informed that war had just been declared between Germany and Russia. The German authorities forbade the empress from crossing the Russian border, but gave her permission to travel to Denmark, from where she made her way back to Russia via Sweden and Finland.

On 5 August 1914, during her short stoppage in Denmark, she wrote to her sister about her experience in Berlin: “A crowd gathered at the railway station, sneering at the passengers on our train in the most shameless manner. Some threatened us with their vile fists and one – I saw him myself – made a movement with his foot, as if he wanted to give us a good kick. He shouted out loud: Ha, nun sind sie eingeschlossen [hah, now they are trapped], then continued to make the most obscene insults, of which only such cattle are capable. A gentleman then arrived, the emperor’s commissioner, and announced that I would have to change my route and travel either to Switzerland, Holland or Denmark. I gave him a formal reprimand, I was in such a rage that I had to control myself, so as not to vent all my anger on him.”

From the very first month of the war, Maria Fyodorovna threw herself into charity work. On 9 August 1914, she finally arrived back in Russia. Two days later, she visited first the St George Community of Nurses and then the St Eugenia Community of Nurses, who were preparing to leave for the front. Among their number was her own daughter, Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna. Despite her own fears for Olga, the dowager empress expresses her decisiveness in her diary: “How sad it all is! Nevertheless, I share her great desire to care for our dear, courageous soldiers.”

At the end of summer 1914, Maria Fyodorovna decided not to traditionally leave Petrograd for Gatchina, establishing herself instead at Yelagin Palace, which was closer to the town. The dowager empress opened a sewing workshop at the Anichkov Palace, producing bandages and other essential supplies for the war effort. She financed a sanitary train, and opened hospitals for wounded soldiers in Gatchina and Petrograd.

Maria Fyodorovna, who was already sixty-six at the start of the First World War, worked tirelessly, organising help for the wounded, opening hospitals and stockpiling clothes and medicines. In 1915 and 1916, she began to suffer from attacks of breathlessness and heart arrhythmia. She complains in her diary: “Feel dreadful … overcome by weakness … poor feelings.” But, despite all this, she refused to reduce her workload.

At the start of the war, the Russian army made advances against both the Germans and the Austrians. In the first half of 1915, however, success deserted Russia. When the situation was at its worst, Nicholas II decided to take personal command of the army, replacing the existing commander-in-chief, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich. Many observers pointed out the great risk involved in taking personal command of the Russian army, when the situation was indeed perilous, but Nicholas insisted. His decision was strongly supported by both his wife and Grigory Rasputin.

Maria Fyodorovna wrote in her diary: “Nicky came with his four daughters. He himself began by saying that he was taking personal command instead of Nikolasha. I was so horrified that I almost had a fit, and told him that this would be a great mistake. I begged him not to do it, especially now, when everything is going badly for us, adding that if he does this, everyone will say that it is on Rasputin’s orders. I think that made an impression on him, as he blushed deeply. He does not understand at all what danger and misfortune this might bring to us and the whole country.”

Maria Fyodorovna described her attempts to dissuade her son from embarking on this fatal step in a letter to her sister, Queen Alexandra of England, on 1 September 1915 : “I have just returned from Tsarskoe, where I went to talk with Nicky. Xenia and I left at four and arrived there at five o’clock. Unfortunately, he was in Kronstadt, where he was attending a review of ships, and only returned home at seven o’clock. We took tea with her and chatted for those two hours. Which was very good, because I have not seen her for such a long time, as she never visits me. She was extremely nice and spoke more than usual – albeit without touching upon heated questions. Nicky returned very pleased, along with the three eldest girls, who generally accompany him on such trips. Fortunately, I was able to talk to him alone, so that at least I eased my conscience a little, although I am afraid that it will not help, for he did not give his promise to change his decision. The matter is this – keep it to yourself – he wants to assume supreme command in place of Big N[ikolasha] and that is terrible! If things go really wrong, all responsibility will fall on him and what then? I begged him to at least wait, which he has essentially done, as he wanted to take the decision the day before yesterday. You understand how awful this is for me; all intelligent, devoted people have come to me, asking me to help refrain him from this step! Only God can help us, you must understand, the tension is completely unbearable. I am terrified and am sure that she insists on this incomprehensible decision: she hates Big N[ikolasha] and has always tried to do all she can to remove him from his post.”

Even when Maria Fyodorovna made a second attempt to dissuade Nicholas, he refused to change his mind. Five days later, she wrote again to her sister: “Nicky visited me yesterday to say goodbye – he is leaving for the front. The two of them came to breakfast (she for the first time since last year!), both were unusually amiable and in great spirit – completely unlike my own mood. I spoke to him a little, tête-à-tête, and, for the last time, begged him to wait a little longer and at least, for the first time, to leave Big N[ikolasha] in his post, as he enjoys great respect in the army, which highly rates him. But, unfortunately, more influential powers exist, whose advice he prefers to follow, so no heed has been taken of everything said by myself and many others, ministers, etc.”

In spring 1916, Maria Fyodorovna showed her displeasure at the continuing presence of Grigory Rasputin in Tsarskoe Selo by moving to Kiev, taking up residence in the imperial palace. Her youngest daughter, Olga, was already there, working as a nurse in the military hospital. The dowager empress only intended to spend a few weeks in Kiev, but found herself constantly putting off her return home. She was still there when she marked the fiftieth anniversary of her arrival in Russia. Maria Fyodorovna writes in her diary entry for 14/27 September 1916: “Arrived fifty years ago! Thanks to God for giving me this happiness and for helping me to come through arduous experiences.”

As 1916 drew to a close, it was clear to the majority of Russians that the empire was heading towards disaster. Many members of the imperial family attempted to speak to Nicholas II, urging him to change course, in order to save the monarchy. Maria Fyodorovna also foresaw the coming catastrophe, but was unable to bring herself to upbraid her son. She wrote to her sister Alexandra from Kiev on 23 November 1916: “There is not the best of moods now, with criticism of one and all, and talk of such things about which no one ever even dared whisper before. And the blame for all that is happening and being undertaken is laid squarely on her, for she, unfortunately, interferences in everything. Believing that she is helping him and not realising that, in doing so, she only causes him harm and is mindlessly leading him and all of us to misfortune and, perhaps, to destruction. She has probably persuaded him (like her cousin) [Kaiser Wilhelm II], that she is guided by the Holy Spirit, who has chosen her to save the country. It is almost impossible to believe that it is true, but she is so hated – the smallest trifle that I happen to hear is enough to fill one with horror. I do not understand where she has suddenly got such toupet [nerve] from, her self-assuredness and confidence that she understands everything better than anyone else are simply staggering. For she knows nothing about people, it is enough to look at the composition of our council of ministers, of which the blame for appointing is laid firmly on her. Lord, how glad I am that I am far away from all this.

“Yesterday, I was visited by Nikolasha, who is returning to the Caucasus after spending two days with my Nicky. I had not seen him since the start of the war and find him greatly changed – a grey-haired old man with a face lined with wrinkles. He has clearly undergone mental sufferings. I never particularly liked him, but he is loyal and indescribably devoted to Nicky, which he proved once again by telling him the whole truth and opening his eyes to the serious danger that awaits us, if everything remains the way it is. He told me the entire contents of their long conversation, lasting one-and-a-half hours, which was not pleasant at all for my ears.

“I think with tremendous sympathy about my poor Nicky – what a horrible impression this conversation made on him, how his poor soul is tormented and torn. Ah, if only it would help, bear fruit, but he has absolutely no good advisers or friends, with whom he might speak, plus he has such faith in her, he believes her like the Gospel! I am often reproached for not telling Nicky everything, but I feel sorry for him and cannot, seeing him so rarely, immediately go and say what will cause him torment, for that is a sin. He himself understands this and thinks the exact same as we do, yet carries out her idiotic decisions, which is more than sad. Plus there is nothing to be gained from my suggestions, I have already tried on several occasions, all to no avail.”

In a desperate attempt to avoid the approaching catastrophe, two young members of the imperial family participated in the murder of Rasputin in December 1916. This crime, however, failed to change anything. On the contrary, it only served to undermine the dynasty in the eyes of the Russian people. Finally, in February 1917, the whole system collapsed.

Maria Fyodorovna was still in Kiev when the revolution broke out in Petrograd. When she learnt of the abdication of Nicholas II, she immediately took a train to army headquarters, in order to comfort her humiliated son. She spent four days alone with him at Mohilev, from 4 to 8 March 1917. When Nicholas was arrested and sent to Tsarskoe Selo under military convoy, his mother returned to Kiev. On 23 March/5 April 1917, she moved to the Crimea. The dowager empress initially stayed at the estate of Ai-Todor, along with her two daughters and their families. Several other Romanovs also took refuge in the Crimea. Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, together with his wife and the children from her first marriage, settled at the Chair Villa. His brother, Grand Duke Pyotr Nikolaevich, moved with his family to Duilber.

On 4 May 1917, Maria Fyodorovna wrote to Prince Valdemar of Denmark from Ai-Todor: “Everything is so terrible that it is impossible to describe and I am simply amazed that I am still alive... I long felt that this was brewing, and last year I wrote several times about this, but no one, nowhere, could foresee such an awful catastrophe! This shows how aggravated people’s minds must have grown in the last few years. For too long, we played with fire, appearing against sane people in everything, and not desiring to open our eyes and ears, to see everything and understand, thereby helping the uprising ourselves... It is a happiness and great comfort to me that we can live here, together, as a family, far from everything. Olga lives in the same house as I, together with her husband, who no longer feels a stranger in our circle. He is very nice, and the most important thing is that she is so happy with him, thank God. All my grandchildren are merry and contented, and help to bring animation and inspiration into our sorrowful lives... Who could have thought, when we parted at Frihavnen almost three years ago, that the war would last so long, and that the country would behave so shamefully? I never thought that we could be thrown out like scum or that we would live like exiles. But what will become of my poor, unfortunate Nicky, still locked up with his family in his own home?”

On 10 March 1918, a few months after the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd, all Romanovs were transferred to the estate of Duilber, where they were closely guarded by sailors from the Sebastopole Soviet. This stricter regime was introduced not only to prevent anyone from escaping, but also to protect the prisoners themselves from the representatives of the more radical Yalta Soviet. Several times, armed bands approached Duilber, demanding the Romanovs, but together they managed to repulse these attacks.

Maria Fyodorovna’s lady-in-waiting, Countess Zinaida von Mengden, described this period in her memoirs: “All this time, at night, the empress’s horses stood harnessed to a carriage; her outer clothing was also laid out. If a Red gang managed to break into Duilber, it was planned to remove the empress through the side gates and take her to the nearest estate, where she could hide in the cellar. She herself knew nothing of this plan – and it is another matter whether she would have wanted to make use of it or not.”

In May 1918, the Crimea was invaded by German troops, temporarily saving the Romanovs at Duilber from the threat of capture by the Bolsheviks. The Kaiser invited Maria Fyodorovna to leave Russia with the assistance of his army, but she turned down the offer, moving instead to the estate of Charax.

On 12 October 1918, Maria Fyodorovna wrote to her sister from Charax: “Here I have my own Menage [household] and cook, who prepares very well. Our supplies may be meagre, but we no longer go hungry, as we did in Duilber, where we were fed little and poorly. Particularly disgusting was the pea soup – green water with inedible, hard, green peas the size of ball bearings and horrible grey noodles, which I could not stir. Happy days were when we were given potatoes – at least one could eat one’s fill, though they soon disappeared from the menu. There was not much milk either; every day I bought two tiny bottles, one of which I used myself – I drank a little and left most of it for my coffee. The other bottle I used to make curdled milk for my dear Shervashidze, who enjoyed it every evening with me.”

After the Germans surrendered to the Allies in November 1918, they began to withdraw their forces from the south of Russia, where they were replaced by French and British troops. Queen Alexandra begged her sister to leave Russia on board one of the British warships, but still Maria Fyodorovna refused. She wrote to her from Charax on 24 December 1918: “You cannot even imagine how much I would like to be alongside you, my angel, yet will probably understand how sorry I would be to leave the country, especially now, when the situation really has improved in the Crimea, following the arrival of the Allies and our revived army. Last year, we faced true revolutionary uncertainty and violence. Then, there really was a danger, but everything has changed, and the Crimea is now the safest place, as everyone who comes here says. It cost me a great deal of effort not to answer right away, agreeing to your kind invitation and desire to see me next to you, but you must understand my feelings. For a whole year, we withstood insults and humiliations. How can I leave the country now, when things are calm? Who knows, I may never return here. No one knows the power of my misgivings, but I think I will be doing the right thing if I remain here and hold on until the very end.”

In April 1919, the Red Army forced the foreign interventionists out of southern Russia. Only when the Reds were approaching Yalta did Maria Fyodorovna finally decide to leave Russia on board the British cruiser HMS Marlborough. She only agreed to board the ship when all the other Russians who had taken refuge in the Crimea were also given passage. On 11 April, HMS Marlborough left Yalta, accompanied by a flotilla of other warships filled with Russian refugees.

A photograph taken on board HMS Marlborough on 11 April 1919 shows Maria Fyodorovna leaving Russia. A tiny, lonely figure in a black travelling dress, she stands next to the main battery of guns. Her face is unusually reticent and her hands are folded behind her back. The empress stares intently at the Crimean shoreline disappearing beyond the horizon, where she has left her children, her grandchildren, her whole life...

After a brief stoppage in Malta, Maria Fyodorovna arrived in London, where she spent several months as the guest of her sister. On 19 August 1919, she moved back to Denmark and settled at Hvidøre. During the winters, especially in the first years, Maria resided at the royal residence of Amalienborg Palace in Copenhagen. She was joined in exile by several members of the Russian court – Admiral Vyazemsky, Countess von Mengden and General Sergei Dolgoruky – and two Cossacks called Polyakov and Yaschik.

Living at the royal palace in Copenhagen, the dowager empress was perhaps inevitably drawn into matters surrounding Denmark’s international relations and domestic politics. She was outraged when she heard that the Soviet diplomatic representative, Maxim Litvinov, had received permission to enter Denmark and conduct official negotiations. Maria Fyodorovna accused the Danish left-wing government of collaborating with the Bolsheviks. In a letter to her sister from Amalienborg on 2 February 1920, she complains: “Just imagine, that scoundrel Litvinov-Finkelstein is still here! And since no one is taking any measures to expel him, I asked the head of police to call on me, to ask him why he [Litvinov] is allowed to remain here for so long. He replied that, unfortunately, he cannot do anything, because the prime-minister, that beast Z[ahle], has forbidden the police from following his movements and, moreover, has ordered the head of police to stop their surveillance of Litvinov. I have never encountered anything like it – this villain can now sow discord and unhappiness, and poison the atmosphere here in Denmark, with his propaganda, as he sees fit – and why not, he is the protégé of the prime-minister. Delightful!

“I immediately told all this to Christian, who was slightly surprised at my words, as he had not heard anything about it from his ministers. And, judging by it all, he does not see or does not understand the threat that lies in the presence of such a dangerous person here. It is sad to see people blind to the point of losing their own intelligence. Quand on est bête on l’est pour longtemps [when someone is stupid, it is for a long time]! I asked the head of police to tell the prime-minister, on my behalf, that the presence of this individual not only represents a threat to Denmark, but is also a personal insult to me; after all, I am here. Naturally, no one is the least bit concerned about this, but I simply wanted them to know what I think. The only one to blame for all this is your L[loyd]-G[eorge]. Cannot your dear Georgie order him to end this conference or move it to another country?!”

Later that year, Maria Fyodorovna embroiled in a constitutional drama known as the Easter Crisis of 1920. Although Denmark had been neutral in the First World War, the defeat of Germany meant a chance to restore the lost duchy of Schleswig. The victorious Allies decided that the people of Schleswig should decide their own future by holding a referendum on the question and the former empress became closely involved in the matter.

Accusing the government of not trying hard enough to return as much of the lost territories as possible, Maria Fyodorovna urged her nephew, King Christian ?, to sack the government and appoint a new cabinet. But when the king took the advice of his aunt – and many other conservatives – the result was a political crisis. The Danish parliament refused to accept the new government appointed by the king. There were mass demonstrations; the socialists and liberals called for the abolition of the monarchy and threatened to hold a national strike. This forced the king to back down and form a new cabinet acceptable to parliament, followed by new elections.

Throughout the Easter Crisis, Maria Fyodorovna encouraged her nephew to behave more like an autocrat. She absolved herself of all blame for bringing Denmark to the verge of revolution, believing that any popular discontent was the direct result of Bolshevik agitation and the presence of Maxim Litvinov. After the crisis had passed, she wrote to her sister on 6 April 1920: “All accusations directed at me, that I allegedly interfered in this matter, are simply unheard of insolence and can only evoke laughter, and I, damn it, pay no attention. If they had just listened to my only request, to run that scoundrel Litvinov out of the country, much of what happened would not have occurred. I know he is probably behind all this.”

Maria Fyodorovna found herself without any assets in Denmark. Previously used to spending large sums of money on friends and charitable causes, she quarrelled with King Christian X over the vast heating bills she ran up while living at the palace.

Back in Russia, the empress had once done all she could to promote the interests of Danish business. In 1904, she had helped the son of Axel von Blixen-Finecke to open a studfarm in Siberia. Another example was the East Asia Company, founded by Hans Niels Andersen in 1897, which eventually became the largest trading concern in Denmark and could always count on Dagmar’s support in Russia.

Hans Niels Andersen now returned the favour by paying Maria Fyodorovna a sum of money – enough to live on and to keep a small court. Although she was officially loaned the money, it was never intended that she should pay it back. The dowager empress was supported in a similar fashion by the Great Northern Telegraph Company. From 1923 onwards, she also received financial assistance from her sister, Queen Alexandra, and two of Alexandra’s children – King George V and Princess Victoria.

Far worse for Maria Fyodorovna was not knowing what had become of her two sons – Mikhail and Nicholas – and Nicholas’s family. She continued to maintain that they were still alive, explaining the absence of any news by the dangers involved in their making contact with the outside world. On 18 May 1924, she wrote to her sister: “Tomorrow is my beloved Nicky’s birthday, and how awful and sad that I no longer receive news from him, and do not even have any idea where he is! But I know that, wherever he might be, the Lord assists him. But how hard it is, how painful for me – you no doubt understand me! There are things which cannot be broached or spoken, and so I hide them all away in the very depths of my soul.”

When Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich declared himself “Tsar of all the Russias” in August 1924, Maria Fyodorovna was furious at his insolence. She sent him a telegram, making it quite clear that she did not recognise his right to the title: “I am convinced that my two beloved sons are alive and so cannot consider your act a fait accompli.”

Did Maria Fyodorovna really believe, in her heart of hearts, that her sons were still alive? We will never know, but her refusal to accept that they were dead helped her to remain outside the bitter arguments dividing the Russian émigré community over who should be considered the rightful pretender to the Russian throne.

As time went on, the empress’s circle of friends and interests began to narrow. When she returned from her last visit to England in 1923, “she looked old and tired … she lost her appetite and strength.” She visited the St Alexander Nevsky Church in Copenhagen for the last time in 1925. Soon afterwards, her health deteriorated. In the final years of her life, a priest travelled to Hvidøre to celebrate Orthodox mass in her own home.

Maria Fyodorovna died at Hvidøre on 13 October 1928. She had survived her husband by more than three decades and outlived all her sons. The empress was survived by her two daughters, Xenia and Olga, and many grandchildren.

Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna wrote to Alexander Mordvinov after the funeral: “God has, in His mercy, finally taken and laid her soul to rest, and I believe that she is now with those who were dear to her. Towards the end, she was tormented, and we all suffered with her. The last three days, she was almost unconscious, and did not speak or open her eyes. Xenia is still here. Many people came to the funeral, but now they have gone. Xenia and I have a lot of work – so many papers and letters... Everything now is still so unclear... Hvidøre has to be shut down in a month and sold.”

Maria Fyodorovna was laid to rest in Roskilde Cathedral, the main burial place of the Danish monarchs. She was later reburied next to her husband in the St Peter and St Paul Cathedral in St Petersburg in 2006.

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