Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna

Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna, born Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, wife of Tsar Nicholas II, mother of Tsarevich Alexis, Russian costume ball at the Winter Palace in February 1903
Born: 1872, Darmstadt
Died: 1918, Ekaterinburg

Princess Victoria Alix Helena Louise Beatrice of Hesse was born at the New Palace in Darmstadt on 6 June 1872. She was the sixth child and fourth daughter of Grand Duke Louis IV of Hesse and Princess Alice of the United Kingdom.

Princess Alix of Hesse was educated in England by her grandmother, Queen Victoria, and studied philosophy at Heidelberg University. She came to Russia in 1894, when she converted to Orthodoxy as Alexandra Fyodorovna and married Tsar Nicholas II.

Alexander III had initially opposed the marriage, as Hesse had previously brought bad luck to Russia. Hessian princesses had been the wives of Paul I and Alexander II, who had both been murdered. The female line of Hesse carried an hereditary disease – haemophilia. But Nicholas insisted on marrying the woman he loved.

“Nicky” and “Alicky” enjoyed a warm and passionate marriage. They adored one another, and there was no happier or more loving couple in the whole history of the Romanov family. They lived a life of quiet seclusion at Tsarskoe Selo. The tsar enjoyed spending time with his family, sawing and chopping wood, clearing away snow or going on long walks on foot. The only thing he disliked was governing – unlike his wife, who meddled in affairs of state, with disastrous consequences.

Unfortunately for them and the rest of the country, fate placed Nicholas and his wife on the Russian throne, right at the centre of everyone’s attention. Proud and reserved, Alexandra Fyodorovna was simply not cut out for the role of “mother of the Russian people.” Shy and unsociable, she did not enjoy company or life at the imperial court. During her husband’s reign, there was none of the magnificent balls or parties of previous years.

Alexandra Fyodorovna was only too aware of her own shortcomings, particularly in comparison with her popular mother-in-law, Dowager Empress Maria Fyodorovna. She once said: “It is not my fault that I am shy. I feel much more at home in church, where no one sees me. There, I am with God and the people... Empress Maria Fyodorovna is adored, because she knows how to command this love, and feels free within the bounds of court etiquette. But I am not like this. I find it difficult to be among people when my heart is heavy.”

Alexandra Fyodorovna’s character prevented her from winning the love and affection of her subjects. Shy and constrained, the empress seemed cold and indifferent. Never at ease in public, she was unable and unwilling to engage in idle chit-chat with strangers. As she increasingly cut herself off from the rest of the world, disgruntled courtiers muttered: “If she had her way, life would be one endless tea party at Tsarskoe Selo.”

Alexandra Fyodorovna’s life of bliss with Nicky turned into a tragedy, in which the main role was played by fate. The dynasty needed a male heir and the empress gave birth to four daughters in a row – Olga in 1895, Tatyana in 1897, Maria in 1899 and Anastasia in 1901. After the birth of Anastasia, Nicholas wrote in his diary: “What a disappointment! A fourth girl!”

In her desire to give birth to a son, the empress began to dabble in religious mysticism, which mader her an easy victim for charlatans. The first was Mitka the Fool and his companion Elpidirfor, who “interpreted” his mumblings. Mitka was followed by a demon-possessed woman called Daria Osipovna. Besides home-grown mystics, the empress also attracted a number of foreign occultists, including Papus from Paris, Schenk from Vienna and Philippe from Lyon.

Alexandra was so obsessed by the need to give birth to a boy that she allowed herself to be convinced that she was pregnant in 1903. She experienced all the symptoms of pregnancy and everyone awaited the birth of a son. When the time came, however, it proved to be the fruit of her imagination.

In 1904, Alexandra Fyodorovna finally gave birth to a son, whom his parents called Alexis. But their joy was short-lived when the boy was found to be suffering from haemophilia, which he had inherited from his mother. This was the start of a desperate, never-ending battle for the health of the sick child – a battle carefully concealed from the rest of the country.

Alexis’s haemophilia was the final blow to the psychological health of the empress. She grew even more withdrawn and superstitious, fanatically praying for a miracle that would cure her son. The stage was set for the appearance of Grigory Rasputin, whose proximity to the royal family ultimately destroyed the reputation of both the empress and the dynasty.

Alexandra Fyodorovna’s behaviour reflects the passionate desire of any mother to save her innocent child from suffering – and the general spirit of Russian Orthodoxy at that time. At the turn of the century, there was a wave of interest in spiritualism and pseudo-oriental teachings, as people increasingly turned to mediums and “holy men” for signs and miracles.

Knowing only one side of Alexandra Fyodorovna, the rest of Russia formed a negative image of the empress, who was blamed for all the country’s misfortunes. Even her kind deeds and feelings were interpreted in a bad light. Georgy Shavelsky, a member of the Holy Synod during the First World War, recalled: “Her passionate faith was called hypocrisy and hysteria. When caring for war victims and following the inclinations of her Christian heart, she extended her maternal concerns to German and Austrian prisoners-of-war, immediately sparking wild rumours of pro-German sentiments and treason.”

In the history of the end of the Russian Empire, there is probably no more controversial figure than this beautiful woman with the cold, haughty face. Count Sergei Witte wrote in his memoirs: “When, after 17 October [1905], the emperor took decisions that I had advised him not to take, I several times asked His Majesty who had advised him. The emperor sometimes answered me: ‘A person whom I trust implicitly.’ When I once dared to ask who this person was, His Majesty replied: ‘My wife.’ ... Of course, the empress Alexandra Fyodorovna, the poor emperor and all of us, who should be his loyal servants to the grave, but most importantly, Russia, would have been much happier if she had, in her time, become some German princess or countess.”

During the First World War, Nicholas II spent much of his time at the front, leaving his wife to rule from Petrograd. But Alexandra Fyodorovna badly misjudged the country and merely repeated the thoughts of the real power behind the throne, Grigory Rasputin: “You are the master and sovereign of Russia, the almighty God has put you there, and they should all bow down before your wisdom and firmness, enough of kindness... Be Peter the Great, Ivan the Terrible, Emperor Paul – crush them all under you.”

In late 1916, when the country was on the verge of complete collapse, Alexandra Fyodorovna continued to assure her husband in her daily letters: “Just a little more patience and deepest faith in the prayers and help of our Friend [Rasputin] – then all will go well... Show to all that you are the master and your will shall be obeyed – the time of great indulgence and gentleness is over – now comes your reign of will and power, and they shall be made to bow down before you and listen to your orders and work the way you want them to and with whom you appoint. They must be taught obedience. The meaning of this word is alien to them: you have spoilt them with your kindness and forgiveness.”

The empress unwittingly compared herself to Nicholas: “Why do people hate me? Because they know I have a strong will and when am convinced of a thing being right (when besides blessed by Grigory), do not change my mind and that they cannot bear. But that is the bad ones. Remember Mr Philippe’s words when he gave me the image with the bell. As you were so kind, trusting and gentle, I was to be your bell, those that came with wrong intentions would not be able to approach me and I would warn you. Those who are afraid of me do not look me in the eyes, those who are up to some wrong never like me... The good people, those honestly and pure-heartedly devoted to me, love me – look at the simple people and the military, the good and the bad clergy... It is all getting calmer and better, only one wants to feel Your Hand – how long, years, people have told me the same – ‘Russia loves to feel the whip!’ – it is their nature – tender love and then the iron hand to punish and guide.”

Towards the end of her reign, Alexandra Fyodorovna increasingly cut herself off from the rest of society, whom she openly despised. She quarrelled with the other members of the imperial family over Rasputin. She even broke off relations with her own sister, Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fyodorovna, and others who were once close friends. In early 1916, using the excuse of her medical work for the wounded, Maria Fyodorovna moved out of the capital to Kiev.

From Kiev, Maria Fyodorovna closely followed events unfold, increasingly concerned at the growing influence of her daughter-in-law and Rasputin on political life. In a letter to her sister in England, she criticised the constant changing of ministers. Maria was particularly shocked at the appointment of Boris Stürmer to the post of minister of foreign affairs, in place of Sergei Sazonov. She writes on 24 September 1916: “Incidentally, they say that he [Stürmer] will also soon be going, true, there is nothing sure about it, for he is heavily backed by A[licky], who interferes in all affairs even more than ever. What ill luck! For she thinks that she is helping her husband and does not understand that she is preventing him from acting. He understands things and comes to the right decisions, even announcing them, then suddenly does everything the other way round, clearly on her instructions. It is more than sad. As I have already told you, she is completely unable to evaluate people, so her choice is always unsuccessful, and if things go on like this, one can only await, with fear and horror, the most horrible consequences. I feel so sorry for my beloved N[icky], who has all the qualities needed to commendably and wisely rule an empire. He just does not have enough strength of character, otherwise he would have rid himself of her influence, and now he is under her thumb, and it is incomprehensible that he himself does not sense this. Oh well, once again I have written what I should not have, but it is to you I am writing, which is like thinking out loud, plus I know that you will not tell anyone.”

Several members of the imperial family became convinced that the empress’s actions were putting the monarchy in perilous danger and that the only way to save the dynasty was to physically destroy Rasputin. On 16 December 1916, a group of conspirators led by Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich and Prince Felix Yussupov murdered the peasant in the Yussupov Palace.

When Rasputin was killed, Nicholas II was at the army headquarters in Mohilev. Alexandra Fyodorovna was in the capital on her own and ordered General Maximovich to place Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich under house arrest – even though, as Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich wrote in his diary, “he knew that he did not have the right to do so without the sovereign’s permission.” On 23 December 1916, Dmitry was sent to serve under General Baratov in Persia, while Felix was banished to the family estate of Rakitino in Kursk Province.

This illegal act was the final straw for the Romanov family, providing irrefutable evidence of who was really running the country. On 27 December 1916, Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich travelled to Kiev and described events in Petrograd to Maria Fyodorovna and her daughter Olga. The dowager empress wrote in her diary: “It is simply a madhouse, headed by this fury... His story made Olga and I shudder.” When she learnt that Grand Duke Nikolai Mikhailovich had also been banished from Petrograd, Maria Fyodorovna was convinced that this was also the empress’s doing. No longer restraining her feelings, she wrote: “She has evidently gone completely off her head with madness and desire for revenge.”

In Petrograd, the grand dukes consulted one another, seeking a way out of the seemingly hopeless situation. They considered it impossible to leave everything the way it was. The family sensed that, unless swift action was taken, it would all end in revolution and Nicholas’s abdication. The mood in the capital was extremely tense. Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich remembered: “Every day, I expected an uprising. Some ‘soothsayers’ assured that everything would be confined to a ‘palace coup,’ i.e. the tsar would be forced to abdicate in favour of his son Alexis.”

This atmosphere is vividly captured in a letter written by Grand Duke Nikolai Mikhailovich to Maria Fyodorovna on 23 December 1916: “I put before you the exact same dilemma. After we have removed the hypnotist, we must try to incapacitate the hypnotised. No matter how hard it is, she must be sent as far away as possible, either to a sanatorium or to a convent. We are talking about saving the throne – not the dynasty, which is still secure, but the current sovereign. Otherwise, it will be too late... The whole of Russia knows that the late Rasputin and A. F. are the one and the same. The first has been killed, now the other must also disappear…”

Whether or not the family could have saved the autocracy, one thing remains clear. At the decisive moment, Nicholas and Alexandra found themselves in complete isolation. None of their immediate circle offered any assistance or supported them in their hour of need.

After the overthrow of Nicholas II and the fall of the monarchy, the ex-empress, along with her husband and children, followed her own path to Golgotha – a path largely of her own making, which ended in the cellar of the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg in July 1918.

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