Emperor Nicholas II – From Tsar to Saint
First published 2019
Revised February 2022
The Romanov ruling dynasty lasted from 1613 when they first established their power to 1917 with the forced abdication of Tsar Nicholas II. Over three centuries eighteen Romanovs sat on the Russian throne, this is the story of the last Tsar of Russia.
This project coincided with exhibitions held in London to mark the centenary of the execution of the Tsar and his immediate family and aides. In particular the Russia and Crimea exhibitions at Buckingham Palace and ‘The Last Tsar – Blood And Revolution,’ exhibition at the Science Museum London – which were instrumental in this research and a moving experience for the author.
Tony Abbott © 2022
Nicholas II taking personal command of the Stavka, Russia’s High Command, in Moghilev, 1 September 1915. LTR: General Pustovoitenko, Nicholas II, General Alekseyev.
(public domain, edited)
In 1894, 26-year old Nicholas Alexandrovich Romanov ascended to the Russian throne. With his new German wife Alexandra, Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, they ruled over a sixth of the world’s land surface.
Finding comfort in the closeness of their family the Romanovs withdrew from court life and retreated to their countryside residence near St Petersburg, the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo. In so doing, distancing themselves from the people triggered a chain of events that would lead to their tragic end – this is their story.
Pt 1 – The Royal Marriage
Queen Victoria with her grandchildren February 1879 – top: Victoria, Elizabeth, bottom: Irene, Alix
© Royal Collection Trust
Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland had nine children with her consort Prince Albert. As the result of her efforts to marry them in to royal families across the European continent, she became known as the grandmother of Europe. Queen Louise of Denmark was also at this time connecting her children to Great Britain, Russia, Greece, Sweden and Norway and she was called the mother-in-law of Europe.
Queen Victoria was one of the first to learn of her granddaughter’s engagement, Alix (nicknamed Alicky) to the heir apparent of the Russian throne Nicholas (Nicky), Queen Victoria’s daughter Elizabeth gave her the news.
“Friday 20th April 1894. Ella came in, much agitated to say that Alicky and Nicky were engaged, begging they might come in. Saw them both. Alicky had tears in her eyes, but looked very bright & I kissed them both.“ — Queen Victoria
Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert was diagnosed with typhoid fever and consequently died on 14 December 1861 in the Blue Room at Windsor Castle in the presence of the Queen and five of their nine children. After Albert’s death, Queen Victoria’s relationship with her daughters became oppressive. This distance she put between herself and her children would be mirrored somewhat between Alix and her children in years to come.
Alix’s mother was Princess Alice, Queen Victoria’s second daughter and third child, who married in to a German royal family in 1862, to the Grand Duke Friedrich Ludwig of Hesse and by Rhine. Hesse was a grand duchy in western Germany that existed from 1806 to the end of the German Empire in November 1918.
Princess Alice of Great Britain 1861
(courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program)
On her parents tenth wedding anniversary Alix was born Princess of Hesse and by Rhine. Five years later in 1877 her father became King Ludwig IV. One year on and diphtheria struck the household and claimed the lives of her mother Alice and sister Marie.
Alix had previously lost her brother Friedrich when she was one year old. He fell 20 feet out of a window and died from internal bleeding. He was a haemophiliac, a condition that first occurred in Queen Victoria and passed to Alice and then to Friedrich. Haemophilia is passed by the female line and affected in the male. Now at just six years old in 1878 Alix had lost three members of her immediate family.
Alix was a beautiful and happy girl but her losses devastated her and she withdrew with a depression that would never leave her and would remain on her sad face. She had been very close with sister Marie and it was said they were inseparable; her death caused irreparable damage to Alix’s mental health.
A very young Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine
(public domain – colour TA)
Alice was the first of Queen Victoria’s children to die. Her children were brought to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight to live. They had a nurse who prepared monthly reports and the relationship between the children and their grandmother Queen Victoria was said to be a loving one, in contrast with the distance she had placed between her own children since her husband Albert had passed away.
Alix was the favourite grandchild and considered the future queen of England. She became renowned as one of the most beautiful princesses in her youth and was raised predictably in an austere English manner.
In 1884 when she was 12, Alix went to St Petersburg and there she met the 16 years old Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia for the first time, the heir apparent to the Russian throne.
Their first meeting in 1884 had been at the wedding of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich to Princess Elizabeth of Hesse and by Rhine in St Petersburg. Sergei was an uncle to Nicholas and Elizabeth was Alix’s sister. Alix and Nicholas met again when she returned to St Petersburg in 1889 to visit Elizabeth. During that blissful six weeks Alix and Nicholas realised that love had blossomed between them and a little later in 1890 she rejected a proposal from her first cousin, the Duke of Clarence and Avondale, as she was by then in love with Nicholas.
Again they met in April 1894 in Coburg, Germany, at the wedding of Alix’s brother Ernest to Princess Victoria Melita of Edinburgh, both the grandchildren of Queen Victoria – Princess Victoria being the daughter of Queen Victoria’s son Alfred was therefore a first cousin of Alix and Ernest. It was at Coburg that Alix and Nicholas were betrothed which unfortunately stole a little of the lime light from the newly weds.
Both families opposed a marriage between England and Russia. The Empress of the British Empire saw the liaison as a dangerous throne to occupy and remarked of Nicholas’ father Tsar Alexander III that he was a sovereign whom she did not look upon as a gentleman. The Empress of Russia Maria Feodorovna on the other hand viewed Alix as the offspring of a mediocre German family and being herself a Princess of Denmark was opposed to everything German.
Maria Feodorovna was a daughter of the King and Queen of Denmark, sister of the heir apparent Frederick of Denmark, sister of the King of Greece, sister of Queen Alexandra of England, wife of the Emperor of Russia Alexander III, and mother of the heir apparent Nicholas II. Before her husband died in 1894 she was the Empress Tsarina of Russia and after his death became known as the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, or just the Dowager Empress. ‘Dowager’ is a term used with high ranking royal widows and carries a slightly higher status than a consort (companion of a reigning monarch).
Her first name was Dagmar which she changed to Maria on her conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church immediately before marrying the Russian heir Alexander of Russia in 1866. Prior to making the move from Denmark to Russia her title was Princess Dagmar of Denmark.
The terms Prince/Princess and Grand Duke/Grand Duchess can be used interchangeably but the subtle difference is that a Grand Duke would be a nephew of a king whereas a Prince is the son of a king. The Romanov daughters for example are usually referred to in books as the Grand Duchesses, but of course they are primarily also Princesses.
Maria was highly intelligent, composed, charming and good looking with deep piercing eyes. It was said she was the best dressed woman in Europe and very stylish. She put family and charity at the heart of her life and the public loved her, many around her even idolised her.
- Frederick VIII King of Denmark 1906-1912
- George I King of Greece 1863-1913
- Alexandra of Denmark spouse of Edward VII
(effectively Queen of England 1901-1910)
- Princess Thyra of Denmark spouse of the exiled heir to the kingdom of Hanover Ernest Augustus. Deprived of the thrones of Hanover upon its annexation by Prussia.
Empress Maria Feodorovna of Russia
Schleswig and Holstein
Maria’s anti-German sentiment was due to Prussia’s annexation of Danish territories in 1864 known as the Second Schleswig War (aka Prusso-Danish War). Her hatred of Germans was shared by her sister Alexandra who after she married and became consort to Edward VII of Great Britain was shielded from foreign affairs for this reason. It would not be until 1914 that their warnings about Germany would be realised when England and Russia joined against Germany in war.
Strange then that both Danish sisters married German men; Maria to Alexander III who was half German on account of his mother and grandmother being German, and Alexandra to Edward VII of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha lineage. Indeed, the Danish and Russian houses were 50% German, as might be expected for dynastic gene diversification. For Great Britain, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were 100% German.
Her prejudice can be narrowed down to the Danish war with Prussia when Christian IX (her father,) was blamed and humiliated for the loss against the Prussian Empire. Her mother Louise witnessed the mass unnecessary slaughter of many Danish people. When the war started Maria was 17 and Alexandra 20 and it’s known their mother Louise was openly and passionately anti-German, and passed it to her daughters who undoubtedly witnessed the Prussian brutality for themselves.
The war was fought over two southern Danish provinces, Schleswig and Holstein, which had no official representation in the Danish parliament. Christian IX was addressing this in the constitution which he signed on 18 November 1863 but it applied to Schleswig only and in so doing he was accused by Prussia of contravening the London Protocol 1852.
Holstein was on the Prussian border and people there felt more Prussian than Danish. Schleswig on the Danish border was more important because it was also the seat for many of Denmark’s heraldic ancestors, that’s where the ruling houses came from.
The London Protocol of 1852 was a peace agreement whereby the German Confederation had returned Schleswig and Holstein to Denmark on condition that Schleswig was not tied in more closely to Denmark than Holstein. Prussia and Austria argued that by Christian IX having included Schleswig in the Danish constitution, and not Holstein also, that it was a violation of the protocol.
Christian IX acted without his government’s approval in offering an alliance with Prussia if Denmark could retain control of Schleswig. Prussian Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck rejected the proposal. Not only did Bismarck feel justified in taking action but relished this opportunity to start a war.
The manner in which Denmark was so convincingly beaten was a national disgrace. Both provinces had been lost, Danish borders were pushed back by 200km, Danish land reduced by 40%, and its population diminished by a third. Following the creation of the German Empire in 1871, Holstein remained German and a referendum was held on Schleswig resulting with the south wanting to remain in Germany and the north voting for Denmark, and this border has remained uncontested ever since.
Aside from initial opposition to their union, Alix was a devout Lutheran and could not occupy a position in Russia unless she was aligned with the Russian Orthodox Church. Nicholas tried to convince her that conversion was necessary, his mother the Empress had done so before she married. Also at the recent Coburg wedding they had attended, the bride Elizabeth had also converted. Finally Alix was persuaded by Queen Victoria that she could convert without denouncing Lutheranism.
Accepting Maria Feodorovna’s prejudice against Germany, it’s still hard to think of a reason why the pairing of Alix to Nicholas would have been other than perfect considering their impeccable lineage. He the son of an Emperor and she the granddaughter of an Empress. Both young, good looking and the most desirable prince and princess in Europe, and rather unnecessarily so, they happened to be in love with each other.
In addition, they were connected through family ties as Nicholas’ mother Maria Feodorovna was the sister of Alexandra who was married to the heir apparent of the British throne, Edward, who was Alix’s uncle. Evidently their credentials held no sway, but eventually Queen Victoria came around to the idea so the remaining obstacle to their marriage was from the Russian side.
Alexander III wanted to hold out for a better match. It’s true that he didn’t trust Nicholas to determine the future of a dynasty that had ruled since the first Mikhail Romanov in 1613, nor did he believe that Nicholas took the responsibilities of ruling seriously, for someone who was destined to be the richest ruler in the world. He perhaps saw in his other sons Alexander, George, and Mikhail, qualities more preferable for a ruler. Nonetheless prior to the Coburg wedding of 1892 Nicholas was expressing strong feelings for Alix in his diary.
“My dream is to one day marry Alix. I have loved her for a long time, and still deeper and stronger since 1889, when she spent six weeks in St. Petersburg. For a long time, I resisted my feeling that my dream will come true.” — Nicholas Alexandrovich
At the Coburg wedding of 19 April 1894, Nicholas had begged his father for permission to marry Alix and having succeeded at once proposed and the engagement was made official on 20 April, the day after the wedding they were attending. One can feel Nicholas’ excitement and eagerness and surmise how the couple must have been instructed to wait at least until after the wedding in Coburg had concluded before making their announcement.
Nicholas and Alix – Official engagement photo 20 November 1894
The next major event was in June 1894 in England when the betrothed couple visited their mutual cousin George the Duke of Cornwall and York (later to become King George V). The occasion was for the christening of his son Edward, Prince of Wales, the boy that would inherit the British throne briefly in 1936 as Edward VIII. Edward was a nephew to both Alix and Nicholas and they were also godparents.
The betrothed arrived at Walton-on-Thames then went on to Windsor as guests of Queen Victoria. They made brief visits to Sandringham, the Norfolk residence of the Prince of Wales and Marlborough House on the Mall, the London residence of the Prince and Princess of Wales. Nicholas had visited Marlborough House on the previous year for the wedding of the prince and princess of Wales but Alix had declined that invitation.
On that previous trip Nicholas had toured the sights, such as visiting Westminster Abbey, but this time around he was extremely surprised and delighted to be unchaperoned with Alix. Nicholas wrote on 11 July, when they departed on the Imperial Yacht Polar Star “A sad day – parting – after more than a month of blissful existence!“
1894 was gearing up to be one of the best years of their lives. They were planning their wedding for the Spring of 1895 but from here on their lives would change direction governed by world affairs and family matters that were thrust upon them. Alexander III’s health had deteriorated due to nephritis, a kidney disease and he was moved to the Livadia Palace in Crimea to convalesce. As his condition declined Alexi and Nicholas were summoned to Crimea.
Despite being in excruciating pain Alexander III insisted on receiving Alexi wearing his full regalia which he did on 21 October 1894. Alexi was just 22 years old, could speak hardly any Russian and poor French, but her youthful looks made a good impression. It was obvious to Alexi that the frail Emperor would not last long and within ten days he had passed away on 1 November aged 49. The funeral procession was on 13 November and the burial service on 19 November.
Maria Feodorovna with Alexander III Emperor of Russia, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Finland.
(public domain, colour TA)
As the heir apparent, eldest son Nicholas immediately became Emperor Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. It was confirmed to him that he was the Tsar about two hours after the death of his father. But he was utterly distraught as he had worshipped his father and perhaps was having trepidations about picking up the mantle. Fortunately his cousin Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich was with him to share the bereavement.
“I saw tears in his blue eyes. He took me by the arm and led me downstairs to his room. We embraced and cried together. He could not collect his thoughts. He knew that he was Emperor now, and the weight of this terrifying thought crushed him.“ — Alexander Mikhailovich
Much telling of the first ten minutes when Nicholas learned that his father had died suggests that he wasn’t prepared for tsardom and neither did he wish to be one. The source is entirely from Alexander Mikhailovich’s diary published in his memoirs Once a Grand Duke, in New York in 1932, thirty-eight years after the event. Whatever Nicholas may have said in those intimate minutes can be considered as emotional babble at best, and not accepted as verbatim, as often the purpose of memoirs is to illuminate the past with one’s own ‘best-selling’ account.
On the lawn at Livadia Palace that evening could be heard the Russian Black Sea fleet firing volleys of gun salutes from their naval base east of Sevastopol, marking the death of the Emperor – and on that lawn the Romanov family gathered to give their commitment and allegiance to the new Tsar Nicholas II.
The following morning the first thing Nicholas did was receive his fiancée in to the Russian Orthodox Church and by decree proclaimed her Grand Duchess Alexandra Feodorovna, Alexandra being the new name Alix had chosen even though she would continue to be known as Alix by her family.
Nicholas wanted to get married straight away but was advised that his father’s funeral should precede the wedding and that it should happen at the St Peter and Paul cathedral in St Petersburg where previous Romanov tsars lay to rest. Alexandra was a huge support to the new Tsar as her own father had died just two years earlier.
Following the burial service on 19 November 1894 Nicholas did not want to wait until mid 1895 for his planned wedding and insisted on going ahead with it immediately, which happened on 26 November 1894, at the Grand Church of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, three weeks after the death of his father. Nicholas wrote in his diary:
“Every hour that passes, I bless the Lord from the bottom of my soul for the happiness which He has granted me. My love and admiration for Alix continually grows. There are no words capable of describing the bliss it is to be living together.“ — Nicholas II
Imperial wedding of Nicholas and Alexandra, Winter Palace – 26 November 1894
This is the diary entry Nicholas made on his wedding day:
“The day of my wedding! Everyone had coffee together, and then went off to dress: I put on the Hussar uniform and at 11.30 drove with Misha to the Winter Palace. The whole Nevsky was lined with troops waiting for Mama to drive past with Alix. While she was being dressed in the Malachite hall, we all waited in the Arabian room. At ten to one the procession set off for the big church, from where I returned a married man! In the Malachite hall, we were presented with a huge silver swan from the family. After changing, Alix sat with me in a carriage harnessed in the Russian manner with a postilion, and we rose to the Kazan cathedral. There were so many people on the streets, it was almost impossible to pass!
“On our arrival at the Anichkov we were met by a guard of honour. Mama was waiting for us in our rooms with the bread and salt. We sat the whole evening answering telegrams. We dined at 8 o’clock and went to bed early as she had a bad headache!‘
In the passage above, Misha is his brother Mikhail. Nevsky is the name of the avenue. The bread and salt is a tradition that represents hospitality when an important guest arrives. Salt tax hadn’t been completely abolished until the end of the 19th century. At weddings the bride and groom feed a piece of bread dipped in salt to each other to symbolise that they will share whatever happens in life together. Anichkov is a palace, where Nevsky Prospect and the Fontanka River meet.
Before the wedding Nicholas had tutors brought in to teach his fiancée the Russian language and she was schooled in Russian Orthodoxy in preparation for her conversion. The surname she chose (Feodorovna) was from her mother-in-law Maria Feodorovna as her own mother Alice was deceased. So the unmarried Princess Alix of Hesse and By Rhine on her conversion to the Orthodox Church became Grand Duchess Alexandra Feodorovna, and on her subsequent marriage became Tsarina. The coronation was still to come at which time she would be crowned an Empress.
The court of Nicholas II
When the new tsar and tsarina took up at the grand court in St Petersburg she was 22 and he 26 years old. It was a place where not even the granddaughter of Queen Victoria would be fully prepared for. They were the absolute rulers of an empire that covered one sixth of the planet surface with around 150 million subjects. Its navy was not as mighty as the British Empire’s, nor did it rule over as many subjects by comparison to their 240 million subjects in 1901, but their union certainly brought both empires closer together.
The Russian Empire in 1900
Initially they were to reside at Gatchina Palace where Nicholas had spent his youth. But he didn’t like the fortress styled building and moved to the Winter Palace, the official residence since Peter the Great founded St Petersburg in 1703. Following the assassination of Alexander II the sheer size of the Winter Palace had been judged a security risk and Alexander III was moved to the smaller. more manageable Gatchina Palace where Maria Feodorovna was still residing.
As soon as they had settled at Gatchina Palace the focus turned to the coronation eighteen months away. It was to be a testing time for Alexandra who believed that Nicholas’ role should not be dictated by his mother. Alexandra noted in her diary that it was all happening so fast and that her wedding had felt like an extension of the funeral. The wedding was cut to the bare minimum out of respect for the dead emperor and Maria Feodorovna was calling all the shots for the coronation so it was hard to get a foot in the door. But Nicholas was not about to upset his mother in mourning, especially as the responsibility for a coronation fell to the Empress Dowager and not the Tsarina.
Maria Feodorovna in mourning with sister Alexandra
When Nicholas became tsar in 1894 his cousin George was not yet the king of England. Photos of the two men are often admired for their physical similarity on account of their mothers being Danish sisters. Their mutual cousin Wilhelm however, had been the Prussian king and German Emperor since 1888. Coincidentally in years to come Nicholas and Wilhelm would abdicate within a year of each other, Tsar Nicholas II ending the House of Romanov after 304 years and Keiser Wilhelm II ending the House of Hohenzollern after 400 years.
These three first cousins Nicholas, Wilhelm and George, were instrumental in bringing about World War I, mainly it’s said attributable to Wilhelm for his tactless foreign policy and insulting behaviour. But they did get on because in 1910 the Keiser was in England for the funeral of Edward VII and in 1913 just months before World War I started, Nicholas II and George V attended the wedding of Wilhelm’s daughter in Berlin.
The three cousins ruled the three major empires of the world. If they are seen as one family, then that family had the largest empire in world history. Nicholas would rule through a period of great social and political unrest in which his own beliefs in strict authoritarianism proved to be unsuited in a rapidly changing and modernising world. The other two cousins saw Russia as a backward society; whilst Britain and Germany were industrialising Russia was farming.
In terms of ideology each had their religion; Christian, Lutheran, Orthodox, but the Russian seat saw itself as a link between God and the people. In this ideology, an autocrat soon becomes delusional. The first line of his official title was By the Grace of God Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias. The archaic Slavic title of ‘Tsar’ (meaning Caesar) signified complete power over the country and its subjects – politically, legally and spiritually. On the questionnaire for the first Russian census in 1897, Nicholas II stated his occupation as ‘Owner of Russia’.
Nicholas II and George V – Can you tell who is who?
The Russian court was incredibly opulent and much more formal and intolerant than the British system and Queen Victoria believed it to be over the top. But this was the court Nicholas inherited from Alexander III, who had stayed out of external wars but built a brutal interior. His legacy was one of confusion, yet Nicholas and Alexandra strongly believed in his model of autocracy and their divine and incontestable right to rule.
Nicholas’ grandfather Alexander II, as heir apparent had been well prepared to rule in 1855 and is credited as the greatest reformer since Peter the Great. He was known as Alexander the Liberator for the reforms he introduced that enabled the emancipation of Russian serfs in 1861. This was the wise ruler that sold Alaska to the US in 1867 because he realised that he couldn’t defend it. Also he fought wars that gave Bulgaria, Montenegro, Romania and Serbia their independence.
Yet despite the reforms and freedoms Alexander II brought, there would always be opposition to his rule and he was in the process of taking measures against anarchistic threats to his throne when he was assassinated in 1881. His son Alexander III was not so sympathetic to reforms and freedoms and ruled with an iron first and he also faced the same anarchistic disorders.
Alexander III was not the eldest son and therefore not the heir apparent and received the schooling of a Grand Duke until his brother Nicholas died in 1865. Now as the heir apparent there was still sixteen years until he took the throne in March 1881 giving ample time to prepare. Nicholas unlike his father had been heir apparent all of his life but was not ready when the time came because he had been bullied by his father who thought his disposition too feeble to mould into a viable ruler and therefore gave him hardly any schooling.
Nicholas was not clear on the path to take. His grandfather had introduced reforms that his father had thought too liberal and had produced counter-reforms. Nicholas could have continued his grandfather’s line and moved towards a constitutional monarchy but instead he followed his father in re-asserting and strengthening the autocracy brutally by crushing anarchistic activity, which would serve to clear the path for revolution.
Expectations for an heir
The long wait for the coronation was a busy time for Alexandra, settling in at Gatchina Palace and spending the summer at Peterhof Palace. She would have been counting down the months to the coronation. For all the excitement there was still the matter of producing a son. It was her primary role and a matter of state interest.
She too shared a reclusiveness with Nicholas in wanting respite from the affairs of state but it dawned on her that all eyes were upon her and speculation would only intensify over time. It would come to dominate the first ten years of their marriage.
In 1797 Paul I had established the Pauline Laws in which were stated that priority in the order of succession to the Russian throne belonged only to male members of the Romanov dynasty, no matter how distant. It had been his reaction to previous rulers Catherine I and Elizabeth I that had seized the throne by overthrowing weak male monarchs.
When Alexandra fell pregnant a weight lifted from her shoulders but the baby needed to be a boy and it wasn’t. Olga was born at Peterhof Palace on 15 November 1895, six months prior to the coronation, her parents were genuinely very happy and it was incontrovertible evidence of their fertility.
But daughters could not inherit under the Pauline Laws. She fell pregnant with a second child three months after the coronation, albeit with another daughter, Tatiana born 10 June 1897. Her pregnancies and a miscarriage were publicly announced and she was swamped by court obstetricians with the latest medical equipment and methods. She kept trying for a male heir with all the efforts and hopes placed upon her by an empire.
Pt 2 – The Coronation
The coronation was a lavish affair that took place on 26 May 1896 (G), by which time first child Olga was six months old. Although St Petersburg was the capital of Russia, traditionally coronations were held in the Cathedral of the Dormition (aka Uspensky.) inside the Moscow Kremlin. Pomp and ceremony no longer existed in most of Europe, certainly no ruler before Nicholas had claimed by virtue of birth-right such absolute power. The coronation therefore demanded an extravagance for the world stage.
Not wanting to burden the state treasury Nicholas paid for almost the entire coronation, 898 thousand rubles, from his own purse. The celebrations lasted for twenty days starting on Nicholas’ birthday, 18 May 1896 (G) and lasting until the day following Alexandra’s birthday on 7 June 1896 (G). Events included pageantry, galas, parades, balls, concerts and other grand spectacles.
On day two of the opening celebrations Nicholas and Alexandra arrived in Moscow, a week before the coronation, as was the custom. They moved to Petrovsky Palace for preparations and then attended a ceremonial procession to the Kremlin. On the morning of the coronation Nicholas officially entered the city gate on a white horse.
— 1896 Coronation (Gregorian dates):
- 18 May Nicholas birthday / start of celebrations
- 19 May Nicholas & Alexandra arrive in Moscow
- 23 May Move to Petrovsky Palace
- 26 May Coronation
- 30 May Khodynka tragedy
- 6 June Alexandra birthday
- 7 June End of celebrations / Imperial manifesto published thanking the inhabitants of Moscow
The Fabergé Imperial Coronation Egg at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. Nicholas gave this egg to Alexandra in 1897, it having taken a year to make. The shell is made of gold embellished with translucent yellow enamel and overlaid with black enamelled double-headed eagles. Inside the white velvet-lined egg is an exquisitely detailed miniature 18th-century golden carriage replica of a coach once owned by Catherine the Great and used in Nicholas and Alexandra’s own coronation procession in 1896.
Coronation Day began with the traditional procession through the streets of Moscow, every church bell ringing out everywhere. In St Petersburg every church was packed out and church bells rang out all over the city.
Nicholas on his white horse riding first and leading several cavalry squadrons amid a roar of cheers, then came the carriage of Maria Feodorovna and even louder cheering came, and then Alexandra’s carriage came but the cheering faded, it was described as an ominous silence on account of her being German, which accordingly had reduced her to tears.
An alternative account is that onlookers observed that the cheers for the Tsar and Tsarina were both muted by comparison with those for the Dowager Feodorovna in sympathy of her widowhood.
Nicholas II entering the Moscow city gate early morning on the day of his coronation
(public domain – colour TA)
Representing Queen Victoria at the coronation was Alexandra’s uncle Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught and Strathearn, and his wife Duchess Louise Margaret, formerly Princess of Prussia (wearing Queen Victoria’s Turkish diamonds). Also from Alexandra’s side were the representatives of Hesse headed by her brother Grand Duke Ernest Ludwig of Hesse and by Rhine. In his record of the event he provides vivid details.
“The coronation in Moscow was the most splendid ceremony I have ever seen. It was almost eastern in style and lasted 10 days. In Moscow, the cathedral was full of images of saints on a gold background, and all the priests wore golden vestments decorated with embroidery and precious stones. In all the ceremonies, there was a deep mystical meaning and Byzantine traditions.
“The Anointed Emperor and Empress became God’s Anointed ones. The emperor, like a priest, receives communion at the altar. After that, in front of the throne, he takes off the crown from his head, kneels down and prays aloud with a wonderful prayer for his people. Then they say a prayer for the emperor, and he rises, and at that moment he is the only non-kneeling person in the entire Russian Empire.“ — Ernest Ludwig
The Hessian delegation – Alexandra’s brother Ernest is seated centre
In the description given by Ernest Ludwig, Nicholas took communion at the altar like a priest. This was a change in the ceremony that Nicholas made and he was proclaiming that as God’s representative he was on par with the priests. Up to then only priests could take communion together at the altar.
The priests did not like it but the church would not split from the state until 1917 so they had no choice but to honour his wishes. He made several changes to the ceremony which proclaimed that he alone knew what was best for Russia. As a religious fanatic he embellished the coronation ceremony with much symbolism.
His brother Mikhail Alexandrovich and his uncles the Grand Dukes Vladimir, Sergei, and Pavel Alexandrovich were responsible for placing a gold-brocaded imperial mantle upon his shoulders and securing it with an emerald studded diamond clasp. Then they placed a diamond chain around the collar but Vladimir missed a catch and it fell to the floor, which got interpreted by witnesses as an ill omen for the reign.
Also present at the coronation was Belgian cinematographer Camille Cerf sent by the pioneering French Lumière brothers. In 1895 they had invented the Cinématographe, the first film camera (it’s where the word ‘cinema’ comes from), and consequently they made the first ever motion film ‘La Sortie des ouvriers de l’usine Lumière’, which was a short piece showing workers leaving the Lumière factory in Lyon. Camille Cerf made a 1 hour 33 minute recording on 35mm film capturing the coronation procession which became the first documentary and full length film ever made.
Once Nicholas was crowned Emperor he momentarily removed his crown and touched it to Alexandra’s forehead to symbolise their joint responsibility, then he placed the smaller crown on her head proclaiming her to be an Empress.
Lithograph acquired by coronation guest Zelia Nuttall and gifted by her to the Penn Museum, Philadelphia.
(image with kind permission Penn Museum archives)
Four days into the celebrations Nicholas and Alexandra were scheduled to attend an event at Khodynka Field, five kilometres outside of Moscow. It was really just a large open space used for military training so was apparently full of pits, trenches and other obstacles. In preparation old wood was used to fill the pits and the trenches were covered over with planking. On this uneven surface and running alongside the covered trenches 150 stalls were erected where people could collect a free commemorative bundle.
Each gift bundle contained a little bread, some sausage, gingerbread cake, sweets and nuts, and a commemorative cup, all wrapped in a scarf with an image of the Emperor and Empress on one side and the Kremlin on the other. The gingerbread cake had the Imperial coat of arms and date 1896 baked on it. At other stalls everyone was entitled to a free beer (30,000 gallons in all).
In the centre of the field a large pavilion was built for the Imperial couple and their VIP guests. But of course the people were all guests and from the pavilion the couple could see and be seen and wave to the crowds.
Coronation cup & gingerbread cake (also described as egg biscuit)
400,000 people had been expected and they came from all over, many arrived on the previous evening and camped the night. 1,800 police were on duty. And water stations were placed at intervals due to the hot weather.
The morning began calmly as people started arriving. A rumour started that a gold coin was inside each commemorative cup and people fearing there might not be enough bundles to go around started making their way to the distribution stalls before they were open. It created a dust storm and people started tripping on the uneven surface, many that were already severely dehydrated collapsed under the stampede.
The many accounts of this tragedy describe how people fell through the flimsy pits and when they crammed into the gaps between stalls some fell head first into the trenches. Strangely, every photo of this event shows only an open and flat field, strong enough to take horses. That being said 1,400 people were trampled to death or suffocated and a further 1,300 injured.
Victims of Khodynka 30 May 1896
The tragic deaths at Khodynka were not the fault of Nicholas and Alexandra, there were organisers assigned that planned the events. 500,000 people had turned up, the wood coverings had been far too flimsy and there was nowhere near the water required for such a sweltering day, the stalls had been placed too close together to allow people to move through the gaps in between and despite the planning it was a disaster in crowd management.
The organisers compounded matters by continuing with the celebrations. Between 1pm and 2pm the Emperor and Empress took the short walk from the nearby Petrovsky Palace to the new pavilion. On the veranda they waved to the cheering crowds surrounded by their guests and an orchestra played on. Some accounts say that bodies were still being cleared and even being stored under the pavilion for removal later.
Maria Feodorovna a much more experienced and astute observer advised Nicholas to cancel all appointments and address the Khodynka crisis head on but Nicholas unwisely took advice to continue as if nothing had happened. Later when the full details of the tragedy emerged the cover story would be that Nicholas was unsuspecting of any issue as he was not informed of what had happened there just a few hours earlier.
The central pavilion at Khodynka Field, Petrovsky Palace can be seen behind it where the Imperial couple walked from.
The French ambassador’s ball
Following their appearance at Khodynka the Imperial couple visited the Kremlin, first they lit an electric illumination of Ivan the Great and then Alexandra lit the towers and walls of the Kremlin with 200,000 electric light bulbs painting the illusion that it was outlined with jewels.
After that they dined with Maria Feodorovna then a little later attended a ball held by the French ambassador where they ate another dinner and danced until 2am, which Maria Feodorovna declined to attend
Many accounts agree that Nicholas and Alexandra were deeply upset by the deaths at Khodynka and that their presence at the ball was down to pressure from their immediate family and close advisors who pointed out that France was Russia’s only strong European ally and not attending would be taken as an insult. In support of this are entries from Nicholas’ sister Olga Alexandrovna and the Countess Marie Kleinmichel.
“I know for a fact that neither of them wanted to go. It was done under great pressure from his advisers . . . Nicky’s ministers insisted that he must go as a gesture of friendship to France.”
— Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna
“In view of the terrible expense, the French ambassador begged the Imperial couple to attend.”
— The Countess Marie Kleinmichel
Countess Kleinmichel was a famous grand dame. Her husband was the Colonel of the Preobrazhensky regiment. Her brother Fedor a Lieutenant General and hero of the Russo-Turko wars, would be killed in the Russo-Japan War (1904). At her mansion in the north of St Petersburg were held renowned masquerade costume balls and it was where the high society of St Petersburg gathered, she was even a friend with Keiser Wilhelm.
The words of Countess Kleinmichel are important as her inclusion of the word begged suggests that Nicholas and Alexandra had expressed reservations and perhaps were debating or at first decided not to attend the French ambassador’s ball. At her mansion was held the best salons in town for the well-to-do of high society, she had a finger on the social pulse more than anyone, certainly it was where the latest gossip was circulating.
Interestingly, to show what remarkable ingenuity the countess possessed and how it was that she managed to survive in the hurly burly for so many years, approaching the October revolution of 1917, expecting protestors and rioters to call on her, she hung a plaque on the door reading ‘No entry. The building belongs to the Petrograd Soviet. Countess Kleinmichel is imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress.‘ It worked, she had made enough time to pack her belongings and escaped Russia.
“All high society Petersburg gathers here, all foreign diplomats, noble persons coming from abroad, etc., attracted both by the amiable and friendly cordiality of the reception, and by the prospect of an interesting conversation with the hostess of the house and visitors to her salon.”
— Leon Trotsky (referring to Countess Kleinmichel’s salons)
Some accounts add mitigating phrases such as their faces were evidently pale, or they didn’t want to be there, but sticking purely with observations recorded by witnesses, they saw Nicholas as ‘uncaring’ and this is perhaps unfairly aligned with his diary which refers nonchalantly to the evening ball.
“Dinner at Mama’s at 8. Went to the ball at Montebello’s. It was very nicely arranged, but the heat was unbearable. After dinner, left at 2.” — Nicholas II
Illuminated Moscow Kremlin for the coronation of Nicholas II, May 1896.
A point to note is that Nicholas kept his diary in timetable fashion, probably for his own future recollections and not as a definitive account for the scrutiny of future historians. But over a hundred years after his death they can offer insight and be considered equally alongside the official records of history.
In support of Nicholas being uncaring, on the morning of the Khodynka tragedy a military aide apparently said that after Nicholas heard of the stampede, he did not display the slightest emotion. Although his diary is not indicative of his thoughts, his public response to Khodynka ultimately labelled him Nicholas the Bloody and the newspapers saw his management of the situation as a sign that he did not know how to take control of serious issues.
The French, knowing a thing or two about grand balls, had made a huge effort in bringing many items from Paris including 200,000 flowers that were prepared and sent at the very last minute to look their best. That evening at dinner with Maria Feodorovna, the conversation could only have been about Khodynka and the forthcoming ball.
Although a great tragedy befell the country, some commentators have stated that Nicholas in his role still had a political duty to perform and to be seen to be involved in his own coronation. With hindsight he made the right decision. At the time though, he was seen as devoid of humanity. The representative from China certainly thought so, he commented that a Chinese emperor would not have attended the ball following a tragedy such as Khodynka.
The French Ambassador’s ball 1896
(photo unknown source)
Of course Nicholas had known about the deaths at Khodynka when he stood waving from the pavilion, it’s recorded in his diary how moved and distraught he was. He records that he was told about 10.30am, that’s thirty minutes after the deaths began and three hours before he stood on the pavilion. Some apologists have said that he was smiling and waving at crowds because he was oblivious but his diary is proof conclusive that he knew all along; he was the Emperor after all so of course he knew.
What outraged Moscow society was that they perceived Nicholas to be indifferent and that was seen as highly disrespectful to the victims and their families. Moscow reporter Vladimir Alekseyevich Gilyarovsky noted one headline waiting at his office for the press: This means trouble! This reign will bring no good!
No one was ever held responsible for the Khodynka tragedy, The investigation dismissed the Moscow Chief of Police Alexander Vlasovsky and his assistant for shoddy policing and failure to provide safety arrangements and security measures. But the official in charge of the coronation celebrations was Nicholas’ uncle, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, General-Governor of Moscow, whose opponents pushed for his resignation but he stubbornly held out and was subsequently promoted to commander of the troops of the Moscow military district.
However, it did ruin his reputation, his aide Vladimir Dzhunkovskiy described it: The whole field was thickly covered with people. Sergei Alexandrovich was thereafter known as the Duke of Khodynka. Some years later at yet another public tragedy known as Bloody Sunday (AKA The First Revolution,) the militant organisation of the Socialist Revolutionary Party would pronounce the death sentence on Sergei Alexandrovich in January 1905 for his part in using armed soldiers to disperse the crowds but in February 1905 he was assassinated by Ivan Kalyaev (a poet who hanged for the murder that same year).
The next day after Khodynka the Imperial couple finally took note and spent the morning visiting the wounded in hospital wards. Still they received criticism for having spared only half a day in an attempt to grab a headline. Nicholas declared that the state would take care of burying the dead and that he would pay 1000 rubles of aid from his own purse to each of the families of the dead,
His benevolence was touching but there are differing accounts of which the reader can decide which is the most likely. Of the many families affected almost none received a payment, and the few that did received it from government money, Nicholas not having contributed a single ruble. The alternate version is that all families that applied for aid eventually received every ruble of the promised compensation.
Official releases from the palace painted a picture of Nicholas being the victim, and how unfortunate it had been that Khodynka had over-shadowed his Coronation, an approach that was seen as tactless and why it was mentioned earlier that his public response labelled him Nicholas the Bloody. A stronger ruler would have dismissed Sergei Alexandrovich for the blunder at Khodynka at which soon after, Leon Trotsky began Marxist political activity which made the tragedy a contributing factor towards The First Revolution and did irreparable damage to the perception of Nicholas and the monarchy at the start of his reign.
Nicholas II on horseback fronting his Cossack regiment.
Courtesy: Romanov Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University – colour TA
On the final day of celebrations it was time to return to St Petersburg. It must have been a big relief that it was over and they could return to the matter of producing an heir. Nicholas recorded his relief in his diary.
“Having changed clothes, we went to the station. and said goodbye to Mom; she went to Gatchino, and we immediately went in the opposite direction along Moscow-Brest. got to St Odintsovo, from where the carriages drove to Ilyinsky. An indescribable joy to get to this nice quiet place! And the main consolation is to know that all these celebrations and ceremonies are over!“ — Nicholas II
Pt 3 – The Imperial Residences
There are several palaces near the town of Tsarskoe Selo, present day Pushkin. Their construction are attributable to an age when Russia was seeking to equal the architectural magnificence of the Palace of Versailles and Peter the Great (Peter I – Pyotr Alekséyevich) began great ambitious projects. He was the ruler that elevated the title of Tsar to Emperor.
Peter I acquired some land and a manor house at Tsarskoe Selo in 1717 for his second wife Catherine I (Marta Helena Skavronsky). She ruled Russia for two years after her husband’s death and having no heir of her own, recognised as her successor the grandson of her husband’s first wife Eudoxia, the last male Romanov, who would become Peter II (Pyotr Alexeyevich), after she died.
What had started as a manor house for Catherine I in 1717 was greatly improved over the following seven successions until Catherine II (aka Catherine the Great – originally Sophie Frederike Auguste, princess of Anhalt-Zerbst, Germany,) came to the throne in 1762. She developed it in the French Rococo style and lavished it with a rich art collection. This was the majestic Catherine Palace.
Catherine Palace, Tsarskoe Selo
Towards the end of the reign of Catherine II, in 1792 she built Alexander Palace, also in Tsarskoe Selo, for her grandson the future Emperor Alexander I. It was smaller than Catherine Palace but similarly was designed by Italian architects, albeit in the slightly differing Baroque style (a mite less flamboyant in design than Rococo).
Alexander I whom the palace was named after did use it but preferred to stay at Catherine Palace and gave over Alexander Palace to his brother, who would succeed him as Nicholas I in 1825, and from which time the palace became the official summer residence of successive tsars.
Alexander Palace was a beautiful neo-classical building on the outside replete with Corinthian columns and an impressive neoclassical portico but not so impressive on the inside, it did not have the grandeur and opulence of other palaces and was smaller. But it was functional and Nicholas II had been born there and spent some of his childhood in the right wing.
Maria Feodorovna preferred to stay at Alexander Palace when she visited the Imperial couple, in the same room she had shared with her late husband. But her visits lessened as the estrangement with her daughter-in-law Alexandra became apparent.
The architect Roman Meltser was commissioned to design new halls, studies and private rooms in the French Art Nouveau style which Nicholas and Alexandra favoured. One of the best examples being the Maple Room where the family would gather for activities. Here Russia’s first telegraph apparatus was installed for Nicholas I’s study in 1843, linking the palace with St Petersburg.
Alexander Palace, Tsarskoe Selo
Withdrawal to palace life
From the start of their marriage it was evident that the Tsar and Tsarina were in love and there was high expectations of them, in terms of producing an heir and strengthening the monarchy. People saw it as restorative following the damage done by Alexander III. There was a coldness over Khodynka and the French ball which cast a dye for them in terms of public opinion. They responded by retreating to palace life, of which there were plenty.
The sheer number of palatial residences available to the tsar is staggering, probably many times more than any ruler on the planet has ever had. In St Petersburg the Winter Palace was at the heart and the official residence where Nicholas and Alexandra had moved to after initially staying with Maria Feodorovna at Gatchina Palace. The Winter Palace remains one of the largest and most opulent former royal residences in Europe with its 117 staircases, 1,500 rooms and three million artworks.
Peterhof Palace just a small distance to the west of St Petersburg was a summer residence, very opulent and built to impress, indeed it was intended to rival the Palace of Versailles. And south of the city into the suburbs at Tsarskoe Selo they had a choice of residences at Catherine and Alexander palaces.
After the coronation things were less demanding and the couple wanted to pick things up where they had left off after Alexander III had died. Alexandra was instrumental in arranging their reclusion. She found socialising and the formal duties and ceremony of the Imperial court strenuous and tiresome and she didn’t like being too far from her husband.
In early childhood Alexandra had a number of illnesses including sciatica at which any occurrence Nicholas felt duty bound to attend to her. They withdrew increasingly from court life and more in to life at the Winter Palace. Their purpose was still to produce a male heir and the sooner it happened the sooner they could get back to their lives. but still, the Winter Palace was far too close to the state offices dealing with government affairs.
Maria Feodorovna recognised their reclusion from public duty because her mother Louise the Queen of Denmark had been very much that way, having kept herself within her palace walls for much of her life. Maria Feodorovna believed that Alexandra was lazy and neglectful of her duty and interfering with Nicholas’ duty. She wanted none of it but whatever she tried the couple were so tight that not even she could get between them.
Following The First Revolution in 2005, for security reasons the family relocated permanently from the Winter Palace to the much smaller Alexander Palace. By that time Maria Feodorovna had pretty much given up with them and could see the way the monarchy was headed. She retreated to Gatchina.
In the meantime the Imperial couple were busy attending to their primary duty and as fate had it, they produced a further three successive daughters, all born in summers at Peterhof Palace.
- 1895 Olga (15 November – Alexander Palace)
- 1897 Tatiana (10 June – Peterhof Palace)
- 1899 Maria (26 June – Peterhof Palace)
- 1901 Anastasia (18 June – Peterhof Palace)
Nicholas and Alexandra with daughters Olga, Tatiana, Marie and new born Anastasia
Girls at the palace
The first two daughters were affectionally known as the big pair and the second two as the little pair. They called themselves collectively OTMA, using the first letter from each of their names. If there was one word to describe each their nature perhaps it might be: O–shy; T-disciplined; M-unselfish; A–amusing. The big pair often shared a room and dressed alike and the little pair also stuck together.
Olga was strong minded and hot tempered with an ear for music and received much attention from suitors far and wide but she was determined to marry a Russian and thereby stay in Russia. She was timid but at the same time often left an effect on others.
Tatiana looked most like their mother and like her was deeply religious, she was the sensible one and her mother’s favourite. She liked to paint and played piano. She was very sociable and liked order, her sisters called her the Governess!
Marie was stubborn and at ease with everyone. She had a talent for drawing, also like Tatiana she painted and played piano. She was heavier built and said to be the prettiest. She was always looking to help her parents.
Anastasia was the mischievous one and Marie would at times apologise after her when she played a prank on someone. She would climb trees and refuse to come down unless told to do so by her father. She made the whole family laugh. And she kept a little King Charles Spaniel dog that she carried around, called Jimmy.
Following the birth of Olga, Nicholas reputedly said “We are grateful she was a daughter, if she was a boy she would have belonged to the people, being a girl she belongs to us.“ When Olga was one year old in 1896 the family visited Queen Victoria at Balmoral. It was the last time Alexandra would see her grandmother and did not attend her funeral in 1901 on account of being pregnant with a fourth child.
Nicholas II and his daughters on the beach of the Lower Dacha in Peterhof
The sisters always spoke Russian between themselves and their father, English to their mother, and French to Pierre Gilliard their French tutor from 1905. Their only experience of foreign countries had been in short visits to Darmstadt and once to England. They hardly saw life outside of the palace gates and the public referred to them as being kept in their gilded cage.
From 1898 to 1904 the children’s nanny was a nurse from Ireland called Margaretta Eagar. In her memoirs Six years at the Russian Court she tells her first impression of arriving at court, “There are Rembrandts and Fabergé eggs everywhere“ and how she learned Russian but the girls particularly the big pair would copy her Limerick accent. She wrote “This arises of course, from their very sheltered lives.“
They seldom saw other children and other young girls were never asked to the palace. Sometimes their cousins would visit or there would be an occasional outing for tea at aunt Olga’s or aunt Xenia’s. Alexandra was devoted to Nicholas’s two sisters, the Grand Duchesses Olga and Xenia. The children’s favourite was aunt Olga who visited often and held Sunday parties at her town house. Sometimes Olga would take them in to St Petersburg, usually at weekends in the winter
Alexandra had seen that her peers had no idea of how the lesser classes lived and brought the girls up to look after themselves. They were each given a small amount of pocket money which had to be managed by them so that they would need to save to buy things. They had nice clothes but often these were hand-me-downs from the big pair to the little pair after a little stitch-work.
Until 1898 they used no maids or governesses and few members of court were retained. The girls made their own beds and repaired their own clothes. Alexandra wanted to raise them in a normal way and delayed passing them to a wet-nurse or teacher for as long as possible. She saw to their initial education herself giving them spelling lessons and instructing them on how to pray.
When Pierre Gilliard began tutoring the children in 1905, Alexandra would sit in the class. This is what Gilliard recorded in his book Thirteen years at the Russian court.
“I have preserved a vivid recollection of the great interest which the Czarina, a mother with a high sense of duty, took in the education and training of her children. Instead of the cold and haughty Empress of which I had heard so much, I had been amazed to find myself in the presence of a woman wholly devoted to her maternal obligations.“
The children joined their parents for meals and were taught impeccable manners. They would all gather around the table rather informally and without attendants. Some people were appalled to learn that the Empress of Russia was breastfeeding her children or was tutoring them, and this was blamed on her austere Englishness, gained while growing up on the Isle of Wight.
Olga, Mikhail and Xenia, siblings of Nicholas II
(public domain – coloured photo by Klimbim)
The grand ball of 1903
The 1903 season was marked by an especially beautiful costume ball at which hosts and guests attended in costumes of the period of Peter the Great’s father, the Tsar Alexei. Alexandra was at this time at her most radiant (still with the sad face from her childhood). Nicholas dressed as Alexei I and Alexandra as his first wife and consort Maria Miloslayskaya. She wore gold brocade, emeralds, pearls and diamonds and a mitre studded with jewels. She later discovered when they sat down to eat that her headdress was so heavy she could not bend her head to eat.
Winter Palace Grand Ball, February 1903
Alexandra Feodorovna dressed as Maria Miloslavskaya
(courtesy, coloured photo by Klimbim)
It was the last of the spectacular Russian Imperial Grand Balls. There were other grand balls such as in 1913 to commemorate the Romanov dynasty’s tri-centenary anniversary but none again so grand as in 1903. Once again Alexandra was reminded of court protocol for official gatherings, unlike other European courts the Dowager Empress was more senior than the Tsarina and on entering the hall Alexandra had to walk behind Nicholas with his mother on his arm.
The country had been through a major famine in 1891/92 and was heading into a depression at the time of the grand ball so people asked whether it was necessary to display such opulence to mark the Romanov dynasty’s 290th anniversary, when the tri-centenary was just ten years away. Still, in the Russian tradition the ball went ahead.
It was the most expensive ball ever held at the Winter Palace. Nicholas invited 390 guests to an event spanning three days. On 11 February 1903 the main event was a concert and after that dinner and then a Russian dance. Alexandra wore a priceless diamond necklace and was covered in jewels selected by the famed Russian jeweller Carl Fabergé. On day two they all rested up, and on day three there was the costume ball from 10pm lasting until 1am.
The ballrooom at the Winter Palace
Brocade gown worn by Xenia Alexandrovna
(photo unknown possibly Hermitage Museum)
Pt 4 – The Cult of Mysticism
At the turn of the 20th century Alexandra was not well liked and the pressure of producing an heir had made her retreat further and deeper into a negative mental state. She focused on her ailments and distanced herself from her children, the extended family and her state duties.
The turn of the century
In a letter Queen Victoria wrote to Nicholas II dated 14 July 1899, following the birth of third daughter Marie, she said:
“I am so thankful that dear Alicky has recovered so well, but I regret the 3rd girl for the country.“ — Queen Victoria
Alexandra sent a letter to her close friend Princess Marie Bariatinsky on New Year’s Eve 1900, two weeks before Queen Victoria died, closing with these words (she is referring about not having had a son):
“What sorrows, this last year brought us, what endless anxieties, what worries and losses – God grant the new year may be a calmer and happier one for the whole of dear Russia.“ — Alexandra Feodorovna
An entry made in the diary of her sister-in-law Xenia on 5 June 1901 (J) following the birth of fourth daughter Anastasia:
“Alix feels splendid – but my God! What a disappointment … a fourth girl! They have named her Anastasia. Mama sent me a telegram about it, and writes, ‘Alix has again given birth to a daughter!’ “ — Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna
In contrast to the comparisons made between Alexandra and Maria Feodorovna by the public, Alexandra was more drastically compared to her sister-in-law Xenia which made the pressure to produce an heir ever more demanding.
Age in 1901:-
Alexandra: 29 / Xenia: 26
Date father died:-
Alexandra: 13 March 1892 / Xenia: 1 November 1894
Alexandra: 20 April 1894 / Xenia: 6 August 1894
Alexandra: 26 November 1894 / Xenia: 6 August 1894
Children in 1901:-
Alexandra: 4 daughters / Xenia: 1 daughter, 3 boys and pregnant with 4th son. Two more sons would follow in 1902 and 1907
State visit of King Chulalongkorn of Siam with his four eldest sons at Alexander Palace during his first grand tour in 1897. Front row Maria Feodorovna with daughter Olga Alexandrovna and son Nicholas II – King Chulalongkorn had 116 consorts and concubines with 33 sons and 44 daughters.
(Courtesy: Romanov Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library – colour TA)
During the years 1897-1905 the Imperial Family moved around residences and were not always at the Winter Palace. Up to 1905 they were based at the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, in summer they stayed between Peterhof and Alexander palaces and from 1900 they had revived the ancient custom of spending Easter in Moscow. At least every two years they travelled abroad.
Up until 1841 the only railway in Russia was between St Petersburg and Tsarskoe Selo. But now the Imperial train offered uninterrupted travel as far as Hesse in Germany. Likewise up until 1896 the yacht Derzhava facilitated excursions in the Baltic Sea and the yacht Livadia in the Black Sea. The yacht Standart was started by Alexander III not long before he died and was commissioned at sea around three months after the coronation in 1896. It was the largest Imperial or private yacht in the world and could go anywhere, rendering the other yachts obsolete.
The turn of the century was a time of European travel by train and by sea. The well to do were packing their portmanteaus and travelling the world. The Golden Age of liners was in full swing. The European houses were able to move freely; the German Emperor went to Britain, King George V to Germany, the Russian Emperor to France and Italy, princesses, queens and empresses to Germany and Denmark. Nicholas sailed to Dunkirk for a state visit in 1986 and returned there again in 1901. And this was just the Royalty.
In September 1900, Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich, Nicholas’ uncle, was one of several Russian nobles that visited a Master Philippe in Lyon, France. His name started circulating in Russia and he was invited to the court. He left France with his daughter on 29 December 1900, staying in Russia for two months.
Marie, Olga and Tatiana in front of the Imperial train in Odessa during their last visit to Crimea in 1916
Mystics and mayhem
The Imperial couple were desperately praying for a male heir. No one could deny they were fertile, but when the fourth daughter Anastasia was born at Peterhof on 18 June 1901, it started to look as though they were lacking divine approval.
The Montenegrin sisters Princess Milica and Princess Anastasia were daughters of King Nicholas I of Montenegro, a small Slavic kingdom. In 1889 Milica married Grand Duke Peter Nikolaevich of Russia, (a cousin of Nicholas II). and Anastasia married his brother on her second marriage in 1907.
– The Montenegrin sisters:
- Princess Milica of Montenegro became Grand Duchess Militza Nikolaevna Romanova of Russia
- Princess Anastasia of Montenegro became Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanova of Russia
Doing the rounds in the major European cities, in every salon, was talk of mysticism, the big cult of that age and made fashionable in Paris, the hubbub of modernity. Mostly these salons were full of inquisitive women but plenty of men attended too. They would gather to participate in spiritualism and séances.
In Russia it was the Montenegrin sisters that were involved in the alternative sciences. their elder sister Elana was the future queen of Italy and the woman that Alexander III had sought for Nicholas. The Montenegrin sisters therefore had influence in several European courts. They were described as clever and fearless and used their charm to integrate with the European aristocracy.
The Montenegrin sisters Militza and Anastasia
One such connection was in Paris where Militza became an honourary doctor in alchemy (the forerunner of chemistry). Here she came across Philippe Anthelme Nizier, or Master Philippe as he was known by. Back in Russia her husband joined a cult named the black peril, and certain Russian individuals started consulting M. Philippe when they were within reach of Paris.
On 12 September 1901 Nicholas II was a guest of Wilhelm II at Danzig for naval manoeuvres. From there the Imperial Yacht Standart sailed to Dunkirk for a three day visit with the French Prime Minister Émile Loubert, arriving on 18 September 1901. The state visit had been in 1896 when the crowds had filled Paris to see them. This time it was more of an indulgence trip and they headed for Compiègne, about 50 miles northeast of Paris, taking in a visit to the Palace of Versailles along the way.
They stayed in the beautiful rooms of Napoleon I and Marie Louise at the Château de Compiègne. The following day they attended military manoeuvres in Reims, about 40 miles to the south. and visited the cathedral famed for being the place were French kings were crowned. Day three was a more relaxing day.
“It was a peaceful day for us. In the morning we walked to the nearby sections of the park. We were walking the entire time in front of the guards and a string of watchmen. It is unimaginable what precautions they took everywhere here. At 11.00 am ‘our friend’ showed up. At 7:00 pm there was a big dinner with educated people of lesser birth and a show. Everything was over at 11:00 pm.“ — Nicholas II
Our friend in the phrase above is M. Philippe. Militza had informed him that Nicholas and Alexandra would be glad to have a talk with him, as he had requested, and he was presented to the Imperial couple at their rooms at the Château de Compiègne by Grand Duke Nikolai Nicolaevitch (Nicholas’ uncle that would marry Anastasia of Montenegro in 1907). Militza had previously sent a mystic to Alexandra to resolve her endeavours for a son but that had not worked out. This time the Imperial couple were enchanted by M. Philippe and asked him to visit them in Russia at the first convenience on their return.
Lithograph from a painting by Pavel Piasetsky of the Standart arriving at the French port of Dunkirk 18 September 1901. The artist was a friend of Nicholas II and accompanied them aboard the Standart for this trip.
(Print: unknown source, edited)
In 1901 alone, Nicholas and Alexandra received state visits from Italy and France and in turn had sailed to Dunkirk for a return visit with Émile Loubert, visited the German Emperor at Danzig, Prince Henry of Prussia at Kiel, and Nicholas’ grandfather Christian IX in Denmark.
At Château de Compiègne they had stayed in the room of Marie Louise who had become pregnant immediately after marrying Napoleon I, whom had divorced his first wife Josephine after fourteen years for not providing an heir. Perhaps Alexandra had an affinity with Marie Louise who must have known that failure to produce an heir would seal her fate.
M. Philippe was favourably accepted outside of France, notably in Italy where the Montenegrin sisters held sway. He was one of the most impressive mystic healers of the 19th century, the son of a French butcher in Lyon, but he did not enter medicine in the traditional way on account of his leaning towards groups that were practising alternative methods, so achieving a doctorate was out of the question. The medical society said of him “he performs occult medicine and is a veritable charlatan”.
Nicholas and Alexandra taking a stroll painted by Pavel Piasetsky
(Print: unknown source)
M. Philippe arrived in Russia without delay. Having an uncanny reputation for predicting the future, he announced to the Imperial couple that the birth of their son would come in 1904. A house in Tsarskoe Selo was prepared for him and he secured a doctor’s license, no doubt with the tsar’s assistance. He professed to being a spiritual healer but did not actually touch a patient unlike the Russian practice of healing by the laying of hands. He believed a healthy mind would maintain a healthy body and told Alexandra and Nicholas to look to providence and strive for spirituality.
This they did, Nicholas and Alexandra adopted a very costly campaign throughout 1902/03 to refurbish churches and advance the canonization of religious nominees such as the Elder Seraphim which Nicholas progressed on the date of Seraphim’s birth 19 July by asking the Holy Synod to conclude the glorification of the revered elder.
M. Philippe approved of their increased religious devotion. The connotation being that performing good deeds would be rewarded with a son and heir. They presumably developed a conviction that their fortunes had changed direction and certainly the records show a remarkable turn around in Alexandra’s energies from this time.
They saw M. Philippe once or twice a week. During sessions he experimented with hypnosis and necromancy and conducted nocturnal séances, at which it is said he invoked the ghost of Alexander III to advise Nicholas on matters of State. He prepared concoctions for them to ingest to lessen their ails and to aid the prospect for conception.
The extended family were not approving of the Imperial couple’s mystic friend. On 23 July 1902 Alexandra wrote to Nicholas that her sister Ella had (words from the image below of the letter):
“… assailed me about Our Friend. I remained very quiet and gave dull answers. She has heard many unfavourable things about Him and that He is not to be trusted. I said that we did everything openly and that in our positions there never can be anything hidden, as we live under the eyes of the whole world.“
This letter was on display at the Blood & Revolution exhibition on loan from the State Archive of the Russian Federation.
It’s not known exactly when Alexander started developing symptoms of pregnancy but whenever that was circa 1902, M. Philippe told her that she was pregnant with a son, seemingly revising his prediction by two years. He would not allow her doctors to examine her until late on in the faux pregnancy despite their insistence that she was not pregnant.
The extended family were right to show concern because Ella having voiced her opinion to Alexandra about M. Philippe in July 1902, then learned in early August that she was vomiting and having headaches. This was supposed to be near the end of her pregnancy and so it was an increasing mystery that she was not showing. Even more strange was why the palace had released the news that Alexandra was pregnant.
The accounts differ depending on sources. If Alexandra had a full term pregnancy as is suggested, then the conception must have been at the end of October/beginning of November 1901, at the very time she was receiving drugs from M. Philippe. That’s unlikely though as pregnancy symptoms are not recorded that far back and letters only mention warnings about M. Philippe. This version of a full term pregnancy derives from a letter written by Nicholas’ sister Xenia.
“We have all felt so terribly disappointed since yesterday. Can you imagine anything so awful, it seems poor Alix isn’t pregnant after all for 9 months she had nothing, then suddenly it came, but completely normally, without pain.“
– Grand Duchess Xenia 19 August 1902
Alexandra had four children so why did she need to consult M. Philippe over her own doctors; royal accoucheur (male midwife) Professor Ott and royal surgeon Girsh. Ott examined Alexandra on 17 August 1902 and confirmed that everything internally was fine and told her that she was not pregnant and never had been. According to Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich (Nicholas’ cousin,) she cried a lot when told.
Both of Nicholas’ sisters Olga and Xenia mention a discharge in their letters. Olga wrote that some blood was released (suggesting a miscarriage,) and on the morning of 20 August 1902 Xenia wrote the following:
“This morning Alix had a minor miscarriage if it could be called a miscarriage at all! – that is to say a tiny ovule came out! Yesterday evening she had pains, and at night too, by morning it was all over when this event happened! Now at least it will be possible to make an announcement and tomorrow a bulletin will be published in the papers with information about what happened. At last a natural way out of this unfortunate situation has been found.“
— Grand Duchess Xenia 20 August 1902
The following bulletin appeared in the newspapers signed by Alexandra’s doctors, by way of an explanation for the faux release from the palace that she had been pregnant:
“A few months ago, the state of Her Imperial Majesty the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna underwent changes, which pointed to a pregnancy. At the present time, thanks to the departure from the normal course, the interrupted pregnancy has resulted in a miscarriage, which occurred without any danger, the temperature and pulse remaining normal. Peterhof 20 August 1902“. — Mssrs Ott and Girsh
Alexandra Feodorovna, 1903
(public domain – colour TA)
Accounts of the phantom pregnancy put it down to pseudocyesis meaning there never was a conception nor a pregnancy and the symptoms were all in Alexandra’s head. But Xenia clearly describes a discharge, or rather the release of a tiny ovule. Wikipedia picks up on this and calls it a ‘molar pregnancy.’ Ott told Alexandra after he examined her that such cases did happen and were caused by anaemia. He was likely not referring to a molar as the ovule did not come until after he examined her, although nothing can be known for certain.
If it was a molar pregnancy the symptoms are severe nausea and vomiting which she did have. A molar presents with bleeding at around four to five months, so the time frame suits better than the nine month full term theory. If indeed it was a molar pregnancy, then it means she had been pregnant as a sperm is required; it is the egg that is defective and leads to a disease whereby grape sized moles form on the inside. Therefore, this hypothesis would rule out phantom pregnancy or pseudocyesis as it means she did in fact conceive.
Pseudocyesis is a condition where a woman who is not pregnant shows physical signs of pregnancy like amenorrhea for example (a lack of menstruation). That Alexandra was suffering somatic disorders is apparent as she is known to have suffered from back pain since her youth, and also headaches and fatigue was a common theme with her.
But pseudocyesis is a psychological disorder and this we can attribute to the incredible stress she was under to produce an heir. Since the late 17th Century it was known that the symptoms of pseudocyesis have their origin in the mind and common symptoms are chronic stress and depression. Today it’s known that two thirds of women that have false pregnancies have a desperate desire for a child.
Henry VIII’s daughter Mary Queen of Scots, during her unhappy marriage to Philip of Spain believed herself to be pregnant several times, having the symptoms, which was attributed to her intense desire to have a child and heir, yet she remained childless.
Within a few years of Alexandra’s phantom pregnancy it had been observed that a woman’s perception of herself can dry the milk supply and the study was suggestive therefore that the opposite would also be true, that someone believing they were pregnant would be able to produce milk. This explains somewhat why Alexandra was able to have these symptoms.
The mind and body are connected by the pituitary gland, the part that controls hormones. Biochemical changes in the brain from strong emotions such as stress produce increased hormone release that can produce physical changes consistent with pregnancy. The reader should consider whether Alexandra’s famed phantom pregnancy was caused by pseudocyesis, molar disorder or that she was so overly stressed to produce an heir that her body caused amenorrhea and other symptoms.
Master Philippe de Lyon
(public domain – colour TA)
Nicholas had become quite attached to M. Philippe and sought his opinion from time to time whereas Alexandra saw him as the tonic that brought her reassurance. She prayed for hours daily seeking divine intervention as well as seeking mystic guidance. Maria Feodorovna warned Alexander and Nicholas with a report that she had been given by the chief of the Russian secret police in France, Pyotr Rachkovsky, which provided evidence of M. Philippe’s bad ways – and she was shocked when Nicholas removed him for revealing such nonsense.
Alexandra’s confessor, Bishop Theophane (from here on referred to as just Theophane), whom the Imperial couple were very fond of, advised them to reconsider their devotion to the occultist ways of M. Philippe and asked whether their disappointment at not yet producing an heir was a warning from God. The rumours about the so-called phantom pregnancy were rampant that Alexandra had given birth to another girl and it was removed from court or that she gave birth to a freak child which had to be disposed of.
Considering the embarrassing situation M. Philippe had very publicly brought upon them (in convincing her that she was pregnant) and the considerable consternation it caused within the extended family, he then had the temerity to blame Alexandra for resorting to her own physicians which he said showed her lack of divine faith in him and God and which was why the pregnancy had ended without a child.
Needless to say M. Philippe was banished from court, some say by Nicholas, some by Alexandra; suffice that they jointly agreed to dismiss him. He returned to his village in France where he lived until his death in 1905.
Painting by Friedrich Kaulbach 1903, court painter to King George V, of Alexandra Feodorovna. It was Nicholas’ favourite image of her.
(public domain, edited)
The drugs legacy
In the world of mysticism at the turn of the century the connection between drugs and hypnotics was studied widely, particularly in Russia. Given M. Philippe’s intense interest in hypnotics he would have familiarised himself with the works of Russian medical doctors such as Dr N.O. Buhnow and Dr V. Bekherev who were at the front of scientific pioneering.
He would have known about Alexandra’s fears, that she believed she had a heart condition, insomnia, suffered with excessive worry, panic and lethargy, and had physical pains like in her back, and of her evident chronic depression. It’s been suggested that she may have been an hyperchondriac.
The image of her is that she was lazy and a recluse. A closer look at her life shows the incredible work load she undertook, attending functions, charities, opening hospitals, patron of this and that. Some books describe how she could hardly walk at the end of the day which is familiar to any hard working individual.
The one consideration that would interfere with health is drug use. M. Philippe was probably looking in the right direction in prescribing Adonis Vernalis and Barbital for her, the two drugs she was taking up to her untimely death. Both are concoctions with hypnotic characteristics. Adonis Vernalis to regulate her pulse and Barbital to help with insomnia and anxiety, both having a sedative effect.
In 1879 Dr N.O. Buhnow introduced alcoholic extracts of Adonis Vernalis making a herbal tincture that acts as a cardiac stimulant similar to digitalis. the glycocides in the plant are the sedative. Dr Vladimir Bekherev in 1898 mixed the Adonis Vernalis extracts with sodium bromide (a known irritant of the respiratory tract,) to treat heart diseases and various other conditions such as dystonia and epilepsy.
Both drugs are based on Adonis Vernalis which is a poison in large doses; in animals it causes vomiting and diarrhoea, The combined effect of two sedatives would explain Alexandra’s eventual slide into lethargy and one can only wonder whether it contributed in preventing an otherwise healthy pregnancy, perhaps it had even caused the molar pregnancy if that is what she had.
Additionally, Barbital which was introduced as a sleeping aid in 1903 and marketed as Veronal from 1904, was the first barbiturte (i.e. depressant) requiring higher doses over time for the sedative and hypnotic properties to remain effective. Codeine can be used instead of sodium bromide which is an opiate that is addictive.
Dr Bekherev was interested in mental suggestion which he said was different than hypnosis. Barbital is a drug that leaves you very susceptible to suggestion, like believing you’re pregnant maybe. When you consider M. Philippe’s intervention in Alexandra’s psyche then it becomes plausible that it led to a phantom pregnancy. By 1914 Alexandra was still using it and confessed to a friend, “I’m literally saturated with it.“
Pt 5 – Industrialisation & War
In 1902 Nicholas had appointed the reactionary Vyacheslav Plehve as his Minister of the Interior. His attempts to suppress reformers led to a speech in 1903 where Plehve warned them:
“Western Russia some fifty per cent of the revolutionaries are Jews, and in Russia generally – some forty per cent. I shall not conceal from you that the revolutionary movement in Russia worries us but you should know that if you do not deter your youth from the revolutionary movement, we shall make your position untenable to such an extent that you will have to leave Russia, to the very last man!“
Having displayed great opulence in February 1903 with the grand ball, a number of anarchistic organisations began to appear despite Plehve’s warnings. The Chernoznamentzy formed from peasants, factory workers, Jews and students, calling for death to the bourgeois. The opposition to autocracy that Nicholas had inherited from his forebears was always present since Alexander III had severely persecuted the non-Russians that made up half of the population.
In Finland the Russian governor was encountering rebellion and was given more powers by decree which allowed him to imprison anyone for virtually anything. The order was short and broadly scoped, it included powers:
- To forbid any kind of public or private gatherings.
- To dissolve private associations and their branches.
- To forbid persons regarded by him as detrimental to political order and public tranquillity from residing in Finland.
In August, the revolutionary Vladimir Lenin split the Russian Socialist Democratic Labour Party in to three factions, Mensheviks, Bolsheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries. This allowed over the ensuing years for a socialist agenda to lead a rebellion in 2005 and a revolution in 1917.
The financial crisis
The Russian financial crisis of 1899-1902 was self-inflicted by the large-scale investments made by banks in loans to heavy industrial companies as working capital in the 1890s. These loans had high interest rates but could not be readily liquidated when urgently required. Between 1899 and 1904 a worker’s wealth increased by nearly 10% but almost 40% of that was wiped away by inflation.
The response by government was to work with banks to prop up the large industries where necessary, to protect the initial investments. This limited the credit available for smaller companies. Between 1900 and 1904 large industrial companies prospered while smaller companies declined. Metal works were the largest employer accounting for 60% of factory workers, the Putilov Works employed 30,000 workers making it the world’s largest factory.
In 1900 the huge mining industry increased output by 5.3%. Yet over the same period the price of coal fell by 35.3% (oil by 57.3%, cast iron by 33.7%). In response to rising inflation and decreasing prices the larger companies downsized their labour and maximised their efficiency.
How could large industry increase output and profit when prices fell so much and while they were reducing labour by an average of 3% per year? It’s not surprising that between 1897-99 coal mines became over six times more dangerous for workers and the first unions appeared in 1903 following the worsening conditions. Strikes took place in 65 of the 78 Russian provinces. They started in the south, localised, and became general strikes in 1903 and 1904.
Employers refused their demands initially but as regional strikes became general strikes with increasing demands, employers were compelled to negotiate and workers received a wage rise and better conditions. Unlike in the past when protesting was met with a wall of soldiers, these strikes did a lot of good. However the hard liners gave it a political character by using slogans like down with autocracy or long live the democratic republic.
Normal people don’t protest against oppressive regimes for fear of their lives, that’s where activists come in. Having much success in collective bargaining the hard-liners were given a short-term momentum that they carried to the Red Square and to the Tsar himself in the form of a letter addressed directly to him from the people.
There were around 2.3 million industrial workers in Russia and the majority did not seek to bring down the tsar or bring in socialism. In their minds the tsar was not associated with the government and its policies and their own every day lives. And they were right, it was the government that was to blame, namely Sergei Witte the Minister of Finance between 1892-1903.
Witte had been a politician under the previous two emperors and commanded much authority. His role as Finance Minister was during the time of the financial crisis. He was on a mission to increase the speed of Russia’s industrial development and the skills shortage needed to be overcome by bringing in foreign engineers. He relied on foreign investors for much of the investment for industrial growth.
Witte’s policy for industrialisation had worked and by 1900 Russia was producing three times as much iron as in 1890 and more than twice as much coal. But for the reasons outlined, investments and commitments to repay foreign investors tied up the economy and having been successful in modernising Russia’s industrial base, Witte had unwittingly created a financial crisis.
Count Sergei Yulyevich Witte
(public domain – colour TA)
The Trans-Siberian Railway 1891 – 1916
Keeping Manchuria and Vladivostok supplied and reinforced was completely reliant on the Trans-Siberian Railway. The huge project of creating the longest railway line in the world (4,960 miles) from Moscow to Vladivostok, began in March 1891 by Alexander III. Nicholas II served as chairman of the Siberian Railroad Committee and laid the first stone of the Ussuri Railway near Vladivostok in May 1891, officially inaugurating the commencement of works which he supervised until its completion in May 1916.
Transport cars being dragged across the ice of Lake Baikal by horses. When the line opened passengers took a ferry across the lake and picked up a new train to continue the journey.
(public domain – colour TA)
A railway line already existed from St Petersburg to Moscow built in 1851. The government did not invest in Siberian infrastructure due to the small number of enterprises but it would become important eventually to transport cheap grain from the interior to the west and to transport troops and supplies to the east.
Roads through Siberia were rough where they existed and frozen rivers became roads for some months of the year. Steam ferries were used but limited. Having surveyed extensively for ten years it was concluded that a railway was viable.
At the start of construction the country was thrown into famine 1891-1892, 85% of the population lived in the countryside working in agriculture, 77% of the population were peasants. The famine drove many to seek employment elsewhere so it’s a tragedy that instead of using localised labour much of the railway was built using thousands of prisoners.
Over 3,500 civil engineering structures were built, 100 million cubic metres of earth was moved, more than one million tons of tracks laid, 100 kilometres of bridges, tunnels and retaining walls built. 16 rivers and 87 towns crossed.
The first trains began to transfer passengers from Moscow to Vladivostok in 1903. The Trans-Siberian Railway served regions that possessed more than 80% of natural resources such as coal, oil, gas, and timber. The bottle-neck was at Lake Baikal where going around was difficult so two train ferries were used while the track continued to be built to by-pass the largest freshwater lake in the world. Construction of this large section was done by the hard labour of prisoners from Aleksandrovsky prison.
Ice breaker steam ship Baikal, ferrying trains on the Trans-Siberian Railway across Lake Baikal. Two ferries operated across the lake until a track was completed around it.
(Courtesy, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums – colour TA)
War with Japan 1904 – 1905
The Russo-Japanese War lasted for eighteen months starting on 8 February 1904 when Japan broke off diplomatic relations and attacked the great fortress of Port Arthur, the Gibraltar of the far east which symbolised the extent of Russia’s domination. In the words of the Russian Minister of Internal Affairs, “Hold back the revolution, we need a small victorious war“. In 1904 the army and navy were no more ready for war than they had been ten years earlier when Nicholas II became Tsar.
“As far back as 1901 our Headquarter Staff had estimated that in the event of war our Pacific Ocean Fleet would be weaker than Japan’s” — General Alexey Kuropatkin, War Minister
Overtime working became compulsory when manufacturers had military orders to fulfil and the number of strikes fell drastically because the government sent rebellious workers to the front.
War with Japan is one of the six or seven major contributing factors that historians of Russian events say contributed to The First Revolution of 1905. The front was in Manchuria (north-eastern China today). Despite thousands of casualties on the ground it was primarily a naval war that played out around the Korean peninsula – with Grand Duke Alexis Alexandrovich as Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet.
In 1904 three quarters of Russian land was in Asia. Most of the Empire, namely Siberia, is frozen during winter including the Baltic Sea. The Russian fleet was only operational at the shipping base at Vladivostok and from the warmer waters of Port Arthur, Chinese land on the Liaodong Peninsula that had been leased from China in 1897 for 25 years.
Manchuria and Korea are natural buffer zones between China, Russia and Japan, yet Japan and Russia were prepared to go to war for control of Manchuria. Japan had not long finished a war with China in 1895 in which Russia had given military support to China, so Japan knew that China and Russia would jointly oppose any Japanese aggression in Korea. Therefore it offered Russia complete control in Manchuria in exchange for control over Korea.
Russia refused and consequently Japan surprise attacked Port Arthur in the night. The Japanese crippled three of the largest Russian naval vessels with torpedoes; Tsesarevich, Retvizan, and Pallada, and prevented the Russian navy from coming out to engage them at sea. The port was repetitively under bombardment while ships attempted to break out of port without success.
Flagship of the Russian fleet Petropavlovsk hits a mine returning to Port Arthur and sinks 13 April 1904 taking 599 casualties.
(public domain – colour TA)
On 10 August 1904 Nicholas ordered six battleships, four cruisers, and fourteen destroyers to make a break for the open sea and engage the blockading fleet of four battleships, ten cruisers, and eighteen destroyers. This was the first major naval battle between steel battleships, known as the Battle of the Yellow Sea. Casualties were Russian 444 – Japanese 226. The Russians did break out but were scattered and so badly battered that they turned back to port.
By the end of 1904 every ship in Russia’s Pacific fleet was sunk and Russia looked to fetch the Baltic Fleet to the depleted region which after some delays departed on 15 October 1904 on a 20,000 nautical miles journey that would take 8 months to reach the Sea of Japan in May 1905. On the way they mistook some British trawlers in the North Sea for Japanese vessels and sunk them. This meant the British Suez Canal was no longer open to them and so they had to sail around the Cape of Hood Hope,
Russia switched to delay tactics while its Baltic fleet was taking the long way around. Also land reinforcements and supplies to Manchuria were restricted to the Trans-Siberian Railway for transportation and needed time. Meanwhile in Manchuria the Battle of Mukden would be the last major land battle fought. It was possibly the largest battle there had ever been, in terms of munitions. The Japanese surrounded the Russians who retreated to the north. It was a bitter cold battle with 8,705 Russian and 15,892 Japanese casualties.
Japan was receiving intelligence from Britain under the Anglo Japanese alliance of 1902 and were waiting for the Russian fleet when it finally arrived at the Sea of Japan. They sank 24 of the 27 ships of the Russian task force causing 5000 casualties and Japan only losing 3 ships and 116 casualties.
The Russian front, Mukden
(public domain – colour TA)
Nicholas had gone unprepared in to the Manchurian south and sent the aging Pacific and Baltic fleets to face a far more modern adversary and it had all played out with the world watching. The Crimean War (1853-1856) was the first time daily coverage appeared in the media, and the Russo-Japan War was the same, the world’s press witnessed and reported Russia’s defeat. By the spring of 1905 the fleet was finally decimated in the Battle of Tsushima Strait.
Russia had to pull out of Port Arthur and recognise Japan’s claim on Korea. The Russian people knew of the blunders that had cost so many lives and the hardship it had brought them. While the people had braved strikes to improve their living conditions the tsarist regime had hugely overspent and that affected the economy for years after the war ended.
The west saw Japan as an under developed nation even though they boasted the sixth largest army in the world and their navy had some modern British ships. A major part of their total cost for the war (38%) was borrowed from Britain, Canada and the US. Nicholas II could not understand how such a small land mass like Japan could possibly have defeated the huge Russian Empire. It was a gross under-estimation that marked the first time in modern history that an Asian nation had defeated a European one. It also marked the beginning of Japan’s power on the world stage.
In the meantime the Russian people were being told how superior they were while Cossacks were in Manchuria slaying whole villages. The government’s policy of russification forbade the use of local languages and religious customs, not very friendly for the five million Jews and twenty-three million Muslims living in Russia. People had quite simply had enough of the cost of war and cultural persecution.
A rare photo of a pregnant Alexandra next to Nicholas II – 1904
(public domain – colour TA)
Pt 6 – Arrival of an Heir
When the Imperial couple had brought M. Philippe to Russia he had told them to look to providence and strive for spirituality. He made two prophecies; that an heir would be born in 1904 and that a revolution would follow. Before he left Russia he made two more; that it was Seraphim of Sarov that would grant them a son, and that another healer would come after him and speak about God. All of M. Philippe’s predictions would come true.
When Nicholas sponsored the canonisation of Seraphim on 1 August 1903 he also attended the festivities with Alexandra, his mother and other family members – and he paid for the cypress coffin holding the relics. Nicholas and Alexandra bathed in the sacred Sarova River in which Seraphim had once bathed and prayed that he would bless them with a son.
The procession of the shrine of the relics of Seraphim carried by members of the Imperial Family with Nicholas II leading- 1 August 1903
(public domain, picryl archives)
Previous to the intervention by Nicholas, Seraphim was a relatively unknown in the Russian Orthodox Church having died just seventy years earlier but he became one of the most renowned saints in the church for his healing powers and prophecy.
Aged nineteen Seraphim joined the Sarov monastery and moved into the woods living as a hermit for twenty-five years, three of those years he ate only grass. After a short spell back at the monastery he spent 1,000 successive nights in continuous prayer, for which the church deemed to be a miraculous feat of achievement.
Alexandra became pregnant two months after her prayers to Seraphim of Sarov and as her due date neared a newspaper printed what was on everyone’s collective mind; would God grant her a son?
“A few days will decide whether the Tsarina is to be the most popular woman in Russia, or regarded by the great bulk of the people as a castaway – under the special wrath of God.“ — in a newspaper
On display at the Blood & Revolution exhibition
Alexandra Feodorovna’s maternity dress (1903-1904)
(Tony Abbott © 2019)
On 25 August 1904 Alexandra gave birth to an eleven pound boy at the Peterhof Palace. The labour lasted less than an hour but the umbilical cord when cut took several hours for the bleeding to finally stop, which unfortunately would transpire to be a serious health condition. The relief and exhilaration Alexandra must have felt is unimaginable.
The birth affirmed that Nicholas and Alexandra were blessed by God and that they had been right to put their faith in M. Philippe and Seraphim. Nicholas asked Militza to pass on their gratitude to M. Philippe which he received shortly before he died. Nicholas’ sister Olga was more rewarding to Seraphim, “I am sure it was Seraphim who brought it about,“ she wrote.
“Today was a great and unforgettable day for us, when divine grace was bestowed upon us during which we were clearly visited by the grace of God. At 1.30pm Alix delivered a son, we’ve praised the Lord and named him Alexei. There are no words to thank God enough for sending us this comfort in a time of sore trials.“ — Nicholas II
In St Petersburg at the knowledge of an heir, the enormous cannons of the Peter and Paul fortress fired while the cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan started church bells ringing across the city. This is how the people heard the news that a boy had been born.
Upon his birth he held titles with the Cossack regiments and navy, he would wear a Cossack uniform in the winter and a sailor uniform in summer. As Russia was at war with Japan all military soldiers and officers were named honourary godfathers. The new born was shown off to the public at every occasion.
Alexei Nikolaevich Romanov on the day of his christening 6 September 1904
The royal disease
News of a tsarevich spread rapidly and celebrations took place in the villages. The christening twelve days later was like a pageant. It was the first time the young Olga and Tatiana were present at an official ceremony.
A few weeks after the birth the boy was found to be bleeding continuously from his navel. It was about six weeks in that his parents began to notice bruises on his arms and legs and as the weeks rolled on, they noted that he suffered terribly from the faintest of knocks. The awful realisation came to them that Alexei had the royal disease.
The exaggerated bruising and swelling and tummy bleeding were due to haemophilia, a blood clotting condition passed through the family by Queen Victoria. One third of haemophilic cases occur by spontaneous mutation, and this had been the case with Queen Victoria who passed it unwittingly to the European royal houses through marriages, Alexandra being one of the most famous royal carriers of Haemophilia B.
Many years after the executions of Alexei and Anastasia their remains were located in the Ural mountains in 2007. Their bones were sampled in 2009 and a mutation was found showing haemophilia B which is far more rare than haemophilia A, confirming the bones belonged to the Romanov children.
Tsarevich Alexei’s christening day – Peterhof Palace
Doctors confirmed the diagnosis of haemophilia saying that Alexei had a milder form of the disease. Even so, at that time, what is called the Edwardian period in the UK, there was no treatment for it and little way of alleviating the pain. It was regarded as an early death sentence with a life expectancy of between thirteen and sixteen years.
Haemophilia impairs the ability to make blood clots necessary to stop bleeding resulting in longer bleeding, easier bruising, and means being at a serious risk from internal haemorrhaging which is almost impossible to stop. It was the disease that had killed Alexandra’s younger brother Frederick and her uncle Leopold. Her sister Irene, married to first cousin Prince Henry of Prussia, also was a carrier and passed it to her two sons.
In Russia they called it the curse of the Coburgs but Grand Duchess Xenia described it more appropriately as the terrible illness of the English family. In any case Alexei appeared well developed and went through teething normally. As he grew he was quite normal but would have episodes. Alexandra prayed that Divine Providence would intervene and the length between episodes would get longer until the affliction left him. Once, two whole years passed without a single episode but alas it returned.
Staff at the palace didn’t know what the real situation was, it was all kept top secret. There were whispers but no one really understood why Alexei would have sudden illnesses. Even Maria Feodorovna was not told until Alexei was around two years old.
Haemophilia is a disease carried by the female and manifests in the male. The genes associated with it are on the X chromosome which is one of the two sex chromosomes. Females have two X chromosomes and a mutation has to occur in both to cause haemophilia. So a carrier’s son has a 50% chance of having the disorder.
Alexandra and Nicholas must have seen that with Alexei not expecting to survive his teens they were back at the drawing board and required to produce another child. Usually the objective for succession is to have an heir and a spare, as it currently stood Nicholas’ brother Mikhail was next in line to the throne. So one of the mysteries around the family is why they did not set about producing another child.
The Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, once remarked that a family tended to organise itself around its most damaged member. For the Romanovs that had been Alexandra for a long time, now it became Alexei. They had a contingent of medical professionals at their disposal which included doctors, several nurses under an English head nurse and Alexei had his very own nurse.
Tatiana, wrote extensively in her memoirs about the respect the entire family bestowed upon the court physicians. When the family travelled they took their medical care with them. At the palace and on the Imperial Yacht Standart the medical facilities were second to none.
In future years Pierre Gillard, the children’s tutor would say in his memoirs:
“Alexei was the centre of this united family, the focus of all its hopes and affections. His sisters worshipped him. He was his parents’ pride and joy. When he was well, the palace was transformed. Everyone and everything in it seemed bathed in sunshine.“
The Russian psychoanalytic scene was well established, in 1904 for example the Russian translation of Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams appeared nine years before the English edition. In fact the Russian Institute was unique in receiving state support for its activities, including publication of translations of works such as Freud’s.
The Imperial Family had unprecedented access to the medical and psychological pioneers of the day, working in fields of science being advanced in Russia as much as anywhere else, it is somewhat surprising that they should favour putting all their faith in God and mysticism.
Pierre Gilliard with Alexei on the Standart
(public domain – colour TA)
Pt 7 – The First Revolution
The dire news coming back from the front in Manchuria since March 1904, and Port Arthur since April 1904 made people realise that the war with Japan was a lost cause. At the start of 1905 it was still raging in the far reaches of the 14.3 million square miles of the Russian Empire and the effects of it in the west were enough to kindle a revolution.
On 22 January 1905, 140,000 protestors, mainly factory workers, gathered at the Winter Palace in St Petersburg to deliver a petition to the Tsar containing seventeen demands. The document demanded an end to the disastrous war with Japan, and to introduce the reforms that had been previously agreed for improving working conditions, universal suffrage, etc., but had not been applied.
Leading that peaceful protest was Russian Orthodox priest Georgy Gapon. He’d spent a year in Crimea to sort his head out in 1899 and on his return from 1900 had found himself attending to the worries and needs of impoverished families of unemployed factory workers. He was known to associate with hard liners calling for the downfall of the tsar and drew the attention of the Okhrana (secret police) for his dealings with the Assembly of Russian Factory and Mill Workers of St Petersburg, a group that he had headed since 1903.
A petition was a traditional method used in Russia, there was even a Petition’s Officer in Moscow to deliver documents to. It could be sent to the Petitions Officer or handed directly to palace aides or even the Tsar himself if he was at home. Gapon had delivered the petition a week earlier with a notification that he intended to lead a march to the Winter Palace on the coming Sunday. The petition’s social and economic demands were so basic that the three major political bodies (Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, and Socialist Revolutionaries,) disapproved of the march because it lacked political content.
It really was a protest march against the government and not the monarchy. Ordinary people blamed the government for their problems and believed that if the Tsar was made aware of their discontent he would help them. But the government and the Tsar saw only social unrest in these demonstrations.
Bloody Sunday – Russian Revolution 22 January 1905. Imperial guards wait outside the Winter Palace, St Petersburg.
(public domain – colour TA)
Versions differ on what happened next. One says Nicholas wanted to make an appearance to the crowd thinking that they would be appeased and disperse but his advisors persuaded him to leave on the eve of the march for Tsarskoe Selo. Another version is the other way around, and says that his advisers wanted him to confront the crown but Nicholas thought that if the people knew he wasn’t there then the march would be cancelled, so he arranged for a special train to take him and his family to Tsarskoe Selo on the preceding evening.
On the day of the march crowds formed at various locations across St Petersburg, waving religious icons and singing God save the Tsar. The guards were typically confused, some crowds were left alone, at some the guards actually joining in innocently enough, at others barriers stopped people gathering and then at a few places the crowd was fired upon, such as on Palace Square outside the Winter Palace where 3,000 protestors had hoped for a response to their petition.
Gapon was not at the march on Palace Square but led a column near the Narva Gate at Stachek Square, about three and a half miles west of the Winter Palace. His group was fired upon causing 40 deaths. Most of the other groups were unaware of any shootings and deaths, so the main group continued marching to Palace Square. As they arrived they were met by two lines of Cossacks with orders not to let anyone on to the square.
As the protestors moved in to the square a bugle sounded the order to fire. In other groups that had met with a military response they were cut down by sword-wielding Cossacks on horses. The number of deaths varies widely depending on versions, the government said under 100 had died, the hard-liner Leon Trotsky said that hundreds died and the more radical anti-establishment groups put the figure at around 4,000 deaths. Academic literature about Bloody Sunday settles on between 150-200 deaths.
In a letter of 27 January 1905 from Alexandra to her cousin Princess Louise of Battenberg, she writes the following:
“All over the country, of course, it is spreading. The Petition had only two questions concerning the workmen and all the rest was atrocious: separation of the Church from the Government, etc., etc. Had a small deputation brought, calmly, a real petition for the workmens’ good, all would have been otherwise. Many of the workmen were in despair when they heard later what the petition contained, and begged work again under the protection of the troops.“ — Alexandra Feodorovna
Artist impression of Bloody Sunday in Palace Square
(public domain – colour TA)
The massacre became known as Bloody Sunday and the generals that were responsible had been the same ones that had caused the calamity at Khodynka in 1986. On both occasions they had fired on peaceful protestors. Had Nicholas dealt with them on the first occasion, there may well have been no Bloody Sunday in history. After this people no longer believed their Tsar was ruling in their interest, or was even capable of ruling at all.
Bloody Sunday was like a champagne cork popping from decades of discontent that had culminated with this event. Nicholas at an emergency meeting with ministers at Tsarskoe Selo, was asked to consider political concessions to appease the people and at the same time it would lay a foundation for the reforms he had promised. He replied to them that they were talking as if a revolution might break out at any moment, at which he was told: “your majesty the revolution has already started.“
The following day Nicholas published a rescript (i.e. an official announcement,) promising a consultative assembly allowing religious tolerance and freedom of speech. The uprising had convinced him to act and he responded by announcing his intention to establish an elected duma (assembly) to advise the government,
But the revolt would not go away and disorders increased and became more aggressive. On 17 February 1905, Nicholas’ uncle Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich was assassinated at the Moscow Kremlin by a bomb. In the next few months 90% of factories were on strike, peasants were rising up all across the country, army units were refusing to obey orders and the crew of the battleship Potemkin mutinied.
The Imperial court had moved briefly to Alexander Palace subsequently relocated to the Peterhof Palace. The Imperial Family were also at Alexandra Palace permanently. Nicholas was asked by his ministers not to undertake any journeys by land in the years between 1905-1909. This was agreeable to the reclusive family. Nicholas disliked St Petersburg for not being traditional enough and Alexandra did not trust the high society in St Petersburg or even Moscow saying of it, “Moscow is a rotten town, and not one atom Russian.”
The document ending the war with Japan was signed on 5 September 1905 and a month later Nicholas signed the October Manifesto which addressed the demands made in the peoples’ January petition that Gapon had delivered.
Grand Duke Nikolai Romanov, Nicholas’ second cousin, was more critical of the way the events were being handled, he said:
“The government (if there is one) continues to remain in complete inactivity, a stupid spectator to the tide which little by little is engulfing the country.“
Dmitry Merejkovsky was a Russian writer and poet (nine times nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature). He was taken by the annihilation of the Russian Fleet by Japan and blamed it on “… the anti-Christian nature of the Russian monarchy.“ The First Revolution of 1905 he saw as a blank canvas to reform the church, meaning the severing of ties between state and religion.
“In the house of the Romanovs, as in that of the Atrides, a mysterious curse descends from generation to generation. Murder and adultery, blood and mud, the fifth act of a tragedy played in a brothel. Peter I kills his son; Alexander I kills his father; Catherine II kills her husband. The block, the rope, and poison – these are the true emblems of the Russian autocracy.“ — Dmitry Merejkovsky, commenting on the 1905 Revolution
Protestors at a rally, October 1905
(public domain, picryl archives)
The State Dumas
The revolution had achieved among many things the establishment of a State Duma sharing with the Tsar and government the power to make laws. Alexandra was not happy with this, and with her fanatical beliefs in absolute autocracy she made it her duty to reassert the powers limited by the reforms of 1905. She was concerned only with protecting the powers that would pass to her son and this made Nicholas inflexible to the reforms that were needed to drag Russia in to the 20th Century.
The first things the new Duma looked at were concerned with land and peasants. It had many dissident members that turned meetings in to political side shows that became a thorn in the side. Their anti-autocracy sentiment was blazingly evident. They had been given limited powers and while the decent members wanted to discuss better working conditions the hard-liners asked for the release of political prisoners and were hell bent on attacking the government, at one time even demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Ivan Goremykin. This was too much and Nicholas used a ‘ukase’ (an Imperial decree with the force of law,) to dismiss the Duma after just 72 days on 21 July 1906. He told them that instead of making laws they were investigating the government and thereby questioning his authority.
The creation of a Duma did not appease the people as their conditions remained the same. Industrial workers were steadfast and strikes continued and these outbreaks were dealt with brutally. Between October 1905 and April 1906, roughly 15,000 peasants and workers were killed, 20,000 received injuries and 45,000 were sent in to exile in Siberia.
The Second Duma convened in February 1907. Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin tried to restrict entry of known dissidents but still the proceedings became a platform for socialists and once again Nicholas closed it down after three months on 16 June 1907.
Many of the First Duma representatives regrouped in Vyborg, (an autonomous part of the Russian Empire that would later become Finland,) to collaborate on a document promoting defiance such as non-payment of taxes and draft dodging, known as the Vyborg Manifesto. Stolypin rounded up the Duma members involved and around 100 were imprisoned for several months.
Stolypin was dealing with insurgents that were engaging in terrorism and their imprisonment only served to upscale activities. Up to the end of October 1906, no less than 3,611 government officials of all ranks had been killed or wounded. Stolypin’s own house had been bombed and his family injured (he was ultimately assassinated in September 1911). He established a special court to deal with terrorists which in the first six months passed 1,042 death sentences and a further 3,000 were hanged by 1909. The Third Duma then met on 14 November 1907 and ran for a full term of five years.
The First Revolution was a remarkable achievement given the establishment of 450 years of autocratic rule. It had transformed autocratic rule to a semi-constitutional monarchy and in retrospect was a general rehearsal for the next revolution that would come in 1917, largely due again to autocratic inflexibility.
On the world stage Russia was seen as harsh having a tyrant for a leader who thought of himself equal with God. The following is a clipping from a US newspaper, (the Black Hundreds were the rich class, pro autocracy and anti-semitic groups in Russia):
“Eastertide in Russia will probably see another massacre of these people (Jews, and neither age or sex is spared). Nicholas will not raise a hand. The ‘vicegerent of the Almighty’ as he blasphemously styles himself, will tacitly permit this slaughter of his children. Count Witte seems to be powerless. The grand dukes are now in the saddle again, and only wait the propitious moment to give word to the Black Hundreds to begin the dreadful slaughter. Such is the Russia of today.” — The Herald Democrat, US, 1 April 1906
The Third Duma was dominated by landowners and businessmen and was the only Duma that ran its full term. The Fourth Duma convened on 15 November 1912 but only held five sessions and was finally dissolved in 1917 following the Revolution that overthrew the government.
A group of deputies of the Third State Duma – 17 October 1912
Pt 8 – Rasputin
Against the backdrop of war, revolution and fear for Alexei’s haemophilic condition, Grigori Yefimovich Novykh was revealed to the Empress of Russia. On hearing that M. Philippe had died on 2 August 1905, Alexandra turned once again to Militza who made her aware of a new mystic doing the salon circuit in St Petersburg and who was as devout a Russian Orthodox Christian as Nicholas and Alexandra were.
Grigori Yefimovich Novykh (Rasputin)
Some people first learn about Rasputin as the ‘mad monk’ that arrives at the Russian court and has an affair with the Tsarina. There’s more to it than that, firstly he was not known as Rasputin when he arrived in St Petersburg, he was never a monk and he did not have an affair with the Empress; this much is known. However there is a lot of other stuff that isn’t known about him which creates all the speculation and conjecture.
Mostly he is described as a beast of malodorous appearance, a defiler of peasant women and lover to women of nobility. This may suit a plot where conflict is necessary for selling books but more recently his life has been looked at with a fresh approach with some writer’s saying he was actually a very humble and decent person. The reader must ascertain which seems the more likely.
That he was a peasant and a devout Christian of the Russian Orthodox Church is undeniable, and even with his future connections to the Imperial court he always remained poor. He is described as a manipulator and political wrangler yet also as being unintelligent and ignorant of the world, so which was it? His primitive manner and dishevelled appearance is documented by all, having a certain naivety in knowing how to present himself, lacking simple norms of personal grooming. The negative behaviour that he is famed for appears to be connected to his frequent intoxication, so this leaves an honest and unkempt man when sober that is intolerable and indiscrete when drunk.
The name Rasputin is ubiquitously translated as ‘debauched’ or ‘licentious’ in Russian, but some historians believe it means ‘where rivers meet’, a landmark identifying the area in the Tobolsk region of Siberia where he was born perhaps. There are indeed two major rivers that join near his place of birth; the Tavda and Tobol.
Rasputin was born around 1869 to a peasant family in Pokrovskoe, Siberia. Receiving little or no schooling some villagers said he possessed prophetic powers, some also said that he could be extremely cruel. From the first off it seems he is compromising every woman he comes across, indeed the evidence for this is compelling, yet Theodora Krarup in her memoirs strongly refutes him as a womaniser and writes that he was a kind person without ambition. She was perhaps or maybe not one of his conquests but she certainly knew him well having painted sixteen live portraits of him.
His first major decision was to enter the Verkhoturye monastery. Presumably his excessive indulgence in sensual pleasures had already started because he soon left that calling returning to Pokrovskoe to get married at nineteen years old, perhaps because the girl was pregnant. He would have two daughters. Therefore Rasputin was never a monk having simply visited the monastery for a short while.
In his early twenties he upped and left again. This time claiming that he travelled first to Greece and then to the Middle East making several pilgrimages to Jerusalem. In 1902 he appears in Kazan in the south of Russia (approx 870 miles southwest of Pokrovskoe and 500 miles east of Moscow). There he gained a reputation as a holy man but there were also insinuations that he had sexual exploits with female followers.
Despite the rumours, he secured from the church a letter of recommendation and produced it to Bishop Iliodor (Sergei Mikhailovich Trufanoff,) the rector of the St Petersburg Theological Seminary (who would go on to become the head of the Russian Orthodox Church between 1925–1943).
Arrival in St Petersburg
Rasputin arrived in St Petersburg in 1903 and quickly established a reputation for his healing abilities and prophetic powers. His doctrine was of rebirth through the experience of sin. In order to be truly forgiven through holy communion one must first be immersed in sin, this included-self flagellation. He created a cult following of mainly female admirers, who became his spiritual slaves and he would instruct them on holy life and go to church and pray with them.
The story of Rasputin’s arrival in St Petersburg then picks up with him making an acquaintance with Madame Lochtina, the wife of a counsellor of state from the memoirs of Iliodor, whose account can be considered somewhat elaborated as will be discussed further on.
He is the main person that mentions Lochtina and claimed to own her extensive collection of diaries. He tells how Rasputin cured Lochtina’s son of a serious illness that her doctors couldn’t treat. She was so ecstatic that she left her life behind and joined the Verkhouturye convent in the Urals on the Tavda River north of Tyumen. Rasputin then looked after her mansion in St Petersburg and held salons there.
What likely happened was that Rasputin had found a highly susceptible person whom he hypnotised, seduced and then made use of her residence for his purpose. Iliodor makes no bones about her feebleness in his book The Mad Monk of Russia – life, memoirs, and confessions of Sergei Michailovich Trufanoff.
“She left her husband, her two sons, and her daughter Lada, and began to wear queer dresses, decorating herself from head to foot with all kinds of ribbons, crosses, and icons. She wore a hat of camel’s hair with the inscription, ‘In me lies all power. Hallelujah!’ In this attire she would come to the palace, where she spent all her time drinking tea with the Imperial Family, and interpreting the wise sayings and prophecies of Father Gregory.“ — Iliodor
Theophane (who was introduced earlier as Alexandra’s confessor,) had been very critical of M. Philippe at the end of 1902. In 1903 Theophane was made Bishop and had received Rasputin in St Petersburg that same year and introduced him to aristocratic salons. He was convinced in Rasputin’s healing powers. Eventually Rasputin asked to meet with the Tsar believing it to be his destiny. Theophane advised the Imperial couple to receive him and in due course introduced him to Nicholas and Alexandra on 1 November 1905 at the Peterhof Palace.
Rasputin took with him a hand-painted wooden icon of Saint Simeon as a gift. Simeon of Verkhoturye is a Russian Orthodox saint and the patron saint of the Ural region, the spiritual centre of Siberia. The patron’s feast day was soon approaching on 31 December 1905.
From then on Nicholas and Alexandra continued to take great interest in Saint Simeon. The monastery at Verkhotuye had been built ten years after the village had been founded and it was the first monastery in Russia’s Asian territory. With Nicholas’ patronage the cathedral on the monastery grounds was upgraded between 1905-1913 which demonstrates the influence that Rasputin came to have.
Nicholas recorded in his diary: “Alexandra made the acquaintance of a man of God – Grigory, from Tobolsk province“. This completed the predictions M. Philippe had made before his death; a son had been born, a revolution had followed, and they had met a man that was talking to them about God.
Rasputin and his followers at one of their regular salon sessions, note the telephone hanging on the wall, c1914.
Following the introductory meeting at Peterhof Palace Rasputin left for his home town Pokrovskoe returning to St Petersburg to attend a second meeting with the Imperial couple on 18 July 1906. A third meeting followed in October 1906 when he met the children for the first time at Tsarskoe Selo. By this time Rasputin’s popularity in St Petersburg was second to none and he was in high demand at street salons with people believing in the strength of his prayers.
Someone as high ranking as Alexandra would have several ladies in waiting. One such was Anna Taneyeva who joined Alexandra in 1905 and became her confidant. She was plump, featureless and said to be unintelligent and dull. Her parents had worked at the court of the preceding two emperors. She did not stay at the palace and had a reasonable house nearby.
Towards the end of March 1907 Alexandra asked Militza to introduce Anna Taneyeva to Rasputin. In her memoirs Anna said how she was struck by his piercing eyes. She became one of his ardent followers and a religious bond was formed between Rasputin and the Palace. One account says that Nicholas appointed Rasputin as his lamp-lighter so that he could be slightly compensated for his efforts in attending the palace as he was never paid any fees for his visits. It was his job to keep the lamps burning in front of religious icons and thus he could come and go as he pleased.
This is rejected in one version that says there was never such a position of lamp-lighter at the palace and that meetings with Rasputin did not take place at the palace. Instead they took place at the house of Anna Taneyeva where Alexandra liked to meet away from the palace and prying eyes. This is the preferred version as Rasputin only starts visiting Alexander Palace informally from 1908 when Alexandra calls him in desperation over Alexei’s health.
Anna Taneyeva was in daily attendance with Alexandra and no one understood her and Rasputin better than she did. In an interview she gave at her home in Finland well after the executions of 1918, she confirmed the meetings between Alexandra and Rasputin had taken place at her house in Tsarskoe Selo.
The house of Anna Taneyeva, Tsarskoe Selo c1905
(public domain – colour TA)
Rasputin made an Easter visit to Alexander Palace with Theophane on 6 April 1907. They met in the palace dining room, Alexandra with Alexei in her arms. According to Theophane they were discussing Russia when suddenly Rasputin jumped up and knocked his fist on the table and stared straight at the Tsar who was startled; Alexandra stood up, Alexei started crying and Theophane was apprehensive. Rasputin asked “Where do you feel a throbbing, here or there?” pointing to the Tsar’s head and heart.
Nicholas pointed to his heart, “Here.” “Good,” said Rasputin “when you are about to do something for Russia, consult your heart, and not your brain. The heart is more certain than the brain.” At which Alexandra kissed Rasputin’s hand and said, “Thanks, teacher.”
Alexandra helped in arranging the marriage between Anna Taneyeva and war veteran Alexander Vyrubov which took place on 30 April 1907. Rasputin warned Anna Taneyeva before her wedding that it would not work out and sure enough the couple divorced after eighteen months, One account is that he was horribly wounded and the marriage was never consummated. Another account says that he was outraged by her being the go-between for Alexandra and Rasputin and in any case she came to be so integrated with palace life that she simply had no interest in her husband and divorced him.
Rasputin’s next visits to the palace were on 19 June 1907 and on 12 August 1907. He was also invited by Stolypin to pray for his daughter who had been left with broken legs following the failed assassination attempt when his house had been bombed in 1906. Stolypin would later turn against Rasputin as he immersed himself in to the Imperial court. Alexandra believed Rasputin was the one prophesised by M. Philippe, they seen a few mystics since but none as gifted.
Once, Alexandra sent Nicholas a loch of Rasputin’s hair which he carried believing in its magic. Nicholas was an obsessive believer in soothsayers and portents and carried all sorts of relics of saints with him. According to Felix Yussoupoff (the man who would help orchestrate Rasputin’s murder in 1916,) Rasputin gave them drugs which he got from Pyotr Badmayev, one of several Tibetan brothers that were licensed to practice medicine in St Petersburg. Badmayev had converted from Buddhism to Orthodoxy and was known for translating the Tibetan book of traditional medicine ‘Gyushi‘.
Portrait of Rasputin by Danish court artist Theodora Krarup – 1915
(public domain, picryl archives)
Danish artist Theordora Krarup (1862-1941) arrived in St Petersburg in 1895 as a portrait painter for the Imperial court. She also painted portraits for other prominent and well-to-do clientele in Russia. Among her clients was Rasputin who often visited her studio on Nevsky Prospekt. She painted sixteen portraits of which only a handful survive today. In her memoirs she records her first meeting with him:
“My impression of him was not so that I felt like immediately throwing myself on my knees as I later saw so many women do . . . but I cannot deny that from his person flowed a great – one can safely say domineering – power.”
Suspicions at court
Alexandra and Nicholas wanted to verify their impression of Rasputin and asked several people to make his acquaintance. Alexandra dispatched Anna Vyrubova and Theophane to Rasputin’s village Pokrovskoe to do some digging. Stolypin separately ordered for information be gathered from the Tobolsk regional office.
They both returned with favourable accounts. Stolypin’s report however was unfavourable, He reported that ‘the man was truly of a deplorable morality‘. But the Imperial couple had already made up their mind about Rasputin, and had trusted him from the outset believing in his prayers to cure Alexei and that their miracle healer had been sent from God.
In the summer of 1907 Alexandra sent for Rasputin late at night when Alexei was having a severe episode of internal bleeding. He stood at the foot of Alexei’s bed praying for a few hours until the bleeding stopped. The next morning Alexi’s auntie Olga Alexandrovna reported that Alexei was well. After that Rasputin was called whenever he was needed to attend to Alexei’s bleeding. Alexandra would call him on the telephone believing that Alexei only had to hear his voice to recover.
Iliodor recorded that in 1905 Rasputin used Madame Lochtina to engage Nicholas and Alexander on religious matters and mysticism. Iliodor in his book states that Lochtina helped to position Rasputin so that he could have influence over the Imperial Family. Coincidently when this is achieved Lochtina is removed from the story and Anna Taneyeva appears also in 1905 as Alexandra’s confidant and another of Rasputin’s loyal followers.
[Madame Lochtina] “She was a proud, clever, highly educated woman of unusually stubborn disposition who, before her acquaintance with the saint [Rasputin], had been considered virtually the first lady in society for her beauty and her exquisite gowns. She devoted herself to Rasputin partly, at least, in order to acquire with him power over the czar and the czarina, and inasmuch as only ‘prophets’ and ‘prophetesses’ could exert this influence, she soon began to play the part of one of these.“ — Iliodor
This is an important consideration because the relationship between Rasputin and Anna Vyrubova is often not mentioned but another coincidence arises from 1907 that whenever Alexei had an episode, Rasputin was close by and somehow was able to make the pain or bleeding stop. This suggests an accomplice. According to Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden (who was to become a lady-in-waiting of Alexandra’s in 1913,) the fact that Rasputin and Anna Vyrubova both turned up at the Imperial court in 1905 was no coincidence, she called it fortunate timing.
Buxhoeveden was convinced Rasputin had a source of information from within the palace. If he had not been called for, he would appear at the right time to intervene in Alexei’s recovery. She was not alone in her suspicions, others at court gossiped that Alexei was being administered irritant drugs that were discontinued at the appropriate time when Rasputin was due to appear and that Rasputin simply had to hang about for a few hours for the miracle to play out.
Anna Vyrubova with Alexandra Feodorovna
(public domain – colour TA)
Iliodor (Sergius Trufanoff) had been a short-term ally of Rasputin that eventually turned against him and recorded many of his misdeeds. He studied at the St Petersburg Theological Academy and in 1903 was ordained as a ‘hieromonk’ i.e. both a priest and monk in the Russian Orthodox Church – and he took the name Iliodor.
In Iliodor’s memoirs he includes a short biographical account that was dictated by Rasputin to his secretary Aron Simanovich. In the foreword Iliodor states that everything he has written was seen and heard by him or produced from the evidence held in his possession. The reader should consider that although Iliodor offers valuable insight, he was a controversial and discredited figure, defrocked and exiled, who went on to make money from his renditions, even starring in a silent movie The Fall of the Romanovs (1918) in which he played himself. It was mentioned earlier that details are malleable when it comes to selling books.
He names two accomplices that wanted to remain in favour with Alexandra; Anna Vyrubova and Pyotr Badmayev. (the Tibetan pharmacist and physician,) suggesting that whenever the need required it, a yellow powder was administered to Alexei that made him ill without endangering his life. Badmayev provided the powder and Rasputin and Anna Vyrubova found opportunities to administer it.
Iliodor went as far as saying that Rasputin had confessed to him that the Tsarina had neglected him of late and that all it would take was ‘the little yellow powder‘ to restore her faith in him again.
“As soon as the tsarevich became ill, Vyrubova would remind the Tsarina that Rasputin alone could restore him to health. Rasputin would appear and the illness would immediately vanish, the powders having been discontinued. Then Rasputin would be in high favour again and would be allowed everything he desired.“ — Iliodor
Then there are the entries made by a second cousin to Anna Vyrubova, Yulia Smolskaia. In 1907 she married Carl Akimovich von Dehn, one of the naval officers from the Standart, and was known thereafter as Lili Dehn, After her marriage she became a lady-in-waiting to Alexandra. Through her connections with Alexandra and Anna Vyrubova, she came to call on Rasputin to pray over her son one time when he was dangerously ill, and he quickly recovered.
Although her son got well again, Lili was insistent that coincidence alone was responsible for Rasputin’s so-called healing power. a view shared by several members of the extended Imperial Family, such as Maria Feodorovna. Lili Dehn was of the opinion that Rasputin was only at the palace because Alexandra could not admit that she had been wrong about him.
The reason Rasputin and Anna Vyrubova appeared to conspire against Alexei is that Alexandra’s personal physician Dr Hirch died and was not replaced until 1908. In due course Anna Vyrubova was sent to inform Dr Eugene Botkin of the Military Medical Academy in St Petersburg, that he had been appointed physician to the Imperial Family.
Those that did not subscribe to the yellow powder plot, such as tutor Charles Sydney Gibbes, were of the belief that Rasputin was using hypnotism and this was the view that Dr Botkin came to share. Dr Botkin would appear to have resisted the pressures from Anna Vyrubova and Rasputin, having his own mind, as a message to his brother suggest that he witnessed others being manipulated.
Dr Eugene Botkin, court physician 1908 – 1918
Dr Botkin and Anna Vyrubova were on friendly terms at first until he refused to befriend and accept Rasputin. He became a loyal and well respected member of the court, well liked by the children. He typically always looked the same with a blue suit and pocket watch, and he used a rather strong scent from Paris. As a pass-time the girls would move from room to room and track him down by his scent.
As the court physician Botkin participated in the welfare of Alexei and his haemophilia, and he would see the girls twice a day at 9am and 5pm to make sure that all was well with them, but mostly he was taking care of Alexandra and dealing with her multiple psycho-somatic ailments. We get an insight into what it was like at the court during this time from a letter he wrote to his brother in the Autumn of 1909 describing the atmosphere around him:
“You would need to have a mind as perverted as theirs and a disordered soul to defeat all of their unbelievable plots. I have decided I am old enough to dare to be myself. I will do the things which I believe to be right and am ready to stand up and defend my actions because they are really my own, and have not been forced upon me“ — Eugene Botkin, court physician, 1909
Despite everything, Alexandra found no assurances from her doctors or the Orthodox Church in curing Alexei. Only Rasputin could stop Alexei’s bleeding at will. In her talks with Anna Vyrubova she came to realise that he was the only answer to her prayers and she was strengthened in her belief that he had been sent to her by God to cure her son and to alleviate her own pains and suffering.
Dr Botkin’s journal monitoring Alexandra’s health from 1913 to 1917. On loan from the State Archive of the Russian Federation for the Blood and Revolution exhibition at the Science Museum, London, 2019.
Soon after Botkin’s letter to his brother, in November 1909, Rasputin and Iliodor journeyed to Pokrovskoe. Along the way Rasputin began telling the most monstrous stories of his life, every one of which Iliodor says he corroborated, “the whole story of which in all its details he described to me in the most shameless way.“
They stopped along the way to rest at Tyumen for the night. There Rasputin met a nun whom he said he had met on a pilgrimage and the trunk-maker Dmitri Dmitrievitch who had a good-looking wife. Iliodor was left to his own and later found out that Rasputin had been alone with the trunk-maker’s wife for several hours and stayed out all night, presumably with the nun.
At Rasputin’s house in Pokrovskoe where Iliodor was hiding out from the authorities, Rasputin with drink began to boast of kissing the Tsarina, Iliodor didn’t believe him so Rasputin produced a stack of letters from a trunk sent by Alexandra and her daughters.
These letters would be leaked. Iliodor said that he hadn’t touched the letters. Another account says he took some of them in the night for evidence. On the question of who leaked the letters to a newspaper, one account is that Iliodor released them to show that Alexander and Rasputin were lovers, and another account says that Iliodor handed the letters to Nicholas and then met Alexandra at Anna Vyrubova’s house and threatened to publish them. The likely scenario is that Iliodor sold the letters for money.
Pt 9 – Seclusion at Tsarskoe Selo
Margaretta Eagar, the children’s nanny that abruptly returned to Ireland in 1904, had decided to leave the Imperial court because of tensions over the Russo-Japan War and her memoirs had Alexandra’s approval, Six Years at the Russian Court, published while the family were still living which means any sensitive revelations are omitted. Up until the family eventually embedded at Tsarskoe Selo in 1905 her book is a viewport in to their every day lives at the Winter Palace. In leaving Russia when she did, she missed The First Revolution, Rasputin and quite possibly her own execution.
The new norm at Alexander Palace
Margaretta’s book may have been respectfully written but in many ways her insight raises some questions. For example, it was asked earlier why was Alexandra so accepting of mysticism; and Margaretta reveals that Alexander was in fact not convinced by it, her scepticism over Father John of Kronstadt proves this and adds weight to the theory that Rasputin induced mesmerism to seduce Alexandra about the merits of his teachings.
“I once suggested to the Empress that he [Father John of Kronstadt] was probably simply a natural hypnotist, who had practiced his powers; however, she was not pleased with the suggestion. Both she and the Emperor look upon these occult sciences with grave suspicion. The Empress says if there is anything in them at all, it is the work of the devil, and is the witchcraft spoken of in the Bible.“ — Margaretta Eagar, Six years at the Russian court, page 39
Nicholas II’s reign saw the fullest development in Russia of the Orthodox Church. He was seen to revive the church amidst the suffocating Lutheran, Jewish and Muslim Churches. Mostly it was done with a heavy hand, pogroms that un-ashamedly massacred whole communities or dispersed religious congregations and the banning of all languages except the Russian — known as russification. The number of Orthodox churches increased by more than 10,000, Nicholas having laid many cornerstones. The number of monasteries increased by 250, and many ancient churches were renovated.
Their religious beliefs were reflected in their family life and the children had a very pure Orthodox upbringing with prayer at the centre of their lives. Outside of Alexander Palace the children knew little of the world, and now that they were also shielded from the revolution happening outside, their world was limited to the grounds within wrought iron gates.
With nothing much to occupy Alexandra she fell back in to depression and sickness, whether real or perceived. Perhaps her health was failing in sympathy with her son whom she knew was destined to die young. For Alexandra and Alexei sickness would be a constant affair for the rest of their lives.
The girls were healthy but had a loneliness visited upon them by their mother who as a result of her depression made herself lonely too. Their confinement was arguably cruel and compounded by their mother’s abandonment as she withdrew for longer periods as her condition worsened. They were treated un-pompously whereas Alexei was allowed to behave as he pleased. It’s surprising that one or more of the girls did not develop a mental health issue, maybe it was because they had each other.
“In short, the whole charm, difficult though it was to define, of these four sisters was their extreme simplicity, candour, freshness, and instinctive kindness of heart.“ — Pierre Gilliard, Thirteen years at the Russian Court
Alexandra Feodorovna (note the camera) with her children, Tsarskoe Selo
(public domain, picryl archives)
In 1908 Alexandra’s heart began to trouble her and she was often not able to attend meals. For most part of the day she lay on a couch or sat in the garden with a nurse for company. She would lock herself away and communicate with written messages and sometimes would send Nicholas very critical messages and later apologise for writing them, stating that it was important that she had aired what she did.
The girls also began communicating this way, Alexandra used a code system numbered one to three to describe her condition or pain level. She might inform them that her heart was at number two which might imply that she didn’t want to receive visitors that day and the children would reply with something like “I’m sorry to hear that your heart is at number two, I miss you so much and long to see you.“ Because of this estrangement the girls grew closer to their father.
What started out a very close knit family was turning into something else, sometimes seemingly uncaring or even harsh, nevertheless they made a comfortable home of Alexander Palace, The girls have sometimes been portrayed blandly or boring even, and of little interest, but they were hugely creative and energetic, each having unique qualities and skills. They created photograph albums, read to each other, Nicholas loved to walk and smoke, Olga and Tatiana did embroidery and drawing, Alexei played with his dog and his donkey called Vanka.
A. A. Mosolov, the Head of Chancellery of the Imperial Court Ministry confirmed that: “Reading was the main pleasure of the imperial couple”. Alexander Palace contained some 18,000 books in the main library rooms with another 6,000 distributed around the family’s own rooms. Nicholas often read to them aloud from Chekhov and Arthur Conan Doyle. One of his favourite authors was Dmitri Merezhovski, who also worked for him as a Privy Councillor.
Alexandra kept many of her wide ranging books in the Mauve Boudoir. In 1903 when she was heavily in to mysticism she was reading works written by the German and Dutch theosophists of the 15th and 16th centuries. These were philosophies that purported that one could get closer to God through spiritual ecstasy.
Alexandra Feodorovna in the Mauve Room with her books
(public domain – colour TA)
Alexei was treated special because he was heir apparent and he had such a debilitating illness. There are varying accounts of his behaviour and what he was or was not allowed to do. He was not allowed to ride a bicycle or horse, or play with his cousins, to avoid potential injury. Yet from the remarkable collection of family photographs that are available today, Alexei is seen riding animals and bicycles without any fuss.
Despite his condition he lived with the disease without grumbling. He enjoyed games, rode on horses and bicycles, went on boats and sleds. Most of all he loved sailing with his father and like the others joined in the family’s love for photography. He was open to all the treatments his mother tried, to the various doctors and mystics that came, and his subjection to prayers and penance.
He has also been described as spoilt. On the one hand he knew he was the heir all too well and loved to exert his authority by teasing the guards and his sisters. Particularly after 1914 Alexei according to some, is arrogant and constantly impressed with his own importance. As this trait develops his father ignores it instead of correcting him. He entirely ignores his duties and even what his mother tells him, and no one is allowed to rebuke him or even contradict him. If anyone displeases him he threatens them with punishment. He beats his sisters and acts like a tyrant over his servants. Perhaps it was all just part of growing up as a future emperor and maybe he was just being a boy.
Alexei with Joy
(public domain, Zlatoust City Museum)
Alexei on horse, 1910
A summer stroll
Rasputin was still at the end of a telephone when reassurance was required, Alexandra instructed the girls to view him as a friend. For example in December 1908, the 13 years old Olga had a crush on Prince John Konstantinovich nine years her senior. He actually travelled to Crimea to enquire about her but he was rejected because Olga was too young. Nevertheless she called Rasputin to pour her heart out and he comforted her. Olga fell in love with a succession of officers as she was growing up. The children called him Father Gregori and trusted his advice implicitly.
But Rasputin was having his own problems in 1907/08, as his behaviour caught up with him. He was investigated by the church over alleged connections to the Khlysty (whips). They were an underground spiritual sect that had split from the Orthodox Church in the 1600s, and were in to self-flagellation and wild dancing.
Khlysty believed they could get closer to God during a state of ecstasy obtained during a ritual of rejoicing (radenie), a similar way of thought to what Rasputin was practising. The report dated 15 May 1908 found no evidence of a connection between Rasputin and the Khlysty. Today historians are of the opinion that Rasputin was not of the Khlysty.
Although the Church’s investigation could find no connection, there is usually some truth behind such accusations. Pierre Gilliard in his book described it thus:
“After a certain time, however, Rasputin’s head was turned by this unexpected rise to fame; he thought his position was sufficiently secure, forgot the caution he had displayed when he first came to St Petersburg, and returned to his scandalous mode of life. Yet he did so with a skill which for a long time kept his private life quite secret. It was only gradually that the reports of his excesses spread and were credited.“ — Pierre Gilliard, Thirteen years at the Russian court
Pierre Gilliard, Dr Botkin and others received total respect from the Imperial Family but there was a sense that where Alexei was concerned, their caring for him was paled by Rasputin who would ultimately be credited for every improvement, whether he was actually present at the time or not. Not even Alexandra and Nicholas gave themselves any credit.
“When, after nights of watching, they had the joy of seeing their young patient out of danger, the improvement was attributed, not to their care and efforts, but to the miraculous intervention of Rasputin!” — Pierre Gilliard
A world of cameras
Have you noticed how old photographs or paintings of royalty depict toddlers of both sexes wearing a dress? It’s only since the advent of cameras that people have noticed this, but it was a European practice for thousands of years common with peasants as well, it was just that peasants couldn’t afford to have their image captured for posterity. Mainly it had to do with toilet training as the fastenings on breeches and the wearing of hose and tights could be rather complicated back then.
King James II of Great Britain is depicted in a dress in a Van Dyke portrait and his son James Francis Edward also wore one. It’s not so common to find Nicholas II wearing a dress as a child and there are a multitude of Alexei thanks to the large photograph collection the family created.
Throughout the Romanov albums you’ll also note plenty of people holding a camera. The family members each had their own and it was an instrument they kept close by like a soldier with his rifle. What started as a hobby with Nicholas turned in to a family obsession.
For the first time ever, the Romanov collection made it possible to see what it was like for an Imperial Family living in their palaces and splendour. These photos were discovered at separate times and various locations, and what is fascinating about them is the revelation that the Romanovs were a relatively modest family just like any other.
A 1690s portrait of Queen Mary (Mary of Modena) wife of King James II of England with her first surviving son, James Francis Edward, by Benedetto Gennari the Younger.
(public domain, picryl archives)
The Tsarevich (future Nicholas II) with mother Maria Feodorovna – (public domain, picryl archives)
The Tsarevich in dress (future Nicholas II) with mother Maria Feodorovna
The world’s first full length movie was taken at the coronation in 1896, but the camera was invented a little earlier and the ‘portable’ camera was invented by American George Eastman in 1888. The Kodak 1 camera was a box (i.e. a dark room.) with glass plates for 100 exposures and you sent everything back for developing. A year later Eastman replaced the plates with a roll of negative film which remained the standard way until the arrival of the digital camera. In 1900 the Eastman Kodak Company introduced the Brownie camera, intended for use by children.
Everyone had a Brownie camera at Tsarskoe Selo, They sold for $1 each, which today is the equivalent of $33, hugely affordable. Purchasing film and developing was another matter and the Imperial Family had their very own dark room at Tsarskoe Selo. As some of the first to own portable cameras the Russian court were pioneers of photography and no collection of photographs from that period are more valued.
Much of the Romanov collection went astray following their demise and over the years parts have surfaced here and there. Some could be in the hands of private collectors and undoubtedly many photographs are lost for ever. The albums that were on display at the Science Museum, London in 2019 and those held by the Zlatoust City Museum and those stored at the Library of Congress were discovered completely by chance.
A crate of twenty-two albums was discovered in 2018 by the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford and these were the centre piece of the Blood and Revolution exhibition at the Science Museum, London in 2019. The images were captured by Herbert Galloway Stuart, an English tutor to the nephews of Nicholas II, between 1908 and 1916.
ZLATOUST CITY HISTORY MUSEUM
A collection of 200 plus Romanov family photographs were found in the vault of a remote museum in the Urals (about 195 miles south of Ekateringburg,) The Siberian Times reported on 8 May 2013. They were mostly taken between 1914 and 1916 and show Alexei looking remarkably healthy.
It’s unknown how the album arrived at the museum. What is known is that one of the guards that escorted the Romanovs from Tobolsk to Ekateringburg, a revolutionary called Dmitry Chudinov, was from Zlatoust and known to have appropriated some possessions. It’s likely he took the photographs with him but how they ended up at the museum is unknown, perhaps he sold them and the museum kept them stored during Soviet times and then forgot about them entirely after that.
ROMANOV ARCHIVES AT YALE
In 1925 a vast collection of documents and photographs of Nicholas II and his family were transferred to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University under the new Romanov Archive.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
Two photographs were discovered in 2007 by a college student visiting the Library of Congress, while he/she was looking through uncatalogued files. They were stamped with a copyright notice in 1921 by Underwood and Underwood, a photograph seller. The LOC already had seven Romanov family photographs in its collection.
Some of these photographs were taken by Pierre Gilliard. known because his writing appears on the notations. Below are the two photographs discovered in 2007.
Top: May 1917, Tsarkoe Selo – Grand Duchess Tatiana and a soldier carrying lumps of ‘sod’ on a stretcher. She is helping her family plant a kitchen garden.
Bottom: August 1917 – May 1918, Tobolsk – Before the Governor’s House in Tobolsk. the four to the left are the four girls, Alexei in the centre and Nicholas to the far right.
(public domain, Library of Congress)
1916 – Fifteen year old Anastasia and Nicholas sharing a cigarette. One of the photos discovered at Zlatoust. There was no stigma attached to smoking back then. A year earlier Anastasia wrote her father: “I am sitting here with your old cigarette that you once gave me, and it is very tasty.“
(public domain, Zlatoust City Museum)
Nicholas II was an insatiable photographer, Alexandra was also hooked. They ordered equipment from England and professional photography services which were a significant part of their leisure expenditure. Wherever the family were, one of them had a Brownie camera to capture the moment. They loved taking photographs of each other and Nicholas was happy to pose on his own or in group shots, there are rarely any photos of scenery without people.
Court photographers were employed that recorded ceremonial scenes but the family’s personal albums rarely show official gatherings or ceremonies. They were creating together a photographic collection detailing every aspect of their daily life. According to Nicholas’ diaries, they spent many evenings together working on the photo albums. They enjoyed the images, arranging them, and even colouring some in. They took care to file them with the correct date and location and this way they created something that was truly remarkable.
Nicholas II, Spala. Great moments are captured when everyone has a camera.
Alexei with his very own camera and sister Anastasia
(public domain – colour TA)
Pt 10 – The Imperial Yacht Standart
The Standart was commissioned by Alexander III in Copenhagen and launched in 1895. The 5,557 ton yacht measured 401 feet by 50 feet making it the largest private yacht in the world, and much larger than previous Imperial yachts. It had elegance and comfort and could reach up to 21.18 knots.
On the main deck was a huge dining saloon with seating for up to seventy-two guests at one long table. There were thirty rooms, a private chapel and even a stable for a cow so the children could have fresh milk. The compliment were 275 crew of the Imperial navy including a brass band and orchestra, stewards, butlers, cooks and a platoon of marines.
Nicholas worked in his study for two days in the week whilst at sea. Up until 1912 when a radio was installed, courier boats would send and receive the dispatches. Alexandra could be herself when onboard with the family, playing games with the children and having long talks with the officers. On a yacht at sea they felt most at home.
Standart at ship builders 1895
(public domain – Peter Lars Elfelt, colour TA)
The captain was Ivan Ivanovich Tchagine and his second in command Nikolai Pavlovich Sablin. Whilst at sea the Imperial Family lived on the yacht while anchored in a bay. with launches taking them to and from shore when required. In the summer they would go to a small island off the coast of Finland which the children nicknamed the Bay of Standart. There on that uninhabited bit of land they could be together undisturbed, what irony for a family that ruled over one sixth of the planet’s surface.
When the children were quite young, they were each assigned a member of the Imperial Navy to protect them and to watch over them when under sail to make sure they didn’t fall overboard or anything like that. When the children wanted to swim or go ashore to play their nannies would have to accompany them. These nannies were personally rewarded at the end of the cruise with something nice, like a watch.
The children with their sailor nannies
Reval (now Tallinn, Estonia) June 1908 — Edward VII (son of Queen Victoria,) comes onboard the Standart welcomed by Nicholas II and sister-in-law Maria Feodorovna. This was Edward VII’s first visit to Russia.
(public domain, Wikimedia Commons)
Reval (now Tallinn, Estonia) June 1908 — LTR: Ladies – Princess Victoria (Elder sister of Empress Alexandra), Empress Alexandra, Grand Duchess Olga (younger sister of Nicholas II). Children – Marie, Alexei, Olga, Anastasia, Tatiana.
(Courtesy, Royal Collection RCIN 2917011 – edited)
In late summer 1909 the family sailed to England as guests of King Edward VII for the Isle of Wight regatta, arriving on 2 August. The Standart moored at Cowes but they stayed on board due to the high level of security provided. Nicholas was made an honourary member of the Royal Yacht Club, he greeted the Lord Mayor of London aboard Standart, and Alexandra visited the Royal Yacht Victoria & Albert to inspect the British Fleet and attend the races. In the evening they paid a visit to Empress Eugenie de Montijo, the widow of Emperor Napoleon III, on her yacht.
The famous royal residence at Osborne House is situated on the Isle of Wight, where the regatta is held and where Alexandra had grown up when she was brought to England after her mother Alice died. The Romanov children went to Osborne and played on the beach there. After lunch Olga and Tatiana went into the village and when they wanted to buy something they had to ask how to make the purchase, such was their sheltered life. It was a revelation for the big pair which they thoroughly enjoyed. The Standart left Cowes on 6 August 1909.
LTR: Standing – far left Prince of Wales and the future Edward VIII, Queen Alexandra stands to the left of Nicholas II. Seated – Princess Mary of Wales, Tsar Nicholas II, King Edward VII, Tsarina Alexandra, and Prince George of Wales. Kneeling – Tsarevich Alexei and Anastasia.
(public domain – picryl archives)
Above photo: Edward VII had only about six months to live. after this photograph was taken He died on 6 May 1910 at Buckingham Palace, ending the short-lived Edwardian era (1901-1910). His son the young Prince George of Wales ushered in the Georgian period as George V. Edward VII’s other son Edward standing far left would succeed George as Edward VIII. Here Nicholas II and Prince George of Wales are first cousins. Queen Alexandra (sister of Maria Feodorovna) is consort to Edward VIII. On Edward VII’s death, the Danish sisters Maria and Alexandra would both be Dowager Empresses.
The Triple Entente between the UK, France and Russia was designed to counter Germany’s growing power on the continent. Between 1908 and 1914 they exchanged five state visits in addition to both visits made between Russia and France. It was a merger of three existing alliances; Franco-Russo 1894, Anglo-Franco 1904 and the Anglo-Russo 1907, these three pacts became the Triple Entente.
The Standart was the conveyor of the triple entente meetings for Russia but it had to pass across Germany to reach the other two member nations which required utmost diplomacy as the alliance was a measure against Germany, of which Keiser Wilhelm II was a first cousin to Nicholas II and George V. An alliance that Germany regarded as a hostile encirclement. When Wilhelm II refers in his memoirs to Russia as a satellite of France, he means in financial terms, as Russia’s foreign debt was predominantly owed to France.
“Thus England, France, and Russia had, though for different reasons, an aim in common to overthrow Germany. England wished to do so for commercial-political reasons, France on account of her policy of revenge, Russia because she was a satellite of France and also for reasons of internal politics and because she wished to reach the southern sea. These three great nations, therefore, were bound to act together. The union of these ambitions in a common course of action, duly planned, is what we call the ‘policy of encirclement.” — Keiser Wilhelm memoirs page 308
“The year 1912 also witnessed the meeting with the Tsar at Baltisch-Port, whither I repaired on board my yacht at the invitation of Nicholas II. Our two yachts anchored side by side, so that visiting from ship to ship was easy. The Tsar, his children, and his entire entourage vied with one another in evidences of good will and hospitality. The Russian and German escorting squadrons were inspected, turn and turn about, by the Tsar and myself together, and we took our meals either at the Tsar’s table or mine“ — Keiser Wilhelm memoirs
On the return trip from England a state visit to Italy was next at Racconigi on 24 October 1909, it was really to conclude a secret agreement known as the Racconigi Bargain, where Russia and Italy agreed to include each other in any meetings regarding territorial mutual interests in Eastern Europe. Queen Elena (of Montenegro) consort to King Victor Emmanuel III gifted Nicholas a donkey which went by train to Odessa then boarded the Standart to cross the Black Sea to Sevastopol and whence it was transported to Livadia Palace. Nicholas wrote to his mother about it:
“As a goodbye present, the queen gave my children a donkey with a cart from Calabria and insisted I take it onto the train with me. This was done and the donkey arrived to Yalta on board the Standart. It kicked a lot while in Odessa when it was being taken aboard. But when the donkey got onto the deck, it felt at ease and relaxed. Now the children often take rides and are very pleased.” — Nicholas II
Alexei and donkey with a traditional Sicilian harness and cart.
(public domain, Romanov100)
Standart in the Kiel Canal, Germany, 1909, on a visit to Prince Henry of Prussia.
Standart in Sevastopol, Crimea, 1909
(Romanov Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)
The Imperial couple were on board Standart for extensive periods of which they wholeheartedly loved every minute. They are full of praises for the crew and in particular the medical staff who made them feel like the most pampered royals alive. Notwithstanding their position they were down to earth and allowed people in to their inner family circle. Nicholas and Alexandra would talk for ages to simple sailors or cooks. And the girls played and even innocently flirted with some of the young sailors.
In this setting it’s unfortunate that rumours circulated that the girls could be somewhat indiscreet and had inappropriate liaisons and this has been over-zealously reported in books and newspapers. It should be considered whether a young sailor would feel at will to develop unseemly affections with the grand duchesses on board the Imperial Yacht, given such fatal consequences that could result from it. Would not the Navy have severely warned the crew about such behaviour.
There are just several credible instances where the girls developed a crush. Tatiana did favour an officer, Lieutenant Nikolai Rodionov from Tula, the Assistant Commander of the Russian Imperial Guard. Olga had a crush on Standart officer Pavel Voronov and later during World War I would fall for an injured cavalry soldier Dmitry Malama. Marie had a crush for an officer Nikolai Demenkov on a visit to see her father and Alexei at the Stavka in Moghilev. She became obsessed by him. A more serious suitor was Prince Carol of Romania who formally proposed to her in 1916 during a visit to Russia but was declined.
Anastasia was the youngest, not flirty but mischevious. Nicholas once jokingly told the Countess Ekaterina Kleinmichel, “Anastasia is our family clown!“ Ekaterina was a Maid of Honour to Alexander II’s wife Maria Alexandrovna and the auntie of Countess Olga Kleinmichel who is mentioned a little further down. The Kleinmichel’s were one of the most affluent aristocratic families of Imperial Russia.
The abundant joyfulness of the children has sometimes been interpreted as flirtatious in ignorance and note that up to the end of the first wave of Triple Entante visits (1907-1909), when the Standart returned to Sevastopol, the eldest daughter Olga was just 14 years old. It isn’t until the next wave (1912-1914) that Olga by her own admission fell in love in 1913, when she was eighteen. Perhaps most young girls when they come of age would relish the company of young sailors, and no more should be read in to it than that.
Nicholas tasting and conversing with a cook
The Imperial ladies being welcomed onboard the Standart.
Alexei with his toy yacht
(public domain, picryl archives)
Olga Nikolaevna had known an officer on the Standart for some years, Pavel Voronov, with whom in 1913 she became emotionally compromised. She was open about her feelings to her father who brushed it off as a crush. She kept a detailed diary and records one time when the Standart pulled in to Lavidia and the family had to disembark, how mortally painful it was to leave the yacht, in particular Pavel Voronov.
It’s unlikely Voronov reciprocated the emotional advances from Olga, in 1913 she had just come in to adulthood turning 18 in November and he was approaching 27 in December. He had served on the ship Admiral Makarov moored at the port in Messina when on 15 December 1908 an earthquake hit Sicily and the crew rushed to their aid. Thousands of lives were lost. Pavel’s bravery came to the attention of the Tsar and he was promoted to a Lieutenant on the Standart.
But Voronov was already seeing a different Olga, Countess Olga Konstantinovna Kleinmichel, whom he had met in 1911 at a dance given by Princess Leonilla Ivanovna Bariatinsky of Sayn-Wittgenstein from one of the most influential families of the Russian nobility. Olga Kleinmichel says in her book ‘Upheaval’ the following: (Read it for free on Google Books here).
“I was presented to the Emperor and to two of the young Grand Duchesses, Olga and Tatiana. The latter, to my idea, was the prettier of the two, but both had the simplicity of manner that is the greatest charm in every person and especially in anyone who holds such a position as theirs. they were not blasé in the least, and their faces shone with pleasure and excitement.” — Countess Olga Kleinmichel
Olga Kleinmichel met Voronov at that dance in 1911 and they went to many more dances together. In 1913 when Olga Nikolaevna developed her crush, Voronov was already betrothed and would marry Olga Kleinmichel in 1914 at the Catherine Palace in Tsarskoe Selo.
Due to Voronov’s and Olga’s parents being deceased, Nicholas and Alexandra stood in for them. And because of this, speculation arose that the wedding was a way to deal with their daughter’s unshakable infatuation. Voronov and his wife would have one daughter, and they named her – Tatiana.
Marie and Anastasia reading on Standart, a favourite passtime. Can you spot the camera?
Nicholas and Alexandra on the Standart. A rare photograph of them smiling together.
(public domain, romanov100)
King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra boarding Standart. Nicholas wears the uniform of a British guardsman.
Pt 11 – Rasputin is Done For
Having had a very exhausting 1909 on the seas, when the family returned to Alexander Palace, Alexandra resumed her physical ailments; migraine, back ache, sciatica etc. and became increasingly worried about Alexei’s health and about the state of affairs in the country that Nicholas was trying to deal with as well as the divisions that were arising in the Orthodox Church. As she slipped into her pains she started to be seen in a wheelchair rarely getting around under her own steam.
Complaints about Rasputin reached the palace and were too many to ignore. During 1909, having obviously taken no notice of the investigation in to his conduct of 1907, Rasputin set off on another path of debauchery. Alexandra was seemingly not interested but an ecclesiastical court was and summoned Rasputin to explain his actions towards several women that had brought complaints against him.
This time Rasputin was at a disadvantage, during his time away from the Imperial couple he could not easily call on them now for assistance and could not defend the allegations. Theophane, the Imperial couple’s beloved priest, banished him for one year to a monastery outside of St Petersburg. However Rasputin ignored the judgement stating that the Imperial Family could not be separated from him for that long.
Rasputin’s vulgarities became evident to all except the Imperial Family. He was sufficiently astute to behave accordingly around them and never to cross the line. But others were not so gullible and attempted to bring him to task, usually without much success. The secret police had been observing him frequenting bathhouses to meet some aristocratic women and prostitutes which was in itself strange as he purposefully resisted bathing or fresh clothes in his religious life.
Theophane first heard from Khioniya Berlatskaya in 1909 who accused Rasputin of rape. Theophane felt some guilt as he had presented Rasputin to the Montenegrin sisters in 1903 and introduced him to the various salons in St Petersburg, not least the Imperial couple. Berlatskaya was one of Rasputin’s earliest followers and was shaken enough to have gone to Theophane. Others came forward too and Theophane resolved to turn against Rasputin, which at that time was not a fruitful thing to do.
Rasputin with Alexandra, the children and their nurse Maria Vishnyakova 1908
(public domain, coloured photo by Klimbim)
Governess of the girls from 1907, Sophie Tyutcheva, in the spring of 1910 discussed with Nicholas’ sister Xenia that Rasputin was visiting the children’s rooms at bedtimes when they were in their night clothes which she found disturbing with Olga being almost fifteen and Tatiana just thirteen. One book states that in March 1910 Alexandra learned that Rasputin had taken advantage of them. That writer was perhaps a tad exuberant and is another example of what has been said already that revelations like these sell books. whether they are true or not.
What did happen was Tyutcheva spoke with Xenia who spoke with her sister Olga who then spoke with Alexandra. There’s no mention of anyone being taken advantage of, only shocking concerns, and perhaps conjecture. What was said between them may never be known. What is known is Xenia’s strong disapproval in this letter to her sister Olga:
“…the attitude of the Tsarina and the Grand Duchesses to that sinister Grigory, whom they consider to be almost a saint. He’s always there, going to the nursery, he sits there talking to them and caressing them. They are careful to hide him from Sofia Ivanovna [Tyutcheva] and the children don’t dare talk to her about him. It’s all quite unbelievable and beyond understanding.“ — Xenia Alexandrovna, letter to sister Olga c1907
Nicholas’ sister Olga visited him at Alexandra Palace and he took her to the nursery to see the children, they were all in their nightgowns, with Rasputin sitting among them. That was the first time she met him and recalled of it that the children appeared to be completely at ease with him. Nicholas spoke with Rasputin and this practice stopped however, Tyutcheva’s position after that was tenuous and she would resign in 1912.
In 1910, Maria Vishnyakova, nursemaid first to the girls and then to Alexei from 1905, told Alexandra that she had been raped by Rasputin at the palace, she had also gone to Pokrovskoe with Anna Vyrubova where Rasputin had tried to lay with her. Alexandra didn’t believe her and according to one account insisted that ‘everything Rasputin did was holy.’
Vishnyakova was sent away to a sanatorium in the Caucasus where she met Bishop Anthony of Tobolsk (a member of the Holy Synod 1912-1916,) She told him what had happened and he travelled to see Nicholas who promptly told him to mind his own business. She was yet another of Rasputin’s devotees that he raped. Vishnyakova was quietly retired in 1913 and never returned to St Petersburg.
[Rasputin] “… was quite considerate of his wife. They lived in sincere friendship and never quarrelled. When Praskovaya [Rasputin’s wife] was showing a couple around Pokrovskoe one day, they came upon her husband ‘exorcising a demon’ – that is having sex with a female devotee. The visitors were appalled, but Praskovaya was not surprised or even displeased.“ — Aron Simanovich, Rasputin’s secretary
Gossip was everywhere in 1910 and the Moscow Gazette launched the first of many press campaigns against Rasputin. One report displeased him, it said that he was only fit to scrub the toilets and that was the only thing the Imperial couple should use him for.
Rasputin was receiving money for favours from women that asked him to progress their husband’s career, Rasputin would get the Tsar to approve this or that. He didn’t mind taking advantage of some of them and blackmailed others. The money for favours is accurate because Rasputin recorded monetary transactions exacta mon. Consider the following from the book Rasputin the Rascal Monk by William Le Queux, and keep in mind that the author is considered by some to be a mite creative with the truth:
“Friend,—It is now many days since His Majesty appointed you Privy Councillor of the Empire, but I have received no word from you or from your bank as we arranged. If I receive nothing by next Thursday, the facts concerning your son’s implication in the Platanoff affair (the blowing up of a Russian battleship in the Baltic by German agents) will be passed on to the Admiralty. If double the sum we arranged passes to my bank before the date I have named, I shall remain silent. If not, I shall take immediate action.—G“
Slippery slope to the Holy Land
In 1909 the church had tried to move Iliodor away from Tsaritsyn (later renamed Stalingrad and Volgograd since 1961,) where he had been rather outspoken about the authorities and aligned himself with the Black Hundreds (right-wing anti-semitic group). He had built a following there and they barricaded themselves. Rasputin arranged for him to meet with Alexandra at Anna Vyrubova’s house in Tsarskoe Selo. Alexandra was not impressed and told him his actions were a threat to the Tsar’s authority.
Iliodor agreed to stop attacking the authorities and Nicholas seeing how well Rasputin had handled things, asked him to do the same with Bishop Hermogenes of Saratov. Rasputin went to Saratov in September 1909 and they got on well initially. From there he went 380 miles south, back to Tsaritsyn where he found Iliodor still contented.
Until that was, Iliodor caught him kissing some women and got angry. Rasputin invited him to Pokrovskoe for Christmas to smooth things over which again was going well until Rasputin full of drink began boasting about his sexual exploits and his remarkable influence on the Imperial Family. At this Iliodor flew back to Tsaritsyn in an outrage vowing to do something about Rasputin’s indiscretion.
Rasputin, having understood both Iliodor’s and Hermogenes’ vulnerabilities, in having fallen out of favour with the Tsar and the Church, tried to help them and in so doing gain their loyalty. He told Iliodor that he would arrange with the Church for him to stay in Tsaritsyn and then persuaded Nicholas that the young Captain Alexander Mandryka should be sent to persuade Iliodor to leave. Why Rasputin played both sides like this is uncertain.
Rasputin arranged for Captain Mandryka to be met by the nuns at the nearby Balashevskaya Convent where he had a hold on the Mother Superior. But on his arrival she was in town and he was able to talk with the nuns unsupervised. He was shocked and horrified by their stories. They revealed of Rasputin’s frequent visits, how he bathed with the younger sisters and seduced them and engaged in orgies, it had gone on for some time and he also boasted of his sexual exploits with the Tsarina.
Mandryka rushed back to Alexander Palace to Nicholas and Alexandra with his written report on 10 February 1910. This time the Imperial couple got angry but did not react. Rasputin somehow got word of this and stayed away from them, waiting to be contacted first. In the meantime his enemies were devising ways to denounce him.
The newspaper assault of 1910 having exposed Rasputin as licentious did no real damage, probably the Imperial couple were aware of much worse skulduggery going on in Tsaritsyn than the reporters even knew about. His enemies paid a Finnish ballerina to invite Rasputin to her house where she got him drunk; so drunk that they stripped him bare and positioned him among prostitutes and took some compromising photographs.
Totally out of the blue, there came a knock on his door and he was handed an envelope containing the photographs with a warning to leave Saint Petersburg or the photographs would be sent to the Tsar. Having nowhere to turn he arranged to meet Nicholas and handed him the envelope saying that it had been a set up to dislodge him. Nicholas suggested that he go on a long pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and paid for his trip.
Tsaritsyn 1909 – Rasputin, Bishop Hermogenes, Bishop Iliodor
(public domain, edited)
Rasputin returns from pilgrimage
After the death in 1910 of Nicholas’ uncle King Edward VII, the coronation of George V and Mary of Teck took place at Westminster Abbey on 22 June 1911. The Imperial couple sent a contingent, having not long returned from England and because Alexandra’s health would not allow it they didn’t go themselves.
On his return to Russia from the Holy Land in 1911 Rasputin went to Tsaritsyn where Iliodor and Hermogenes were, to pick up where he had left off. He was sharing a room with Hermogenes at the Balashevskaya Convent. In the night Rasputin slipped out and Hermogenes followed him and caught him seducing the wife of a priest who was away on business. Hermogenes resolved to side with Iliodor and do something about this pest.
Then in the later quarter of 1911 hectographed copies of intimate letters started appearing in St Petersburg. They were apparently love letters between Alexandra and Rasputin. Of course they were nothing of the sort, and are in complete harmony with the affectionate tone that Alexandra used to address everyone. There were in total seven letters, some written by the children showing their affection.
The publishers were never found but the original letters were retrieved and given to Nicholas who confirmed their authenticity. The famous letter date 7 February 1909 from Alexandra is the one usually quoted and displayed on websites, because she mentioned that she loved him. Alexandra was upset and sent a telegram to Pokrovskoe reprimanding him and refused to see him when he rushed back to the palace.
There are slightly differing versions on who distributed the letters. Rasputin blamed Iliodor accusing him of stealing them when he was a guest at Pokrovskoe. Iliodor then supposedly passed them to Rasputin’s enemies or to Hermogenes for him to decide what to do next. Another theory says Rasputin showed people the letters himself and wilfully released them to incriminate Iliodor for the indiscretion.
The story of a sexual relationship between Alexandra and Rasputin still does the rounds but Nicholas and Alexandra were not totally blinded and they knew what Rasputin was, he would have been repugnant to them, but such was the hope for their son that they were prepared to put up with anything.
In the 1920s Lili Dehn wrote a biography called The Real Tsaritza to refute the hearsay about the supposed relationship. Then there’s the letter from political activist and writer Maxim Gorky to his friend Alexander Amfiteatrov that suggests Alexei was Rasputin’s son, which is impossible because Rasputin was nowhere near the court before or when Alexei was born in 1904.
All this gossip was taking its toll on Alexandra’s health. That November at Livadia Palace at the celebration party of her daughter Olga’s 16th birthday, Olga Voronova (the woman that married the man that Olga Nikolaevna had fell in love with,), recorded in her diary Alexandra’s condition:-
“The Empress appeared only after dinner. She suffered frequently from her heart, receptions were a strain on her, and the eternal anxiety about her son made her long to avoid appearing in public. Her face usually wore an expression of weariness and sadness which ‘society’ took for coldness and haughtiness on her part and sulked. This caused much of her unpopularity, which natural timidity increased, and misunderstanding led to a feeling of bitterness on each side.“ — Countess Olga Voronova
LTR: Anna Vyrubova, Rasputin, Lili Dehn
(public domain, edited)
Hermogenes set a trap for Rasputin. In December 1911 Iliodor was in St Petersburg attempting to resolve the decision to remove him from Tsaritsyn when Rasputin called to arrange a meet. Iliodor suggested Vasilievsky Island, the residence of Hermogenes.
On 16 December 1911 Rasputin and Iliodor arrived at Vasilievsky Island and when they walked in to the reception room Hermogenes was standing there in his vestments holding a large cross. With him were Colonel Ivan Rodionov, and Dmitry Kolyaba. Hermogenes accused Rasputin of raping women, being a drunkard, undermining the Imperial rulers, and involvement with the Khlysty.
Iliodor in his future memoirs would describe the moment when Hermogenes grilled Rasputin over the rape of the nun Xenia, “Oh, you ungodly man, why did you torture so that poor, innocent girl, the nun Xenia?“ To which Rasputin replied “I did not torture her, I relieved her.“
The men dragged Rasputin to the chapel and forced him to agree to stay away from the Imperial court. The story goes that they grabbed his penis threatening to cut it off if he forced himself on to another woman. Hermogenes instructed him to confess his sins and told him to leave Russia and not return for three years.
Rasputin was furious and headed straight for Anna Vyrubova’s house and had a meeting the following morning with Nicholas and Alexandra and told them everything that had happened. Hermogenes was removed from the Holy Synod and exiled from the city to a distant monastery. Rasputin had succeeded in removing the most powerful bishop in the Church.
Meanwhile Theophane had gathered most of the known sexual complaints against Rasputin including Sophie Tyutcheva, Maria Vishniakova, Miss Timofeyev, Khioniya Berlatzkaya, the nun Xenia Goncharova, Helen (a coachman’s wife) A. Vostrikova (a priest’s wife) – and her sister Madame Bourkova – and her daughter Madame Vargoun, Madame Golovkova, A. M. Lebedeva (a shopkeeper), Madame Lochtina’s daughter Lada, and others.
The Montenegrin sisters now joined in Theophane’s concern and visited Alexandra to warn her of Theophane’s evidence. Not only did Alexandra reject everything but she instructed them not to mention Rasputin again. Anna Vyrubova had advised Alexandra that the Montenegrin sisters were no longer of any consequence and rather bizarrely Alexandra cut them out of her family circle. And Theophane despite his written testimonies was removed to Crimea.
Finally the scandalous tales about Rasputin forced Prime Minister Kokovtzev to report to Nicholas about Rasputin’s actions and advising that his connection with the Imperial court was damaging the monarchy. Nicholas saw no alternative but to send Rasputin back to Pokrovskoe, where he would remain for the next five months until Alexei’s health got so bad that Alexandra resorted to call Rasputin out of exile.
Bishop Theophane 1912
(public domain, edited)
Proof of haemophilia
Moving in to 1912 Rasputin remained out of favour at the palace. When it came time for the Easter trip to Crimea Anna Vyrubova stowed Rasputin on the Imperial train assuming that he would be forgiven in the Easter spirit. When she eventually told Nicholas he stopped the train at the next station and threw him and his luggage off. Rasputin undeterred continued the journey privately but was not welcomed at Livadia Palace and returned to Pokrovskoe.
When Alexei had been born Anna Vyrubova described the baby as “beautiful, healthy, normal.” But her observation was not correct. It was a ridiculous situation, there had been no spare heir produced and the heir apparent could not outlive his father short of an assassination. Alexandra’s denial strengthened as Alexei grew and he suffered fewer life-threatening haemophilic attacks.
“Alexei was told constantly that his existence was precious but the truth was finally dawning that there was little hope that he would reach manhood, and this knowledge impelled heartfelt sympathy towards his parents, who, after having longed for so many years for the birth of this heir, now had to resign themselves to the probability that his days were numbered.“ — Pierre Gilliard
From the diaries of Nicholas and Alexandra there is not the slightest reference of a blood disorder and what references there are about Alexi’s condition indicate his problem was due to blood vessels and not actually the blood itself. This is why some accounts suggested that Alexei didn’t have haemophilia at all, but a separate disorder of the vessels.
“The Tsarevich certainly suffered from the hereditary trouble of thin blood vessels which first became apparent after a fall at Spala, but he was otherwise a normally healthy boy.“ — Lili Dehn
Anna Vyrubova in an interview following the abdication of Nicholas in 1917 said:
“The child had a rare disease. The blood vessels were affected, so that the patient bled at the slightest touch.“
Perhaps at the time, the doctors and family members had discussed Alexei’s condition in terms of bleeding caused by abnormal blood vessels, and maybe that was encouraged to shield the real cause which Alexandra wanted to keep secret. However in years to come with the development of biological information technology, Alexei’s remains were analysed for mitochondrial DNA, which revealed a causal substitution in the splice acceptor site of exon 4 in the F9 gene. This mutation is responsible for haemophilia B thereby proving Alexei did indeed suffer from haemophilia.
Byelovvyezh hunting lodge, Spala, Poland
(public domain – colour TA)
Alexei’s most serious episode happened in October 1912 at the Byelovvyezh hunting lodge in Spala, Poland. One account says the word Spala loosely means ‘sleeping’ the lodge therefore means ‘resting’ place’ and another source states it’s the name of a previous owner, a saw-miller Marcin Spala. The region is dominated by plains, hills and forest, ideal for hunting. Alexander III built the residential complex that in 1885 encompassed a wooden palace, military barracks, guest houses, a casino, all within a landscaped park.
Each year the last trip before Christmas was a stay at the Spala lodge. In 1912 Alexei was climbing out of a boat when he stumbled and knocked the inside of his leg on the oar lock which caused bruising and swelling. Dr Botkin examined it and sent him to bed for some days until the swelling went down. But Alexei still complained with pain and on further examination Dr Botkin found a haemorrhage in the left thigh and torn vessels in the leg.
His agony was intense and he would become delirious screaming with agony as his legs stopped working and the haemorrhage moved to his abdomen (or kidney in one version). Dr Botkin summoned the best doctors but they were no wiser to it than he was. The situation looked dire and it began to look like nothing could prevent a slow death.
Alexandra was at his side not able to sleep at nights for days at a time. The bleeding could not be controlled and finally it looked so bad that she arranged for the first drafts of his death announcement to be prepared and last rights were administered.
Alexandra at Alexei’s bedside, Spala 1912
Nicholas II hunting, Spala, 1895
(public domain, Wikimedia Commons)
From November 1912 to March 1913 between Spala and Livadia Palace there would be 27 visits by Dr Federov, 15 by Dr Vreden and 124 by neurologist Dr Dmitriev. Alexandra having insisted for eight years that Alexei’s haemophilia be kept secret, now for the first time the illness was publicly announced in anticipation of his death.
In final desperation she asked Anna Vyrubova to send a telegram to Rasputin asking for his prayers. This was in contravention to Nicholas having banished him from their court. Rasputin replied immediately from exile in Pokrovskoe, 2,000 miles away:
“God has seen your tears and heard your prayers. Do not grieve. The little one will not die. Do not allow the doctors to bother him too much.” — Rasputin, telegram to Alexandra, 1912
The next day the fever which had been worsening for eight days abated and then the bleeding inexplicably ceased and Alexei recovered. He was to remain crippled for most of the next year but he lived and Alexandra was left with no doubt that Rasputin had been his saviour.
Alexandra returned Rasputin to St Petersburg just months since he had been banished. His place at her side was secured and the story of Rasputin’s deed spread throughout Russia. All hopes for the heir apparent were pinned to one man who convinced her that not only Alexei but the monarchy and Russia depended on his guidance. His control was now complete.
Returning on the Imperial train (10/12 carriages (400 tons)) to Tsarskoe Selo there was one final event before preparations for the Christmas season. They attended the centenary anniversary of the French invasion and retreat of 1812 (when Napoleon had invaded).
They went to Moscow to inaugurate a monument to Alexander III, then to Smolensk to commemorate a famous battle there, and then to the famous battlefield at Borodino (about 66 miles west of Moscow,) to erect another monument dedicated to the fall of the 70,000 Russian defenders, the deadliest day of the entire Napoleonic Wars.
1912 had turned out to be a very stressful year and Alexandra suffered intense mental pressure at both Livadia and at Spala which took its toll, by the Christmas season both Alexandra and Alexei were being pushed around in wheelchairs.
Alexandra and Alexei in wheelchairs, Spala circa November, 1912
Alexandra checks on Alexei on his orthopaedic bed taking a mud bath to treat his legs following the accident at Spala which made them rigid, Livadia Palace 1913
(public domain, edited)
Alexei with leg support, 1913
(public domain, edited)
Rasputin’s return to court
Rasputin’s associates claimed that up until 1912 he scarcely touched alcohol and that there was a great change in 1912 when his drinking started and his sexual appetite became excessive. Most writers disagree as it’s known that his life was full of drinking and womanising. It was mentioned earlier that most of Rasputin’s misdeeds arose when he was under the influence of alcohol.
Why would Rasputin start drinking in 1912 anyway. It was the year he was brought back to St Petersburg, it’s possible that having offended the Imperial Family who had been so kind to him and having receiving such a beating from Hermogenes, that he took a hard look at himself. But it’s also likely that while in exile his drinking increased and he returned to St Petersburg a hopeless alcoholic.
The fact remains that something was going on with him in 1912 as he renounced the Russian Orthodox Church. He became bitter and vengeful. In relation to the Imperial court he focused on getting back in, that was his sole purpose and they welcomed him, such was their folly.
“The Tsarina is a painfully wise ruler, I can do everything with her, I will reach everything, and he (the Tsar) is a man of God. Well, what kind of Emperor is he? He would only play with the children, and with flowers, and deal with the garden, and not rule the kingdom.“ — Rasputin
Alexei’s miraculous recovery in Spala made it likely that Rasputin would be kept at the court, Nicholas was unwilling to separate him from Alexei again, in spite of his continued presence being an embarrassment. In 1913 Nicholas’ diary suggests they were seeing Rasputin at least once a month. Maria Feodorovna’s impression of Alexandra had mellowed in the years since her marriage, but this re-introduction of Rasputin at the palace reversed that and she was horrified.
“My unhappy daughter-in-law is incapable of realising that she is bringing about her own downfall and that of the dynasty. She deeply believes in the holiness of that dubious individual.“ — Maria Feodorovna, 1913
“The children never mentioned Rasputin’s name, and in my presence even avoided the slightest allusion to his existence. I realised that in so doing they were acting on their mother’s instructions.“ — Pierre Gilliard, Thirteen Years at the Russian Court
самодержавие / autocracy. In a St Petersburg magazine 1916. Suggestive that Rasputin had a hold on the Empress.
The science of hypnotism
When Rasputin came to the palace he couldn’t walk straight in but had to wait at the gate for the sentry to clear him. Vladimir Voeikov took over palace security in 1913 and was surprised that no effort was made to conceal these visits considering the published insinuations of the letters and the general view at the palace that his actions were seen as disruptive.
That Rasputin was still deranged, a drunk and a sexual pest in 1913 is certain but he appeared to return to being level-headed as he came back on the scene and took up again his friendship with Anna Vyrubova, whose house was just opposite the palace gates. She always accepted his explanations for any unsavoury rumours, no matter how grotesque.
On 16 July 1913 Nicholas recorded that Alexei’s arm was hurting from waving it about too much when he was playing and the pain was so great it would not allow him to fall asleep. Rasputin arrived the next morning, saw Alexei, and no sooner had he left than the pain also left Alexei and he fell asleep.
Was this instant recovery like the one at Spala, down to the yellow powder. Was Anna Vyrubova complicit being the she seems to be the obvious accomplice. After Rasputin was ignored at Livadia, Anna Vyrubova might have administered the yellow powder after Alexei had the boat accident, and she may have advised Alexandra to call Rasputin. How Alexei was drugged or how Rasputin and Anna Vyrubova plotted is one thing, quite another is how Rasputin managed to control people so effectively.
The notion of hypnotism as the tool that Rasputin used was preferred by his contemporaries. Pavel Kurlov as head of the security guard and a previous Interior Minister was responsible for the Imperial Family’s security, after he fled to Berlin in 1918 he said the following in his book:
“Rasputin has undoubtedly the ability to calm people down and beneficially influenced the underage heir during his illness.“ — Pavel Kurlov, The End of Tsarist Russia
Hypnotism offers the only explanation how blood could be controlled in a haemophiliac by manipulation of stress and the power of suggestion. At Spala Rasputin had stopped the bleeding over the telephone, words play the major role in hypnosis, and Dr Botkin was certain that Rasputin was using hypnosis on Alexei.
Austrian physician Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815)
Rasputin believed wholly in his ability to control others with his hypnotic and suggestive force – of that he must have been an expert. Another such expert albeit more respected, was German physician Franz Mesmer. He established a theory of internal magnetic forces aligned with the Earth’s magnetism. He called that force animal magnetism but it became known as mesmerism. It differs from hypnotism whereas hypnotism relies on words to enter a state readily open to suggestions, mesmerism uses energy to induce a trance-like state.
In general hypnotism can be used for behavioural conditions, to stop smoking for example (i.e. maladaptive behaviour). And mesmerism can be used for physical conditions, with arthritis for example (psycho somatic conditions). Hypnotism would be ideal to aid Alexandra’s mental stress whereas mesmerism would aid Alexei’s haemophilia. Most recently hypnotherapist Judith Prager, in an interview talked about how suggestion can be used to stop blood flow.
And a medical statement confirming the ability of hypnotism/mesmerism to stop bleeding is given by D. Tocantins M.D. (1901- 1963), Director of the Cardeza Foundation for Haematologic Research and internationally recognised for his work on haemophilia. He accepted the use of hypnosis for haemophilic patients, where he found that ‘hypnotism caused vascular constriction‘. This means Alexei’s doctors had been right to talk about a vascular condition, if perhaps they weren’t fully conversant with haemophilia.
Rasputin had begged Iliodor once, to persuade Hermogenes for an audience. Hermogenes responded with, “Let him come in but I shall not face him. I shall speak to him with my back turned toward him. I shall not let the curse come near me.“ The curse Hermogenes referred to was Franz Mesmer’s animal magnetism. In saying, that force that compels, Hermogenes was guarding against being hypnotised or mesmerised by Rasputin.
In his book The mad monk of Russia (1918) Iliodor describes how he ushered Rasputin in to the room that day:
“Hermogenes stood with his back toward him with his face almost squeezed into the corner where the icons hung, he stood chewing a wafer and drinking holy water.“
Such was the power of Rasputin.
Pt 12 – More Balls & War
The Imperial Family went to the Winter Palace on 19th February 1913 because a grand ball was to be held at the nearby Assembly Hall on Mikhailovskaya Street to celebrate the tri-centenary celebration in commemoration of the Romanov dynasty. It was not as grand as the Imperial ball of 1903 but in 1913 it did mark the end of an age for this type of thing. Balls were brought to Russia by Peter the Great who in 1718 founded the assemblies where people gathered and which became the prototype of aristocratic balls.
The ball season lasted from Christmas to Shrove Tuesday. When invited to a court ball it was compulsory and refusal to attend was not permitted unless for a serious health reason. Public balls on the other hand were informal and so were optional to attend. 1903 had been an Imperial ball, 1913 was a public one.
The grand ball of 1913
Maria Feodorovna attended the baise-main (kissing of the hands with the ladies), Nicholas received the elders in the lower corridor where the dinner was arranged for them. The elder daughters Olga and Tatiana were involved, and danced at the ball. The orchestra opened with music from the polonaise dances from the opera Life For the Tsar by M.I.Glinka, to which Nicholas opened the dance with the wife of the St Petersburg District Marshal and Alexandra danced with her husband the District Marshal.
It was a long day for them all and they left at eleven o’clock. On the following day, 24 February, the sixteen years old Tatiana fell ill with typhoid and they moved back to Tsarskoe Selo where Alexandra would nurse her back to health.
The grand Imperial ball of 1903 had been a costume ball and some of those attendees were sketched for a special edition of playing cards as a commemoration for the 1913 ball. These were so popular that right through Soviet times they remained the standard Russian deck. Perhaps the succeeding generations were not aware that the printed characters were in fact real people representing their past Romanov Imperial rulers.
The jack of clubs was Nicholas’ brother Mikhail, the jack of diamonds was Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich, the queen of clubs was Alexandra’s sister Elizabeth; and the queen of hearts was Nicholas’ sister Xenia.
World War I
In 1913 Nicholas approved the great army programme in response to increasing tensions in western Europe, which added nearly 500,000 men and 11,800 officers, and he increased it again in March 1914 to a total of 1,700,000 active duty military personnel (1,400,00 soldiers), the largest army in the world made up of 115 infantry and 38 cavalry divisions.
The army had stayed loyal to the Tsar since the revolution of 1905 and the Duma and government supported him too, just five Bolsheviks hat voted against the government’s strategy for war and they were exiled to Siberia and had their property confiscated. The people had enjoyed the tri-centenary celebrations in 1913 but now in July 1914 anti-government sentiment peaked with a general strike in St Petersburg known as The July Crisis of 1914. Former Prime Minister Sergei Witte and the current Minister of the Interior Pyotr Durnovo and even Rasputin attempted to persuade Nicholas against war with Germany.
Sergei Witte believed Russia would lose a war despite its large industrial power, even though due to his efforts the production of iron and steel had risen by 50% since 1905 and that Russia by 1914 had become the fourth largest producer of steel, coal and iron in the world, He blamed the politicians for not ensuring the country was in a state of readiness. The problem was in logistics, Russia lagged behind the meticulous efficiency of Germany.
After the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Serbia on 28 June 1914, Austria blamed Serbia and Russia promised support their Balkan ally against aggression from Austria-Hungary and Germany who declared war on Serbia on 28 July 1914 and bombarded Serbia’s capital Belgrade; and consequently on 30 July 1914 Russia mobilised forces to prepare to assist Serbia.
Then it all got rather messy: Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia; Germany declared war on Russia and France; Britain declared war on Austria-Hungary and Germany. Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia. France declared war on Austria-Hungary. Japan declared war on Germany. There were twenty-three declarations in 1914 alone and more followed in 1915 and 1917.
The immediate effect of Germany’s declaration of war, unified the Russian cause behind the Tsar and strengthened support of the monarchy; almost overnight any discontent from the 1913 general strikes had been doused with irrelevance. On 2 August 1914, Russia invaded the largest German province, eastern Prussia (now Poland,)
At the outbreak of war countries expected that it would be a short territorial dispute, but it turned out to be a war of attrition. There had not been war in Europe since the Napoleonic Wars when the French Emperor stormed across Germany and Russia with his ultimate goal of stopping them from helping Britain who he planned to defeat next.
Napoleon had studied previous attempts to invade Russia that had been thwarted by not having organised support services to back up advancing troops. He understood that logistics played a crucial part in any military campaign. Russia’s interest in defending Serbia in 1914 was because it was a good strategic place from which to launch and support an invasion in to Russia.
This time it was Russia that launched in to battle without proper logistics planning. By December of 1914 when twenty-three countries were dug in to trenches for 1,500 days in unbearable weather – snowing or raining 42% of the time, the Russians realised they did not have enough rifles for their soldiers. The army had rapidly increased to 6,553,000 but they had only 4,652,000 rifles.
Warfare analysis has shown that the side which can manufacture the most equipment and armaments always wins irrespective of the quality of their men or leadership. However it’s dependent entirely on the logistical infrastructure.
German expedience is legendary and if only they had the sheer numbers as Russia they probably could have easily won the war in Europe. Due to poor communication Russian troops were ordered in to battle without adequate arms, ammunition or food. As for medical treatment on the battlefield, that was close to zero with medical staff spread across a 600 mile front and one surgeon for every 10,000 men.
In the Napoleonic Wars injured soldiers were left on the battlefield, waiting for help that came only once the fighting had stopped. Many soldiers died from simple wounds and an army could suffer defeat because of it. Sickness had killed more troops than the enemy in most wars until World War I, so in terms of medical attention this war saw advancements in medical care overall, but on the Russian front it was dire.
In the first month of the war, at the Battle of Tannenberg (26-30 August 1914) 30,000 Russian troop were dead, 120,000 wounded and 92,000 taken prisoner. Germany began the push that drove Russia out of Prussia. Even worse to come was the first battle of the Masurian Lakes where Russia lost two entire armies, over 250,000 troops, making the sacrifice at Bodinio in 1812 paled by comparison.
Russian soldiers dug in at the battle of Tannenberg 1914
Commander of the armies fighting Germany and Austria-Hungary was Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaievich (great uncle of Nicholas II and husband to Anastasia of Montenegro,). Following the military disasters Nicholas removed him from command on 21 August 1915. Another senior officer General Samsonov was unable to face the Tsar to explain such huge losses and walked in to the woods and shot himself.
The battle of Tannenberg emboldened Germany because they had repelled Russia on German soil and as far as the German people were concerned they were fighting a defensive war against the aggressor. The only notable response from Russia after the great retreat was in renaming St Petersburg to Petrograd because it was thought too German sounding. Petro in honour of Peter the Great and grad meaning a city suffix like ‘stan’ is used for middle eastern countries. Petrograd was later renamed Leningrad in 1924 and back to St Petersburg from 1991.
Nicholas II blessing troops at the front 1915
War from the palace
Rasputin had told Nicholas that the Russian army would suffer defeat after defeat until the Tsar took over direct control of the military. For two months Russia had been retreating, it’s known as The Great Retreat of 1915 (13 July 1915 – 19 September 1915). Having removed the Commander-in-Chief, and at the behest of Alexandra, Nicholas left for the front on 23 August 1915.
When Rasputin suggested that he go to the front as well to bless the troops, Nikolai Nikolaievich promised to hang him if he dared to show up there. Instead the Tsar is seen in photos blessing troops on the battlefield.
When Napoleon’s Grande Armée had crossed the Niemen in to Russia in 1812, the Russians had retreated just as fast as the French could advance. Now Russians were retreating as fast as the Germans could advance. Nicholas was not afraid to take the lead in military matters but his timing was significant. By taking the reigns when he did he became personally linked to the Great Retreat and all military failures hence after.
The Tsar would remain at the front for two years, but for his bravery he would not see the drama that unfolded back home having left Alexandra in charge of the government and church, all the while at the mercy of Rasputin’s influence.
With Nicholas away, all focus was on Alexandra. For a time she did well but Rasputin was now at the height of his power, hated by the Russian people and at odds with government and church. Alexandra would do everything he asked, sending messages to the field telling Nicholas why this one or that one had to be replaced.
Alexandra was arbitrarily dismissing capable people and replacing them with nonentities favoured by Rasputin. These decisions were being made all the time sometimes weekly and gravely tainted the Tsar’s rule and destabilised the country at a time of war. No one could keep up with the current church leaders, public officials or government ministers. Between September 1915 and February 1917 Russia went through four Prime Ministers, three War Ministers and five Interior Ministers.
How the country saw Rasputin at the centre, with Nicholas pushed aside, Alexandra to the rear and Anna Vyrubova the loyal accomplice.
Rumours circulated that Alexandra and Rasputin were working for Germany, it got so ridiculous that they were said to be selling food supplies to the Germans and that Alexandra had a radio transmitter to communicate with Berlin.
Her letters of this time demonstrate how completely devoted she was to Russia and the task at hand. But she was German and such rumours should have been predictable. The French Ambassador said of her, “Her education, her intellectual formation and her morals were entirely English.“ But everyone else thought her to be a political incompetent.
Sergei Witte, who had been Russia’s first Prime Minister, before he died on 13 March 1915 said of Nicholas II, “He married a completely abnormal woman and took her into his arms, which was not difficult given his weak-willidness.“ The question is, what was Nicholas thinking about while Alexandra and Rasputin were dismantling his empire.
This weakness, ‘willidness’ as Witte put it, was always the mole in the camp. In November 1916 there were 1,7 million military dead and five million wounded, and the public attributed this to Alexandra. Her assassination, according to the daughter of the British ambassador, was openly spoken of in aristocratic circles as the only way of saving Russia. It’s within the realm of possibility that Vladimir Purishkevich sought permission to murder Rasputin from Nicholas (Purishkevich enters the story further down as one of the conspirators against Rasputin).
Nurses at the palace
As soon as war started Maria Feodorovna became the head of the Red Cross and Alexandra and her eldest daughters trained to be nurses. Women played an important role in humanitarian work during World War I (e.g. Marie Curie and Florence Nightingale,) and many private committees were directed by high-society women, including the Red Cross.
Ambulances arriving at the Tsarskoe Selo infirmary
(public domain – edited)
Alexander Palace was seconded as a military hospital during World War I. The Tsarskoe Selo infirmary was the idea of Vera Gedroitz who became its director. She ran it with military discipline and even the Imperial nurses reported to her and other surgeons like everybody else. The Romanov nurses threw themselves completely into nursing the sick, they were very active during the war and gave almost all their money to charities to help the afflicted.
In 1914 The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had already been operating for over 50 years since 1863, the Russian branch had formed in 1867 (which in 1918 would rename itself the Soviet Red Cross and be recognised by the ICRC in 1921).
The organisation monitored compliance with several international war agreements, namely the 1906 Geneva Convention and the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. It’s job was to be in the field where direct action was needed, and in the diplomatic field where complaints and violations could be reported to the relevant countries and the international community.
Cover of a Russian Magazine ‘Lukomorye’ – #11 1916
(public domain – edited)
World War I saw an outstanding number of precedents, the use of chemical agents for example that caused unimaginable devastation and of which the Red Cross campaigned vigorously against. At no time previously had the treatment of soldiers or civilians in time of war been so comprehensively considered. With shifting front lines came the displacement of ordinary people; between 1914-1917 this amounted to 5,000,000 on Russia’s Western front fleeing their homes heading for the capital Petrograd.
The displaced were considered as refugees by the central government and as such there was no proper record kept of them. Tatiana was just eighteen years and three months old in September 1914 when she established a committee to help the government carry out a census of refugees. It was committed to providing financial aid to return refugees home or re-settle them and find employment. It was financed partly by the state and with public donations that came from as far afield as Britain and the US. Her committee ultimately secured a law on meeting the needs of refugees.
Alexandra providing instruments to surgeon Vera Gedroitz. Behind her are Tatiana and Olga in front. Anna Vyrubova stands behind the patient’s head.
(public domain – edited)
Meanwhile just a few miles within reach of Tsarskoe Selo, the renamed capital city of Petrograd was in turmoil. At first a series of auctions took place to fund hospitals, one art auction alone made 6,000 rubles. Many infirmaries were created within institutions such as museums and even the Winter Palace opened on 10 October 1915 with 241 staff. But it was still not enough to deal with the numbers coming in from the front, night and day. Almost 15 million Russian soldiers went to war with an estimated 2.8 million returning wounded (with 1.8 million casualties).
As the wounded continued to pile in so did the refugees and also inhabitants from the countryside whose menfolk had gone to the front and who were now seeking employment as servants, cooks etc. in the cities. Those too young for conscription at home got in to crime. Even prisoners of war were being sent to Petrograd, 1.4 million Germans alone by the end of the war. Often they would be seen on the streets, so much so that legislation was introduced to forbid them from interacting with Russian civilians. But it was the food shortage that had the severest effect on all of them.
At the Tsarskoe Selo infirmary Vera Gedroitz turned one of the wings in to a state-of-the-art facility comprising 230 beds with ample surgery and X-ray rooms. Mobile operating field theatres shipped the wounded to Tsarskoe Selo on a hospital train to a team of professional medical staff that toiled night and day. Tatiana was said to be gifted in this calling, described by the doctors as cool headed and often assisting Gedroitz during operations. The Romanov nurses all assisted in disposing of amputated limbs and looking after dressings.
Gedroitz had been highly decorated for her medical practices during the Russo-Japan War. She placed the highest importance on cleanliness, sanitation and nutrition and greatly improved battlefield surgery. She was the first female military surgeon in Russia and served as a physician to the Imperial court until the start of World War I. She trained Alexandra and her daughters to be nurses who trained and passed their exams alongside other students with no preferential treatment.
Tatiana dressing the wound of Dmitry Malama, an officer of the Imperial Russian cavalry. A romance would develop after he was appointed an equerry at the Tsar’s court. The other nurse is possibly Valentina Chebotareva.
(public domain – edited)
The Romanov nurses worked long hours, often flat out from 9am through to 2am, sometimes having just five hours sleep between shifts. There are many photographs of them in surgery or with patients at their bedsides. Even Marie and Anastasia helped when they could, they were deemed too young to become nurses and usually are seen visiting patients and doing supportive work.
Whilst Alexandra was left to run the government, she became a nurse and turned her home in to a hospital and she founded and supported two schools for training nurses which noticeably increased the efficiency of the hospital system in Russia. The American newspaper Richmond Times-Dispatch reported in August 1915 ‘The Empress forgot all about her ailments and spleen, the war has cured all of them.‘ Suggesting that her health issues existed mainly in her head.
Valentina Chebotaryova had been a nurse during the Russo-Japan War and was asked to come to Tsarskoe Selo as a Senior Nurse. She kept a journal and noted every day things that she published in newspapers and magazines. She came to love Alexandra, Olga, and Tatiana most, but after the October revolution in 1917 would attribute the fate of the monarchy to Alexandra’s liaison with Rasputin. Tragically she died of typhus in April 1919.
“I feel terribly sorry for her (i.e. Alexandra) and yet it is all so painful that I cannot find the warm feelings of old, after all she is the awful cause of all the misfortunes of our land, she ruined her entire family, the unfortunate sick of soul, sick with mysticism and arrogant pride.“ — Valentina Chebotaryova 10 August 1917
“All the doctors who saw the Grand Duchess Tatiana at her work said that she was born to be a nurse, that she gently and fearlessly touches the most serious wounds, that all of her dressings are done by a confident and skilful hand. Meanwhile, just the sight of some of these injuries could deprive another person of sleep and rest.“ — Valentina Chebotaryova
Imagine the scene of a patient to be on the battlefield one minute, then to find themselve’s at the home of the Emperor being tended to by the Imperial nurses.
Tatiana Nikolaevna bandaging under the watchful eyes of Vera Gedroitz and Valentina Chebotareva.
(public domain – edited)
The dressing room of Alexander Palace Infirmary, 1914. LTR: Anna Vyrubova, Tatiana Nikolaevna, Olga Nikolaevna, Vera Gedroits
Pt 13 – Revolution to Abdication
In 1915 the gossip of Alexander and Rasputin being German spies had a limited impact, so when the politician and former political prisoner Pavel Miliukov made a speech at Taurida Palace where the State Duma was sitting on 14 November 1916, he really let the cat out of the bag by referring to them as Rasputin and Rasputuiza. He followed a speech given by Alexander Kerensky who accused ministers of being guided by Rasputin. Kerensky was forced to leave the chamber for it. Miliukov took more care in his delivery by highlighting government failures and hinting at a government sympathetic to Germany.
Rasputin at the helm
Miliukov’s speech was so successful that the military formed a plan to imprison Alexandra for treason, but that investigation found no evidence. The Duma just couldn’t accept that they were being led by a German in the war against Germany. Rasputin they believed was spying for personal profit, to access black markets etc..
Several attempts on Rasputin’s life had failed. First on 12 July 1914 (G) a woman called Chionya Guseva stalked him at his village Pokrovskoe and stabbed him in the stomach, almost fatally but for the local doctor that saved him. She had read about him in the newspapers and believed him to be the antichrist. Then in February 1916 the Minister of the Interior Alexei Khvostov, firmly believing the German spy conspiracy, along with Iliodor plotted to kill him but it failed and he was imprisoned.
Alexandra was slightly less culpable because it was understood that Rasputin controlled her, and through her the Tsar. The danger was that people also believed that she was also controlled by Germany. Rasputin’s obvious hand at court was in the many replacements of officials; he suggested a replacement and Alexandra would get Nicholas to endorse it. This way Rasputin became a focal point for anarchistic propaganda, but even posters and magazine cartoons of him puppeteering the Emperor and Empress appeared not in the slightest to offend the Imperial couple.
She removed ministers that criticised Rasputin. Two notable ones were; Scheratov (Interior) replaced by Protopopov, a convicted armed robber that had spent ten years in prison; and Gremykin (the man Nicholas had replaced Witte with,) who was replaced with Sturmer, who promptly set about embezzling from the treasury.
M. V. Rodzianko president of the Russian State Duma recounts in his memoirs The Reign of Rasputin what he once said to the Tsar:
“… The constant changes of Ministers at first created confusion among the officials, which finally gave place to complete indifference. Think, your Majesty, of Polivanoff, Sazonoff, Count Ignatieff, Scherbatoff, Naumoff – all of them honest and loyal servants of yourself and of Russia, who were dismissed for no cause or any fault whatever. Think of such venerable statesmen as Golubeff and Kulomsin.“ — M. V. Rodzianko
“She exercises a deplorable influence on all appointments, even those in the army. She and the Emperor are surrounded by shady, incompetent & evil persons. Alexandra Feodorovna is fiercely and universally hated, and all circles are clamouring for her removal. While she remains in power, we shall continue on the road to ruin.” — Mikhail Alexandrovitch, speaking to M. V. Rodzianko
M.V. Rodzianko’s memoirs inside cover
Some writers remain un-convinced that Rasputin had any real influence on the government. He had always clashed with the Duma who saw his hold on the palace as a threat but their complaints had resulted in legislation that reduced their own power and after the Duma was dissolved in September 1915, Rasputin took charge of just about everything in Petrograd; holding meetings on state matters and forwarding discussions to the relevant minister for attention. He entrenched himself in the war by examining military plans so that he could pray for successful outcomes which was the reason he was suspected of spying for Alexandra – ergo Germany.
Contradiction on whether Rasputin was important in governmental affairs comes from those who were not in that sphere and not sufficiently immersed in gossip to know what was happening in government or at court. Count Pavel Benckendorff in his memoirs believed there may have been some influence in religious matters but that there were none in politics.
“During the last years of his reign there was often talk of the influence, political and other, that Gregori Rasputin had exercised over their Majesties. Neither the Emperor nor the Empress ever mentioned him to me. I am convinced that the political influence of Rasputin was nil. The appointment of ministers, which, during the latter years, proved so fatal, can be explained otherwise, and if certain persons thought it necessary to approach that person for their private ends, they may have derived personal advantage, but he never had any influence on the course of political events.“ — Count Pavel Benckendorff
By February 1916 when the Duma resumed briefly, the war was still raging and going badly with no end in sight; fuel was in very short supply, Poland was lost to the Germans and even worse the people of Petrograd were cold and hungry, – something had to be done.
Having vaguely considered arresting Alexandra the focus turned to Rasputin. Two days after Kerensky and Miliukov had openly criticised Alexandra and Rasputin at the Duma, the politician Vladimir Purishkevich had returned to Petrograd following a meeting he’d requested with the Tsar, at the Stavka (Military High Command) in Moghilev on the Dnieper River (Poland). He had gone out there on 3 November to discuss the problem of Rasputin’s uncontrolled power and assumed authority. Was he actually seeking permission to do away with Rasputin?
Purishkevich was a hard line supporter of the Tsar but was despairing at how the government was being misused. Three days after Purishkevich returned, on 19 November 1916, he gave a speech at the Duma about the continuous government reshuffles saying that the Tsar’s ministers had been turned into marionettes whose threads were firmly in the hands of Alexandra and Rasputin whom he called: “the evil genius of Russia and the Tsarina who has remained a German on the Russian throne.“ Presumably Nicholas had not sanctioned an assassination.
The Tsar on his Imperial train at the Stavka in Moghilev, August 1915
While we don’t know how Nicholas received Purishkevich at the Stavka it’s highly likely that he was waved away considering the speech he made on his return. It would appear that Purishkevich had exhausted his other options and was left with no choice but to personally sanction the move against Rasputin.
Coincidentally at this time Rasputin gets nervy and even afraid. Rumours circulated Petrograd that Rasputin was soon to be done away with. His assistant Aron Simanovich, the court jeweller of dubious character, in his memoirs, describes how very aware he was that Rasputin feared for his life. What was most fearful for someone with so many enemies was having no idea who might be conspiring against him.
He put a buffer between himself and the Imperial court by writing Alexandra a letter dated 7 December 1916 (J) in which he said that he didn’t expect to live past 1 January 1917 and added a warning that should his death be connected to the Imperial Family then the dynasty would fall within two years. This prophecy appears singularly in Simanovich’s book published in 1928. He states the letter fell in to his possession shortly after Rasputin’s death. If it existed at all, it was remarkably accurate as just 23 days later Rasputin was murdered and 19 months after that so were the Imperial Family.
The murder of Rasputin
It would not be a valid telling of Rasputin’s end without a woman being involved. That woman was the beautiful Irina Yussoupoff whom Rasputin had once attempted to compromise. Her husband Prince Felix Yussoupoff‘s plan was to lure Rasputin to their home using Irina as bait that he could not refuse. So that his parents did not find out the meeting was arranged for midnight. Rasputin turned up expecting to seduce Irina, so the story goes.
That evening Rasputin had been telling Anna Vyrubova about his invite and she in turn mentioned it to Alexandra who became suspicious because she knew Irina was in Crimea. This was just a few hours before the appointment. Had Alexandra or Anna Vyrubova sent word to Rasputin then he may have suspected that he was walking in to a trap. How regretful to discover on the following morning that murder had transpired when it could have been so easily prevented.
On 30 December 1916 (G), the conspirators met at Moika Palace to prepare the ruse by soundproofing the cellar. There were five men waiting for Rasputin to arrive:
- Prince Felix Yussoupoff (aristocrat)
- Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich (Nicholas II’s cousin)
- Vladimir Purishkevich (Duma member)
- Sergei Mikhailovich Sukhotin (Lieutenant of the Preobrazhensky Regiment)
- Stanislaus de Lazovert
Some have alluded that the hidden hand was Maria Feodorovna who was secretly allied with the conspirators. Or perhaps, as discussed earlier on when Purishkevich when to the Stavka to see Nicholas, he had in fact received a green light.
Rasputin arrived expecting a light social event and was lured in to the cellar where the murder played out. The question arises why he wasn’t suspicious on arrival when he saw such an unusual collection of guests wanting to feed him cakes. Why didn’t the conspirators just kill him there and then or drag him to the basement, instead of the ensuing charade.
According to the popular account Rasputin was given cakes and wine laced with cyanide, the poison had no effect so he was shot several times and still he did not die, so he was taken outside and shot in the head and the body dumped from a bridge in to a nearby ice covered river, still he breathed so they went down and drowned him in an ice hole.
The cellar in the Yussoupoff Palace
Two men fired, Yussoupoff and Purishkevich and they each claimed to have killed Rasputin. There were three bullet entry holes found on the body, one in the chest that travelled through his liver and stomach, a second in the kidneys and a third in the head. The murderers put the body in Purishkevich’s car and drove to the Bolshoi Petrovsky Bridge and dropped the body in to the icy Nevka River where it was found frozen several days later. He was found to have water in the lungs indicating death by drowning.
“This devil who was dying of poison, who had a bullet in his heart, must have been raised from the dead by the powers of evil. There was something appalling and monstrous in his diabolical refusal to die.“ — Felix Yussoupoff
Yussoupoff and Pavlovich were eventually placed under house arrest in the Sergei Palace, home of Sergei Alexandrovich and Princess Elisabeth (whose wedding Nicholas and Alix had attended in 1884). This palace from January 1916 was functioning primarily as a British Red Cross hospital to treat Russian soldiers.
Alexandra wanted an Imperial funeral – not something that Nicholas would approve or the country would accept. Rasputin was buried on 2 January 1917 at a small church built by Anna Vyrubova at Tsarskoe Selo. Just the Imperial Family attended with some close acquaintances. The alternative account says the body was cremated on 10–11 March 1917 most likely at the Petrograd Polytechnic Institute, under mysterious circumstances. If this is true then the remains were were some 2.5 months after death which seems unlikely.
There are several versions of the murder of Rasputin but Yussoupoff’s memoirs are the de facto account. The reader must distinguish the likely from the absurd of the alternate versions. Consider that Yussoupoff’s memoirs were authored in 1957 and translated to English as late as 2003. Lost Splendor: The Amazing Memoirs of the Man Who Killed Rasputin was the source material used for the television drama by HBO in 1996. So note that only Yussoupoff’s version without evidence seems to be the accepted account of the demise of Rasputin.
Yussoupoff published several versions that were discredited. Should these fabrications be trusted. He showed no remorse and portrayed his victim as inhuman and a beast to be slain. He lived on the money from his his book for many decades and sued anyone who wrote about Rasputin or made a film, explicitly referencing himself or his wife.
In 1934, testifying in the case of his wife against Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, he coldly described his part in slaying Rasputin. The suit charged that she was libelled in a film in which the character representing her was seduced by Rasputin. Disclaimers attached to films since stating that characters are purely fictional, are because of Yussoupoff’s successful court actions.
The Knoxville Independent, US, 6 January 1917
(public domain, Library of Congress)
Abdication of a dynasty
When Nicholas II came out on the balcony of the Winter Palace in 1914 to announce that Russia was at war with Germany, the many thousands below in the square fell to their knees. Two years later the disastrous Duma sessions of November and December 1916 had voiced such opposition to Alexandra and Rasputin, that Nicholas cancelled the next session due in February 2017, possibly suspecting them of having played a part in Rasputin’s recent murder of late December.
The mood at this time is described by a president of the Duma M. V. Rodzianko in his memoirs:
“The idea of the Emperor’s compulsory abdication had been persistently circulated in Petrograd since the end of 1916. … At the beginning of January  General Krymoff arrived from the front and asked to be given an opportunity of unofficially acquainting the members of the Duma with the disastrous conditions at the front and the spirit of the army.“ — M.V. Rodzianko
“The spirit of the army is such that the news of a coup d’etat would be welcomed with joy. A revolution is imminent, and we at the front feel it to be so. If you decide on such an extreme step, we will support you. Clearly there is no other way. You, as well as numbers of others, have tried everything, but the Emperor attaches more weight to his wife’s nefarious influence than to all honest words of warning. There is no time to lose.” — General Krymoff
On 16 February 1917, the British general Sir Henry Wilson was in Petrograd for the allied conference and recorded in his diary: “The Emperor and Empress are riding for a fall. Everyone – officers, merchants, ladies – talk openly of the absolute necessity of doing away with them.“
Nicholas further announced that he was also cancelling the Duma session for April. It was a bad move and on 8 March 1917 (G) the February Revolution started (23rd February Julian calendar) with riots in Petrograd. The Duma refused to comply with the Tsar’s wishes and formulated a provisional government that informed Nicholas II to abdicate.
Government officials wanted the throne to pass to Nicholas’ brother Mikhail but he would only consent if the Duma approved it which they would not do. The Grand Duke Pavel Alexandrovich (Nicholas’ uncle,) sent a letter to the army generals asking their views on replacing the Tsar and their responses were in a letter that was handed to Nicholas. This letter was shown to Grand Marshal of the Imperial Court Pavel Konstantinovich Benckendorff by Nicholas after he had returned to Tsarskoe Selo soon after the abdication.
“He showed me the telegrams of the Generals commanding the different fronts, who all, with one accord, had told him that the only means of saving the monarchy was to abdicate in favour of the Tsarevich.“ — Count Pavel Benckendorff, memoirs
Without support from the military Nicholas agreed to abdicate and at 3pm on 15 March 1917 (G) the throne of the Russian Empire and the power of the Romanov dynasty was signed in to history which took place in the salon carriage on the Imperial train.
“The Emperor as Supreme Commander of the army had, in the presence of the enemy, been betrayed by his Generals and had been forced to give way to pressure because the last support of the monarchy, the army, was going over to the revolutionaries. History has never known the like of this.“ — Count Pavel Benckendorff
On the day of the abdication Nicholas had not been permitted to see Alexandra. He liked to update his diary at 11pm each evening, but on this day (i.e. 15th) he made no entry and none more until 19 March 1917 (G) such was his misery. Nicholas returned to Tsarskoe Selo the following day to join the family. All the children were ill; Alexei, Olga and Marie had measles and Tatiana and Anastasia had painful ear abscesses. Marie developed double pneumonia and was at death’s door with a temperature of 104F.
Kerensky visited Nicholas on 21 March 1917 (G) to inspect the rooms and to introduce the new Commandant Colonel Korovichenko who would be replacing the existing Captain de Kotzebue soon, as he was being too friendly with the family. Kerensky informed that he had ordered the arrests of Anna Vyrubova and Lili Dehn and others. The family were officially placed under house arrest on 25 March 1917 (G) and Anna Vyrubova was detained for several months and Lili Dehn for a few days.
Six months followed of wranglings within the presiding government, demonstrations on the streets and strikes at the factories, which led to the October Revolution that started on 7 November 1917 (G) (25th October Julian calendar) and the Winter Palace was stormed by the political faction, the Bolsheviks. Almost immediately people realised the Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Lenin were not very friendly.
Lenin issued a decree on the press legitimising the suppression of publications and by July 1918 all opposition publications had been closed down. To analyse the Russian Revolution would take several volumes, in the simplest terms it comes down to the lack of leadership, the discontent of the peasants, the isolation of the government and the frustration of the military.
Demonstrators scatter as troops shoot in to the crowd during the February revolution 1917
Nicholas’ weakness was well known. Perhaps he should have abdicated sooner if he did not want to rule, maybe he should not have given his wife such importance, he shouldn’t have taken over the military in the Russo-Japan War and World War I, he shouldn’t have let Rasputin anywhere near the palace court and perhaps the Duma could have been managed more respectfully. All these things coming together demonstrate an ineptitude in governing.
This passage from Wilhelm II’s memoirs demonstrates how uninterested Nicholas was to involve himself at the outbreak of World War I, indeed until the Great Retreat when he was finally compelled by Alexandra to intervene. Note that here Wilhelm is referring to the Marshal of the Court, either Vasily Dolgorukov, or more likely Grand Marshal of the Court Count Pavel Benckendorff – and not a military court marshal.
“This shows plainly how little we had expected, much less prepared for war in July 1914. When, in the spring of 1914, Tsar Nicholas II was questioned by his Court Marshal as to his spring and summer plans, he replied: “Je resterai chez moi cette année parceque nous aurons la guerre” (“I shall stay at home this year because we shall have war”). This fact, it is said, was reported to Imperial Chancellor von Bethmann; I heard nothing about it then and learned about it for the first time in November, 1918. This was the same Tsar who gave me, on two separate occasions — at Björkö and Baltisch-Port — entirely without being pressed by me and in a way that surprised me, his word of honour as a sovereign, to which he added weight by a clasp of the hand and an embrace, that he would never draw his sword against the German Emperor — least of all as an ally of England — in case a war should break out in Europe, owing to his gratitude to the German Emperor for his attitude in the Russo-Japanese War, in which England alone had involved Russia, adding that he hated England, since she had done him and Russia a great wrong by inciting Japan against them.“ – Keiser Wilhelm II
The German Keiser felt that Nicholas’ word was not robust, considering he had given Nicholas a similar assurance when he had entered in to the war with Japan.
“When the Tsar resolved upon war against Japan, I told him that I would assure him security in the rear and cause him no annoyances. Germany kept this promise.“ — Keiser Wilhelm II, memoirs
Nicholas II portrait on oil by Valentin Serov 1900, wearing the uniform of the Preobrazhensky Life Guards Regiment.
(Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)
In this next passage from his memoirs Wilhelm refers to the first Duma which was disbanded. The members met in Finland to write the Vyborg Manifesto, a document encouraging peaceful demonstrations of discontent. These were experienced politicians and had Nicholas made an effort they may have made progress towards a constitutional monarchy but instead succeeding Dumas consisted of less experienced or astute members. This is what Wilhelm could see that Nicholas could not.
Page 314:— “I most urgently advised Tsar Nicholas, repeatedly, to introduce liberal reforms within his country, to summon the so-called Great Duma, which existed and functioned even as far back as the reign of Ivan the Terrible. In doing so it was not my intention to interfere in Russian internal affairs; what I wanted was to eliminate, in the interests of Germany, the ferment going on in Russia, which had often enough been deflected before to foreign conflicts, as I have already described. I wished to help toward eliminating at least this one phase of the internal situation in Russia, which threatened to cause war, and I was all the more willing to make the effort since I might thereby serve both the Tsar and Russia. The Tsar paid no heed to my advice, but created a new Duma instead, which was quite inadequate for coping with the situation. Had he summoned the old Duma he might have dealt and talked personally with all the representatives of his huge realm and won their confidence.” — Keiser Wilhelm II
The world’s most powerful autocrat was described by observers as ‘remarkably passive’ and unable to take direct action when his regime was threatened with revolution. If Nicholas was that timid then was he entirely to blame, was his wife not the Empress of Russia, at their coronation did they not take salt and bread together to share the responsibilities of the crown. Most writers attribute the blame to Alexandra for many reasons, but generally because she was hell bent on preserving absolute autocracy for her son Alexei.
“I have no patience with Ministers who prevent him doing his duty. The situation requires firmness. The Emperor, unfortunately, is weak; but I am not, and I intend to be firm.“ — Alexandra Feodorovna, said to Sir George Buchanan, British diplomat
Nicholas II on a trip to the Urals during the Russo-Japan War 1904
(public domain, Gutenberg)
Final words on willedness
Much had been expected when Nicholas made his first speech on 17 January 1895. After thirteen and a half years of strict rule under Alexander III, people expected reforms to allow the country to finally move forward in to the new century. Instead what Nicholas said stunned them, “Let everyone know that I, devoting all my strength to the good of the people, will protect the beginning of the autocracy as firmly and unswervingly as my unforgettable late parent protected it“. It was an affirmation that things would not change and could only become more austere.
How surprising that Nicholas is characterised throughout his reign as a poor leader with a weak personality. It’s fair to say that he was timid, loved animals and the simplest things. He loved to read and smoke in peace, found satisfaction in chopping wood, rowing a boat on the lake, arranging photo albums, growing vegetables and had the attributes of a loving and caring son, brother, husband or father.
Afraid of the government or the military he was not. Did he consider his role as a nine to five occupation, that a lifetime could be spent shifting paperwork in the mornings and doing his own thing after that with the family. Was there any calling or sense of duty or was it just a big play, wearing military uniforms and sailing around the world. How he viewed being emperor is open for discussion but it would not be fair to say that things were over his head.
He took on the Orthodox Church and closed down the government several times and took over control of the military in two major wars. He took tremendous interest in the smallest details, for example military uniforms had to go through him so he could try them on before giving his approving. Rightly or wrongly he did what he thought needed to be done without fear, but around Alexandra he behaved as a husband and not as an Emperor, which she saw as weakness. Could it really be that he had married the wrong woman as has been suggested. Should he have listened to his father and married Elena of Montenegro, a far more interesting and stronger woman.
In 1894 when Nicholas took over the reign from his father Russia was still thought of as a medieval country. Just one year after the coronation, working hours were limited and night work was forbidden for women and for minors under seventeen years of age – at a time when the majority of countries had almost no labour legislation at all.
The campaign for womens’ suffrage and equality in Russia gained momentum during the 1905 Revolution and by July 1917, women over 20 had the right to vote and hold public office. William Howard Taft the 27th President of America (1909-1913) said in 1908 following a visit to Russia, “The Russian Emperor enacted labour legislation which not a single democratic state could boast of.“
Nicholas and Alexandra relaxing on the Standart during their trip along the Finnish coast, 1914
(public domain, Romanov100)
Following the first revolution of 1905, Russia entered a period of such agricultural and industrial growth that had World War I not occurred, it had the potential of becoming the leading nation of the world. The days of monarchs going in to battle with their troops was long over, yet Nicholas played his part in the wars unlike his cousins Keiser Wilhelm II and King George V who stayed well away from danger.
If the suggestion is that if he had been a brutal emperor The First Revolution would have been averted, then it’s probably true because the head of the police promised him that there would be no revolution in Russia for a hundred years if he sanctioned 50,000 executions, which Nicholas refused to do. In 1908 he was presented with an industrialisation plan that would require far more money than was available and cost between 10 and 15 million premature deaths, again he refused.
Certainly Nicholas could have put many thousands to death and saved his reign. What sort of a ruler would people be talking about today, one of his weaknesses was that he was human. Yet the deaths that would follow the 1917 revolution numbered in to millions that were massacred by the Bolsheviks. Had Nicholas massacred 100,000 innocent people then millions might have been saved.
The loss of both wars against Japan and Germany are largely attributed to Nicholas not having involved himself enough in the Russo-Japan War and involving himself too much in World War I. For both wars industrialisation was ready but the inefficient management of supplying the front was the cause of military defeat.
War took its toll, from 1914-1917, the price of flour increased fivefold because grain was not being brought to the cities which caused the hunger that led to both revolution and war. The result of ineffective logistics meant Russia lost territories inhabited by more than one-quarter of its citizens and providing more than one-third of its grain harvest (namely Ukraine).
That Nicholas let Rasputin influence matters of state is another common assertion. It has been demonstrated so far that Rasputin did have an effect on the government, on Alexandra and ultimately on the people. If Nicholas had prevented his wife from bringing a peasant mystic in to the heart of their family it may have saved their lives.
(Courtesy: The last days of the Romanovs)
Anna Vyrubova wrote that General A.I. Spiridonovich, had mentioned of the Empress’ insistence not to trust anybody but Rasputin and sets the record straight that Nicholas knew this very well:
“The Emperor understood all this well and very frequently acted against her advice, guided by his own experience. Sometimes his decisions coincided with the Empress’ wishes. But to claim indiscriminately that the Emperor acted in state matters only according to the Empress’ wishes is a great mistake. This means ignoring the facts as well as the character and principles of the Emperor. Emperor Nicholas was far from being as simple-minded and weak-willed as many thought.“ — Anna Vyrubova
When Nicholas was ten he was conversant in Russian, French, English and German and studied history ardently. He could read a great work of non-fiction in several days. Someone capable of that mastery could not have been without intelligence.
The last page of Alexandra’s close friend Lili Dehn’s book The Real Tsaritza reads:
“It is both unjust and untrue to ascribe the Revolution as directly consequent upon the Emperor’s weakness, or the pro-Germanism and hysteric sensuality of the Empress. I have endeavoured to show that Rasputin was probably one of the unconscious tools of the Revolution against Imperialism: there is no doubt that German intrigues brought Lenin back from Switzerland to overthrow the milder rule of Kerensky, who was not ready to offer the country an efficient substitute for Tsardom, but the Empress was entirely innocent of pro-Germanism.“ — Lili Dehn
Lili Dehn was quite informed about Germany’s role in the fall of Imperial Russia, this time Keiser Wilhelm was not so supportive of his cousin. In April 1917 Lenin moved from Switzerland through Germany to Sweden and thence to Russia, where the Bolsheviks fanned anti-war sentiment against the war with Germany. German money allowed him to organise his party. In August 1918 the Bolsheviks granted Germany economic rights on its territory in exchange for military assistance to defeat the White Army that dominated Ukraine, Crimea and large parts of southern Russia.
Nicholas at the St Petersburg zoo
(public domain, Zlatoust City Museum)
The whole tsardom was based on the Roman Empire model, the word Tsar means Ceasar. Roman emperors were always looking over their shoulder and Nicholas was lacking this paranoia not considering the officials he had upset during his brief tenure as Tsar. Those church leaders and politicians he didn’t get on with or understand were dismissed, complete dumas had been removed from power. When he needed them most they turned against him. He did not seem to understand the world around him. When he was told to abdicate his reaction was, well if they want me to resign I will, so long as I can live in Livadia. When he met the provisional government on the Imperial train he thought the Romanov throne was continuing and that he would retire to his holiday home.
“I considered all this, decided to abdicate. But I do not deny it in favour of my son, since I must leave Russia, since I am leaving the supreme power. I consider it possible to leave my son, whom I love very much. That is why I decided to pass the throne to my brother, Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich.” — Nicholas II
Naively he signed his abdication on the supposed proviso that the extended family would be protected. The document note written hastily by hand asks “to take under the protection of the government all members of the imperial house, since in such difficult times, all kinds of surprises are always possible”. — Nicholas II
Nicholas did not understand what he was signing or that he had no choice to sign:
“I can in no way forgive myself for having given up power. I never expected that power would fall to the Bolsheviks. I thought that I was giving up power to the representatives of the people.“ — Nicholas II, 1917
Vasily Yakolev was the Bolshevik that was tasked with transporting the Romanov family under house arrest from Tobolsk to Ekateringburg in April 1918. He knew Nicholas for a brief time and is quoted as describing him as a pleasant enough person, but of “extraordinarily limited intellect.”
Nicholas and Alexei building a snow tower
Pt 14 – House Arrest
The first Commandant at Tsarskoe Selo was Captain de Kotzebue who was replaced on 3 April 1917 (G) with Colonel Korovichenko. The Commandant had a Guard at his disposal, a special detachment of 350 soldiers. The Guard was Commanded by Colonel Eugene Kobylinsky who was appointed on 14 March 1917 (G) the day before the abdication. When Commander Kobylinsky’s guards had gone to the palace to receive control from the Imperial Guard, it was effectively the start of the Romanov’s house arrest, the official start being 25 March 1917 (G).
From home to prison
Count Pavel Benckendorff in his memoirs described the moment like this:
“Towards 3 o’clock the company of the combined regiment was formed before the front entrance and received the Colours of the regiment which had always been guarded at the Emperor’s. This was a melancholy ceremony; everybody was in tears. After so many years of good and loyal service the combined regiment, composed of the flower of the Guard and of the army, was obliged to give place to a revolutionary horde, horrible even to look at. For the last time the colours passed the threshold of the Palace; God knows what became of it.“
That the Romanovs should have made evacuation arrangements goes without saying, their folly and lack of judgement would be their undoing. They’d refused invitations from Italy and England for instance and doggedly dug their heels in expecting a sensible government would prevail and allow them to stay in Russia. Nicholas may have believed his cousin George V was his exit, especially since their last meeting at the Isle of Wight in August 1909, when their relationship had very much strengthened. But Nicholas was not receiving correspondence from England because it was being addressed to the ‘Emperor of Russia’.
Had Mikhail Alexandrovich accepted the throne without quibble then it’s unlikely the family would have been placed under house arrest. Had George V met with a more enthusiastic response then a way out of Russia would have been available sooner. Of the fifty-three Romanovs living in Russia when Nicholas II abdicated, thirty-five managed to escape, the rest were not so fortunate.
As early as 19 March 1917 (G) George V wrote to Nicholas II (referring to the February Revolution):
“Events of last week have deeply distressed me. My thoughts are constantly with you, and shall always remain your true and devoted friend as you know I have been in the past.“ — King George V
During Felix Yussoupoff’s life it was not known that it was in fact George V and not Prime Minister Lloyd George that had blocked the Romanov Imperial Family’s invitation to escape to England. This extract is from page 283 of his memoirs, Lost Splendor: The Amazing Memoirs of the Man who Killed Rasputin:
“… King George V had invited them to come to England, but this had met with the opposition of the British government in the person of Lloyd George. The King of Spain had also offered them hospitality, but the Emperor had refused, saying that no matter what happened neither he nor his family would ever leave Russia.“ — Felix Yussoupoff
Kerensky visited the palace several times to interview Nicholas and Alexandra, in particular he tried to get to the bottom of the accusations about Alexandra spying for Germany and the reasons for her numerous ministerial replacements. On 3 April 1917 (G) he brought Colonel Korovichenko with him again to formally assume command of the palace. He mentioned the British in his diary entry for that day:
“I inquired about the health of the members of the family, informed them that their relatives abroad were solicitous of their welfare and the King and Queen of England had notified the Provisional Government of their concern for the Imperial Family.“ — Alexander Kerensky
There was an offer of asylum from England but it was withdrawn. This point was laid at Prime Minister Lloyd George for decades until Cabinet papers from his tenure released in 1986 revealed that it was indeed George V that decided to rescind and not rescue the Romanovs. He was not keen to allow the Romanovs to come to England fearing they might provoke revolutionary sentiment so soon after World War I.
According to the royal author Lady Colin Campbell, it was Queen Mary’s doing because she disliked Alexandra, and persuaded her husband not to help the Romanovs fearing the same fervent desire for an uprising against the British monarch could take hold with the Romanov family in the country.
The American writer Eugene Gore Vidal wrote that George V’s wife Mary and their son Edward were having breakfast at Buckingham Palace one morning when an aide handed the king a note. Having read it he passed it to his wife who turned to her husband and said, “No.” The king then told the aide “No.” Later Edward asked his mother what the note was about and she told him that his father’s government was ready to send a battle ship to rescue the Russian family, but she didn’t think it would be good for them to have their Russian relatives in Britain.
Another story from an Anglican chaplain Reverend G.V. Vaughan-James, of Warminster, England, tells of when he was on a British ship sent to a port on the Black Sea to rescue the Tsar and his family and bring them to England. The crew were very excited by the mission. When they arrived at the port, a telephone message came from London ordering the ship to return to England without the Tsar and his family. No reason was given. The crew was most upset.
Nicholas’ sister Olga Alexandrovna was a nurse at a field hospital in Kiev during 1916. Her primary communication was between her mother Maria Feodorovna and sister Xenia Alexandrovna. In 2017 a collection of 52 letters between Olga and Xenia were sold at auction by Olga’s grandson. They provide insight to the fears of the extended family at this time. Olga mentions her hate for the British that she thought were not doing enough.
“I nearly hate the Allies. When will they help – or won’t they. All words and no actions. No tanks yet here – nothing that can help us.“ — Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna
Meal times were always their favourite time of day
As soon as they were officially under house arrest on 25 March 1917 they became inmates and the whole attitude towards them changed and got gradually worse and worse as they moved from month to month and from place to place. Their home at Alexander Palace had become their prison. Nicholas made several observations about the noticeable change in their circumstances.
“An unprecedented event happened; we were placed under house arrest, without the slightest possibility of communication with Mama or others. … The faces of the guards have not been as free and easy as before. They usually talk with us and give us their impressions of the revolution.“ — Nicholas II, 7 April 1917 (G).
“I learned why yesterday’s guards were so mean. They were completely from the staff of the Soldier’s Soviet and had replaced the guards from the 4th Infantry Reserve Battalion.“ — Nicholas II, Saturday 8 April 1917
“The soldiers of the new Guard were horrible to look at; untidy, noisy, quarrelling with everybody; the officers, who were afraid of them, had the greatest difficulty in preventing them from roaming about the Palace and entering every room.“ — Count Pavel Benckendorff
Kerensky believed the public did not care for the Romanov’s new comfortable lifestyle, still living at home with their staff to wait on them. The guards complained a lot begrudging every luxury they saw the family enjoy. Wine was rationed at meal times but the soldiers wanted to stop this and raid the cellars for themselves, in the end Commandant Korovichenko had to lock it up and issue the wine at meal times himself.
From the very start of house arrest the family experienced disrespect and abuse from the Bolshovik soldiers. One example was Nicholas riding a bicycle and as he passed by a sentry, he thrust out his rifle into the wheel spokes and laughed when Nicholas fell off the bicycle. Inside they had to contend with the offensive guards and outside the jaunts from angry members of the public that came to stare at the gates daily.
“The guards usually chose a place close to the fence of the park, and the inhabitants of Tsarskoe Selo gathered on the other side of the fence to stare and make remarks. Often crude and rude, the Tsar continued his work as if he heard nothing. They spoke to him as if he were a caged animal unable to hear or do anything about it.” – Marie Nikolaevna
Finally on 9 June 1917 Nicholas appears to comprehend the magnitude of the circumstances he had positioned his family in, the long game to exile in Crimea did not transpire and they were all in fact, real prisoners.
“It has been exactly three months since I came from Moghilev and we have been prisoners. It is difficult to be without news from dear Mama, but as to the others I am indifferent.“ — Nicholas II, Friday 9 June 1917
Working in the garden under house arrest at Tsarskoe Selo
(public domain, edited)
Exile in Siberia
After four months the family learned they were being moved to Tobolsk, a small town in Siberia of 20,000 inhabitants, selected for its remoteness, more than two hundred miles from the nearest railroad and far too remote for a rescue attempt.
They left on 31 July 1917 (G) by train on a thirty-six hour, 1,700 mile trip southeast from Petrograd, to Tobolsk. Along the way through the Urals, Nicholas noted in his diary on Sunday 6 August (J) that they had passed by Rasputin’s village of Pokrovskoe. He was reminded of the prophesy he had made that ‘willingly or unwillingly, they would pass his house some day.‘
They arrived at the Governor’s House in Tobolsk on 19 August 1917 (G). The situation was truly dire; exiled in Siberia when they had expected to be taken to Moscow, abandoned by England and the Russian Provincial Government. The following day Nicholas described the journey in his diary:
“We got over the Ural Mountains and felt the cold air. The train passed Ekaterinburg in the small hours of morning. It dragged on and on incredibly slowly, so that we arrived in Tyumen only at 11:30 pm. The train pulled in almost to the quay and the only thing we had to do was to board a ship. We departed from Tyumen by the river at 6 am.“ — Nicholas II, 7 August 1917 (J)
The house was once a governor’s residence and later used as barracks. No preparations had been made and the building was officially declared uninhabitable. It was freezing cold, there was no heating and the temperature at night fell to -50 degrees Celsius, during the day it never rose above 7 degrees Celsius.
The Governor’s Mansions, Tobolsk, Siberia
Alexandra monitored everyone’s temperature daily; on the Celsius scale a normal temperature is 37 degrees, equivalent of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. They were generally in good health. This image shows how Alexandra kept notes:
Nicholas’ diary confirms he took plenty of photographs with him to Tobolsk. It’s not known how many survived or were moved to Ekateringburg.
“After yesterday’s thunderstorms until dinner, today’s weather was cold and rainy with a strong wind. All day we unpacked photographs of the Journey of I89O-I89I. [His trip around the world} I brought them on purpose so that in my spare time I could put them in order.“ — Nicholas II, 14 August 1917
Commandant Kobylinsky thought the atmosphere at Tobolsk was less strained than the hustle and bustle at Alexander Palace. He was responsible for having arranged the transportation and living arrangements. Some decoration was brought from the palace, carpets and pictures. The dentist Dr Kastritzky was permitted to call for appointments from the Crimea and the ballroom hall was allowed to be converted in to a chapel.
“I have never seen, and I shall probably never again see, such a happy and united family. The time will come when the Russian people will realise what terrible tortures this family was subjected to, from the first days of the Revolution when the newspapers published scandalous stories about their private life.“ — Eugene Kobylinksy
The last know photo of Anastasia at Tobolsk, Siberia
They were expected to pay for their upkeep for energy, food etc. When their finances ran down unbeknown to them, their staff came together and secured 20,000 rubles so that things would continue for a while longer. Nicholas complained about the toilets not flushing and the lack of clean water, being fundamental necessities, which were duly sorted out.
They were not permitted to leave the house, or engage with anyone in the small courtyard where they were allowed to exercise for a couple of hours each day. Nicholas used to pace up and down continuously and do chin-ups on a rail for exercise.
They had only the clothes they came with and would often huddle together to take in the fresh air and keep warm. Their fingers would often freeze and prevent activities such as writing a diary or taking photographs.
For a time they were allowed to attend Sunday service but on Christmas Day 1917, Father Aleksei Vasiliev gave up a prayer for the long life of the ‘Imperial Family’, and for that crime he was banished to a monastery and services were there after restricted to the chapel at the house. The new priest Vladimir Khlynov, was more discrete.
As they began to settled in they busied themselves with whatever was at hand. Alexei was allowed a weekly visit from his best friend Kolya Derevenko. The family created a little farm with some turkeys and pigs. They all loved to grow things and look after animals, Nicholas liked to chop wood. George V once remarked to Wilhelm II that Nicholas was best at ease when he was tending the land, whereupon Wilhelm replied that Nicholas was only good for growing turnips.
Nicholas II and Alexei at Tobolsk, looking after turkeys on their animal farm
(public domain, edited)
Nicholas II and Pierre Gilliard sawing logs. Just look at the amount piled behind!
In September 1917 Russia was proclaimed a republic by Kerensky and just two months later the Provisional Government fell to the Bolsheviks of Vladimir Lenin. Kerensky would describe the event thus, “Without Rasputin, there could have been no Lenin. Certainly, without Lenin, there would have been no communist Russia.“
Immediately following the Bolshevik coup d’état Lenin withdrew Russia from World War I, and a bloody civil war ensued between the Bolsheviks (Red Army) and the conservative White Guard (White Army). The Bolshevik War Commissar Isai Goloshchekin announced the following:
“All those under arrest will be held as hostages, and the slightest attempt at counter-revolutionary action in the town will result in the summary execution of the hostages.“
Extract of a letter from Xenia Alexandrovna to Nicholas, November 1917:
“The heart bleeds at the thought of what you have gone through, what you have lived and what you are still living! At every step undeserved horrors and humiliations. But fear not, the Lord sees all. As long as you are healthy and well. Sometimes it seems like a terrible nightmare, and that I will wake up and it will all be gone! Poor Russia! What will happen to her?“ — Xenia Alexandrovna
Indeed, the court dentist Dr Kastritzky on returning from Tobolsk delivered a message from Nicholas to Irina Yussoupoff, that proves Nicholas’ eventual capitulation to the folly of Rasputin “When you see Princess Yussoupoff, tell her that I now see how right she was. If I had listened to her, many tragic events might have been averted.“
On 27 February 1918 Commandant Kobylinsky received a telegram instructing him that from 1 March the family were to be put on soldiers’ rations and each member would be allowed a maximum of 600 rubles per month from their personal estate. It meant the family had to become frugal and they released ten staff.
It was a lovely sunny day on 1 March 1918 and Nicholas started the book Anna Karenina, finishing it on 13 March the day that foodstuff began arriving for them, butter, coffee, pastries and meals from the people of the village who heard about their switch to rations. During Nicholas’ interesting read the Russian Bolshevik Party became the Russian Communist Party on 9 March and Vladimir Lenin published on 12 March his argument to move the capital to Moscow.
Letter writing continued to be the favourite daily ritual. Alexandra was disturbed that some people that she had written to had not responded. It’s a wonder that she didn’t consider their fears, and that by her association the possibility of their arrest was all too great, or even perhaps that it was due to a dislike of the monarchy which they no longer had to respect or acknowledge.
At this late time at Tobolsk March 1918, Alexandra writes to her friend Lili Dehn asking if she had received previous correspondence of October 1917. They had not seen each other since the previous March when the house arrest had began. Letters to Lili Dehn were smuggled out, but Lili had her own problems trying to secure the safety of her son whilst under house arrest herself. She moved south and as the Bolsheviks advanced she moved further south to Odessa and with the help of the French boarded a ship for Constantinople.
“My Dearest, I am for such a very, very long time without news of you, and I feel sad. Have you received my post card of the 28th October? Everybody is well, my heart is not up to much, fit at times, but on the whole it is better. I live very quietly and seldom go out as it is too difficult to breathe in frozen air. …“ — Alexandra to Lili Dehn, 15 March 1918 (G)
As the final signs of autocracy were dismantled so the guards manifested increasing levels of cruel disregard for the former Imperial Family. They would sit on Alexandra’s bed with her in it and stand in or around the room when Alexandra and the girls dressed. Many of the guards could not stoop to that level of indignity and asked for transfers to the Front. Eventually only the crudest and rudest guards remained at Tobolsk, that spat and swore around their captives.
Christmas card drawn for Lili Dehn sent from Tobolsk circa December 1917
(Courtesy: The Last Tsaritza)
Journey to Ekateringburg
Vasily Yakovlev was an extremist Bolshevik revolutionary whom Moscow had appointed in March 1918 to move the Romanov family from Tobolsk to Moscow for Nicholas to face trial. Yakovlev and one hundred and fifty horsemen turned up at the Governor’s Mansion in Tobolsk on 22 April 1918 with a letter for Commander of the Guard Kobylinsky ordering him to cooperate on pain of death.
Alexei was seriously ill, so Yakovlev decided to leave him behind with Olga, Tatiana, Anastasia and some servants. The rest, Nicholas, Alexandra, Marie, Dr Botkin, lady in waiting Anna Demidova, Court Marshal Vasily Dolgorukov and one other left for Moscow on 25 April 1918 travelling all day and resting several times along the 186 mile journey to Tyumen.
On one of the rest breaks while they were stretching, Marie got out to arrange her mother’s cushions, she was seen furiously rubbing her hands together and it was a long while before she could move the cushions because her fingers were numb. The journey took them over several rivers and they had to get out and help to lay planks where the ice was unsafe. At one place Nicholas carried Alexandra in his arms to cross a river knee-deep in the ice-cold water.
Nicholas, Alexandra and Marie arrive at Ekateringburg, August 1917
A train was waiting at Tyumen. They stopped at a peasant’s house overnight then continued the journey. Yakovlev feared an ambush taking the train towards Ekateringburg so he headed east to Omsk where they could then take a direct route to Moscow but nearing Omsk the authorities prevented any further travel east, fearing that they might keep going and escape, so the train was turned back again and therefore the trip to Moscow was cancelled as it was thought the White Army had been advised of their movements and would attempt a rescue.
Instead they headed for Ekateringburg where Yakovlev transferred the prisoners to the Soviet authorities and obtained a receipt dated 30 April 1918 (G):
“I, the President of the Regional Uralian Council of Deputies, Beloborodov, have taken over from the member of the All-Russian Tsik comrade Yakovlev the interned: former Tsar Nicholas Romanov, the former Tsaritsa Alexandra Feodorovna, the former Grand Duchess Marie Nikolaevna, and the persons accompanying them. All these persons are under arrest and under guard.“ — The President of the Uralian Regional Sovdep. (Signed) Beloborodov.
Goloshchekin took charge of the prisoners at the station and drove them to the former house of a local engineer named Ipatiev, to become known as Ipatiev House. Vasily Dolgorukov was separated and moved to the prison across the way. Responsibility lay with the Marxist Yakov Yurovsky, a watchmaker by trade, and member of the newly created secret police the Cheka. It was unfortunate that the trip to Moscow had been prevented as the family were destined to never leave Ipatiev House.
Postcard sent by Alexandra from Tobolsk to the Tsarskoe Selo Infirmary
Fortunately they could still do their favourite things; reading books, writing letters and taking photographs. These extracts are from letters that passed between Olga in Tobolsk and Marie in Ekaterinburg while the family was separated:
Olga: Tobolsk, 28 April 1918 (G) “Today was warmer than yesterday and the windows are wide open. We took the evening tea in the dining room. Yesterday, we ate the poor turkey. Mama, you would have said ‘one should not,’ dear little soul.”
Marie: Ekaterinburg, 2 May 1918 (G) “This morning we heard the church bells. That was the only pleasant and agreeable event. We were happy to learn that the pigs sold so well. What is he going to do with the piglets? Mama, speaking about the turkey, said you should not have.“
They were not updated about the children in Tobolsk. Alexandra received a telegram from Olga informing that Alexei’s health had improved, but no additional information. In Tobolsk Colonel Kobylinsky (Commander of the guard,) was replaced on 17 May 1918 with a bullying Commissar Rodionov who took on the responsibility for moving the children from Tobolsk to Ekateringburg.
Ekateringburg – Urals Region
The train arrived at Ekateringburg at night and they were kept on it until morning. The children were immediately taken to Ipatiev House. Those considered of particular interest were taken to prison; General Tatistchev, Countess Hendrikov, and Mlle Yekaterina Schneider. The rest included the tutors, lady-in-waiting Sophie Buxhoevaden, and Dr Derevenko, were kept on a carriage for a further ten days then told to leave the province and were eventually rescued by the advancing White Army.
When the word was out that the Romanov children had arrived in Ekaterinburg people flocked to see them. They threw flowers at their feet but the escorting guard brushed people aside. At the house the children were ordered to carry their luggage, Alexei’s sailor nanny Klementy Nagorny attempted to assist but was pushed away by the guards. The family had been apart for nearly three weeks so imagine the elation when the children walked in unannounced on 23 May 1918.
The Ipatiev House, Ekateringburg
(public domain, edited)
Pt 15 – The End of Days
When the family were eventually reunited on 23 May 1918 (G) they would spend just 56 days with each other. Prior to the reunion daily life was pretty mundane as Nicholas describes in his diary,
“The weather remained overcast and rainy. The lighting in the rooms was poor, and the boredom in the rooms was incredible.“ – Nicholas II, Saturday 18 May 1918 (G).
House of special purpose
The 19 May 1918 was Nicholas’ fiftieth birthday which went unnoticed outside of the family. At the move to Tobolsk they took limited staff, on moving to Ekateringburg the numbers were reduced by the guards separating some to be taken to prison. For example Court Marshal Vasily Dolgorukov and General Llya Tatishchev were not permitted at Ipatiev House and were taken straight to the nearby prison.
During their incarceration at Tobolsk, Dolgorukov smuggled out notes written in pencil, to the British Consulate asking them to help the Romanov family. At the Ekateringburg prison Cheka agents accused him of plotting a rescue and took him and Tatishchev to the Ivanovskoe Cemetery outside of the city on 10 July 1918 (G) where they were shot in the head and thrown in to a pit. Their bodies were never found.
The two-storey house in Ekateringburg was built towards the end of the 1880s in the Russian style. It stands on the junction with Vosnesensky Prospekt and Vosnesensky Pereulok (lane) and faces a large square with a church. A prison stands on the other side of the lane. In 1908, mining engineer Nikolai Ipatiev purchased it and converted the first floor into his workplace, he was a saw-miller. In April 1918 he was ordered to vacate the house and it was designated by the Ural Soviet headquarters as a House of Special Purpose.
Ipatiev House with pilings surrounding it
(courtesy British Library)
Ipatiev House was much smaller than the Governor’s House at ToboIsk. Both of the secondary-glazed windows were painted so that no daylight entered. Many doors were removed so that guards could see everywhere, even the toilet, there was no privacy. Wooden fencing was built around the property with a second paling erected after the children arrived. There were 300 guards with sentries placed on every landing, in the rooms, near toilets, and at any convenient point.
Only the top windows could be seen from the street. The prisoners occupied level one and the guards were on the ground level – The Commandant lived in an ante room on level one. The family used three rooms at first and were given another three when the children arrived and they were not permitted to move outside of their rooms. No newspapers and eventually no letters.
The Red Army controlled Moscow and the government. The White Army controlled vast territories across the Urals and the south including the Trans-Siberian Railway but it was a loose alliance of anti-communist forces not so well organised and were still some distance from Ekateringburg which gave the Bolsheviks in Ekateringburg some time to decide what to do next.
Word got to Nicholas of the White Army’s slow advance and there was some hope that the family would be rescued. As each day passed things got worse, they were stripped of their possessions and their money was confiscated so that they were unable to get any supplies in. They were strictly forbidden to speak any language other than Russian.
They lived through their indignations without fuss or complaint about the conditions, the rations or their treatment. The house was cold and very damp. There were no beds for the children when they arrived and they sleep on the floor, making a mattress of whatever rags could be gathered. Marie gave up her bed to Alexei until camp beds were eventually brought in for them.
In the mornings they had tea and black bread, often there was no tea as the guards used up all the hot water and certainly no sugar. Lunch was at irregular hours brought in from a restaurant whenever the guards decided. It was so bad Alexandra could hardly touch it. Dinner consisted of left-overs from lunch. Before meals the guards would pick at the food and even pick food off their plates while they were eating meals. There was no cutlery, they ate from wooden spoons out of a shared bowl. Nicholas insisted that the family ate at the table with their fellow prisoners, all equal.
“The guards sang revolutionary songs devised to hurt and shock the feelings of the prisoners, containing foul words such as no man should dare to utter in the presence of innocent girls, but the revolutionary warriors delighted in wounding the modesty of the grand duchesses in this and in other still more repulsive ways, by filthy scribbling and drawings on the walls and by crowding round the lavatory, there was only one for the prisoners and the warders. They went reeling about the house, smoking cigarettes, unkempt, dishevelled, shameless, inspiring terror and loathing. They did not scruple to help themselves liberally to the clothes and other property of the prisoners whenever anything came within their reach.“ – Passage from the book The Last Days Of The Romanovs
Alexei and Olga on the ferry on their trip to Ekateringburg, May 1918. The last known photograph of the Romanov Imperial Family.
(public domain, Wikimedia Commons)
Alexandra rarely got out of bed before lunch and spent the time in a chair reading or sewing. Alexei’s friend Koyla Derevenko lived at the Popov house close by and continued his visits. Nicholas read like crazy and chopped wood. The girls took photographs although none exist from Ipatiev House. Their last photograph was of Alexei and Olga taken on the ferry they took along the journey from Tobolsk to Ekateringburg.
Anastasia wrote to her friend Ekaterina Zborovskaya, “It is not too bad, but we spend most of the time searching for balls in the ditch. We sit on the window sills and entertain ourselves watching the public passing by.“
Koyla continued visits in to 1918 and would write in later years, “I was a little boy, just twelve years old. I did not know of the evil in people’s souls. … In the middle of the summer of 1918, I was afraid and worried for Alexei.“ — Kolya Derevenko
The girls room at Ipatiev House. Their English tutor Mr Gibbes visited the house within a year of the executions and retrieved several items, taking them back with him to England. One item was the Murano glass chandelier seen here, it was displayed at the Blood & Revolution exhibition at the Science Museum, London, in 1919.
The Commandant at Ipatiev House was Alexander Avdeev, a factory worker and a drunkard. He had two assistants; Alexander Moshkin and Pavel Medvedev. All the guards were from the nearby factories and not regular soldiers. They could appear anywhere in the house at any moment without warning. Avdeev could not be reasoned with when he was drunk, in fact Avdeev and the guards were always drinking.
Anna Demidova the lady in waiting that made it to Ipatiev House, told Mr Gibbes before they were separated, “I am so frightened of the Bolsheviks, Mr Gibbes. I don’t know what they will do to us.“
Colonel Pavel Rodzianko serving with the British Expeditionary Force in Siberia, visited Ipatiev House after the executions and recorded his belief that Olga, Tatiana and Anastasia had been sexually abused by the guards during the trip from Tobolsk. In a more recent publication The Fate of the Romanovs the authors suggest Olga was sexually abused or even raped, based on a photograph. The reader can call to mind that such opinions sell books and often find their way in to many articles presented as facts. Consider the statements below from two online pieces published for the centenary of the Romanov executions:
“Alexei Romanov (13) suffered an attack of bleeding as a result of the haemophilia that beset the family at this time and only joined his parents three weeks later, along with his sisters Olga, Tatiana and Anastasia, who were sexually assaulted by their guards in transit“ — Belfast Times, 21 July 2018
Quoting historian Simon Sebag Montefiore “The teenage Alexei suffered an attack of bleeding and had to be left behind; he came to Ekaterinburg three weeks later with three of his sisters. The girls, meanwhile, were sexually molested on the train.“ — Town & Country, 12 October 2018
Dr Botkin acted as the go-between but usually his complaints and even minor requests to Avdeev were ignored. In the future guards would testify at a White Army inquest that Avdeev took great pleasure in denying requests. Anastasia once requested shoes from a box among her possessions kept in the loft and was abruptly told that the shoes she was wearing would last for the rest of her life.
The main of the family’s possessions according to one version were kept in a room downstairs and in another the possessions were stored in an outhouse in the interior courtyard. The family were not permitted access to their luggage and the guards rummaged through and stole many things. Later when the guards moved out they would set fire to anything they did not take. One item was a photo album thought to have been removed by guard Dmitry Chudinov which ended up in Zlatoust and was not discovered until May 2021.
Towards the end of May 1918 a priest was allowed to give a service at the house. He reported that Alexei was so thin he looked nearly transparent. Nuns from a local convent brought eggs and milk for him every day after that but he didn’t always see these. In to June Nicholas and Alexandra were poorly; Nicholas was laid up for several days with kidney trouble and Alexandra lay fully dressed on her bed for most of the day.
“We spent an anxious night, and kept up our spirits, fully dressed. All this was because a few days ago we received two letters, one after the other, in which we were told to get ready to be rescued by some devoted people, but days passed and nothing happened and the waiting and the uncertainty were very painful.“ — Nicholas II, 27 June 1918
The Ural Soviet decided on 29 June 19Ï8 (J), to execute the entire family and servants. The Marxist Yurovsky was ordered to carry out the executions, he was a sadistic member of the newly established secret police, the Cheka, having formed in December 1917 with powers to arrest and execute without trial.
It’s documented that the execution order came from Yakov Sverdlov in Moscow, the chairman of the Central Executive Committee and that he received it directly from Lenin. In the few weeks previous, Yurovsky is known to have been in Moscow and while there visited Sverdlov.
That Lenin gave the order though is disputed and there is no evidence. Some guards would later say that the order coming from the Moscow Kremlin had been to execute Nicholas alone. The prevailing account is that the Soviet Ural authorities being far more radical than even the Bolsheviks in Moscow, acted autonomously due to a lull in communications at that critical time forcing Goloshchekin and Yurovsky to make on the spot decisions. However the book The Last Days of the Romanovs suggests, “It is absurd on the face of it to hint that the Ural Regional Sovdep was overriding the decisions of Moscow.“
Alexander Avdeev’s room at Ipatiev House
Despite Avdeev and his men being the foulest most despicable men, over a short time some of them had been humbled by their suffering and the humility of their former rulers, including Avdeev who had enjoyed tormenting them but received no complaint, which had an affect on him also and for which he was eventually replaced.
On 10 July 1918 Yurovsky arrived at Ipatiev House to take over from the drunk Avdeev. He brought with him ten assassins. Yurovsky was a jew (like everyone else in the revolution,) from Tomsk that had converted to Lutherianism and hated the regime that had repressed the Jews and hated Alexandra mostly for having turned away from Lutherianism.
Coincidently Yurovsky also loved photography and had once been a photographic dealer in Ekateringberg. Photographs by the Romanovs, some of which were being stored at Ipatiev House among possessions, would become treasured photographs in the history of photography.
Alexandra recorded for 10 July 1918 that for a couple of days the guards did not bring them their meals at all, and that the family had to live on macaroni that the cook had brought from Tobolsk. It also coincided with the day that Dolgorukov and Tatishchev had been taken out of the city and shot.
The following day Alexandra was ecstatic at some eggs brought by the nuns for Alexei. Yurovsky enquired of the nuns to confirm that Avdeev had given them permission to deliver supplies and approved only milk from then on. Nicholas’ diary referred to the constant tightening of restrictions and noted simply: “We like this man less and less“, and in another entry, “This specimen we like least of all.“
The White Army forces of the Czechoslovak Legion were fast approaching Ekaterinburg in mid July 1918. The Bolsheviks were becoming pressed for a solution to the Romanov problem. On 12 July 1918 Goloshchekin was in Moscow before the Ural Soviet asking for that decision. They asked him how long Ekaterinburg could hold out and he reported that the city could fall in three days.
According to historian David Bullock, it was believed the Czechoslovak Legion were on a specific rescue mission so it was decided to shoot the entire family as soon as possible and Yurovsky received that order on 13 July 1918. As previously discussed whether the ultimate decision was made by the Ural Soviet, Lenin himself or the Cheka is unknown but it’s generally accepted that communication between Ekateringburg and Moscow had been disrupted at that crucial time.
At church services on 14 July 1918, the priest reported that the family looked sad and dejected, and for once the girls did not sing, he was the last person to see the family alive. On the morning of 16 July 1918 the family had arisen at 9am for morning prayers as usual, they had breakfast and the day went like any other.
A harrowing image of level one at Ipatiev House. Was the wheelchair used by Alexandra?
Execution of a dynasty
On 14 July 1918 Yurovsky visited an abandoned mine in the Koptyaki Forest, about ten miles from Ekaterinburg, to store petrol, sulphuric acid and firewood. The cache of equipment for disposing of the bodies was ready. For the execution he selected a cellar room in the basement of Ipatiev House, a window was nailed shut and he informed his superiors that it was time to execute the prisoners.
Yurovsky was the new Commandant and a senior Cheka, his superior was Goloshchekin the Bolsheviks’ Military War Commissar of the Ural Region. Goloshchekin like Yurovski, was a brutal man, it was he that suggested to Lenin that the family be moved to Ekateringburg, and now he arrived at Ipatiev House on 16 July 2018 to oversee the executions. He briefed Yurovsky that a truck would arrive at midnight to collect the bodies and it should back up to the basement entrance keeping the engine running to mask any noise from gunshots.
The prisoners at Ipatiev House were blissfully unaware while they waited to be rescued by the White Army that their friends and family were being executed elsewhere by the Bolsheviks. Nicholas’s brother Mikhail was shot in a Siberian wood and the day after his cousin Sergei and wife Elizabeth were killed with other Romanovs.
Yurovski did not arise any suspicion while making the preparations and enthusiastically waited for the confirmation to proceed from Goloshchekin (via Sverdlov in Moscow). On the morning of 15 July 1918 when he received the milk from the nuns, he asked them to bring 50 eggs the following day, which they did. They were not meant for the prisoners but perhaps a celebratory meal for the executioners.
When word came at 12.30pm on 16 July 1918, Yurovsky told his assistant that the executions would take place that evening and to gather some rolls of canvas for the bodies. At 4pm Yurovsky got nervous so he and Goloshchekin went back to the Koptyaki Forest to check that everything was still in order. It was.
The kitchen boy Leonid Sednev was taken to Popov’s house across the lane and his life was spared. Alexandra called him Lenka, and recorded his departure in her final diary entry (see above image). At 8pm on 16 July 1918 Yurovsky gave his executioners their orders to kill the family at which three of them refused and walked away. To compensate, Yurovsky stepped in and both him and Pyotr Ermakov (also charged with disposing of the bodies,) had two prisoners each to execute.
The identification of the organisers of the execution was in the investigatory work of Nikolai Sokolov who ascertained them to be: Y Yurovsky (organiser) – G Nikulin (assistant) – P Ermakov (Cheka detachment) – P Medvedev (head of the guard).
The eminent Professor of history Ivan Egorovich Plotnikov, established the identity of the remaining assassins as M Medvedev (aka Kudrin), S Vaganov, A Kabanov, V Netrebin, and Y Tselms.
On the late evening of 16 July 1918, Nicholas, Alexandra and Alexei were asleep in one room and the four girls and their maid were sleeping in the room next door. Over the past few nights the guards repeatedly walked through the girls’ bedroom making them scream in fright. Presumably this is the source of the myth that one or more of the prisoners were raped prior to execution. Later as they walked through the corridors to the cellar they were recorded as smiling, rape is almost certainly a myth.
Summer nights in the Urals are short so there would be only around seven hours of darkness. At 10pm Yurovsky initiated the operation. Eight assassins entered the house and waited in a basement room. At 11pm the ninth assassin Yurovsky, assigned a prisoner to each of them and instructed them to shoot at the heart to avoid excessive blood. Then he handed out the weapons taking a Mauser and Colt for himself to kill Nicholas and Alexei. Ermakov picked up three Nagan revolvers, a Mauser semi-automatic pistol and a bayonet, for killing Alexandra and Dr Botkin.
The executions were planned for 11.30pm but the truck had not arrived so they had to wait and continued drinking. Finally it arrived at 1.30am and got in to position. The execution squad were waiting in the room next to the cellar where the execution would take place.
Yurovsky went up to Dr Botkin’s room and instructed him to wake the others and tell them to get dressed because the White Army was approaching and they were leaving Ipatiev House, they would be taken to the basement for safety until it was safe to leave, they were to hurry, come downstairs and await further instructions.
They took between 40 and 60 minutes (depending on versions) to wash, dress and gather their things, while Yurovsky waited in his office. Ermakov went to the upper corridor and listened, “l heard them walking around in the bedrooms, putting on their clothes and talking,“ he said.
According to the book The Fate of the Romanovs Nicholas told the family, “Well, we’re going to get out of this place.“ No one was alarmed, Nicholas and Alexei was first downstairs followed by Alexandra hobbling on her walking cane, then the daughters wearing white blouses and dark skirts and then Dr Botkin, Alois Trupp (the valet), Ivan Kharitonov (the cook), and Anna Demidova (lady-in-waiting).
When they were gathered Yurovsky took them into the courtyard and through another door back inside a short distance and then opened a set of double doors and gestured for them to go down to the basement. Alexei could not walk so Nicholas was carrying him. They followed Yurovsky along a corridor to the southern end of the building where another set of doors were held open and they were motioned in to the cellar, a vaulted small room measuring 18 by 16 feet. They put their cases down. Alexandra asked for a chair and two were brought in, Alexandra sat on one and Nicholas placed Alexei on the other.
Ipatiev House – The gated entrance to the courtyard accessed from the street
Inside the courtyard
The prisoners were led out of the large door on the left and through the door on the right
Ipatiev House – Left: Doors leading to staircase. Right: Staircase leading to basement
Nicholas stood in the centre of the room between the chairs with the servants standing behind him and the girls standing behind their mother. They were told they had to wait for a truck to take them away. The prisoners were not panicked, having seen the waiting truck from the courtyard they expected to be moved when it was safe to do so. Yurovsky closed the cellar doors and headed upstairs to check the truck, he wanted a guard to keep revving the engine. Then he returned to the basement to perform the deed.
Of the many sketches depicting a reconstruction of the scene there are none showing the animals. The story goes that there were three dogs, some accounts mention just two. Alexei’s Spaniel dog called Joy, Anastasia’s dog Jimmy and Tatiana’s French bulldog called Ortipo. Goloshchekin was concerned about the guard dogs barking outside and the noise from the family’s dogs below.
It had all come down to this moment. Goloshchekin was outside pacing around unnerved by it all and listening out for gunshots and barking dogs. In the cellar eleven prisoners were waiting and in the adjoining room an execution squad was also waiting.
A reconstruction of the positions of the family and servants when Yurovsky returned to the cellar with the execution detail. (NB. no dogs)
(public domain, edited)
Yurovsky returned to the cellar with three Chevka associates and five Latvian killers. Facing them were the Romanov royal family and their four staff. It was 2.15am, the truck was roaring so loudly in the courtyard that the windows in the cellar were rattling and perhaps dogs were barking inside and outside.
Yurovsky ordered everyone to stand and then he stepped towards them and said, “your relations have tried to save you. They have failed.“ He told them a hearing had found them guilty and read out the document.
“Nikolai Alexandrovich, in view of the fact that your relatives are continuing their attack on Soviet Russia, the Ural Executive Committee has decided to execute you.“
Nicholas shouted out “Oh my God No!” Doctor Botkin said, “So we’re not going to be taken anywhere.” A shocked Nicholas addressed Yurovsky again, “I can’t understand you … read it again please.“ Yurovsky read it out again after which Nicholas muttered in disbelief “What!“ and then a second time, “What?“
“This!“ Yurovsky answered, then without further ado pointed his pistol at Nicholas and shot him in the chest (or in the head depending on the version) and he died instantly. The other inebriated assassins contrary to having their assigned targets, all fired at Nicholas. Medvedev alone fired five rounds in to him. Both Yurovsky and Medvedev would claim to have killed the Tsar, but one of the executioners was firm in his belief stating afterwards “Mikhail Medvedev shot Nicholas II dead with the first bullet. … I also shot into the prisoners.“
When Yurovsky told them their relatives were continuing their attacks on Soviet Russia, he was referring to the British Army that were in Russia fighting against the Bolsheviks. In July 1918 World War I had not ended yet and the Bolsheviks had invited the Germans in to the Crimea and south to fight factions of the White Army. The British, French and United States sent their troops to assist what was called the White Movement.
There being such a volley directed at Nicholas, the bullets that missed hit the men standing behind; Dr Botkin received two shots to the abdomen, and to his kneecaps and fell to the floor. Trupp received two bullets then a fatal one to the head. Kharitonov was hit by several bullets at once and fell dead. Once the frenzy had started it couldn’t stop. The shooters in the rear were firing over the shoulders of Yurovsky and Ermakov.
The propellant gases filled the air with smoke and the smell of gunpowder. In their drunken state the assassins fired indiscriminately into the smoke, it was so thick that they stooped to fire under it. One of the assassins would later describe it as ‘complete chaos‘.
The room suddenly became quiet as they left it momentarily to allow the smoke to clear. Goloshchekin sent the guard Alexei Kabanov down to tell them to use bayonets as the shots could be heard above the revving engine and barking guard dogs. He also instructed them to shoot the dogs because they were barking so loudly.
The disorderly firing directed at Nicholas had left much of the room untouched, the huddled women frozen with fear were screaming for help. Ermakov turned to Alexandra and pointed his Mauser, she turned away and did the sign of the cross, but before she had finished a bullet entered the left side of her skull. For all the firepower, just Nicholas, Alexandra, Trupp and Kharistonov were dead. Even Doctor Botkin who was severely injured was trying to get to his feet.
The other assassins entered the room again to finish the job. The screams and moans of injured victims on the edge of death could be heard but not so easily seen through the remaining smoke. Yurovsky stood over Dr Botkin and shot him in the head.
Alexei, was sitting in his chair covered in his father’s blood, and terrified, Nikulin stood in front him and fired five bullets from his Browning pistol until he slipped from the chair and lay on the floor next to his father, still alive and writhing in agony. He made a movement to touch his father’s coat but his hand was kicked away and he was kicked in the head then finished off with an eight-inch bayonet.
Blood was running from the bodies in streams. Next the attention turned to Olga and Tatiana. Yurovsky and Ermakov moved towards them through the smoke. Seeing their approach both girls wrapped their heads around each other, crouched down and covered their heads with their arms, screaming and crying. Yurovsky shot Tatiana in the head, blowing her brains out over her sister. As Olga tried to get up, Ermakov kicked her sending her reeling back and shot and killed her.
Ermakov then heard the screams from Marie and thrust his bayonet into her several times but she did not die so he shot her in the head. Then Anastasia, who had only fainted, came to and rolled about screaming and drawing attention. She fought desperately with one, then Ermakov plunged his bayonet in her but she lived on, then he shot her in the head.
Finally Demidova was the last to be slain. She was running hysterically back and forth along the wall screaming, and was attacked with bayonets, she tried to protect herself with a cushion but to no avail and she fell having been stabbed more than thirty times. Along the back wall also lay Anastasia’s spaniel dog Jimmy with its head crushed by a rifle butt.
Back in the house a guard would comment on how quiet it was without the prisoners and confirmed that the dog Joy had survived. How did the dog escape the basement and make it back to the house. One account says after the executions “one of the guards then took pity and cared for the spaniel.“ When the White Army eventually arrived they found a half-famished, blind and traumatised dog which Colonel Pavel Rodzianko rescued and took care of for the rest of its life.
“The door from the hallway to the room where the royal family lived was closed, but the room was empty. Not a single sound was heard from there. Previously, when the royal family lived there, one could hear the life in their rooms: voices, footsteps. Now there was no life. Only the dog stood in the hallway near the door into the room where the royal family lived and waited to be let in these rooms. I remember thinking at the time: you’re waiting in vain.“ — Guard at Ipatiev House
What should have been an orderly execution taking one minute no more, had been a bloody massacre. The bludgeoned bodies lay heaped with brains on the floor and faces shot off, and blood running heavily from them. Years later in 1922 Yurovsky would write, “after checking again to see that all were dead, I ordered the men to start moving them.” The entire event had taken under ten minutes.
It was just half of the plan that was completed but already they were half way through their allotted time. There was no time to waste. The bodies would have to be loaded on to the truck and men left to scrub the cellar. They were driven in the knowledge that what they had done could never be regarded as a trial, and should there be any evidence of the deed they would most likely pay with their lives.
Ipatiev House – This damage is not from the gunfire. A week after the executions the White Army took Ekateringburg and looked behind the walls in their investigation. They wanted to recover any bullets.
More than thirty bullets were found in the wall and floor, not counting the bullets in the bodies, by the White Army investigation led by Nikolai Sokolov in 1919.
(public domain, the Sokolov investigation)
Disposal of the bodies
Eleven corpses were on the truck that left Ipatiev House at 3am on a twenty mile journey to the disused iron mines at Koptyaki Forest. Yurovski, Ermakov and Vaganov went in the lorry. The road was boggy and the truck struggled. At about half a mile along the way twenty-five of Ermakov’s men were waiting with horses and carts, the bodies were transferred and they continued the journey.
One disturbing version says that Ermakov’s men were drunk and angry to see the dead bodies as they were expecting to rape the women and be involved in executions. It didn’t stop some of them from molesting the female corpses, but Yurovsky threatened to shoot them if they didn’t stop, not out of decency but to keep to his schedule.
That story came from the official White Army’s 295 page investigation by Nikolai Sokolov published in 1925, in which he wrote:
“One of the witnesses cited in the preliminary inquiry had described overhearing a conversation between several Bolshevists about the bodies. … They spoke cynically of feeling the corpses while they were still warm. Levatnykh boasted that he had felt the Tsaritsa and that he could now die in peace.”
Pyotr Ermakov c1917/18
As Ermakov was the Commissar for the district he had put a cordon around the woods. At the location of the Ganina Yama pit, he kept five men and sent the rest away. The bodies were layed out and stripped, the clothes burned and the corpses mutilated and thrown in to the pit. Sulphuric acid from the pre-stored cache was poured in to dissolve the bones, but the pit was only three metres deep and they quickly realised it wasn’t deep enough. They exploded some grenades but it didn’t deepen the pit.
Yurovsy returned to Ipatiev House to update Goloshchekin who consulted Moscow. It was decided to move the corpses to a deeper copper mine some miles further on. The next day at 4am Yurovsky and Goloshchekin returned to Ganina Yama with some men and hastily removed the body parts. Along the way to the copper mine they got stuck in the mud near the Gorno-Uralsk railway line.
Pyotr Ermakov standing on the shallow grave on the Staraya Koptyakovskaya Road, 1920. On 10 June 2014 the Sverlovsk regional government listed this place with the national cultural heritage so that it will be looked after and protected. The investigation by Sokolov came to this place to search but did not think to look under the sleepers.
Yurokov’s men were losing patience and daylight was approaching so he decided to bury the bodies in the road where they were. A shallow grave was dug just 6 x 8 feet and 2 feet deep. The bodies were packed tightly with rifle butts, sulphuric acid was again used to dissolve bones and then railway sleepers were placed across the top. The truck was then driven over them to embed the sleepers into the soil so that it might look like a road repair to strengthen the passage of carts.
The bodies of Alexei and Marie were buried in a pit some 230 feet further on and off the road, The story goes that Yurovsky thought if the main grave was discovered that eleven bodies would prove it was the eleven people assassinated at Ipatiev House. More likely is that the road was very hard, hence the extremely shallow grave, and on realising they had made it too small and couldn’t cram everyone in, they looked for softer round off the road.
In the early morning on 19 July 1918 the disposal of the bodies had been completed. Back at Ipatiev House the guards were still scrubbing the floor and removing blood from the walls. All of the furniture was taken in to the courtyard and put on a bonfire. Valuables were taken to the soviet headquarters and the rest was looted by the guards.
Several items eventually turned up such as a cross of Alexandra’s that was sold on and the photo album that turned up in Zlatoust. Those jewels that Yurovsky had not found when he had stripped the family and searched their possessions were discovered when he stripped them again at Ganina Yama.
Yurovsky passed the jewels to his superiors, some he passed to Pyotr Voykov (who has not been mentioned thus far), the procurer that had supplied the sulphuric acid. Most of the Romanov treasure was fenced by Voykov. In their complete incompetence Yurovsky’s detail left a mess of evidence at Ganina Yama, even jewels, that Sokolov’s investigation would later unearth.
From the Ural Regional Soviet, Alexander Beloborodov sent a coded telegram to Lenin’s secretary, Nikolai Gorbunov. “Inform Sverdlov the whole family have shared the same fate as the head. Officially the family will die at the evacuation.“
The coded telegram from Ekateringburg to Moscow confirming the prisoners had been executed
(public domain, the Sokolov investigation)
Twenty-four hours after the Ipatiev House executions seven Romanovs were also murdered by the Bolsheviks near a small town northeast of Ekateringburg at Alapayevsk, in the face of an advancing White Army. One version says they were thrown down a shaft and they didn’t die so grenades were used but still they didn’t die, so logs were thrown in and set alight in a bonfire. This story is a myth.
“It is not true that they threw their victims down the shaft before life was extinct. The autopsy has dispelled that legend. The murderers even exploded hand grenades down the shaft, probably to make assurance doubly sure.” — Nikolai Sokolov
The forensic medical examination and autopsy concluded that the victims were already dead when thrown in to the pit. The cause of death was a blow to the head with a blunt object such as the back of an axe, Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich Romanov survived the blow and was shot. Then the bodies were thrown into the pit. Grenades were thrown in but only one exploded.
The victims of Alapayevsk were:
- Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna
- Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich of Russia
- Grand Duke Sergei’s secretary Varvara Yakovleva
- Prince Ioann Konstantinovich of Russia
- Prince Konstantin Konstantinovich of Russia
- Prince Igor Konstantinovich of Russia
- Prince Vladimir Pavlovich Paley
When the White Army arrived in Ekateringburg they found the bodies in the Alapayevsk mine and placed them in coffins, moving them eastwards as battle lines shifted during the civil war. By 1920 they had found their way to Beijing. Romanov descendants have been trying to arrange for the remains to be reburied somewhere else without progress.
Earlier on 13 June 1918, around 217 miles northwest of Ekateringburg at Perm, the Bolsheviks had started the Romanov purge by killing Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich and his secretary Nicholas Johnson. In January 1919 they would also kill Grand Dukes Dmitry Konstantinovich, Nikolai Mikhailovich, Pavel Alexandrovich and George Mikhailovich, who had been held in the prison of the Saint Peter and Paul Fortress in Petrograd.
The jewels found at Ganina Yama
(public domain, Wikimedia Commons)
On 19 July 1918 Goloshchekin announced at the Opera House on Glavny Prospekt that Nicholas the Bloody had been shot and his family taken to a secure location. A multitude of false press releases followed around the world. Over the next 84 days fourteen more Romanovs and thirteen of their entourage, were murdered by the Bolsheviks.
The Countess Anastasia Hendrikova, the devoted lady-in-waiting to Alexandra who had followed her in to exile before being separated at Tobolsk was asked if she had willingly followed the family. She replied that she had. When asked if she would return and continue to serve them if she were set free, she said: “Yes! Up to the last day of my life!“ On 3 September 1918 (G) she was taken to the woods with others, and shot.
In the last week of July 1918, the sailor nanny Dr Derevenko with his son Koyla and others, visited Ipatiev House. Koyla in his later years recalled the experience:
“There was a terrible scene. The house was in complete chaos; diaries, letters, albums, and other things were strewn all around in the house. ‘But where is Alexei?’ I asked my father, but he stayed silent. I was confused. ‘Papa, where is my Alexei?’ I asked. ‘They killed him,’ he said, and I started to cry. ‘But how?’ I replied. ‘They killed the Tsar, the Tsarina, and the Grand Duchesses too. They are all dead.’ said my father. ‘But I don’t understand. Where are their bodies,’ ‘We don’t know, maybe we will never find them’.“ — Koyla Derevenko
Olga Alexandrovna worked as a nurse in Ukraine between 1915-1917, She had been under the protection of the White Army but as the Red Army advanced her hospital was moved further east to Kiev and as the pressure mounted a pregnant Olga took a train directly to an Imperial estate at Djulber Palace near Yalta where other Romanovs had gathered by February 1918.
The palace was soon put under house arrest and then they were moved to another palace at Ay-Todor, about twelve miles from Yalta. Olga refused to leave. In March 1918 the decision to execute them all had been taken by the Bolsheviks but their delay saved the Romanov members because in late April 1918 Ukraine with Germany’s assistance regained Crimea.
In November 1918, the war for Germany was over and their soldiers began the retreat home, and with their help the Romanovs at Ay-Todor were able to get to Sevastopol where they were protected from the revolution for a while as Allied naval vessels secured Crimean ports. Olga was now stuck at Djulber Palace. Having lost their prisoners the Bolsheviks placed a bounty on the head of any member of the Romanov family. Maria Feodorovna and Xenia Alexandrovna were offered safe passage by Germany to Denmark but they declined, favouring to wait for the British.
As the Red Army advanced to retake Crimea in 1919, the Romanovs boarded the British battleship HMS Marlborough, along with their staff totalling seventy. When an Imperial troopship passed by on their way to engage the Bolsheviks and the crew saw the black figure of Maria Feodorovna on deck they cheered and sang the Russian anthem.
Xenia Alexandrovna and her husband Alexander Mikhailovich (first cousins once removed), are the ancestors of most of the current Romanov descendants living today; Queen Elizabeth II is the grandniece of Nicholas II. Alexander Mikhailovich wrote this amazing tale in his memoirs:
“Two of my relatives owe their lives to an astonishing coincidence. A Bolshevik commander who ordered to shoot them was once a painter whose paintings one of them had once bought. So he couldn’t kill them and helped them flee to the White Army.” — Alexander Mikhailovich
Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna and Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich on board HMS Marlborough, Yalta in the background, leaving for Haiki Island.
(public domain, colour TA)
HMS Marlborough sailed in to the Black Sea on 11 April 1919, Maria Feodorovna sent a telegram to her sister Queen Alexandra of England that she was heartbroken. The next morning the ship anchored off Haiki Island (about twelve miles from Constantinople,) as there was some uncertainty over where exactly the royal family should be taken to. The Montenegrin sisters swapped ships on 16 April 1919 and boarded HMS Lord Nelson destined for Genoa.
Maria Feodorovna had tears in her eyes on Good Friday, 18 April 1919, as HMS Marlborough sailed out of the Black Sea and headed for the British naval base at Malta. One account says the ship went to Constantinople but this was not the case as they went straight to Malta where she got off and then HMS Marlborough turned back and went to Constantinople.
When Maria Feodorovna arrived in Malta on 20 April 1919 she and her entourage, were put up at the Palace of San Antonio and nearby hotels. Their expenses to the tune of £750 (or £500 in an other version) was advanced by the Governor Methuen from the Civil Funds.
HMS Lord Nelson called at Malta for a brief refit in late April 1919. Then it returned to England with Maria Feodorovna, daughter Xenia and others. She stayed with her sister Alexandra, now also a dowager queen-empress. After a short while she went to her home in Denmark in 1919 and stayed with her nephew King Christian X at the Amalienborg Palace. Finally she moved permanently to her summer villa in Hvidore near Copenhagen. Once settled she called for her youngest daughter Olga Alexandrovna, who was still in Ukraine, and the only remaining Romanov in Russia. Xenia Alexandrovna lived in England until her death, making just a few trips abroad.
Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna a volunteer nurse in the Russo-Japan War (1904-1905) and World War I (1914-1918). She came under heavy Austrian fire working so close to the front lines and was awarded the Order of St George by General Mannerheim, who later became President of Finland.
(public domain, picryl archives)
Olga Alexandrovna had unwisely judged she could remain in Russia after every other Romanov had been either murdered or escaped. A year after the German army had left, she had to flee with her family just ahead of the revolutionary troops. They sought refuge just a small way along the coast at the Danish Consul in Novorossiysk where they learned that Maria Feodorovna had made it to Denmark.
Olga, her husband Nikolai and their two newly born sons Tikhon and Guri were shipped to an island in the Dardanelles Strait near Constantinople. There were no longer any living Romanovs in Russia. From there they were taken to Belgrade. At her mother’s insistence they went on to Denmark arriving on Good Friday 1920. Many years later following World War II, Joseph Stalin declared that the Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna had conspired with Germany against Russia during that war.
Because the executed Romanov bodies had not been found, there were several imposters that emerged. The best known was a woman called Franziska Schanzkowska who was rescued from a Berlin canal in 1920, she had no identification and insisted that she was Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna up until she died in 1984. Xenia Alexandrovna went to meet her and was convinced it wasn’t her.
Franziska moved to America and changed her name to Anna Anderson living for years on the financial support of those that believed her. DNA testing after her death proved that she was unrelated to the Romanovs. The family hired a detective who revealed that she was in fact a Polish factory worker who’d worked in an arms factory during World War I. During a shift, a grenade had fallen out of her hand and exploded, causing a head injury and the death of a co-worker. She became severely depressed and had been declared insane.
Self portrait of Olga Alexandrovna c1940s
(public domain, picryl archives)
Just one week after the executions at Ipatiev House, the White Army arrived in Ekateringburg on 25 July 1918. Admiral Alexander Kolchak established the Sokolov Commission headed by Nikolai Sokolov to investigate the executions. This official report provided the evidence that the executions had happened and remained as the only historical authority until the opening of the Soviet archives in 1989.
By and by the men who were directly responsible for the executions survived. Goloshchekin was shot in October 1941 by a monarchist and Yurovsky who never expressed the slightest remorse died in 1938; he’d donated the guns he used in the executions to the Museum of the Revolution in Moscow.
Sokolov discovered the first pit at Ganina Yama and began excavation and in February 1919 he searched the Koptyaki Forest but neglected to look under the railway sleepers in the road, under which the actual main grave was located. In the Spring of 1919 at Ganina Yama he found lots of belongings, carelessly overlooked by the burial party. For example Dr Botkin’s upper dentures and glasses, part of a female finger thought to be Alexandra’s and severed to remove a ring. He found congealed fat, dismembered and burned bone fragments, shoes, keys, spent bullets and even pearls and some diamonds.
The guards left behind at Ipatiev House to clean up the evidence were equally careless leaving behind bullets embedded in the walls and floor of the cellar. When Sokolov revisited Ipatiev House a year in to the investigation he found, “unmistakable evidence of its being human blood.“ which proved conclusively that the cellar had been the site of the executions.
The return of the Red Army to Ekaterinburg ended Sokolov’s investigation and he fled to France taking with him the items he had recovered. But because he had not located the graves rumours spread that one or more members of the Imperial family had escaped.
Working at the discovered pit, Ganina Yama, Nikolai Sokolov’s investigation searches but finds no bodies, only items proving that corpses had been there. Spring 1919.
(public domain, the Sokolov investigation)
Discovering the graves
Details about the main grave located on the road under the railway sleepers varies almost with every source from the official version that says Russian scientists discovered it. The main years are 1970, 1976, 1979, 1989, 1991, all these are cited as the discovery of the main grave. The discovery was not revealed until 1989 (or 1991 in another version). There seems to be some confusion between the dates that the graves were discovered and dates of the end of the Soviet Union.
The generally accepted version is that local amateurs Alexander Avdonin and Geli Ryabov located the main grave on 30-31 May 1979 after several years looking for clues from the primary evidence. Three skulls were removed from the grave. They became worried about repercussions and reburied the remains in the summer of 1980. There they lay until the glasnost period in Russia’s history when Ryabov revealed the location to The Moscow News on 10 April 1989, DNA tests identified the remains as Romanovs which were then buried in a crypt in St Petersburg in (1991 preferred).
The second shallow grave was discovered in 2007. Enthusiasts followed clues left by one of the assassins to a separate grave 230 feet from the main grave. Only 44 partial bone fragments were recovered which was enough to DNA test for confirmation, as had been the method used for the remains of the main grave.
Another version says that a 46 year old builder called Sergei Plotnikov, stumbled on a small hollow covered with nettles and then Russian archaeologists confirmed they had discovered the remains of a 10-13 year old male and an 18-23 year old female, presumed to be Alexei and Marie.
The scientists leading the DNA identification were Peter Gill of the Forensic Science Service in Birmingham, Pavel Ivanov of the Genetic Laboratory in Moscow and Michael Coble of the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Rockville, Maryland. A match between Alexandra and Prince Philip (Elizabeth II’s consort) was found, their common ancestor being Queen Victoria.
The funeral service for Alexei and Marie is postponed indefinitely because the Russian Orthodox Church disputes the authenticity of the DNA evidence. The situation can only progress with the exhumation of the bodies which can only be granted by the Russian President.
The canonisation of Nicholas II and his immediate family was not the final word on Russia’s estimation of their royal family as it was done by the Russian Orthodox Church outside of Russia, a separate entity to the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia proper. For the centenary on the date of the executions in 2018 the government and church wanted nothing to do with the matter and it was down to the people to mark the solemn event.
Back then Ipatiev House was deemed a house of special purpose and was since used in several ways by the authorities, one time being a museum with an actual tour of the cellar room of the execution. Pilgrims gathered for the anniversaries to pray and light candles, a practice not desirable in Soviet Russia.
In 1974 it was designated a ‘national monument’ but in 1977 Boris Yeltsin, then the First Secretary of the Sverdlovsk Regional Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and future Prime Minister in 1991, took the decision to demolish it based on its new designation as a building of no architectural significance and it was finally pulled down on 22 September 1977.
“It was impossible to resist, not to fulfil the Politburo Resolution … They assembled the equipment and demolished it in one night. If I had refused, I would have been left without work, and the new secretary of the regional committee would have complied with the order anyway.” — Boris Yeltsin, memoirs
Having remained barren in the hands of the Sverdlovsk Soviet with just a wooden cross marking the spot of the executions, the Russian Orthodox Church was given control of the land (2,760 square metres) following glasnost (roughly translated as openness), on 20 September 1990 (G). They planned for a memorial church having designated the Imperial Family as Passion Bearers and construction began in 2000.
Voznesenskaya Square, Ekaterinburg, 1890s. Ipatiev House seen on the left.
(public domain, picryl archives)
The Church on Blood in Honour of All Saints was consecrated by the Metropolitan Bishop Yuvenaly (of Krutitsy and Kolomna), delegated by the Moscow Patriarch His Holiness Alexy II who was too ill at the time to travel to Ekaterinburg. The Church is slightly raised on platform, the Ipatiev House foundations laying under the present roadway. It was supposed to cover the spot and was said that the altar is cited over the cellar execution room but individuals located the exact spot just to the side of the church where a wooden cross marks the exact location and a wooden structure erected for visitors to take shelter and pray.
The Imperial Family and four servants were canonised as new martyrs on 1 November 1981 by the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. Also included were the four servants who were executed with them and Empress Alexandra’s sister the Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna
In 1981 things inside the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia became all about Nicholas II’s weakness, that his actions caused the deaths of many in 1905 and the revolution of 1917 that led to the deaths of the Imperial Family and civil war. It would take almost two more decades before the venerated were made Passion Bearers by the Moscow Patriarchate in August 2000, after much debate and 82 years after the executions.
The seven members of the Imperial Family were proclaimed Orthodox martyrs and saints at the assembly of bishops’ millennium meeting in the newly restored Christ the Saviour Cathedral near the Kremlin in Moscow. It was decided that the servants were victims of history and circumstance and the best way to honour them was to include them in any historical records about the new saints where they would be immortalised.
The Russian Orthodox Church Abroad asserted that politics were not part of the canonisation process and that it was about the way in which they have died or why they have been killed. Passion Bearers do not necessarily die because of their faith, but from the pain they endured being needlessly killed for their beliefs.
However, sainthood requires evidence of miracle-working. In 1997 the head of the church canonisation commission in Russia, Metropolitan Yuvenaly, ruled out sainthood for the Tsar on the grounds that there was no such evidence. The Church abroad made them saints and the Church in Russia made them Passion Bearers, the lowest category of Orthodox sainthood, because of the humility and forbearance they showed in accepting their deaths.
At the meeting in 1994 of the council of bishops inside Russia the Commission’s initial goal was in the establishment of the criteria that should be used for investigating candidates for canonisation. During the three day event it turned to a detailed analysis of the Royal Family’s last days, which were burdened with severe suffering and eventual death. The purpose was to establish their findings so far and to acknowledge for consideration of the servants Alois Trupp and Yekaterina Schneider.
The Council rejected martyrdom because the family’s deaths were not related to religion and whilst it’s true that Nicholas II brought about his own downfall, in part due to his ‘weak willidness’, it’s also true that he was responsible for the many thousands of deaths suffered by the pogroms. Therefore, the question begs how could it ever be possible for a person directly responsible for so many deaths to become a holy saint.
Church on the Blood, Ekateringburg.
(public domain, picryl archives)
The first point they established was that as head of the Church the Tsar’s abdication had been unprecedented and not provided for in the Act of Royal Succession, and thereby he had not violated any canon rules. The abdication was seen as relating to him personally and the circumstances in Russia, in that he had thought he was abdicating for the good of Russia and showed much regret after the fact when he realised the nefarious nature of the Bolsheviks. In addition he was not Tsar and head of the Church on his execution because of his preceding abdication.
They also recognised Nicholas II’s work ’for extensive church construction and new canonizations of saints.’ As well as the canonisation of Seraphim of Sarov in 1903 as discussed in Part 6, he also progressed St Theodosius of Chernigov (1896), Holy Princess Anna of Kashin, St Joseph of Belgorod (1911), St Germogen of Moscow (1913), St Pitirim of Tambov (1914) and St John of Tobolsk (1916).
Although they noted that political events in Russia and his abdicated should not be considered, it was not his actions but rather his non-action that they regarded as head of the Church he was responsible for, namely the reasons that brought about The First Revolution in 1905 and the consequences of the Family’s relationship with Rasputin. In ignoring the obvious events that led to his demise the dilemma arose of canonising him for suffering by his own hand.
To further progress matters, in December 1993 and August 1995, the Moscow Metropolitan Chairman of the Holy Synod Commission, Yuvenaly, consulted the heads of the St Petersburg and Moscow Theological Academies on the Orthodox view on whether there existed a case for the ritual murder of the Imperial Family. A reply came in November 1995:
“Not having the means for an independent analysis of all aspects of the Royal Family’s murder, and preceding from a presumption of innocence, there is no basis for assuming as proven the version of a ritual murder of what happened at the Ipatiev House.”
The report by the Holy Synod Commission on the canonisation of saints of the Russian Orthodox Church took several years concluding on 25 September 1996. It examined a multitude of evidence relating to the holy feats connected to the royal family martyrdom. The status of martyrdom had already been given by the Church abroad and by the Russian people that called them saints regardless of their status within the Church in Russia. Peeple replicated the family on icons and other religious regalia and made pilgrimage to Ekateringburg.
But the Orthodox Church always kept stringent requirements for entry in to the hall of accepted holy martyrs. The report from the Chairman of the Holy Synod Commission, the Moscow Patriarch Yuvenaly, was sent to His Holiness Alexei II on 10 October 1996, in it he touches on the weakness of Nicholas II and assigns blame to Alexandra and Rasputin in mitigation for the problematic question of his inactions.
“Really, how was it possible that such a figure as Rasputin could have such an influence over the Royal Family and upon Russia’s political and governing life of his time? The reason for the Rasputin phenomenon lies in the illness of Czarevich Alexei. Although it is evident that the Sovereign repeatedly attempted to get rid of Rasputin, he stepped back each time under the influence of the Empress who found it necessary to resort to Rasputin for the healing of the Heir. It can be said that the Emperor found it impossible to go against Alexandra Feodorovna who was tortured by grief over the Heir’s illness and who was under Rasputin’s influence in this respect.“ — Moscow Patriarch Yuvenaly
Finally in 2000 elevating the Imperial Family to Passion Bearers meant that construction could begin on the site of the former Ipatiev House. His Holiness Alexy II took four years to bring it about and in his words, he explained that the debate had been especially thorough so that making a decision would not cause dangerous ‘schisms’ in the community and he conceded that, “… there are different opinions in the Church as to whether to attach the Tsar’s family to the assembly of saints“. It all whittled down to the inescapable devoutness and humility exemplified by each member and the love at the heart of their collective being.
“The light of all-conquering Christian faith was seen in the suffering the royal family endured during their incarceration with gentleness, patience, and humility, and in their martyr deaths.“ — His Holiness Alexy II
Although the process had taken sixteen years to be settled, the Church in 2015 pushed for the investigation to be re-opened. It felt that it had not been fully involved in all aspects of the developing discoveries since the withholding of information about the first grave discovery in the pre-glasnost age and the way in which the remains were being DNA tested in the present time.
Following the Bishops’ report of 1996, the remains were interred at the St Peter and Paul Cathedral on 17 July 1998 with the canonisation following in 2000. The second grave having been discovered on 23 August 2007 was announced on 22 January 2008 and the bodies verified by DNA testing on 30 April 2008. As far as Church matters go, this is pretty fast moving.
Yet on the eve of the anniversary in 2018, the government announced that it had confirmed once again that the bodies were of the Romanovs but the response from the Church was that it would take the findings into account during its own ongoing investigation, a process that has been going on since 2015.
The memorial at Ganina Yama
(public domain, picryl archives)
The stalling of progress this time is due to the current Patriarch Kirill. He led the only tribute to the Romanov martyrs , marking the centenary event in 2018. Russia otherwise paid no heed to the significance of the event. In 1977 he had been elevated to Archbishop and in 2009 elected and enthroned Patriarch of Moscow. He was elected to the Patriarchal throne on 6 December 2008, the day after His Holiness Alexy II died.
On the centenary night of 16/17 July 2018, His Holiness Kirill held a liturgy at the Church on the Blood in Ekaterinburg (aka The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood). Following the service he led a nocturnal procession of an estimated 100,000 faithful people and his bishops, from the city centre to the Monastery of the Holy Royal Martyrs at Ganina Yama (21 km); the fateful journey befalling the Romanov corpses from the place of execution to the first burial location.
The speech he gave blamed the events of 1918 on the west, he insinuated that all Russia’s ails were due to western influences that had arrived in the country increasingly since Peter the Great opened up the country to foreign influences. In his bigoted speech he suggested the peoples of Russia were decent fellows until western interventions gave them their first evil thoughts.
“When did we as people start this turn? We entered when alien thoughts, alien ideals, and an alien worldview, formed under the influence of philosophical and political theories, having nothing in common either with Christianity or our national tradition and culture, began to be perceived by the intelligentsia and aristocracy and even part of the clergy as advanced thoughts by which it was possible to change the people’s lives for the better.“ — His Holiness Kirill
Kirill has been highly criticised within and outside of Russia by Orthodox clergy. The investigation of the Imperial Family by Russia as discussed in Part 15 – Discovering the graves, can only be progressed by the Russian President which at the time of this publication was Vladimir Putin. The two men are similarly aligned and hence the stalling of progress. Kirill despite being head of the Orthodox Church approved the war with Ukraine in 2022 aligning with Putin expressing a hate of the west and the belief that Nazism existed in the former Soviet countries.
To update the final paragraph of Part 15 – Discovering the graves:–
‘The funeral service for Alexei and Marie is postponed indefinitely because the Russian Orthodox Church disputes the authenticity of the DNA evidence. The situation can only progress with the exhumation of the bodies which can only be granted by the Russian President. when Vladimir Putin and His Holiness Kirill fall from power.‘
“What happened to our people? After all, the country was covered with churches and monasteries, an absolute majority of the people were baptized, and the churches were filled with people. Why did it happen? Why did the murderers squeeze the trigger, without trembling at what they were doing? It means not everything was favourable. It means the sunlight reflected in the gilded domes was not always refracted into human hearts to strengthen faith in the Lord in them. And we know how over the course of at least 200 years preceding the tragedy of the Ipatiev House some changes occurred in the people’s consciousness that gradually but steadily led many to a departure from God, neglect of the commandments, and a loss of spiritual connection with the Church and the centuries-old spiritual tradition.” — His Holiness Kirill
His Holiness Kirill leading the nocturnal procession
(public domain, picryl archives)
Chronology & Lists
Get more insight by reading books written by people who were around the Russian court or alive at that time. They are free. CLICK on a book to view it in a tab or RIGHT-CLICK then select Save link as. They are original works with some minor editing to align text and images for pdf.