A year ago we took a look at the assassination of Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra and their five children in 1917, from the months leading up to it to its impact in Britain after George V and Queen Mary failed to offer refuge. Today we’re going to jump back a couple decades and take a look at their marriage, their rule and how Alexandra – born Alix of Hesse – fared (or rather, didn’t) as Tsarina.
Alix was born on June 6, 1872 to Prince Louis of Hesse and his wife, Princess Alice of the United Kingdom, second daughter and third child of the august Queen Victoria. At the time of Alix’s birth they were still waiting to assume the top job in Hesse and instead occupied the New Palace in Darmstadt, a small city still bearing the hallmarks of its Medieval history. She joined in the nursery three olders sisters – Victoria, Elizabeth (“Ella”) and Irene – and two brothers. The eldest, Ernest, was his father’s heir, while the younger, Frederick William, exemplified the dark underbelly of Queen Victoria’s dynasty.
Two decades earlier, it was discovered via the birth of Queen Victoria’s eighth child, Leopold, that she carried hemophilia, a disease passed through the mother, but only evident in male children. As of 1853, none of her own children had married or produced children of their own and there was some security in the fact that Leopold was the fourth son and none of his brothers showed symptoms. As would be discovered in subsequent years, as the Queen’s daughters married into Europe’s royal houses, two of her five daughters were also carriers.
Alice was one of those daughters, though she and Louis had the good fortune of producing a healthy son and heir. It was the diagnosis of Frederick William (b. 1870) in January 1873 who made it clear their bloodline was tainted, raising the possibility that any of their daughters might go on to pass the disease to a new generation. Five months later, he fell from a window in his mother’s bedroom when playing with Ernest and died from internal bleeding – Alix would have had no memory of him.
A year after his death, the family would be rounded out by the birth of a fifth and final daughter, Marie.
The next three years would be the most peaceful of Alix’s life. She and her siblings were offered a carefree childhood raised in a relatively casual environment in which they were in close proximity to each other and their parents. Summers were spent in England, meaning that Alix was intimately familiar with Windsor, Balmoral and Osborne House, depending on where her grandmother was in residence, while the nannies Alice selected were invariably British. It wasn’t until the death of her paternal grandfather, that life changed. Louis and Alice became the Grand Duke and Duchess of Hesse, a role that Alice didn’t particularly relish, though she took her duty seriously.
She wouldn’t hold the position for long. Less than 18 months later the ducal household was hit with diptheria and Alice took over nursing the children. Marie died on November 16, 1878 and when Alice broke the news to Ernest and he wept, her nursing training was replaced by maternal instinct – she took him in her arms to comfort him. She didn’t immediately fall ill – instead she even received her sister, the Crown Princess of Germany (Vicky), as she was passing through Darmstadt, but on December 14, symptoms first began to show and within hours she was dead. It was 17th anniversary of her father’s death from Typhoid Fever, solidifying in Queen Victoria’s mind that it was an evil day.
The swift deaths of her mother and younger sister would have a profound and permanent impact on six-year-old Alix. Once nicknamed Sunny for her smiley disposition, she grew into a reserved and standoffish child, traits that would follow her into adulthood.
In the short-term, Queen Victoria stepped in. Alice’s death at the age of 35 was the first of her nine children to predecease her and she was horrified by the idea of her five Hessian grandchildren growing up without a mother. They began to spend even more time in England, growing close to their Wales cousins (the children of the Prince and Princess of Wales), while the Queen stayed in constant contact with them via letter, her orders for their upbringing usually overriding those of their own father, who was frankly happy for the help.
Queen Victoria always showed a particular fondness for Alix, whose beauty she was one of the first to comment on, calling her the “handsomest child” that she had ever seen. Her looks garnered her attention from a young age, which would be given a wider platform as she grew up and began mixing with her wide array of international cousins and their royal connections. In the spring of 1884, her two eldest sisters married – first Victoria in April to Prince Louis of Battenberg and then Ella in June to Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia. It was at this second wedding, held in St. Petersburg, where Alix first met Tsarevich Nicholas and quickly developed what can only be called a schoolgirl crush.
Nicholas was four years older than Alix, the eldest son of Tsar Alexander III and Tsarina Maria Feodorovna. His mother was born Dagmar of Denmark, a daughter of King Christian IX and a sister of Alexandra, Princess of Wales and King George I of Greece. In 1884, there wasn’t a court in Europe that rivaled the wealth or ostentation of Russia, while his lineage ensured he was connected to nearly ever powerful monarchy across the continent. Like Alix, Nicholas of “Nicky” was first cousins with the children of the Prince and Princess of Wales, though he would see them during summer visits to Copenhagen where Christian IX’s children convened for mini-reunions. In 1883, he was reported to have carried on a mild flirtation with Princess Victoria of Wales, though it went nowhere.
Elizabeth of Hesse’s presence in Russia helped fuel Nicky’s memory of Alix, for the elder sister quickly blossomed into a popular fixture at court, one whose beauty and graciousness won her praise from nearly every corner. In 1889, Alix visited her sister in St Petersburg and it was this second meeting between her and Nicky that cemented their romance. While Nicky was eager to marry as quickly possible, Alix hesitated on the grounds that she would have to convert to Russian Orthodoxy. She returned home unattached.
Instead, Alix found herself on the receiving end of the persistent suit of one of her Wales cousins, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, whose feelings she decidedly did not return. Nicky, meanwhile, embarked on a worldwide tour of India, Egypt, Singapore, China and Japan. Queen Victoria was in favor of Alix marrying Albert Victor, for the marriage would put her granddaughter on the path to becoming Britain’s queen consort and bring her permanently to England. Alix’s refusal on the grounds that she didn’t love her cousin disappointed the Queen, but also earned her respect.
That Alix put Albert Victor aside for Nicky was, however, a bridge too far. Queen Victoria detested the Romanovs and her own experience with them, politically and personally, had been disastrous. Her son, Alfred, married a Russian princess in the 1870s, and the young woman’s airs and graces turned her into a pariah within the Royal Family. Politically, Russia’s ambitions in Turkey and areas within the Middle East ran counter to Britain’s, while they recently found themselves on opposing sides of various European matters, not least of which was the Crimean War.
On that, Queen Victoria and Nicky’s mother were aligned. Like the Princess of Wales, Dagmar was avidly anti-German, a viewpoint shared by her husband, and both thought Alix painfully shy and awkward. For Alexander, there was the added layer of Russia’s alliance with France, which meant that ironically, the famously difficult Kaiser Wilhelm II was one of the few royals for the marriage, hoping it would ease Russo-German relations. At one point, Alexander shouted at this son, “She won’t have you. She’s a confirmed Lutheran. And what in the world do you see in her?”
The normally mild-mannered Nicky shouted back, “Everything!”
The face-off between Nicky and his parents, and Nicky and Alix, was the story du jour for the royal houses throughout Europe. Vicky, now the Dowager Empress Frederick, wrote to her daughter, Sophie, in Athens:
“I hear (and only tell you in confidence) that Alix of Hesse has now decided not to entertain the idea of marrying Nicky of Russia, though he wished it deeply, and Ella took great pains to bring it about. [Alix] likes him very much, but will not change her religion on any account…I am sorry for the poor girl, and I am sorry for Nicky, as I fear he had set his heart upon it.”
Still, Nicky wouldn’t give up and for the next two years, the two were in frequent correspondence, mostly with letters full of Nicky’s love and Alix’s attempts to explain her refusal. At one point he wrote:
“Oh! do not say ‘no’ directly, my dearest Alix, do not ruin my life already! Do you think there can be any happiness in the whole world without you! After having involuntarily kept me waiting and hoping, can this end in such a way?”
They met again in Coburg in April 1894 when both attended the wedding of Alix’s brother, Ernest, to Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. In a two-hour reunion, Nicky plead his case once more and Alix again refused him. Waiting in the wings, however, was the Kaiser and for whatever reason it was a stern lecture from Wilhelm that her fate was in Russia to help secure Germany’s alliance as Nicky’s wife that did the trick. Other factors that eased the final passage were Ella’s own conversion after years of marriage and Ernest’s marriage meant that Alix no longer had a role to fill in Darmstadt. She finally said yes.
Queen Victoria, also in Coburg for the wedding, was the first person who the couple told of their engagement and, seeing their happiness, easily offered her blessing. From there, she ferreted Alix off to Windsor. Six months later, Nicky summoned Alix to Yalta when his father was clearly on his deathbed. For 10 days, court was in high dungeon as their Tsar failed to revive himself, and it was clear to Alix, of whom no one was taking notice amidst the drama, that Nicky’s easy nature made it easy for his family dismiss him. Finally, on October 20, 1894, Alexander III died and 26-year-old Nicky assumed the throne as Tsar Nicholas II. To his brother-in-law, he fatefully wept:
“Sandro, what am I going to do? What is going to happen to me…to Alix, to mother, to all of Russia? I am not prepared to be a Tsar. I never wanted to become one. I know nothing of the business of ruling. I have no idea of even how to talk to ministers.”
Wanting to keep Alix close to him, wedding preparation was rushed forward. The day after Alexander III died, Alix converted to Russian Orthodoxy. His funeral was carried out on November 19, and on November 26, the couple married in St. Petersburg. Though the wedding itself was a festive affair and the Russian people were delighted by their new Tsarina, there were many who stated it was a bad omen that she first appeared in public to them walking behind a coffin, shrouded in black. Even Alix said as much in a letter to one of her sisters: “Our wedding seemed to me, a mere continuation of the funeral liturgy for the dead Tsar, with one difference; I wore a white dress instead of a black one.”
By February 1895, Alix was pregnant and she spend the ensuing months preparing her new apartments at the Alexander Palace in Tsarkoe Selo where the couple, unlike most of their station, shared a bedroom. On November 15, she gave birth to a daughter, and though the court was disappointed it wasn’t the heir Nicky needed, the parents were delighted. Alix wished to name her Victoria after her grandmother, but she was persuaded to go with Olga after one of Nicky’s sisters, it being considered politic to choose a traditionally Russian moniker.
Unfortunately, all was not well at the Russian court. Though admired for her beauty, Alix wasn’t a hit with the upper-class. She didn’t dress fashionably enough; her reserve read as coldness; she was stiff with those she didn’t know; and she lacked the majesty the public expected from their Tsarina. All were characteristics that her mother-in-law, Dagmar, had in spades, and between the Dowager Empress’s charm and popularity, and her closeness to her son, the two women were continually at odds. Without the backing of the one figure best armed to help guide her, Alix floundered in the public eye and eventually gave up trying, only making matters worse. What was once perceived as judgment in fact became just that, particularly as Alix grew disgusted by what she viewed as the lax morality of the Russian court. It didn’t help that Alix was very much her grandmother’s granddaughter when it came to views on femininity, marriage and duty.
Nicky, too, wasn’t having an easy go of it. His brothers, uncles and cousins all took advantage of his withdrawing nature to browbeat him into following their agendas, and while he should have possessed the fortitude to rule, he found himself often trying to please and being led astray. Against this backdrop, the couple were bound more tightly together, trusting few and isolating themselves more and more against a public and society they began to view as their opposition. It was, of course, a recipe for disaster.
The couple’s coronation was delayed thanks to Alix’s pregnancy until May 1896, but it went forward in all splendor in Moscow at the Cathedral of the Assumption. Among the attendees were Ella, Victoria Melita and their cousin, Crown Princess Marie of Romania, visiting from Bucharest for her own fateful turn of events. In yet another bad omen for Alix, a few days after the ceremony an estimated one million people gathered at Khodynka for free drinks in celebration. Panic broke out when rumors spread that they were running out of supplies and 1,400 people ended up trampled to death. Nicky and Alix visited the injured, and Nicky even paid for coffins personally when necessary.
Following the festivities, Alix, Victoria Melita and Marie all traveled to Ella’s home at Ilinskoe for a 10-day retreat, and that autumn, Alix brought Nicky and Olga to visit Queen Victoria at Balmoral. It was the first time she had seen her grandmother since her engagement, and it was during that month-long stay that the Queen passed the milestone of becoming Britain’s longest-reigning monarch. It was also when Alix conceived her second child, for in June 1897, she gave birth to another daughter, christened Tatiana.
Russia, unlike Britain, didn’t allow for female monarchs, thus necessitating the birth of a male heir in order to keep the succession in a direct line. One daughter didn’t cause worry, two daughters was less than ideal, but with a mother at only 25, there wasn’t any alarm. It was the birth of a third, Marie, in June 1899, that seemed to kick-start true angst. When Nicky learned it was another girl, he went for a long walk in the garden instead of visiting his wife in fear that his disappointment would be visible and upset her. Even Queen Victoria felt moved to write directly to her grandson-in-law and express sympathy.
Alix was devastated by news of her grandmother’s passing in January 1901. Dozens of her cousins and extended family members flocked to the funeral at Windsor in February, but for those who couldn’t make it, memorial services were held throughout Europe. One such ceremony was held in St Petersburg and attended by a deeply affected Alix and Ella, while the Tsarina wrote to her sister, Victoria:
“How I envy you being able to see beloved Grandmama being taken to her last rest. I cannot believe she is really gone, that we shall never see her any more. It seems impossible. Since one can remember, she was in our life, and a dearer kinder being never was.”
Four months later, Alix delivered her fourth daughter, Anastasia. This time, even the UK reported on the disappointment with the Daily Mail headline reading, “Illuminations, But Disappointment.”
Alix’s disappointment in her failure to deliver a son, compounded with her increasing isolation, drove increased religious fervor. She soon fell prey to a series of “holy men” favored by upper-class women, however her first dalliance in this arena came in 1903 when two of Nicky’s cousins approached her to help canonize a long-dead holy man, Seraphim. Doing so, they argued, would ensure Alix’s prayers to him for a son were answered. Alix agreed and in turn convinced Nicky to apply pressure on the Church, despite their protestations. She got her way, but it didn’t go unnoticed that the Tsar overruled the Church, or that he did so on behalf of his German wife.
For Alix, the cost was worth it: she conceived a fifth child in November 1903. But while the family waited to see whether she carried the long-awaited heir, Russia went to war with Japan in February 1904 following the attack of Russian ships at Port Arthur on the Liaodong Peninsula in the south of Manchuria. Alix, along with the rest of the Russia, began the war optimistically, supporting the troops by bundling up care packages with her elder daughters for Easter. It was behavior indicative of Alix’s growing love for the Russian people – her hauteur towards the upper-class didn’t extend to its lower-class, which she regarded as faithful and worthy.
In the midst of this, in August, Alix finally gave birth to a son at Peterhof, who she and an overjoyed Nicky named Alexei. Their happiness was short-lived – within weeks it became abundantly clear that Alix was a carrier of hemophilia and her son was infected. It became a closely guarded secret within the nuclear family.
As the parents fussed over Alexei’s health, Russia’s confidence in the war faltered. Port Arthur fell by the end of 1904 and they lost nearly 90,000 troops in the Battle of Muckden between February and March 1905. Attention then turned to the Baltic Fleet, sent to Japan to counter-attack, but instead of a much-needed victory it ended in complete failure by the end of May. By then, of course, another catastrophe had hit, but closer to home: In January 1905, a group of unarmed civilians, including women and children, marched on the Winter Palace to present the Tsar with a list of grievances. To be clear, they sought him and the Tsarina like children to parents, with many holding beloved portraits of the royal couple, believing that if they knew their troubles they would seek to address them. Soldiers were ordered to suppress what was perceived as a riot and they fired blindly into the crowd. Ninety-six were killed and over 300 injured.
Nicky and Alix were horrified by the bloodshed, but they had in fact not been in town for the march. Their position appears to have been that it was a tragedy, but that the guards had no choice – had the crowd been allowed to swell, more would have been killed by being crushed to death. Presumably they remembered well the tragedy that followed their coronation.
Between the failing war effort, the horror of what became known as “Bloody Sunday” and a particularly brutal winter, Russia was gripped with revolutionary fever. Demonstrations rolled through the country through the end of the year, including worker strikes that shut down whole economic sectors. By the end, the government was forced to embrace reform, though far from being contrite, Nicky and Alix instead seemed to believe harsher discipline was needed.
Fairly or not, many blamed Alix’s influence on her husband for his growing tone deafness. Both inside and outside of Russia, the narrative became that Nicky relied on his wife for political voice, and that no one, not even the grand dukes of the family or the once all-powerful Dowager Empress, had the ability to override her. They weren’t entirely wrong, though the fate of a nation was hardly in her hands alone. Even Kaiser Wilhelm II echoed these warnings, bewildered and horrified that an unqualified woman held any power whatsoever.
In the end, on October 17, Nicky signed into power a constitution after centuries of power solidified within the Romanov family. Naturally, he and his wife viewed it as nothing short of a humiliating failure. When he and the Royal Family opened the Duma for the first time in April 1906, the antagonism between them and the noble families gathered was clear. Even Dagmar later wrote:
“They looked at us as upon their enemies, and I could not make myself stop looking at certain faces, so much did they seem to reflect an incomprehensible hatred for all of us. I saw burning hatred in the faces of the parliamentarians.”
It was around this time that Alix met Grigory Rasputin. For the Tsarina, he was a source of comfort and hope as she was dealt the triple-whammy of concern for her husband in the wake of political instability, fear for her son’s health and personal guilt for bringing hemophilia into the Romanov line. The stress of it all broke her own health, and so she began turning to Rasputin, a professed man of God and a healer. At first, their dynamic passed without comment – the role he held in their household was not overly unusual within Russian society. But as the years went on, his influence grew and so, too, did Alix’s dependence on him, a devotion that he not only cultivated, but bragged about, garnering him enemies.
In the autumn of 1912, Alexei fell from a horse and an infected tumor grew on his leg. A normal operation was too risky, and by the end of October he was feverish and in excruciating pain. Alix turned to Rasputin in desperation, despite knowing he was then out of favor with the Duma, and he responded with a telegram telling her that Alexei wouldn’t die and to not let the doctors “bother him too much.” Within an hour the boy was on the mend. The doctors had no explanation. For Alix and Nicky, it was but more evidence that Rasputin was an instrument of God.
World War I, naturally, didn’t help. Nicky’s absence on the front lines left Alix with even more control, and Rasputin’s presence was a constant fixture, further antagonizing the aristocrats. By the summer of 1915, the country’s war effort was failing: millions of men were captured, killed or injured, with total casualties from the previous year reaching 1.5 million. Between the dent in morale, the carnage and the government’s incompetent management, hatred for the Royal Family was at an all-time high, while its spotlight shone brightest on the unpopular, foreign Tsarina. To her credit, Alix was devoted to nursing, as most royal women of her generation were, and she invested both money and manpower into funding hospitals, visiting the wounded and ensuring the Royal Family was a presence for military families. Her efforts, unfortunately, went against the narrative that already formed and her endeavors were little noticed during her lifetime and mostly forgotten by history.
To be fair, her advice to her husband in these years was, quite literally, to remember he was the Autocrat and show force to bring his critics to heel. Her influence on her husband was a net negative for the Russian people, despite her benign intentions to up the Tsar’s confidence. Not all members of the RF were impervious to public criticism and more than a few attempted to warn Nicky and Alix off of bad policies, or away from malignant influences. One such figure was Ella, who visited her sister in December 1916 and told her that Rasputin was ruining her family. Alix wouldn’t hear of it and turned her away – it was the last time they saw one another.
Rasputin was assassinated just days later, but the attempt has become the stuff of legend. First he was served cake and wine laced with poison, but they seemed to have no effect on him. Finally, he was shot and left for dead, but Rasputin eventually opened his eyes and then attacked his assailant (a member of the Russian Royal Family). In the tumble, Rasputin was shot twice more, finally killing him. His last words were, “I will tell the Tsarina everything!” His body was disposed of in the Neva River.
Eerily, Rasputin had left a warning for Nicky:
“If I am killed by commons assassins, and especially by my brothers the Russian peasants, you, Tsar of Russia, have nothing to fear. If it was your relations who have wrought my death then none of your children or relations will remain alive for more than two years. I shall be killed. I am no longer among the living.”
To Alix, he had further prophesied that if he died or was deserted by her then she would lose both her son and the crown within six months. In fact, she would lose the first in three. On March 15, 1917, Nicholas was forced to abdicate the throne. As the Russian Revolution unfolded, the Royal Family was held in captivity in increasingly remote locations, before, finally, in the summer of 1918 they were brutally assassinated.
The marriage of Nicky and Alix was a personal success – their devotion to one another only strengthened as the years went on. But their marriage was not private and its place in the public sphere was nothing short of a disaster. Alix was not the cause of Nicholas’s downfall, but she did become its poster child. Her failure to fulfill the role of Tsarina satisfactorily, or even make an effort to reflect the values that they sought, was her mistake, and a fatal one. Her attitude towards her position might have served her grandmother well in Britain – and only just at times – but it had no place in the 20th century as Europe rendered a tortuous reckoning with itself.
Like Marie Antoinette, the violence of Alix’s end has made her a tragic figure – martyr for a bygone way of life caught in the violence of revolution beyond their control. For the 18th century queen that’s a bit fairer of an assessment, but Alix had many more tools at her disposal, not least of which was political agency and influence. She was not wrapped up in a cocoon in Versailles, but rather in the heart of St. Petersburg urging her husband to not spare the rod and spoil the Russian people.
As for the other woman in Nicky’s life, Dagmar refused to believe the truth of his and his family’s demise. Until her own death 10 years later, she held on to the notion that they had been ferreted out of Russia and the Bolsheviks were concealing their fate, though her daughter, Olga, later wrote that she was sure, on some level, her mother gradually accepted the truth privately.
The family’s remains were formally laid to rest in St Petersburg in 1998.