Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Alexandra Feodorovna, Empress of Russia (Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine)

Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine, who was christened “Alix Victoria Helena Louise Beatrice”, was the sixth child and fourth daughter of Princess Alice of the U.K., the second daughter of Queen Victoria, and Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse. She was born on June 6, 1872 at the New Palace in Darmstadt and was named after her mother and each of her mother’s four sisters. She would be the youngest of Alice and Louis’s children to survive to adulthood. Some of her older siblings were: Princess Victoria of Hesse and by Rhine, Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, Princess Irene of Prussia, and Grand Duke Ernest of Hesse.

Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine
Alix was a cheerful and beautiful child who was nicknamed “Sunny” by her mother for her lively disposition. She was blessed with extraordinary good looks; she was a small girl with a slim yet shapely figure, rosy lips, a clear and fair complexion, blue eyes, and waves of dark auburn hair. The rest of her family called her “Alicky” to discern her from her aunt-by-marriage, Alexandra of Denmark, who had married the future Edward VII, then the Prince of Wales. Out of her many siblings, Alix was particularly close to her older brother, Ernest, and the two shared a warm relationship for the rest of their lives. Alix’s family lived quite modestly for their royal statuses. Princess Alice made sure she taught her daughters the importance of charity and humility, as the girls did household chores daily and helped their mother in altruistic activities. Princess Alice raised her children according to her native English fashion and Alix and her siblings would frequently go to England to visit their “Grandmama”, Queen Victoria, who they all adored immensely. Though the children were born German, they were taught their mother’s English as their first language and their father’s German as their second tongue. It was a known fact that hemophilia ran in Alice’s family but it wasn’t apparent that Alice herself was a hemophilia carrier until the birth of her second son, Prince Friedrich, in 1870. When little Frittie was just years old, he died as a result of his hemophilia after suffering a brain hemorrhage after a fall. His death occurred on May 29, 1873, when Alix was just a year old, so she grew up never knowing the brother whose death affected her family so immensely. But she was old enough to remember the tragic events of late 1878, when she and every member of her family (except Elizabeth and Princess Alice) fell ill with diphtheria. Elizabeth was immediately sent away from the sick household to stay with her paternal grandmother while Alice remained behind to nurse her other four daughters, son, and husband back to health. Despite her efforts, Alice lost her youngest daughter, the four year-old Marie, to the disease on November 16, 1878. Alice ultimately ended up sacrificing her own life while caring for her family, as she soon fell ill after Marie’s death and died on December 14, 1878. The six year-old Alix, her sisters Victoria and Irene, her brother Ernest, and their father recovered but the family remained in a state of grief for some time after the loss of little Marie and their mother. Their grandmother, Queen Victoria, took over as the Hesse children’s surrogate mother immediately after Alice’s untimely death. Alix and her siblings would stay in England with their grandmother for some time each year and were constantly under the Queen’s diligent and domineering care.

Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine
Queen Victoria was interested in every single aspect of her grandchildren’s lives and controlled everything from their education to their dress patterns. Her greatest concern above all was their marital futures. Since she was especially fond of little Alix, she planned to marry her to Prince Albert Victor, the eldest son of the Prince of Wales and Alix’s first cousin. With this union, Alix would become the future queen of the U.K., which was just what her matchmaking grandmother desired. But Alix rejected her cousin’s proposal in 1890 in the face of intense pressure from her relatives. The strong-minded Alix had no interest whatsoever in marrying Albert Victor or even becoming a future queen, so Queen Victoria gave in to her refusal. The truth of the matter was that Alix didn’t want to marry her cousin because she had already fallen in love with another man who she considered her true love – her second cousin, Tsarevich Nicholas of Russia. The pair had met in 1884 when Alix traveled to Russia to attend her older sister Elizabeth’s wedding to Nicholas’s uncle, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich. Here, the twelve year-old Alix captivated the sixteen year-old Russian heir to the throne but it wasn’t until Alix went back to Russia for a visit in 1889 that the two genuinely fell passionately in love with each other. Queen Victoria and Nicholas’s father, Tsar Alexander III, were very aware of the couple’s courtship but both were against the idea of a marriage between the two.

Alix of Hesse and her husband, Nicholas II
Alexander III and his wife, Maria Feodorovna, were both fervently anti-German, even though they were both Alix’s godparents. The Tsar wanted his son to marry a more suitable and respectable prospect, like Princess Hélène of Orléans, the daughter of Philippe, Comte de Paris and the pretender to the French throne, because Alix (as the daughter of a Grand Duke of a small German territory) was not royal empress material. Thankfully for Nicholas, Hélène would not marry him due to their conflicting religions. But when Alexander III tried to match his son with Alix’s first cousin, Princess Margaret of Prussia, Nicholas said outright that he would become a monk before he married the Prussian princess (the match wouldn’t have been doable anyway because Margaret, like Hélène, declined to convert from her Protestant religion to Russian Orthodoxy). Meanwhile, Queen Victoria didn’t favor the match of Alix and Nicholas because she though negatively of Russia’s political past. The Queen was also concerned about Alix’s safety there, not to mention that she wasn’t particularly fond of the gruff and stubborn Alexander III. But when the Tsar’s health began to decline in 1894 and Nicholas remained unmarried, he reluctantly agreed to allow his son to propose to the Hessian princess. So, in April of 1894, when Alix’s older brother, Ernest Louis (who had succeeded his father as the Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine in 1892 upon Louis IV’s death), married his first cousin, Princess Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, a large number of royal guests were present at the wedding – including Alix and Nicholas (he was also a first cousin of Princess Victoria Melita). A day after Nicholas came to Coburg, he immediately proposed to Alix. But despite her love for him, Alix refused his offer of marriage initially because she was worried about betraying her Lutheran faith and converting to Russian Orthodoxy. Her relatives then stepped in to encourage her to marry Nicholas, including her cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II, who informed her that it was her “duty” to marry the Tsesarevich. It was actually her older sister Elizabeth who convinced Alix to follow her heart and marry the man she loved. Elizabeth, who was a Russian Grand Duchess after her 1884 marriage to Nicholas’s uncle, had converted to Russian Orthodoxy seven years after her wedding for sincere reasons. She told her hesitant sister about the similarities between Lutheranism and Russian Orthodoxy, which prompted Alix to agree to Nicholas’s second proposal.

Alexandra Feodorovna, Empress of Russia
(Heinrich von Angeli, 1896-7)
During the summer, Nicholas spent some time in England with his betrothed while his father’s personal priest gave her religious instruction. But in late autumn, when Alexander III’s health began to decline further, he approved his son’s request to bring Alix to the royal family’s Crimean palace of Livadia where the ailing Tsar met her in full dress uniform and gave her his blessing. Ten days after Alix’s arrival, the forty-nine year old Tsar Alexander III passed away from nephritis on November 1, 1894. With his death, Nicholas was the new Emperor of Russia at the age of twenty-six. But unfortunately for the Russian Empire, their new ruler was completely unprepared and entirely unwilling to sit on the throne. He was totally ill equipped for his future position because since his father was only in his forties at the time of his accession, it was believed that it would be quite some time before Nicholas would inherit the crown. Alexander III himself did not much faith in his son’s abilities; he viewed him as “not mature enough to take on serious responsibilities” and he knew how inherently unskilled Nicholas was to be the Emperor. The day after Nicholas was named Tsar Nicholas II, Alix was received into the Russian Orthodox Church as “Grand Duchess Alexandra Feodorovna”. Though the wedding between the couple was initially scheduled for the following spring, it was moved up due to Nicholas’s unexpected accession. So, on November 26, 1894 in the Grand Church of the Winter Palace, the twenty-two year old Alix married her beloved “Nicky” in a grand and lavish ceremony. Now, the naïve Hessian princess was the “Empress Consort of All the Russians.” Although the couple would have an ultimately tragic ending, their twenty-four years of marriage together would be full of passionate and intense love that never faded in the slightest.

The Wedding of Emperor Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna
(Laurits Tuxen, 1895)
Nicholas II’s disastrous reign was seemingly prophesized by the shocking Khodynka Tragedy on the day of the Emperor and Empress’s coronation. While Nicholas and Alexandra were being formally crowned as the rulers of Russia on May 26, 1896 in the Kremlin, several thousand people were trampled to death at the Khodynka Field in Moscow during public festivities for the royal event when a rumor erupted that there wasn’t enough food for everyone at the field. After learning about the horrible event, Nicholas and Alexandra didn’t want to go to the coronation ball that night out of respect for the dead but several of Nicholas’s uncles persuaded him to go. The public was shocked when they learned that the nobility, including the Emperor and Empress, went to the ball in face of the tragedy. Their subjects, who also saw the Khodynka Tragedy as a bad omen for Nicholas’s reign, quickly perceived Nicholas and Alexandra as callous and shallow. The Russian people, even those of the nobility, disliked Alexandra from the start because they mistook her extreme shyness as arrogance and snootiness. She was completely overshadowed by her sociable and immensely popular mother-in-law, the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, who was never fond of her introverted daughter-in-law. The nobility disliked Alexandra for her quiet and awkward persona (it didn’t help that she barely spoke any Russian, not to mention that she wasn’t a fan of Russian culture) and the common people detested her because she was German. Poor Alexandra was in an unfamiliar land surrounded by disapproving people. To top it all off, she was expected to be the perfect empress although she had never been prepared for the daunting task. The only one who provided her with any comfort was her beloved husband, for even Nicholas’s family turned their noses up at her. Alexandra lived most married life as a recluse, staying out of the public eye and becoming extremely private in regards to herself and the lives of her family.

Empress Alexandra Feodorovna
A year after her wedding, Alexandra gave birth to her first child, Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna. In the next six years after Olga’s birth, Alexandra had three more girls – Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia. But although Nicholas and Alexandra loved their daughters wholeheartedly, they still lacked an heir to the throne. The people were more than eager to criticize Alexandra for her inability to produce a son, cementing her extreme unpopularity that much further. Finally, Alexandra completed her most important duty as a consort and gave birth to a son – Tsesarevich Alexei Nikolaevich, in 1904. But Alexei’s birth was more upsetting for his mother than celebratory, as it was quickly discovered that the infant prince was a hemophilic. Alexandra’s worst nightmare had come true; she had become a hemophilia carrier like her mother. Alexandra was blamed by the public for her son’s infirmity, which haunted her for the rest of her life. She took to extreme measures to protect her darling son from potential injury and death, coddling him so intensely that he became a spoiled, controlling brat who was used to always getting his own way. She also hid her children from the public in such a severe manner that they grew up innocent, naïve, and unaware of the world outside the palace walls.

Alexandra and Nicholas II’s children:
  • Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna (1895-1918) died at the age of 22 while in Soviet captivity 
  • Grand Duchess Tatiana Nikolaevna (1897-1918) died at the age of 21 while in Soviet captivity
  • Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna (1899-1918) died at the age of 19 while in Soviet captivity
  • Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna (1901-1918) died at the age of 17 while in Soviet captivity
  • Tsesarevich Alexei Nikolaevich (1904-1918) died at the age of 13 while in Soviet captivity

The Family of Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna
Alexandra’s health had never been strong and after her recurrent pregnancies, her constitution floundered. Her obsessive anxiety and nervous exhaustion over the health of her son sapped her strength and she became semi-invalid in her later years. As she grew older, she became more and more immobile and she began to spend most of her days in bed or in a chair, complaining about severe pain in her back. But the Empress would find solace, and her family’s downfall, in the form of the mystic faith healer, Grigori Rasputin. She believed full heartedly that he had power to improve her son’s health and soon the infamous “Mad Monk”, who was known for his vulgar behavior and explicit sexuality with women, became a central figure in the Russian Imperial family. Many historians today are certain that his close relationship with the Emperor, Empress, and the royal children contributed immensely to the collapse of the monarchy, as the people despised Rasputin for his influence over their sovereigns. Rumors soon began to spread that he was having sexual relations with the Empress herself and even her daughters, which were believed as fact by the common people and even the aristocracy, though they were untrue.

Alexandra Feodorovna, Empress of Russia
Russia entered World War I in 1914 after Germany declared war on the Empire. The large kingdom suffered defeat after defeat during the course of the conflict, along with the loss of hundreds of thousands of troops. Alexandra was already disliked because of her German roots but now she was completely hated by the Russian people because her background made her the enemy. The war was going so badly for Russia that Nicholas went to the front line in 1915 to take personal command of the Army. He then made the horrible decision to name his wife as the regent of the Empire in his absence. Alexandra was completely and utterly inexperienced in matters of politics (just like her husband) and constantly fired inept ministers only to replace them with more incompetent officials. This meant the government was never steady or proficient, which didn’t improve the situation of the undersupplied troops or the starving citizens. People believed that Alexandra was a German spy, especially since she was completely under Rasputin’s thumb and she turned to him for advice in literally everything she did. The Empire began to completely fall apart; Nicholas was blamed for the horrible losses on the battlefield, the economy was in free-fall, and mass shortages, famine, and hunger reigned supreme in the streets. Even the nobility hated Alexandra and her calamitous rule, so they decided to resort to extreme measures and brutally murdered Rasputin on December 30, 1916 (his killers included Nicholas II’s nephew-in-law and his first cousin). Rasputin’s death horrified the royal family, especially Alexandra, who lost what little trust she had in her husband’s family.

Alexandra Feodorovna, Empress of Russia
(Jószef Arpád Koppay, 1900)
Things reached a turning point when the people and soldiers united to declare rebellion against the Crown in March of 1917. Nicholas took little convincing to abdicate the throne for himself and his son in favor of the Provisional Government. Alexandra, her husband, and their children were placed under house arrest in Tobolsk, Siberia until the Bolshevik Revolution broke out in October and Lenin’s Bolsheviks (also known as “Soviets”) took control of the government. The family was then moved to Yekaterinburg in 1918 at the Ipatiev House. Their captivity under the Bolsheviks was much more hellish that it had been under the Provisional Government, as they lost all freedom in the Ipatiev House and were constantly fearful of their future…and their lives. They had good reason to worry, for Lenin decided to execute the entire family to undermine the cause of the royalist White Army in the ongoing Russian Revolution. In the early morning of July 17, 1918, the entire royal family and their servants were brought down to the basement of the house by their guards and executed by firing squad and bayonets. Their bodies were then stripped and thrown down a disused mine shaft at Ganina Yama north of Yekaterinburg. The guards then decided soon after to take the corpses out of the shaft, smash their faces, dismember and disfigure their bodies with sulfuric acid, and hastily bury them under railway sleepers (they buried two of the children in a different location and the bodies of a daughter – either Maria or Anastasia – and Alexei were not found until 2007). The remains of Nicholas, Alexandra, and three of their daughters were found in the early 1990’s and properly buried in the St. Catherine Chapel of the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg in 1998. In 2000, Alexandra and her family were canonized as passion bearers by the Russian Orthodox Church along with her sister, Grand Duchess Elizabeth, who was also killed by the Bolsheviks just a day after her sister’s demise. 

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