ALIX OF HESSE AND BY RHINE
Alix and her siblings were well-educated, however their childhood years were marred by war and tragedy. The family were devastated when the youngest son, Friedrich, a haemophiliac, died on 29 May 1873 after falling out of a low window and suffering a brain haemorrhage. Further tragedy was to follow in November 1878, when the family contracted diphtheria and it quickly spread through the other children, except for her older sister, Elisabeth, who had been sent away to live with her paternal grandmother.
Alix’s mother nursed the children, however she was unable to save the life of her youngest daughter, Marie, who died on 16 November 1878. Alice kept the news of Marie’s death to herself for as long as she could but when the other children seemed to be recovering, she finally told them the devastating news. Alice’s son, Ernst Ludwig, burst into tears and Alice broke her own rules by kissing him. Days later, Alice herself became gravely ill and died on 14 December 1878.
Alix was described as being beautiful with a rosy complexion and golden hair but she was painfully shy and had a melancholic disposition which made her look perpetually sad. As a child, Alix had been nicknamed Sunny as she had a cheerful nature but that seemed to disappear after the death of her mother and she was often gloomy. Queen Victoria took an interest in the motherless Hesse children but Alix was her favourite and the Queen referred to her as her own child. Alix reciprocated the affection that was lavished upon her and signed her letters as “your loving and grateful child.”
Queen Victoria was anxious to keep Alix in England and concocted a plan for her to marry her first cousin, Albert Victor, the son of the Prince of Wales, and she invited them both to Balmoral in 1889 in the hopes they would fall in love. Albert Victor did become enamoured with Alix but she did not return his affection and rejected his marriage proposal. Undeterred, Queen Victoria tried to persuade Alix to change her mind and wrote to her sisters, Victoria and Elisabeth, her reasons why the marriage was a good match. However, Elisabeth thought it was a terrible idea and Albert Victor too stupid for her sister. Alix finally wrote to Queen Victoria saying she would marry Albert Victor if forced to do so but it would be a miserable marriage for them both. Queen Victoria was disappointed but admired Alix for her strength of character.
Queen Victoria began to look elsewhere for a suitable husband for her granddaughter, however there was another reason Alix had refused to entertain any thoughts of marrying Albert Victor and his name was Nicholas. When Alix had attended the wedding of her sister Elisabeth to Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia, she had met Tsarevich Nicholas and had fallen in love with him. The feeling was mutual and Nicholas wrote in his diary of his desire to marry Alix one day. The relationship was encouraged by Elisabeth and Sergei, however Queen Victoria was not happy when she was finally told as she disliked Russia and worried for her granddaughter’s safety.
Nicholas’ parents were also opposed to the match as they had a strong dislike for Germany and did not want Alix as a daughter-in-law as they felt she was not of a suitable rank to marry the heir to the throne of Russia. Nicholas refused to entertain the notion of marrying anyone else and when the Tsar’s health began to fail, he finally relented and gave Nicholas permission to marry Alix. When Nicholas proposed to Alix she was reluctant to accept as she had no desire to convert to the Russian Orthodox faith. Nicholas was devastated but Elisabeth urged her sister to reconsider the proposal as she did not need to convert her faith. After hours of anguished deliberation, Alix finally accepted Nicholas’ second proposal.
On 1 November 1894, Alexander III died and was succeeded by his son who reigned as Nicholas II and the following day, Alix was received into the Russian Orthodox faith and renamed Alexandra Feodorovna. Alexandra was not required to give up her Lutheran faith. Alexander was buried on 19 November and Alexandra accompanied his coffin through St. Petersburg and Moscow along with other family members, including the Prince and Princess of Wales.
Nicholas and Alexandra were married in the Winter Palace of St. Petersburg on 26 November 1894 and court mourning was relaxed for a day, however a pall seemed to hang over the wedding and the superstitious Russians saw Alexandra as a bad omen. Their impression of Alexandra would not improve as her extreme shyness made her seem arrogant and she made few friends at court. Nicholas and Alexandra were crowned at the Dormition Cathedral in the Kremlin on 14 May 1896 and thousands of people thronged to the capital to celebrate and receive the traditional gifts. However, the police failed to maintain order and a surge in the crowd led to hundreds being crushed to death at the Khodynka Field.
Horrified by the deaths, Nicholas and Alexandra decided not to attend a ball the French ambassador was hosting in their honour but the Tsar’s uncles persuaded them to attend lest the French be offended. It proved to be bad advice as many saw them as cold and unfeeling. The next day, Nicholas and Alexandra visited the site of the tragedy and paid for the coffins of the fallen but the damage had been done. Alexandra faired no better with the aristocracy as she failed to understand she was meant to take a leading role at court by hosting lavish balls, preferring instead the company of her husband. Alexandra was also unpopular with the rest of the Imperial family as she insisted she be treated according to her rank as empress and did not understand her mother-in-law still had precedence over her at court.
Alexandra also made no effort to secure the approval of the people, believing their love for their tsar should be automatic, and she made no effort to acknowledge their presence whenever they gathered to catch a glimpse of the Imperial family. When Queen Victoria heard about her granddaughter’s behaviour, she wrote to remind Alexandra that it was her duty to earn the love and respect of her people. However, Alexandra told her grandmother she was mistaken as the Russians revered their tsar as a divine being so there was no need to earn their love.
On 15 November 1895, Alexandra gave birth to her first child, Olga, at the Alexander Palace, however the court was disappointed she hadn’t given birth to a male heir. Nicholas and Alexandra were unconcerned and doted on their new daughter but the Tsarina knew she would be expected to give birth to a son to secure the succession as females could no longer inherit the throne. On 10 June 1897, Alexandra gave birth to a second daughter, Tatiana, and while Nicholas was as delighted with this daughter as the first one, Alexandra fretted over what the court would say. A third daughter, Maria, was born on 26 June 1899 and there was no hiding the disappointment of the Russian people who continued to see Alexandra as a bad omen.
When Nicholas became gravely ill in October 1900, Alexandra was pregnant with her fourth child and insisted on being named regent in case the child she was carrying was a boy. Nicholas’ ministers refused. If Nicholas died before the child was born, his brother, Michael, would become tsar and would then abdicate if the child was a male. Alexandra was furious and saw this as a ploy to cheat her son out of his birthright. However, the argument was moot since Nicholas recovered and the Tsarina gave birth to her fourth daughter, Anastasia, much to her chagrin.
A Male Heir
Desperate for a male heir, Nicholas and Alexandra began to see a renowned mystic, Philippe Nizier-Vachot, who claimed he could change the sex of a baby in the womb. Much to the alarm of the rest of the family, Nicholas arranged for Philippe to be given a medical diploma from the Petersburg Military Medical Academy and appointed him as a State Councillor. Their faith in Philippe seemed to bear fruition as Alexandra was sure she was pregnant by the end of 1901 but no child appeared and a bulletin was released advising the Tsarina had suffered a miscarriage. Embarrassed, Alexandra sent Philippe away but before his departure he told Alexandra that Seraphim would grant them a son.
Seraphim was a monk who had allegedly performed miracles seventy years ago and the Tsar persuaded the Metropolitan of Moscow to canonise him. The Tsar and Tsarina then bathed in the same waters as Seraphim and prayed for a son. In 1904, Alexandra fell pregnant again and this time the patience of the Russian people was rewarded when she gave birth to a son, Alexei Nikolaevich, on 12 August 1904. The birth of a Tsarevich was met with great rejoicing and the church bells sounded throughout the land in celebration. However, Alexandra’s relief soon turned into despair as the boy was diagnosed with haemophilia when he bled for days after his umbilical cord was cut. The guilt the Tsarina felt was tremendous, however the Romanovs accused her of tainting their lineage and it was decided to hide the truth from the Russian people.
Alexandra turned to her faith for comfort and began studying the Orthodox saints and spent hours in prayer. She then turned to another mystic, Grigori Rasputin, who began visiting the court on a daily basis and seemed to have some success at stopping Alexei’s bleeding when it occurred. Rasputin was a dangerous character who led a debauched lifestyle but Alexandra ignored the stories as she believed he was the only hope for her son. The Romanovs grew increasingly concerned at the access Rasputin was given to the Imperial family but Alexandra refused to listen.
In 1912, Alexei suffered a serious life-threatening bleed while on holiday in Poland and his desperate mother begged Rasputin to come to them. The boy was given the last rites and bulletins were prepared to announce his death, however Rasputin sent a telegram and told the Tsarina the boy would recover. Astonishingly, the young Tsarevich began to recover almost immediately.
The Beginning of the End
When the First World War broke out, Alexandra found herself on the opposite side from her German siblings and the Russians grew even more suspicious of her. The Tsarina was accused of collaborating even when she and her daughters tirelessly nursed the wounded in St. Petersburg. When Nicholas left to take personal command of the army in 1915, Alexandra was appointed his regent but she seemed to be taking advice from Rasputin and fired so many officials. The Romanovs, concerned Rasputin wanted the throne for himself, began plotting to get rid of him and he was assassinated on 30 December 1916.
The war took a toll on the Russian economy and Nicholas taking charge of the army proved to be a disaster as they suffered severe losses. The Tsar replaced capable ministers with less able ones at the request of Alexandra and the Russians began to believe it was a plot to help Germany win the war. As food shortages increased during the winter months, famine began to take hold in the country and the unrest grew. Workers began to strike and there were riots in the streets protesting against the shortages. The Duma, an advisory council, urged the tsar to address the issues but he responded by dissolving the Duma instead.
On 12 March, soldiers sent to quell the rioters mutinied and joined them instead and the February Revolution was sparked. The Duma took over the government and informed the Tsar he needed to abdicate. Nicholas tried to return to St. Petersburg but he acquiesced to the abdication on the advice of his generals. He also abdicated on behalf of his son. Alexandra was still in the Alexander Palace and attempts were made to storm it but the palace guards successfully defended the palace until they learned of the abdication and left. The Duma appointed its own security at the palace but Alexandra and her children were effectively prisoners in their own home.
Nicholas was allowed to return to the Alexander Palace but he was placed under arrest and Alexandra was interrogated about Rasputin’s influence over her. She maintained he was just a holy man working for the good of Russia and the Imperial family. The. Provisional Government felt it was not safe to keep the Imperial family in Russia as the Bolsheviks were threatening their safety, so enquiries were made about sending the family to England. However, George V refused to take them as he was afraid of the political repercussions would lead to social unrest in his own kingdom. Disappointed, the Provisional Government began to make plans to move them to another location in Russia.
In August 1917, the family were moved to Tobolsk, Siberia, which was further away from the capital, however their respite was brief as the Provisional Government was toppled by the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks moved Nicholas, Alexandra, and Maria to Ipatiev House, Yekaterinburg, in April 1918. The rest of the family joined them a month later. The Bolsheviks guarding them were mainly factory workers who gave the family few concessions, although they were allowed to walk around the garden for an hour in the afternoon.
On 4 July 1918, the commandant of the Ipatiev House changed over to Yakov Yurovsky, a hardened and loyal Bolshevik, and he immediately tightened security and received the Imperial family of their jewellery. He was unaware that the family had sewn most of their valuables into their clothes. The order to execute the family came on 13 July, however Yurovsky took a few more days to prepare. Early in the morning of 17 July 1918, the Imperial family were moved into the basement of the Ipatiev House and calmly told by Yurovsky that they were to be executed. As Nicholas rose to protest, he was shot in the chest several times and then Alexandra was shot in the head. The gunmen then turned on the children and the rest of the household who had remained loyal to them.
Afterwards, the bodies were taken into the woods where they were doused with sulphuric acid and buried under railway sleepers, however two of the children were not buried with them. When the Soviet Union fell in the 1990s, the bodies under the sleepers were exhumed and formally identified but the whereabouts of the missing children was not solved until Yurovsky’s private papers were found. The bodies of a young woman and a boy were later discovered at a bonfire site near Yekaterinburg as described by Yurovsky and genetic testing indicated they were Nicholas and Alexandra’s missing children.
Alexandra, Nicholas and their three daughters were reinterred in the St. Catherine Chapel of the Peter and Paul Cathedral at the Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul in St. Petersburg in 1998 on the eightieth anniversary of the execution. In 2015, it was announced the missing children would finally be interred alongside the rest of the family, however the Russian Orthodox Church requested more genetic testing to be carried out on the entire family. They have not yet been interred with the rest of the family.
Olga Nikolaevna of Russia
Olga was the eldest daughter and was born in the Alexander Palace, Tsarskoye Selo. She was killed by Bolsheviks, aged 22 years, on 17 July 1918.
Tatiana Nikolaevna of Russia
Tatiana was the second daughter and was born in Peterhof Palace, St. Petersburg. She was killed by Bolsheviks, aged 21 years, on 17 July 1918.
Maria Nikolaevna of Russia
Maria was the third daughter and was born in the Peterhof Palace, St. Petersburg. She was killed by Bolsheviks, aged 19 years, on 17 July 1918.