On April 4, 1866 Tsar Alexander II once again met Catherine ‘Katya’ Dolgorukaya in the Summer Gardens at St Petersburg. It was to be a fateful day. The couple had enjoyed chaste daily strolls for months and the tsar, 48, had become smitten by the 19-year-old with ash blonde hair, alabaster skin and a curvaceous figure, who found young men tedious, dreaded marriage and was bored by balls.
They had first met eight years earlier when the tsar stayed at her family’s estate. When her father died, leaving the family penniless, Alexander agreed to pay for the children’s education at a boarding school in the Russian capital.
‘The emperor asked me if I was going to visit my younger sister at Smolny,’ Katya recalled later. ‘I told him I was going there that night, and he said he would meet me there.’
When, at 3pm, Alexander left Katya, he was met at the gates by a provincial nobleman, Dmitry Karakozov, who had been expelled from Moscow University and had joined Hell, a revolutionary faction pledged to create a workers’ commune. The young firebrand pulled out a revolver but his shot missed Alexander.
The tsar privately attributed his survival to the love of Katya and appeared that night at the Smolny Institute as promised. ‘This meeting was the best proof that we loved each other,’ Katya wrote later. ‘I decided that my heart belonged to him.’
But the teenage virgin did not succumb to the emperor until July that year. ‘I met you,’ he wrote ten years later, ‘on horseback near Mon Plaisir and you suggested we meet later under the pretext of giving me your portrait.’ They met at a villa used by Alexander I and Nicholas I for meeting mistresses.
‘I’ll never forget what happened on the sofa in the mirrored room when we kissed on the mouth for the first time and you made me go out while you removed your crinoline and I was surprised to find you without your pantaloons.
‘Oh, oh quel horreur? I was almost mad at this dream, but it was real… I felt a frenzy. That’s when I encountered my treasure… I would have given everything to dip inside again… I was electrified that your saucy crinoline let me see your legs that only I had ever seen.’
He was gripped by Katya’s unexpected capacity for pleasure: ‘We fell on each other like wild cats.’ She, meanwhile, was grateful for his kindness: ‘He conducted himself towards me with the honesty and nobility of a man who loves and esteems a woman like a sacred object.’ Both believed this was, as she put it, ‘a passion inspired by God’. Katya told the emperor she ‘dedicated her life to love him’, while Alexander solemnly swore: ‘You are my secret wife… if ever I am free, I will marry you.’ It was, he later wrote, ‘the happiest day of my life’ and ‘the start of a honeymoon that has never ceased’.
Katya was appointed maid-of-honour to Empress Maria, who was stricken with tuberculosis. Katya had no interest in the imperial court but the tsar could smuggle her into his study, where he made love to her on his couch.
Katya found her life as the emperor’s mistress a strain, and when she and a companion set off on a European tour to ease her nerves, the tsar’s courtiers presumed that this was the end of yet another royal fling – and even encouraged the tsar to have an affair with Katya’s pretty sister Marie, which he did. But Alexander engineered a visit to Paris to rendezvous with his lover. ‘I’ll never forget our first meeting in Paris!’ he wrote to her. ‘We were mad for each other – nothing else existed for us!’ One of the pretexts of his visit was a military exhibition at Longchamp, where Alexander shared an open carriage home with Napoleon III. As they trotted through the Bois de Boulogne, a young man fired twice at Alexander. Again the tsar attributed his escape to Katya: ‘Each time, my guardian angel.’
Back in St Petersburg, Alexander met Katya – ‘my naughty minx’ – at the townhouse he rented for her on the Russian capital’s fashionable English Quay, which they called ‘our nest’. They wrote several times a day and the letters are perhaps the most explicit correspondence ever written by a head of state, using pet names to describe their love-making: ‘Les bingerles’ was sex itself.
They both had exuberant libidos, but their unique circumstances meant they never lost the frenzied passion of new lovers.
‘I confess these memories reawaken my rage to plunge inside your delirious coquillage again,’ he would write. ‘I’m smiling about it, I’m not ashamed, it’s natural!’ He was delighted when she took the initiative. ‘I enjoyed until delirium,’ wrote the emperor, ‘lying still on the sofa while you moved on me yourself… we’re made for each other and I see you before my eyes, now in bed, now without knickers.’
She also relished the love-making, writing: ‘You know I want you. I feel overwhelmed by pleasure incomparable to anything else. I took pleasure like a mad thing under our dear blanket. This pleasure has no name, as we are the only ones who feel it.’ The tsar sketched her naked: the drawing shows her voluptuous figure and her thick tresses, usually tied up in a bun, down to her waist.
His doctors even tried to limit their strenuous lovemaking. After Alexander had talked of ‘four times’, ‘on every piece of furniture’ and ‘in every room’, Katya suggested that ‘if you think we overtire ourselves, let’s rest a few days’.
But later that day, she wrote: ‘This evening, I want you,’ and by the following morning: ‘I slept restlessly, everything inside me trembles, I can’t wait till 4.45.’
However, the stress of her secret love made Katya ill. Alexander sent her to ‘famous doctors’ who ‘announced to him that the only thing that could save me was to have children’. On April 30, 1872, Katya gave birth to a son, Georgi, in Alexander’s study at the Winter Palace. The ailing empress realised Alexander was in love with the mistress, and racked by TB, she was often sent by the doctors to the Crimea or Nice.
The lovers longed for her death. After a wedding, Alexander wrote: ‘Our glances reflect our innermost feelings, because we would wish ourselves to be in place of the newlyweds.’
Alexander was not alone in his decadence. Grand-ducal carriages queued every night on Rossi Street outside the Imperial Ballet, which the Romanovs treated as an escort agency. The tsar’s brothers Kostia (Konstantine) and Nizi (Nikolai) both had children with ballerinas. Only the youngest, Mikhail, was happily married. But it was the young generation which provoked Alexander’s next crisis.
‘Returning from my walk, I had a disagreeable surprise from Alexis,’ wrote the tsar of his youngest son, ‘who announced his affair with a girl who’s now pregnant and he asked my consent to marry her.’
Alexis, a lovable but shameless 21-year-old naval officer, had embarked on an affair with Alexandra Zhukovskaya, the daughter of a poet. Alexis was summarily dispatched on a world tour that included an American visit to consolidate their alliance. He met President Ulysses S. Grant at the White House, went on a buffalo hunt with General Custer, and enjoyed assignations with a burlesque dancer in St Louis and an actress in New Orleans.
Such was the unpopularity of the autocratic Romanovs that opposition was springing up in every part of society. By 1877, a new terrorist group called Land And Freedom pronounced a death sentence on the tsar after 193 Populists were arrested and tried in St Petersburg.
On January 28, 1878, General Trepov, governor of Petersburg, was shot after he had ordered radicals to be whipped in prison. That summer the head of the Third Section secret police, General Nikolay Mezentsev, was stabbed to death in the street.
‘This horrible assassination has completely upset me,’ Alexander told Katya on August 4.
Over the New Year, the emperor, 60 and weary, celebrated with Katya. ‘I’m still steeped in our delicious bingerles last night,’ he wrote on January 1, 1879.
Six weeks later, he wrote: ‘Today was assassinated the governor-general of Kharkov, Prince Dmitry Kropotkin. The masked killer disappeared without trace.’
In fact, the assassin came to St Petersburg to kill the tsar himself. On April 2, 1879 the tsar was strolling home across Palace Square when a young man raised a pistol. The tsar ran across the square, dodging two shots.
‘It’s the third time God has miraculously saved me from death,’ wrote Alexander, rushing to Katya. ‘God has saved me for you!’
Upset by an anonymous letter that may have been a terrorist threat against Katya, he quietly moved her and the children [she’d since had two more with Alexander, Olga and Catherine] into the third floor of the Winter Palace. His dying wife was on another floor.
The tsar revelled in being ‘all together’: ‘I love it that I got to wake up with you,’ he told Katya, ‘and you in bed next to me, eyes closed, prettier than ever in our sunlit room.’
On November 17, 1879 terrorists blew up a train supposedly carrying Alexander from Crimea to St Petersburg. He had fortuitously changed his plans at the last minute. The secret police arrested two suspects carrying a plan of the Winter Palace, but the significance of the discovery was missed.
The security at the palace was astonishingly lax. Indeed, one servant, a carpenter named Stepan Khalturin, smuggled 300lbs of nitroglycerin into the cellars before detonating the bomb just before an official dinner on February 5, 1878.
‘The floor rose as if it was an earthquake. The gaslights in the gallery went out, there was total darkness,’ wrote one guest.
The emperor rushed towards his mistress’s apartment, calling ‘Katya!’ They embraced, then fell to their knees before the icons in her bedroom. In the yellow dining room and the guards’ quarters beneath it, 12 lay dead and 69 wounded. ‘I wept,’ the tsar wrote. ‘The sentries are all buried at their posts!’
On May 22, Empress Maria was found dead: ‘My God, forgive me my sins,’ Alexander wrote.
‘My double life ends today. I am sorry but She [Katya] doesn’t hide her joy. She talks immediately about legalising our situation; this mistrust kills me. I’ll do all for her but not against the national interest.’
A day later the emperor decided he would marry Katya after a shortened mourning period of just 40 days. ‘If we hadn’t expected more attacks, it would never have occurred to us to marry so quickly,’ Katya explained.
At Maria’s funeral on May 28, ‘a blinding fork of lightning crossed the darkened sky’. The tsar shivered, but he married Katya who now became Princess Yurievskaya. She received a vast fortune as a gift.
But his sons by Empress Maria – and his conservative ministers – loathed Katya, whom they saw as a liberal. As Alexander planned to give Russia a liberal constitution for the first time, Katya became increasingly influential, backing these new reforms.
Katya knew that the terrorists were hunting Alexander ‘like a wild animal’. She begged him not to go to his favourite review of the Guards that took place every Sunday, but on Sunday, March 1, 1881, the tsar did two things that always comforted him: he wrote his diary and then, pulling up Katya’s skirts, he ‘toppled her on to a table and took her’, before, at 12.45pm, he set out to review the guards in his bullet-proof carriage, escorted by Cossacks. Returning by the same route, a young man, Nikolai Rysakov, tossed a bomb under the carriage.
When the smoke cleared, the carriage was largely intact, and just its rear end was damaged. The emperor dismounted and crossed himself. He had miraculously survived another assassination attempt.
He was inspecting the damage when another young man, Ignacy Hryniewiecki, threw a bomb at Alexander’s feet. Amid the snow and debris ‘you could see epaulettes, sabres, and bloody chunks of human flesh,’ said one witness.
As the smoke cleared, Alexander could be heard gasping: ‘Take me to the Palace – there to die!’
At the palace, Katya fell on top of the tsar’s body, kissing his hands and crying out his name. Holding his head, she ordered the doctors ‘to bring pillows, to bring oxygen, to try to revive the emperor’. When the end came, she shrieked and dropped to the floor, her negligee soaked in the tsar’s blood.
Despite her heartbreak, Katya survived her husband by 41 years, living in great style in Paris and the French Riviera. She died in 1922, aged 74, just as her fortune was running out.