Alexandra Feodorovna (6 June 1872 – 17 July 1918) was Empress of Russia as the spouse of Nicholas II, the last ruler of the Russian Empire. Originally known as Alix of Hesse and by Rhine, she was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom. Upon being received into the Russian Orthodox Church, she was given the name Alexandra Feodorovna and—having been put to death along with her immediate family while in Bolshevik captivity in 1918—was canonized in 2000 as Saint Alexandra the Passion Bearer.
Alexandra was the last Tsarina of Russia and one of the most famous royal carriers of the haemophilia disease that descended from Queen Victoria. Her reputation for influencing her husband’s resistance to the surrender of autocratic authority over the country and her known faith in the Russian mystic, Grigori Rasputin, severely damaged her popularity and that of the Romanov monarchy in its final years. During his absence in the First World War in 1915-1917 she was treated by her spouse as Regent of the Empire.
Alexandra was born on 6 June 1872 at the New Palace in Darmstadt as Her Grand Ducal Highness Princess Alix Viktoria Helene Luise Beatrix of Hesse and by Rhine, a Grand Duchy that was then part of the German Empire. She was the sixth child and fourth daughter among the seven children of Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine and his first wife Princess Alice of the United Kingdom, the second daughter of Queen Victoria and Albert, the Prince Consort.
Alix was baptized on 1 July 1872 (her parent’s tenth wedding anniversary) according to the rites of the Lutheran Church and given the names of her mother and each of her mother’s four sisters, some of which were transliterated into German. Her godparents were the Prince and Princess of Wales, the Tsesarevich and Tsesarevna of Russia, Princess Beatrice of the United Kingdom, The Duchess of Cambridge, and Princess Anna of Prussia. Her mother gave her the nickname of “Sunny,” a practice later picked up by her husband, while her British relatives gave her the nicknames of “Alicky” in order to distinguish her from her aunt-by-marriage, the Princess of Wales (and later Queen of the United Kingdom), who, while having the given name Alexandra, was known within the family as Alix. Alix’s hemophiliac older brother Prince Friedrich of Hesse and by Rhine died in May 1873 after a fall when Alix was barely a year old. Out of her siblings, she was closest to Marie, just two years younger than her, and the both of them were inseparable.
In November 1878, diphtheria swept through the Grand Ducal House of Hesse; Alix, her three sisters, her brother Ernst , and their father fell ill. Elisabeth, Alix’s older sister, had been sent to visit her paternal grandmother, and thus escaped the outbreak. Alix’s mother Alice tended to the children herself, rather than abandon them to doctors. Alice herself soon fell ill and died on the 17th anniversary of her father’s death, 14 December 1878, when Alix was only six years old. Alix, Victoria, Irene, and Ernst survived the epidemic, but their youngest sister, Princess Marie , did not.
Alix and her surviving siblings grew close to their British cousins, spending holidays with Queen Victoria. With her sister Princess Irene, Alix was a bridesmaid at the 1885 wedding of her godmother and maternal aunt, Princess Beatrice to Prince Henry of Battenberg. She was also present at her grandmother’s Golden Jubilee celebrations in 1887.
Alix was Queen Victoria’s favourite granddaughter, and both adored each other.
By her late teens, Alix had blossomed into a beautiful young woman with red gold hair and sparkling blue eyes, and her cousin, Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, fell in love with her. Alix was married relatively late for her rank in her era, having rejected the proposal from Albert Victor in 1890 despite strong familial pressure. Though Queen Victoria had intended for Alix to be Britain’s future queen, she relented, accepting Alix’s objections as indicative of her strength of character.
Alix had already met and fallen in love with Grand Duke Nicholas, heir to the throne of Russia, whose mother, Empress Maria Feodorovna (Dagmar of Denmark), was her godmother and the younger sister of the then-Princess of Wales, and whose uncle Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich was married to Alix’s sister Elisabeth.
Alix and Nicholas were related to each other via several different lines of European royalty: the most notable was their shared great-grandmother Princess Wilhelmina of Baden, and Nicholas’s paternal grandmother, Empress Maria Alexandrovna of Russia, was Alix’s paternal great aunt, making them second cousins via this line; and King Frederick William II of Prussia, who was simultaneously the great-great-grandfather of Alix and the great-great-great-grandfather of Nicholas, which in that line made them third cousins once removed.
Nicholas and Alix had first met in 1884 at the wedding of Nicholas’s Uncle Sergei to Alix’s sister Elisabeth in St. Petersburg. When Alix returned to Russia in 1889, they fell in love. Nicholas wrote in his diary: “It is my dream to one day marry Alix H. I have loved her for a long time, but more deeply and strongly since 1889 when she spent six weeks in Petersburg. For a long time, I have resisted my feeling that my dearest dream will come true.” Initially Nicholas’s father, Tsar Alexander III, refused the prospect of marriage.
Alexander III and his wife, both vehemently anti-German, had no intention of permitting a match with Princess Alix and the tsesarevich. Although Princess Alix was his godchild, it was generally known that Alexander III was angling for a bigger catch for his son, someone like Princess Hélène, the tall, dark-haired daughter of Philippe, Comte de Paris, pretender to the throne of France. The prospect of marrying Hélène did not appeal to Nicholas; “Mama made a few allusions to Hélène, daughter of the Comte de Paris,” he wrote in his diary, “I myself want to go in one direction and it is evident that Mama wants me to choose the other one.” Fortunately for Nicholas, Hélène also resisted, as she was Roman Catholic and her father refused to allow her to convert to Russian Orthodoxy. After appealing to the Pope, who refused to even consider the marriage, the relationship ended. The tsar, despite his anti-German sentiments, then sent emissaries to Princess Margaret of Prussia, sister of German Emperor Wilhelm II, who—like Alix—was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Nicholas flatly declared that he would rather become a monk than marry the plain and boring Margaret, who in turn stated in any case that she was unwilling to give up her Protestant religion to become Russian Orthodox.
As long as he was well, Alexander III ignored his son’s demands, only relenting when his health began to fail in 1894. At first, Alix was troubled by the requirement that she renounce her Lutheran faith and become Orthodox, but she was persuaded and eventually became a fervent convert. The tsar and tsarina were not the only ones opposed to the match; Queen Victoria wrote to Alix’s sister Victoria of her suspicions (which were correct) that Sergei and Elizabeth were encouraging the match. The Queen’s opposition stemmed not from personal feelings about the tsesarevich, whom she personally liked, but her misgivings about Russia, including past political experiences, her personal dislike of Nicholas’s father, and fears over her granddaughter’s safety..
In April 1894 Alix’s brother Ernest Louis, who had succeeded his father as Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine in 1892, was to be married to his first cousin, Princess Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (“Ducky”), daughter of Queen Victoria’s second son, Prince Alfred, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and his wife, Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia, a sister of Alexander III of Russia. The wedding brought a number of relatives to Coburg, Germany, for the festivities, including Queen Victoria herself (who had arranged the marriage), the Prince of Wales, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and the Empress Frederick, mother of the Kaiser and eldest daughter of the Queen. As well as being Queen Victoria’s godchild, Victoria Melita, as a granddaughter of Tsar Alexander II through her mother, was also a first cousin of Nicholas. The tsesarevich headed up the Russian delegation, which included three of Nicholas’s uncles; Vladimir, Sergei and Paul, and two of his aunts by marriage; Elizabeth Feodorovna (who was also the bridegroom and Princess Alix’s elder sister) and Maria Pavlovna.
The day after his arrival in Coburg, Nicholas proposed to Alix, and she rejected him on the grounds of her refusal to convert to Orthodoxy. However, after pressure from the Kaiser, who had told her that it was her duty to marry Nicholas, and her sister Elisabeth, who tried to point out the similarities between Lutheranism and Russian Orthodoxy, she accepted Nicholas’s second proposal.
Following the engagement, Alix returned to England with her grandmother. In June, Nicholas traveled to England to visit her, bringing with him his father’s personal priest, Father Yanishev, who was to give her religious instruction. Along with visiting Alix and the Queen, Nicholas’s visit coincided with the birth and christening of the eldest son of Nicholas and Alix’s mutual cousin, George, Duke of York and his wife, Mary of Teck, and both of them were named as godparents of the boy, who would reign briefly as King Edward VIII in 1936.
Later that autumn, as Alexander III’s health began to further deteriorate, Nicholas obtained the permission of his dying father to summon Alix to the Romanovs’ Crimean palace of Livadia. Escorted by her sister, Elizabeth, from Warsaw to the Crimea, she was forced to travel by ordinary passenger train. The dying tsar insisted on receiving Alix in full dress uniform and gave his blessing.
Alexander III died in the early afternoon of 1 November 1894 at the age of forty-nine, leaving Tsesarevich Nicholas the new Emperor of Russia, who was confirmed that evening as Tsar Nicholas II. The following day, Alix was received into the Russian Orthodox Church as “the truly believing Grand Duchess Alexandra Feodorovna” with the style of Imperial Highness. Yet as a dispensation, she was not required to repudiate Lutheranism or her former faith. Alix apparently expressed a wish to take the name Catherine, but on Nicholas’s suggestion, she took the name Alexandra.
Alexandra, along with her and Nicholas’s mutual aunt and uncle, the Prince and Princess of Wales, and some of Nicholas’s relatives from Greece accompanied the coffin of Alexander III first to Moscow, where it lay in state in the Kremlin, and then to St. Petersburg. The funeral of Alexander III occurred on 19 November.
The marriage with Nicholas was not delayed. Alexandra and Nicholas were wed in the Grand Church of the Winter Palace of St Petersburg on 26 November 1894, the birthday of Nicholas’s mother, now Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna, when court mourning could be somewhat relaxed. The marriage that began that night remained exceptionally close until the pair was assassinated simultaneously in 1918. The marriage was outwardly serene and proper but based on intensely passionate physical love.
The wedding of Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna was performed so soon after the death of Nicholas’ father that even the bride wrote to her sister: “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.” Many people in Russia took the arrival of their new Empress so soon after the death of Emperor Alexander as a bad omen:”She has come to us behind a coffin. She brings misfortune with her.”
Alexandra Feodorovna became Empress of Russia on her wedding day, but it was not until 14 May 1896 that the coronation of Nicholas and Alexandra took place inside the Kremlin in Moscow. The following day, the coronation celebrations were halted when the deaths of over one thousand people became known. The victims had been trampled to death at the Khodynka Field in Moscow when rumours spread that there would not be enough of the food being distributed in honour of the coronation for the thousands who had gathered there. The relatively small numbers of police in attendance could not maintain order, and thousands were crushed in the ensuing stampede. In light of these events the tsar declared he could not go to the ball being given that night by the French Ambassador, the Marquis de Montebello. Nonetheless his uncles urged him to attend so as not to offend the French. Nicholas gave in, and he and Alexandra attended the ball. Sergei Witte commented, “We expected the party would be called off. Instead it took place as if nothing had happened and the ball was opened by Their Majesties dancing a quadrille.” Alexandra was affected by the loss of life, “The Empress appeared in great distress, her eyes reddened by tears” the British Ambassador informed Queen Victoria. Although Alexandra and Nicholas had visited the wounded the day after and offered to pay for the coffins of the dead, many Russians took the disaster at Khodynka Meadow as an omen that the reign would be unhappy. Others used the circumstances of the tragedy and the behaviour of the royal establishment to underscore the heartlessness of the autocracy and the contemptible shallowness of the young tsar and his “German woman”.
That autumn Nicholas, Alexandra, and the infant Grand Duchess Olga—who was approaching one—traveled to Scotland to spend time with Queen Victoria at Balmoral Castle. While Nicholas was in somewhat of a bad mood due to days spent with “Uncle Bertie” (the Prince of Wales) shooting in bad weather while Nicholas suffered from a toothache, Alexandra relished the time with her grandmother. It was in fact, the last time that grandmother and granddaughter would see each other, and when Queen Victoria died in January 1901, pregnancy with her fourth daughter Grand Duchess Anastasia prevented Alexandra from attending the funeral in London.
Unlike her vivacious and popular mother-in-law, Alexandra was heartily disliked among her subjects. She came off as very cold and curt, although according to her and many other close friends, she was only terribly shy and nervous in front of the Russian people. She felt her feelings were bruised and battered from the Russians’ “hateful” nature. She was also frowned upon by the wealthy and poor alike for her distaste for Russian culture (her embrace of Orthodoxy notwithstanding), whether it was the food or the manner of dancing. Her inability to produce a son also incensed the people. After the birth of the Grand Duchess Olga, her first-born child, Nicholas was reported to have 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 her “sunbeam” Alexei the Tsarevich was born, she further isolated herself from the Russian court by spending nearly all of her time with him; his haemophilia did little to distance their close relationship. She associated herself with more solitary figures such as Anna Vyrubova and the invalid Princess Sonia Orbeliani, rather than the “frivolous” young Russian aristocratic ladies. These women were constantly ignored by the “haughty” tsarina.
Historian Barbara W. Tuchman in The Guns of August writes of Alexandra as tsarina, “Though it could hardly be said that the Czar governed Russia in a working sense, he ruled as an autocrat and was in turn ruled by his strong-willed if weak-witted wife. Beautiful, hysterical, and morbidly suspicious, she hated everyone but her immediate family and a series of fanatic or lunatic charlatans who offered comfort to her desperate soul.”
In later life she may have suffered an addiction to the barbiturate Veronal: “I’m literally saturated with it,” she confessed to a friend in 1914. Along with her association with Vyrubova and Orbeliani, Alexandra associated herself with Grand Duchess Militza Nikolaevna of Russia, who was a Montenegrin princess by birth and wife of a relative of Nicholas. Through her, Alexandra was introduced to a mystic by the name of Philippe Nizier-Vachot in 1901. Philippe enjoyed a brief influence over the imperial couple, until he was exposed as a charlatan in 1903 and was expelled from Russia. In 1902, it was also suggested that if Nicholas and Alexandra were to sponsor the canonisation of Seraphim of Sarov, Alexandra would give birth to a son. Imperial pressure from the tsar led to the church canonising him in 1903. Imperial interference in the canonisation process, which forced the Church to disregard the established rules regarding canonisation, led to an outcry from both laity and clergy alike.
Alexandra lived mainly as a recluse during her husband’s reign. She also was reported to have had a terrible relationship with her mother-in-law, Maria Feodorovna. The Dowager Empress had tried to assist Alexandra in learning about the position of empress, but was shunned by the younger woman. Unlike other European courts of the day, in the Russian court, the position of Dowager Empress was senior in rank and precedence to that of the tsarina—a rule that Maria, with the support of Nicholas II, enforced strictly. At royal balls and other formal Imperial gatherings, Maria would enter on her son’s arm, and Alexandra would silently trail behind them according to court protocol. It did not help that Maria tended to be extremely possessive of her sons. In addition, Alexandra resented the ostentatiously considerate treatment of Maria by her husband the tsar, which only slightly evaporated after the birth of their five children. For Maria’s part, she did not approve of her son’s marriage to a German bride and was appalled at her daughter-in-law’s inability to win favour with the Russian people. In addition, Maria had spent seventeen years in Russia prior to her coronation with Alexander III; Alexandra had a scarce month to learn the rules of the Russian court (which she seldom ever followed), and this might have contributed to her unpopularity. Alexandra at least was astute enough not to criticise openly the woman she publicly referred to as “Mother dear.”
Alexandra’s only real associations were with Nicholas’s siblings and a very small number of the otherwise close-knit Romanov family: Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich (husband of Nicholas’s sister Xenia), Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich (the most artistic of the Imperial house) and his family, and Grand Duke George Mikhailovich, who was married to Nicholas’s maternal first cousin, Maria of Greece. Alexandra, like her mother-in-law, disliked in particular the family of Nicholas’s senior uncle, Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich, and his wife, Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna, who, during the war, openly criticized the Empress. She considered their sons Kyrill, Boris and Andrei to be irredeemably immoral, and in 1913 refused Boris’s proposal for the hand of Grand Duchess Olga.
Alexandra was very supportive of her husband, yet often gave him extreme advice. She was a fervent advocate of the “divine right of kings” and believed that it was unnecessary to attempt to secure the approval of the people. Her aunt, German Empress Frederick, wrote to Queen Victoria that “Alix is very Imperious and will always insist on having her own way; she will never yield one iota of power she will imagine she wields…” During World War I, with the national citizens aroused, all the complaints Russians had about the Empress—for instance, her German birth, her poor ideals, her devotion to Rasputin—circled and twisted around the deadly designs that claimed her entire family. Her assassination, according to the daughter of the British ambassador, was openly spoken of in aristocratic drawing rooms as the only way of saving the Empire.
Almost one year after her marriage to the tsar, Alexandra gave birth to the couple’s first child: a girl named Olga, who was born on 15 November 1895. Olga could not be the heir presumptive due to the Pauline Laws implemented by tsar Paul I: priority in the order of succession to the Russian throne belonged to male members of the Romanov dynasty, however distantly related to the Tsar, so long as any remained alive. Olga was well loved by her young parents. Three more girls followed Olga: Tatiana on 10 June 1897, Maria on 26 June 1899 and Anastasia on 18 June 1901. Three more years passed before the Empress gave birth to the long-awaited heir: Alexei Nikolaevich was born in Peterhof on 12 August 1904. To his parents’ dismay, Alexei was born with hemophilia, an incurable bleeding disease.
Grand Duchess Olga was reportedly shy and subdued. As she grew older, Olga read widely, both fiction and poetry, often borrowing books from her mother before the Empress had read them. “You must wait, Mama, until I find out whether this book is a proper one for you to read,” Olga wrote. Alexandra was close to her second daughter, Tatiana, who surrounded her mother with unvarying attention. If a favour was needed, all the Imperial children agreed that “Tatiana must ask Papa to grant it.” During the family’s final months, Tatiana helped her mother move from place to place, pushing her about the house in a wheelchair. The third Grand Duchess, Maria, liked to talk about marriage and children. The tsar thought she would make an excellent wife. Maria was considered the angel of the family. Anastasia, the youngest and most famous daughter, was the “shvibzik,” Russian for “imp.” She climbed trees and refused to come down unless specifically commanded to come down by her father. Her aunt and godmother, Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, once recalled a time when Anastasia was teasing so ruthlessly that she slapped the child.
When they were children, Alexandra dressed her daughters as pairs, the oldest two and the youngest two wearing matching dresses and they were known as the ‘Big Pair’ and ‘Little Pair respectively. As Olga and Tatiana grew older, they played a more serious role in public affairs. Although, in private, they still referred to their parents as “Mama” and “Papa”, in public, they referred to them as “the Empress” and “the Emperor”. Nicholas and Alexandra intended that both their older daughters should make their official debuts in 1914 when Olga was nineteen and Tatiana seventeen, but the First World War began, and the plans were cancelled. By 1917, the four daughters had blossomed into young women.
Alexandra doted on Alexei. The children’s tutor Pierre Gilliard wrote, “Alexei was the centre of a united family, the focus of all its hopes and affections. His sisters worshiped 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.”
Having to live with the knowledge that she had given him the bleeding disease, Alexandra was obsessed with protecting her son; she kept a close eye on him at all times and consulted a number of mystics who claimed to be able to heal him during his nearly fatal attacks. Alexandra spoiled her only son and let him have his way. In 1912, Alexandra finally revealed the truth about Alexei’s illness, in confidence, to her mother-in-law and Nicholas’s sisters, but the knowledge soon reached a limited circle of courtiers and relatives. The revelation backfired on Alexandra, since she was now blamed for Alexei’s frail health and, because it had first appeared among Queen Victoria’s children, his condition was known to some as “the English disease,” adding to the element of foreignness that clung to Alexandra. Increasingly, she became an unpopular figure with the imperial family, the aristocracy and the Russian people. During the Great War, her German birth further inflamed this hatred and made her the immediate and primary focus for almost any aspect of opposition to the monarchy.
In addition to her five live-born children, Alexandra allegedly suffered a miscarriage in the summer of 1896, presumably because she became physically exhausted during her coronation festivities, and a phantom pregnancy in August 1902.
Alexandra’s health was never robust and her frequent pregnancies, with four daughters in six years and her son three years after exacerbated the situation. Without exception, however, her biographers, including Robert Massie, Carrolly Erickson, Greg King and Peter Kurth, ascribe the semi-invalidism of her later years to nervous exhaustion from obsessive worry over the fragile tsarevich. She spent most of her time in bed or reclining on a chaise in her boudoir or on a veranda. This immobility enabled her to avoid the social occasions that she found distasteful. Alexandra regularly took a herbal medicine known as Adonis Vernalis in order to regulate her pulse. She was constantly tired, slept badly and complained of swollen feet. She ate little, but never lost weight. She may have suffered from a very rare condition of high levels of the thyroid hormone, which can lead to atrial fibrillation.
The tsarevich Alexei was born during the height of the Russo-Japanese War on 12 August 1904. He was heir apparent to the throne of Russia, and Alexandra had fulfilled her most important role as tsarina by bearing a male child. At first the boy seemed healthy and normal, but in only a few weeks’ time it was noticed that when he bumped himself, his bruises did not heal. He would bleed from the navel and his blood was slow to clot. It was soon discovered that Alexei suffered from haemophilia, which could only have been transmitted from Alexandra’s side of the family. Haemophilia was generally fatal in the early 20th century and had entered the royal houses of Europe via the daughters of Queen Victoria, who herself was a carrier. Alexandra had lost a brother, Friedrich, to the disease, in 1873, as well as an uncle, Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, in 1884. Her sister Princess Irene of Hesse and by Rhine was also a carrier of the gene and, through her marriage to her cousin Prince Heinrich of Prussia, spread it into a junior branch of the Prussian Royal Family. Princess Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg, another of Queen Victoria’s granddaughters and a first cousin of Alexandra, was also a carrier of the haemophilia gene. She married King Alfonso XIII of Spain and two of her sons were haemophiliacs. As an incurable and life-threatening illness suffered by the sole son and heir of the emperor, the decision was made to keep his condition secret from the Russian people.
At first Alexandra turned to Russian doctors to treat Alexei. Their treatments generally failed. Burdened with the knowledge that any fall or cut could actually kill her son, Alexandra turned toward religion for comfort, familiarising herself with all the Orthodox rituals and saints, spending hours daily praying in her private chapel for deliverance. In desperation, Alexandra increasingly turned to mystics and so-called holy men. One of these, Grigori Rasputin, appeared to have a cure for her son.
Rasputin’s debauched lifestyle led Nicholas at times to distance him from the family. Even after Alexandra was told by the director of the national police that a drunk Rasputin exposed himself at a popular Moscow restaurant and bragged to the crowd that Nicholas let him top his wife whenever he wanted, she blamed it on malicious gossip. “Saints are always calumniated,” she once wrote. “He is hated because we love him.” Nicholas was not nearly as blind, but even he felt powerless to do anything about the man who seemingly saved his only son’s life. Pierre Gilliard wrote, “He did not like to send Rasputin away, for if Alexei died, in the eyes of the mother, he would have been the murderer of his own son.”
From the start there were persistent murmurs and snickers behind Rasputin’s back. Although some of St Petersburg’s top clergy accepted Rasputin as a living prophet, others angrily denounced him as a fraud and a heretic. Stories from back home in Siberia chased him, such as how he conducted weddings for villagers in exchange for sleeping the first night with the bride. In his apartment in St Petersburg, where he lived with his two daughters and two housekeepers, Rasputin was visited by anyone seeking his blessing, a healing or a favour with the tsarina. Women, enchanted by the healer’s crude mystique, also came to Rasputin for more “private blessings” and received a private audience in his bedroom, jokingly called the “Holy of Holies”. Rasputin liked to preach a unique theology that one must first become familiar with sin before one can have a chance in overturning it.
In 1912, Alexei suffered a life-threatening haemorrhage in the thigh while the family was at Spała in Poland. Alexandra and Nicholas took turns at his bedside and tried in vain to comfort him from his intense pain. In one rare moment of peace, Alexei was heard to whisper to his mother, “When I am dead, it will not hurt any more, will it, Mama?” Devastatingly, it seemed to Alexandra that God was not answering her prayers for her son’s relief. Believing Alexei would die, Alexandra in desperation sent a telegram to Grigori Rasputin. Right away he sent a reply, “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.” Alexei recovered after Rasputin’s advice was followed. From 1912 onwards, Alexandra came to rely increasingly on Rasputin and to believe in his ability to ease Alexei’s suffering. This reliance enhanced Rasputin’s political power, which was seriously to undermine Romanov rule during the First World War.
Rasputin’s perceived interference in political matters eventually led to his murder on 30 December 1916. Amongst the conspirators were the nobleman Prince Felix Yusupov, who was married to Nicholas II’s niece, Princess Irina of Russia, and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, a first cousin of Nicholas. Newspaper reporter Michael Smith wrote in his book that British Secret Intelligence Bureau head Mansfield Cumming ordered three of his agents in Russia to eliminate Rasputin in December 1916.
The outbreak of World War I was a pivotal moment for Russia and Alexandra. The war pitted the Russian Empire of the Romanov dynasty against the much stronger German Empire of the Hohenzollern dynasty. When Alexandra learned of the Russian mobilization, she stormed into her husband’s study and said: “War! And I knew nothing of it! This is the end of everything.”
The Grand Duchy of Hesse and by Rhine, ruled by her brother, formed part of the German Empire. This was, of course, the place of Alexandra’s birth. This made Alexandra very unpopular with the Russian people, who accused her of collaboration with the Germans. The German Emperor, Wilhelm II, was also Alexandra’s first cousin. Ironically, one of the few things that Empress Alexandra and her mother-in-law Empress Maria had in common was their utter distaste for Emperor Wilhelm II. Alexandra’s sister, Irene, who was married to Kaiser Wilhelm’s brother, Heinrich, was also on the German side.
When the tsar travelled to the front line in 1915 to take personal command of the Army, he left Alexandra in charge as Regent in the capital Saint Petersburg. Her brother-in-law, Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich recorded, “When the Emperor went to war of course his wife governed instead of him.” Alexandra had no experience of government and constantly appointed and re-appointed incompetent new ministers, which meant the government was never stable or efficient. This was particularly dangerous in a war of attrition, as neither the troops nor the civilian population were ever adequately supplied. She paid attention to the self-serving advice of Rasputin, and their relationship was widely, though falsely, believed to be sexual in nature. Alexandra was the focus of ever-increasing negative rumors, and was widely believed to be a German spy at the Russian court.
During the war, there was great concern within the imperial house of the influence empress Alexandra had upon state affairs through the Tsar, and the influence Grigori Rasputin was believed to have upon her, as it was considered to provoke the public and endanger the safety of the imperial throne and the survival of the monarchy. On behalf of the imperial relatives of the Tsar, both Princess Elisabeth of Hesse and by Rhine (1864–1918) and Princess Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha had been selected to mediate and ask Empress Alexandra to banish Rasputin from court to protect her and the throne’s reputation, the former twice, but without success. In parallel, several of the Grand Dukes had tried to intervene with the Tsar, but with no more success.
During this conflict of 1916-1917, Duchess Marie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin reportedly planned a Coup d’état to depose the Tsar with the help of four regiments of the imperial guard which were to invade the Alexander Palace, force the Tsar to abdicate and replace him with his underage son under the regency of her son Kirill Vladimirovich, Grand Duke of Russia.
There are documents that support the fact that, in this critical situation, the empress dowager Maria Feodorovna was involved in a planned Coup d’état to depose her son from the throne in order to save the monarchy. The plan was reportedly for Maria to make a final ultimatum to the Tsar to banish Rasputin unless he wished for her to leave the capital, which would be the signal to unleash the coup. Exactly how she planned to replace her son is unconfirmed, but two versions are available: first, that Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich of Russia would take power in her name, and that she herself would thereafter become ruling empress; the other version claims that she and Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich of Russia would replace the Tsar with his son, the heir to the throne, Maria’s grandson Alexey, upon which Maria and Paul Alexandrovich would share power as regents during his minority. Reportedly, empress Alexandra was informed about the planned coup, and when Maria Feodorovna made the ultimatum to the Tsar, the empress convinced him to order his mother to leave the capital. Consequently, the Dowager Empress left St. Petersburg to live in the Mariyinsky Palace in Kiev the same year. She never again returned to Russia’s capital.
World War I put what proved to be unbearable burden on Imperial Russia’s government and economy, both of which were dangerously weak. Mass shortages and hunger became the daily situation for tens of millions of Russians due to the disruptions of the war economy. Fifteen million men were diverted from agricultural production to fight in the war, and the transportation infrastructure (primarily railroads) was diverted towards war use, exacerbating food shortages in the cities as available agricultural products could not be brought to urban areas. Inflation was rampant. This, combined with the food shortages and the poor performance by the Russian military in the war, generated a great deal of anger and unrest among the people in Saint Petersburg and other cities.
The decision of the tsar to take personal command of the military against advice was disastrous, as he was directly blamed for all losses. His relocation to the front, leaving the Empress in charge of the government, helped undermine the Romanov dynasty. The poor performance of the military led to rumours believed by the people that the German-born Empress was part of a conspiracy to help Germany win the war. Moreover, within several months of taking personal command of the army, the tsar replaced several capable ministers with less able men on the Empress and Rasputin’s behest; most notable among these replacements was replacing N. B. Shcherbatov with Khvostov as minister of the interior. The severe winter of 1916–17 essentially doomed Imperial Russia. Food shortages worsened and famine gripped the cities. The mismanagement and failures of the war turned the soldiers against the tsar.
By March 1917, conditions had worsened even more. Steelworkers went out on strike on 7 March, and the following day, crowds hungry for bread began rioting on the streets of St Petersburg to protest food shortages and the war. After two days of rioting, the tsar ordered the Army to restore order and on 11 March they fired on the crowd. That very same day, the Duma, the elected legislature, urged the tsar to take action to ameliorate the concerns of the people. The tsar responded by dissolving the Duma.
On 12 March soldiers sent to suppress the rioting crowds mutinied and joined the rebellion, thus providing the spark to ignite the February Revolution (like the later October Revolution of November 1917, the Russian Revolutions of 1917 get their names due to the Old Style calendar). Soldiers and workers set up the “Petrograd Soviet” of 2,500 elected deputies while the Duma declared a Provisional Government on 13 March. Alexander Kerensky was a key player in the new regime. The Duma informed the tsar that day that he must abdicate.
In an effort to put an end to the uprising in the capital, Nicholas tried to get to St Petersburg by train from army headquarters at Mogiliev. The route was blocked so he tried another way. His train was stopped at Pskov where, after receiving advice from his generals, he first abdicated the throne for himself and later, on seeking medical advice, for himself and his son the tsarevich Alexei.
Alexandra was now in a perilous position as the wife of the deposed tsar, hated by the Russian people. There were attempts made by crowds to storm the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, but the palace were successfully defended by the guards there. Eventually, however, Alexandra noticed that the guards defending the palace suddenly wore handkerchiefs around their wrists, signalling that they supported the Duma, which in effect meant that she and her children were in fact prisoners from that moment on. Alexandra and her children and household were not, however, molested in any way, and the household left to continue their everyday life as before, with the exception of the occasional power cuts.
Nicholas finally was allowed to return to the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo where he was placed under arrest with his family.
The Provisional Government formed after the revolution kept Nicholas, Alexandra, and their children confined in house arrest in their home, the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo. They were visited by Kerensky from the government, who interviewed Alexandra regarding her involvement in state affairs and Rasputin’s involvement in them through his influence over her. She answered that as she and her spouse kept no secrets from each other, they often discussed politics and she naturally gave him advice to support him; as for Rasputin, he had been a true holy man of God, and his advice had been only in the interest of the good of Russia and the imperial family. After the interview, Kerensky told the tsar that he believed that Alexandra had told him the truth and was not lying.
The Provisional Government did not wish to keep the family in Russia, particularly as both the family as well as the Provincial Government were under threat from the Bolsheviks; they trusted that the former tsar and his family would be received in Great Britain, and made sure inquiries were being made. Despite the fact he was a first cousin of both Nicholas and Alexandra, George V refused to allow them and their family permission to evacuate to the United Kingdom, as he was alarmed by their unpopularity in his country and the potential repercussions to his own throne. After this, they were suggested to be moved to France; however, although the French government was never asked, British diplomats in France reported that the family was not likely to be welcome there, as anti-German feelings were strong in France during the war and Alexandra was widely unpopular because she was believed to be a sympathizer of Germany. The Provincial Government was reportedly very disappointed that no foreign state seemed to be willing to receive the family, and was forced to act and relocate them within Russia, as the security situation was becoming more and more difficult.
In August 1917, the family were moved to Tobolsk in Siberia, a step by the Kerensky government designed to remove them from the capital and possible harm. Nicholas and Alexandra had themselves suggested to be moved to the Livadia Palace in the Crimea, but Kerensky deemed this to be too dangerous, as they would have to travel through Central Russia, an area which was at the time full of riots were the upper classes were attacked by the public and their mansions burned. Tobolsk in Siberia was, in contrast to Central and Southern Russia, a calm and peaceful place with greater security and more sympathy for the former tsar. There were indications that they Provincial Government were actually attempting to transporting them out of Russia by the Trans-Siberian Railway, thus fulfilling the government’s wish to have them expelled, but now in a different route, after the first attempt to exile them to Europe had failed. However, this plan was not revealed to the family, and if it had indeed been the intent of the government, it had to be cancelled because of a strong Bolshevik presence in Jekaterinburg and other cities along the Railway Easter of Tobolsk, and the family therefore continued to their official destination.
From Tobolsk, Alexandra managed to send a letter to her sister-in-law, Xenia Alexandrovna, in the Crimea,
“My darling Xenia, My thoughts are with you, how magically good and beautiful everything must be with you – you are the flowers. But it is indescribably painful for the kind motherland, I cannot explain. I am glad for you that you are finally with all your family as you have been apart. I would like to see Olga in all her new big happiness. Everybody is healthy, but myself, during the last 6 weeks I experience nerve pains in my face with toothache. Very tormenting …
We live quietly, have established ourselves well [in Tobolsk] although it is far, far away from everybody, But God is merciful. He gives us strength and consolation …”
Alexandra and her family remained in Tobolsk until after the Bolshevik Revolution in November 1917. The fall of the Provincial Government and the Bolshevik’s accession to power greatly worsened their position.
In 1918, they were subsequently moved to Bolshevik controlled Yekaterinburg. Nicholas, Alexandra and their daughter Maria arrived at the Ipatiev House on 30 April 1918. On entering their new prison, they were ordered to open all their luggage. Alexandra immediately objected. Nicholas tried to come to her defence saying, “So far we have had polite treatment and men who were gentlemen but now -” The former Tsar was quickly cut off. The guards informed him he was no longer at Tsarskoe Selo and that refusal to comply with their request would result in his removal from the rest of his family; a second offence would be rewarded with hard labour. Fearing for her husband’s safety, Alexandra quickly gave in and allowed the search. On the window frame of what was to be her last bedroom in the Ipatiev House, Alexandra scrawled a swastika, her favourite good luck symbol, and pencilled the date 17/30 April 1918. In May, the rest of the family arrived in Yekaterinburg. They had not been able to travel earlier due to the illness of Alexei. Alexandra was pleased to be reunited with her family once more.
Seventy-five men did guard duty at the Ipatiev House. Many of the men were factory workers from the local Zlokazovsky Factory and the Verkh-Isetsk Factory. The commandant of the Ipatiev House, Alexander Avadeyev was described as “a real Bolshevik”. The majority of witnesses recall him as coarse, brutish and a heavy drinker. If a request for a favour on behalf of the family reached Avadeyev, he always gave the same response, “Let them go to hell!!” The guards in the house often heard him refer to the deposed tsar as “Nicholas the Blood-Drinker” and to Alexandra as “The German Bitch”.
For the Romanovs, life at the Ipatiev House was a nightmare of uncertainty and fear. The Imperial Family never knew if they would still be in the Ipatiev House from one day to the next or if they might be separated or killed. The privileges allowed to them were few. For an hour each afternoon they could exercise in the rear garden under the watchful eye of the guards. Alexei could still not walk, and his sailor Nagorny had to carry him. Alexandra rarely joined her family in these daily activities. Instead she spent most of her time sitting in a wheelchair, reading the Bible or the works of St. Seraphim. At night the Romanovs played cards or read; they received little mail from the outside world, and the only newspapers they were allowed were outdated editions.
Dmitri Volkogonov and other Soviet historians believe that indirect evidence indicates that Vladimir Lenin personally ordered the execution of the Imperial Family, although official Soviet accounts place the responsibility for the decision with the Ural Regional Soviet. Leon Trotsky, in his diary, makes it quite clear that the assassination took place on the authority of Lenin. Trotsky wrote,
“My next visit to Moscow took place after the fall of Ekaterinburg. Talking to Sverdlov I asked in passing, “Oh yes, and where is the tsar?” “It’s all over,” he answered. “He has been shot.” “And where is his family?” “And the family with him.” “All of them?” I asked, apparently with a touch of surprise. “All of them,” replied Sverdlov. “What about it?” He was waiting to see my reaction. I made no reply. “And who made the decision?” I asked. “We decided it here. Ilyich (Lenin) believed that we shouldn’t leave The Whites a live banner to rally around, especially under the present difficult circumstances.”
On 4 July 1918, Yakov Yurovsky, the chief of the Ekaterinburg Cheka, was appointed commandant of the Ipatiev House. Yurovsky was a loyal Bolshevik, a man Moscow could rely on to carry out its orders regarding The Imperial Family. Yurovsky quickly tightened security. From The Imperial Family he collected all of their jewellery and valuables. These he placed in a box which he sealed and left with the prisoners. Alexandra kept only two bracelets which her uncle, Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, had given her as a child and which she could not take off. He did not know that the former tsarina and her daughters wore concealed on their person diamonds, emeralds, rubies and ropes of pearls. These would be discovered only after the murders. Yurovsky had been given the order for the murder on 13 July.
On Sunday, 14 July 1918, two priests came to the Ipatiev House to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. One of the priests, Father Storozhev later recalled, “I went into the living room first, then the deacon and Yurovsky. At the same time Nicholas and Alexandra entered through the doors leading into the inner room. Two of his daughters were with him. I did not have a chance to see exactly which ones. I believe Yurovsky asked Nicholas Alexandrovich, “Well, are you all here?” Nicholas Alexandrovich answered firmly, “Yes, all of us.” Ahead beyond the archway, Alexandra Feodorovna was already in place with two daughters and Alexei Nicolaievich. He was sitting in a wheelchair and wore a jacket, as it seemed to me, with a sailor’s collar. He was pale, but not so much as at the time of my first service. In general he looked more healthy. Alexandra Feodorovna also had a healthier appearance. …According to the liturgy of the service it is customary at a certain point to read the prayer, “Who Resteth with the Saints.” On this occasion for some reason the deacon, instead of reading the prayer began to sing it, and I as well, somewhat embarrassed by this departure from the ritual. But we had secretly begun to sing when I heard the members of the Romanov family, standing behind me, fall on their knees …”
Tuesday, 16 July 1918 passed normally for the former imperial family. At four o’clock in the afternoon, Nicholas and his daughters took their usual walk in the small garden. Early in the evening Yurovsky sent away the fifteen-year-old kitchen boy Leonid Sedinev, saying that his uncle wished to see him. At 7 p.m., Yurovsky summoned all the Cheka men into his room and ordered them to collect all the revolvers from the outside guards. With twelve heavy military revolvers lying before him on the table he said, “Tonight, we shoot the entire family, everybody.” Upstairs Nicholas and Alexandra passed the evening playing bezique; at ten thirty, they went to bed.
The former tsar and tsaritsa and all of their family, including the gravely ill Alexei, along with several family servants, were executed by firing squad and bayonets in the basement of the Ipatiev House, where they had been imprisoned, early in the morning of 17 July 1918, by a detachment of Bolsheviks led by Yakov Yurovsky. In the basement room of the Ipatiev House, Alexandra complained about how there were no chairs, therefore Nicholas asked for and received three chairs from the guards. Minutes later, at about 2:15 a.m., a squad of soldiers, each armed with a revolver, entered the room. Their leader Yurovsky ordered all the party to stand; Alexandra complied “with a flash of anger”, and Yurovsky then casually pronounced, “Your relations have tried to save you. They have failed and we must now shoot you.” Nicholas rose from his chair and only had time to utter “What…?” before he was shot several times, not (as is usually said) in the head, but in the chest; his skull bears no bullet wounds, but his ribs were shattered by at least three fatal bullet wounds. Standing about six feet from the gunmen and facing them, Alexandra watched the murder of her husband and two menservants before military commissar Peter Ermakov took aim at her. She instinctively turned away from him and began to make the sign of the cross, but before she could finish the gesture, Ermakov killed her with a single gunshot which, as she had partly turned away, entered her head just above the left ear and exited at the same spot above her right ear. After all the victims had been shot, Ermakov in a drunken haze stabbed Alexandra’s body and that of her husband, shattering both their rib cages and chipping some of Alexandra’s vertebrae.
After the execution of the Romanov family in the Ipatiev House, Alexandra’s body, along with Nicholas, their children and some faithful retainers who died with them, was stripped and the clothing burnt according to the Yurovsky Note. Initially the bodies were thrown down a disused mine-shaft at Ganina Yama, 12 miles (19 km) north of Yekaterinburg. A short time later, the bodies were retrieved. Their faces were smashed and the bodies, dismembered and disfigured with sulphuric acid, were hurriedly buried under railway sleepers with the exception of two of the children whose bodies were not discovered until 2007. The missing bodies were those of a daughter—Maria or Anastasia—and Alexei. In the early 1990s, following the fall of the Soviet Union, the bodies of the majority of the Romanovs were located along with their loyal servants, exhumed and formally identified. A secret report by Yurovsky, which came to light in the late 1970s, but did not become public knowledge until the 1990s, helped the authorities to locate the bodies. Preliminary results of genetic analysis carried out on the remains of a boy and a young woman believed to belong to Nicholas II’s son and heir Alexei, and daughter Anastasia or Maria were revealed on 22 January 2008. The Ekaterinburg region’s chief forensic expert said, “Tests conducted in Yekaterinburg and Moscow allowed DNA to be extracted from the bones, which proved positive,” Nikolai Nevolin said. “Once the genetic analysis has been completed in Russia, its results will be compared with test results from foreign experts.” Nevolin said the final results would be published in April or May 2008. Certainty about the remains would definitively put an end to the claim that Anna Anderson could be connected with the Romanovs, as all remaining bodies would be accounted for.
DNA analysis represented a key means of identifying the bodies. A blood sample from The Duke of Edinburgh (a grandson of Alexandra’s oldest sister, Princess Victoria of Hesse and by Rhine) was employed to identify Alexandra and her daughters through their mitochondrial DNA. They belonged to Haplogroup H (mtDNA). Nicholas was identified using DNA obtained from, among others, his late brother Grand Duke George Alexandrovich of Russia. Grand Duke George had died of tuberculosis in the late 1890s and was buried in the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg.
Alexandra, Nicholas and 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, with much ceremony, on the eightieth anniversary of the execution.
In 2000, Alexandra was canonized as a passion bearer, by the Russian Orthodox Church together with her husband Nicholas II, their children and others including her sister Grand Duchess Elizabeth and the Grand Duchess’ fellow nun Varvara.