Posts Tagged ‘Russian royal family’

The Crowned Romanovs, Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna, 1896 image

On May 26, 1896, the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II was held in Moscow. Four days later, the traditional public festival was to be held at a field five miles north of the city. At the invitation of the new tsar, every Russian was welcome.  As Tsar Nicholas II was the absolute ruler of 1/6 of the earth and more than 120 million people, many people were expected. (3) All were promised free food, beer, gifts, and entertainment.  The tsar himself was to appear at the central pavillion to watch the parade and greet his people.

The Khodynka Program of Events

Khodynka Field was the site selected for the popular celebration because it was the only place large enough to contain the expected crowd. However, Khodynka Field was not a natural fairground; it was a training ground for troops of the Moscow garrison. The field was crisscrossed by a network of shallow trenches used for moving troops and artillery and pitted with holes. Therefore, in preparation for the festival, wooden stalls, reviewing stands, and entertainment stages had to be built as well as bridges to span the enormous ditches. Barricades – really just skimpy wooden railings – protected the site from the crowds.

Khodynka Field is being prepared for the May 26, 1896, post coronation celebration for Russian Tsar Nicholas II.

Thrilled by the coronation and excited by the prospect of the carnival to be held at Khodynka Field, the people were “stirred up and restive.” (1) The night before, thousands thronged to the area and camped out in the open, waiting for dawn, when the turnstiles would open and they could enter the fairgrounds. As the group waited, a rumor began to spread

that there would not be enough gifts or food to go around. They had been promised sausage, bread rolls, sweets, nuts, gingerbread and a precious keepsake – a pink enamel mug bearing the arms of the city of Moscow and the words “In memory of the Holy Coronation,” all wrapped together in a colored kerchief stamped with the tsar and tsarina’s pictures.” (1)

More and more people came. There was much jostling and crowding. “The crush was so great a bullet could not have slipped through.” (2) Over the course of the night, made anxious by rumors of shortages, people pushed toward the barricades that guarded the entrance to the fairground in order to be the first in line when the gates opened.

It was sometime just before dawn when the barricades fell. The crowd surged forward, stampeding onto the meadow, rushing toward the food stalls. The patrol of 100 mounted Cossacks could not even begin to control the “mass of people half a million strong.” Khodynka Field, with its open trenches, became a deathtrap:

People by the thousands fell in a ditch and ended standing literally on their heads at the bottom. Others fell straight after them and more, and more….” (1)

Others, knocked down in the pandemonium, were trampled to death or mutilated by the incessant forward motion of the crowd. In minutes, Khodynka Field resembled a  battlefield, strewn with carnage. People were fainting,  gasping for air, vomiting, writhing, screaming, bleeding, lying dead or dying. Thousands were wounded, over 1300 were dead.

Trampled bodies cover Khodynka Field prior to the post-coronation celebration of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, May 30, 1896.

Russians standing in the Khodynka Field in the aftermath of the riot that killed over 1300 Russians, May 30, 1896.

By 10:30 a.m., Tsar Nicholas II was told of the Khodynka catastrophe. He was shocked and sorrowful. Out of respect to the victims, his first inclination was to cancel the day’s activities which included not only his appearance at the Khodynka Field but a ball at the French embassy. But he gave into his advisors, his uncles, and kept to the official schedule.  After all, France was Russia’s only European ally, he was reminded, and Russia could not afford to offend France. Besides, to adorn the ball, the French government had gone to great lengths, sending priceless tapestries and treasures of silver plate from Paris and Versaillles, along with 100,000 roses from the south of France. (3)

So the day went forward as planned. Bodies were carted off from the Khodynka Field where the tsar made his traditional appearance as if nothing had happened.

The celebration at Khodynka Field, parades and all, went on, despite the morning's carnage.

The French “ball was opened by the Majesties dancing a quadrille,” said the Minister of Finance.

The "Coronation Cup" given away at the Khodynka Field post-coronation celebration for Tsar Nicholas II. It has come to be known as the "Cup of Sorrows," commemorating the tragedy of 1300 people trampled to death that day in May of 1896.

Outward appearances aside, both the tsar and tsarina were deeply affected by the events at Khodynka. They visited the wounded in the hospitals. They paid for the burial of the dead. From the Tsar’s private purse, each victim’s family was remunerated. But no act of kindness could erase the terrible event from the Russian national consciousness. Many felt that the Khodynka Field Massacre was an omen that the reign of Tsar Nicholas II would not be a happy one. The tsar earned the nickname “Bloody Nicholas.”

Russian Empress Alexandra with her firstborn, daughter Olga, in 1896.

Secretly, throughout those long and difficult days, Empress Alexandra, the tsarina,  had been expecting a child, her second after Olga. After the Khodynka tragedy, the Empress was greatly distressed and suffered a miscarriage.  The lost baby was a boy, who, had he lived, would have become the male heir in line for the Russian throne, the boy everyone was clamoring for Alexandra to give birth to.

1897 photo of Russian Revolutionary Leon Trotsky, born Lew Dawidowich Bronstein

Shortly after Khodynka, Leon Trotsky began his Marxist political activity against Imperial Russia.  Bread and circuses would not longer pacify the tsar’s people. The revolution had begun.

 (1) Erickson, Carolly. Alexandra: The Last Tsarina. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001.

(2) Radzinsky, Edward. The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

(3) Massie, Robert K. Nicholas and Alexandra. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1967.

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Tsar Nicholas II of Russia

The reign of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia (1894-1918) was doomed from the start. To begin with, “Nicky” never wanted to succeed his father as tsar. So when his 49-year-old father, Tsar Alexander III, died suddenly in November 1894, thrusting him onto the throne,  Nicky was ill-disposed to rule. Instead of grabbing the reins of power, Nicky, 26, was consumed by grief. He wrote of his late father:

“It was the death of a saint! Lord, help us in these terrible days!” 


Shown here with his wife Marie, Tsar Alexander III of Russia was built like a peasant. Tall and hulking, his huge body swayed when he walked. Within the palace walls, he privately dressed like a lowly laborer, wearing baggy trousers, soft blousy shirts, and a sheepskin jacket. He wore his clothes until the seams ripped only to turn around and have them patched by his royal valet. He possessed the strength of Hercules, able to bend a solid silver ruble using only his thumb.

Nicky could not collect his thoughts and act – and action was desperately needed. His first actions as tsar would set the tone of his reign. The Russian people – some of whom had been dangerously agitating for the abolition of the monarchy – needed to be told of the passing of the tsar. A funeral needed to be planned. Ministers needed to be consulted, meetings held.

Pressing as these matters were, Nicholas attended to none of them. Swallowed up in self-pity, he openly bemoaned his fate as the new tsar, pathetically begging others to help him.  So lost was he in his own personal fugue that he consoled neither his mother nor his sisters.  Sinking under the crushing weight of his weakness, he hid in the comfort of his fiance, Princess Alix of Hesse, and did nothing.

The German princess Alix of Hesse, engaged to Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. She was his rock.

Meanwhile,  Mother Nature was on the move.  The tsar’s corpse, still in the Livadia Palace on the Black Sea, stank horribly and had to be carried by Nicky and his uncles out of the house and into “a little corner” where it could be embalmed. Strangely,

the face of the dead tsar, which was turning black with corruption, appeared to be smiling, as if it were about to laugh”

at his firstborn son’s idiocy. Tsar Alexander had wanted to pass on the crown to his second son, Michael, whom he considered the only one of the three imperial sons to possess the self-confidence of one born to rule. The old tsar knew that his son Nicky was soft and easily swayed by others.

Alas, Nicky’s weaknesses would be his – and his family’s – downfall.

Source:  Erickson, Carolly. Alexandra: The Last Tsarina. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001

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1896 Coronation of Nicholas II and Alexandra Fyodorovna. 1898, Laurits Tuxen

On May 26, 1896, Nicholas and Alexandra were crowned Tsar and Tsarina of Russia in the Uspenski Cathedral in Moscow.  It was one of the most magnificent pageants in Russian history. Over 7,000 guests from across the globe, including most of Europe’s royalty, attended. The celebrations lasted for two weeks.

The newly-crowned Romanov Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna, 1896

At Easter 1897, Tsar Nicholas II presented his wife with a fabulous Easter egg to commemorate the coronation.

Faberge's Coronation Egg (1897)

Nicholas was in the habit of giving his wife an Imperial Easter egg every year. But the Coronation Egg (1897) was larger and more lavish than any before. The surface was enameled primrose yellow in a field of starbursts. Trellised with bands of laurel made of gold, each intersection was marked by Imperial eagles bearing tiny diamonds on their chests.

Created by the court jeweler, Peter Carl Faberge, the exquisitely handcrafted egg had a tiny surprise inside:

a precise reproduction – under 4 inches long – of the 18th Century coach that carried Alexandra to her coronation.”

Faberge's Coronation Egg (1897): The Surprise

Working all day and into the night, seven days a week, it took approximately 15 months just to handcraft the carriage!  It was barely finished in time to be presented to the Empress. (1)

Close-up of the miniature carriage from the Faberge Coronation Egg

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Peterhof Palace, St. Petersburg, Russia

They first met at the 1884 wedding of his uncle to her sister. She called him Nicky; he called her “Alix” or “Sunny.”  Although Alix was only 12, she knew at that moment that Nicky was “The One.” It was on this occasion she carved their names on the window of the Peterhof Palace.

Alix of Hesse as a young girl ca. 1878

After the wedding, Alix bid her sister and Nicky goodbye, returning to the Darmstadt Palace in Germany which was her home. Alix was a royal princess.

Alix of Hesse ca. 1888

Young Nicholas II of Russia, before he ascended the throne in 1894

Five more years would pass before Princess Alix would return to Russia and see Nicky again. During that visit, the two fell even more deeply in love. Nicky was determined to make Alix his bride.

But Nicky’s parents wouldn’t hear of Nicky marrying a German princess. They hated Germans as did almost every Russian. But Nicky’s parents weren’t just any Russians.  Nicky’s parents were the Romanov rulers of Russia: Tsar Alexander III and Tsarina Marie Feodorovna . They were the Royal Emperor and Empress. Nicky – Nicholas Alexandrovich- being their oldest son – was the Tsarevitch – the heir to the Russian throne.

Alix returned to Germany.

Princess Alix of Hesse, seated, prepares for her first ball. 1889.

More years passed. Love letters written in English flew back and forth between the lovesick pair.

Meanwhile, Nicky carried on a torrid and scandalous three-year affair with the famous Russian ballerina, Mathilda Kschessinska.

Mathilde Kschessinska (1872-1971)

Nevertheless, Nicky’s heart still belonged to Alix.  He 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.”

Nicky’s parents continued to wage a fierce campaign to find Nicky a suitable bride. The Tsar hoped to land a bigger catch for his son than Princess Alix (even though she was his godchild!), parading a series of royal princesses in front of his son. But Nicky stood firmly against each proposed match, declaring flat out to his folks that he’d become a monk rather than marry anyone ugly and boring when he could have the tall and lovely blue-eyed beauty Princess Alix as his wife and royal consort.

Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom comforts her German granddaughters, the Princesses of Hesse; left to right, Victoria, Ella, and, the youngest, Alix. Their mother, Princess Alice, had just died. Alice was Victoria's second daughter.

Meanwhile, alone in Germany, Alix was equally resolute to marry Nicky, doing her own bit in  turning down royal suitors. She even stood up to her domineering grandmother, Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, when the Queen tried to marry her off to her grandson, the Duke of Clarence. Alix declined to marry the Duke stating to “Granny” that she did not love him. Victoria – notorious for her royal matchmaking – surprisingly

“was proud of Alix for standing up to her, something many people, including her own son, the Prince of Wales did not do.”

For five years, Tsar Alexander III had stood firmly against his son’s wishes. But, in 1894, he became ill and relented, the couple announcing their engagement in April of 1894.

1894 official engagement photo of Princess Alix of Hesse (later Alexandra Feodorovna) and Tsarevitch Nicholas (later Tsar) of Russia

Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt and by Rhine & Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich, London, 1894

Alix, as a requirement for the engagement, converted from Lutheranism to the Russian Orthodox religion and took the Russian name “Alexandra Feodorovna” to strengthen her appeal to the Russian people. Nicholas and Alexandra planned a spring 1895 wedding.

But their plans were thrown in disarray by Alexander’s sudden death in November and Nicholas’s subsequent ascension to the throne as His Imperial Majesty, Tsar Nicholas II. Nicholas insisted that the wedding date be moved forward, as he wanted Alix by his side to help him rule. They married a swift three weeks later. He was 26.  Alix, now called Empress Alexandra,was 22.

Wedding of Russian Emperor Nicholas II (1868-1918) and Grand Princess Alexandra Fedorovna (1872-1918) by Laurits Tuxen, 1895

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