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Crowds massed in Red Square for the Coronation of Tsar Nicholas II, May 26, 1896. The Russian people were filled with coronation excitement; they were particularly enthusiastic about the public festival held four days later for the citizens. Staged in a huge meadow north of Moscow, everyone was promised free food, beer, and souvenirs.

The days preceding the coronation of Nicholas II as Russian Tsar were full of dizzying excitement. Moscow was decorated with banners proclaiming, “God Save the Tsar” and “Glory, Glory to Our Russian Tsar.” There were open air concerts with choirs singing, bells ringing, parades marching, and cannons booming – joyful noise heralding the crowning of the newest Emperor of Russia. Nicholas was from the royal House of Romanovs which had ruled Russia as tsars, or caesars, since 1614.

The festivities kept Nicholas and Alexandra feverishly busy: breakfasts for 200 guests, meetings with special foreign envoys, nightly banquets and balls, state visits and musicales, a visit to the Bolshoi Ballet (where Nicholas’ former mistress Mathilde Kchessinske was the featured dancer in the “The Pearl”).

Alexandra was exhausted from her demanding social schedule – although she tried her best not to show it. Alix was very maternal and consumed with the care of her first baby, Olga, only five months old. Unusual for the times, Alix  nursed Olga herself. She also was newly pregnant and suffering from morning sickness.

Alix was exceptionally anxious about this second pregnancy. She was under enormous pressure to produce a male heir to the Russian throne. Maybe this baby would be a boy, she prayed. Maybe that would convince her mother-in-law to like her!

Tsar Nicholas II and the Tsarina Alexandra hold their first child, Olga, born November 16, 1895. Nicholas was delighted by the birth of his first daughter but the Russian royals expressed their dissatisfaction that Alexandra had not given birth to a boy. The most vocal of the lot was Marie Feodorovna, the Dowager-Empress, Nicholas's mother. She was Alexandra's sharpest critic and fostered ugly gossip about her among the courtiers.

The Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna and her son Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, 1896. The Dowager Empress was surprised to be a widow at the age of 46, suddenly demoted from Queen of Russia. She disliked being upstaged by her daughter-in-law, Alexandra, who she considered unfit to be Empress of Russia. She had to be ordered by the court to share the Crown Jewels with Alexandra! Marie known as "Minnie" was from Denmark. She and Alexandra were polar opposites: Minnie loved court society while Alexandra preferred lying on the chaise in her Mauve Boudoir, embroidering, with her many beautiful children scattered about her.

The Russian Empire at the turn of the century was huge. The United States could be dropped into it and still leave room for China and India. When his father died in November 1894, Tsar Nicholas II became the ruler of an empire that bordered Turkey, Persia, Afghanistan, Mongolia, and China while Poland, the Baltic States, and Finland were Russian territories. More than a hundred nationalities owed allegiance to him.

Russia in 1894, the year Nicholas II became Tsar.

Due to generations of Romanovs marrying other Western royal families, Nicholas II himself was less than 100th-part Russian. Alexandra, the former Alix of Hesse, was part English, part German. The Russian people did not trust Alexandra; they thought she was a German spy and hated her English ways. (1)

Coronation day began early with the traditional procession through the streets of Moscow. Nicholas, atop his white steed, rode in first, accompanied by many cavalry squadrons, amid the peeling of thousands of church bells. Next came the carriage bearing his mother. The crowd cheered loudly as the sovereign and his mother passed by. They were both wildly adored by the Russian people.

Next in line came Alexandra’s coach. It was greeted with a

hush – an eloquent silence that stung like a blow, reducing Alexandra to tears. Silence – an ominous silence. Not open jeering, or insults, but the quiet of rejection.” (2)

The Romanovs proceed through the streets of Moscow to the Cathedral of the Assumption for the Coronation, May 26, 1896. The crowds cheered when Nicholas then his mother passed by. Ominous silence fell, however, when Empress Alexandra's coach passed by. The Russian people were suspicious of her German roots.

Sources:

(1) PBS

(2) Erickson, Carolly. Alexandra: The Last Tsarina. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

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

Readers: For more on the Russian royal family on this blog, click here.

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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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