Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Victoria’s Grandchildren: Empress Alexandra of Russia

Along with Kaiser Wilhelm, Empress Alexandra of Russia is probably the most famous of Queen Victoria’s grandchildren...as well as one of the most tragic.

She was born in Darmstadt on June 6, 1872, the sixth child of Princess Alice and Grand Duke Louis of Hesse, and christened Victoria Alix Helena Louisa Beatrice (though her family nicknames were Alicky or Sunny, because of her cheerful disposition). The Hesse household was a close one; Princess Alice was a loving, involved mother who paid close attention to her children’s upbringing...until tragedy struck in 1878, when diphtheria raged through the ducal house, killing Alicky’s younger sister Marie...and her mother as well. Six year old Sunny underwent a radical personality change as a result, becoming withdrawn and brooding and able to relax only with her closest family members.

Louis loved his children, but he was a soldier and could not replicate his late wife’s care. So the Hesse children began to spend a great deal of time in England at their grandmother’s or various aunts and uncles’ houses. The Queen took a deep interest in their lives, minutely directing their education and upbringing. The Hesse girls grew to be attractive young woman, especially Alix, who drew the matrimonial attention of not only her cousin, the Duke of Clarence (and son of Bertie, Prince of Wales) but also of Ferdinand of Roumania. Both were refused, for Alix was in love with yet another cousin, Nicholas, Tsarevitch of Russia.

But when Nicky proposed, Alix refused, for marrying him would mean converting to the Russian Orthodox church and giving up her Lutheran faith. She suffered agonies of conscience, madly in love yet unable to say yes, until at her brother’s wedding in 1894, with most of the crowned heads of Europe gathered for the event, she relented. Alix and Nicky married just months later, following the death of Nicky’s father, Tsar Alexander III. The orphaned princess from a tiny German principality became Empress of Russia at the age of 22...and took the first steps on the road that would lead to tragedy 23 years later.

Life was difficult for Alix; she remained painfully shy and withdrawn in a country that admired showmanship and appearance. She kept as isolated as she could from the free-wheeling, licentious court and encouraged Nicky to withdraw too, absorbing herself in her children and a small number of trusted friends and, increasingly (and ironically in light of her initial reluctance) in religion. Nicky, kindly but almost painfully weak-willed, followed her lead. Multiple pregnancies (not only the birth of her four daughters and son, but miscarriages as well) undermined her health, and in time she became a semi-invalid, shutting herself away from public view (much as Queen Victoria had after Prince Albert’s death. Coincidence?) Her melancholy nature led her to the mystical end of the Orthodox church; the hemophilia of her long-awaited son pushed her further into withdrawal and religion, including her reliance on an uncouth peasant priest named Grigori Rasputin, who had an uncanny ability to ease her hemophiliac son’s suffering.

Unfortunately, the deteriorating political situation in Russia inspired her to encourage her husband to take a stand and oppose those of his ministers who wanted to curtail imperial powers and introduce some degree of democracy into government. The outbreak of World War I rang the death peal of many monarchies in Europe, Russia’s included. Nicholas abdicated in March 1917, making his younger brother Michael the actual last Tsar. The royal family were placed under house arrest; a plan to send them to a life of exile in England was discussed, nothing came of it. They were shuffled from one place to another as differing faction battled for control of Russia; in the fall the Bolsheviks gained the upper hand. Nicky and Alix were temporarily separated from their family, but reunited with them several weeks later near the city of Ekaterinburg. Their living conditions grew grimmer with each move; by the time of their stay in Ekaterinburg, they had little left and only a servant or two willing to stay with them.

In July 1918, with different factions still struggling for power in Russia, the Bolsheviks who held Nicky and Alix and their family decided that they were too dangerous to be left alive. The entire family—22 year old Olga, 20 year old Tatiana, 19 year old Marie, 17 year old Anastasia, and 14 year old Alexei—were horribly executed in the cellar of their house...on the site of which today stands a cathedral. The devout Alix and Nicky, as well as their children, were made saints in the Orthodox Church.

No comments: