From Russia With Love – Tsar Nicholas II and Alexandra

This week I indulge my love of Russian history as we return to the cool temperatures of St Petersburg to delve into the ill-fated love story of Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, Tsarina Alexandra…

Holly: Hello darlings and welcome back to Past Loves the weekly history podcast that explores affection, infatuation and attachment across time.

I hope that you are doing well, I am settling down into new lockdown measures at the moment so it is very lovely to be back with a love story that is very dear to me. I, for one, am very excited for this week’s episode because we are heading back to Russia and, if you don’t know already, Russian history is just my absolute favourite. Throughout my undergraduate degree whenever, whenever, I could choose a Russian history module, I was there. It was top of my list, every single time. So I have spent many an hour reading about Russian history in all of its complexity and discussing it in seminars usually sat next to my dear friend Thembi to whom really this episode should really be dedicated to, in fact it is dedicated to Thembi, because this couple was such a significant part of at least our third year of university together. But, I mean, she knows my love for this couple. She was there…the whole time.

The couple that we’re going to discuss today are my absolute favourite Russian love story because I find them incredibly compelling – I will of course be discussing the relationship between Nicholas II, Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra. 

Now, because it was their best shared language, Nicky and Alix used to correspond in English in their letters and there was a book of their letters in my university library which I just always used to have checked out – honestly I’m fairly sure that I must hold the record of how many times you can check out the same book with that one book. I was my absolute favourite and I think I’ll be always on the look out for a copy of a compilation of their letters of my own. But really the reason why I loved their letters, their correspondence, so much was because they were such an intimate insight into their lives together and you can really hear their voices. So when I spoke to Virginia Rounding recently about their story it was, as you can tell, very very close to my heart. 

Virginia is an author, editor and proofreader, specialising in Russian history and the history of women. Her book Alix and Nicky: The Passion of the Last Tsar and Tsarina recounts the dramatic story of Emperor Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra – a truly tragic love story. She uses the letters and diaries of the couple and those around them to explore their lives together, the moments and relationships that shaped the story of their family which ends with their four daughters, collectively known as OTMA (Olga, Tatiana, Maria and legendary Anastasia) and haemophiliac son Alexei in a cellar in Ekaterinburg in 1918. 

As a couple they have a truly remarkable story, and of course we will be mentioning the rather infamous Rasputin as we discuss just why the couple let him so much into their lives. Because this is a story like no other, which though it’s very sad ending, is full with the deepest sense of love for one another…

Welcome, Virginia, and thank you so much for joining me today. 

Virginia: That’s fine, nice to meet you Holly.

Holly: So today we’re gonna talk about perhaps two of my favourite people from history. So I’m very excited about this conversation. We’re going to talk about that Nicholas II and his wife, Alexandra. So we’ll talk about them as Nicky and Alix for most of the conversation, because that’s how they often described each other when they wrote to each other, so we’ll talk about them like that. And I thought that perhaps we could start with Alix, how would you describe her as a person?

Virginia: I think she was very complicated person, really hard to get to know. People who did know her, who were very few actually mainly her immediate family, were very fond of her. She could also be very frustrating because she had a huge streak of stubbornness, but she’s also very contrasting. And she was called ‘Sunny’ in her childhood, for some reason, obviously, she because she was sunny. But for people who met her at more of a distance in later life which was practically everybody who met her, found her aloof, cold. She was actually a nervous person, very socially ill at ease in social settings, and whenever she was called upon to perform, I suppose. I think she’d be fascinating to meet. It would be hard to get to know her and there would always be the fear that you might say something that upset her. I think probably she’s had a bit of a hard deal in history, too, because I think we would, in the 21st Century, we would be a lot more sympathetic to her mental health problems, and her genuine physical problems, tended to be in her time was dismissed as a hysterical woman. 

Holly: So you mentioned that she was referred to as Sunny and that came about in her childhood very early on. What was her childhood like and who are her parents? 

Virginia: Her parents came from a small, what was called small German fort I suppose, in Darmstadt, a much smaller environments to be bought up in for what she then had to deal with in the Russian court. But still it was minor Royals who had descended from Victoria on her mother’s side, and several children. And part of it you get a sense of a small, happy family, but they were beset by tragedy all the time. That was the background pretty soon to Alix’s childhood. She was called Aliki often as a little girl and you do get to sense in photographs of this pretty, sweet, little girl who everybody adored, but behind it there’s always this somewhat dur sense of a sort of vengeful fate in a way I suppose. And her mother was very, very upright, very committed to good works, hard to live up I think. So there’s the dark in the light the whole time. 

Holly: Absolutely. She was very young when her mother died and her sister died at the same time, didn’t she? What happened there? 

Virginia: They both died of diphtheria. There was a pandemic of it and Alix’s mother was actually nursing the little girl and caught it from her. She was nursing all her children but she died. But even before that there was the family tragedy when Alix was a baby of her brother, Frittie, who aged 2 accidentally fell out of the window. It was only on the first floor but it turned out he had haemophilia which ran through the family and he died from this fall a few hours later and her mother never got over that – I mean can you imagine it? That she was actually in the room and she looked away for a while.

Holly: I know, shocking.

Virginia: Absolutely awful and it affected all of then even the baby as she grew up, that awful sense of guilt that was often not verbalised but there in the background, sadly. And then, her mother herself dying, and her sister May just added to the business. The fragility in life that it could suddenly be taken away from you.

Holly: Yeah, and then once her mother did die, her grandmother, Queen Victoria quite significantly stepped in. How did Queen Victoria form Alix’s outlook on life and her role within the royal household?

Virginia: I think Victoria influence is amazingly significant. From one perspective, she was a loving grandmother who took these children under her wing, and more or less left out the influence of Louis their father, Victoria was going to be in charge and she happened to stay a lot. She was a very significant presence. Of course, she had certain attitudes that worked for her as Queen and she sort of put then on to their grandchildren. And Alix was very influenced by Victoria and then she took certain attitudes she’d learnt from Victoria into her later life and they didn’t work so well. What one knows about Victoria, I think maybe she underlined or encouraged Alix’s obstinacy, because she had a very clear sense of her own rights as a monarch, and passed these on, and the sense of being responsible for other people. I mean she would have been horrified to hear that because she felt great responsibility but, on the other hand, when she was mourning Prince Albert, she made such a to-do about it and wouldn’t come out of retirement and actually sort of sucked darkness into everybody else around her, I think both in terms of carrying on the sense of always being in mourning for the perfect person that’s lost, whether it’s consort Albert, or Alix’s mother, Alice, they’re sort of set up as icons. So there’s that sense and then also this, ‘you don’t need to worry about what your subjects if you feel ill poor girl go to bed.’ So she treated her granddaughter like she treated herself, putting herself in the first place, not having a sense of what we now call PR. ‘Well, how do I look to my people, if I spent my entire time locked in my bedroom, feeling safe?’ So she never pushed Alix out of her comfort zone, and the way that they encouraged one another to adopt long-term minor aliments or they way to cope with then was to indulge yourself. She wasn’t of course at all keen on Alix marrying into the Russian royal family. She did have a sense that it was not the safest thing to do. 

Holly: So it was when Alix was 12 in 1884 that she first met Nicky, how and when did they meet? 

Virginia: They met when Alix went to the wedding of their eldest sister Ella to Nicholas’s uncle Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich and so they met as cousins, as young people within different branches of a great royal, imperial family. She on the much lesser side of it and they see…well they talk about almost immediately being attracted to one another. Of course, at a time, it was a 16 and a 12 year old so it was a sort of playful relationship. No immediate great romance, but certainly a spark there right from the start.

Holly: Yes, I think Nicky started referring to her as pretty little Alix which is a testament to what’s happening in the future, because it’s another five years before they meet each other again, isn’t it? 

Virginia: Yeah but they stay in each other’s minds all that time. Of course it would be that they knew they had to make a good marriage at some point and very probably within a particular circle and so even when meeting as children, as young people, there’d be those uncles and aunts looking on and thinking ‘I wonder about that’ or not and so that would always be sort of subliminally…certainly they continued to think about each other.

Holly: Yeah, and then Alix went to St. Petersburg, didn’t she? 

Virginia: Yes she did and they developed more of an attraction to one another then. And Nicky, he certainly had a fling or two in his youth but never seemed interested in marrying anybody else. Alix seems to be the one for him. 

Holly: He calls it ‘his dearest dream to marry her,’ doesn’t he, which is very sweet. 

Virginia: I mean I don’t think he was quite as stubborn as Alix, but again he did have a very firm…once he’d set his mind on something, he tended to go for it although it might not look quite obvious that that was what he was doing.

The official engagement photograph

Holly: So there was one big, significant obstacle to their getting engaged. What was that?

Virginia: It was the difference in religion. I mean, it may not seem to us a huge thing, though actually to Orthodox people it probably still would. Alix was a Protestant Lutheran because that was what the dominant denomination where she grew up, and indeed Nicholas was the heir to the throne of the Russian Empire, which was firmly Orthodox because those were the three things that went together orthodoxy, autocracy, and the fatherland. So it was absolutely vital and it was part of the law of the land that his bide must be Orthodox too. Now to someone who cared less about religion and integrity than Alix did, that might not be an insuperable obstacle. When one thinks back to Catherine the Great, for instance, who went on the same trajectory, but with very different ends in view, wanting to dominate. She managed to make that transition from Lutheranism to Orthodoxy with no apparent difficulty. But she would write to her father ‘oh, there’s really no difference at all. They will do the same thing and it’s just a question of firm.’ But actually, there are doctrinal differences and they could overcome. But to Alix, it was such an important part of her sense of self, that the idea of making that change and becoming Orthodox, which involves rejecting former. We might see it as all Christian, certainly, when you become Orthodox, you reject heresies and you do that overtly and that includes every other form of Christianity. So it would have been a big thing to be asked to do. Though her sister had done it, explained it to her, and she had praised people’s to instruct her or to talk about it to her. She couldn’t do it for some time. I think partly is given that sort of self-punishing aspect of her character that runs all the way through and goes from childhood. So she did find it very difficult and Nicky found her opposition difficult because he couldn’t quite understand it. He was also a firm believer, and so to him, why would you not become become Orthodox? I’m not asking to become a heathen. It’s a wonderful tradition to be part of.

Holly: Yeah, and obviously, because it’s a royal marriage, there was a lot of discussion on both sides of the family as to whether it was a suitable match. What did Nicky’s parents think? And then what did Alix’s family, her father and her sister, think? 

Virginia: Her sister would certainly have welcomed the company, to go down the same track as she did. I don’t think she saw any major obstacle to it. She thought she did what she did. Victoria had her doubts about losing her granddaughter to this great Russian Empire, and what that might mean for the future and how stable it was or not. Nicky’s parents were not convinced. I mean, they thought there were other princesses. But he managed to overlook them. He was determined so they weren’t going to stand in the way of his desire.

Holly: No, he doesn’t talk about the other princesses in a very nice way. 

Virginia: There were certainly doubts around it but they weren’t overwhelmingly strong, I think other people hadn’t seen that much of her really, that she wasn’t going to fit in. A lot of the marriages around that time he fell between two stools. It was no longer the tradition so much for people to be told who to marry. So, the heir to the throne – again, going back a couple of centuries to Catherine the Great, she arranged the marriages of her sons of course. It had changed from then. Though there might be doubts by various Grand Dukes, they wouldn’t actually stop him. 

Holly: So how did they finally get engaged? How was Alix finally persuaded?

Virginia: It’s hard to say. Various people joined in persuading her. They’d gone to Coburg for another wedding, again within the family, and one of the troubles was that Alix was becoming aware she would be pretty much left on her own because her elder brother Ernie had just married somebody they called Ducky, again, within the collection of royals. So she was going to lose her place as his sort of…well housekeeper is putting it too bluntly, but his companion in formal things. So I think at the back of her mind there was that sense. Then very soon her family joined in, at this event of Ducky’s marriage, they were all there. So her cousin, William, Willie, the later famous Kaiser joined in trying to persuade her. So there was quite a big family pressure on her to cave in and actually, she wanted to in her heart of hearts. She did love Nicky. And I think I didn’t put that on her head. Nobody really does. But there may have been some sense, ‘Well, if I don’t agree now, I’m going to lose him and I’m going to loose everybody.’ And so she managed somehow to make that renunciation of what she felt and said yes and everyone was very happy. 

Holly: She sure did. She made one person in particular very happy.

Virginia: Absolutely. Yeah. He wrote back, ‘it was the most wonderful, unforgettable day in my life.’

Holly: Maybe we could talk a little bit about Nicky? How would you describe him as a person? 

Virginia: Again a complex person, more complex than sometimes he is thought of. There are those who see him as limited, unable to think outside of a particular box. But I think, I think he’s much more complicated than that, because he is a very sympathetic character. They on over and over again about his wonderful eyes, on how they make people melt. And that time in his life, as a young man, he was very much typical sort of Guards Officer of his time. He enjoyed the military aspect of his duties. He loved the sort of rollicking around with the Guards Officers about the thing – all the kind of stuff they did. So you have that very convivial, social side. He was very unwilling, petrified about ever becoming Tsar. He thought of it as something much in the future. His father, Alexander III, seemed to be a picture of health, big imposing man, quite young still and so whenever Nicky thought about becoming Tsar, it was something vague in the future and he thought maybe it’ll be alright by the time it got there. So it was not something he wanted to embrace. Like Alix he did have his stubborn side and he could deploy that to very good effect – indeed through his determination to marry her is evidence of that. It’s commented that he had a bit of an obsessive compulsive side and that they’re not the words that they used, but that’s about it. So you could read things like, he had to have everything on his desk in exactly the right place all marked out – so his cigars and his pipe and his pen and his papers, and whenever they moved from one palace to another the servants had to make sure that everything was put in the right place on the next desk. So you can see how to some people he became a bit of a figure of ridicule. But he was very sort of upright, absolutely loyal to the people that he gave his loyalty to and good to the people who gave their loyalty to him. A very good person to work for if you knew that you were on his side. It was a little more complicated later on but…so a number of tragedies made it very difficult for him because in peaceful times, or a less turbulent country, he would have been alright. He’s often compared physically with his cousin, George V. 

Holly: Yeah, I mean, they look so similar. 

Virginia: He looked like George V and George V was at least as limited, probably more so. But he survived on his throne because he didn’t have to do so much. 

Holly: You’re not in charge of everything. 

Virginia: So there Nicholas could never have got his head around the idea of constitutional monarchy in Russia.

Holly: So he looked far more like a British aristocrat than a Russian Tsar and particularly compared to his father, who was like this big proper, burly Russian man. What was his relationship like with his father? 

Virginia: Wary I think. They were very fond…well certainly he was very fond of his father. I think his father was pretty fond of him but a bit slightly with doubts. Did he quite have it in him? He was in awe of his father – how could he ever live up to him? And that sense followed him throughout life and contributed to some of his probably unwise decisions, despite the fact times have changed. So he was a very strong influence, and not all those to the good, and his father could have prepared him better. I know he didn’t expect to die young. But he didn’t train Nicholas particularly in what he was to inherit. He didn’t really involve him and explain what statecraft was and what he would have to do to rule. He just an autocrat which was of cause in reaction to his own father who’ve been liberalising, so you get a pendulum. And they somehow imagined it would carry on like that, by being very firm and not giving an inch to any other kind of ruling. 

Holly: Yeah, what kind of education did Nicky receive? 

Virginia: Fairly limited but he had tutors. He read a lot. He was a good linguist, excellent in English. But it was the education you would get if you were going to be in the Russian Imperial Army and so it never pushed him beyond his boundaries. Also, of cause, it was always confined. It was him and a tutor, maybe a cousin or two. If he’d actually gone into the universities, he’d gone to meet other young man of his age and studied with them, it could have been because he needed to be questioned. He needed to actually understand that to learn, you need to ask things. So he never was given the chance to see beyond a quite tight circle of autocracy and how things ought to be. He didn’t have his corners rubbed off, he wasn’t challenged to think, so he learnt not to particularly. I think his intelligence, and his ability to think was never developed enough. But it’s hard to say, because often one is trying to read between the lines and someone who’s very self contained and you see it, I’m sure you’re aware in his diaries. Because I you think ‘oh someone’s diary you’ll find out about them’ but it’s just like ‘got up, went for a walk.’

Holly: Yeah, in many ways, they’re incredibly dull. 

Virginia: Yeah, kind of like a lockdown diary isn’t it? Got up, went outside, came back, had a boiled egg, that kind of thing.

Holly: That’s exactly what they are. But the couple was finally able to announce their engagement in April 1894 and then they were hastily married in the November of that year, because Alexander III died. So do you think in those beginning years is it was a happy marriage? Because it seems that they were very passionate about each other.

Virginia: Yeah they were very passionate. They would have been delightfully happy if it had been just the two of them and in a way that’s kind of what they anticipated. They thought they were going to have a long engagement. The idea was that Alix would come to Russia or spend time before going to Russia learning Russian, learning about Orthodoxy, get ready and then she would come and they would still just be living just as the heir to the throne and his wife and that just didn’t happen. They were immediately propelled into this position, which they weren’t ready. Alix, because she adored Nicky, of course when he said ‘come now my father’s dying,’ no question. Of course she went and she was a support to him. It was made a huge difference to him that she was there. But he had to become Tsar straightaway. They have this…well she converted, they married and then they had the coronation and it was all pretty much condensed. Of course the coronation was a couple years later but he became Tsar. So what would have been a gradual introductory period and would have enabled arguably Alix to take up her role with a degree of confidence. She was there. She was propelled into his life. She wanted to be with Nicky all the time. He was busy, he couldn’t, he had an empire to build. He had a huge amount to take on and to learn. And he was very…whatever else he was…he fulfilled his duties. He was very, very dutiful and so if he had to work, as he did, for long hours, so they couldn’t be together nearly as much as I think Alix had anticipated. And Alix thrust into this world for which she wasn’t ready, which was so different from what she’d been used to and without people there. So Alix’s mechanism when things began to go wrong, as they quickly did – not with Nicky but with every else – to retired to her room and again, her upbringing with Victoria played into that. So I think what happened was, she was a young woman, not good at this language yet, in this court in which the Tsar who was her husband was one of the younger ones, with her uncle who was the Grand Duke looking down. She has a difficult mother-in-law. All making her feel absolutely petrified, really nervous. And Nicky too busy to actually be there to help her through that – some of the time that is he’d be there at night but not during the day or she’d be expected to be alongside him at a social event but with the court there he’d have to be the Tsar, he couldn’t just be looking after rather nervous wife – so her way of detailing with this terror was to retreat to her bedroom with a headache or sore legs or whatever it may be. And I’m not saying she didn’t have a headache or problems with her back and her legs. But they became a bit of a habit or always an excuse. When she’s nervous, anxious, get a migraine and go to bed and Nicky in a way facilitated that. He wanted her to be happy. But at no point seemingly in those early months did he say ‘look, you’ve actually got to be you’ve got to come to these things, you’ve got to play in part at court, I will get help to help you to di it.’ None of that. There was ‘oh dear poor Alix, got a headache again,’ and so this rather unhealthy pattern emerged very quickly. And people who might have helped her, that didn’t work. I think mainly her mother-in-law would’ve helped her but, of course, she was also in mourning. Nicholas’ mother was really, really good at be the tsar’s consort. She was a wonderful compliment to Alexander III. She was naturally gregarious, social, fitted in court life, couldn’t really understand why her daughter-in-law couldn’t. Probably would’ve be able to give her some help and advice, except on the long side, she was herself devastated at the death of Alexander, and Alix, her nervousness may paint her resistant to the kind of help that she might have received. So between the two of them, Alix and Nicky were deeply in love, very happy together and there was also a tension that we can’t be together on own, we’ve always got to go and do these court things with officials in the way and protocols, enormous amount of ceremonials to observe. So the tensions were very difficult but I think it often stemmed from that early death of Alexander III as they could have had years to get used to the life.

Holly: Because how they write to each other and the terms of endearment that they use for each other. It’s so clear how, how deeply they felt for each other. 

Virginia: Yes. They do it and they do right through in this sort of baby language that we find quite hard sometimes. They didn’t intend people to be reading it…

Holly: Yeah with us looking back saying ‘it’s a bit sickly’

Virginia: Yeah. They were indeed very passionate. Of course sometimes it’s easier to do that in the letter then when the person turns up. They’re not quite as perfect as they’ve been depicted.

Holly: The narrative that you write about a person is far easier to construct. 

Virginia: Yeah you’ll write ‘ah I really really want you’ and then they turn up and do something else. So we didn’t quite know what went on just between the two of them but what we can gather and they were certainly devoted.

Laurits Tuxen. “Wedding of Tsar Nicholas II and Princess Alexandra Fyodorovna,” 1894. 

Holly: They were quite devoted to family life as well. I kind of always get the sense that Alix and Nicky would have preferred it if they were just on their own in the countryside with their family at some point and then didn’t have anything else to deal with. So what was family life like? 

Virginia: They replicated as far as they could, in the middle of the great Russian court, they tried to replicate sort of bourgeois, Victorian, large family life, that’s what they liked. They imagined having this townhouse or large country estate – but not as large as they’d got – where they could be on their own and bringing up their children, but they’d have been happier in a much smaller scale. Always, Alix in particular wanted to protect and I think, again, we go back to Victoria who had the same kind of vision actually. 

Holly: Yeah her and Albert really tried to create that bourgeois family. 

Virginia: Absolutely and I think that’s precisely what they were then trying to do as well. 

Holly: What was their approach as parents?

Virginia: They were really loving. There’s no doubt. You can see that all of their children adored them though they found Alix, in particular, pretty difficult. And they all have their moments, but they were very trusting of their parents and they adored their girls and their son. And a lot of the tragedy that we know about the last Romanovs was that they wanted and needed an heir and it took a very long time for Alexei to be born. What you never ever get, unlike many Victorian type fathers, in Nicky’s world you never get any sense of him wishing he hadn’t had daughters. He was always delighted when they were born. It was the people around who said ‘oh no another daughter.’ There’s never any sense of that with him. And you can see in the family holidays, they’re happiest than they were on the Imperial yacht The Standard, they were the best times. Because then they were just them with quite a small entourage who knew them well. They got on well with the sailors. So yeah, they’re an ideal family life, a beautiful family.

Holly: Yeah, the daughters were so, so beautiful. We’re so lucky that we have so many videos and photographs of them as a family.

Virginia: And there are more and more of them being found, you can certainly see a lot of it on YouTube. 

Holly: So you talked a little bit about the fact that Alix would retire to her room and she was a little difficult as a as a mother, can you explain like the little notes system that happened? 

Virginia: Increasing Alix became more and more of an invalid. She was retired to her own quite a lot and she wouldn’t necessarily let her daughters in and so there began this sort of system where they would write notes to one another. The daughters might send one about what they’ve been doing, and whether she was right and she she’d ever loving or rather a acknowledging notes back telling them to be good little girlies. Certainly some of the ones from the younger ones, Maria in particular, you get a sense of ‘oh I really wish I could come and see you’ and ma’s too ill. And you can sense that tiptoeing around her all the time to make sure that she’s not suffering too much or that they’re trying not to annoy her. It is partially something of its time I think. I don’t think she’d be unusual for a mother in many respects, in her time, and her background that mixed in with that love is the need to control and to make the girls behave like good little girlies. So there’s always a bit of a feeblity or  general illness is sometimes used as a controlling mechanism to make them be good. 

Holly: And Alexei, who was the long wished for son, he plays a very significant role because he was so desired didn’t he?

Virginia: Yeah, and because he knew.

Holly: He knew who he was! 

Virginia: He knew he was the next Tsar, he was more important than his sisters so though he loved them and they loved him, there was always that ‘well I’m the important one.’ So he was always very spoilt and there were other reasons for that apart from his own personality. He was desired, he was longed for for so long. When he came, when he was born, it seemed to be an answer to a prayer, to a miracle of sort. They really believed this was the gift from God and then it went wrong because very soon, it was realised that he had haemophilia which ran through Alix’s side of the family. But it was never overtly explained to people outside the immediate family and not even to them, but it made him even more precious. They were always very protective of him. Of course they had to be because if he knocked himself, he’d get this dreadful internal bleeding and be in agony, possibly a threat to his life. They did as well as any parents could in this circumstance. They didn’t mollycoddle him more than necessary. Nicholas was quite stern with him. He was the only person able to control him and he had a childhood as far as possible. The girls of course felt very protective towards him. You certainly get the impression from other members of the wider family, when they come to a meal with them and they see how badly behaved he was. So there were some internal tensions. But also, again, he was so photogenic. He was the most beautiful little boy. 

Holly: I know – little sailor suit being carried around. 

Virginia: No wonder they all adored him!

Holly: Yeah, so we’ve spoken a lot about them as a couple privately. So perhaps we should talk about them as a couple publicly and who they were as Tsar and Tsarina – how would you describe Nicky as a Tsar?

Virginia: Very, very dutiful, very committed to his role. But in a way he was there at the wrong time. It was the time of huge vehement. It wasn’t going to hold this autocratic rule and even before it fell apart with the First World War as the catalyst, there was the revolution in 1905 which was very significant. Nicky couldn’t adapt and it’s partly a limitation himself. But it’s also his whole upbringing, his way of thought. When Nicky was crowned, he really believed he’s been anointed by God. There had been no doubt that for him, he was taking on a role that he had to. He was given it, divinely ordained and they had to hold it for his late father of the empire of God. And those of you couldn’t see, even he had to hold it for his late father, for the empire and for God and you couldn’t back off that. So even though after the 1905 revolution, he had to make changes, big changes the Constitution and evolve the Duma. His heart wasn’t in it, he did it because he had to.

Holly: Yeah, and the tragedy that happened at his coronation that gave him a rather nasty ‘Nicholas the Bloody’ name.

Virginia: It did and that was a PR disaster as well as everything else. When everyone turned up to celebrate, to their field they’d been invited to, and there were too many of them and it hadn’t been properly prepared and there was a huge stampede to get the free gifts and things. People were killed and the sensible response would have been to cancel all of the festivities that the royal couple went to that evening. The various Grand Dukes, his uncles, said ‘No, no, no you’ve got to stay true to being the Tsar at this and that event’ and so he was very affected by that tragedy, people’s deaths, but that wasn’t necessarily perceived. So yes his reign did begin marked by something unpleasant and fearful right from the start. And so you do get that and then with the Bloody Sunday in 1905, but again the PR was so bad.  These people processing towards the winter palace – you see it all over the place in films – and being shot down. You imagine the Tsar there saying ‘ooh shoot them.’ He wasn’t actually there necessarily but would have been the picture of it. But I think it would have been awfully beyond him to say, ‘well let’s see how we could change’, ‘how could I compromise?’ – he didn’t do that and I think it was made worse by Alix in that respect. She was even less of a compromiser.

Holly: Yes.

Virginia: He would listen to his advisors if they were strong enough but he had her in the background saying ‘you’re the Tsar, they must do what you say.’ 

Holly: I find Alix’s role incredibly interesting in this making sure that he asserts himself in this role of the autocrat and also because Queen Victoria didn’t feel that she would need to cultivate public, a positive public opinion as well.

Virginia: Yeah, yeah and of course she didn’t need to – she had other people running the country. 

Holly: But it didn’t work for her granddaughter.

Virginia: Exactly. But yes that’s right, I think exactly that attitude was carried on – ‘I don’t need to be any different. We are the divinely ordained autocrats.’

Holly: ‘…and the people should love us and will love us.’ 

Virginia: ‘They do love us really.’ Yes Alix used to talk about herself as your wall didn’t she to Nicky because she did view him as a bit weak at times. From that point of view, they were a very bad combination and people could see it, the family and wider.

Holly: Yes. So Rasputin was an important figure privately and publicly in their lives – I mean infamous in so many ways – how did they first meet him?

Virginia: They were introduced to him through a pair of women from the Montenegro part of the wider imperial family and they’d always gone in for mystics and rather odd people and they were the first ones to…Rasputin and earlier so to other people and at first I don’t think, they didn’t take that much notice of them but then when they found that Nicky had a reason to talk to and of course there was this great tradition in Russian Orthodoxy of the Holy Fool that he fitted in…that sort of wandering peasants they could often be. Not necessarily priests, maybe monks but they took it upon themselves a sort of holy mantel, and walked around the country begging and preaching and doing nothing in particular apart from that sort of being seen as a way to God and Rasputin fitted into that category.   

Holly: How did their relationship get so intense considering all of the rumours that there were about him?

Virginia: Well I think it was…in a way he fitted into a whole privacy thing. Their desire to have their separate social circles, to have their own friends, and so they liked to see him on his own. And at the same time, the wider family was always suspicious of this desire to just be together and so seeing this or being aware that there was this relationship with this man who they weren’t sure who he was and who looked a bit dubious – straight away it would raise alarm bells. 

Holly: Because of course really no body knew what was the problem with Alexei so then the desperation that Alix was feeling…

Virginia: Exactly. So they wouldn’t understand why she had to hang onto these holy men and clearly he had some remarkable gifts. He certainly did have a very calming effect on the little boy. He could actually, it seems, stop some of his bleeding attacks because it was often made worse by nervousness, by getting in a panic about it

Holly: By stress that it was going to be dangerous.

Virginia: Exactly and so to people outside they’d think ‘well what is going on with this strange man that the imperial couple put such faith in?’. But to Alix – she was very very devout as an Orthodox, having made this change from Lutheranism to Orthodoxy – she embraced it so whole-heartedly, that there were no doubts or questioning at all and so to her, course he was from God. He fitted the bill…He sounded like an apostle. And if anyone said ‘oh you’re deluded.’ He’s from the devil or from some dreadful political movement or he was just deranged, debauched. She’d say ‘well that proves, that proves he’s good because you’re the bad people criticising him.’ So it fed on itself. 

Holly: Yeah. So of course things start to reach an apex come World War One. How did they function as a couple in this time? Because obviously Nicky was away at the front for a significant amount of time.

Virginia: Course he wasn’t away to begin with. He was in St. Petersburg running things – well not quite running things, being Tsar from there. It was really Rasputin and Alix who were really determined to send him to the front. I mean they wanted him as Commander-in-Chief because they thought that that was going to win the war. But nobody else thought that. It was a very controversial move. It’s never a good idea if you’re Head of State to be Commander-in-Chief because, for one thing, if it goes wrong he gets the blame so 

Holly: Yeah who else is there to blame about that?

Virginia: And he had training – yes of course he thought he did because he had all that guards stuff as a young man but it was ceremonial, it was walking about, it was riding a horse, it wasn’t actually being in a war. So in a way it divides into two periods because to begin with, the demands of the war were quite good for Alix. She’s forgot…all her ill health problems went away a bit, the bit that contributed to them psychosomatically went away. So she was able to function and work very hard as a Red Cross nurse and then that crumbled. And then at the same time, she had more to do with Rasputin and together they began to interfere hugely. Whilst Nicky was away, Alix started seeing his ministers and being advised by Rasputin as to who to fire and she’d tell Nicky to do this and this. So there was this string of hopeless ministers.

Holly: Oh it was so unstable the atmosphere they created. 

Virginia: Yeah and the reasons people were appointed were because they supported Rasputin.

Holly: And publicly, her relationship with Rasputin and the fact she had German roots didn’t go down well did it?

Virginia: Inevitably it wouldn’t would it? So no, she was unfairly suspected of German sympathies and partly because the Russians had never seen her much, all they see is this distant person, who were they to know?   

Holly: Yes, there were some incredible cartoons of her and Rasputin that come out at these times that really just portray how little they thought of Alix.

Virginia: Yeah, yeah, but again it’s a two way thing that she never did anything to counteract that because consistently her opinion would be ‘well they’re wrong and I’m going to do it anyway.’   

Holly: No and she really tried to get Nicky to assert himself as well.

Virginia: Yeah, yes, she did and not necessarily in the best way. 

Holly: So we all know, come 1917, the significant strikes led to Nicky’s abdication and at the time he also abdicated for Alexei as well. What were their reactions to the abdication as a couple? 

Virginia: Well when Alix got the news, initially she couldn’t believe it. She was at her best at this point in many ways because though she was horrified, her immediate thought was for him and the huge pressure he must have been under to do such a thing. She wished she could have been there to stop him. She never blamed him because he’d got to the point where he believed that abdication was the best thing for the country. At the time he thought that was all he could do. It’s very sad but he thought that was it and then they were in this position of just the family and emotionally they supported one another. They found it awfully hard but they bore it together.

Holly: What was it like for them first in Tobolsk and then in Yekaterinburg?    

Virginia: It got more and more difficult. But, initially, before they were exiled, they thought that they would be going to England. That hope gradually faded away. They coped pretty well in Tobolsk, in a way, it continued to match their vision of how life had always been but with certain things taken away gradually. Nicky found it very very hard when he couldn’t have enough exercise because he always liked going out but the girls coped very well because they’d been bought up to be really self-sufficient. But gradually it tolled on them more and more and there’s that sense of doom.

Holly: Can you describe the final moments of the family?

Virginia: They sound pretty horrific. They were woken in the night and told ‘we’re leaving. The White Army’s getting closer and we need to take you somewhere else.’ They were brought downstairs and told to wait and they thought they were waiting for some transport or something and then the Commander comes in and says ‘we have orders to shoot you.’ In a way it was easier, it wasn’t easy, for the parents because they were shot outright. The girls, thinking they were being taken somewhere,  they had all their jewels sewed into their bodices which acted as sort of body armour. They had to be bayoneted to death. 

Holly: It really is a horrific end. 

Virginia: Yeah, to take all the children.

Holly: What do you think their legacy is now as a couple in our public consciousness?

Virginia: That’s a very interesting question. There are different consciousnesses aren’t there? Of course there’s the Russian Orthodox of them as saints so everywhere you see the icons, idealised picture of the imperial family and stories of miracles associated with them. So there’s that side and I think that also it feeds into how things have gone in Russia with the collapse of the Soviet system, total collapse. It’s enabled another myth to grow up that everything Soviet was wrong and dreadful. I think that there’s still a tendency to see that it as a bit too black and white so that we also have that abiding image of Nicky the Indecisive who was a bit [unfazed] at one time and couldn’t stop a revolution and Alix got up to no good with Rasputin or who was just inadequate in some way. I think where they fit well in our consciousness is that we do now see things in a more rounded way. We have more sense of…we’re learning more about different sorts of illness. So I think we can see there were a number of conditions that could have been treated and you see people possibly more in their context and I think maybe we’re a bit more forgiving or ought to be, that we can see why people acted the way they did because of their upbringing and backgrounds and so I think that’s where we see a genuine tragedy for them, that they were precisely in the wrong place at the wrong time, were really doing their best to do what they thought they ought to be doing but it was so often not the right thing. But I think there is a place in our consciousness that is worrying because I certainly found this when I was trying to get inside there heads – as far as we can when I was writing about them – is it makes you doubt your own self as well because there were occasions when Nicky was absolutely sure that he was doing the right thing and often those moments would come after he’d been praying when he felt completely at peace with himself and his inner voice said ‘do this’ and we know that feeling. We tend to trust ourselves and yet it would appear to be completely wrong, arguably. I think our consciousness, they’re a big question mark. You question how much people can do as individuals in great historical changes. They make us question our own selves, our own judgements. I think they’re quite useful.

Holly: They are. How do you think we should remember their relationship?   

Virginia: With a degree of sadness. They were certainly devoted to one another. It did give them a great strength in their last months. I think at times they drove each other mad – certainly Alix drove Nicky mad on many occasions by being so difficult or you got the sense that she’d write these great passionate letters when he was at the front, he’d come back for a few days and she’d be in bed with a migraine and didn’t want him to go anywhere near her. You can work with that conflict between reality and imagination so I think she was…in certain ways. But they were still completely devoted to each other within a context of very firm Christian belief that whatever else it gave them, it supported them together in those last weeks. That’s partly why they are so loved by the Orthodox faith now. 

Holly: Well I think they’re an absolutely fascinating couple and thank you so much for talking to me today, I really really appreciate it. 

Virginia: Enjoyed it – thank you.

OTMA at Tsarskoe Selo in the spring of 1917

Holly: And thank you for listening, I hope you enjoyed this episode as much as I enjoyed discussing the relationship between Alix and Nicky with Virginia. I have to admit I have the biggest soft spot for Nicky – bless him – I just have always felt really strongly for him but I find Alix particularly compelling because if you read some of her letters to him, at the front especially, she really does seem to always want him to assert his dominance and to know that he is Tsar and so I found it absolutely fascinating talking with Virginia about the role of Queen Victoria in her life and how that affected her. 

Virginia’s book Alix and Nicky: The Passion of the Last Tsar and Tsarina is available on Amazon, at Waterstones and I believe she has also written a book about Catherine the Great which I think I will have to get my hands on – because well Virginia just clearly writes about all my favourite people – all the people I find most interesting from history. So yes, that’s definitely on my to-read list and Alix and Nicky should be on yours. 

If you have enjoyed this foray into Russian history and have not yet listened to last season’s extremely different love story from the Russian countryside then I might be a bit biased but I highly recommend listening to my episode about The Chikachevs with Kate Atonova which I will leave a link to in the show notes. I will also leave a link to a three part 1996 documentary about Alix and Nicky’s final years as Tsar and Tsarina which is available on YouTube. It’s called Last of the Tsars, certainly not to be confused with the odd documentary/drama/reconstruction melange that is Netflix’s account of the couple with a very similar name The Last Czars. I think Last of the Tsars is a very good portrayal of them as a couple and sovereigns and it uses a lot of archival footage of the family which I always think is important to see because it brings the people we have been discussing today to life and to me that’s something really really special that we have. The beauty of Nicky and Alix, they really documented so much, there’s so much footage and there’s so many pictures. It’s something tangible that this couple has left and so I highly recommend watching it and seeing them together.

If you have enjoyed this episode, please rate review and subscribe wherever you are listening now and if you’d like even more love stories from history then I would love to chat with you over on Instagram @pastlovespodcast because really if Past Loves has become your current love there is no better place to be – until soon!

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