‘Til Death Do Us Part

The Players

Journey to the Past

Today we think of royal families mostly in the context of the ceremonial role they play, like when we see William and Kate waving to crowds and meeting foreign dignitaries for dinner parties. But it was only 100 years ago that one of the world’s biggest powers, the Russian Empire, was still actively ruled by a monarchy. At the beginning of the 20th century Russia was on the brink of revolution and its last royal family was destined to be the most tragic and memorable of them all. 

The Romanovs are most often referred to when talking about the youngest daughter, Anastasia, made famous for our generation by the iconic animated movie “Anastasia”. It also happens to be an excellent musical now playing on Broadway. But before Anastasia, there was another Romanov who was the center of attention; her mother, Alexandra Feodorovna, Empress of Russia.

Before Alexandra was a Romanov, she was a princess in her own right, and went by the nickname Alix. Her mother was Princess Alice, a daughter of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, and her father was Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse (Hesse was a region in what was Germany at the time). Born in 1872, Alix was a happy child with six brothers and sisters and was a special favorite with her Grandmother Queen Victoria. Unfortunately, tragedy struck Alix’s family several times when she was very young. When she was a year old, her brother died after a serious fall. Five years later, her sister and mother both died of diphtheria, suddenly leaving her motherless and without her closest companion. After that, Alix’s family noticed a marked difference in her once fun-loving personality and Queen Victoria began to take a much closer interest in her granddaughter. 

Alexandra when she was known as Alix of Hesse. From wikipedia.org.

One of Victoria’s most important tasks was to find Alix a good marriage, and if she had had her way, Alix would have married one of her cousins in line to the British throne. But it was becoming more acceptable to marry for love instead of convenience (did you hear that mom, it’s not all about the money), and someone already had his eye on Alix. In 1884, when she was 12, Alix and her family traveled to Russia for her sister’s wedding. While she was there she met her third cousin Nikolai, or Nicky as she would refer to him, who was 16-years-old and heir to the throne of Russia. Don’t worry, I’m not about to announce that Alix was a child bride. They parted ways after the wedding but kept in touch with letters, until they saw each other again five years later. At this point, Nicky was in love and made his intentions of marrying Alix clear. Although Alix was also in love, there was a big problem that prevented her from saying yes – religion. Russia was (and still is) a devoutly Russian Orthodox country and anyone who was marrying into the royal family also had to be Russian Orthodox. Alix was Lutheran and was not willing to convert, even for love. So again, they parted ways. Five more years passed and this time it was a wedding in England that brought the lovebirds back together. After years of struggling between her religion and her heart, Alix finally agreed to convert, marry Nicky and become the next Empress of Russia. The families did not approve. Nicky may have been blinded by love, but his parents and Queen Victoria could already see what he couldn’t – that she was not cut out for the job.

Young Nicky before he was Tsar, giving us his best “smize”. From pinterest.com.

She Doesn’t Even Go Here

The prep work alone for her move to Russia was enough that Alix “almost collapsed from neurotic tension” (Montefiore). Victoria even wrote to Nicky to let him know that her granddaughter needed a “great deal of rest and quiet” (Montefiore). (Must have been an exciting honeymoon…) Shortly after their engagement, Nicky’s father suddenly died and the timeline for the wedding was fast-tracked. In 1894, they were married and Alix became Alexandra Feodorovna, Empress of Russia. Most brides, and especially royal ones, dream about their wedding day their whole lives and bask in the glory of the attention of family and friends. For Alix, the opposite was true. She was accustomed to a more subdued and reserved personal life, away from the spotlight and with less expectations about how she should conduct her daily life. Her childhood in Hesse had not been particularly fancy compared to the wealth of the Russian monarchy; in fact, far from it. And so she “endured the ordeal, but at the end of her wedding day, much like her grandmother before her, she retreated to bed early with a headache” (Rappaport). For those in attendance, this did nothing to instill confidence in their new Empress. The Russian elite had already heard numerous stories about Alix’s poor health and frail nerves, and it seemed as if the stories were true. 

The lovebirds on their wedding day in 1894. From HistoryofRoyalWomen.com.

Alix and Nicky settled into their new lives and within a year they had their first child, a daughter named Olga. The new parents were overjoyed, but the rest of the country could not hide its disappointment that Olga was a girl. A boy would have meant less questions and uncertainty about the succession if Nicky died unexpectedly. The less uncertainty, the safer the monarchy was. But if the country was disappointed then, imagine how they felt over the next six years as Alix became pregnant three more times – all girls! The Emperor was now a father to four daughters – Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia (yes that Anastasia) – but no male heir. This was even more concerning because in 1899 Nicky’s brother the tsarevich (meaning next in line to the throne) had died, marking the “first intimations of a possible crisis in the Russian succession” (Rappaport). Nicky was the original #girldad. In fact, he tried to have the laws changed so that Olga could inherit the throne if he passed away before having a son. Although Alix also adored their family and her girls, the stress of not being able to produce a son was weighing on her heavily. This was a time when it was still believed that women determined the sex of a baby, so essentially it was all her fault. (Thank you to Nettie Stevens, a female geneticist who discovered the truth in 1905, that the joke had been on men for thousands of years). For a woman who was already prone to bouts of anxiety, gloomy thoughts and exhaustion, the constant worrying about producing a boy did nothing to help her mental state. In fact, this period “marked the onset of a creeping paranoia that the throne might be wrested from her yet-to-be-born son by plotters in court circles and it further alienated her from the rest of the Romanov family, whom she mistrusted”(Rappaport).

Nettie Stevens discovered the truth behind X and Y chromosomes, but, not surprisingly, a man has received most of the credit. From wikipedia.org.

Marrying into a family can be difficult even in the most ideal of circumstances, but for Alix, it was a NIGHTMARE. The Romanov family was everywhere. Everywhere she turned there would have been another member of the extended royal family, interfering with the private life that she and Nicky both desperately desired. And it wasn’t just the family that was judging her, but the whole of society (society in this case being the members of the upper class). Alix was not oblivious to the fact that she was becoming more and more unpopular, with one family member remarking that “nothing seemed to give her pleasure; she seldom smiled and when she did it was grudging…This of course damped every impulse towards her”(Montefiore). What the people saw was a melancholy and stuck-up Englishwoman who made no effort to make connections with the people around her. When it appeared that Alix was pregnant again shortly after Anastasia’s birth, the excitement was short-lived. It proved to be a “phantom pregnancy,” or when a woman believes she is pregnant and shows all of the classic signs of pregnancy, but there is never a baby at all. For those on the outside looking in, it was clear that the mental state of the Empress was just as bad, if not worse, than they had originally thought. 

Ra Ra Rasputin

It was not until 1904 that Alix and Nicky’s prayers were finally answered and a son was born, named Alexei Nikolaevich. The nation rejoiced, but the new parents did not celebrate for long. Soon after Alexei’s birth it was clear to his mother that her worst fears had come true. The son she had desperately wanted for so long was already showing signs of hemophilia. Called the “royal disease” because of its prevalence in European royal families due to the constant intermarrying between cousins and distant family members, it was passed down from mothers to their sons. Alix’s brother, who had died after a bad fall when she was one, had died because he was also a hemophiliac. Alix knew the realities of the disease and its short life expectancy and “from that moment the Empress’s character underwent a change, and her health, physical as well as moral, altered” (Rappaport). Debilitating headaches, fatigue and body pains plagued her constantly as she dealt with the stress of hiding Alexei’s condition from the rest of Russia. Only a close handful of people knew the truth and Alix and Nicky were determined to keep it that way for as long as possible. As the empire struggled with political and social unrest, it was vital that the succession not be in question. 

One big happy (?) family. From History.com.

That same year the royal family had more than just Alexei to worry about. By 1904 Russia was at war with Japan, a war that was wildly unpopular with the Russian people. Russia suffered a humiliating defeat and Japan became “the first Asian power in modern times to defeat a European power” (Brittanica). The unrest among the working class population had been building, and this seemingly senseless war and the embarrassing outcome pushed that unrest over the edge into revolution. Massive strikes and bloodshed forced Nicky’s hand and he created a governing body called the Duma, with the intent to transform the monarchy “from an autocracy into a constitutional monarchy” (Brittanica). What it ended up being was a way to temporarily pacify the people.

As the aristocracy worried about their safety among the discontented Russian people, the Emperor and Empress were worried about the safety of their family above all else. In particular, they worried about the ever-vulnerable Alexei. When the tsarevich was three-years-old he found himself on the brink of death after badly injuring his leg. His parents were desperate and decided to call in the help of a mutual acquaintance who was said to be a gifted “healer” – Grigory Rasputin. Every story needs a villain, and this villain was controversial with a capital CON. Half of Russia thought he was a greasy, disease-ridden, womanizing fraud while the other half was charmed by his soothing voice and easy way with the ladies, and were convinced he was a holy man and a prophet. For the Romanovs, he seemed like the answer to their prayers after Alexei made a miraculous recovery under his careful watch. Alix and Nicky, but particularly Alix, were indebted to him and he became a regular fixture around their home. To their relatives, Rasputin seemed like a completely inappropriate choice for a companion to the royal family. But of course that did not deter them in the slightest. Alix had complete trust and faith in Rasputin, so much so that “she was making unguarded and potentially compromising remarks in letters to him such as ‘I  wish only one thing: to fall asleep, fall asleep for ages on your shoulders, in your embrace’, a comment which would later be seized on by her enemies and used against her” (Rappaport).

The depiction of Rasputin in the animated movie “Anastasia” is actually not that far from how many Russians viewed him. From pinterest.com.

These Violent Delights Have Violent Ends

As the five Romanov children got older, the family withdrew closer into themselves, and the daughters were frequently the ones worrying about their mother. Too often Alix was restricted to bed with a growing list of “ever-mutating neurotic and physical illnesses – sciatica, headaches, backaches, leg aches, angina, [and] grading the gravity of her enlarged heart from Number One (slight) to Number Three (severe)” (Montefiore). Endless letters survive of Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia writing to their mother in the next room, expressing how much they missed her and wishing that she could feel better. And the more Alix worried about her family and the safety of her husband, the more they turned to religion and the work of men like Rasputin. In 1913 Russia was celebrating its 300th birthday and the family traveled to St. Petersburg for the festivities (the first time they had shown their faces in the Empire’s capital since 1905, which isn’t a good look if you are the rulers of said Empire). The festivities were meant to be a celebration and would have been a great opportunity for Nicky to say or do something to help relieve the mounting political tension among those who were not happy with his rule. However, “it soon became apparent that the primary objective of the Tercentenary was to reinforce the image of mystical union of tsar and people, rather than one where democracy and the work of the Duma held any true significance” (Rappaport). In other words, the people were realizing the Duma was just a pacifier. So when World War I broke out the following year in 1914, the timing could not have been worse for the royal family. 

Fabergé eggs were elaborate Easter eggs created for the Russian royal family. This one was made in honor of the Tercentenary celebration. From pinterest.com.

Alix was certainly not emotionally or mentally equipped to deal with the changes that war brought. She worried about her family trapped in Germany and her beloved husband who was duty-bound to leave for the front-line. What her family and country needed was a strong presence from their Empress, but for Alix “the outbreak of war ‘was the end of everything’” (Rappaport). It was actually her four daughters who stepped up and broke out of the confines of their private lives to energize the war effort by raising money and nursing wounded soldiers. With the Emperor gone, his son young and unwell, and his wife unable to rule steadily in his absence, it was inevitable that in 1917 revolution broke out in the city of Petrograd, led by Vladimir Lenin and what would become the Russian Communist Party. This time Nicky could not escape the consequences and he was forced to abdicate the throne. His family was placed under house arrest, where they would remain until they were sent in exile to Siberia in 1918. They would never return home. Alexandra and Nikolai Romanov had spent the last 25 years fighting to protect their family, but it was in Siberia that they would all meet one of the most devastating ends imaginable. In July 1918 the last reigning Romanovs – Tsar Nicholas II, Alexandra Feodorovna, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia and Alexei – were executed by firing squad. Since then legends and rumors have swirled about the survival of one or more of the children, most famously Anastasia, but modern analysis of grave sites and bone fragments have sadly debunked those rumors. There were no survivors and there would be no more monarchy in Russia. 

Check back next week for a fascinating dive into the science behind what was going on with Alexandra as we gear up to explore the repercussions for her family and for Russia!

One of the last photos of the Romanov family, taken during their imprisonment in Siberia. A far cry from the decadence they enjoyed when Nicky was Tsar. From The Siberian Times.


Harmon, K. (2009, October 8). Queen Victoria’s curse: New DNA evidence solves medical and murder mysteries. Retrieved April 29, 2020, from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/queen-victorias-curse-new-dna-evidence-solves-medical-and-murder-mysteries/

Montefiore, S. S. (2017). The Romanovs: 1613-1918. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Rappaport, H. (2014). The Romanov Sisters. New York: St. Martins Press.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2019, August 29). Alexandra. Retrieved April 29, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alexandra-empress-consort-of-Russia

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2020, January 15). Russian Revolution of 1905. Retrieved April 29, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/event/Russian-Revolution-of-1905

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2020, February 23). Russo-Japanese War. Retrieved April 29, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/event/Russo-Japanese-War

11 thoughts on “‘Til Death Do Us Part

  1. Such a sad story and a reminder of how much pressure was/is put on women to produce a male heir. I feel for Alix … even though she married for love, life was not joyful or easy it would seem. Wonderful morning reading and learning!

    Liked by 1 person

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