When Life Gives You Lenins

The Players

Meet The Parents

As Riley discussed during our fascinating deep dive into Alix’s brain last week, the empress’s preoccupation with her health and her obsessive focus on physical ailments is consistent with SSD, or somatic symptom disorder. At the time, she would have been viewed as just another hysterical woman. And although there were hints of the troubles to come for Alix, nothing could have deterred Alix and Nicky from being together once Alix made the decision to marry the future tsar. 

Alix and Nickly may have been in love, but that didn’t mean that their families approved. In fact, there was a deep mistrust and dislike between Russia, England and Germany at the time (remember that Alix was half-German and half-English, so in Russia she represented both evils). For Nicky, this fact was probably more of an annoying inconvenience, but Alix actually had to live in a country that was naturally suspicious of her. From the start, no one was rooting for this marriage – and you thought Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s relationship journey was rough. A strong-willed and confident person may have been able to handle the criticism, but Alix was entering her new role as Empress of Russia at a disadvantage due to her delicate nerves and propensity to fall ill during times of high stress. Once married “she was simply dumped straight into the carnivorous world of Petersburg and court, which exacerbated her already fragile nature” (Montefiore). Alix was so overwhelmed with the burden of trying to produce an heir that she suffered a devastating false pregnancy, one of the most tell-tale signs that she was suffering from SSD. But when her prayers for a son were finally answered, it only added to the number of things she had to be worried about. 

Alix with her long-awaited son Alexei (don’t be fooled by the dress and bouncing curls.) From Pinterest.

Got a Secret, Can You Keep It?

TMZ may not have existed at this time, but believe me when I say that there is no group of people throughout history that has enjoyed gossip more than the aristocracy. Even without the internet and cell phones, it was almost impossible to keep secrets as a member of the royal family. When Alix and Nicky committed to keeping Alexei’s dangerous medical condition under wraps, they resigned themselves to a life of “extraordinary pressure” (Montefiore). And pressure wasn’t just coming from inside the court. In January 1905, five months after their long-awaited son’s birth, violence broke out in St. Petersburg on a day that is known as Bloody Sunday. Russian citizens had been marching in the streets on their way to deliver a petition to their tsar when the military began firing on them, killing hundreds. Bloody Sunday was the beginning of the 1905 Russian Revolution, and the end of the Russian people’s “relationship” with their leader. To quell the violence and the strikes, Nicky was essentially forced to create the Duma – a governing body designed with the intention of putting more power into the hands of the people. But Nicky and Alix did not believe whatsoever in the motivation behind the Duma. In their minds, the throne was given to Nicky by God, and the divine right to rule stood above all else. Unsurprisingly, the Duma did not last long before it was dissolved. 

Bloody Sunday. From Moscow Times.

Estranged from the people, the Romanovs should have been able to turn to their larger family in Russia and beyond. But as “Crown Princess Marie of Romania observed, [Nicky and Alix’s] exclusiveness was little conducive towards that fine, loyal unity which had always been traditional in the Russian Imperial Family during the two former reigns and which had constituted its great power” (Rappaport).  In other words, the Romanovs before them had ruled successfully by strength in numbers, but when times were tough for Alix and her husband and children, there were scarce few people they were willing to turn to for support. The Winter Palace began to resemble an island, and the island’s most welcomed visitor proved to have a damaging effect on the family’s already dismal reputation – Grigory Rasputin. 

Both immediate and longer-term events contributed to the 1905 Revolution that culminated in creation of the Duma. From Pinterest.

Russia’s Greatest Love Machine

Although the initial reasons for bringing Rasputin around stemmed from his amazing abilities to heal and calm Alexei during his life-threatening episodes of hemophilia, Alix and Nicky’s reasons for keeping him reached beyond their son. Alix needed Rasputin for her “worsening mental condition” and Nicky needed constant affirmation of his divine right to rule (Montefiore). As she constantly dwelled on her sciatica, headaches, backaches, leg aches, (and on and on), Alix relied more and more on Rasputin to ease her mind and assure her that all of her suffering was for a reason. And of course, the public did not know of Alexei’s condition, so to them there was no possible explanation (or one that was acceptable at least), as to why Rasputin was given such close access to the royal family. When Rasputin wasn’t with the family, his free time was spent consuming large amounts of alcohol and entertaining a never-ending parade of prostitutes. Although married with children, he had a full-time mistress and also succeeded in seducing many of the society women who were his devotees. Exactly the type of behavior one would expect from a “holy man”! 

One of the only known photographs of Rasputin with the Romanov children. From Pinterest.

Some of the Russian people’s worst suspicions seemed to be confirmed when, in 1912, letters between Alix and Rasputin were published and their intimate friendship was put on public display –  TMZ for the newspaper age! Since it was Rasputin’s fault that the letters had been made public, this would have been an excellent excuse for Alix and Nicky to cut him out of their lives for good. But when World War I broke out two years later in 1914, they would lean on him more heavily than ever. And don’t get it twisted, Nicky wasn’t completely clueless. He knew of Rasputin’s seedy behavior behind the scenes and that his association with the “healer” didn’t earn him any favor among his people. But in Nicky’s own words – “better ten Rasputins than one of the empress’s hysterical fits” (Montefiore). Yikes, burn. This would suggest that Alix’s “hysterical” nature was driving some of the tsar’s decisions at this time, or at least his desire to calm her. And his decisions at this time were poor to say the least. 

In fact, during wartime it seemed as if half of what Nicky had to worry about was his wife. While away at the front the tsar and his wife wrote each other 1,600 letters, letters that revealed “Alix’s increasingly demented voice” (Montefiore). Imagine Michelle Obama bombarding Barack with depressing letters any time he was away from the White House, complaining about how she hated being away from him and that she wished he didn’t have normal Presidential duties. I’m sorry, what job did you think you were signing up for when you married the future tsar? This was war, not the post-engagement isolation period of “The Bachelor”. The empress’s mental and physical condition continued to deteriorate as she worried about protecting Alexei and his secret, while also worrying about the growing precariousness of her husband’s position on the throne. But she and Nicky continued to turn to Rasputin for guidance, even going so far as to make him an official adviser. This promotion gave Rasputin not only unprecedented access to the royal family, but also significant sway over political decisions. With Nicky gone, Alix was effectively in charge back home (a scary thought), and she had not forgotten about the events of 1905, when her husband’s control had been thwarted. After a mutiny inside the government, Alix was in charge of choosing new ministers, and made the fatal error of turning to Rasputin for suggestions. Of course the men he suggested were chosen for his own benefit and the repercussions of Alix’s decisions were catastrophic – “the administration became paralyzed and the regime discredited” (Britannica). There were even rumors that she was a spy for Germany. 

Nicky during WWI – when he wasn’t answering thousands of letters from Alix. From Smithsonian Magazine.

At this point the frustration with Alix’s policies, and with Nicky for not taking control, was reaching a boiling point. Rasputin certainly was not to blame for everything going wrong within Russia, but men like Prince Felix Felixovich Yusupov (married to Nicky’s niece) and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich (Nicky’s first cousin) believed that if he were no longer an influence, things could get back on track. In December of 1916, Felix, Dmitri and several others planned and carried out Rasputin’s murder. His body was later discovered floating in the river with a bullet in his head. Unfortunately for “Yusupov and his co-conspirators, Rasputin’s murder did not lead to a radical change in Nicholas and Alexandra’s policies” (Smithsonian). But what it did do was plunge Alix further into mental and emotional instability. For Alix and her family it was the ultimate betrayal because the alleged murderers were relatives. Her lady-in-waiting “described the empress’s state of mind at that time as nearer the insanity they accused her of than she had ever been before” (Rappaport). At this point she was also taking massive amounts of barbiturates, or sleep-inducing drugs, to cure her insomnia. 

When Life Gives You Lenins

As this blog is about Alix, I have focused a lot on her faults and shortcomings, but it is worth noting that Nicky did not do himself any favors with how he ruled his empire. Alix may not have been popular, but neither was her husband by the end of his reign. Outside of the fact that he was a devoted father and husband, Nicky was not actually that great of a guy. First of all he was anti-semitic, believing that the “Jews represented everything bad about the modern world” (Montefiore), a belief that was reflected in many of his policies as ruler. He was also full of himself, lacked loyalty to his peers and greatly overestimated his abilities as tsar, or at least overestimated the security of his and his family’s position. It’s impossible to know what kind of ruler Nicky would have been if he had been married to someone else, because with Alix, Russia took a backseat. He was constantly worried about her health as she was bedridden by a growing number of ailments, and it is easy to imagine that leaving her and the kids behind during the war gave him many sleepless nights. And he would have been right to worry. The Russian people were not happy with the continual failures of the war, the massive loss of life, and the plummeting economy. World War I was the powder keg the revolutionaries needed to rise up in February/March of 1917 (depending on which calendar you are using). Riots broke out in Petrograd (formerly known as St. Petersburg – the name had been changed to sound less German) and when the military joined, Nicky knew that there was no other choice but to step down from the throne. 

Nicky’s abdication was big news in the United States. Nicky’s brother Michael was initially offered the throne, but turned it down. rt.com.

When the tsar abdicated, the Romanovs were stripped of their royal status and placed under strict house arrest where even their outdoor recreation was on a schedule dictated by their guards. Not surprisingly, Alix’s condition continued to deteriorate and her sister Ella, who had also married into the Romanov family and observed the now-former empress during this time, noted that Alix’s “conversation became increasingly disjointed and incomprehensible”, most likely as a result of “the constant headaches and dizzy spells”. But it was of her opinion that her sister’s “unbalanced mental state had become pathological” (Rappaport). With everything the family had to worry about and the uncertainty of their new situation, Alix’s air of doom and gloom cast an even darker shadow over the already pretty depressing vibe in the house. And outside of the Romanovs’ “prison”, things were not as stable in Russia without the tsar as one would have hoped. Now that a true government needed to be formed, numerous groups clashed for control. Eventually the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, seized power. The regime made the decision to move Nicky, Alix, the children, and a few of their trusted servants to Siberia where there would be virtually no chance of them threatening the new order by escaping Russia to one of their many European family members. The last reigning Romanov family was kept under house arrest for more than a year total when the orders were finally given in July of 1918 to remove them as a threat once and for all. There are many horrible versions of what took place that night, and it is hard to imagine that anything Alix and Nicky did during their reign warranted the brutal way in which their family was murdered. In 2000, 82 years after their death by firing squad, Alix, Nicky, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia and Alexei were recognized as saints and martyrs by the Russian Orthodox Church.

The basement in the Ipatiev House where the Romanovs were executed. From Pinterest.

Whether fairly or not, many historians credit Alix’s “misrule while [Nicky] was commanding the Russian forces during World War I [as the precipitation of] the collapse of the imperial government in March 1917” (Britannica). Let me put it this way, she certainly didn’t help the situation. Nicky followed his heart when he married Alix, but no one can argue that she was cut out to live a life in the spotlight. As the pressures of her role as the empress continued to mount, so did Alix’s ever-growing list of physical ailments. In turn, she became like a stormy rain cloud over her household and anyone who came into contact with her. The more she worried, the more she leaned on unsavory types like Rasputin, further alienating herself from the aristocracy and the country at-large. Ironically, one of Rasputin’s favorite teachings that he often shared with Alix was that “love is everything; love will protect you from a bullet” (Montefiore). No one loved her family more than Alexandra Feodorovna, but in the end, love could not save them.   


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.

Royde-Smith, J. G., & Showalter, D. E. (2020, March 27). World War I. Retrieved May 14, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/event/World-War-I

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

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