The Life and Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna Alexandra Feodorovna - The Life And Tragedy Of Alexandra Feodorovna
A Biography By Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden

Chapter XXVI

Revolution, March 1917


In Petrograd the strike movement spread gradually from one factory to another, the "non-political" workmen joining the seditious elements as the scarcity of food supplies increased. Dissatisfaction with the Government was turning into hostility to the monarchy. The dissatisfaction was openly expressed, and extended to everyone and everything connected with the Court. I myself saw an inscription: "Down with the Tsar!" written on the frozen wall of the headquarters of the Staff close to the Winter Palace. It was removed and appeared again the next morning. On March 4th, as my carriage was stopped in a block in the street, a passer-by deliberately spat through the open window: the hostility was open now.

At Tsarskoe Selo the gravity of the situation was still scarcely realised even by the Household, and not at all by the Empress. So unexpected was the turn taken by events that as late as March 11th Countess Hendrikov, one of the ladies-in-waiting, left on a visit to a sick sister in the Caucasus - a four days' journey. On the day of her arrival at her destination she heard of the revolution in Petrograd, and rushed back. She arrived at Tsarskoe Selo on March 22nd, and remained from that moment with the Empress.

The Imperial Household believed that these strikes were like previous ones, merely due to the dissatisfaction caused by the food shortage, and that the fresh supplies ordered by the Government would prevent the movement from spreading. Protopopov had succeeded in persuading the Empress of this, and also that all the necessary measures had been taken by the police to prevent any serious rising. It was at this moment that Alexei Nicholaevich and Olga Nicholaevna fell ill with measles. Tatiana Nicholaevna and Mme. Vyrubova soon followed. As her rooms were at the far end of the Palace, the Empress spent her days running from the sickrooms of her children to that of her friend. On March 11th, though there were street riots at Petrograd, the Empress received Professor Madsen, of the Copenhagen Serum Institute, who had come to discuss the possibility of producing more anti-tetanus serum in Russia. On Monday, March 12th, I telephoned at the Empress's request to Mine. Sazonov at Petrograd at nine o'clock A.M., asking her to lunch that day. Mme. Sazonov said that it would be impossible for her to reach the station. There was fighting in the streets, and the Preobrajensky Regiment, whose barracks were opposite her house on the Kirotchnaia, had mutinied, and were firing with machine-guns. Senator Neidhardt, her brother, in whose house she was staying, continued the conversation with me, and when he discovered that we knew nothing in the Palace, gave me an account of the happenings of the night before, and of the mutiny of the Paul, Preobrajensky and Volhynsky regiments, asking me to report it to the Empress.

I went at once to Her Majesty's room. She was still in bed, but her maid, Madeleine Zanotti, told her I wanted to see her urgently, and I was called in. I told her everything Neidhardt had said. She listened with perfect self possession, only remarking that, if the troops had mutinied, "it was all up," and asked me to send for Colonel Grooten, Acting-Commander of the Palace in General Voyeikov's absence, while she was dressing. Grooten told her that, though several regiments had mutinied in Petrograd, the garrison at Tsarskoe Selo was still perfectly loyal, that the events of the past night had been reported at General Headquarters, and that General Ivanov was coming, by the Emperor's orders, with trustworthy troops, to put down the rioting in the capital. Count Benckendorff had telephoned to General Voyeikov at General Headquarters on the previous day, asking for the Emperor's instructions should the riots become worse. General Voyeikov had replied that "according to his information things had been greatly exaggerated." The Emperor was sending General Ivanov with the "St. George battalion" to quell the rebellion, and did not want the Empress to be troubled by any idea of leaving Tsarskoe unless the danger became imminent, as the Emperor was himself returning. (It was a twenty-six hours run from Mohileff to Tsarskoe Selo.)

General Voyeikov was optimistic all through and succeeded, apparently, in imparting his optimism to the Emperor. Their Majesties had so often heard reports of dangerous conspiracies, and so many alleged plots were supposed to have been discovered by the police, that they had almost become fatalists. They were always inclined to think, too, that reports were exaggerated by those who wanted to keep them at Tsarskoe Selo out of harm's way. The Emperor in particular always disliked alarmist reports. General Ressine, Commander of the "Svodnyi" (composite) regiment which mounted guard inside the Palace, who was under General Voyeikov's orders, told me in January 1917 that he was very anxious about the morale of the men of the Palace Guard, as revolutionary propaganda had been active among them. The Department of Police had also given him serious warnings. Ressine had passed all this on to Voyeikov, but, to his despair, his chief had brushed it all aside. It was only natural that the Emperor should disregard the hints of private individuals, when the Minister of the Interior and General Voyeikov, who were responsible for his personal safety, both assured him that there was no real danger.

The Empress telegraphed to the Emperor on the 11th of March, and was uneasy when she got no answer from him. From this moment, indeed, no communication was allowed to pass between them. She had also written to the Emperor, begging him to make political concessions, the letter being sent by the wife of an officer who volunteered to take it by hand. It reached the Emperor too late. He was never able to act on it or to answer her.

The 12th of March passed quietly at Tsarskoe Selo. The Empress begged her ladies to go on working at the sklad, so as to discourage any idea of panic. She herself spent the whole day with her sick children, who were getting worse. She wrote to me on the evening of the 11th that their temperatures were high:

Olga 39-9 [103F.], Tatiana 39-3 [102F.], Alexei 40 [104F.], Ania [Mme. Vyrubova] 40-3 [104F]. It's normal when high, the rash coming out very strong. Thank God, none have so far complications. Yes, indeed, a heavy time. [The Empress often unconsciously translated from Russian when writing in English.] But faith keeps up. Kiss-sleep well! A.
The complications soon appeared, however, for Tatiana Nicholaevna developed abscesses in the ears, and in Olga Nicholaevna's case pericarditis supervened. The Grand Duchess Anastasia soon joined her sisters in the sick room, though the Grand Duchess Marie remained well for a few days longer. She was constantly with her mother, acting as her "legs " as she said, running messages the electric current for the lift had been cut off on the 13th - and trying to persuade her to rest. These days, in which she was her mother's sole support, turned her from a child into a woman.

On the 12th, unknown to her, the question of the Empress's leaving Tsarskoe Selo was discussed by Count Benckendorff and Colonel Grooten. They came to no decision, as they knew that the Empress did not want to go, and no orders to that effect had been received from the Emperor, who was, in fact, believed to be on his way back.

On the same evening the President of the Duma, Rodzianko, telephoned to Count Benckendorff, ostensibly to inquire for the Tsarevich, rumours of whose death had been circulated in Petrograd, but really to advise the Empress to take her children away, as the situation was so serious that it demanded extreme measures.

The Empress had said to me that to go "would look like flight," and she was also afraid of the risk to the children had they been moved while they were so ill. On the morning of the 13th, however, she told me that I should "quietly pack my bag to be able to start with them at any moment, should this prove necessary." The gentlemen had on that morning again raised the question of the Empress's departure, but it was too late now. When they asked the commander of the railway battalion if the Imperial train could be immediately brought from Petrograd to Tsarskoe for the Empress's departure, stating at the same time that four hours would be needed for the Court's preparations before they could start, he said that even if he could get the train from the capital, which was doubtful, he feared that in four hours' time events might have so developed that the train would be held up further on the line. Had the Empress and her children started on the 12th or even on the 13th early, in an ordinary train, they would certainly have been able to reach the Emperor at Mohileff, or to meet him on the way.

The Empress was still without news from the Emperor. She could scarcely master her anxiety. The Emperor usually answered a telegram from her in a couple of hours, and she saw in this silence a further proof that serious things were happening outside Petrograd too. Mme. Dehn now volunteered to help the Empress with her nursing, and her sympathy and calmness made her a real support. Of all the Empress's ladies only myself and the lectrice Mlle. Schneider were in the Palace. Mme. Narishkin was in Petrograd and was not able to come until March 20th, and Countess Hendrikov had left for the Caucasus. General Ressine, General Dobrovolsky and Colonel Grooten were all the time in the Palace, as were also the doctors Botkin and Derevenko and M. Gilliard. Count Apraxin came at Count Benckendorffs request on the morning of the 13th, and Count and Countess Benckendorff came over from the Lyceum building on the evening of the 13th and settled in Countess Hendrikov's rooms. The Empress saw the gentlemen and myself several times a day in a "neutral" room, so as to avoid spreading the infection further, and according to her habit wrote me short notes in between. She was always a great letter-writer, and preferred writing notes to the trouble of coming to the telephone. Her friends and the members of her household used to get many such little notes, containing her orders or comments on any events that had impressed her.

Count Apraxin came from Petrograd with a most alarming tale. Nearly all the regiments in the capital had joined the original mutineers. The Government had entrenched itself in the Admiralty under the protection of the few remaining loyal troops, and was having continuous sittings, which led to no result, as the executive power was no longer in their hands. The Duma had ignored the Imperial decree for its prorogation, which had been issued before events had reached their present crisis, and had assumed the direction of affairs.

On the evening of March 13th the Tsarskoe Selo garrison, which had until then refused to join the rebels, left their barracks, and marched out, firing their rifles into the air and at the houses they passed by. They went first to the local prison, the doors of which they threw open, to the delight of its inmates. These were mostly thieves, as no more serious offenders were kept in a prison near to the Imperial residence. Thence they looted the neighboring wine-shops. Thoroughly roused, and most of them drunk, several thousands of them started for the Alexander Palace. They intended to seize the Empress and the heir, and take them to the Revolutionary Headquarters Staff at Petrograd. The wild firing that went on gave the alarm to the Palace Guards. These consisted of two battalions of the Combined Regiment, one battalion of the Naval Guards, 1200 strong, two squadrons of Cossacks of the Escort, one company of the 1st Railway Regiment, and one Heavy Field Battery, from Pavlovsk, under the command of Count Rehbinder.

It fell to me again to bring the news of the mutiny of the troops to the Empress. She was in the sickrooms, and when I came upstairs was just crossing the corridor. She was quite alive to the danger, but most painfully surprised at hearing that the Tsarskoe Selo garrison, on whose loyalty we had all counted, had mutinied. She went at once to the children to tell them that manoeuvres were going on, so that they should not be frightened by any sound of firing. She then asked me to call the gentlemen, and came down to discuss the situation with Count Apraxin and General Ressine. The Empress could not bear the idea of fighting on her account, and begged that the troops defending the Palace should not in any way provoke their assailants, so not a single shot was fired by the Palace Guards. She threw a black fur cloak over her white nurses' dress, and, accompanied by the Grand Duchess Marie and by Count Benckendorff, went out herself to speak to the soldiers of the Guards. She went into the courtyard and all through the Palace basement, where the men came in turns to warm themselves, telling the soldiers how fully she trusted in their fidelity to the Emperor, and how well she knew that if need arose they would defend the heir, but that she hoped that no blood need be shed. The scene was unforgettable. It was dark, except for a faint light thrown up from the snow and reflected on the polished barrels of the rifles. The troops were lined up in battle order in the courtyard, the first line kneeling in the snow, the others standing behind, their rifles in readiness for a sudden attack. The figures of the Empress and her daughter passed like dark shadows from line to line, the white Palace looming a ghostly mass in the background. Firing from near by sounded in wild gusts. The mutinous troops had reached the so-called "Chinese village" near the Big Palace. The Cossack patrols reported that they would not venture farther, as they had heard that immense forces were massed in the Palace courtyard, and that machine-guns were stationed on the roof. Neither of these rumours was true, but they served the purpose of the moment, for the mutineers decided that they would not attack the Palace till the morning.

Inside the Palace the night was passed in great anxiety. Firing was heard at intervals, and the Cossacks reported that an armored train manned by rebel troops from Petrograd was moving up and down the line between the capital and the Imperial station at Tsarskoe Selo. It was rumoured that the rebels were anxious to get possession of the Empress and her children and to hold them as hostages in case things went against them; while further rumours said that they had sworn to murder the Empress.

The Benckendorffs, Count Apraxin and I spent the whole of that night in the Empress's rooms, so as to. be near her in case of sudden attack. Our small company had been increased by the addition of one of the Emperor's aides-de-camp, Count Adam Zamoyski, who, hearing of the danger to the Empress and her children, had come with the greatest difficulty from the capital, part of the way on foot. He stayed at the Palace until he was recalled by orders of General Headquarters. I must place his conduct on record, for he came At once to the Empress in her hour of need, though he was one of the A.D.C.'s whom she had known least. A little later Colonel Linevitch, another A.D.C., also came. During the evening the Empress was wheeled in her bath-chair to Mine. Vyrubova, who was terrified at the sound of firing, and felt that something was being kept from her, which was indeed the case, as it was considered that the agitation of knowing the truth would increase her already high fever. I went with the Empress across the vast dark halls-the electric light and water supply had been cut off by the revolutionaries - and our feet echoed uncannily in the empty rooms. We did not meet a soul; all the servants, who were usually about the house, had fled, only the Empress's personal staff remaining at their posts.

Even now the Empress was thinking of others. She tried to calm old Countess Benckendorff, and in the evening, when the Countess and I were preparing to camp on sofas in the green sitting-room, Her Majesty suddenly walked in, with pillows and blankets from her own bedroom. She went to her room herself, but did not sleep, only resting for a few hours while the Grand Duchess Marie, quite worn out, slept on the bed beside her, and three or four times during the night she came in to us, looking like a ghost in her nurses' dress, her face pale, her features sharpened by anxiety, to share what news we might have of events outside or of the Emperor's movements. On one of these occasions she brought some biscuits and fruit for the Countess - she always had some in her bedroom to eat during sleepless hours. I saw then how oblivious she was to outward things, for she had not noticed that she had not put on came in stockinged feet, as she had been her shoes, and lying down.

At one moment during that night we heard a sudden rush of heavy feet along the balcony outside the Empress's rooms. The same thought struck the Countess and myself: that the attacking party had forced the lines of defence and had come to Jay hands on the Empress. I went to the balcony door, asking Countess Benckendorff to take the Empress upstairs to the children, while I parleyed with the men. To my immense relief I found on opening the door that the men who were hammering so violently were only some of the sailors, who did not understand the geography of the Palace and had come to the wrong entrance on their way to warm themselves in the basement. (It was 22 degrees C. below zero outside.)

The gentlemen spent the night walking about the corridors and going down at intervals to the guardroom. It was known that the Emperor had left Mohileff, and at six in the morning the Empress came in again to ask for news of "him." Nothing had been heard, and we were all seriously alarmed. The Empress grew whiter than ever when Countess Benckendorff volunteered the unfortunate remark: "Et cést le premier Imars aujourd'hui " - the anniversary of the assassination of Alexander II! The Empress pulled herself together and said: " Il y a des diffcultés en chemin, probablement, le train ne tardera pas á venir." It was, however, not until eight in the morning on Match 14th that Grooten heard that the Emperor's train had been held up at Malaia Vischera, and was coming to Tsarskoe Selo via Gatchina.

It was lucky that the attacking party did not continue their advance. Had they attempted to storm the Palace, they would have taken it easily, for the troops on guard would have been completely surprised. Before the patrol service was organized, no one knew exactly where the attacking party was, nor what were its movements. No plan of defence had been made, and great anxiety was caused by a rumour that the revolutionaries had mounted two siege guns in the "Sophia" (a part of Tsarskoe) and intended using them against the Palace. Had they done this, the Palace would have been completely destroyed. Fortunately they had no ammunition, though this was not known at the time.

The whole of March 14th passed without news of the Emperor. Outside the Palace the firing ceased. The mutineers decided to join their comrades in Petrograd, there to await further developments. On March 13th the Empress had sent for the Grand Duke Paul, the Emperor's uncle. I was told by the Grand Duchess Marie, who was in the next room, that their interview was a very stormy one, and that the Empress severely criticized the fact that all the troops in the Petrograd military district were reserve men from the adjoining factories. After this one heated conversation, however, the Grand Duke Paul (who was afterwards murdered by the Bolsheviks on January 29th, 1919) was kindness itself to the Empress, and he and his wife, Princess Paley, wrote several times to their Majesties during their imprisonment.

During these first days the only way in which the occupants of the Palace could get news about the situation in the town was in short talks on the private telephone that connected the Winter Palace in Petrograd with the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe, and the people in the Winter Palace only knew what was going on in the immediate neighborhood. One or two servants came on foot from the capital - there was no longer any train service. Some of these described the murders of officers and police, which they or their relations had seen or heard of. Others said that the Duma was taking the situation in hand and that things were improving. There was complete confusion, and since no newspapers appeared, there was noway of getting reliable information. A kind of truce had been arranged at Tsarskoe between the soldiers inside and outside the Palace, who had agreed to await developments, for it was reported that two delegates from the Duma had gone to meet the Emperor. In the meantime the Palace guard, who wore white bands on their arms as a distinguishing mark, saw that no one left the Palace. On March 14th the Grand Duke Paul sent the Empress the draft of a manifesto, granting a constitution, which he wanted Her Majesty to sign. Some of the Grand Dukes had already signed this paper. The Empress would not do so. She told me that, though she considered it necessary for concessions to be made, she thought that for her to sign such a paper would look "as if I did just the things that I am accused of doing and do not do. I am not the Regent, and have no right to take any initiative in the Emperor's absence. Besides, such a paper would be quite illegal and worth nothing at all."

Late on that same night General Ivanov arrived from General Headquarters, and asked to see the Empress at 2am. He had been sent in command of the troops that were to put down the rioting in the capital, and had left them at Vyritza, some twenty versts away. He wanted the Empress to give him authority to use the troops guarding the Palace to protect his rear, while he himself marched on Petrograd with the St. George battalion. The Empress .replied very reasonably that he had full powers and instructions from the Emperor, and that he must act as he thought best. She could not give orders in military matters. General Ivanov, as a matter of fact, did nothing at all. He stayed with the St. George's battalion at Vyritza, and did not even detrain his men. After the Emperor's abdication he returned by orders of General Headquarters to Mohileff. The fact that he had seen the Empress was used as another point against her, and she was accused of having plotted with him for a counter-revolution.

The number of troops at the Alexander Palace had decreased. Early on March 15th the Equipage de la Garde was recalled to Petrograd, it was said by order of their commander, the Grand Duke Cyril Vladimirovich. It was a poignant moment for the Empress when she saw the colours that had always been kept at the Palace taken away. Count Benckendorff insisted that this should not be done secretly, and the colours left with the usual ceremonial, the guard drawn up in the courtyard and the band playing. Alexandra Feodorovna had always loved the Navy, and the officers and men of their beloved Standart had been much spoilt by attention from the Imperial Family. It so happened that the Naval colours were the first to leave the Palace. The Empress heard the sound of drums and looked out of the window just as they passed below. She watched the scene with tears that no personal danger had been able to make her shed. The loss of the colours seemed symbolic of all the other things that were slipping away.

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Alexandra Feodorovna was the last Romanov Empress of Imperial Russia. This online book - The Life and Tragedy of Alexandra Feororvna was written by Countess Sophie Buxhoeveden, Lady-in-Waiting to the Empress, who served the Empress for many years and followed the Imperial family into exile.
Table Of Contents
  1. Early Surroundings
  2. Childhood
  3. A Young Princess
  4. Engagement
  5. Marriage
  6. Her New Home
  7. Coronation
  8. Journeys
  9. Charities and Life
  10. Queen Victoria
  11. Foreign Trips
  12. Birth of Alexis
  13. Gathering Clouds
  14. On the Standart
  15. Rasputin
  16. Her Family
  17. Empress at Home
  18. Last Years of Peace
  19. Wartime 1914
  20. War Work
  21. Without the Emperor
  22. Visits to Headquarters
  23. Before the Storm
  24. Warning Voices
  25. Rasputin's Murder
  26. Revolution 1917
  27. Abdication of the Emperor
  28. Prisoners
  29. Five Weary Months
  30. Tobolsk
  31. Ekaterinburg 1918
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