THE EMPRESS IN HER NEW HOME, 1895
The winter of 1895 was spent by the Imperial couple in the greatest retirement. At Christmas mourning was somewhat relaxed. There was the traditional Christmas tree for the Cossacks of the Emperor's escort, and on New Year's Day the Empress held her first sortie, the equivalent of a Drawing-room, which took place in the afternoon. After a solemn Mass in the chapel of the Winter Palace, which the whole Imperial Family and the Court attended in gala dress, the ladies of St. Petersburg society were presented in turn to the Empress, who described the ceremony in a letter to Princess Louis of Battenberg, dated February 4th, 1895:
Yesterday was a baise-main for all the ladies; it was rather amusing, especially seeing those I knew in 1889, but when Madame Narishkin, Papa's friend, whom we also saw at Illinskoe and who was photoed on the group came I could scarcely swallow my tears, it made me think so awfully of him. The deputations from the whole country came twice last week, and were interesting in their different picturesque costumes. They brought most beautiful plates and images. Another day, three Tartar ladies came and brought me a costume. It was the first time their husbands allowed them to come from Orenburg. They need not be veiled before the Russian men, which is odd.. . .
It was a very beautiful and picturesque scene. All the ladies wore the traditional dress of the Russian Court. The dames a portrait (Women of the Bedchamber) and maids-of-honour were obliged to wear certain colours and forms of headdress. The rest of the company wore Court dress, in which the wearer's imagination had been allowed full play. The result was a gorgeous picture. The young Empress at her first sortie wore a dress of heavy cloth of silver, fur-edged, with magnificent diamonds and pearls. The long ceremony must have been very tiring. Hundreds of wedding presents had been showered on the new sovereign and his bride, and many deputations came to give them in person.
My two ladies at present are Princess Galitsyn, sister of Madame Ozeroff at Frankfort (who will be, probably, appointed at Darmstadt instead of 0. Sacken), then Countess Lamsdorff, the sister of Stuttgart Lamsdorff. They are both charming and I like them exceedingly. I see them rarely, they live in the Winter palace, "Schneiderlein" - my lectrice, now, please - too. She was 38 or 39 the other day. She comes every morning for a good lesson, and reads an hour to me before supper, whilst Nicky is occupied with papers ; he has a fearful amount to do, so that we are scarcely ever to ourselves. . . .
The news from Georgie is good again, after he has had a bad cough again. End of February or beginning of March, this style here, he will go on the Derjava or Polar Star for a cruise perhaps, he may pass Malta.
Do let me hear from you soon again, deaf, as your dear letters are a great joy to me. I am sure fat little Georgie must be a great joy to you and now that he can walk more. The tiny frames are for Alice and Louise. No more today, else I shall bore you with this long rigmarole.
The young Empress found interest in everything Russian; she read and translated from national authors, and studied the music of the country, which had at once appealed to her. Whenever they had an evening alone, the Emperor read aloud, a habit to which he always adhered. At first the readings were mostly in French, as the Empress wanted to improve her knowledge of the Russian court language. They read no light literature! The Empress in one of her first letters to her sister mentions the titles of the books they were then reading: Le Roman du Prince Eugéne; Nolhac's Duchesse d' Angouleme; Napoléon d Ste. Hélene, etc. Later, when the Empress could understand Russian sufficiently, the Emperor read his favorite authors to her, and in this way she gained a considerable knowledge of Russian literature. It was from these readings that she formed her own idea of the Russian peasant. Though not in sympathy with all Tolstoy's philosophy, she accepted his ideal view of peasant life without being able to judge for herself, and realise the whole complexity of the Russian nature-its weaknesses and its defects of character. She saw these distinctly in the members of the upper classes with whom she came into contact, but she imagined the peasant to be different. He seemed to her a simple, innocent child with all the artlessness of childhood and a childlike faith. She was an inveterate idealist. Though she had many disillusions, as all Princes must have, she continued to believe in the inherent good of all humanity. The future of Russia lay, she thought, with the peasants-with the classes that were still untainted by the poison of civilization.
She became more and more attached to the Russian Church, throwing herself into the practice of its religion with all the fervour of her nature. In this she was encouraged by the Emperor. He was the official head of the Church, not narrow in his views, but deeply religious by nature. Those who saw him in church could tell by the expression of his eyes how sincere was his faith.
The Empress had come to Russia imbued by the feeling that she must do her duty to her husband's country. Duty seemed to her above all to be social work. In her very first letter to her sister, in January 1895, she notes that she has not yet seen any hospitals. She could not do much that year, for she was expecting a baby in the autumn, and spent a quiet spring and summer at the little seaside villa at Peterhof. This hope made the Empress's happiness complete, and all her thoughts were full of the coming child. The motherly strain was the most salient trait of her character. Every pleasure was sacrificed that might possibly endanger her health. The coming event seemed to her so sacred and so wonderful that she scarcely wanted to speak of it to anyone except her sisters and her old friend Toni Becker. In the autumn the Imperial couple moved to the now rearranged Tsarskoe Selo Palace, and there on November 15th the Grand Duchess Olga Nicholaevna was born. The Grand Duchess Serge came from Moscow to be with her sister, and the Dowager-Empress hurried to the Palace as soon as she heard that the event was imminent. The guns of the old fortress of SS. Peter and Paul thundered out the announcement of the birth, and the population of St. Petersburg eagerly counted the shots: 300 would mean an heir, 101 a Grand Duchess. The number of shots seemed endless - 99 - 100 - 101. People broke into wild cheering in clubs and regimental messes, but the reports stopped. It was only a Grand Duchess after all!
To the young parents, the baby, boy or girl, was equally welcome. The proud father notes in his diary that "the baby weighed 10 lb. and is 55 cent. long."
It is a radiantly happy mother who is writing to you," the Empress wrote to her sister, Princess Louis, on December 13th, 1895. "You can imagine our intense happiness now that we have such a precious little being of our own to care for and look after." She nursed her little daughter herself, an official wet-nurse being in attendance in case of unexpected complications.
The christening in the Big (or Catherine) Palace church was a splendid function. The baby was taken to church in a gold coach like a fairy Princess. A mantle of cloth of gold covered her little body, and she was carried in state by old Princess Galitzin on a golden cushion. The Dowager-Empress and Queen Olga of Greece were her godmothers, and it was the Empress Marie, wonderfully young-looking for the grandmother's role, who held the baby during the ceremony. The Grand Duchess Olga was a fair, fat baby, not showing as a tiny child the good looks that were to be hers when she grew up. The Empress had the cradle in her boudoir, as she had those of all her subsequent babies, and there the little girl spent most of her days. An English nurse, sent out by Queen Victoria, had a Russian nurse under her, and old "Orchie" had the general supervision of the nurseries. It must be said that she often clashed with the others, and caused great trouble to the Empress by contemptuously sweeping aside her inexperienced suggestions. The Empress fed and bathed her baby herself, knitted endless jackets and socks for her, and enjoyed her even more than do most young mothers their first-born. She was devoted to children, and had often been lonely in her first year in Russia, as the Emperor's work kept him very busy.
This was the Empress's first St. Petersburg season since her marriage. After the Christmas celebrations, the New Year sortie and diplomatic reception came a series of Court balls. Much has been written about the splendor of these fetes, the marvellous setting of the Winter Palace balls, the beautiful uniforms and dresses. Every Guard regiment had a special gala uniform for Court. The servants and the members of the Emperor's private band wore gold and scarlet liveries, the picturesque "Runners" had quaint, befeathered headgear, something like the ballet dress of the " Roi Soleil," and the negro servants, in Oriental costume, lent a touch of Eastern splendor. Their Majesties' entrance was heralded by the tapping of the canes of the Maitres des Cérémonies - tall ivory-topped canes decorated with eagles embossed in gold. The ball was opened by a stately polonaise, in which the Emperor and Empress, the Princes and the Ambassadors took part. Except in this polonaise, the Emperor did not dance, though before his accession he had been a good dancer. The Empress took part only in square dances with the partners that etiquette prescribed. During the round dances she held her cercle and the debutantes were presented to her.
The Empress did not relish these great functions. She had loved dancing as a girl, but ordinary dancing was impossible for her now. If she had felt shy and frightened at Darmstadt parties, where all the people were her friends, here in unknown surroundings, facing hundreds of strangers (to the big ball 2000 people were asked, to the concert balls 800) she felt absolutely lost. She used to say that during the cercles she longed to disappear under the ground. All her French evaporated, and her conversation languished; she blushed and looked ill at ease. During the famous suppers under the palm-trees that followed the concert balls, her neighbor on every occasion for over ten years was the doyen of the Diplomatic Corps, the Turkish Ambassador, Husny Pasha. He was a heavy and uninteresting old gentleman, whom, it was said, the Ottoman Government only kept on at his post because he was doyen, and because in that way the Turkish representative was always first.
In addition to presentations made at the balls, the Empress daily received large groups of ladies in audience. In this, too, she was greatly hampered by her shyness and Princess Galitzin did not help her so much as she might have done-telling her who the people were and what topic of conversation would be most suited to each. The Princess was a Muscovite: she had gone out very little before her appointment, and hardly knew the younger generation. To her old-fashioned ideas, it was sufficient honour for the ladies to be received by the Empress at all. What did it matter what she said to them? Why tormenter la pauvre ame with details and explanations? So the Empress had to speak in a general and non-committal manner to everyone who came, and these receptions did not increase her acquaintance with St. Petersburg society. Had she come to Russia as Tsarevna (wife of the heir), a position the Empress Marie Feodorovna had held for fourteen years, it would have been easier for her. The Dowager-Empress, with her knowledge of the world, her love of society and charm of manner, would have helped her young daughter-in-law to know people in a natural way. She would thus have created a circle of friends for herself, who would have supported her as Empress. Corning at once to the exalted position which must inevitably isolate sovereigns from the rest of the world, the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna could not easily make friends. She had no possibility of getting to know anyone better at the big functions ; and at the Russian Court, where everything was ordered by unalterable tradition, any kind of small and informal entertainment was unknown. Society did not know her, and her timidity was ascribed to haughtiness, and her reserve to pride. There were no young women of Alexandra Feodorovna's age in the Imperial Family at the time of her marriage, except the Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna, the Emperor's eldest sister and herself a bride. She and her husband, the Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, and their baby daughter Princess Irina, (now Princess Felix Yussupov), were living temporarily at the Winter Palace. The children were about the same age and always together, and the young mothers joined in baby worship by the hour. The Grand Duchess Serge, whose help would have been invaluable to her younger sister, was tied down to Moscow, where her husband occupied the responsible post of Governor-General; the older generation, the Emperor's uncles and aunts, were outwardly friendly, but, as they were accustomed to the Dowager-Empress's worldly savoir-faire, they did not try to help the newcomer in their family, who in her turn felt shy of them. One of the aunts, the Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna (Vladimir), was a brilliant society leader, but was much older than the Empress and was unlike her in character. There was a contingent of gay young bachelor cousins, who led their own merry life in St. Petersburg and Paris, but who could form no link between the young Empress and society. Alexander III had always had a big family dinner once a week, but this was discontinued in the new reign. The relations had according to custom to ask permission to call on the Emperor and Empress, and were then generally invited to lunch or tea, but return visits were not frequent and always inevitably marked with a certain amount of formality. Alexandra Feodorovna only succeeded in completely winning the hearts of the senior members of the family: the splendid looking old Field-Marshal Grand Duke Michael Nicholaevich, son of Nicholas I, and his equally handsome sister-in-law, the Grand Duchess Constantine (Alexandra Iossiphovna). She paid them all the charming little attentions by which a bright young woman can cheer the old people. Here she was in her element, and she so much endeared herself to her old aunt that, though the Grand Duchess Constantine had for years retired from the world, she decided to attend the coronation at Moscow!
Alexandra Feodorovna's study of Russian charitable institutions continued, and she went with the Emperor to visit the schools and hospitals in St. Petersburg. Official visits did not satisfy her, though she had to put off a more thorough inspection until later. All this spring her thoughts and time were taken up with preparation for the Coronation, to be held at Moscow, according to tradition, in May 1896. Throughout her busy winter the Empress's thoughts were centred on this event, and on the great mystical and religious importance attached to it by all Russians. The Grand Duke Serge explained to her every detail of its complicated ceremonial, and encouraged her to realise its deep religious significance. The actual ceremony, the general atmosphere in Moscow at the time, the old rites and customs, made an ineffaceable impression on the Empress. They turned her thoughts more and more towards the old traditions in religion and art that had always attracted her, and this, indirectly, had its influence on her growing political ideas.
Next chapter: The Coronation
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