Places to go

Aleksandra Fyodorovna



Clouds were gathering on the horizon. The tension between Russia and Japan was growing more acute, though few people realised the evident danger. The general public and many statesmen treated with contempt the idea of a small Eastern Power challenging Great Russia. After a theatrical performance at the Hermitage Theatre, the Japanese Minister made a particularly low bow on taking leave of the Emperor. Seasoned diplomats noticed this and felt uneasy. It looked as if the polite Japanese were taking a private farewell of the Emperor, who had always been personally friendly to him. Two days later the Japanese bombarded the harbour of Port Arthur, and hostilities began.

For many years Russia had enjoyed the blessings of peace. Now St. Petersburg suddenly woke up in a war atmosphere. It is true that the Russo-Japanese War did not touch the vital chords of the country, as did the European conflict. Incomparably fewer men were mobilized. The loss of life was small when compared with that of 1914-1918. There was no question of food restrictions, or of changes in the life of the people. The great battles were fought so far away that the country had not the feeling of an enemy invading Russian soil. The real tragedy of that war was that it showed the country grave defects in government machinery. The revolutionary elements profited by this, and by the ferment which is the usual consequence of an unsuccessful war.

In St. Petersburg, the centre of government, the war occupied the minds of all classes.

The Empress Alexandra Feodorovna began at once to take an active part in war work. The Dowager-Empress headed the Red Cross, whilst her daughter-in-law started an immense workshop, or sklad, in the Hermitage Palace, to supply the ambulance trains with hospital garments, warm clothes, and medical materials. The Red Cross was incapable of coping with the wants of the military hospitals, as the supplies in Siberia were very small. The Empress sent warm clothing, and at Christmas in the next year thousands of presents, to the troops, at which she worked for whole days herself. Hundreds of women of all classes were busy in her workshop. All those who came were welcome, and the huge rooms were full. Every day the Empress went to her sklad. The doors leading to the Hermitage from the Winter Palace would open and the Empress would come in, preceded by a negro attendant, carrying her work. She went through all the rooms, talking to this person or that, sitting first at one table, then at another, speaking to the humblest workers, before going into the day's business with the ladies in charge. These were Princess M. M. Galitzin, the Grande Maitresse, and Princess E. N. Obolensky, her maid-of-honour. The Empress considered every detail herself. Her clear and practical mind noted everything, and when she made suggestions she saw that they were carried out. She was, however, again in a delicate state of health, and, though she felt better than she usually did on such occasions, she had to give up active work in the summer when her confinement was near.

She wrote at this time to Princess Louis:

There is no end of work to be done, but it is a great comfort to be able to help one's poor sufferers a little. We have closed our work in the town now and re-open it in the English palace at Peterhof. . . . All work hard. Lilly [Princess E. N. Obolensky] manages it splendidly. She has such a clear, practical brain and good memory. We work for the army hospitals (apart from the Red Cross) and for the well who need clothes, tobacco ... and then we furnish [supply] military trains.... I like following all and not to be a mere doll. Yes, it is a trying time, but one must put all one's trust in God, who gives strength and courage. Unluckily I cannot get about at all and spend my days on the sofa ... walking and standing causes me great pain.... I know I must lie, it is the only remedy (June 1904).
AlekseyLeft: Tsarevich Alexei

On August 12th, 1904, the longed-for son, the Tsarevich Alexei Nicholaevich, was born. Those who knew how the Empress had prayed and waited for this crowning happiness in her married life, and who understood the importance of direct succession in a country like Russia, can realise what this meant to her. Up to the last days before her son's birth, the Empress gave necessary audiences, and only a few hours before the event received a General who was leaving for the front. The boy was big and healthy, and early gave promise of great good looks. No signs of the hemophilia that afterwards developed in him were noticeable at the outset. Notwithstanding the serious atmosphere caused by the war, the baby's advent gave unmitigated joy to the parents. " My sunbeam," the Empress used to call her boy.

The whole country burst into frantic rejoicings. The news spread rapidly to every village in Russia, and great demonstrations took place. The baby's christening was like a pageant. No heir to the crown had been born in Russia, as heir, since the seventeenth century, and the ceremony was surrounded with splendor that matched the importance of the event. It took place in the Chapel of the big Peterhof Palace on August 24th, 1904. King George V of England (then Prince of Wales) and the German Emperor were among the baby's godfathers. The Empress Marie Feodorovna was his godmother. The baby Tsarevich was appointed Colonel of many regiments and decorations were showered on him. Imperial bounty in every form, amnesties, remittances of sentences, gifts of money were among the signs of the Emperor's joy at the birth of an heir. The baby throve through it all. At the ceremony of his baptism old Princess Galitzin once more carried an Imperial infant in her arms to church, and this time her task was still more difficult, as the result of a slip would have been even more terrible. Indeed, she was always in such terror of falling on these occasions, that she had rubber soles put to her shoes, court floors being proverbially slippery. The baby lay on a pillow of cloth of gold, slung to the Princess's shoulders by a broad gold band. He was covered with the heavy cloth-of-gold mantle, lined with ermine, worn by the heir to the crown. The mantle was supported on one side by Prince Alexander Sergeiovich Dolgorouky, the Grand Marshal of the Court, and on the other by Count P. Benckendorff, as decreed by custom and wise precaution. The baby wept loudly, as might any ordinary baby, when old Father Yanishev dipped him in the font. His four small sisters, in short Court dresses, gazed open-eyed at the ceremony, Olga Nicholaevna, then nine years old, being in the important position of one of the godmothers. According to Russian custom, the Emperor and Empress were not present at the baptism, but directly after the ceremony the Emperor went to the church. Both he and the Empress always confessed to feeling very nervous on these occasions, for fear that the Princess might slip, or that Father Yanishev, who was very old, might drop the baby in the font.

All went off perfectly, however, though on another occasion - I think it was at the baptism of the Grand Duchess Anastasia - the singular fan-lily likeness of Princess Galitzin and her sisters caused the Emperor a moment of great uneasiness. (She had three sisters, Mme. Ozeroff, Mme. Apraxin, and Mme. Boutourline, who all dressed in the same fashion as she did, and wore the same pokebonnets.) On this occasion the Emperor was driving to the palace, where the christening, had, so he was told, just taken place. On his way he passed Princess Galitzin's house, and, to his horror and surprise, thought he saw her sitting, in front of it! She ought at that moment to have been in church in full Court dress, and fearing that something had happened, the Emperor stopped his caléche and jumped out. When he reached the deeply-curtseying lady, he saw that she was slightly younger than the Grande Maitresse - that it was, in fact, someone else very like her! The Emperor said a few polite words to the old lady and never told her the fright she had given him, nor do I know if any but the members of his family realised that his hurried stop was not due to a sudden desire to make Mme. Boutourline's acquaintance!

Even at the time of his son's birth, affairs of State completely engrossed the Emperor. He was often absent, before and after the event, travelling about Russia, reviewing the troops that were to leave for the Far East. The Empress stayed with the baby. As soon as she was well enough to travel, she went with the Emperor and all the children for a cruise on the Standart to Reval, where the Emperor reviewed Admiral Rodestvensky's ill-fated fleet, before it left on its glorious, but disastrous, voyage to the Far East.

At Tsarskoe Selo the Empress had her own little hospital, which she visited daily, though she did not nurse herself. She had a home for disabled soldiers built in the palace park. This was named the Invalidny Dom. The men were trained in all kinds of crafts. Some lived in the home, others only stayed long enough to learn a trade which would enable them to supplement their pensions and earn a living at home. This was the first thing, of the kind ever done in Russia. The Empress put Count V. A. Schulenbourg at the head of this institution and continued to supervise it herself to the last.

The birth of the Tsarevich Alexei gave the Empress popularity. The criticism that had been heard of her too great domesticity was heard no more. The Empress had done her duty to the country, and the knowledge of this gave her greater self-confidence.

There could be no question of great receptions in war time, but in the autumn of this year the Empress began to give dinners at Tsarskoe Selo for the young women of St. Petersburg society and their husbands. A whole series of these small dinners had been planned, and she had gone through long lists with Count Benckendorff, but only two dinners had been given when the news from the seat of war was so bad that the Empress had not the heart to continue entertaining.

In 1904 the Russian armies had a few minor successes, but the fleet suffered serious losses during the bombardment of Port Arthur. Many vessels had struck mines, among, them Admiral Makarov's flagship, the Petropavlovsk, which had been sunk with the gallant Admiral and nearly all his crew. The Grand Duke Cyril was one of those who escaped almost by a miracle after floating for hours among the debris. The Emperor balanced the successes against the disasters as chances of war. But in the country subterranean murmurings began to be heard. Revolutionary activity, which had not made itself felt since the beginning of the reign, was showing itself again, and Ministers whose policy was deemed too conservative were murdered in the streets.

The Emperor and Empress, though greatly shocked, always put down these attempts as the work of international anarchists, and not of the home-grown revolutionary party. And it is true that the country as a whole was not revolutionary at this time. It was only among a small section of the workmen and among the poorer peasants of some of the provinces that the revolutionary agents succeeded in spreading their teaching. Dissatisfaction at the mobilization, and the unsettled minds of the people gave them a fruitful field in which to increase their activities. just before Christmas, 1904, Port Arthur fell. This had been considered impregnable, and its loss was a terrible blow to the national pride. Now all hopes were centred on the Baltic Fleet, but the conditions under which it had to fight were unfavorable. The enemy had every advantage, and, on the anniversary of the Coronation, May 27, 1905, the fatal battle of Tsushima was fought, and Russia lost nearly all its fleet and thousands of gallant seamen. The horror of the moment when they heard the news of the disaster was never forgotten by the Emperor and Empress. The day of the Coronation was, after that time, a day, not of rejoicing, but of prayer. It always meant Tsushima to them.

Next chapter: Gathering Clouds

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