ON THE STANDART, 1905-1912
Left: Alexei, Alexandra and Nicholas on the Standard around 1910.
After the agitation of 1905 the country readjusted its political balance very quickly. Still, during the sessions of the first Duma subversive currents were very strong, and the state of political tension remained great.
To the Emperor and Empress the resumption of brilliant Court life seemed hardly suitable. They did not realise, of course, that the troubles of 1905 were only a general rehearsal of those of 1917, but they thought the times too grave for festivities. The mistake they made was in not replacing their large functions by more informal receptions of prominent politicians and people of note. By this means they would have kept in touch with the general atmosphere of the country, for, by their position, they were cut off from direct contact with public opinion, and, owing to their mode of life, the opinions they heard were nearly always those of the same people. However, simpler intercourse was not customary at the Russian Court, and both the Emperor and Empress, after a few unavailing efforts to make other changes in Court routine at the beginning of their reign, found that even an autocrat's power was helpless against the set rules sanctified by custom. They gave up attempts at innovations: the Emperor because he had no time, the Empress because any extra fatigue was already beginning to be too much for her strength, though she would never admit this. So, except two or three guests at luncheon, generally Ministers or high military officials, their life with their household settled down into a quiet daily routine. The Empress wrote to Princess Louis of Battenberg on December 23, 1905:
Twice a week the regiments from town come out here. The officers dine with us (enfamille, quite simply), spend the night in the Big Palace, and the next morning is a review out of doors or in the riding school. . . .
Further on one has a glimpse of her anxieties:
Don't expect a long letter, one is not in the letter-writing mood. Nicky slaves, many a day passes without his getting out, or if so, only in the dark. His poor head gets so tired, but he is brave and full of trust and hope in God's mercy.
There were a few indispensable official functions, but the Court no longer lived in St. Petersburg. All the winters were spent at Tsarskoe Selo, with occasional visits to the capital. This was no privation to the Empress, and the Emperor was so busy at that time that he would not, in any case, have been able to resume their former mode of life.
This retirement, mainly due to circumstances, had dire results in every way. The first was that the Empress gradually lost the popularity that she had begun to acquire after her son's birth. A very few people knew how charming she was: the rest did not know anything about her. Her circle narrowed more and more. Her letters are full of her children, who took up an increasing amount of her time as they grew up.
She wrote to Princess Louis on June 13, 1905:
The children are getting on nicely with their lessons, they have English and French masters too; they ride much also, which they greatly enjoy. Baby is getting on, thank God, splendidly. Do have Louise I photographed, so as that I can get a good idea of her now, as a big girl; Marie P. also has her hair done up now.
In summer the Court moved from Tsarskoe Selo to Peterhof. The Empress liked the small, unpretentious villa at the seaside (nizhni Palace, b.a.), where all her children, except the eldest had been born. She had loved the sea from childhood, and the greatest pleasure she had was when the Imperial Family were on their yacht, cruising in Finnish waters. This was the Emperor's only holiday. For some weeks his audiences and his work with the Ministers were interrupted. Messengers came daily from the capital, bringing him ministerial reports, but his day was free to do as he liked with - a rare treat for him. All possible formality was dispensed with, and the Court led a simple life, in which the officers of the yacht took part. The Standart was fitted out with every comfort. The Imperial Family's cabins were nearly as large as their rooms in the Peterhof villa, and were upholstered in pretty light chintzes. The Empress spent most of her day lying on a couch on deck, one of her daughters always staying with her when she did not feel well enough to go ashore.
My Nurses' School has been opened now and makes a nice impression. I only hope it will be a real success. . . .
She was often joined by one or other of the officers, or by some of the Household, who sat and talked to her, while she worked or drew. The Emperor would go on shore with the gentlemen of his suite to walk or play tennis on a rather primitive court, and in autumn there was generally some shooting, in which the officers of the yacht joined. The young Grand Duchesses now went about with their father, replacing their mother, while the little Tsarevich played with the ship's boys on the rocky beach. It was a healthy life for the young people, and the bracing air of Finland did them all good, particularly the delicate little boy, who, except on such occasions, never had real country air.
The stays on the yacht were sometimes prolonged until late in the autumn in the years when there were no visits to Poland or the Crimea, so loth were they all to return to the monotony of Tsarskoe Selo. Generally these cruises were limited to that part of the coast that lies between Kronstadt and Helsingfors, for the Emperor had to be within easy reach of his Government. A favourite place of anchorage was the lonely bay of Pitkopas, near Biorke.
Here was typical Finnish scenery: rocky islands, with tall pines growing in the chinks of the grey granite, with no house in sight. Dark forests stretched far into the mainland, and here were hidden the few lonely fishermen's huts. The transparent waters were still and quiet in the wonderful "white nights" of May and June, when the light of one day lasted till the dawn of the next. The Empress loved the long, still days, the bright, moonlight nights on the water, the evening prayer of the sailors on deck before the lowering of the flag, when the last rays of the setting sun rested on the sea, on the woods, and on the escorting ships, while the deep voices of the men, singing the Lord's Prayer, echoed far away into the silence.
The Emperor was asked by the Ministers not to undertake any journeys by land in the years between 1905-1909. He therefore took advantage of these cruises to visit the naval bases in the Baltic, Baltisch Port, Reval, Libau and Riga. In the last-named town the Imperial Family were present in 1910 at the inauguration of the monument to Peter the Great, when great festivities took place. The Empress was very ailing then, and could with difficulty manage the necessary public appearances. She was not well enough to go on shore, and held receptions of the Baltic nobility on the yacht, while the Emperor and her daughters went to the functions on land.
Fewer foreign Royalties came to Russia in these years, but in June 1908 there were some family visits. King Edward and Queen Alexandra came on the Victoria and Albert to Reval for two days (June 9th), the Imperial Fan-lily meeting them on the Standart, and later in the summer King Frederick and Queen Louise of Denmark came with their daughters to pay their accession visit. Their stay, which was at Peterhof, was more of a family meeting than an official visit, and the whole Imperial Family then living in the neighborhood took part in entertaining them.
That same year a whole galaxy of princes came to Tsarskoe Selo for the wedding of the Emperor's cousin, the seventeen-year-old Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna, with Prince William of Sweden (May 3, 1908), which was celebrated with much splendor. The Grand Duchess and her brother, the Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich, were the children of the Grand Duke Paul who lived almost entirely abroad, and they had been brought up by their uncle and aunt, the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess Serge, who had no children of their own. After the terrible shock of her husband's murder, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna could not face a life in the world again. She gave up all her palaces to her nephew and niece, and spent most of her fortune in founding a religious nursing community in Moscow, "The House of Martha and Mary," where she took up her abode. The two sisters then saw even less of each other than formerly. As the Grand Duchess was engrossed by her work, her influence with the Empress gradually became less.
The Grand Duke Dmitry became the Emperor's ward after the death of the Grand Duke Serge, and for a time lived at Tsarskoe Selo, to the great joy of his young cousins, the Emperor and Empress treating him as a son of the house.
The King of Sweden was among the princes present at the marriage of the Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna to his son at Tsarskoe Selo.
The Swedish Royalties were seen several times during these years. In June 1908 the Imperial Family went on a State visit to Stockholm. The visit was one of those that the Empress most enjoyed. She liked the Queen, was interested to see her niece in her new home, and glad to meet one of her English cousins again, the Crown Princess Margaret (a daughter of the Duke of Connaught). A shadow was cast on their stay by an attempt made at the time on the life of a prominent Swedish General. It was whispered that there were plots against the Emperor, and that this attempt was connected with them. For a whole day the Imperial Family were asked to remain on their yacht, the Swedish Royalties visiting them on board. However, this scare passed, and the Empress always looked back with pleasure to her stay in Sweden.
King Edward's visit was returned in 1909, the Imperial Family stopping at Cherbourg on the way to be present at the French naval manoeuvres. President Fallieres entertained his guests most splendidly on the Montcalm, but the visit was confined to Cherbourg, the Emperor and his family living on board the Standart, on which they had come. From Cherbourg they went to Cowes, where they were received by the King and Queen of England. It was just before the August Regatta Week, and Cowes was at its best and gayest. The stay was as unofficial as was possible in the circumstances, but was marked by a splendid naval review held in honour of the Emperor. It was an impressive sight, and the full significance of Great Britain's naval power was emphasized by the lines of mighty battleships and dreadnoughts, drawn up in three majestic tows, which thundered out a salute as King Edward and his Imperial guest passed them on the Victoria and Albert. The Empress wrote to Prince Louis that "dear Uncle had been most kind and attentive." She saw all her relations and some old friends, went to Farnborough to see the aged Empress Eugénie, her mother's friend, and remembered the days of her own youth in the surroundings she loved. Naturally, she stayed with the older people, but in her heart of hearts she would have preferred going about "the Island," as her children did, who derived much enjoyment from their expeditions ashore. It was the first time they had been anywhere abroad, except to Wolfsgarten and once to Princess Henry's place near Kiel, and they were at heart regular tourists.
This was the last time the Empress saw her mother's family. King Edward died within a year and the Empress never came to England again.
On their return from abroad the Imperial Family went to the Crimea for the first time for several years. The country had resumed its normal life outwardly, and an able Prime Minister, Piotr Arkadievich Stolypin, was leading the Government wisely and well. He sympathized with Liberal ideas, without insisting on too sudden and radical reforms ; and he took advantage of the momentary lull to start a vast plan of agrarian reforms which would enable the peasants to become small landowners, and create an intermediate, Conservative class. It would have taken several years to bring this into force all over the country, and long before that could happen Stolypin was dead. He was murdered in September 1911, shot by a revolutionist in the theatre at Kiev during a gala performance given in honour of the Emperor's visit. The Emperor and his daughters were in the theatre at the time, the Empress's health having prevented her from joining them that night, and they came back full of horror at what they had seen. It was hoped at first that the Prime Minister might recover, but four days after he died (September 18, 1911).
The loss of this great statesman was an irreparable one for the Emperor. Not only was he a great man, but he was loyal and faithful to his master, and had his full confidence. His murder seemed to thoughtful people an indication that the revolutionary organizations were active and ready to strike.
The Swedish return visit in 1912 was paid at Pitkopas, where country surroundings lessened the ceremony inseparable from an official visit, which would have been fatiguing both to Queen Victoria of Sweden and to the Empress. For two days the Swedish and Russian anthems seemed never to cease being played, as the Swedish and Russian Royalties exchanged visits on their respective ships. Both the Russian Minister for Foreign Affairs and his Swedish colleague, Count Ehrenswaert, were present, and took part in the State dinner on the Standart, and at the luncheon on the Manligheten. Here again a sad incident occurred. During the salute on the Swedish man-of-war a gun exploded, and several men were killed and wounded. Such incidents always strengthened the Empress's belief that ill-luck attended them. The Emperor had been born on Job's day, and she could not escape from the feeling that something was against them.
During the summer cruise of 1912, in June, the Russian sovereigns had a brief meeting with the German Emperor, who came to Baltisch Port on his yacht, the Hohenzollern. Both Royal parties stayed on their yachts. The Emperor Nicholas, as usual, was an amiable host, while the Empress took part in the entertainments only when it was absolutely necessary, and all present commented on her appearance of extreme fatigue. This was William II's last visit to Russia.
That same summer's stay at Pitkopas was enlivened by the visit of the Dowager-Empress, who came on the Polar Star on August 6th, and gave a dance on board for her granddaughters. The Empresses sat side by side on deck, watching the dancing, the Emperor beside them, evidently deeply appreciative of his mother's visit. This was a real happy family meeting, without any untoward incident to spoil it.
Since 1905 the Empress had other troubles besides the political troubles of Russia to distress her, troubles that gnawed constantly at her heart and sapped her vitality. The apple of her eye was her boy, the child of so many prayers. She had waited for him for so long and had put her whole soul into her supplications for the granting of her heart's desire. Her overwhelming joy at his birth can only be understood by those who saw that outwardly reserved woman in church, pouring out her soul in intense prayer,
The baby was beautiful. He developed rapidly and seemed a strong, fine child: his teething gave him no trouble, and he was exceptionally bright and well developed. The proud parents exhibited the splendid little fellow to the public whenever they could. He was not a year old when, in his mother's arms, he was shown to the soldiers at a review, and "Baby behaved well." When he started trotting about, independently, and had occasional tumbles, the Empress noticed that the boy seemed to suffer more from his bumps than the small accident warranted. In deadly terror, but without speaking of it to anyone, Alexandra Feodorovna watched her darling, with a fear in her heart that she did not dare to put into words. As the child grew older and more active, he developed the typical swellings that pointed to hemophilia, the dreadful disease from which one of her uncles had suffered, and the Empress realised that her only son, her beloved Sunbeam, had the same terrible weakness.
Doctors confirmed her fears, though they said that the Tsarevich was suffering from a mild form only of the disease. His mother's despair can be imagined at hearing her worse fears confirmed. Her agony was the more acute as she knew that it was through her that the boy had inherited the illness. She was in no way to blame, but this did not lessen her terrible feeling of responsibility. Both she and the Emperor hid their anxieties from the world, hoping against hope that there might be some mistake. Alexei Nicholaevich was perfectly well and strong between his attacks, which were caused only by some rash movement on his part, and the Empress always hoped that in the intervals a merciful Providence had wrought a miracle. Once, two whole years passed without a single hemorrhage. The mother revived, her health improved, she looked her former self. Alas! it proved to be a forlorn hope. The boy fell ill again, and though the cause was hidden from everyone, and the parents still trusted that he might completely recover, the doctors had few illusions.
This grief destroyed the Empress's joy in life. The look of sadness, that had always from time to time come over her face, now settled on it for ever. For the sake of her boy's future, she hid her sorrow so well that in the country the nature of the Tsarevich's complaint was unknown. It was whispered about in the palace, but even there no one knew definitely what was the reason of his frequent sudden illnesses.
The strain under which she lived told gradually on the Empress's health. She was obliged to keep more and more to her sofa. Her heart began to trouble her in 1908. She never complained; it was even difficult to make her say how she really felt, but any exertion became such a visible effort that the doctors warned the Emperor about her health, and a cure at Nauheim was prescribed. The Empress disliked intensely the idea of "making a fuss" about herself. "It was despairing," she said to Princess Louis of Battenberg. In another letter (June 5, 1910) to her sister, she wrote:
Don't think my ill health depresses me personally. I don't care, except to see my dear ones suffer on my account, and that I cannot fulfill my duties. But once God sends such a cross, it must be borne. Darling Mama also lost her health at an early age. I have had so much, that, willingly, I give up any pleasures - they mean so little to me, and my family life is such an ideal one, that it is a recompense for anything I cannot take part in. Baby [Alexei Nicholaevich] is growing a little companion to his father. They row together daily. All 5 lunch with him daily, even when I am laid up.
The whole family were to go with the Empress to Nauheim, and it was arranged that they should be the guests of the Grand Duke of Hesse at his castle of Friedberg, where the Empress could take advantage of her cure to see her brother and sisters; for Princess Louis of Battenberg, with her children, and Princess Henry of Prussia were also at Friedberg.
Alexandra Feodorovna's devotion to her family had not lessened in the years of separation. The Empress continued to look up to her eldest sister, feeling in addition to her love a deep admiration for her clear and active mind ; and she was on excellent terms with her brothers-in-law, With Princess Henry, a common sorrow knit her even closer, for each had a child for whose life she trembled; and Princess Henry seized every opportunity to come to her youngest sister, understanding her anxiety as could only another mother who knew the same grief. The Grand Duke of Hesse's lively temperament was outwardly just the opposite to the Empress's, but there were traits in his character that were very like hers, and he always kept the first place in her affection. He was now happy in his second marriage, and his two small sons were the Tsarevich's constant playfellows at Friedberg.
During nearly all her stay the Empress was so ailing and so much tired by her cure that she could not go about, and for the most part lay on a couch in her room or in the garden, with one of her sisters or one of her old friends to keep her company. She was often not able even to come down for meals, but when she felt stronger, she was wheeled in her bath-chair to shop with her sisters at Nauheim, an amusement which she enjoyed like a child. The Emperor and his daughters motored a great deal with their host, and were sometimes so badly mobbed both at Homburg and at Frankfurt, when the public recognized them, that they had to escape through back doors to their cars. The last three weeks of their stay were spent at Wolfsgarten, where the German Emperor came for a day on a surprise visit, arriving unexpectedly in shooting dress.
Though the Emperor was very fond of all his wife's family, the long, stay abroad in 1910 was a little trying to him. He was such a true Russian that he always became homesick after three or four weeks out of his own country. The Empress had undertaken this cure against her own wishes, agreeing to undergo the treatment for her family's sake. She was glad when the cure was over, and the return to Tsarskoe Selo was hailed with joy by all, though the actual moment of parting from her own people was always hard to the Empress. The cure had not, on the whole, done her very much good.
There is not much to note in the Empress's private life in 1911-1912. She was mostly ailing, going about for a short time and then paying for it by weeks on the sofa. Her letters to Miss Jackson give a glimpse of her life:
In 1912 all Russia celebrated the centenary of the French invasion and retreat. The Imperial Family went to Moscow for the inauguration of the monument to Alexander III, then to Smolensk, and to the battlefield of Borodino, September 8th, where the monument commemorative of 1812 had been erected. Here a score or so of old men (the oldest was said to be 122), who had been small children when the great battle was fought, were assembled for the Emperor to meet them. They all had the deep religious reverence of the old-time peasant for the Emperor, but some were getting a little childish and were not quite sure if they were in the presence of Nicholas II or of the Blagoslovenny - "The Blessed One," as the people called Alexander I-who had been Russia's Emperor in 1812. The expression of their faces when they talked to the Tsar was like what Simeon's must have been when he said his Nunc Dimittis. This whole ceremony made a great impression on the Empress, and she left cheerfully looking forward to a few weeks of quiet and her sister's visit.
May 31/June 13, 1911
DARLING MADGIE, - Very tenderest thanks for your dear letter. We came over here on Saturday and hope to go to sea on Saturday. We long for that rest, my husband has been working like a slave for 7 months and I have been ill nearly all the time. The quiet cosy life on board always does us good, so I hope to get a little better, so as not to be always lying. Ernie and his wife will be over for the Coronation. May all go off well, and the heat not be too intense; here it is quite cold since a week, and even frost by night. The children are growing up fast. In November Olga will be 16, Tatiana is almost her size 14 - Marie will be 12, Anastasia 10, Alexei 7. I send them to reviews with their Father, and once they went to a big military luncheon and made circle with the ladies, as I could not go - they must get accustomed to replace me, as I rarely can appear anywhere, and when I do, am afterwards long laid up - over-tired muscles of the heart.
Must end now. Good-bye - God bless you, darling. When do you go to Harrogate? Ella spent a week at Tsarskoe with us, looked well, pink and cheery.
A tender kiss from your old
P.Q. No. III,
August 19, 1912.
DARLING MADGIE, - Loving thanks for yr last dear letterforgive me for being such a shockingly bad correspondent. I had Victoria's visit for a week, wh. was delightful, and Ella came also for 3 days, and I shall see her again in Moscow. Ernie and family we had in the Crimea, Waldemar came for 3 days on the Standart in Finland, and Irene will come at the end of September to us in Poland, Spala. She was there before, and so we thought she would like to come again after 11 years. Next week we leave for Borodino and Moscow, terribly tiring festivities, don't know how I shall get through them. After Moscow in spring I was for a very long time quite done up - now I am, on the whole, better. What terrible rains and storms you have in England - such a calamity. Here we had colossal heat and scarcely ever a drop of rain.
If you know of any interesting historical books for girls, could you tell me, as I read to them and they have begun reading English for themselves. They read a great deal of French and the 2 youngest acted out of the Bourg. Gentilhomme and really so well, make Victoria tell you all about it. Four languages is a lot, but they need them absolutely, and this summer we had Germans and Swedes, and I made all 4 lunch and dine, as it is good practice for them.
I have begun painting flowers, as alas have had to leave singing and playing as too tiring.
Must end. Goodbye and God bless and keep you. A tender kiss fr. Yr. fondly
Loving old P.Q. No. III,
Next chapter: A Mother's Agony - Rasputin
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