- Alexis Almost Dies at Spala - 1912
General Alexander Spiridovitch was the Chief of Secret Personal Police in charge of protecting Nicholas II and his immediate family at all times outside of the Imperial Palaces. He served from 1905 until the outbreak of the First World War in late 1914.
His two volume work "Les Dernieres Annees de la Cour de Tzarskoe Selo", (Payot, Paris, 1929) is an invaluable day to day account of the Imperial Family, and important events around them during those years.
Published originally only in Russian and French, it has been a neglected source until recently. The following account of the near fatal illness of the Tsarevich Alexei at the Imperial Byelovvyezh preserve and in Spala in 1912, is my own translation from the French undertaken in 2004.
An interesting historical note is that Spiridovitch's second wife, Nina, was the daughter of Gen. Hesketh director of the Vistula Railroad, as mentioned below.
The Tsarevich played separately with his attendant Derevenko. He sometimes had the youngest son of Golenko as a playmate, who was called Nicholas, age 10. He often would go, with the Emperor, for rowing on the ponds. On the first day, the Imperial Family had only been at Byelvyezhe for a half hour when the Emperor provided this pleasure for his son. Whenever the Emperor could not, for whatever reason, accompany the Tsarevich, Derevenko would row him.
Derevenko, a brave boy as we already said, yet very limited, very consciencetiously watched over the Tsarevich, yet would forget during their play the point at which point he had to remember about the dangers which might harm him. It is probable that he did not know the nature and gravity of the hereditary disease that the Tsarevich suffered from. The thing the child really lacked was an intelligent and cultured teacher. The last time they really spoke about the need to give him a teacher like that, they had even put forward the names of Dyedyuline, Tchagine, and Drenteln. However the Empress hesitated. She did not want to bring a new man into the family, and so nothing changed.
However, at Byelovyezhe, Derevenko was not able to prevent harm to the Tsarevich. One day, while he was taking his bath, the boy began to engage in all kinds of mischief. It was a large porcelain bathtub, sunk into the floor and which one got into by several steps on each side and the bathtub had a fairly sharp edge all along its top. The Tsarevtch had climbed onto the edge of the bathtub wanting to show Derevenko how the sailors on the Standardt would jump off the side of the yacht into the sea to go swimming. He jumped and fell onto the side of the bathtub. It hurt him, but without doubt the pain was not very great because he did not say anything afterward. However, only a few minutes later, he lost conscience and they carried his nearly inanimate body to his bed.
This accident in a healthy boy would not have had any unfortunate results, but it was for him, who suffered from hemophilia, the start of many severe complications that could never be totally healed. He was bleeding severely internally.
As always, the illness was assiduously hidden to the entourage. They did not feel it necessary to call in a specialist doctor. They put him totally under the care of the family doctor, Botkin. It was the Empress herself who directed his treatment. They cancelled the concerts which the Cavalry Regimental band, whose squadron formed the military guard of the Palace, would give during lunch and dinner. The Tsarevtich was very upset at that, begged them to resume the concerts, but his request was in vain.
When he became better, a Cossack from the escort was ordered to carry him around in his arms. The child suffered greatly and everyone felt his illness.
So it was under these conditions which we left Byelovyezhe for Spala on September 16th. In leaving, the Emperor told Golenko that he would return to hunt the next year and, probably accompanied by Emperor Wilhelm.
The Imperial Train, handsome and smart, arrived at the "Oleni" train stop. Blackness all around, a wood, a small village.
By the platform, decorated with flags and greenery, a squadron of His Majesty's Lancers from the Varsovye garrison was at attention. On the platform was the Manager of the Hunt, Count Vyelepolski, several of his subordinates, representatives of the Administration, generals and a deputation of peasants wearing Polish national dress.
After saluting everyone, the Imperial Family went by car to the hunting palace that was several versts away from the train stop. They followed a magnificent road, built by the administration of the hunt. In any possible direction one turned, one could see nothing but forest.
After about fifteen minutes they arrived at the Palace. The Palace, an ancient wooden building, with a very dark ground floor, was built on a great open field surrounded by forest. A new building was next to it, which looked like a hotel, which was for use by the suite, and a commons. All of it was had something so 'non-Russian' about it that it was a bit shocking to those who were arriving from the interior of Russia.
Fifteen "numbers" or so generally took part in the hunts. In addition to the people of the suite who came with the Emperor, they invited guests. This time they had invited the old commander of His Majesty's Lancers, Prince Byelosselski, Governor General Skalon took part in many hunts and they even invited, for a short time, Grand Duke Nicholas Nicholaiovich who was put up in the Palace at Skernevitz.
On days when they did not hunt, the Emperor took long walks on foot. They organized many skeet shoots as well. The Emperor did not like to shoot pigeons, and so he preferred to shoot skeet. In skeet shooting, the Emperor was most distinguished for his remarkable precision and had very few equals. One of the Vyelyepolskis was also known to be an excellent shot as well.
While life, from the outside, seemed to follow a normal course, a drama was unfolding, which was carefully hidden from all but those closest, in the interior apartments of the Palace: the illness of the Tsarevich.
He had already begun to recover bit by bit from his fall at Byelovyezhe. He was only treated by Botkin alone, again only nominally so, as in reality they let the illness take its natural course and placed the rest in God's hands. They would not let the child walk, Derevenko carried him in his arms.
When the weather was good, they would promenade around Spala in a little carriage drawn by a horse. He was usually accompanied by the old Prince Tumanov, whom he greatly loved.
The Tsarevich's health appeared to have improved to the point that they called his teachers, Petrov and Gilliard, to Spala.
However a new misfortune soon arrived. Immediately after some bumps that he took while on a promenade in a caleche with the Empress, his health worsened. The internal bleeding was even worse, and the swelling in his groin increased in size so much so that the child was confined to his bed. He suffered incredibly. His cries and moans echoed often throughout the Palace, and his fever steadily grew. Botkin never left him for a moment, but did not know what he could do to bring him relief. His pain grew so bad that the sick child would not permit the swelling to be touched. He slept on his side, leg folded, pale, thin and never stopped moaning.
They called the surgeon Serge Petrovitch Fyedorov from Petersburg, and the old Rauchfuss. They arrived on October 4th, the night before Alexis Nicholaiovich's Name's day. The illness got worse. October 6th, his temperature rose to over 39 degrees (102 F.) and would not go down. After a consultation, the doctors declared that that the situation was desperate. Fyedorov said that he had decided not to open the swelling, given that they would be operating on the inheritor of the throne, and the operation would bring on fatal bleeding. Only a miracle could save the child's life, he said. And when they asked him what that miracle might be, he responded by shrugging his shoulders and said that the swelling might spontaneously be reabsorbed, but that the chance of that actually happening was only less than one in a hundred.
After this diagnosis, the Minister of the Court was permitted to publish bulletins on the health of the Tsarevich. The first bulletin was dated October 8th. They began to hold services in Spala to pray for a cure for the Tsarevich. In the Palace they would hear of no other help from the doctors, and only believed in God. They gave the last rites to the child. The catastrophe was expected from one day to the next. The suffering child was plainly aware that his death was near.
"Mama, don't forget to put a little monument on my tomb when I'm dead" he whispered one day into his mother's ear, who crazy with suffering, would not leave his side for an instant. (Sabline told me this later, who had been told it from the Empress herself.)
It seemed that all was over. The crisis approached. And it was at this critical moment that Their Majesties received a telegram from Rasputin which read: "The illness will not be dangerous. Do not let the doctors make him tired."
In a second telegram, the "staryets" said that he had prayed, that God had heard his prayers and had granted them.
And then an incredible thing happened: the Tsarevich began to get better and to go into recovery.
His mother, in all her happiness, saw only one thing: his health had come back from her "friend", and it had been his prayers that had saved the life of her child.
From that moment on, the Empress's faith in Rasputin was unshakeable and there was no force in the world that would ever alienate the "staryets" from the friendship of the Imperial Family.
The improvement coming about in the Tsarevich's health brought some life back into the hunting, which had begun to languish. They invited, from Varsovie, two or three times, members of the local Polish aristocracy, who would come each time along with the Governor General, and the Governor who had also both been invited.
During the month of November, the Tsarevich's health was improving satisfactorily, so they began to talk about returning to Tsarskoie Selo. Soon afterward, it was decided finally to depart.
They traveled with extraordinary precautions. Before the train left the station in Olen, Gen. Dyedyuine conveyed an order from the Empress to Gen. Hesketh, the director of the Vistula Railroad, they everything must be done such that the trip would be without any bumps as the slightest one might be dangerous to the sick Tsarevich.
Hesketh, who had immediately prior directed the Trans-Caspian railroad, where he had been the target of two assassination attempts, had given the Vistula trains an ideal organization, told the engineer of the train that he should not use the brakes to stop the train. This recommendation was followed throughout the trip and nothing more could have been desired: the Tsarevich was not the least bit sickened during the entire trip. And when, leaving the Malkine station, the train passed onto the Northwest railroad line, the Empress ordered Dyedyuline to thank Gen. Hesketh in her name for the excellent precautions he had taken.
(Gen. Hesketh's father, David T. Hesketh was a member of the English nobility, the Count of Lancashire, and had been the teacher to Princes Constantine and Alexander of Oldenburg. In the middle of the 19th Century he became a Russian subject and officer in the Therek Cossacks. Along with his rank he received a hereditary Russian noble title.)
The same procedure recommended by Gen. Hesketh was ordered to Chamberlain Valuyev, director of the Northwest railroad.
During the entire trip, the sick child was under the constant care of Dr. Dyeryevenko, assisted by Prof. Fyoderov, who they had come directly to Spala from Petersburg. Dyeryevenko (whose name is spelled closely to that of the Tsarevich's attendant) was a capable and clever man. He immediately pleased the Empress by his simplicity as very few people did. He performed his dues conscientiously and he only regretted that they had waited to long to have thought to place the Tsarevich under the constant surveillance of a specialist physician. This is the fact they wanted to hide, however, from those who were more or less current about what was happening in the Court.
After the return to Tsarskoie Selo, they called Prof. Wreden to the Tsarevich. As one of his closest friends told me, the Professor was scared and discouraged by the state of health in which he found the sick little child, which was the fault of lack of necessary care for him.
There was a large swelling in the groin, his leg was in an unnatural position, the pain was so strong that even the lightest touch made during an examination of him caused the child to scream terribly.
His treatment was confined to Prof. Wreden. He had the impression that that they had feared before then to resort to an orthopaedic treatment, as they were waiting for a cure by other means whose nature escaped him. The doctors, before Wreden, who had cared for the Tsarevich had not dared to tell the Emperor the truth.
The Professor began to come every day and he decided that it was not possible to correct the problem with his leg without such a necessary treatment, so he set out to win the confidence and affection of the child. A very happy man, a remarkable story-teller, the Professor succeeded by playing checkers with him and talking about this or that with him. The child ended up by really having an affection for him, and after about fifteen days his confidence in him was so great that he allowed him, without difficulty or resistance, to correct his leg problem.
Wreden found it necessary to put the leg into a corrective device. Wearing the device was unpleasant for the Tsarevich and the Empress protested against them using it. However Wreden was firm and unmovable, and said that they could not expose the child to the risk of remaining lame, and he said that above all, as the child was going to become the Emperor of Russia, and as his doctor he was completely accountable for the responsibility he had assumed in that regard, he absolutely insisted on the use of the device he had prescribed.
Wreden without a doubt spoke with a brutal frankness that displeased her.
One day when he was presented at the Palace, he was received by the Emperor, who thanked him for the services he had rendered, named him as an honorary Court Physician, and then dispensed with any further visits by him. From then on, until right up to the war, Wreden was never called a single time to the Tsarevich.
However the device prescribed by Wreden was itself applied, and it was part of the treatment plan, and it was Dr. Dyeryevenko who was charged to make sure of and oversee its use.