The Home of the Last Tsar - Romanov and Russian History

Diaries and Letters - Princess Sonia Orbeliani

by Greg King

"I want to help others in life," Empress Alexandra once wrote, "to help them fight their battles and bear their crosses." In her exalted position, the Empress had few true friends, and those in whom she did confide often found themselves the subject of jealousy and malicious gossip. Of this intimate group, perhaps the most sympathetic figure was Princess Sonia Orbeliani, a woman who served in the Empress's Household until a painful illness forced her to abandon her obligations.

Born in 1875, Sonia Orbeliani was the only daughter of Prince Ivan Orbeliani and his wife Princess Maria Sviatopolk-Mirskaya, whose brother Prince Peter later served as Nicholas II's Minister of the Interior during the tumultuous events of the 1905 Revolution. The Orbeliani family was of Caucasian origin, and traced their ancestry back to the nomadic leaders who had once ravaged the savage mountains. Proudly independent, the Orbelianis were raised to the ranks of the Russian nobility by Catherine the Great, and thereafter often served at the Imperial Court in St. Petersburg.

Young Princess Sonia inherited this independent streak, along with an almost fearless character that drove her to excel at a number of sports. True to her nomadic heritage, she developed excellent equestrian skills, and was known as one of the finest riders in the Caucasus. Sonia's childhood was a mixture of aristocratic restraint and duty coupled with an unusual gaiety and openness that easily set her apart from other young ladies of the nobility. Utterly without pretension, she carried her small frame with remarkable elegance and distinction at the few social events she attended in Tiflis; yet she was often dissolved in fits of laughter, enjoying slightly wicked jokes that captured the attention of the young Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, to whom her elder brother acted as adjutant.

Like many young aristocratic women, Princess Sonia was remarkably accomplished. A skilled painter, graceful dancer, gifted linguist, and a fine pianist, she inevitably impressed those whom she met not only with her talents but also with her infectious good nature and taste for spirited adventure. Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, who later came to know her well, recalled the Princess's "keen sense of humor," "vivacity," and "generous nature," qualities that endeared her to all of those whom she encountered.

In 1898, Princess Marie Bariatinsky retired from the Empress's Household to devote herself to her marriage. It appears that it was Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich who first suggested the twenty-three-year-old Princess Orbeliani as a replacement to Alexandra. It was something of an odd recommendation, given that Sonia had not yet involved herself in the intricate life of the Imperial Court, but the Grand Duke-perhaps sensing his sister-in-law's isolation and loneliness-recognized that the young Princess, with her optimistic and independent character, would make an ideal companion. After meeting the petite, fair-haired Princess, Alexandra agreed and Sonia was duly appointed one of the Empress's Kamer-Freilina Eë Velichestva, or Maids-of-Honor of the Imperial Bedchamber to Her Majesty, the highest rank for the hundreds of women who held the position at Court.

Many noticed the Princess's arrival at Court. Alexander Spiridovich, Chief of His Majesty's Personal Police, recalled her as "full of gaiety and joie de vivre," though he rather uncharitably termed her an "uncultured girl from the Caucasus," reflecting a common prejudice against those who did not come from the ranks of St. Petersburg's aristocratic circles. Very quickly, Alexandra found herself drawn to the young woman, and the Princess, in turn, responded according to Spiridovich, in "true Oriental fashion" through an "instant, intense devotion." The pair often spent long afternoons at the piano, playing duets-one of the Empress's favorite pastimes-and Alexandra appreciated Sonia's musical abilities. The Princess became one of the few people at Court who enjoyed Alexandra's confidence and in turn, as Baroness Buxhoeveden remembered, Sonia spoke in a frank, open way, giving her opinion "even when she knew it would be unpalatable."

As Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich had hoped, the Princess also tried to draw the Empress out of her ever-increasing isolation. She often arranged musical afternoons at the palace, inviting a few select aristocratic ladies to join the Empress in listening to small concerts; occasionally, Alexandra herself would play, asking her guests to join her at the piano. Although she appeared to enjoy the gatherings the Empress, according to Baroness Buxhoeveden, did not herself pursue them and the Princess's efforts failed to awaken any social interest in the shy Alexandra.

In October of 1903, the Princess accompanied the Emperor and Empress to Darmstadt, where they attended the wedding of Alexandra's niece Princess Alice of Battenberg to Prince Andrew of Greece. The wedding festivities, hosted by the Empress's brother Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hesse, were marked with unrestrained joy; even the usually somber Alexandra delighted in the family reunion and the round of parties, dinners, and excursions in her former home. Delight soon turned to despair, however, when Sonia fell ill. She suffered from a high temperature, and was so weak that she could not leave her bed. Alexandra called in doctors, and herself forgot the festivities to care for the Princess; when the guests moved to Wolfsgarten, the Empress regularly drove to Darmstadt to visit the patient, sometimes as often as two or three times a day. Although no one voiced any objection there was, according to Baroness Buxhoeveden, much resentment from "the stricter Court people" who considered such behavior "almost a breach of etiquette."

Doctors eventually diagnosed a progressive spinal disease that, they explained, was incurable. The Princess would continue to suffer from occasional periods of illness, marked by loss of strength and a high temperature; as the disease took hold, they warned, paralysis would set in, gradually limiting movement and eventually confining the patient to a wheelchair. Finally, in its last stages, the disease would result in total paralysis and death. There was, Alexandra learned, nothing to be done but await the inevitable end.

From the moment of this diagnosis, the Empress devoted herself wholeheartedly to the Princess. Always at her best in personal situations where she could assume the role of caregiver, Alexandra did all in her power to ease Sonia's suffering. Although, as the disease took hold, the Princess was forced to abandon her official duties in the Empress's Household, Alexandra refused to accept her resignation. Sonia remained in the Alexander Palace, in rooms near to those of the Grand Duchesses, enabling the Empress to visit her every day. She was careful not to treat the Princess as an embarrassment or burden. According to Spiridovich, many at Court "reproached the Empress, stating that it was not good for the morale of the children to always have a sick person before their eyes," but Alexandra-herself often ill-ignored such complaints.

As long as she was able, Alexandra continued to entrust Sonia with limited duties, and for the first few years of her illness the Princess moved through the privileged world of the Imperial Court as before, a bit slower, but as vivacious and cheerful as ever. Then, when movement became difficult, she spent her days on a chaise-longue in her rooms, assisting with the Empress's correspondence until this, too, became a drain on her fading energies. It was Sonia who initiated the newly appointed Sophie Buxhoeveden into the intricacies of life at Court, and taught her how to reply to petitions and letters. As a result, the two young women became close, and Baroness Buxhoeveden often spent her evenings in Sonia's room, attempting to alleviate her loneliness. She later recalled one particularly memorable occasion when they were joined by Princess Marie Golitsyn, who held the title of Ober-Gofmeisterina, or the Empress's Mistress of the Robes. An inveterate stickler for etiquette, the Princess was a chain smoker, though she was forced to indulge her habit by sneaking cigarettes or when off duty. On this particular evening, the three ladies, having finished dinner, sat in Sonia's room, ringed by a cloud of blue smoke as Princess Golitsyn diligently puffed away. In the midst of their conversation, Princess Golitsyn heard a noise beyond the closed door to the corridor; suspecting it was a servant listening through the keyhole, the elderly Princess jumped from her chair, rushed to the door, and pulled it open with an exclamation, only to find the Empress crouched on the floor, trying to work a gramophone she had brought as a present for Sonia. Horrified, Princess Golitsyn quickly thrust her lit cigarette into a fold of her gown as Alexandra entered the room with her surprise. Sonia was delighted, and the group was listening to a recording of Lohengrin when suddenly she noticed curls of smoke coming from Princess Golitsyn; in a few seconds, the elderly lady jumped to her feet and rushed to put out a smoldering fire that was slowly burning from one end of her hastily concealed cigarette through her expensive gown. The Empress collapsed in laughter, and Sonia and Baroness Buxhoeveden followed suit.

But such carefree and happy evenings became increasingly rare, as Sonia grew steadily worse. Unable to walk, the Princess was provided by the Empress with expensive wheelchairs, carriages, and other instruments designed not only to make her life easier but also to allow Sonia to participate in the annual progresses of the Imperial Family. "Alexandra Feodorovna," wrote Baroness Buxhoeveden, "made her feel that she was a privileged person, so afraid that she might realize that she had become instead of the help she had been only one person more needing the Empress's care." As the illness truly took hold, the Empress-despite her own schedule and health-came to visit Sonia every day, remaining at her bedside, chatting, listening to the Princess's outspoken opinions and advice, and reading aloud to her; when she was unable to come, Alexandra always sent small personal notes, little gifts, and fresh flowers to brighten Sonia's day.

"The Empress," recalled Baroness Buxhoeveden, "had a great moral influence over her. It was she who led the doomed woman, who knew what was awaiting her, to the attainment of that wonderful Christian submission with which she not only patiently bore her malady but also managed to keep a cheerful spirit and keen interest in life. For nine long years, whatever her own health was, the Empress never paid her daily visit to her children without going to Sonia's rooms, which adjoined those of the Grand Duchesses. When Sonia had an acute attack of illness, which happened from time to time, the Empress went to her not only several times a day but often at night when she was very ill: indeed, no mother could have been more loving."

In the months following the outbreak of the First World War, Sonia's condition grew steadily worse; despite her commitment to her hospital work at Tsarskoye Selo, the Empress continued her familiar pattern of regular visits to the patient. One evening, fearing that the end was approaching, Sonia begged the Empress for one last favor, asking that Alexandra close her eyes when she died. On December 1/15, 1915, Sonia's temperature rose and fell to dangerous levels, and doctors warned that she would not last the night. Alexandra spent the entire day with her, never leaving her bedside. That evening, Sonia managed a smile on regaining consciousness and seeing the Empress; with her last breath, she thanked her for all that she had done to ease her suffering. As Alexandra cradled her in her arms, the Princess dropped into a coma and died within an hour.

Alexandra herself took charge of all the funeral arrangements, writing personal letters to Sonia's family and supervising the details of her memorial service. On the afternoon that it took place, the Empress appeared not in mourning but in her uniform as a nursing sister in the Red Cross. "I hate the idea of going into black for her this evening," she explained. "I feel somehow nearer to her like this, like an aunt, more human, less Empress." Baroness Buxhoeveden arrived in time to witness Alexandra's touching farewell. The Empress sat beside the open coffin, stroking the Princess's hair for a few minutes before it was closed. "I wanted," she explained through her tears, "to be a little more with Sonia."

Please send your comments on this page to the author - Greg King

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