- From Splendor to Revolution: The Romanov Women, 1847–1928
- St. Martin’s Press, 512 pp.
The opening sentence of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina has achieved the status of a proverb, true in the past, true for the present and the future.
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
One family, though, proved an exception to Tolstoy’s observation. The members of the Romanov dynasty, autocratic rulers of Russia and its empire since 1613, were not like other people. Happy or sad, at the height of their grandeur or in the Siberian cellar where the last Tsar, his wife, children and four loyal retainers were murdered in a hail of gunfire, the Romanovs were different from the rest of humanity.
That’s not to say that the Romanovs did not have their full share of human faults and frailties. They were abundantly endowed in that respect. This is particularly apparent in the new book, From Splendor to Revolution: the Romanov Women, 1847-1928, by Julie Gelardi.
The Romanov women in Gelardi’s glittering, doomed cast are Marie Feodorovna, the wife of Tsar Alexander III and mother of Nicholas II, the last Tsar; Queen Olga of Greece, who was the niece of Tsar Alexander II; Marie Alexandrovna, Alexander II’s daughter who married Queen Victoria’s son, Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha; and Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna, a German-born noblewoman who married another son of Alexander II, the Grand Duke Vladimir, a stalwart defender of the Romanov dynasty until a spectacular scandal involving his son by Marie Pavlovna shattered his loyalty to Nicholas II.
If you need a scorecard to keep all these royal protagonists in their proper dynastic places, don’t worry. From Splendor to Revolution has excellent genealogies and superb photographs, several of them quite rare.
And the Romanovs themselves, with their love of nicknames, lent a becoming humanity to the “Ruritanian” majesty surrounding them. The Danish-born Marie Feodorovna (known in her homeland as Dagmar) was nicknamed “Minnie.” Marie Pavlovna, a formidable rival to “Minnie” in the rarefied world of Russian court life, was known as “Miechen.” Marie Alexandrovna, shivering in Queen Victoria’s drafty, unheated palaces, never received a cute nickname, but she really did not need one. As the only surviving daughter in a family of many boys, the intelligent and spirited Marie Alexandrovna was adored by her parents.
The brother of Marie Feodorovna, Prince William of Denmark, was selected to be King of Greece in 1863. Denmark, once a considerable power in Northern Europe was in rapid decline by the 1860’s, and its royal family was considered such a negligible threat that one of its members could be placed on the throne of Greece without endangering the balance of power. William assumed the more Greek-sounding name of George at his coronation. George I married Olga Romanov, niece of Tsar Alexander II, in 1867.
The last of the four Romanov protagonists, Olga was also the most appealing, sensible and public-minded. Greece, only liberated from centuries of Turkish tyranny a few decades before George and Olga ascended the throne, was desperately poor and wracked by political dissension. Holding the weakest hand in the game of European dynastic politics, George and Olga played it brilliantly. Law and order was achieved and Greece began to prosper in less than a decade. Despite being foreign-born, the new royal family won the hearts of the Greek people by their empathy and religious sentiment. “We were born and educated to serve Greece alone,” recalled their son, Prince Nicholas.
Never-the-less, George I let it be known that he kept his bags packed in case of a revolt by the Greek people against his rule. Although George was assassinated in 1913 by a deranged fanatic, he and Olga succeeded in holding on to the support of their people. The Romanovs back in Russia should have paid more attention both to the danger faced by the Greek royals and to the way that Queen Olga’s “days were almost entirely given up to good works.”
Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 by an anarchist group known as People’s Will. A counter-theory contends that Alexander was murdered by a right-wing faction. Alexander II was working on the draft of a constitution for Russia prepared by a capable civil servant, Count Michael Loris-Melikov, which included plans for an elected assembly. This was a potential blow to the prestige of the nobility and aristocracy of Russia, already experiencing a decline in their economic fortunes. Alexander in fact signed a proclamation announcing Loris-Melikov’s statute on March 1, 1881, the day he was murdered. Russia’s constitution died with him.
The author, perhaps wisely in this case, refrains from conspiracy theories. Gelardi is an excellent writer and a wise historian. She balances her often page-turning narrative of the spectacle and intrigue of the Imperial Russian court with insight into deeper themes. The growth of the “Slavophile” sentiment in Russia in the late 1800’s is analyzed with particular sagacity. Despite increasing efforts on the surface to identify with Russia’s Slavic culture and a fervent embrace of Russian Orthodox Christianity, the Romanovs were a dynasty descended from the many German-born princesses who joined the family beginning with Catherine the Great. Slavophilia, like so many other social factors of the late 19th century, did not bode well for the long-term continuance of Romanov rule.
That is why the Danish-born Marie Federovna was such an asset to the Romanovs. Having watched Otto von Bismarck seize two strategic provinces from Denmark in the 1860’s, “Minnie” really did loathe the Germans. Her sparkling, charismatic personality made her a great success with the Russian nobility, with the exception of her rival, “Miechen,” the Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna. The German-born Marie Pavlovna also adapted well to the changed circumstances of Russian society in the late 1800’s. “Miechen” created an impressive cultural salon in St. Petersburg that gave “Minnie” stiff competition for the esteem of Russia’s upper class.
So long as Marie Feodorovna was Empress of All the Russias, she remained the most powerful and influential woman in the Romanov’s increasingly troubled realm. She kept the nobility docile with her lavish entertainments and created a “happy face” for the often brutal rule of her tough-minded husband, Alexander III. But Alexander died suddenly in 1894, aged 49, at the height of his powers.
Just as suddenly, the still young and vigorous “Minnie” was no longer the leading woman of Imperial Russia. No one was less-suited to be a Dowager Empress than Marie Feodorovna. Few were as poorly prepared to be Empress of Russia than her German-born successor, Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine, known to history as Tsarina Alexandra.
The story of Alexandra and of her loving, weak-willed husband, Tsar Nicholas II, is so well-known that Gelardi’s decision to exclude Alexandra from the ranks of the “Romanov women” of her book’s subtitle might seem a wise choice. In fact, it is a major weakness, severely affecting the impact of an otherwise excellent account of the shattering fall of Europe’s greatest dynasty. In her introduction, Gelardi writes that she chose her four protagonists because they “were among the most senior members of the Romanov dynasty of their generation” and all have living descendents. Alexandra’s beautiful and talented daughters, Olga, Tatiana, Marie and Anastasia, and her tragic, hemophilia-stricken son, Alexei, died with her at the blood-stained hands of the Bolsheviks. But the fact of her age and the murder of all her family are dubious reasons to exclude her from a central role in this tragic story.
One of the few things that Marie Feodorovna and Marie Pavlovna had in common was their opposition to Alexandra. “Minnie” unavailingly tried to prevent the marriage of her son to Alexandra, while “Miechen” came close to regarding the younger Tsarina with feelings akin to hatred. Many Russians, of all classes and political beliefs, felt the same way, especially after the outbreak of World War I when Alexandra was viewed by many as a German agent. Though she is scrupulously fair to Alexandra, Gelardi fails to analyze her character and background with the same thoroughness that she accords her four protagonists.
Alexandra, born in 1872, was raised in large measure by her grandmother, Queen Victoria. Alix’s mother was Princess Alice, Queen Victoria’s daughter. In 1878, Alice died and the six-year old Alix spent extended periods at the gloomy court of Queen Victoria. Though Victoria regarded Alix as her favorite grandchild, a more unsuitable place for a grieving child can scarcely be imagined. Alexandra carried the marks of her childhood misfortune to her grave. Shy, melancholy and humorless in public, she was increasingly consumed with anxiety, especially after she received the devastating diagnosis of her son’s hemophilia, an incurable blood disease passed down through his mother’s genes.
In short, Alexandra was everything that Marie Feodorovna was not. Where Marie Feodorovna was the darling of Russia’s aristocracy and well regarded by the mass of the Russian people, Alexandra became a lightning rod for the growing disenchantment at all levels of society. When thousands of peasants died during a horrific accident at the celebration of the coronation of Nicholas and Alexandra, the royal couple was advised to attend a ball at the French embassy before going to visit the survivors. In what was to become a recurring pattern, it was the “German woman” who was held chiefly to blame for the callous indifference to the suffering of the Tsar’s loyal subjects.
In 1905, a scandal occurred in the inner ranks of the Romanov family which further undermined Alexandra’s position. In that year, as Russia reeled during a wave of internal dissent, the son of Marie Pavlovna, the Grand Duke Kyril, married a divorcee. His bride was Princess Victoria Melita, nicknamed “Ducky,” the daughter of Marie Alexandrovna. In 1901, “Ducky” had shocked the crowned heads of Europe by divorcing Alexandra’s brother, Grand Duke Ernest of Hesse. When Grand Duke Kyril and “Ducky” married without his knowledge, Nicholas II was infuriated. He ordered Kyril stripped of his Imperial title, his rank in the Russian Navy and all his honors. Though Kyril was later granted a reprieve, Nicholas’ harsh treatment of his Romanov cousin became a cause célèbre. Predictably, Alexandra was treated as the villain in the affair, though in fact she played no part in the Tsar’s disastrous decision.
Alexandra, however, had a great deal to answer for. Counseled by the Siberian monk, Grigorii Rasputin, the only person who seemed capable of saving her son during his bleeding attacks, Alexandra repeatedly urged Nicholas to dismiss statesmen, court officials and military commanders who favored social reforms and changes in Russia’s autocratic government.
By 1916, after nearly three years of horrendous battlefield losses in World War I, Imperial Russia teetered on the brink of revolution. On December 29, 1916, in a blow aimed at curtailing Alexandra’s malign influence, two members of the Romanov family, one by marriage, the other by birth, Prince Felix Yussoupov and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, killed Rasputin. Or so the conventional story goes.
Once again, Gelardi stays with the accepted version of events. But the assassination of Rasputin is a complicated affair. Gelardi should have looked a little more deeply into this pivotal event.
Recent scholarship, including the detailed account, The Murder of Grigorii Rasputin by Margarita Nelipa, presents a different story from the legendary saga of poison cakes and wine, repeated pistol shots and drowning in the River Neva. The autopsy report found no active poison in Rasputin’s body. Rasputin was shot several times, the fatal bullet fired at point blank range, lodging in his head. These bullets were fired at the behest of senior members of the Romanov family. Nelipa believes that Grand Duke Nicholas Mikhailovich, a champion of liberal reform, was the leading plotter of the assassination.
These shots were also the opening salvo of the Russian Revolution. But the conspirators, who included Marie Pavlovna, did not go far enough. A plan to force the hand of Nicholas II to save the dynasty, “akin to a coup” in Gelardi’s words, petered out in a lame petition to the Tsar asking for leniency toward Prince Felix Yussoupov and Grand Duke Dmitri.
Grand Duke Nicholas Mikhailovich later told a French diplomat that “our courage failed us at the last minute.”
A few weeks later, the fantasy world of these four Romanov women was shattered by events that began at a political rally held on the date of the International Women’s Day Festival, March 8, 1917. Working class women, taking to the streets of St. Petersburg in protest against food shortages, showed a determination that the Romanovs sorely lacked. According to the traditional story, disaffected troops sided with the protesters after rioting began. This is true but there is a major point that needs to be made. A number of elite units, the usually dependable “old guard” of the Romanov regime, did not mutiny. Instead, they followed the lead of their officers who joined the rebellion.
The principal officer who led his men over to the revolutionary cause was Grand Duke Kyril. In his diary entry for March 14, 1917, the French ambassador, Maurice Paléologue, wrote:
Forgetting the oath of fealty, and the office of aide-de-camp which bind him to the Emperor, he (Grand Duke Kyril) went off about one o’clock this afternoon to make obeisance to popular rule. In his naval captain’s uniform he was seen leading the marines of the Guard, whose commander he is, and placing their services at the disposal of the rebels!
Kyril and his “non semper fidelis” Marines, were followed by Cossacks, infantry from the Imperial Guard, security forces from the Tsar’s railway unit, and even military police from the Winter Palace. These elite units were responsible for the personal safety of the Tsar’s family. Significantly, Paléologue underlines the effect of Kyril’s disloyalty when he noted, “All of these men, officers and privates alike, have vowed their devotion to the new authority—whose very name they do not know—-as if they could not embrace the chains of a new servitude too soon.”
Following this betrayal, the Romanov dynasty was swept off the stage of history. Many of the family were arrested by the Bolsheviks and executed, some with a degree of cruelty and incompetence that beggars belief. Marie Feodorovna and Marie Pavlovna were evacuated to safety, but the lives of both women were blighted by the near extermination of the Romanov family.
While Russia descended into anarchy, a parallel tragedy took place in Greece. Against the wishes of the Greek royal family, the Greek government sent its army into Turkey in 1920, largely at the prompting of the British and French. The Allies promptly switched sides, no doubt fearing that a collapse of Turkey would open the Middle East to a wave of revolution following the Bolshevik triumph in Russia. The Greek forces were defeated and savage reprisals by the Turks sent waves of ethnic Greeks, many of whom could trace their ancestry in that region back to antiquity, fleeing for their lives to Greece.
To depict the terrifying events of the last chapters of From Splendor to Revolution calls for compassion and human insight, as well as the skill of a master story-teller. Gelardi certainly demonstrates that she possesses these gifts. Her failure to come to grips with Alexandra aside, Gelardi has written a fine work of narrative history that will stand comparison with classics such as Robert Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra and Edward Crankshaw’s The Shadow of the Winter Palace.
The Romanov family may have discovered their own very unique way to make themselves unhappy before 1917. Most of them, however, found courage to face the Bolshevik firing squads or resilience to cope with lives of poverty and despair, in the case of those who escaped. The Romanovs, the Tsar and his family in particular, were far nobler as they faced death in 1918, than they had ever been at the summit of their glory. Perhaps that is why many Russians today revere them as saints, even as they wonder what to do with that most embarrassing of shrines, Lenin’s Tomb.