Littell's Living Age/Volume 146/Issue 1883/The Empress of Russia

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Originally published in the Pall Mall Gazette.

The empress Marie of Russia was not much known to the people of the czar’s empire. A German by birth—the daughter of Louis II., grand duke of Hesse-Darmstadt—she had been brought up in the traditions of a small and refined court, very punctilious in its etiquette and aristocratical in its prejudices. On arriving in Russia after her marriage with the czarewitch in 1841 she found little that was congenial to her tastes in the surroundings of the emperor Nicholas, and shut herself up within a circle of her own intimate friends, which she never much enlarged even after her husband had ascended the throne. She had a very difficult part to play, for the enmity which used to exist between the czarewitch and his brother Constantine had split up the Russian court into squabbling factions, and if the grand duchess Marie had lent her husband active support by means of her tongue and of intrigues she might have brought matters to a perilous crisis. But her cool German temperament and great personal dignity stood her in good stead. She generally pretended not to see anything that was going on around her; and she avoided politics, except when she could speak with persons whom she trusted. On one occasion her patience was sorely tried, for, her husband having gone to visit the fleet at Cronstadt, Constantine, who was grand admiral, had him put under arrest for not being in full uniform when he came on board. So deliberate an insult offered to the heir apparent by his own brother must have had terrible consequences if the grand duchess had espoused her husband’s cause with intemperate ardor but the future empress treated the matter with seeming indifference, and said to somebody who came to condole with her that the vindication of her husband’s dignity might safely be left to the czar. Nicholas felt deeply grateful for this display of tact; and the secret leanings which he was supposed to have felt till then towards Constantine were transferred to Alexander. He not only punished Constantine with severity, but in the following year (when the grand duchess Marie’s eldest son was born) made him swear allegiance publicly to his elder brother, under pain of being deprived of his admiralship. Constantine took the oaths with ill grace enough, for he was the idol of the Old Muscovite party opposed to the so-called "German clique," whicb looked to the czarewitch and the grand duchess as their leaders; and he had hoped to succeed to the throne. But from the day when the czarewitch’s wife had foiled his outburst of temper by her judicious firmness and moderation, his chances were gone, for the laughers were no longer on his side and an act which might have been the precursor of great political consequences was made to appear simply a freak of splenetic brutality.

When Alexander II. ascended the throne the empress Marie’s influence did not appear much in politics. As a woman she sympathized with the wrongs of the serfs, and was glad to see them emancipated, since such was her husbands will; but she had not yet come to understand the Russian character thoroughly, and gave herself no pains either to conciliate the indignant party of Old Muscovites or to thwart their intrigues. A person of great culture herself, she despised the shallowness and frivolity of the grumbling boyards, who, when not coated with Parisian varnish, were simply barbarians. She admitted few of them to her intimacy, but Germanized her court more and more, and gave considerable offence by constantly speaking her native tongue instead of French. By and by when she got to know the czar's subjects a little better, she was more careful to humor their prejudices; but her antipathy to things French never relented at any time, and one of her frequent apostrophes to courtiers who had been travelling was, "Talk to me of anything except Paris." The empress’s favorite authors, after those of her own country, were English and though she had no political liking for Great Britain, she studied our language diligently and was conversant with the works of our best poets and novelists. Of handsome presence and grave mien, the empress always seemed to be at court more rigid than she actually was. She appeared to have no taste for gaieties, whereas in her private circle she was of mirthful mood and liked to see her children enjoying themselves unreservedly. She was the best of mothers, and caused her sons to be educated in all the accomplishments of gentlemen instead of letting them be drilled into mere soldiers, as had been the fashion under Nicholas’s reign. To all of them she imparted her own taste for music and reading.

Brought up as a Lutheran, the empress had changed her religion at her marriage and latterly she became subject to the ecclesiastical influences which more or less pervade all courts. When the military party at St. Petersburg were trying to persuade the czar that it would be good for his interests to make war upon Turkey, the empress was induced to see that this enterprise would be a holy thing, and she gave her voice for the war with all the enthusiasm which ladies often display in such cases. On this occasion her zeal got the better of her habitual prudence and she made friends with the Old Muscovites by outdoing them in their loudly expressed horror of the Turks. The last years of her life were naturally harrowed by gloomy forebodings as to the future in store for her family amid the dangers of Nihilism; and the frequent attempts on the czar’s life tended beyond any doubt to shorten her own days.