Scribner's Monthly Magazine/Volume 3/Issue 2/The Imperial Family of Russia

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Published in December, 1871, ten years before the assassination of Alexander II, this article offers a glimpse into the tsar's family life, including the lives of his heir's, Alexander III and the ill-fated Nicholas II.

Americans have manifested considerable interest in the Imperial family of Russia since the Grand Duke Alexis came to our shores.

The house of Romanoff has swayed the destinies of the great empire for more than two hundred years; it was in 1613 that Michael Romanoff, the son of the Metropolitan of Rostoff, was elected to the throne with the title of Tsar of all the Russias. Vladislas, with a Polish army, had just been driven from Moscow after making great havoc in and around the Holy City; the country was at war with Sweden, and there was a general feeling of despondency throughout the young Tsar’s dominions. The Poles remained in possession of Smolensk, and made frequent raids to the very gates of Moscow, but they were finally driven away. The war with Sweden was terminated through the mediation of France, Holland, and England, and a threatened war with Turkey was averted through the wisdom of Michael. He was sixteen years old when he ascended the throne; he died at the age of forty-nine, after making his life renowned by his enlightened policy and his great interest for the welfare of his people. His son Alexis succeeded him, and made his reign remarkable for the legal reforms he introduced; and he is also credited in the Russian histories with bringing shipwrights from England and Holland. They built several small vessels for the navigation of the Volga, but their achievements did not amount to much. After Alexis came Theodore III.; and after Theodore came Peter, subsequently surnamed The Great. Peter was only ten years of age when he was crowned; he became the ruler of Russia in 1689, when only seventeen years of age.

To enumerate the deeds of Peter would require more space than can be spared for this entire article. His ruling passion was to extend his empire and consolidate his power, and he possessed a persevering mind and a spirit of dogged determination which allowed no obstacles to stand in his way. What he desired he obtained. He created an army and a navy for Russia; he caused the city which bears his name to rise from the marshes of the Neva; he humbled the Swedes and the Turks; he pushed his armies beyond the Caspian Sea; he ordered the construction of roads and canals; he endowed colleges and universities; he established the system of exile in order to people Siberia; he created towns and cities, reformed the courts and the titles and grades of nobility—in fact, he made the name of Russia prominent among nations for the first time in her history. He had his vices as well as his virtues; and his reign, great and glorious as it was, was marred by various acts of injustice. The death of his son Alexis is an indelible stain upon the character of the famous ruler. Alexis had incurred the imperial displeasure by opposing the reforms which had been begun; he fled from the country, but was induced to return, and was thrown into a dungeon on the banks of the Neva. He died suddenly after undergoing severe tortures by order of his father. One of the examinations was personally conducted by Peter, and the torture was applied in his presence.

Peter, the son of Alexis and grandson of Peter the Great, died before reaching his majority, and with his death the male line of the Romanoffs became extinct. The empress Anne, daughter of Ivan, half-brother of Peter the Great, then ascended the throne; during her reign the celebrated Ice Palace was erected. Walls, roof, floors, furniture—everything, even to the four cannons in front of the building, were of ice. The Empress sent one of her buffoons and his bride to pass their wedding-night in this edifice; tradition says that after this occurrence there were no more marriage engagements among the courtiers until the ice palace had melted. After Anne came Ivan VI.; then Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great; then Peter III.; and then that Empress of remarkable memory, Catharine II. The story of her loves and wars would fill a volume; she possessed the ambition and energy of the great Peter, together with his ungovernable caprice, which her sex rather increased than diminished. To be her favorite this month would very likely lead to exile to Siberia the next; at one time she meditated the most tyrannical measures; and a week later she was inclined to give the country a constitution like that of the United States, and to restrict the sovereign as the sovereign of England is restricted. With all her faults she did much for Russia, and there are many laws and institutions still in existence that originated in her reign. Her son Paul succeeded her, but made no mark; then came Alexander I., whose reign was made memorable by the wars with the French, which included the capture and burning of Moscow. After the declaration of peace he traveled through Europe, and on his return instituted many reforms. He was the first, and thus far the only, member of the Imperial family to visit Siberia. He spent several days in the gold and other mines of the Ural Mountains, and the spot where for more than an hour he personally wielded the pick is marked by a monument. He found that the Imperial hands were better fitted to the scepter than to the tools of the miner, and admitted that he had never known a more fatiguing hour. His death brought Nicholas I. to the throne, and with the new ruler’s assumption of power came the revolt of 1825, that sent five conspirators to the gallows, and two hundred men of noble birth to Siberia.

On the day of the revolt the present Emperor, Alexander II., was a boy of something less than eight years of age. It was ascertained that the Imperial Guards of the palace were in the conspiracy, and so, early in the morning, they were marched away and a battalion of soldiers of the line from Finland was substituted. Rough in appearance and uncouth in manner, they formed a marked contrast to the elegant Guards whom they replaced. But under their coarse exterior they had loyal hearts, and as Nicholas looked upon them he felt that they could be trusted. Word was brought to the Emperor that the insurgents had assembled in St. Isaac’s Square. He bade farewell to his wife, entered his chapel for a brief prayer, and then took the young Alexander by the hand and led him to the courtyard where the battalion of Finlanders was drawn up. To the care of the soldiers he commended his son, and then rode to the square where the insurgents were gathered. An hour later those that were not killed or wounded were fleeing through the streets and lanes of St. Petersburg, and the monarch returned to the palace to receive his son from the soldiers. The boy had been passed from hand to hand along the whole line, and each man had imprinted a kiss upon his cheek. His tutor came for him, but only to the Emperor would the soldiers deliver their charge. And for years afterward it was the proud boast of the battalion that the Emperor had left his son in its care, and that the men had fondled the future ruler of Russia as they would fondle one of their own peasant-born children. The boy had enjoyed his hour with the soldiers, and it may be that to this incident is due a great part of the devotion which Alexander II. has always displayed for the welfare and prosperity of the rank and file of his armies. The Russian soldier of to-day is better paid, better educated, and better treated in every way than was the Russian soldier of thirty years ago. The term of compulsory service has been shortened, the conscription is reduced, and in several respects the military service has lost its terrors. The Grand Duke Michel, uncle of Alexander, was fond of military display for the sake of its magnificence alone. He would ride at full speed along a line, and detect any officer who had a single button of his coat unfastened, or stood six inches from his proper place. "I hate war," he used to say; "it soils the uniforms, rusts the weapons, and deranges the parades." Alexander hates war because he knows it is detrimental to the prosperity of his country, and would cause the death of many of his soldiers. Were it not for the necessity of being always ready for war in order to maintain peace, it is probable that he would immediately reduce the army to less than half its present proportions.

Alexander II. was crowned at Moscow on the 7th of September, 1856. Nicholas began his reign in the midst of a storm of revolution, whose effect was to make him uncompromising and unyielding in character. "While I live he shall never return from Siberia," was his response to a piteous appeal for the pardon of a man who had been twenty-five years in exile for taking part in the insurrection of 1825. "Take a new rope and finish the execution," was his answer when told that the rope had broken while a conspirator was being hanged. The news of the repulse at Eupatoria was such a shock to him that it led indirectly to his death. A nature stern and unbending cannot meet misfortune as complacently as can its opposite; the blast that prostrates the sturdy oak passes harmlessly over the pliant bush, which rises when the storm is done, and stands as proudly as ever. Nicholas began his reign with acts of severity—Alexander began his with acts of mildness. He instituted the reformation in the army already hinted at; he projected railways, promoted commercial and industrial enterprises, pardoned all exiles who had been more than twenty years in Siberia, and in various ways sought to bring back the prosperity that had been impaired by the war. The greatest glory of his reign, and one that will make his name revered while his nation endures, is the liberation of the serfs. From the time of Catharine II. the subject had been agitated; Catharine had proposed it, some of the Cabinet ministers of Alexander I. greatly desired it, and Nicholas frequently busied his mind with projects for improving the condition of the serf. Three years before his death he drew up a plan of gradual emancipation, but it did not meet the approval of his Cabinet, and was set aside. Alexander gave his thought to the subject on frequent occasions; and finally; in March, 1861, the proclamation of gradual emancipation was issued. He encountered a great deal of opposition in his Cabinet and among the heavy proprietors of serfs. The shock of the change was great, and for a while the best friends of the measure faltered, but in a little time the crisis was passed, and the nation began its career of freedom. Some of the nobles, like some of our Southern slaveholders, did not believe emancipation possible, and refused to prepare for the change. Many of these persons were ruined by it, and still remain idle, morose, and discontented. Others, in the time between the notice and the enforcement of the proclamation, labored intelligently, and now find their estates more prosperous than ever. The people of all classes are becoming every year more and more adapted to the new order of things, and the feeling is almost universal that there is much good in store for Russia. She is yet in her developing stage. Time, patience, and energy will accomplish all that her ardent friends can wish. The grandest results in the nation’s progress are still in the future, and from generations yet to come Alexander will receive his warmest praise.

There are said to be islands in the Pacific where the death of a chief is followed by a careful measurement of all the masculine members of his tribe. The tallest and strongest among them becomes his successor, and is crowned with all the dignity possible in a region where textile clothing is unknown, and a pint of cocoanut-oil rubbed over the skin is considered a full-dress suit for a gentleman. If we did not know to the contrary, we might suppose that physical size and strength were the standard of Imperial selection in Russia as well as in those mythical isles of the Peaceful Sea. Peter the Great was almost a giant in stature, and might have made the fortune of an enterprising showman. Anne, Elizabeth, and Catharine were blessed with great strength of body; Catharine in particular was wont, in moments of wrath, to strike her attendants with such force as to prostrate them, and there are various traditional stories that recount her great bodily force. Paul, the first Alexander, and Nicholas each exceeded six feet in height, and the same is the case with the present Emperor. With hardly an exception, every masculine member of the Romanoff family was or is of a form and bearing to prove him "every inch a king." Nicholas once went in disguise to Stockholm. As he stepped upon the pier, a Swedish officer stood in his way; Nicholas, in plain clothes, frowned upon him as any other traveler might frown, and the officer, half trembling, stepped aside. "What devil of a man can that be?" he said to a friend; "he must be a king, or if not he ought to be one." Nicholas frequently went incognito about the streets of St. Petersburg, but his disguise was generally discovered before he was long on his way. The first time I ever saw Alexander was one afternoon on the Nevski, the Broadway of St. Petersburg. One of those little sleighs, of which there are twenty thousand in the city, was driven near me, and came almost to a halt in consequence of a blockade of vehicles. My eyes wandered carelessly over the crowded street and rested on the sleigh, which did not differ in appearance from dozens of others that were in sight. But something in the face of the man in the sleigh, or rather in the portion of it visible above the fur collar, arrested my attention. There was a look of lofty superiority in the eye and on the brow; the form was erect as a statue, and did not move as others did to regard the cause of the delay. In a moment there was a shout, and one person after another raised his cap as the sleigh dashed through an opening and diminished in the distance. "Voila l’Empereur," said a Russian friend at my side. Here was the Autocrat of all the Russias, the ruler of seventy millions of people, and holding authority over one-eighth of the territorial extent of this globe, passing before me unattended, and with no outward indication of his imperial power. In all the hurry and confusion of that busiest street of St. Petersburg he was recognized and cheered by the populace. There are not many rulers who possess, as he does, the hearts of their subjects, and can move among them without a surrounding of guards, and secret police to protect them from assassination, and lead the applause at the time it should be given.

A few days later I saw the Czarevitch, the Emperor’s eldest son, riding along the Nevski in much greater state than I had seen his father. He was cheered by the people, who had formed a dense crowd in front of the palace where the heir to the throne resided, and naturally enough the cheering ran along the street where he drove, just as it runs along the line of spectators when there is a display of any sort on Broadway. The Czarevitch was accompanied by his handsome wife, to whom he was married about two months before, and it was hard to say which was the more applauded, the Grand Duke or the Grand Duchess. The Princess Dagmar, as she is best known to the world, is a woman of unusual beauty. She is somewhat above the medium height, has a graceful figure, a pleasant girlish face, features that seem to combine the Italian and German types, and a profusion of hair which she wears in an apparently half-careless way. Her graceful bearing and sweetness of manner have won her the respect and love of all who have met her since she made her residence in the Russian capital. She is popular among all classes, from noble to peasant, and I think it would be no easy task to find a subject of the Autocrat of all the Russias who does not wish her long life and prosperity. Her husband, the Czarevitch, is of the frame and bearing which I have already described as the possession of the Romanoff family. His education, like that of all the members of the Imperial family, has been carefully attended to, and when he ascends the throne he will have no reason to complain that he is ignorant of his duties. He is said to be more conservative than his father, and in sympathy, to a considerable extent, with the "Old Russian" party, which believes not in the modern abominations of railways, telegraphs, and kindred things, nor in the emancipation of the serfs, nor intimate intercourse with foreign nations. How far he may sympathize with the Unprogressives I cannot say; it is possible that he is one of the most liberal of liberals, and the story of his conservatism may be an invention of the enemy. But development, like revolutions, cannot go backward; the heir to the Muscovite throne will find that Russia will not be stopped in her progressive career, and should he attempt to build a Chinese wall of exclusiveness around his empire he will find himself sadly deficient in materials. No great measure can be carried out unless it has the approval of the Imperial Council, and no intelligent councilor is likely to advise a retrograde movement for Russia.

The Empress of Russia, a tall stately lady, with a sad face and the appearance of an aristocratic invalid, is rarely seen in public. She appears only at the State balls and other festivities where etiquette demands her presence, and it is evident that she would prefer to be shut off altogether from the stare of curious eyes. Since the death of her eldest boy, six years ago, she has never been in good health and spirits; she was most devotedly attached to her first-born, and his loss nearly broke her heart. By birth he was heir to the throne; by his death the heirship fell to his brother Alexander, whom I have just described. Next to him is the Grand Duke Vladimir, and next the Grand Duke Alexis, whose name is so well known to Americans. And the heir to the throne, after the Grand Duke Alexander, is the son of the present Czarevitch, born in May, 1868, and now of the age when candy is of more consequence than scepters, and a trundle-bed has greater attractions than a throne.

There is a romantic incident connected with the marriage of the Czarevitch and the Grand Duchess Maria Federovna, otherwise known as the Princess Dagmar. The alliance was first contracted between the Grand Duke Nicholas and the Princess; all the details of the engagement were settled and the marriage was to take place as soon as the Grand Duke’s health permitted. He was sent to Nice in the hope that he would recover, but he grew worse instead of better. The Princess loved him and prayed often for his restoration, but her hopes and prayers were of no avail. With the soft breezes of the Mediterranean fanning his cheek, and wafting through his open window the odors of the vine and the olive, he breathed his last. The intelligence fell heavily upon that Danish heart which had been pledged to the young life now gone forever. But the Princess Dagmar was betrothed to the heir to the Russian throne, and, like the throne, she passed to the successor of the boy who had died. After the delay which etiquette demanded, the wedding took place, and the daughter of the King of Denmark became a subject of Russia. The day before the wedding she visited the Garrison church, where the members of the House of Romanoff, since the time of Peter the Great, are buried. Before the latest of all those tombs, where rested the remains of him to whom she had been betrothed, knelt the young princess and placed a funeral wreath on the cold marble. And as she bent before the tomb, her tears told her sorrow, as tears tell the sorrows of those not born in the purple nor cradled or reared in royal and imperial luxury.