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The Unlucky Emperor
17 July 1998 was a warm day, abnormally bright for Petersburg. The houses along Moscovsky Avenue let down silk tricolor flags—lowered and joined with ribbons of mouring. The traffic lights blinked yellow. The avenue, usually lively and filled with cars, was empty; policemen in white gloves stood on ceremonial, one positioned every 50 meters. “What happened?” asked Petersburgers in surprise. “We await the Emperor,” answered the sentries. “Nikolai Romanov.”
That day, the remains of the emperor’s family were being laid to rest at the Peter and Paul Cathedral (except for Tsarevich Alexei and the Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna), as were those of the family’s four faithful servants. The date of the burial was not chosen at haphazard. Exactly 80 years before, on 17 July 1918, the abdicated Emperor Nikolai Romanov, his wife, children, Doctor Botkin, and three servants who had voluntarily remained with the family were all shot to death in the basement of the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg.
Only later, in retrospect, people “remembered” the unlucky signs that had followed Nikolai all his life and the rumor that the Order of Andrew the Apostle—which was presented to every newborn grand prince—was dropped at his Christening. They also remembered the words of numerous prophets—from Monk Abel to the holy fool Pasha Diveevskaia—as well as the fact that the tsar was born on the Day of Job, which meant that he would not have a happy life. But in his youth, Tsarevich Nikolai was considered a very lucky person: on two occasions he survived extraordinary circumstances.
Train Derailment in 1888
On 17 October 1888, Emperor Alexander III returned to Petersburg with his family after a trip to the Caucasus. The fairy-tale beauty of these parts completely charmed the Empress Maria Fedorovna and filled everyone with the happiest emotions, but near the small station of Borki, near Kharkov, there occurred a tragedy. The emperor’s family (except for the youngest daughter) was peacefully finishing breakfast in the dining car when it suddenly lurched from a terrible blow and literally collapsed inward.
The locomotive and four cars went off the rails, and the back cars collided with those that had toppled—in a word, it was a true hell. A myth spread to the effect that Alexander III was able to position his shoulders under the falling iron roof and save everyone else by holding up this extraordinary weight, like Atlas, until the Cossacks arrived. Of course, the reality was much less cinematic. It was hard to believe that anyone had survived the mangled dining car: everything was covered in blood, the car was scattered with broken-off pieces, crushed and injured people shouted out in pay, the footman who had brought in cream was lying dead. Maria Fyodorovna later remembered with horror those minutes when she was certain that her whole family—husband and children—had perished.
Twenty-three people perished in the catastrophe, while thirty-five were wounded. All across Russia, services were held to give thanks for the miraculous preservation of the tsar’s family in this catastrophe. The last of these services held in the Russian Empire in the presence of Nikolai II took place on 19 April 1915.
Assassination Attempt in Japan
When the Tsarevich Nikolai finished his regular course of studies, his father thought it best to send him on a journey abroad—correctly supposing that this would be a very useful experience for the future monarch. The tsarevich was to travel across Asia and visit the USA and the Far East. The journey was going smoothly, but towards the end an emergency occurred that almost became an international scandal.
In the city of Otsu, a Japanese policeman of a lower rank, Tsuda Sanzo, suddenly attacked the heir to the Russian throne and twice hit him in the head with his sabre. The tsarevich’s traveling partner—the Greek Prince George, his second cousin—came to his cousin’s aid, knocking the would-be murderer down before he could land his final blow. Fortunately, the injury was not dangerous, but the tsarevich was left with a scar on his skull from the two blows. Much later, this same scar would be used to identify the body of the crowned martyr.
Tsarevich Nikolai in Japan. Photo: rusmir.su
Despite being bloodied and in shock, Nikolai had the composure to assure the Japanese that his good will toward Japan and the Japanese people remained unaltered.
In Russia, services were once again held for the preservation of the heir. The tsarevich’s journeys were naturally cut short, and he returned to Petersburg as quickly as possible. In Tobolsk, Nikolai was met with hospitality and visited the local sights, including the bell that had rung when the Tsarevich Dmitry was killed. Twenty-seven years later, he and his family would end up in Tobolsk, but under entirely different circumstances.
Emperor Alexander III, the Peacemaker, received a very serious wound to his loins during the train accident. After a while, this phenomenally strong man began to suffer from a very serious renal disease, which led to complications in his heart and lungs. No one in Russia could have imagined that Alexander III would die so soon, at an age of only forty-nine. Many would note later that the tsarevich was poorly prepared for the throne. During his father’s life, he had never taken part in the meetings of the State Council and was inclined to be overly trusting of those around him, especially his older relatives. Both Nikolai and Alexander III had thought that they still had plenty of time ahead of them, but fate worked things out differently. The tsarevich became Nikolai II, and his reign began with a true nightmare.
In honor of the young ruler’s coronation on 18 May 1896, a plan was made to give gifts to the people: a handkerchief with the portraits of Nikolai and Alexandra, a commemorative mug, bread, sausage, and a bag of candy. This event was to take place on the large Khodinsky field, at the edge of Moscow. Commemorative tin and enamel mugs with the tsar’s monogram and coat-of-arms were stamped in England in advance. Booths had been built, from which gifts would be handed out, and a stage was set up for musicians and a choir. At 12 in the morning, the tsar and tsaritsa were supposed to arrive to take part in the people’s rejoicing.
Thirty years before, on that same Khodinsky field, gifts had been given out to subjects to commemorate the ascension of Alexander III to the throne. Just a little over 200,000 people had come, and everything had gone wonderfully. But a lot had changed in 13 years. On the night before the ceremonies at Khodynsky field, already close to 500,000 people had assembled, and more were coming.
The atmosphere grew thick. In the morning, a rumor went around that there weren’t enough gifts for everyone and the concessioners would give them out to their friends. In a panic, people rushed forward to get their gifts, crossing over police lines—and a terrible stampede ensued. Those who fell were stamped to death. Over a short period of time, more than 1300 people died on the Khodynsky field, including women and children. The tsar was told that no more than 200 people suffered in the crowd; the dead and injured were carried away, and the celebration continued.
Revels at the Khodynsky Field, 1896. Photo: oursociety.ru
In the evening, Nikolai and his wife Alexandra attended a ball thrown by a French ambassador, even though the true scale of the catastrophe had become known by then. This ball was necessary for shoring up Russian-French relations. Much preparation had gone into it, and the Emperor’s relatives convinced him that it was his duty as monarch to appear there. For Russia, and especially for those well disposed to the opposition, the appearance of the imperial couple at this ball—at a moment when the unidentified corpses of their subjects were lying in the morgue—was a direct insult.
“Be Strong and Courageous…”
Everyone who knew the Emperor personally and enjoyed his trust would mention that he placed a greater stake in the welfare and interests of the country entrusted to him than in his own happiness and profit. Specifically, this was how his father, Alexander the Peacemaker, raised him. Before the latter’s death, he left an official order, practically a last will, for his son:
“I instruct you to love everything that serves the good fortune, honor, and dignity of Russia. Preserve the monarchy, remembering meanwhile that you hold responsibility for the fates of your subjects before the Throne of the Lord. May faith in God and in the holiness of your duties as tsar be the foundation of your life. Be strong and courageous: never show weakness. Hear everyone out—there is nothing shameful in this—but obey only yourself and your conscience. In foreign affairs, maintain a position of independence. Remember that Russia never has friends. They fear our massive size. Avoid wars. In internal politics, protect the church first of all. More than once it has saved Russia in times of trouble. Support your family because it is the foundation of any state.”
Fate turned out to be phenomenally cruel to the last Russian ruler anointed to the throne. Practically everything he did to uphold his father’s legacy turned against him, reducing all his efforts to dust. All of the “time bombs” that had been laid under the foundation of the empire’s economy and social relations since the time of Peter the Great started to explode—and there was no longer any way to remove them. The internal contradictions grew greater and greater, but the most diverse political forces came together on one point: everything should be blamed on the autocracy, and specifically on the person sitting in the throne.
Nikolai II tried to be a true father to his subjects, but his reign began with the Khodinsky Field incident. He would have been happy to avoid war, but the Russo-Japanese War broke out, heavily damaging Russia’s prestige, followed by the First World War. These wars buried the monarchy. The most difficult and repulsive events befell the country during the ill-fated reign of the last emperor: terrorism plagued the country, such that no one was surprised by major political assassinations, and the country became used to blood in the form of peasant rebellions, pogroms of Jews, firing on peacefully demonstrating workers who brought a petition to the tsar in 1905. And even though “Bloody Sunday” was a shock to the tsar more than anyone, Nikolai was the one blamed for this tragedy, as if he had shot at women and children himself. Stolypin’s reforms were only partially finished—and we can only guess whether the prime minister would have ultimately saved the dynasty and political order if he hadn’t been killed.
Nikolai II on the Battleship “Prince Suvorov,” 1902. Photo: diaryrh.ru
“Support Your Family”
It became fashionable to trample the family life of the last Russian emperor in the mud starting roughly at the beginning of the 20th century. While the USSR existed, it was impossible to speak about anyone from the house of the Romanovs without the epithets “bloody,” “weak,” “disciplinarian,” “lascivious,” “wing nut,” or at best “drunkard.” Meanwhile, people forget that the story of the relationship between Alexandra and Nikolai is one of selfless fidelity to each other, desperate heroism, and the complete trust that ruled within this family.
The tsarevich saw his intended when he turned twenty-one (and she seventeen). Alisa, the favorite granddaughter of Queen Victoria, came on the invitation of the Grand Duke Sergei, who was married to her sister Ella (Princess Elizaveta Fyodorovna). The heir was charmed by young Alexandra, but sadly it was in vain: marriages between members of the royal family quite seldom depend on the heartfelt desires of the future spouses. Their parents counted on a totally different partner for the Tsarevich, since the bonds between Russia and England were quite strong already. But Nikolai unexpectedly showed his determination and didn’t give up hope.
Alexander III’s declining health forced him to listen to his son’s opinion and renew his matchmaking efforts with Victoria Alisa Elena Louise Beatrice (as was the princess’s full name). When she was christened, her name was changed to Alexandra Fyodorovna.
Once he was engaged to Alexandra, Nikolai openly confessed all his “transgressions” to his intended, giving her his diary to read—once he made a vow of fidelity, he kept his word. No other woman was in a position to contend with his lawful wife. And she idolized Nikolai. Every year, the couple celebrated their own private holiday—the day when the heir to the Russian throne and the Princess of Hesse and by Rhine had a heart-to-heart conversation in the Coburg castle.
The Empress and her children made what sacrifices they could to serve Russia. During the First World War, the Grand Duchesses and Empress worked as nurses in the military hospital, where the most wounded soldiers ended up, and they constantly engaged in charity. The private means of the Tsaritsa herself and her husband were not especially great—in Russia, the emperor was far from the wealthiest person—and so the ladies of the tsar’s family did not disdain to throw charity fairs and bazaars to collect funds to aid the army, selling their own handicrafts. This was not “a lady’s nonsense,” as propaganda would later try to present it. The money collected from this bazaar went to funding the construction of a sanatorium in Livadiya to treat injured soldiers.
Nikolai II with his wife and children. Photo: Twitter.com
Of course, the vitriol laid on Nikolai II inevitably affected people’s opinion of the Empress, especially as concerned Rasputin. In a state of passionate desperation, Alexandra Fyodorovna believed in the saintliness of Rasputin and regarded all the stories of his tricks as gossip defaming a holy man. Her position is easy to understand: she never saw his “dark side,” as he remained as modest and pious as a monk in her presence, and the sorrow and fear of a mother who might lose her son at any minute deprived Alexandra Fyodorovna of the ability to approach the problem critically. What’s more, whatever the problems with Rasputin, he was far from the main problem facing Russia. But the tragedy that played out in 1917 proved that “wicked tongues are more terrible than a pistol.”
Martyrdom and Aftermath
The arrest and martyrdom of the imperial family and their faithful servants was a real shock even during the whirlwind of the revolution. The new government undertook a great number of measures to hide the traces of their crime and disavow responsibility for what happened.
They claimed that the executed Grand Duke Mikhail had fled. They provoked the Emperor in order to be able to shoot them all “during an attempt to escape.” After the slaughter in the cellar of the Ipatiev House, they tried unsuccessfully to burn the bodies of the chambermaid Anna Demidova, the Tsar’s chef I. Kharitonov, and the valet A. Trupp, then to dissolve them in sulfuric acid, and finally buried them in secret, masking the grave with rails and railway ties.
Even after the death of these royal martyrs, Soviet Russia tried to negotiate for their freedom—though it’s unknown what they were hoping to achieve—and then Moscow proclaimed that the execution had been ordered by the local authorities of the Urals, almost by mistake, and they had overreached their jurisdiction. They practically stopped talking about the Romanov family, as if they were observing an unspoken vow to forget. Nonetheless, the blood cried out to the heavens—it was impossible to wipe this terrible and senseless murder from the people’s consciousness and collective memory.
As we can see, everything comes back in its turn. And on 17 July, we celebrate the memory of the royal martyrs, who died protecting Russia: Nikolai, Alexandra, Alexei, Maria, Olga, Tatyana, and Anastasia. They served their country all their lives. They continue to intercede on its behalf even after their terrible deaths.