Sunday, March 28, 2010

anastasia's sisters: tatiana nicholaevna

Tatiana Nicholaevna was the second child of Alexandra and Nicholas. She was only 18 months younger than her older sister Olga, and was considered the most beautiful of the four grand duchesses. Tatiana was also the leader of OTMA, mostly because she got along the best with Alexandra. She most resembled her mother and often was sent to Alexandra by her sisters when they wanted something. She was assigned a regiment of soldiers - and her uniform that she is wearing, below, survived to this day (I saw it in Cincinnati a few years ago!).

In 1913 Russia celebrated the Tercentenary - 300 years of Romanov rule. Formal pictures were taken of the imperial family. These photos are perhaps the most famous and well-known pictures of the Romanovs. But poor Tatiana had just recovered from typhoid and had lost all her hair - so she wore a wig for the photos.

During World War I, Tatiana worked as a Red Cross nurse with Olga and Alexandra. She was the most social of her sisters, and both Anna Vyrubova and Lili Dehn, beloved friends of Alexandra, wrote after the revolution how Tatiana wished to have friends outside their small social circle, but Alexandra would never allow it.

When the family was held captive in Tobolsk, it was Tatiana whom Alexandra chose to remain in charge of Alexei, Olga and Anastasia, while she and Marie accompanied Nicholas to Ekaterinburg. The final entry in Tatiana's diary, copied from a Russian holy man read ominously: "Your grief is indescribable, the Savior's grief in the Gardens of Gethsemane the world's sins is immeasurable, join your grief to his, in it you will find consolation."

Olga and Tatiana, taken in 1913 as part of the Tercentenary celebrations. Tatiana is wearing a wig!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

happy birthday, elisabeth of hesse

I spend most of this blog talking about the Romanovs, but I thought I'd talk about one of the cousins - Elisabeth of Hesse - as today is her 115th birthday.

Elisabeth was related to the Romanovs through her father, Ernst Ludwig, Grand Duke of Hesse. He was the only surviving brother of Alexandra. Ernst's marriage to his cousin Victoria Melita was an abject failure - but it did produce a child Ernst called 30 years later "the sunshine" of his life, Elisabeth Marie Alice Viktoria.

Princess Elisabeth, or Ella as she was known, was very sensitive to the problems between her parents. She was also a favorite of her great-grandmother, Queen Victoria. The queen forbid her grandchildren to divorce for Ella's sake (yes - this was the pull that the queen had, even over grandchildren in a different country!). When Victoria died in 1901, Ernst and Victoria Melita finally divorced. Victoria Melita was already having an affair with her cousin, Grand Duke Cyril Vladmirovich. Cyril was a grandson of Tsar Alexander II, and he and Victoria Melita would eventually marry.

The divorce had a profound effect on Ella. Margaret Eagar was with the Romanovs when they visited Hesse in 1903. "Looking at her I used to wonder what those wide grey-blue eyes saw, to bring such a look of sadness to the childish face," she wrote. Ella had to be coaxed to visit Victoria Melita, preferring to stay with her father.

Olga, Ella and Tatiana

It was during that same visit in 1903 in Poland that Ella became ill. A sore throat turned into a 104-degree fever that worsened as the day went on. By nightfall, Ella was clearly dying. "The child turned to me, and said anxiously, 'Send a telegram to mama,'" Eager wrote. "She added, 'immediately.' ... We continued to fan the feeble spark of life, but moment by moment it declined. She began to talk to her cousins, and seemed to imagine she was playing with them. She asked for little [Anastasia] and I brought the wee thing into the room. The dying eyes rested on her for a moment, and [Anastasia] said, 'Poor cousin Ella! Poor Princess Elizabeth!'"

Ella was only eight at the time of her death.

An autopsy concluded she had died of typhoid. Nicholas donated a silver casket for his niece, while Ernst commissioned a white funeral instead of the customary black. Thirty years later, Ernst still wrote of his daughter with grief: "My little Elisabeth was the sunshine of my life." She would be his only child.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

anastasia's grandfather, alexander III

Marie Feodorovna with her husband, Alexander III

Today is the birthday of Alexander III, grandfather to Anastasia and her siblings. On what would have been his 165th birthday, Alexander is remembered for being a man who did not want the throne, but who is relatively unknown when compared to his father Alexander II and son Nicholas II.

Alexander was not raised with the idea that he would inherit all of Russia. He had an older brother, the tsarevich Nicholas, and was content to let him handle the pressure of becoming tsar. Alexander hated the court - he was a bit more scruffy than most of the grand dukes, something he liked, and was prone to fits of temper, especially early in his life as the tsarevich. Two tragedies shaped his life: the assassination of his father, Alexander II, and the sudden death of his brother, Nicholas. Nicholas was engaged at the time of his death to a Danish princess, Dagmar. On his deathbed the tsarevich made Alexander promise to marry his fiancee in his place. It was a marriage that would remain faithful and full of love.

Alexander and Dagmar, who took the name Maria Feodorovna upon her marriage, eventually had five children - and when their first was born, they could not name him anything but Nicholas after the man who had united them. Alexander died suddenly at the age of 49 due to kidney failure - tragically early, as Nicholas was not yet ready (in his own words) to become tsar, and I wonder how differently the Russian world would have turned out had Alexander lived longer.

Alexander's impact was also felt in a different way. A plot to assassinate him was discovered in 1887, and the perpetrators were hanged. One of them was Alexander Ulyanov - the brother of Lenin.

Monday, March 8, 2010

anastasia's mother

Today is International Women's Day, and I wanted to introduce the woman who had the biggest influence on Anastasia and her siblings: her mother, Alexandra Feodorovna, who started out life as Alix of Hesse.

Alix of Hesse: a tiny title for a girl who would grow to be one of the most influential women in the world. With the advantage of time, perhaps this is unsurprisng: Alix was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. She married the man who ruled one-sixth of the globe. But her life started out as anything but promising, as early tragedies marred what could have been a happy childhood.

Alix was born Viktoria Alix Helena Luise Beatrice on June 6, 1872. She was the sixth of seven children to Grand Duke Louis of Hesse and his wife Alice, a princess of England. She shared a first name with her oldest sister, though she was always known as Alix after her mother - though the name was Germanized, as the Hessians apparently had trouble pronouncing Alice's name.

The first sorrow her life happened only a year after she was born, when her older brother Freidrich, known as Frittie, toppled from his mother's bedroom window and fell onto the ground below. The fall might have been survivable, had Frittie not been a hemophiliac.

But the real tragedy that shaped Alix happened when she was six. Diptheria broke out among the family, striking everyone but Alix's sister Elizabeth, who was away from home at the time. Marie, the seventh child, known as May, eventually succumbed to the disease, though her death was kept from the other children. When Alice finally told her only surviving son, Ernie, he burst into tears. Alice kissed her son to comfort him, despite the risk of infection, and eventually came down with diptheria herself. She died on December 14, 1878, on the anniversary of her father Prince Albert's death.

Queen Victoria stepped in after the death of her daughter to personally see to her Hessian grandchildren's upbringing, but Alix was already becoming known for her pensive and serious nature. Victoria nurtured a hope that Alix would marry in England; one of her possible husbands was Albert Victor, heir to the English throne. But it was a meeting in 1884 with the heir to the Russian throne that changed Alix's life forever. While they both fell in love, it would be another five years before they would meet - and another five after that before they were allowed to marry. The wedding almost didn't happen, as Alix wrestled with the requirement to convert to the Russian Orthodox faith. Nicholas's father Alexander III had long opposed the match, but the wedding finally happened just as the tsar's health began to fail. It would be a love match that rivaled that of Alix's grandparents, Victoria and Albert. Alix of Hesse became Tsaritsa Alexandra Feodorovna, and Russia would never be the same.

Photo: A rare smile from Alexandra with Tatiana, the daughter she was closest to.

Alexandra was not popular with the Russian people. Unlike her mother-in-law, Marie Feodorovna, Alexandra hated public events. She was shy and preferred to close herself up with her family. While the Romanov family tree was overwhelmingly male for generations, Alexandra produced four girls before the long-sought-after son, Alexei. And to make it worse, Alexei turned out to be a hemophiliac like Alexandra's brother Frittie, a condition that was kept secret from everyone except a select number of friends and servants. The final death noll to Alexandra's image as tsaritsa was her friendship with a peasant turned self-proclaimed holy man, Grigory Rasputin.

Rasputin has been so villanized, it's hard to look at him as anything other than a creepy man who was at least partially responsible for bringing down the Romanov throne (and his pictures don't help his case much). But if you put yourself in Alexandra's shoes, what would you have done differently? Here was a woman under tremendous pressure to produce a son - and when she has a son, he is not the perfect healthy child, but a little boy who falls deathly ill with the smallest bump or cut. Doctors were powerless to heal Alexei, but here was a strange man who helped him. If I were Alexandra, I would have trusted him, too.

When World War I started, life only became more difficult for Alexandra. Her birth country was now the enemy, and her unpopularity did not help her case. The stress of her life, coupled with her son's ill health, meant she often was sick as well, and many pictures exist showing her in a wheelchair. After looking at those photos, it's surprising to me that Alexandra didn't live to see 50 - her face looks much older and wearier. As tragic as her life's end was, it was perhaps how she would have wanted it - together with her family, surrounded by the people she loved most in the world.

Monday, March 1, 2010

the romanovs and cameras

One of the reasons I believe the story about the Romanovs has endured for so long has less to do with the fact the family is royalty and more to do with the treasure trove of pictures they took and left behind. Most of the photos of the Romanovs aren't of them in court dress, looking serious. Those photos were officially taken and released (see photo to the left, of Tatiana, Olga and Marie, taken in 1901). The majority of the photos we have of the Romanovs were taken themselves. They were huge fans of cameras and were even photographed carrying them around sometimes. The girls would publish the photos and even color them in occasionally. The result is a wonderful compilation of photos that shows the family beyond the court jewels and beautiful dresses.

The Romanov's story is one tinged with sadness, from Alexei's illness to the family's untimely and gruesome deaths. Yet those photos serve as a better legacy in my mind. The children could pass for kids today - laughing, joking, smiling together. It is these photos that I believe are responsible for the Romanovs' story enduring so long. You look at the photo to the right, for instance, of Tatiana (top), Marie (left) and Anastasia playing at Livadia. Those could be your children, your neighbors, the kids you grew up with. The fact that they are Russian royalty only adds to the drama. If all we knew about the Romanovs came from court photos with the girls in jewels and kakoshniks, would they really be remembered in the same way? I doubt it. And I am thankful they had cameras.