Pocket Profiles · Russia

Pocket Profile – Empress Alexandra Feodorovna

Princess Alix Victoria Helena Louise Beatrice was born in 1872, the sixth child of Princess Alice of the United Kingdom and Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse and the Rhine, and the 26th grandchild of Queen Victoria. Known as Sunny in her childhood, her early untroubled existence was interrupted by a series of misfortunes.

By the time she was six, she had lived through the deaths of her two closest siblings, her older brother (from a fall), and younger sister (from diphtheria). The diphtheria outbreak swept through the entire family. Alix fell deeply ill, and, most tragically, her mother also died. As we know, the rest of Alix’s life was hardly a smooth sail, but a path littered with few triumphs and many tragedies.

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Princess Alix is shown above, in her father’s arms.

Life at a Glance

  • Her parents named her after her mother. Alix was the closest name to Alice that could be pronounced easily in German.
  • Shortly after the death of her mother and sister, Alix was severely injured while running over cold frames that were covering the wintering vegetables. She crashed through the glass, incurring deep gashes over her legs. This injury, coupled with the after-effects of diphtheria, would haunt her all her life.
  • Reserved, well-behaved Alix was a favorite of her grandmother, Queen Victoria, whom she and her siblings visited most summers. The old Queen would take Alix with her on outings and took a particular interest in her welfare.
  • She was such a favorite of the Queen that a match with Prince Albert Victor of Wales (the older brother of the future King George V of England) was pushed with grandmotherly force. Alix, however, had met Nicholas and held other ideas.
  • Alix and Nicholas were a true love match. They were very similar, physically slim and small-boned, and emotionally reserved. Together they held the strong, unwavering belief that Nicholas (and any royal) ruled by the decree of God.

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Nicholas and Alexandra

  • No one was in favor of the marriage of Alix and Tsarevich Nicholas. Queen Victoria considered Russia a “cold, merciless” country. The Tsarevich’s parents, Tsar Alexander III and Maria Feoderovna were not happy with the idea of a Hesse daughter-in-law. Everyone felt that Alix’s withdrawn personality would be a poor fit with the structured, social Russian court and that Nicky needed an outgoing, personable woman as both wife and Tsarina.
  • The marriage took place shortly after the death of Alexander III, and the wedding was fast and subdued as a result. Alix took the name  Alexandra Feodorovna. She wore such heavy wedding gear and was so heavily covered in jewels, at one point she was pinned to the floor and could not take a single step.

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The wedding of Nicholas and Alexandra

  • The relationship between the outgoing Maria Feodorovna and Alexandra was tense. The Dowager Empress loved court life and didn’t feel the need to step aside for her daughter-in-law. She often entered events on the arm of her son, while her Alexandra trailed behind. Retrieving the crown jewels from Maria was a major project for Alexandra and one that was never really completed.
  • Although personally very happy with each other, and excellent parents to their large family, Alexandra and Nicholas’s personalities were not well suited for Russian Imperial life. They were intensely private, disliked socializing, and were ill-suited for the demands not only of the Russian court but of leading an enormous (1/6 of the world’s population) nation, which was roiling with economic disparity and societal change.
  • Alexandra had five children, four girls, and the Tsarevich, Alexei. The Tsarina was a carrier of hemophilia, and she passed this disease on to her son.

Court Dress and Other Dress

Unlike her strong-willed and flamboyant mother-in-law, Alexandra did not take to dressing for the court in an exuberant, colorful manner. The Russian aristocrats were somewhat dismayed by her modest clothing, often done up in very un-Russian pale shades. However, to our eyes many of her clothes are spectacular, and despite all the turmoil that occurred, many still remain intact. The pale dresses of the Tsarina and her daughters would also become something of a family trademark, and set their image in the eyes of the world forever.

Alexandra in court dress and the Diamond Kokoshnik tiara is shown below.

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Alexandra Court Dress

Some of Alexandra’s “muted” evening and day wear is shown below. All photos from Hermitage Art Museum.

Alexandra’s despair over her son’s hemophilia, her relationship with Rasputin, and her family’s eventual deaths at the hands of the Bolsheviks in 1918 are all well known. Alexandra herself experienced continually declining health, both mentally and physically, from the 1905 “mini-revolution” up until her death in 1918. Her issues certainly affected her family, and led to their increasing distance from both the court and the larger world. It’s a sad story all around.

Among the excellent resources for learning more about her, and all the Romanovs, is the very active forum Alexander Palace. If you enjoy listening to history, check out the thoroughly researched podcast, History Chicks.

Next week, we’ll take a look at the last Tsarevich, Alexei, and his short and difficult life.

Fast Fact: Princess Alix of Hesse was one of 42 grandchildren of Queen Victoria. Her first cousins included an emperor, a king-emperor, four queens consort, a crown princess, and a network of relations so connected that at one time it spanned almost every country in Europe. The fact that she was so uniquely positioned and yet so unable to escape her ultimate fate is debated to this day. There was a full 15 months from Czar Nicholas’ abdication to their execution by Bolsheviks. Some place the blame on the isolation of the Romanov family, but there were complicated political factors – and a world emerging from war – at work, too. A quick read on feasibility of saving the Romanovs can be found here.