Marie Fedorovna rose from relatively humble beginnings to become one of the most powerful women in the world.  She was born Princess Marie Sophia Frederika Dagmar in 1847, the fourth of six children of Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein, a captain in the Royal Guard and Princess Louise of Hesse-Cassel.[1]  The people called her Princess Dagmar, after the legendary Danish princess of the same name, who died as a young woman and returned to life to tell her husband how much she loved him.[2]

By royal standards her family was quite poor.  They lived rent free in the small Gule Palace[3] until 1852 when the childless King Frederick VII of Denmark named his godson Christian successor and the family moved to the palace of Bernstoff.[4]  The children, who were raised with little protocol or court etiquette,[5] were destined to become some of the most powerful figures in Europe.  Dagmar’s eldest brother, Frederick, became King of Denmark, her sister, Alexandra, became Queen of England, and her brother William George, became King of Greece.

Dagmar became engaged to the Tsarevitch Nicholas Alexandrovitch in October 1864, one year after her father ascended the Danish throne as Christian IX.[6]  It was both a political and love match.  Dagmar’s brother-in-law, the future Edward VII, planned to attend the wedding, which promised an easing of relations between Russia and England.[7]  Also, the marriage between the houses of Denmark and Russia broke with the tradition of Russian emperors marrying German princesses.[8]

The betrothal ended in tragedy.  The Tsarevitch fell ill in the winter of 1865, when visiting the Imperial villa at Cannes with his mother.  The Empress Marie Alexandrovna called for both Dagmar and the Grand Duke Alexander Alexandrovitch to come to Nicholas’s bedside.  It was at this time that Nicholas asked Dagmar and Alexander to marry.  They agreed.  Two hours later Nicholas died and Alexander became heir to the Russian throne.[9]  Dagmar converted to Orthodoxy the day after Nicholas’s funeral, becoming a Grand Duchess and taking the name Marie Fedorovna.[10]   On 9 November 1866, she wed Alexander.

Marie Fedorovna spent fifteen years as a grand duchess of Russia.  During this time, she received a good deal of training for her future role as Tsarina.  Her mother-in-law, the Empress Marie Alexandrovna, with whom she had a friendly relationship, guided her through the complicated rules of court etiquette and Petersburg society.[11]  She also succeeded in securing the Romanov line by giving birth to five children.  Nicholas, the future tsar, was born in 1868, George in 1871, Xenia in 1875, Michael in 1878 and Olga in 1882. 

Marie enjoyed an immense amount of popularity in Russian society.  Even before she became Empress, Marie was accepted as the leader of Petersburg society, as Marie Alexandrovna was often ill and rarely made public appearances.[12]  When Marie Alexandrovna died in June 1880, Alexander II caused a scandal by creating Catherine Dolgorousky Princess Yourievskaya and marrying her only forty days later.  Marie and Alexander openly headed the party that opposed the social advancement[13] of the woman who had been Alexander II’s mistress for eight years.[14]   Marie showed the cold side of her nature to her new mother-in-law.  She only saw Princess Yourievskaya when forced and would not speak to her, even at the command of the Emperor.[15]

Marie’s world changed rapidly in 1881 with the assassination of Alexander II.  On the morning of 1 March, Marie and her son Nicholas decided to go skating.  As they waited at the Anichkov Palace for the sleigh that would take them to the Winter Palace, they heard the explosion that killed the tsar.  The dying Tsar was taken to the Winter Palace.  The Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich described the scene that followed. 

“[The Tsar] presented a terrible sight, his right leg torn off, his left leg shattered, innumerable wounds all over his hands and face.  One eye shut, the other expressionless...I clung to the arm of Nicky, deathly pale in his blue sailor suit.  His mother, stunned by the catastrophe, was still holding a pair of skates in her trembling hands.”[16] 


Alexander and Marie were now Emperor and Empress of All the Russias. 

For the most part Marie was content to continue the role she had played as Tsarevna.  She continued to lead society and raised her children.  When her children were small she supervised her children’s studies and acted as a confidant.[17]  The children received a relatively simple upbringing.  They slept on army cots and took cold baths. Family meals were informal, occasionally with food fights between the children, and a welcome break from formal banquets.[18]  Marie’s daughter, Olga Alexandrovna, spoke of these banquets in her memoirs.  “There was plenty of food...[but] by the time our turn came, there was just enough time to have one or two bites.  Even Nicky was once so hungry that he committed a sacrilege...He opened his cross [filled with beeswax and a piece of the true cross] and ate the relics.”[19] 

Though Marie did take an interest in their upbringing, the children were mostly cared for by their nurses.  “Michael and I climbed to the roof of the palace because it was so much fun to see the great park by moonlight,” remembered Olga. “But my mother could not even smile when she heard of such pranks.  It was indeed fortunate that her days were so crowded that few of our escapades came to her notice.”[20]

Marie’s role as a mother became her most important with the ascension of her son, Nicholas II.  She had made few attempts to influence her husband politically.  Olga Alexandrovna remembered that he “arrived at his decisions independent of anyone’s advice.”[21]  Even if she did not influence him politically, Alexander did show that he respected his wife’s opinions.  One story tells of Marie’s concerns for her husband’s health.  Alexander was ill and she felt that he was working too hard and she said he must go to sleep.  He obeyed her wishes, but he only pretended to sleep.  Once Marie was satisfied and left the room  Alexander rose and continued to work.  But, once Nicholas ascended to the throne, she felt it her duty to give him advice. 

Though her life changed after Alexander’s sudden death in 1884, many elements of Marie’s life stayed the same.  She remained at the head of society and continued to take precedence over her daughter-in-law, Alexandra.  She continued to live in the same palaces as when she was the reigning tsarina.  Eventually, as her influence over her son waned, she spent more time abroad, visiting her sister Alexandra in England and her childhood home in Denmark.

After the revolution Marie, along with several other members of the Imperial family, was imprisoned in a succession of villas located near the Black Sea.[22]  It was here where she received news of the murders of her sons Michael and Nicholas, as well as Nicholas’s family.[23]  In April 1919 Marie became the first member of the Romanov family to escape Russia on board the British warship the H.M.S. Marlborough.  She spent the rest of her life in Denmark with her nephew, King Christian X.[24]  In 1924 the Grand Duke Cyrill proclaimed himself Tsar of all the Russias.  Marie never believed the stories that her family had been executed therefore she would not recognize this, or any other claim to the throne.[25]  Marie died in Denmark in 1928, at the age of eighty-one. 

            Princess Alix Victoria Helena Louise Beatrice von Hesse by the Rhine was born in June 1872 to Prince Ludwig of Hesse-Darmstadt and Princess Alice, a daughter of Queen Victoria.  Alix was the sixth child of the royal couple and as a result probably was not expected to have too much of a future.  This could not have been farther from the truth.  As Alexandra Fedorovna, she became the consort of Tsar Nicholas II and the last empress of Russia.  She received much criticism for her role as tsarina.  Her German birth led to rumors that she was a channel for foreign influence.  Her dependence on the starets Rasputin led to rumors that she was his pawn.  These charges were especially troubling considering that the public believed she had a great deal of influence over her husband. She did not enjoy society and its pleasures, avoiding it whenever possible.  This led to the idea that Alexandra considered herself to be above associating with her subjects.  She sheltered herself from this criticism, often refusing to believe or correct it.  Therefore the public knew little of the private Alexandra.  She was a woman extremely devoted to her family and adopted country.  Though she often did give Nicholas advice, she believed it to be in the best interests of Russia, not Germany, Rasputin or anyone else.  Alexandra Fedorovna is a fascinating woman, not just because she was the last empress of Russia, but because she was misunderstood and she misunderstood the true nature of the Russian people which she believed that she understood so well.

            In spite of many tragedies, Alix was a generally happy child.  Because she was such a happy baby her mother gave her the nickname Sunny prior to her christening.[26]  Unfortunately, the majority of Alix’s childhood was spent in mourning and her cheerful disposition did not last.  When she was about one, her brother, Frittie, a hemophiliac, fell out of a window.  While at first it seemed that he would be fine, he later died from bleeding on the brain.  Her mother, who had witnessed the fall, never fully recovered from his death.  Alice frequently spoke of being reunited with her son and the family made annual visits to Frittie’s crypt.[27]  When Alix was six, her eldest sister, Victoria, became ill with diphtheria.  This sickness soon passed to all members of the family except Alice and Ella, another of Alix’s sisters.  May, the youngest child, died.  Alice then caught the illness and died as well.[28]  After her mother’s death, Alix is said to have become more reserved and quiet.[29]

In many ways, Alix’s upbringing was very English.  The New Palace, where her family lived, was built only six years before her birth and reflected her mother’s English tastes.[30]  The children had an English nanny, Mrs. Mary Anne Orchard, who was responsible for their early education and in many ways took the place of their mother.[31]  Perhaps most importantly, Alix spent much of her childhood in England, under the supervision of her grandmother, Queen Victoria.  After Princess Alice died, Victoria wrote to Alix and her brothers and sisters that she would “try to be a mother” to them.[32]  The children therefore spent much of their remaining childhood in England.  She continued her education there.  Victoria taught her court etiquette and personally supervised her education.  Alix had an English tutor, Margaret Jackson, who believed that politics did not belong solely to men. This lesson was not a hard one for Alix with the example of a powerful woman that she had in her grandmother.[33]  Alix’s appreciation for England and its ways was evident throughout her life.  English was her preferred language.  It is the language of her diaries and of her correspondence with Nicholas.  Even as empress she continued to furnish her apartments with the same mail order English furniture from Maples that her mother had used in the New Palace.[34]

            Alix’s life in England had one rather important similarity with her life in Darmstadt.  Like her mother, who was unable to recover from the death of her son, Alix’s grandmother never stopped mourning the death of her husband, Prince Albert.  As a result, most of Alix’s early life was spent in mourning,   which may have contributed the seriousness of her personality that was so disagreeable to Russian society.

            Alix’s upbringing was unusual in that she had a close relationship with her family.[35]  This relationship would later be continued with her own children.

            Alix met her future husband for the first time in 1884, at the wedding of her sister, Ella, to the Grand Duke Sergei of Russia, an uncle of Nicholas II.  Nicholas seems to have fallen for Alix at once.  In his diary of 8 June 1884, he recorded their first meeting.  “The whole family dined at half past seven,” he wrote.  “I sat next to little twelve-year-old Alix, and I liked her awfully much.”  He followed by giving her a brooch as a present.  She initially accepted this gift, but later returned it.[36]  Their next meeting was in 1889 during Alix’s next visit to Russia.  Her visit was rather short, lasting only six weeks, but is well documented in Nicholas’s diary. They danced at balls, sledded and skated.  On 27 February Nicholas described their last visit in his diary, “Alix and Ernie came skating for the last time,  Played chess with Alix.  Was in a sad mood!”  Also, Nicholas hosted a tea dance in Alix’s honor.[37]  Their relationship developed not only through these meetings, but through their correspondence, which began shortly after her 1889 visit to Russia.  It was during this visit that Nicholas’s feelings for Alix were confirmed.  In his diary entry for 21 December 1891, he wrote “my dream – one day to marry Alix H.”[38]

            The road to engagement was a difficult one.  Victoria wanted Alix to marry her cousin, Prince Albert, son of the Prince of Wales.[39]  Alix, though, turned down his proposal.  Nicholas’s parents first wanted him to marry Princess Helene of France, daughter of the French pretender, so that the Russo-French alliance would be strengthened. Their next choice was Princess Margaret of Prussia.  Fortunately for Nicholas, who had no interest in these women, they were both unwilling to convert to Orthodoxy.[40]  The Russian laws of succession required that the wife of a future sovereign must be Orthodox at the time of their marriage, so it was impossible for Nicholas to marry a woman who refused to convert.  With these refusals there were only two obstacles remaining between Nicholas and Alix.  Marie had a history of making marriage difficult for her children.  When her daughter, Xenia, wanted to marry she initially refused to give her permission.  Alexander Mikhailovich, Xenia’s husband, recalled his father’s meeting with Marie in his memoirs.  “Furious?  It is too mild to describe her rage...She said I was trying to break her happiness.  That I had no right to steal her daughter.  That she would never speak to me again.”[41]  Though Alexander III and Marie desired that Nicholas marry, they disapproved of Alix as a bride.  Also, Alix refused to convert.  The first obstacle was removed when Alexander III’s health started to fail in the winter or 1894.  Alexander and Marie grudgingly gave their consent to a marriage between Nicholas and Alix.[42]  The obstacle of religion proved to be more difficult.  In a letter from 8 November 1893, Alix wrote to Nicholas’s sister, Xenia, “I cannot become untrue to my own confession--do not believe that my love is less, why that has made it so far more hard and difficult to me, and I have been torturing myself.  To hurt one whom one loves is fearful, and yet I don’t want him to go on hoping, as I can never change my Religion.”[43]  On the same day she wrote to Nicholas, “You, dear Nicky, who have also such a strong belief will understand me that I think it is a sin to change my belief.”[44]  Nicholas was persistent though.  They met again at the wedding of Grand Duke Ernst of Hesse, Alix’s brother, and Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg.  Nicholas’s diary entry of 5 April 1894 describes “a conversation which I have so longed for and yet so feared,” a further attempt to get Alix to change her religion.  He failed.  Instead, it was Alix’s sister, Ella, who convinced Alix that she should convert.  Ella had not been required to convert when she married Sergei; he was far enough away from the throne that he was not required to follow the laws of succession, but she had chosen to anyway.[45]  This persuaded Alix to convert and on 8 April 1894, she accepted Nicholas’s offer of marriage.  He described the day in his diary as “a wonderful, unforgettable day in my life – the day of my betrothal to my dear beloved Alix.”

            Alix’s betrothal to Nicholas signaled more changes in her life than just religion.  The role of empress of Russia was a very public one.  Until her betrothal, Alix had had a rather anonymous existence as a minor German princess.  The duties of a tsarina were extensive.  As it appeared that Alexander III would not live much longer, she had very little time to learn them.[46]  Alix and Nicholas spent the summer after their engagement in England, where she began to study the Russian language and religion.  In the fall Nicholas returned to Russia and Alix to Darmstadt, with plans on joining him in the spring.  But Alexander III’s failing health hurried her arrival to Russia.  He died on 20 October, just ten days after her arrival.[47]  The next day, Alix officially converted to Orthodoxy, taking the name Alexandra Fedorovna.  On 14 November, Nicholas and Alexandra wed and Alexandra became Empress of all the Russias.

            Nicholas and Alexandra’s first official public appearance after becoming Emperor and Empress was a speech given by Nicholas at the Anchikov Palace on 17 January 1895.  It was a disaster.  The representative of the Tver nobility dropped the traditional offering of bread and salt, which was taken as an omen.[48]  The Tsar and Tsarina both received criticism.  According to the statesman Vladimir Nikolaevich Lamsdorf, the tsar “made the most disturbing impression… They are also blaming the empress for holding herself as if she had swallowed a yardstick and for not bowing to the deputations.”[49]  

Alexandra’s new role as tsarina was poorly defined.  Traditionally the tsarina became a leader in Petersburg society, attending parties, ballets, and operas and generally showing the wealth of the tsar.[50]  Alexandra failed in this area. Timing seems to have been a factor in this.  The first year of their marriage was an official year of mourning.  Therefore there were no balls or celebrations for a year.[51]  About a year after her marriage, Alexandra’s first daughter, Olga, was born.  Following the example of her childhood, she took great interest in her daughter.  She still had difficulty with the Russian language and she had never been fully comfortable in public situations.[52]  She therefore had little interest in the balls and public occasions that were just starting up again as the official mourning period ended.  Her only real introduction to these occasions seems to have been her visits to Russia as a teenager, an experience far different from presiding over these balls as empress.  Her first ball as empress came in the winter of 1896.  This occasion terrified the young empress, who spoke little and left as early as was acceptable.[53]

The most important duty of a tsarina, as with in any other monarchy, was to produce an heir to the throne.  Alexandra bore four daughters Olga, Tatiana, Marie, and Anastasia before finally bearing a son, Alexei, in 1904.  Alexandra’s desire to have a son was great, especially after Nicholas’s near fatal illness in 1900, when she was pregnant with Anastasia.[54]  The Russian laws of succession forbade a female from inheriting the throne, so, if Nicholas had died without a son, the crown would have fallen to his brother, Michael. It was for this reason that she first began to consult mystics and holy men.  The first few she consulted failed her; one, Philippe of Lyon predicted that Anastasia would be a boy and another, Mitka the Fool, was simply unacceptable.[55]  She found success in a holy man, Serafim, who had died in 1833.  In July of 1903, the imperial couple visited his monastery, where they spent three days in prayer.  A year later, 30 July 1904, Alexei was born.  Alexandra’s faith in holy men was confirmed.

All was not well with Alexei; he inherited hemophilia from his mother.  The first sign of the disease occurred when Alexei hemorrhaged from the navel when he was six weeks old.[56]  This disease was a constant worry to Alexandra.  It was kept secret from all but the closest family members and officials.  This further isolated the imperial family from the people.  They already lived at the relatively small Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, outside of Petersburg, which made them inaccessible to the public and caused many rumors.  Alexei’s secret disease further fueled these rumors, with many speculations on the true nature of his illness.[57]  It was to help her son that Alexandra turned to the starets, Rasputin.  Alexandra believed that he could help her son, and often he has appeared to alleviate the symptoms of the tsarevitch, but his reputation only worked to damage the imperial family.  Rasputin was accused of drunkenness and of having numerous affairs.  Also, he was believed to have direct control over Alexandra, and through her, over Nicholas.  More than anything, he was envied for what appeared to be a rapid rise to power.

            The Romanov dynasty ended with Nicholas and Alexandra.  Alexandra’s unpopularity combined with her political influence was a factor in its fall.  The government collapsed in 1917 and Nicholas was forced to abdicate.  The family was held prisoner, first in their palace at Tsarskoe Selo, then in the city of Tobolsk in Siberia and finally in the Ural town of Yekaterinburg.  Nicholas, Alexandra and their children were executed on the night of 16-17 July 1918.

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[1] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 16.

[2] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 26.

[3] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 1.

[4] E.E.P. Tisdall, Marie Fedorovna: Empress of Russia (New York: The John Day Company, 1957) 20.

[5] Tisdall, Marie Fedorovna, 21.

[6] Tisdall, Marie Fedorovna, 29.

[7] Tisdall, Marie Fedorovna, 30.

[8] Tisdall, Marie Fedorovna, 30.

[9] Tisdall, Marie Fedorovna, 42-44.

[10] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 54.

[11] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 85.

[12] Tisdall, Marie Fedorovna, 62.

[13] Tisdall, Marie Fedorovna, 86.

[14] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 114.

[15] Tisdall, Marie Fedorovna, 94 and Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 115.

[16] Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich “Memoirs” in A Lifelong Passion, eds. Maylunas and Mironenko, 7.

[17] Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, 11.

[18] Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, 12.

[19] Ian Vorres, The Last Grand Duchess (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964)  21.

[20] Vorres, Grand Duchess, 26.

[21] Vorres, Grand Duchess, 23.

[22] Tisdall, Marie Fedorovna, 284-291.

[23] Tisdall, Marie Fedorovna, 298.

[24] Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, 522.

[25] Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, 523.

[26] Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, 28.

[27] King, The Last Empress, 14-16.

[28] King, The Lars Empress, 17.

[29] Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, 30.

[30] King, The Last Empress, 13.

[31] King, The Last Empress, 15.

[32] King, The Last Empress, 18.

[33] Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, 31.

[34] King, The Last Empress, 117.

[35] King, The Last Empress, 15.

[36] King, The Last Empress, 30.

[37] Massie, The Last Empress, 31.

[38] Nicholas in A Lifelong Passion, Maylunas and Mironenko eds., 42.

[39] King, The Last Empress, 41.

[40] Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, 27-28.

[41] Alexander Mikhailovich in A Lifelong Passion, Maylunas and Mironenko eds., 42.

[42] Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, 28.

[43] Alix to Xenia in A Lifelong Passion, Maylunas and Mironenko eds., 32.

[44] Alix to Nicholas in A Lifelong Passion, Maylunas and Mironenko eds., 32.

[45] Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, 34.

[46] King, The Last Empress, 65.

[47] King, The Last Empress, 74.

[48] Radzinsky, The Last Tsar, 47.

[49] Radzinsky, The Last Tsar, 48.

[50] King, The Last Empress, 85.

[51] Radzinsky, The Last Tsar, 46.

[52] Radzinsky, The Last Tsar, 49.

[53] Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, 72.

[54] Radzinsky, The Last Tsar, 62.

[55] Radzinsky, The Last Tsar, 64.

[56] King, The Last Empress, 157.

[57] King, The Last Empress, 158.