The Empresses Marie and Alexandra, Image and Autocracy in Late Imperial RUssia


Here it is, my independent study on the last two empresses of Russia!  I wrote this quite some time ago (1998), and even though it was my "final" copy there are a few places that need editing, etc or my ideas were just weird and should probably be revised.  I don't have a copy of the conclusion on my computer, I'll post it once I find the disc it's on. I suppose I should add some type of copyright information as well?  I welcome any questions :)     


On 2 March 1917 Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias, abdicated, ending three hundred years of Romanov rule.  Up until this point Russia had had a unique form of government.  The will of the tsar was law; there were no restrictions on his power.  Therefore, the image of the autocrat was of great importance.  The role of his wife was essential in helping to promote this image.  Officially, a tsarina’s role was quite small and poorly defined.  She accompanied the tsar on state occasions, participated in the numerous balls and parties of Petersburg society, provided the tsar with an heir and stayed away from the affairs of state.  In addition, she was a kinder personification of the government, the matoushka, or little mother of the Russian people.  In reality, her role held many consequences for the reign of her husband.  How a tsarina chose to represent herself could reflect positively or negatively on her husband.  In the case of Nicholas II, he had not one, but two empresses, his mother, Marie Fedorovna, and his wife, Alexandra Fedorovna, who were seen as powers behind the throne. 

            The stories of the last two empresses of Russia are in many ways contrasting.  The two women were seen as polar opposites of each other.  Marie was loved by society; Alexandra was not.  This was, in large part, because of how they viewed their roles.  Marie played a very traditional role.  She did not interfere with politics during her husband's reign, or, if she did, it was behind the scenes.  Also, she was an active leader in society.  Alexandra, on the other hand, did not follow the traditional rules of a tsarina.  She was condemned for meddling in politics and keeping herself and her family out of the public eye.

            The roles that Marie and Alexandra played as tsarinas were determined, in part, by the political atmospheres of their reigns.  There was nothing remarkable about the reign of Alexander III.  He came to the throne in 1881, after the assassination of his father, Alexander II, and was committed to the principles of autocracy.  Though this form of government did have its critics, Alexander’s strong personal image was able to keep the government running successfully.  This environment allowed Marie to become the model of a perfect tsarina.  She delighted in attending the many balls and parties of Petersburg society.  Also, when she came to the throne Marie had already given birth to four children, including two sons, which gave Alexander’s reign a sense of stability.  Nicholas II’s reign was quite different.  Nicholas desired to continue the tradition of autocracy, but did not have the strong personality of his father and was therefore unable to do so.  His only son, Alexei, was not born until 1904, ten years after Nicholas ascended the throne.  The following year, 1905, Russia broke into revolution.  The unstable situation in Russia affected the way that Alexandra viewed her role.  Already reclusive, Alexandra pulled further away from society and further isolating her family from the reality of the Russian situation.

The conflicting views, attitudes, and ideas of these two women had many consequences in Russian history.  Their behind the scenes roles were just as important as Nicholas's public role as head of state.  To fully understand the influence that these women had it is important to look at their lives and upbringings as well as the direct influence that they had over Nicholas and how they presented themselves to the public.  From their lives we can learn some of the reasoning behind what they did.  The most important factor though, remains the actions that they took as tsarinas.

            Almost everybody who had anything to do with the Romanovs wrote a book about them.  Personal friends of the family, such as Alexandra’s closest friend, Anna Vyrubova,[1] and Pierre Gilliard,[2] tutor to the Imperial children, wrote books that tend to be favorable towards Nicholas and Alexandra.  Other members of society, such as Princess Catherine Radziwill[3] (under the pseudonym Paul Vassili) wrote books that portrayed the Imperial family in a considerably less positive light.  Many members of society wrote books that concerned their own experiences in Russia.  These books, such as that of Princess Cantacuzčne[4], an American who married into Russian society, often include relatively unbiased descriptions of the Imperial family.  Their purpose is to describe what they saw and experienced, not to make a case in favor of or against the Russian monarchy. While some of these memoirs allude to Alexander and Marie’s reign, the majority of these books deal with the reign of Nicholas and Alexandra.

            The Romanovs also wrote a great deal about themselves.  Whenever they were apart they wrote each other.  Many of them kept diaries and published memoirs.  These personal writings help to distinguish their own motivations, which are often quite different from what the public perceived.  They wrote in several languages, including Danish, French, English and Russian.  Many of these documents are available today, including Nicholas’s correspondence with his mother,[5] his correspondence with Alexandra,[6] excerpts from his diaries,[7] and Alexandra’s last diary.[8]  Though there are many sources they are far from complete.  Again, most published sources come from the reign of Nicholas II.  There are also large periods of time where we have little information.  For example, the first published letter between Nicholas and Marie in 1905 is from October.  Also, though Alexandra’s last diary has been published, her earlier diaries are unavailable.  In an attempt to keep them out of the hands of revolutionaries, she burned some of them.  Others have been lost in the years since the revolution.

            A good deal of the secondary literature about the Romanovs comes in the form of biography.  Nicholas and Alexandra have many biographies written about them.  Most tend to be more popular than scholarly, but the information is still informative and well documented.  These biographies deal with both personal and political issues that surrounded the Imperial family as well as the political situation in Europe.  Many of these biographies, such as Greg King’s The Last Empress[9] and Edvard Radzinsky’s The Last Tsar,[10] were written with new materials available in the post Cold War era.  Robert K. Massie’s older work Nicholas and Alexandra[11] is an exception to this.  Massie’s work was published in 1967 and therefore draws largely on materials published outside of Russia, as Soviet records were inaccessible.

            In spite of the large amount of literature about the Romanovs, there are quite a few subjects that have little information available.  The reign of Alexander III is one of these subjects.  His reign comes between two that are well documented because they were unusual.  Alexander II was known as the Tsar-Liberator, initiating reforms such as the emancipation of the serfs.  Nicholas II was the last tsar.  Alexander III’s reign was rather uneventful compared to these reigns and therefore has received less attention.  Only two biographies of the Empress Marie are available and both are highly favorable towards Marie and almost free of criticism.  The first chapter of Vladimir Poliakoff’s book,  Mother Dear: The Empress Marie of Russia and her Times,[12] is titled “The Captain’s Daughters” which is an obvious play on the title of Alexander Pushkin’s story “The Captain’s Daughter.”  Also, there has been little work on the role of ceremony in the Russian monarchy.  Another problem with the study of this time is that some books are inaccurate.  This fact is discussed in the introduction of Gilliard’s book, Thirteen Years at the Russian Court.  “It is only necessary to record that in one of these books (which is based on the evidence of an eyewitness to the drama in Yekaterinburg, the authenticity of which is guaranteed) there is a description of my death.”[13]  As Gilliard is writing this, this is obviously untrue.  In many cases this problem is not difficult to overcome.  It is often possible to corroborate an event described in one book with the description of the same event in another book.

            In spite of its obvious biases and omissions, the literature available on this period of Russian history is quite extensive.  It is only in recent years, with the fall of communism, that much of this primary information has become available.  Up until recently, only the official Soviet translations of Nicholas and Alexandra’s correspondence have been available.  As these letters were originally written in English, they did not need to be translated.  Therefore these letters were translations of the official Russian translations. These primary sources have shed new light on many aspects of Nicholas’s reign, especially its fall.  As more information becomes available it will be possible to form a more complete picture of the world of late Imperial Russia. 


To the Biographies...

Russian Home




[1] Anna Vyrubova, Memories of the Russian Court (New York: Macmillan Company, 1923).

[2] Pierre Gilliard, Thirteen Years at the Russian Court trans F. Appleby Holt (New York: Arno Press).

[3] Catherine Radziwill, writing as Paul Vassili, Confessions of the Czarina (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1918).

[4] Princess Cantacuzčne, My Life Here and There (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1921).

[5] Edward J. Bing, The Secret Letters of the Last Tsar (New York: Longmans, Green and Company, 1938).

[6] Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko eds.,  A Lifelong Passion: Nicholas and Alexandra, Their Own Story (New York: Doubleday, 1997).

[7] Maylunas and Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion.

[8] Alexandra Fedorovna, The Last Diary of the Tsaritsa Alexandra, eds. Vladimir A. Kozlov and Vladimir M. Khrustalëv (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997).

[9] Greg King, The Last Empress: The Life and Times of Alexandra Feodorovna, Tsarina of Russia (New York: Birch Lane Press, 1994).

[10] Edvard Radzinsky, The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II trans. Marian Schwartz (New York: Doubleday, 1992).

[11] Robert K. Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra (New York: Atheneum, 1967).

[12] Vladimir Poliakoff, Mother Dear: The Empress Marie of Russia and her Times (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1926).

[13] Gilliard, Thirteen Years, vii.