The role of a Tsarina was ideally a purely social one.  She was expected to understand the complex rules of etiquette, host and attend balls, and be the center of society.  Society’s pleasures, in addition to the balls, included nights at the ballet or theatre, followed by dinner at a fashionable restaurant or home.  The official season began on New Year’s day and lasted until Lent and the Imperial couple was expected to give the biggest and grandest balls in the Winter Palace.  In this manner, the Imperial family was able to demonstrate their wealth to members of society.

            There were great differences in society between the reigns of Alexander III and Nicholas II.  These differences were, in large part, due to differences in their Empresses.  While Marie made the most of her role and was visible in social circles, Alexandra was unable to fill this role successfully, as she stayed away from the social circles that she should have been leading.

Public ceremonies gave the Romanovs the chance to show their wealth, their power and, most importantly, themselves to the Russian people.  The biggest shows of the Romanovs included weddings and coronations.  It was through public ceremony that both Marie and Alexandra were introduced to their future subjects.  The impressions made at these ceremonies often helped to determine public opinion.  For much of the public, these ceremonies were their only window on the lives of their rulers. 

            Marie Fedorovna and Alexander III married on 28 October 1866, approximately one year after the death of the Tsarevitch Nicholas.  Marie and Alexander’s wedding was a chance for the Imperial family to show themselves to their subjects.  The ceremony itself was private, but the procession to the church was viewed by thousands who waited outside the palace.[1]  Marie dressed in the traditional clothing of a Russian bride, wearing a dress of silver and ermine, covered with jewels. The wedding was a great display of the Romanovs’ wealth.  Marie, shocked by the quantity of jewels and presents she received commented that she would never be able to wear all that was presented to her.[2] 

            The ceremony lasted over an hour and was followed by a state banquet.[3]  Over 500 guests were served dinner on the Imperial gold and silver plate.  This dinner was followed by a ball which lasted late into the night.  On their return to their palace Alexander and Marie were greeted by cheering crowds.[4]

            The ceremony did not end once the couple arrived at the palace.  That night, Alexander wore the traditional silver tent-like “wedding night uniform” of Russian grand dukes.  His strange appearance caused Marie to laugh when she saw him.[5]  Etiquette also required that, for Marie, the following days consisted of endless visits to her new relatives.[6]

            To celebrate the wedding, Alexander II issued amnesty for all prisoners.  Depending on the crime, punishments were either shortened or prisoners were released.  This was done in honor of the Grand Duchess Marie Fedorovna.[7]  Alexander and Marie’s wedding was the last marriage of an heir to the Romanov throne.

            Alexander and Marie’s coronation took place nearly twenty years after their marriage, on 27 May 1883. Two years had passed since Alexander II’s assassination.  This was quite a delay and people were eager to see their tsar anointed to prove his union with the throne.[8]  The ceremony, as tradition dictated, took place in the ancient capital of Moscow.  The Imperial couple spent the night preceding their entrance to Moscow in the Petrovsky Palace so that they could have a grand entrance into the city the following day.[9]

            Many precautions were taken to avoid an attempt on the lives of the Imperial couple.  One plot to kill the tsar was discovered when bombs were found connected to the electric lights in the Kremlin.  Soon afterwards authorities found an attic filled with caps containing bombs.  The traditional throwing of caps at the sovereigns as they passed was therefore forbidden.[10]  The precautions taken were successful and the coronation was unmarred by violence.

            The celebrations began about a week before the ceremony itself with the Imperial procession into Moscow.   Thousands lined the roads leading to the city, waiting to catch a glimpse of their Tsar and Tsarina as they passed.  A gun salute signaled the Imperial procession’s departure from the palace.[11]  The procession consisted of citizens from all parts of the Russian empire.  Cossacks, Tartars and Mongols among others joined the imperial guards who led the procession.[12]  The Emperor’s procession proper followed, headed by sixty pairs of footmen, imperial huntsmen and the High Marshall of the Court.  Then came the Imperial Chevalier Guards.  Finally, after the street had been cleared for about half a minute,  the Emperor Alexander III appeared.  He was alone on a white horse and followed by all of the Grand Dukes.  At the end of this line came the Empress Marie Fedorovna, accompanied by her daughter, Xenia.[13]  They rode in a gold carriage drawn by eight white horses.  Marie wore a State dress of white silk.  They were followed by hussars and Cossacks who escorted the Grand Duchesses and Ladies of the Court.[14]  The imperial couple then visited several churches and retired to a suburban palace to wait for the ceremony.[15]

            The coronation ceremony took place on 14 May in the Cathedral of the Assumption.  The service began with the blessing of the Emperor and continued with a hymn.  Next, Alexander pledged his devotion to Orthodoxy.  Prayers were read and the Metropolitan handed the crown to Alexander, who placed it on his own head.  He then removed the crown and touched it to Marie’s head.  At this point the Imperial couple broke with tradition and, much to the delight of the congregation,  embraced each other.[16]  The Proto-deacon then asked those present to pray for their newly crowned tsar.  The ceremony ended with a speech by the Metropolitan and the anointing of Alexander and Marie.[17]

Marie made a favorable impression on the crowds.  One description of her said that she had “the loveliest of smiles playing round her mouth, whilst tears of emotion glistened in her sweet eyes.  With one of those impulses which made her always do the right thing, she turned round and saluted the crowd--staring at her, lost in an admiration of her beauty.”[18]

            The coronation was not without tragedy.  Thirty-two people were crushed to death during the peasant feast at Khodynka Meadow.[19]  But this was overshadowed by the overall success of the coronation.

            The next major ceremony that should have taken place was the marriage of the Tsarevitch Nicholas, but the death of the tsar changed that.  Alexander III died 20 October 1894 at the palace of Livadia in the Crimea, far from the Fortress of Peter and Paul in St. Petersburg, the traditional burial place of the tsars.  The imperial train took the tsar’s body back to St. Petersburg, making several stops along the way so the people could say goodbye to their tsar.  Unfortunately for Alexandra, this procession was her first official function and the first time the majority of her subjects saw her.  Many saw this as a bad omen. “She has come to us behind a coffin.  She brings misfortune with her,” was overheard in the crowds on the day of Alexander’s funeral.[20]

            Alexander’s funeral also marked Alexandra’s first real introduction to the Orthodox church.  Her conversion to Orthodoxy had taken place a only few weeks before and the new Grand Duchess Alexandra  was quickly plunged into the complex Orthodox death rituals.[21]  There were two daily services for the dead tsar, one in the morning and one in the evening.  The entire Imperial family, including Alexandra, was required to kiss the tsar at each of these services.  Alexander was not buried until 7 November, nearly three weeks later.

            Alexander’s funeral was well attended by the people of St. Petersburg.  Lord Carrington wrote to Queen Victoria that “The crowd was so great that Prince Dolguruki, master of ceremonies...could hardly get a passage for the Empress to enter”[22]  Marie held up well during the ceremony, only breaking into tears once.[23]  Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich praised her composure, writing in his diary that “it is impossible to watch without tears as our dear Empress quietly, meekly and submissively bent over the ashes of her beloved deceased.”[24]

            Nicholas and Alexandra’s wedding plans were changed by Alexander’s death.  They had originally planned to marry in the spring of 1895, but instead did so on 14 November, just a week after Alexander’s funeral, so that Alexandra could be by Nicholas’s side as he started his reign.  The date was chosen because it was Marie’s birthday, which allowed mourning to be temporarily suspended.[25]  Therefore, they hoped that the wedding would not be overshadowed by the rituals of mourning for Alexander.  Nicholas and Alexandra had considered marrying when they were still at Livadia, but his uncles convinced him that the wedding needed to be a time of national celebration.[26] 

            The wedding was overshadowed by the tragedy of Alexander’s death.  Marie found the ceremony difficult to bear.  Her father, Christian IX, comforted her by holding her hand,[27] and her eyes were noticeably red from crying.[28]  Even Alexandra, in a letter to her sister, wrote that “Our marriage seemed a mere continuation of the masses for the dead with this difference, that now I wore a white dress instead of black.”[29]  Still, the wedding was a grand occasion.  Thousands lined the streets to see the bride ride through the streets as she traveled from the Belosseilsky-Belosseilsky Palace to the Anichkov Palace where she was to prepare for the ceremony.[30] 

The wedding of Nicholas and Alexandra marked the first marriage of a reigning emperor.  For this reason the ceremony had to be especially grand.  It was customary that the train of a grand duchess marrying a grand duke was made out of the same material as her dress.  But Marie decided that Alexandra needed something more impressive to set her apart from the other grand duchesses.  Therefore her train was instead made of cloth-of-gold.[31]  Overall the bride’s appearance was impressive.  Her dress, which was made of silver cloth and ermine, was covered with diamonds. Many elements of her dress recalled the heritage of the Romanovs.  She wore the Romanov nuptial crown, a traditional platinum and diamond Kokoshnik tiara,  the Orders of St. Andrew and St. Catherine, and an imperial matching set of a diamond necklace and earrings.  These earrings were so heavy that wires were needed to hold them in place.  She also wore several diamond brooches and strings of pearls.  All did not go well with her preparations though; the hairdresser was not admitted to the Winter Palace, which delayed the ceremony.[32]

The public did not see Alexandra since the ceremony itself was private. It was held in the chapel of the Winter Palace, with only about three thousand guests in attendance.[33]  After the ceremony it was necessary for the couple to greet their guests.  Alexandra was, as to be expected, not yet fluent in Russian.  However, she was expected to know French, the language of the Russian court.  Unfortunately Alexandra’s French was poor and she received criticism for this.[34]  The ceremony was marked by a salute from the Cathedral of Peter and Paul.[35]  Afterwards, Alexandra changed into the dress she had worn to the Winter Palace that morning and the imperial couple rode to the Anichkov.  They were greeted by cheering crowds.  This was perhaps the closest that normal people ever got to their emperor and empress, as Nicholas ordered the guards away so that the public could get a better look at their new rulers.[36]

                Nicholas and Alexandra’s coronation on 14 May 1896 should have been a time of great celebration, but instead was overshadowed by tragedy.  The ceremony itself resembled Alexander and Marie’s.  There was little room for change in the ancient ceremony.  It was in the area of public opinion that the ceremonies differed. 

The first few days of the coronation were generally successful.  Impressions of Alexandra were not entirely positive, with one observer stating that “she looked more like Iphigenia going to the sacrifice than the queen of the most powerful empire of the world.”[37]  But, on the other hand, they were not entirely negative; crowds cheered their Tsar and Tsarina when they made their first appearance as the crowned rulers of Russia. 

            Marie’s behavior at her son’s coronation was similar to her behavior at his wedding.  She  wept through the proceedings.  Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich described the Dowager in his diary.  “Our hearts bled when we saw her; [Marie] was wearing a crown and a heavy purple mantle, like a victim prepared for the sacrifice.  Her face expressed suffering.”[38]  Another interesting parallel with the wedding was that Alexandra again had problems with her hairdresser.  This time he stabbed her head with the diamond-studded hairpin meant to keep her crown in place.[39]

            The coronation was marked by two omens.  The first happened when Nicholas went to take his sacraments as a priest of the church.  His Order of St. Andrew fell off his shoulders to the floor.  This was only witnessed by a small number of observers, who were sworn to secrecy.[40]  The second, the tragedy of Khodynka Meadow, brought much greater consequences. 

            On 18 May 1896, Nicholas wrote in his diary that, “Up until now, thank God, everything went perfectly, but today a great sin has taken place.  The crowd spending the night on the Khodynka Meadow, in anticipation of the food and mugs, broke through the barrier and there was a terrible crush, during which it is terrible to say that about 1300 people were trampled!!”[41]  Nicholas and Alexandra’s actions after this tragic event damaged public opinion.  That afternoon the Imperial family visited the meadow.  Nicholas’s sister, Xenia, wrote in her diary that “while we were there, they were still carrying away bodies...Nicky and Alix wanted to leave after half an hour, but the dear uncles (Sergei and Vladimir) begged them to stay, saying that it was sentimentality...and would make a bad impression.”[42]  These are the same Grand Dukes who urged Nicholas and Alexandra to postpone their wedding and who would, later that day, insist that they attend the ball given by the French ambassador.

            The French were Russia’s only real allies in Europe and they had spent thousands in preparation for the ball in honor of the new Emperor and Empress.  Nicholas’s uncles convinced him that he should attend the ball, so as not to damage these relations.[43]  Nicholas and Alexandra spent most of 18 May visiting the wounded in hospitals and gave the family of each victim 1000 rubles from their personal fortunes.  Nicholas insisted that each victim be buried in a separate grave, at his own expense.[44]  Unfortunately the people remembered them not for their generosity but for attending, what was described as “the saddest ball ever given.”[45]  They did not know the true feelings of their Empress, who wept through the ball, and the public began to form the opinion that she was heartless and cold.[46]

            Most of the blame for the Khodynka tragedy fell on the Governor-General of Moscow, the Grand Duke Sergei.  He escaped without punishment though.  Sergei was married to Alexandra’s sister, Ella, so naturally Alexandra intervened on his behalf.  This only added to the public’s perception that she was unfeeling.[47]

            Alexandra was unable to overcome the impressions she made at these ceremonies.  Her later behavior in society did nothing to change the ideas that society formed about her in these early years of her reign.

            Both Marie and Alexandra’s introductions to Russia were surrounded by tragedy, but it only seems to have negatively affected Alexandra. Both of their engagements were marred by tragedy.  Both women’s conversions to Orthodoxy were overshadowed by death.  Marie converted at the funeral of her first fiancé, the Tsarevitch Nicholas, and Alexandra converted the day after Alexander III’s death. 

Why did this tragedy not affect Marie in the same ways it did Alexandra?  Timing played a role in Marie’s success and Alexandra’s failure.  Marie’s arrival in Russia happened before the tsarevitch fell ill;  Alexandra came to Russia earlier than planned because the emperor was ill.  Therefore the first time the public saw Marie it was not at a funeral, but at the celebrations for her arrival.[48]  The next day she attended the ancient tradition of blessing of the waters of the Neva.[49]  Marie had already made a favorable impression on society when tragedy struck and her fiancé died.  Alexandra was not given this chance.  Her introduction to the people came from a funeral and her introduction to society was delayed because of the official period of mourning for Alexander III.

Tragedies at Khodynka Meadow occurred at both coronations, but, as with their engagements, only Alexandra was affected by this.  While the tragedy of Alexandra’s coronation was on a larger scale, it is no reason that the thirty-two people who died at Khodynka during Marie’s coronation should be overlooked. Instead,  Alexandra is accused of being heartless concerning the deaths that occurred during her coronation while Marie received nothing but praise for hers. 

These ceremonies were the only real chance that the people had to see their Imperial family, therefore their importance was magnified.  The role of the press was quite small at this time.  Only three reporters attended the coronation of Alexander and Marie and of those three only one was Russian.[50]  The impressions that were made at these ceremonies were difficult to overcome.

The early impressions that Marie and Alexandra made during their weddings and coronations were confirmed by their behavior in society.  From her arrival in Russia, Marie was at ease with her position.  Alexandra never became comfortable.  Their experiences and the situations they faced differed greatly.  How they reacted in society was to have great importance, as the public’s personal opinions of Marie and Alexandra were to influence their political opinions of their empresses.

From the start Marie made a favorable impression on the people of Russia.  Her arrival on 5 January 1865 was a time of celebration.  The Emperor Alexander II, Empress Marie Alexandrovna and the Grand Dukes and Duchesses greeted her arrival[51] and she encountered cheering crowds as she rode in an open carriage to the Winter Palace.[52]  The following day she made her first official appearance by joining the Imperial Family for the ceremony of the Blessing of the Waters.[53]  Again, she was greeted by cheering crowds who were anxious to get a look at their future empress.

Marie’s introduction to society came two days after her arrival when she attended her first Imperial ball.[54]  In spite of her unfashionable gown (her mother did not allow her to go to Paris for her best evening gown) and nervousness, she made a positive impression on those in attendance. They clapped for her and complimented her behavior.[55]  Marie’s partner at this ball was not her fiancé, the Tsarevitch Nicholas, who had fallen ill, but her future husband, the Grand Duke Alexander Alexandrovitch.  Two months later, in March, Marie returned to Denmark.

Marie lived up to the good impression that she made on her first trip to Russia; she remained a popular figure throughout her life.  Marie fit the ideal of a Russian Empress.  The pleasures of Petersburg society, including the balls and the gossip, appealed to her.[56]  Marie was praised for her dancing ability.  In her honor, balls were often begun with the Polish Mazurka, her favorite dance.[57]  She also led the fashion of the day, with her bills often totaling enormous amounts.[58]

She made few attempts to influence her husband politically, yet she is credited with improving her husband personally.  An article in the magazine Standard from 2 November 1894 stated that, “Whatever he acquired in the way of literature, history, and economic science, was learned in association with her, if not absolutely under her guidance.”[59]  Alexander was the second son and therefore did not receive the extensive education that his brother had received.[60]  She was seen as supporting her husband in a way that any good wife should.  One praiseworthy account said that, “she never descends to the intrigues of the ante-chamber, and is content to be the angel of her home.”[61]  It was Marie’s following of this ideal of staying away from politics that earned Marie popularity.  Alexandra’s popularity was damaged by her perceived breaking of this ideal.

Marie helped to bring her husband into the public spotlight.  He did not enjoy the pleasures of society, but Marie hosted parties which he attended.[62]  She was praised as a hostess for both these formal gatherings and informal events, such as Alexander’s beer evenings.[63]  If not for his wife’s influence, Alexander likely would have stayed in seclusion at the palace of Gatchina.

Contemporary observations of Marie are, for the most part, favorable.  “Her charm was quite indescribable,” wrote Paul Vassili (Catherine Radziwill).  “It exercised such a fascination to which it was impossible not to succumb...Few queens have possessed her gifts of mercy, and her desire to be merciful and kind.”[64]  Vassili’s opinions on the empress were not entirely favorable though.  “Her only weakness lies in the ease with which she will allow people who amuse her to gain her friendship, and for the sake of this one redeeming quality she will pardon many things which are unpardonable.”[65]  Most likely though, this trait added to her popularity as it offered a way into Imperial circles.  In 1906, an English journalist described her place and popularity in Russian society.  “If anyone is curious enough to ask the question in St. Petersburg as to who is the most popular lady in Russia, there is little doubt that the answer would be ‘The Dowager Empress,’” he wrote.  “...Those at Court who have any particular grievance always turn to the Empress for consolation, for they know what in her they will not find only a ready sympathizer, but one who will do everything in her power to help them.”[66]

Marie was conscious of public opinion surrounding her.  She followed publications about her family.  In her interview with W.T. Stead, an English journalist, in 1905,  she thanks him for his compliments about Alexander III, which he had written seventeen years earlier.[67] She also shows herself to be aware of public opinion and rumors surrounding her, as she quickly defends herself from the idea that she meddled in politics.[68]  Stead mentions that “people say when the young Emperor came to the throne you--” and she interrupts him saying that “I know they said it, but it is not so.”[69]

She made no attempts to retire from society after her husband’s death.  When the period of mourning was over and she was in Russia, Marie resumed hosting balls and reclaimed her position at the head of society.[70]  While she was out of Russia, Petersburg’s leading hostess was not Alexandra, as would be expected, but the Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna, wife of Alexander III’s brother, Vladimir.[71]

Much of Marie’s success as tsarina came because she behaved in a way acceptable to society.  She did not violate the traditional rules of her position.  Instead she helped to bring notice to her husband and to illustrate his enormous wealth.

Alexandra failed to make the same favorable impression that Marie had made.  This was in large part due to her dislike of the pleasures of society and her lack of training for her role.  She sheltered herself and her family from what she perceived to be the evils of Petersburg society.

“Almost the whole of our country has been veiled in a shadowy incomprehensible aura.  Nobody really knew her, in fact, or understood her, and the guesses or suppositions that were made, became in time an array of the most varied legends.  It was difficult to know, where the truth was.  This was a great pity.  The figure of the Empress should shine out over the whole of Russia, should be seen and understood, otherwise the role gets pushed into the background, and the figure loses its essential popularity.”[72]  These words are from the diary of Andrei Vladimirovich, a first cousin of Nicholas II, describing Alexandra after she visited his family for tea in September 1915.  From her visit Andrei came to the conclusion that “many of the legends are false, and that she is on the right path.”  Andrei describes an important aspect of Alexandra’s reign as tsarina; she did not understand the importance of showing herself to the public.

            One of Alexandra’s shortcomings in dealing with the public was her inability to enjoy social situations.  Queen Victoria had attempted to teach Alix the cercle, the art of greeting others in a social situation,[73] but these lessons did not help her feel comfortable with strangers.  Observers often mistook Alexandra’s shyness for haughtiness.[74]  Alexandra made bad impressions on Petersburg society from the beginning of Nicholas’s reign.  She rarely spoke in reception lines, danced poorly, and wore unfashionable clothing.  Princess Cantacuzène described an audience she had with Alexandra at one of these balls.  “[Alexandra] was exceedingly quiet and timid.  After two or three perfunctory questions, which I answered, she fell into her attitude of silent distraction, so I curtseyed and wandered off.”[75]  She often altered the guest lists for imperial functions, removing anyone involved in any sort of scandal.[76]  She did not issue the frequent dinner invitations to members of her husband’s family that they were used to,[77] which distanced Alexandra from members of her new family as well as society.  There are recorded instances of her criticizing the clothing of women attending the balls.  On one occasion Alexandra sent one of her ladies to tell a woman that “Her Majesty wants me to tell you that in Hesse-Darmstadt we don’t wear our dresses that way.”   The reply was “Pray tell Her Majesty that in Russia we do wear out dresses this way.”[78]  A similar incident happened with Princess Cantacuzène.  Alexandra criticized her square cut neckline.  This neckline was not the traditional one of the Russian court and Alexandra was therefore seen as criticizing her for her foreign ways.  This incident created sympathy for Cantacuzène and further hurt the Empress.[79]

            Alexandra never gained confidence in these situations.  It was for this reason that she did not host any balls to celebrate the Romanov tercentenary in 1913.[80]  Still, there were many balls given in honor of the imperial couple that she was required to attend.[81]  Nineteen years after becoming tsarina these balls remained an ordeal.  One of her ladies-in-waiting, the Baroness Buxhoeveden, described Alexandra during one ball as “so ill that she could scarcely keep her feet...When [Nicholas] came up it was only just in time to lead her away and prevent her from fainting in public.”[82]  As soon as the doors closed behind them, Alexandra fainted.[83]

During these tercentennial celebrations, Nicholas and Alexandra attended an appearance of A Life for the Tsar at the Maryinsky theatre in St. Petersburg.  Alexandra, unable to stand the pressures of this performance, left early.[84]  Meriel Buchanan, daughter of the English ambassador, described the incident.  “[We] could almost hear the laboured breathing which made the diamonds which covered the bodice of her gown rise and fall, flashing and trembling with a thousand sparks of uneasy light.  Presently it seemed that this emotion or distress mastered her completely, and with a few words to the Emperor she rose and withdrew to the back of the box, to be seen no more that evening.”[85]  The reaction in the theatre to the empress’s departure was unfavorable.  “Men uttered despairingly below their breath.  Was it not always the same story?”[86]

            Alexandra’s views on society did little to help the public’s perception of her.  She once stated that “The heads of the young ladies of St. Petersburg are filled with nothing but the thoughts of young officers.”[87]  She turned down a proposal from Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna for marriage between her son, Boris, and Alexandra’s eldest daughter, Olga, because  Boris did not possess the high moral qualities that she desired in a husband for her daughter.  He was best known in the “questionable circles in Paris.”  The refusal infuriated Marie Pavlovna, who, as a “Russian grande dame of the old school,” had influence over public opinion.[88]

            In her book of 1918 Princess Catherine Radziwill, writing as Paul Vassili, wrote how relations between Alexandra and Marie Pavlovna were already strained.  Shortly after her marriage the new Empress had asked for Marie’s advice during a receiving line.  Marie Pavlovna suggested that she just give a certain lady (described as Madame A.) her hand.  That would satisfy her.  Instead Madame A. was infuriated that she received such brief treatment.  Word of this snub spread at the ball and Alexandra apologized to Madame A. for her misunderstanding.  She said that she had only been following the advice of her aunt.  Madame A. was infuriated by this excuse and promptly left the ball.[89]  Radziwill believes this incident to be typical of Alexandra’s dealings with society.

            Alexandra’s reasons for her absence from society were misunderstood at the time.  The family’s main residence was the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, a few miles outside Petersburg.  This alone limited the appearances at social functions that Alexandra attended.   She was extremely devoted to her family and felt that her place was with them, not socializing at balls and other events.  Her concerns for her son’s health also kept her away from the capital.  Alexei’s hemophilia was a constant worry to her, and as a mother, she did not want to leave him alone any more than was absolutely necessary.  Alexandra’s own health was poor as well.  She had suffered from sciatica since childhood.  Seven pregnancies (two ended in miscarriages) had further deteriorated her health.  The Imperial family was quiet concerning these issues.  Since the true reasons for her absence were not known, rumors circulated and many believed that Alexandra felt herself above associating with her subjects.

            Alexandra misunderstood many of society’s basic rules.  As a result she violated expectations of her position.  She was not like her mother-in-law, the model of the perfect tsarina.  Her personality did not allow for her take part in the pleasures of society and society condemned her for that.

It seems strange that someone as reluctant to convert to Orthodoxy as Alix would become as passionate about a new religion as Alexandra did.  Alexandra’s religious inclinations are in sharp contrast to Marie’s, who never developed a strong passion for Orthodoxy.  Religion was not of great importance to the upper classes of Russia, who saw Alexandra’s intense devotion to their religion as unusual.[90]  Marie, though devoted to Orthodoxy, practiced it in a way more acceptable to Petersburg society.[91]  Marie and Alexandra’s differing attitudes towards religion helped to shape society’s attitudes towards their empresses.

Alexandra grew up in a superstitious household.  Several prophetic stories from her childhood circulated in the Russian court after her engagement to Nicholas.  In one, her great-aunt, the Empress Marie Alexandrovna, told one of her ladies to kiss Alix’s hand as she was the future empress of Russia.  Another told of a gypsy that prophesied marriage and tragedy in a distant country for both Alix and her sister, Ella.[92] 

Princess Alice seems to have believed in signs as well.  When her namesake ship, Princess Alice, sank on the Thames, killing over 600 people, she interpreted it as a sign that tragedy would come into her life.[93]  A month later her children became ill with diphtheria and three months later Alice herself died. 

Alix’s family was obsessed with the rituals of their religions.  Alice never stopped mourning Frittie.  Victoria never stopped mourning Albert.  Though Alix’s Lutheran religion contrasted with Orthodoxy, these elements of her childhood blended nicely with her new religion. 

Despite Alexandra’s reluctant acceptance of her new religion, she soon became absorbed by its practices.  She followed the ideas of an obscure medieval text, The Friends of God,  which promoted the idea that some spiritual people retained the Biblical gift of prophecy.  Perhaps most importantly, the book suggested that these people often lay outside the hierarchy of the church.[94]  Therefore, Alexandra often looked to the common people for her religious inspiration.   “These people speak to my heart and to the depth of my spirit more than the officials who come to see me clad in rich robes or silk,” she once told an official. “When I see a metropolitan dressed in a swishing soutane enter my palace, I ask: What is the difference between him and the elegant folk of high society?”[95]  Such beliefs led Alexandra to holy men, first to have a son and then to try to help Alexei with his hemophilia. 

These holy men, especially Rasputin, brought the Imperial Family much criticism.  Anya Vyrubova, a close friend of Alexandra’s, discusses Rasputin’s reputation in her memoirs.  She describes him as “that strange and ill-starred being about whom almost nothing is known to the multitude but against whom such horrible accusations have been made that he is universally classed with such monsters of inequity as Cain, Nero, and Judas Iscariot.”[96]  Though Vyrubova does not agree with this opinion of Rasputin and goes on to tell the “true” story of the starets, she acknowledges that these opinions do exist.

Marie’s religious beliefs were calm in relation to Alexandra’s.  She was a religious woman, but she did not display the fanaticism of her daughter-in-law.[97]  This is made evident through Marie’s reactions to Alexandra’s holy men.  She disapproved of Phillipe of Lyon and, after Marie expressed her disapproval, his visits were kept secret from her.[98]  On 20 May 1911, Konstantin Konstantinovich described a meeting he had earlier that day with the Dowager Empress.  “[Marie] is distressed that they continue to receive in secret some God’s fool, Grisha.”  As Grisha’s, or Rasputin’s, influence over Alexandra increased, Marie pulled herself farther away from the Russian Court.[99]  In her correspondence with Nicholas, Marie remained silent on the matter of Rasputin.  She disapproved of him[100] but did not want to jeopardize her relationship with her son by coming between Nicholas and his wife on the matter. 

The influence of Alexandra and Marie’s religious views on the public should not be overlooked.  It is yet another example of Alexandra’s inability to conform to the popular views of St. Petersburg society.  It was this nonconformity that led to many of the rumors and misunderstandings about the last empress.

            Marie received a good deal of praise for her involvement in social work.  She became head of the “Department of the Institutions of the Empress Marie” which had been founded by another Empress Marie Fedorovna, wife of the Emperor Paul.  The purpose of this department was to coordinate charitable and educational activities.[101]  While Marie was director the Department’s financial resources grew, which allowed an increase in its activities.[102]  The Department benefited a number of institutions, including hospitals, orphanages and laboratories for research work, but was especially noted for its work in the area of educating girls. 

            Marie also headed the Russian branch of the Red Cross.[103]  While she was director, a peacetime structure and training centers were developed that enabled the Red Cross to successfully carry out its duties during the Russo-Japanese war.[104]  Also, peacetime activities of the Red Cross expanded to include schooling for doctors and nurses, the upkeep of hospitals and aid in emergencies such as famines.[105]  Even though Marie was more of a figurehead for these organizations than the actual administrator, she still received credit for their successes.

            Alexandra’s attempts at charity work were less successful than Marie’s.  For the most part she followed Marie’s example and became the patron of several charities, but her interest in participating in social work was not always well received.  She had been raised to believe that her rank as a princess brought social responsibilities.[106]  She felt that the women of Petersburg society should live up to these responsibilities as well.   One of her first charitable ideas was that the women in court circles and society should make three articles of clothing for the poor a year.  This idea was not well received by society.[107]  In 1914 Alexandra and her eldest daughters, Olga and Tatiana, became nurses with the Red Cross.  This was unusual, many women became patrons of hospitals, but few actually participated in their activities.  Alexandra believed that this was the best path to take, saying that, “every hand is useful.”[108]  While her nursing helped to increase her popularity among the patients in her hospital, it further distanced her from society.  Alexandra was devoted to her work as a nurse and often neglected the needs of the rest of the troops.  She continued to isolate herself at Tsarskoe Selo, where she had set up a hospital and refused to make public appearances that may have boosted the public morale. 

            Alexandra’s relationship with Marie further hurt her position in society.  Marie made no secret of her distaste for her daughter-in-law and Marie’s popularity gave importance to her opinions.

Some of these tensions were unavoidable.  Court protocol gave the Dowager Empress precedence above the reigning empress.  Most dowagers retired from the public eye after their husbands’ deaths, but Marie did not.  When the official period of mourning for Alexander III ended, she reclaimed her position at the head of society.  At official functions Marie would enter first, on the arm of her son.  Alexandra would enter behind, on the arm of the senior grand duke.[109]

Alexandra and Marie had two public battles near the beginning of Nicholas’s reign.  The first dealt with the reading of the imperial family’s names in the liturgy.  Traditionally the names of the reigning emperor and empress were paired in the prayer service.  Marie wanted her name read before Alexandra’s.  Alexandra brought the matter before the Holy Synod, who agreed that Alexandra’s name should be read with that of her husband.[110]

Alexandra and Marie also fought over the family jewels.  Instead of turning her jewels over to Alexandra, as was customary, Marie decided to keep most of them for herself.  She only gave Alexandra the old, unfashionable and uncomfortable items from the Imperial collections.  When Nicholas asked his mother to give Alexandra the jewels, she refused.  This angered Alexandra, who now said that she would not wear the jewels, even if Marie gave them to her.  Nicholas told this to his mother, who finally admitted that Alexandra did need the jewels for official occasions, and gave them to her.[111]  Both of these incidents were public knowledge.

Alexandra’s public image was further hurt by her German birth.  She received the nickname Nemka, or “the German bitch.”[112]  As a German princess and cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm, Alexandra was suspected of spying for Germany.[113]  From the beginning of her reign she was accused of trying to do her duty as a “loyal German woman” and break Russia’s alliance with France so that Russia could form a new alliance with Germany.[114]  One of the most dangerous rumors surrounding Alexandra’s arrival in Russia, though, was that she despised both her new country and people.[115]

Marie’s dislike for Germany, which stemmed from her childhood, promoted anti-German feelings in the capital.  In 1863, Marie’s native Denmark lost lands in a war with Prussia and Austria.  In 1916 Marie showed that she had still not forgotten this war and made her opinions on Germany public.  “You cannot imagine what a satisfaction it is for me, after having been obliged to dissimulate my feelings for fifty years, to be able to tell the world how I hate the Germans,” she told the President of the Russian Parliament.[116]  Many of Russia’s past empresses, including Catherine the Great and Alexander II’s wife, Marie Alexandrovna (a princess of Hesse and Alexandra’s great aunt) were German.  These anti-German sentiments, unfortunately for Alexandra, were new.  The beloved Empress Marie disapproved of Germans.  World War I had begun in 1914 and Germany was Russia’s enemy.  This only heightened Alexandra’s reputation as being unpatriotic.  Alexandra had never quite conformed to the ways of the Russian Court, and was therefore suspected of thinking her native land and customs were superior to those of Russia.

Tensions between mother and daughter-in-law are demonstrated in the story of a trip Nicholas and Alexandra took to the Crimea.  Alexandra was pregnant and not feeling well, so Nicholas ordered that there be no receptions along the way.  In spite of this, peasants greeted them at a rural train station.  Nicholas showed himself, much to the delight of the crowds, but Alexandra, upset that the tsar’s orders had been disobeyed, kept hidden.  This infuriated Marie, who wrote,

“If she were not there Nicky would be twice as popular.  She is a regular German.  She thinks the Imperial family should be above ‘that sort of thing.’  What does she mean?  Above winning the people’s affection?... Nicky himself has all that is required for popular adoration; all he needs to do is show himself to those who want to see him.  How many times have I tried to make it plain to her.  She won’t understand; perhaps she doesn’t have it in her to understand.  And yet, how often she complains about the public’s indifference to her.”[117]


Observations from friends and family members illustrate the tensions between the two women.  Their rivalry is covered in the letters, memoirs and diaries of Petersburg society.

Members of the Romanov family often found the comparisons between Alexandra and Marie unfair.  Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, Nicholas’s brother-in-law, seemed to believe this.  “The wife of Alexander III had lived in the country for seventeen consecutive years preceding her coronation, but Princess Alix was given exactly ninety-six hours to study the language and get acquainted with national customs.”[118]  He blamed her mistakes on her inexperience, not her unwillingness to become a part of society.  He believed her mistakes “irrelevant” but they were “formidable crimes” in the eyes of Petersburg society.  Petersburg soon began to compare the “friendliness” of the Dowager with the “snobbish coolness” of Alexandra.  He continues that these comparisons began tensions that caused “relations between court and society to become antagonistic.”  Alexander’s memoirs illustrate an important point.  Alexandra had very little time to learn the rules of Russian society.  This made it especially difficult for a woman who, Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich noted in his diary, was, “terribly shy; the necessity of talking to a group of schoolgirls is a torture for her.”[119]  Konstantin added that “she does not have her mother-in-law’s charm, and still does not, therefore, inspire general adulation.” 

Alexandra and Marie’s relationship is one that did not fade from Konstantin’s memory.  On 20 May 1911 he wrote in his diary that “it is sad to see that if [Marie’s] relationships with the Empress are not exactly bad, they are not quite right either.”[120]

In her memoirs, the Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, Nicholas’s youngest sister, attempted to explain the tensions between the two women.  She stated that “I still believe that they had tried to understand each other and failed.  They were utterly different in character, outlook and habits.”[121]  Olga believed that Alexandra had been wronged by her mother’s court.  “She could do nothing right so far as my mother’s court was concerned...If Alicky smiled, they called it mockery.  If she looked grave, they said she was angry.”[122]

Anya Vyrubova, Alexandra’s closest friend, commented on the relationship between the women in her memoirs.  She claimed that Russia was divided into two courts, “a large one represented by society and the Grand Dukes, and a small one represented by the intimate circle of the Emperor and Empress.  In the one everything done by the Empress Mother was right and by the shy and retiring Empress was wrong.”[123]  Much like the Grand Duchess Olga, Vyrubova gave misunderstandings and basic differences in character as reasons that Marie and Alexandra did not get along.  “[Marie] never, I believe, understood her son’s preference for a quiet, family life or the changed and softened manners he acquired under the influence of his wife.”

Society’s condemnation of Alexandra therefore seems to have come in many ways from Marie.  Marie’s dislike of Alexandra arose suspicions because of Marie’s popularity.  Marie’s popularity also caused comparisons between these two drastically different women.  Marie had been the model of a perfect empress.  It was impossible for Alexandra to live up to that ideal.  Alexandra’s lack of popularity had consequences for her husband’s reign.  The influence of this unpopular woman could not possibly be in the best interest of Russia.

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[1] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 57.

[2] Tisdall, Marie Fedorovna, 46.

[3] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 61.

[4] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 62-62.

[5] Tisdall, Marie Fedorovna, 47.

[6] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 65.

[7] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 67.

[8] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 159.

[9] Tisdall, Marie Fedorovna, 138.

[10] Tisdall, Marie Fedorovna, 137.

[11] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 161.

[12] Tisdall, Marie Fedorovna, 138.

[13] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 162-163.

[14] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 164-165.

[15] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 166.

[16] Tisdall, Marie Fedorovna, 142.

[17] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 170-174.

[18] Tisdall, Marie Fedorovna, 140.

[19] King, The Last Empress, 110.

[20] Gilliard, Thirteen Years, 48.

[21] Massie, Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, 44.

[22] Lord Carrington to Queen Victoria in A Lifelong Passion, Maylunas and Mironenko eds., 105.

[23] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 242.

[24] Konstantin Konstantinovich in  A Lifelong Passion, Maylunas and Mironenko eds., 106.

[25] Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, 46.

[26] Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, 44.

[27] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 243.

[28] King, The Last Empress, 79.

[29] Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, 46.

[30] King, The Last Empress, 78.

[31] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 243.

[32] King, The Last Empress, 79.

[33] King, The Last Empress, 80.

[34] Tisdall, Marie Fedorovna, 204.

[35] King, The Last Empress, 79.

[36] King, The Last Empress, 82.

[37] King, The Last Empress, 107.

[38] Konstantin Konstantinovich in A Lifelong Passion, Maylunas and Mironenko eds., 143.

[39] Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, 53.

[40] Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, 54.

[41] Nicholas  in A Lifelong Passion, Maylunas and Mironenko eds., 145.

[42] Xenia in A Lifelong Passion, Maylunas and Mironenko eds., 146.

[43] King, The Last Empress, 110.

[44] Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, 58.

[45] King, The Last Empress, 110.

[46] King, The Last Empress, 111.

[47] King, The Last Empress, 111.

[48] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 33.

[49] Tisdall, Marie Fedorovna, 33.

[50] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 170.

[51] Tisdall, Marie Fedorovna, 32.

[52] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 47.

[53] Tisdall, Marie Fedorovna, 35.

[54] Tisdall, Marie Fedorovna, 35.

[55] Tisdall, Marie Fedorovna, 37.

[56] King, The Last Empress, 29.

[57] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 203.

[58] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 204.

[59] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 94.

[60] Tisdall, Marie Fedorovna, 51.

[61] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 94.

[62] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 100.

[63] Tisdall, Marie Fedorovna, 121.

[64] Tisdall, Marie Fedorovna, 123.

[65] Tisdall, Marie Fedorovna, 124.

[66] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 265.

[67] Joseph O. Baylen, The Tsar’s “Lecturer General” W.T. Stead and the Russian Revolution of 1905 with Two Unpublished Memoranda of Audiences with the Dowager Empress Marie and Nicholas (Atlanta, Georgia: School of Arts and Sciences Research Papers Georgia State College, 1969) p 31.

[68] Baylen, Stead, 38.

[69] Baylen, Stead, 38.

[70] King, The Last Empress, 88.

[71] Leslie Field, The Queen’s Jewels: The Personal Collection of Elizabeth II (New York: Abradale Press, Harry N. Abrams, 1987) p 116.

[72] Andrei Vladimirovich in A Lifelong Passion, Maylunas and Mironenko eds., 438.

[73] King, The Last Empress, 21.

[74] King, The Last Empress, 41.

[75] Cantacuzène, My Life, 224.

[76] King, The Last Empress, 92.

[77] Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, 73.

[78] Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, 72-73.

[79] Cantacuzène, My Life, 226.

[80] King, The Last Empress, 202.

[81] Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, 237-238.

[82] Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, 238.

[83] King, The Last Empress, 202.

[84] King, The Last Empress, 202.

[85] King, The Last Empress, 202.

[86] Peter Kurth, Tsar: The Lost World of Nicholas and Alexandra (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1995) p 20.

[87] Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, 72.

[88] Vyrubova, Memories, 86.

[89] Vassili, Confessions, 70-72.

[90] King, The Last Empress, 162.

[91] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 280.

[92] King, The Last Empress, 15.

[93] King, The Last Empress, 17.

[94] Vyrubova, Memories, 151.

[95] King, The Last Empress, 163.

[96] Vyrubova, Memories, 149.

[97] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 280.

[98] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 282.

[99] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 288.

[100] Bing, Secret Letters, 23.

[101] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 297.

[102] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 302.

[103] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 297.

[104] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 305.

[105] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 304.

[106] King, The Last Empress, 21.

[107] Vyrubova, Memories, 5.

[108] King, The Last Empress, 229.

[109] King, The Last Empress, 88-89.

[110] King, The Last Empress, 89.

[111] King, The Last Empress, 89.

[112] King, The Last Empress, 111.

[113] Vassili, Confessions, 30.

[114] Vassili, Confessions, 63.

[115] Vassili. Confessions, 65.

[116] Poliakoff, Mother Dear, 102.

[117] King, The Last Empress, 93.

[118] Alexander Mikhailovich in A Lifelong Passion, Maylunas and Mironenko eds., 172.

[119] Konstantin Konstantinovich in A Lifelong Passion, Maylunas and Mironenko eds., 172.

[120] Konstantin Konstantinovich in A Lifelong Passion, Maylunas and Mironenko eds., 342.

[121] Vorres, Grand Duchess, 60.

[122] Vorres, Grand Duchess, 62.

[123] Vyrubova, Memories, 88.