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Alexandra Feodorovna (1872–1918)

Alexandra Feodorovna (1872–1918)

Empress of Russia who played a major role in undermining the stability of the Russian monarchy during the first part of the 20th century. Name variations: Alix or Alexandra of Hesse-Darmstadt; christened Princess Alix Victoria Helena Louise Beatrice, Princess of Hesse-Darmstadt, changed her name to the Russian form and took a Russian title of nobility, becoming Grand Duchess Alexandra Feodorovna at the time of her marriage. Born on June 6, 1872, in the city of Darmstadt in the German principality of Hesse-Darmstadt; murdered along with her family by Communist authorities on the night of July 16–17, 1918, at Ekaterinburg in western Siberia; daughter of Prince Louis of Hesse-Darmstadt and Princess Alice Maud Mary (1843–1878) of Great Britain; granddaughter of Queen Victoria; educated by private tutors; married Nicholas II, tsar of Russia, in 1894; children: Olga (1895–1918); Tatiana (1897–1918); Marie (1899–1918); Anastasia (1901–1918); Alexis (1904–1918).

Olga (1895–1918)

Russian grand duchess. Name variations: Olga Nicholaevna. Born Olga Nicholaevna Romanov (Romanoff or Romanovna) on November 15, 1895, in St. Petersburg, Russia; executed by the Bolsheviks on July 16–17, 1918, at Ekaterinburg, in Central Russia; daughter of Alexandra Feodorovna (1872–1918) and Nicholas II (tsar of Russia).

Tatiana (1897–1918)

Russian grand duchess. Name variations: Tatiana Nicholaevna. Born Tatiana Nicholaevna Romanov (Romanoff or Romanovna) on June 10, 1897, in St. Petersburg, Russia; executed by the Bolsheviks on July 16–17, 1918, at Ekaterinburg, in Central Russia; daughter of Alexandra Feodorovna (1872–1918) and Nicholas II (tsar of Russia).

Marie (1899–1918)

Russian grand duchess. Name variations: Mary Nicholaevna. Born Marie Nicholaevna Romanov (Romanoff or Romanovna) on June 26, 1899, in Peterhof, Russia; executed by the Bolsheviks on July 16–17, 1918, at Ekaterinburg, in Central Russia; daughter of Alexandra Feodorovna (1872–1918) and Nicholas II (tsar of Russia); never married; no children.

Her mother and younger sister died (1878); made first trip to Russia and had first meeting with future husband (1884); her father died (1892); on the death of Tsar Alexander III, Nicholas became Tsar Nicholas II (1894); Nicholas and Alexandra married (1894);coronation held (1896); her grandmother, Queen Victoria, died (1901); outbreak of Russo-Japanese War (1904); outbreak of revolution and Rasputin entered entourage of imperial family (1905); Rasputin expelled from St. Petersburg despite Alexandra's objections (1911); Rasputin seemingly saved life of Alexis (1912); 300th anniversary of Romanov dynasty (1913); outbreak of World War I (1914); Nicholas left Petrograd to command the Russian army (1915); Miliukov gave speech of accusation in Russian Duma and Rasputin assassinated (1916); March Revolution, tsar abdicated, Romanov family arrested and exiled to Siberia, November Revolution (1917); Alexandra, Nicholas, and their children executed (1918).

On November 26, 1894, the strikingly beautiful Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt, granddaughter of Queen Victoria , married the 26-year-old Nicholas Romanov who had just become Nicholas II, tsar of Russia. His first decree as tsar, only three weeks before, had declared that Alix was now the Russian Grand Duchess Alexandra Feodorovna and a member of the Russian Orthodox Church. Her cousin Alexandra of Denmark , the princess of Wales, remarked that "she looked too wonderfully lovely" in her wedding costume of silver, gold, and ermine. Nonetheless, the occasion was marked by sadness instead of joy.

The young couple had faced the disapproval of the Russian imperial family during their brief courtship. But the overshadowing tragedy of the moment was the sudden passing of Nicholas' father, Alexander III, dead of kidney failure at the age of 49. Now, both painfully young and utterly inexperienced in the problems of government, Nicholas and Alexandra found themselves monarchs of the largest and most troubled of the great powers of Europe. He and Alix had planned a gala wedding. Instead, the young couple married in haste only a week after his father's funeral. Struck by the gloomy atmosphere in St. Petersburg, Alexandra described the marriage ceremony as "a mere continuation of the masses for the dead."

The Russia over which Nicholas and Alexandra ruled as unlimited monarchs was a

country in a state of calm, but it was a calm preceded by painful turmoil, and the turmoil was soon to resume. The coronation festivities for Nicholas II led to a particular horror. Half a million Russians, many of them peasants from distant parts of the empire, had come to Moscow at the tsar's invitation to help celebrate the coronation. They gathered for a feast at Khodynka Field, five miles out of Moscow. There were too few police to control the crowd, and no one in authority had remembered that Khodynka Field was covered with ditches and trenches left over from military maneuvers. When the great horde of people rushed across the field to the food stalls awaiting them, at least 1,300 people died, trampled to death.

Although Nicholas visited the injured in the hospital and established a generous fund to aid the families of the dead, his reputation among the Russian population was hurt by the memory of Khodynka Field. Why, people asked, had he and Alexandra attended a party at the residence of the French ambassador the night following the tragedy? How could he hold a giant military review at Khodynka Field little more than a week after so many of his unfortunate subjects had been killed there?

An empire of 150 million people, Russia was tormented by the poverty of its peasant population and the pain of an industrialization program forced ahead at breakneck speed by the government. There was unrest among its ethnic minorities (who made up half the population), and a recent history of political violence. In 1881, as a boy of 16, Nicholas had witnessed the death of his grandfather, Alexander II, at the hands of assassins.

Alexandra had been born in the small German principality of Hesse-Darmstadt on June 6, 1872. In the previous year, Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck of Prussia had succeeded in creating a united Germany that included Hesse-Darmstadt. During the last years of her life, Alexandra was to bear the heavy burden of being identified with Germany, Russia's most dangerous opponent in World War I.

The young princess was a child with a happy disposition—her childhood nickname was "Sunny," and Nicholas used it in writing to her throughout their 24-year marriage. But tragedy entered her life in 1878 when first her small sister, then her mother Alice Maud Mary , died of diphtheria. Alix was raised by governesses, but a constant presence in her life was her grandmother, Queen Victoria of Great Britain. In 1884, Alix accompanied Victoria to Russia for the marriage of her sister Ella to a member of the Russian imperial family. On a second trip to visit Ella in 1889, she and Nicholas fell in love.

Following her marriage, Alexandra plunged into much of Russian life: she enthusiastically practiced the Eastern Orthodox version of Christianity, which was the official religion. She appointed herself her new husband's "guardian angel" in commenting on how he led his country. At the same time, the new empress kept herself aloof. She disliked most members of the court, and she equally disliked appearing in public.

Alice Maud Mary (1843–1878)

Princess of Great Britain and Ireland, duchess of Saxony, and grand duchess of Hesse-Darmstadt. Name variations: Alice Saxe-Coburg. Born on April 25, 1843, at Buckingham Palace, London, England; died of diphtheria on December 14, 1878, in Darmstadt, Hesse, Germany; second daughter of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert; married Prince Louis of Hesse-Darmstadt (1837–1892), also known as Grand Duke Louis IV, in 1862; children: seven, including Victoria of Hesse-Darmstadt (1863–1950, who married Louis Alexander of Battenberg, marquis of Milford Haven, and was the mother of Lord Mountbatten); Ella (1864–1918, who married Grand Duke Serge of Russia and became Elizabeth Feodorovna); Irene (1866–1953, who married Prince Henry of Prussia); Ernest (who married Victoria Melita of Edinburgh); Alix (1872–1918, who became empress Alexandra Feodorovna of Russia and married Nicholas II); Mary Victoria (b. May 1874–1878, who died of diphtheria in infancy, the same year as her mother). Princess Alice founded the Women's Union for Nursing Sick and Wounded in War.

Despite her isolation, Alexandra was confident of her understanding of the Russian people's wishes. She took advantage of her ability to dominate her vacillating husband and urged Nicholas—who did not need urging—to resist any moves to change the top heavy political system. But her focus was on her family duties and the pressing need to provide heirs to the throne. Her first four children were girls, all of whom grew to be attractive young women. The male heir, needed for political reasons, came only in 1904, and the boy, Alexis, suffered from a dreadful illness—hemophilia—for which his mother felt deeply responsible. Hemophilia was a hereditary disease passed down to a child by its mother. Alexandra searched desperately for people outside the regular medical community who could help her imperilled son. A cavalcade of unlicensed healers found they were welcomed at the palace.

Outside the palace, popular unrest was rising. The economic strains of the Russo-Japanese War and the failure of the government to lead the nation effectively were having their effect. In January 1905, on "Bloody Sunday," crowds of Russians tried to petition the tsar to help them. As hundreds were shot down in front of Nicholas' Winter Palace, Nicholas and Alexandra isolated themselves at the Tsarskoe Seloe palace outside St. Petersburg. The country was shaken by strikes, peasant unrest, and a growing call for political change. By the fall of 1905, the empire was paralyzed by a general strike. Everyone from bakers to ballet dancers refused to work.

The tsar found himself compelled to issue the "October Manifesto," granting the two concessions he had always rejected: the creation of a Duma with the power to make laws, and a Constitution. The Revolution of 1905 had apparently overturned much of the old order, but Nicholas remained stubbornly committed to the outmoded ways. Almost from the moment he issued the October Manifesto, Nicholas showed his distaste for the changes that had been forced upon him. In early 1906, ridding himself of Finance Minister Sergei Witte, the architect and first prime minister under the new system, Nicholas insisted on keeping the title of "autocrat" (or unlimited monarch). He repeatedly restricted the power of the Duma and frequently spoke of eliminating it entirely.

As Russia remained torn by internal divisions after the Revolution of 1905, the tsar's prestige continued to decline. Exerting an important influence on him, the Empress Alexandra strengthened Nicholas' own conservative inclinations, in particular his view that restrictions on his power violated Russia's political and religious heritage. She insisted to her "Nicky" that he play the role of a strong, unmovable monarch, a fitting descendant of Peter the Great in the 18th century.

Finally, in a way that tied the troubles of the imperial family to the looming tragedy of the Russian state, a Siberian peasant and self-proclaimed holy man named Rasputin was introduced to the empress and her husband in late 1905. Rasputin's ability to treat Alexis' hemophilia gave him increasing psychological control over the empress. Russia's more capable political leaders, like the Prime Minister Peter Stolypin, became alarmed when word of Rasputin's scandalous sexual behavior became the talk of the capital. Inevitably, the smutty stories grew to stain Alexandra's reputation. Stolypin managed to expel Rasputin from St. Petersburg in 1911, but, the following year, the holy man gained an unshakable hold over Alexandra and the imperial family by seeming to save young Alexis from a critical attack of hemophilia.

In August 1914, Alexandra's adopted country went to war with Germany, the country of her birth. Rumors swirled about what loyalties the empress, who had removed herself from public view for years, really held. Alexandra gave the Russian people no answer that might have alleviated their concerns. Along with her daughters, she qualified as a nurse and tended the wounded during WWI, but she was careful to do this away from the public eye. At the same time, she went on playing guardian angel to stiffen and supervise her "Boysy," her indecisive husband. Ironically, Nicholas, who was so vulnerable to his wife's wishes, held political powers that made him the most significant monarch in Europe.

As the war went on and Russia's military catastrophes grew, Alexandra moved toward the center of political life. She showed no grasp of her country's desperate realities. She had greeted the conflict as a "healthy war" that would raise the nation's spirits. Always suspicious of Russia's leading officials—and most suspicious when they were talented—the empress continually urged Nicholas to send away the most gifted and confident ones.

Alexandra's dependency upon Rasputin grew in two measurable ways. First, her references to him no longer stopped at calling him a holy man: she now identified him as a Christ figure. Second, Rasputin's likes and dislikes, especially toward the country's key leaders, determined who would rise and for how long, and who would lose power.

In the fall of 1915, Alexandra persuaded her husband to leave St. Petersburg (which had been renamed Petrograd) to take personal command of the defeated Russian armies at the fighting front. The tsar had no real desire to direct the war and, when Alexandra and the children came to visit him at the front, he had no difficulty forgetting about military decisions in order to find time for them. In reality, General Mikhail Alexeev, the army chief of staff, ran the war.

The irreparable harm in Nicholas' absence came as Alexandra, with Rasputin at her side, took over the role of ruling monarch. Alexis Polivanov, the capable war minister, Serge Sazonov, the foreign minister, and a host of others were removed from office to be replaced by political naifs acceptable to Rasputin. Alexandra was particularly hostile to the weak parliament, the Duma. Its leaders were distressed by the disastrous course the war was taking, and they were trying to find an expanding role for themselves in directing Russia's affairs.

In November 1916, the tensions that had been building up for years came out in a dramatic Duma speech. Paul Miliukov, head of the Cadet (Constitutional Democratic) Party and one of the country's most important liberals, implied that there was a lack of patriotism at the top of Russian political life. Miliukov pushed beyond the previous boundaries of propriety by listing the failures of the government and, after each instance asking, "Is this stupidity or is this treason?" To most of his listeners, his attacks were directed in the first instance at Boris Sturmer, an inept prime minister appointed at Rasputin's insistence. But at least indirectly, the attacks reached up to stain the empress.

In late 1916, as the country approached the third winter of the war, rumors swirled in Petrograd about a coming revolutionary change. Informed observers thought that perhaps the army's leaders would take power. Meanwhile, Alexandra's faith in Rasputin continued to grow—she scorned members of the imperial family who criticized him—and she labeled any talk of political unrest as "high treason."

The empress was crushed when conservative plotters murdered Rasputin in December 1916. But even more catastrophic events soon descended on Russia's rulers. In March 1917, food riots, military mutinies, and railroad strikes in and around the capital could not be put down. In despair and desperation, Nicholas tried to pass his throne to another member of his family but no one would accept it. The monarchy limped to its close, and the monarch, now a private citizen, stole back to Petrograd to join his family.

Alexandra spent the last year of her life in worsening conditions of confinement. There was no easy way out of revolutionary Russia for the former empress and her loved ones. The country's wartime allies—even Great Britain whose royal family had numerous blood ties to the Romanovs—would not help. In the crucial wartime atmosphere of 1917, politics meant more than family ties among royalty. To aid Alexandra, her husband, and her children meant risking Britain's wartime alliance with the new revolutionary Russian government. Russia had to be kept fighting at all costs.

Alexandra and her family were sent for safe keeping to western Siberia by Russia's post-revolutionary leaders. When the more radical Bolsheviks led by V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky came to power in November 1917, hope that the Romanovs would survive faded. The outbreak of civil war in the spring of 1918 sealed their fate.

White forces, opposed to the Bolsheviks, approached the city of Ekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains where the former monarchs, their family, and a small retinue were held. If anti-Bolshevik forces were to save Nicholas, the former tsar would be a rallying point for counter-revolution. Lenin and Trotsky would not permit this to happen. During the night of July 16–17, 1918, Nicholas, Alexandra, their four daughters and son, and several members of their household, were roused from their sleep. Escorted to the cellar by a local commissar, they were executed by a firing squad. The 11 victims were buried in an abandoned mineshaft, then reburied in an open field.

sources:

Crankshaw, Edward. The Shadow of the Winter Palace. NY: Viking Press, 1976.

Lincoln, W. Bruce. In War's Dark Shadow: The Russians before the Great War. NY: Dial Press, 1983.

——. Passage through Armageddon: The Russians in War and Revolution, 1914–1918. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1986.

Massie, Robert K. Nicholas and Alexandra. NY: Atheneum, 1967.

Pipes, Richard. The Russian Revolution. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.

suggested reading:

Buxhoeveden, Baroness Sophie. The Life and Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna, Empress of Russia: A Biography. London: Longmans, Green, 1929.

Ferro, Marc. Nicholas II: Last of the Tsars. Translated by Brian Pearce. NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.

King, G. The Last Empress. Birch Lane, 1995.

Lincoln, W. Bruce. The Romanovs: Autocrats of All the Russias. NY: Dial Press, 1981.

related media:

"Nicholas and Alexandra," film starring Michael Jayston and Janet Suzman (183 min.), Columbia Pictures, produced by Sam Spiegel, directed by Franklin Schaffner, 1971.

"Rasputin," film (in Russian) starring Velta Linei and Alexei Petrenko (104 minutes), Mosfilm Studios, produced by Semyon Kutikov, directed by Elem Klimov, 1985.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California

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