Dolgorukova, Ekaterina (1847–1922)

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Dolgorukova, Ekaterina (1847–1922)

Russian noblewoman and long-time "favorite" of Tsar Alexander II whom she married in 1880. Name variations: Catherine, Katherine, or Ekaterina Dolgorukaia, Dolgorukaja, Dolgorukaya, Dolgoroukov, Dolgoruky; (after 1880) Princess Iurevskaia or Yourievski; (nick-name) Katia or Katya. Pronunciation: Dol-go-RUK-of a. Born Ekaterina Mikhailovna Dolgorukova on November 2, 1847 (o.s.), in Moscow, Russia; died in Nice, France, on February 15, 1922 (n.s.); daughter of Mikhail Mikhailovich Dolgorukov (a noble landowner) and Vera Gavrilovna (Vishnevskaia) Dolgorukova; educated at Smolny Institute, 1860–65; married Alexander II (1818–1881), tsar of Russia (r. 1855–1881), on July 6, 1880 (o.s.); children: George Iurevskii (1872–1913, who married Countess Alexandra Zarnekau); Olga Iurevskaya (1873–1925); Boris Iurevskii (b. 1876); Catherine Romanov (1878–1959).

Was mistress (1866–80) and then second (morganatic) wife of Alexander II; left Russia after tsar's assassination (1881); spent the rest of her life in France; published (under the name Victor Laferté) Alexandre II, Détails inédits sur sa vie intime et sa mort (Geneva and Paris, 1882).

On a sunny afternoon in early July 1880, Ekaterina Dolgorukova finally married Alexander II, Tsar of All the Russias. The ceremony, contrary to imperial Russian custom, was short, simple, and secret. It was celebrated in an unfurnished, secluded drawing room at Tsarskoe Selo, the Romanovs' chief residential palace outside of St. Petersburg, before a makeshift altar once used by a previous tsar during the battles of the Napoleonic War. The bride wore a plain beige dress; the groom, his blue Hussars uniform. Only four persons, other than the officiating clergy, witnessed the marriage of the 62-year-old tsar to his 32-year-old mistress. For Alexander, whose first wife Marie of Hesse-Darmstadt had died the previous May, it was the fulfillment of a vow he had made to Dolgorukova 14 years earlier. For Ekaterina, who had not sought an affair with her sovereign but had given birth to four of Alexander's children without complaint, it meant that she was now "Her Serene Highness" rather than just that "gold-haired witch." Their officially sanctioned life together was both controversial and of short duration. Less than nine months after the ceremony at Tsarskoe Selo, the tsar was assassinated in St. Petersburg. His son and heir, Alexander III, who did not approve of his father's marital conduct, moved his stepmother out of the Winter Palace and was relieved when she chose to emigrate in 1882. Ekaterina Dolgorukova, or Princess Iurevskaia as she was known after her marriage, spent the last 40 years of her life in comfortable, self-imposed exile in France.

Ekaterina's origins were as noble as those of her husband. The Dolgorukovs, a minor branch of the ancient Dolgorukii family, could trace their lineage back to the 13th century and had provided many diplomats and soldiers to the subsequent rulers of the country, including the upstart Romanovs. Mikhail Dolgorukov, Ekaterina's father, had been a captain in a cavalry regiment before marrying Vera Vishnevskaia (Dolgorukova) , a rich Ukrainian heiress. The family had town houses in St. Petersburg and Moscow where their older daughter Ekaterina was born on November 2, 1847. Three years earlier, her mother had purchased a large estate at Teplovka near Poltava, and it was there that Ekaterina and her five siblings grew up. The three-story manor house was built in the style of a European castle and was surrounded by a luxuriant park. Her father, no longer in the army, spent his time managing or perhaps mismanaging the many serfs who labored in the adjoining fields and supplied the family with its comfortable livelihood.

The highlight of life at Teplovka was a visit by the new tsar of Russia, Alexander II, in the late 1850s. The precise date and details of this visit are in dispute, but all accounts agree that it was on this occasion that Alexander first met Ekaterina Dolgorukova. According to Maurice Paléologue, the tsar stopped at Teplovka in August 1857 while on annual army maneuvers in the south of the country. Because of an attack of asthma, the family loaned him their manor house so that he did not have to sleep in his customary tent. "One afternoon," Paléologue recounts, "as the Tsar was taking the air with his aides-de-camp under the verandah, a little girl happened to run past him. He called to her."

"Who are you, my dear?" he asked gently.

"And what are you doing here?"

"I'm Catherine Michailovna and I wanted to see the Emperor."

Much amused, he took her on his knee, talked to her a few minutes and then sent her back to her parents. Seeing her again the following day he was attracted by her ingenuous grace, pretty manners, and large eyes like those of a startled gazelle. In his most gracious manner … he begged her to show him over the garden.

Assuming that Paleologue's date is correct, Ekaterina was nine years old at the time; the tsar was thirty-nine. During the next few years, her father squandered the family fortune through gambling, extravagant living, poor estate management, and questionable investments. A year after Mikhail's death in 1860, the tsar inadvertently contributed to the Dolgorukovs' misfortunes by liberating the serfs who had previously provided much of the family's income. Vera Gavrilovna followed her husband to the grave in 1866 but not before Teplovka was destroyed by a fire that may have been intentionally set by discontented peasants.

Ekaterina was fortunate that Alexander II remembered the young girl he had met on summer maneuvers. In 1860, shortly after their father's death, the tsar made Ekaterina and her sister Marie Dolgorukova his wards and agreed to look after their education. They were duly enrolled in the "Imperial Educational Society of Noble Maidens" or Smolny Institute, a fashionable boarding school for well-born but often impoverished young ladies in St. Petersburg. The institute stressed the teaching of good manners and social graces along with providing a modicum of an education. All conversation and instruction, except in the Russian-language class, was in French. The girls were compelled to wear uniforms, were fed uninspired institutional cooking, and were allowed to leave the school only on specific holidays. Ekaterina did not particularly like this strict regimen, and she showed little interest in the academic side of the enterprise.

Her five years at the Smolny Institute coincided with a period of great change in Russia. Following the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, the "Tsar Liberator" implemented a series of reforms that vastly improved the Russian judiciary, rural and urban self-government, army life, and the financial structure of the country. Alexander periodically took time off from these endeavors to visit Smolny to talk to his young wards and on occasion take them on welcome excursions from the school. One suspects the orphaned girls delighted in showing off their royal surrogate parent to their classmates.

As Ekaterina grew older and more attractive—one author described her at age 15 as "tall, slim, with masses of ashen blonde hair, very dark eyes, and a flawlessly chiselled mouth"—these imperial visits grew more frequent and less familial. In 1865, a year before her scheduled graduation, Ekaterina left Smolny supposedly at the request of her mother and went to live with her older brother Mikhail in St. Petersburg. Meetings with the tsar, intentional or otherwise, increased in number. Alexander, as one of his biographers admits, was a "connoisseur of female charms." Married since 1841 to the Empress Marie of Hesse-Darmstadt and the father of eight children, his growing interest in Ekaterina was consistent with his character and male Romanov tradition. What may be surprising, given his position and persistence, was her reluctance to join his stable of "favorites." Even Ekaterina was surprised by her conduct. "I don't understand how I was able to deny him for a whole year, how I didn't fall in love with him earlier," she confided to a friend. "I think that it was only the fact of seeing him so distressed one day," after the first of many assassination attempts on his life, "that I finally succumbed and our love triumphed." The middle-aged tsar assured her that this was not another of his casual dalliances. "Today, alas, I am not free," he told her after she "succumbed" on July 1, 1866, "but at the first opportunity I shall marry you, for from now and for ever I regard you as my wife before God."

The two lovers tried to be discreet in their meetings but gossip was inevitable, especially given the disparity in their ages. In January 1867, her brother, fearing that he would be accused of abetting the affair, insisted that Dolgorukova leave the country on an extended visit to his wife's relatives in Naples. He could not prevent, however, frequent correspondence between his sovereign and his sister nor could he stop her from meeting Alexander during a state visit to Paris in June 1867. After long rides through the Bois de Boulogne and nocturnal visits to her "discreet and small hotel," the tsar convinced her to return with him to St. Petersburg. Since rendezvous in the Russian capital were difficult as long as Ekaterina lived with her brother and sister-in-law, Alexander provided her with more appropriate accommodation on Millionaires' Row close to the Winter Palace and later on the fashionable English Quay. He also made certain that she had places to stay near his summer retreats, arranged for her presence on his foreign travels, and according to several sources even took her on military maneuvers.

Many thought that this infatuation would pass as had so many in the past. But this was not to be. The aging monarch clearly found solace and comfort in his late evening visits to her various residences. His young lover listened to his problems and sympathized with the predicament of a ruler who was increasingly criticized by his own class for the sweeping nature of his reforms while at the same time was threatened in a more dangerous way by a radical intelligentsia that felt that his reforming zeal was waning. She was a pleasant escape from the burdens of being tsar. Katia, as Alexander called her, also pampered his penchant for painting by serving as the nude subject for his drawings. In time, the liaison produced children: George was born in 1872, Olga the next year, and Ekaterina in 1878. A second son, Boris, died shortly after birth in 1876. Alexander legitimized his children by giving them the surname Iurevskii in 1874, and he acknowledged his parentage by assigning them his own patronymic of Alexandrovich.

When separated by the tsar's state duties and even while living in close proximity, the two lovers corresponded on an almost daily basis. This correspondence, much of it published for the first time in 1970, was conducted in French and is revealing of the interests and personalities of the two parties. To Alexander, Katia was "my treasure," "my idol," "my adorable Imp." He discussed the weather, her health, their dogs and children, their unkind fate, and especially times spent together. His feelings may have suffered somewhat in translation when he wrote on May 6, 1870:

Have only just got home, but I pick up my pen to tell you, dear Angel of my soul, that first of all I thank God for having given us the joy of meeting again. What I felt within me you saw for yourself, just as I saw what was happening to you. That is why we clenched each other like hungry cats both in the morning and in the afternoon, and it was sweet to the verge of madness, so that even now I still want to squeal for joy and I am still saturated in all my being.

Ekaterina's letters, which contain numerous errors in spelling and grammar, reveal what Alexandre Tarsaïdzé considers to be "her poor upbringing, the shortcomings of her education, her lack of culture and imagination." At times, she appears jealous of the tsar's other interests, possessive of his attention, and capricious. Despite the fact that she was living through the "Golden Age of Russian Culture," her often rather erotic letters show little interest in contemporary literature, music, or the arts. "I find the Russian play very pretty, but it is boring that they are always too long," she wrote on the last day of 1875. In the same breath, she continues in run-on fashion,

I would like to give birth as soon as possible for I feel so heavy, but I am not grumbling, because it is my fault, and I confess I cannot be without your fountain, which I love so, and therefore after my six weeks are over I count on renewing my injections, for I can do nothing halfway.

Ekaterina lived a life of seclusion with her children making herself available whenever the tsar sought her company. She had no other life and no other interests. Some have accused her of being a "nefarious influence," "the evil genius behind the throne." In private, she was sometimes referred to as the "female Potemkin"—an inappropriate comparison with Catherine II the Great 's lover, influential minister and probable second husband of a century earlier. In reality, she played none of these roles except, of course, that of lover. As Norman Pereira has concluded, "there is no evidence that Katia held to any strong intellectual or political positions, much less that she tried to influence Alexander's public policy." Even Alexandre Tarsaïdzé, a sympathetic biographer, acknowledges that she was "meagerly informed politically." She was not an intriguer nor did she try to form a clique. Her detractors have argued that she sought financial benefits for her relatives and friends but this, if it did happen, was not unique in Alexander's entourage. Dolgorukova's persona did little to mitigate these negative impressions. On the rare occasions when she appeared in society, she seemed reserved, aloof, and cold. Unlike Catherine II, Ekaterina did not have an outgoing personality or a vivaciousness that might have won her much-needed allies. Indeed, in the words of Tarsaïdzé, she was "a difficult personality all around."

Ekaterina Dolgorukova's historical significance lies not in her political influence, which was negligible, but in the fact that her long affair with the tsar—a man 30 years her senior—served to discredit the monarchy, divide the royal family, and isolate Alexander from many of his subjects. The blame for this rests far more with the tsar than with his lover. As the "Tsar Liberator," he had claimed the high moral ground, but by his relations with Dolgorukova he undercut his own position. Persons who opposed his political changes were delighted to exploit problems in his personal life. Many in the court, especially the wives of Alexander's brothers and sons, openly sympathized with the ailing Empress Marie and were hostile toward her much younger rival. For Alexander to name Ekaterina a lady-in-waiting to his wife, solely to give her an entrée to court, was tactless at best and certainly politically inept. When the influential head of the Russian police, P.A. Shuvalov, sought in 1874 to warn the tsar of the division his affair was causing, Alexander's reaction was to congratulate him on his new appointment as ambassador to the Court of St. James in London. Four years later, when terrorist attacks in Russia threatened not only the tsar but also his extended family, Alexander moved Ekaterina and their children into the Winter Palace, where security was supposedly better, and assigned them rooms directly above those of his official wife.

This insensitive behavior estranged Alexander from his highly moralistic son and heir, the tsarevich Alexander Alexandrovich, who became the center of much of the conservative opposition to his father's reign. Dolgorukova, in turn, has mistakenly been seen as a rallying point for liberals who wanted a resumption of reform and were opposed to the tsarevich and his reactionary friends. She has sometimes been seen in league with Count Loris-Melikov, the tsar's last reforming minister and another outsider in the Russian court. In reality, she under-standably welcomed support and friendship from any quarter but there is no evidence that she—unlike the tsar's earlier "favorite" and her ancestral relative, Alexandra Dolgorukaia —was actively involved in promoting political change. Political animosities, nevertheless, coalesced with private scandal to produce division within the royal household. As W.E. Mosse has concluded, "a palace revolution seemed not at all impossible."

The situation did not improve after the Empress Marie died on May 22, 1880. The tsar inopportunely chose the moment of his wife's death in St. Petersburg to be with his mistress at Tsarskoe Selo. Russian tradition called for a mourning period of one year before remarriage, a convention observed by the only two monarchs to remarry in the 18th or 19th centuries. Tradition also strongly suggested that the tsar find a bride from among royal families outside of Russia. Alexander chose to violate both conventions when he honored his pledge of 14 years earlier to marry Ekaterina Dolgorukova as soon as he was "free" and promptly did so only 46 days after the death of his first wife. Suggestions from Ekaterina and his advisors that he delay at least until his son and heir returned from a trip to Western Europe fell on deaf ears. As the fatalistic tsar informed his sister, "I would never have married before a year of mourning if not for the dangerous time we live in and for the hazardous attempts I expose myself to daily which can actually and suddenly end my life." Rumors of the secret marriage at Tsarskoe Selo on July 6 spread rapidly and were unofficially confirmed when Dolgorukova was assigned a new and luxurious suite in the Winter Palace. She was also given the title Princess Iurevskaia and an endowment of 3.3 million rubles.

These events did not bring harmony to the royal household. The women at court ostracized Ekaterina while conservatives around the tsarevich feared that Alexander II might seek to make her his empress and to change the order of succession. The tsar did in fact send an aide to Moscow to check archival records concerning procedures by which Peter the Great had designated his second wife—also named Ekaterina (Catherine I )—as his empress and successor. Alexander spent the last year of his life in semi-seclusion, alienated from his relatives, a bitter and disillusioned man. It seemed to many that he cared only for his second family and preferred to spend his time with them rather than dealing with matters of state. Ekaterina later suggested that he seriously considered abdicating and moving to France—a step that she surely would have supported. Instead, he kept to his old routines. One of these was to drive through St. Petersburg every Sunday. On March 1, 1881, Ekaterina begged him not to follow his usual Sunday itinerary which would have taken him down the capital's main street, Nevskii Prospekt. Alexander acquiesced and thereby avoided a mine planted there by the revolutionaries. But he did not escape bombs thrown by two other terrorists. The badly wounded tsar was taken back to the Winter Palace where he died one hour later, his new wife at his side.

In one of his last letters to his eldest son, Alexander II wrote that in the case of his death "I wish that … the living quarters in the Winter Palace should be reserved for [Ekaterina] and her children." While this could not have been to the tsarevich's liking, he honored the request in spirit. She was allowed to stay in her apartments, but she was also offered an elegant residence elsewhere in the capital and a lifelong pension of 40,000 rubles a year. In late May, she moved into the Petit Palais Rose, much to her stepson's relief. One suspects that the 33-year-old widow did not find life in St. Petersburg very agreeable. She had lost her protector, lover, and companion of 15 years; she had little in common with his successor; and she still was an object of derision in the imperial court.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Dolgorukova-Iurevskaia packed her bags and left Russia in April 1882. She traveled in style accompanied not only by her three children but also by their tutors and governesses as well as by medical personnel, cooks, footmen, maids, a coach driver, and three dogs. Curiously, for a woman who had never shown any interest in writing and certainly had no need for money, her first act after reaching Paris was to publish a brochure entitled Alexandre II, Détails inédits sur sa vie intime et sa mort under the pseudonym Victor Laferté. In it, she recounted her version of the last three days of her husband's life. According to this unsubstantiated account, Alexander II had approved a liberal constitution submitted to him by her alleged ally Loris-Melikov on the morning of his death. Instead of publishing it the next day, as he had ordered, the new tsar scrapped the constitution and fired its author. The brochure predictably exacerbated Ekaterina's already strained relations with Alexander III and caused her to be forbidden to return to Russia during his lifetime.

Princess Iurevskaia lived the life of a wealthy if somewhat eccentric Russian émigrée for the next 40 years. Her Parisian houses on Avenue Kléber and in Neuilly-sur-Seine were looked after by a staff of 20. Her dinner parties and bridge games attracted many from the Russian émigré colony who probably would have shunned her earlier in St. Petersburg. In time, even visiting members of the royal family stopped by her salon. In the summer, she had her private railway carriage attached to the fast train from Paris to Biarritz or Nice where she also had villas. According to her son-in-law, Serge Obolensky, Princess Iurevskaia or "Her Highness," as she preferred to be called, "dressed in long flowing mauve dresses, [and was] very dignified and gracious; she looked exactly like what she was—the widow of one of Russia's greatest rulers." He goes on to note that she "lived entirely in the past. Life for her stopped the day the Nihilists threw the bombs that killed her royal husband." Relics of the past, including one of the fingers Alexander lost in the fatal explosion, were kept in a glass case next to her bed. Her favorite companions during these long years abroad were her dogs. She had a small villa built next to their burial place in Nice which she visited daily when on the Côte d'Azur. In 1902, she altered her will so that 40,000 rubles would be set aside for the care of her pug "Signal." One senses that while she may have "lived" in the imperial Russian past, she found more contentment and acceptance in fin de siècle France.

This life of what Queen Victoria once called "busy idleness" came to an end in August 1914. The outbreak of the First World War curtailed the periodic trips she had been making to her homeland since Nicholas II became tsar two decades earlier. She turned one of her Paris residences into a hospital for wounded soldiers and for a while paid the costs of their recuperation. Nicholas' abdication in March 1917, however, meant the end of her royal pension and shortly thereafter her investments and properties in Russia were rendered worthless by the Bolshevik seizure of power. She tried to maintain the semblance of her old lifestyle by selling her possessions and properties in France one after another. "Her Highness" died in style but penniless in Nice on February 15, 1922, at the age of 74.


Obolensky, Serge. One Man in His Time. NY: McDowell, Obolensky, 1958.

Paléologue, Maurice. The Tragic Romance of Alexander II of Russia. Translated from the French by Arthur Chambers. London: Hutchinson, 1927.

Pereira, N.G.O. Tsar-Liberator: Alexander II of Russia, 1818–1881. Newtonville, MA: Oriental Research Partners, 1983.

Tarsaïdzé, Alexandre. Katia: Wife before God. NY: Macmillan, 1970 (contains the previously unpublished but awkwardly translated correspondence quoted herein; inaccurate in some of its details).

suggested reading:

Almedingen, E.M. The Emperor Alexander II. London: The Bodley Head, 1962.

Bibesco, Marthe. Katia (fiction). Translated from the French by Priscilla Bibesco. London: William Heine-mann, 1939.

Mosse, W.E. Alexander II and the Modernization of Russia. NY: Collier Books, 1962.

related media:

Katia, French film with Danielle Darrieux and John Loder, directed by F.A. Algazy (1938).

R. C. Elwood , Professor of History, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada