Empress Alexandra in Love and War

By Zinaida Osipova

As an international student, it is difficult to imagine a world without videocalls and instant messages connecting me with my family in real time. How did people travel far from home before such a connection was possible? When World War I erupted, many people had to be apart from their loved ones for months at a time, including Nicholas II himself. In 1922, the Berlin-based Russian language publisher “Slovo” (Word) published letters that Alexandra Feodorovna, the last Russian Empress, wrote to her husband between July 1914 and December 1916. Intermixed with words of affection and summaries of the family’s daily activities, the letters contain the Empress’ thoughts on the ongoing war and advice on military matters, revealing her to be not only a loving wife but also a political actor.

The two-volume book was published in Berlin and it was written using pre-Revolutionary Russian orthography that had been abolished by the Bolsheviks in favor of new rules in 1918. While Russia was building a new country, the émigré community strived to preserve tradition and took an interest in publishing the four hundred letters that Alexandra sent to the emperor while he was away. The book informs us that the letters were found in Ekaterinburg after the royal family had been killed, not indicating, however, how the émigré community got ahold of them.[1] Interestingly, the German-born Alexandra and the Russian-born Nicholas communicated in English: the Empress wrote her letters in English with some words and sentences in Russian. The book provides both the original and the Russian versions translated by Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, the father of the famous writer Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov.

Alexandra sent her first wartime letter to Nicholas on September 19, 1914. In it, she warned her husband: “Lovy dear, my telegrams can’t be very warm, as they go through so many military hands – but you will read all my love & longing between the lines.” Yet several sentences later she followed with “I bless you & love you, as man was rarely loved before – & kiss every dearly beloved place & press you tenderly to my own heart.”[2] Alexandra’s letters are imbued with declarations of love and care, affectionate nicknames (“Nicky”, “sweet treasure,” “my lovebird,” “Huzy dear,” “precious Sunshine of our little home,” “my very own Life”), for her husband, and details on manifestations of her missing him.[3] The content and the large volume of the letters demonstrate the Empress’ sincere attachment to Nicholas.

Alexandra’s letters also talk about family matters, such as the health of their son, Alexey, their daily activities, trips to church, but they also demonstrate her concern for wartime issues. In a letter from March 2, 1915, there is a short paragraph dedicated to their children and a long one about wounded soldiers and plans to raise money for hospitals. She understood it as her duty to support the soldiers: “The idea of going to town to a hospital is rather awful, but still I know I must go,” “She [Anna Vyrubova, Alexandra’s friend] only thinks of herself & is angry I am so much with the wounded – they do me good and their gratitude gives me strength…”[4] In a letter from May 4, 1915, the Empress expressed her suggestion on a military appointment: “Deary, if a new Com. of the Nijegorodizy is to be named, wont you propose Yagmin? I meddle in things not concerning me – but its only a hint, – (& its your own regiment, so you can order whom you wish there).”[5] Indeed, on June 30, 1915, Stanislav Yagmin was appointed Commander of the Seventeenth Nizhegorodsky Dragoon Regiment of His Majesty.[6] While Nicholas’ decision to appoint Yagmin does not necessarily imply he relied solely on his wife’s advice, Alexandra’s suggestion demonstrates her familiarity with current issues and her wish to be involved in making decisions.

Private and official matters converge in the letter from June 14, 1915: the Empress informed her husband that at tea, Grand Duke Pavel Aleksandrovich had told her about the French ambassador’s attempts to find out whether Nicholas was planning to sign a separate treaty with Germany. Alexandra told Pavel that “you were not dreaming of peace & knew it would mean revolution here & therefore the Germans are trying to egg it on.”[7] The letter was written before the Great Retreat of the Russian army of 1915 that crippled the Russian society and political system.[8] Nevertheless, it is interesting to see Alexandra’s notion of what would cause a revolution as of mid-1915, namely, ending the war. In the same letter, the Empress advised that Nicholas have an eye on General Danilov, who was rumored to be a spy. Interestingly, similarly to her note on Yagmin, she started her suggestion by addressing her husband with an affectionate name “Lovy mine.”[9] Clearly, Alexandra liked to be involved in discussing internal political matters and stressed her devotion to Nicholas immediately before advising him.

Alexandra also showed curiosity and expressed strong opinions on foreign affairs concerning Russia. On October 31, 1915, she wrote “What is Greece up to? Does not sound very encouraging – hang those Balkans all. Now that idiotical Roumania, what will she do?” She continued the next day, “Oh, confound these Balkan countries. Russia has only been as an ever-loving helping mother to them and then they turn treacherously and fight her.” Alexandra wanted to stay on top of the matters, following with “If you do get any sure news about Roumania or Greece, be an Angel & let me know” on November 3.[10]

Alexandra’s letters are a valuable source that reveal the private side of the Empress. In addition to satisfying the popular curiosity on the inside workings of the relationship between the royal couple, the letters allow us to see that the Empress was well-informed about the latest developments of the war and desired to be involved in the official matters of her adopted country.

 

 

Bibliography

Alexandra Feodorovna. Письма Императрицы Александры Федоровны Къ Императору Николаю II. [Letters of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna to Emperor Nicholas II]. 2 vols. Berlin: Slovo, 1922.

Sanborn, Joshua. Imperial Apocalypse: The Great War and the Destruction of the Russian Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Список полковникам по старшинству. Составлен по 1-е августа. [The List of Colonels by Seniority. Compiled as of August 1st]. Petrograd, 1916.

[1] Письма Императрицы Александры Федоровны Къ Императору Николаю II [Letters of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna to Emperor Nicholas II], 2 vols, (Berlin: Slovo, 1922): 2.

[2] Письма Императрицы Александры Федоровны Къ Императору Николаю II [Letters of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna to Emperor Nicholas II], vol.1: 378-379.

[3] Idib., see letters 9, 16, 19 for examples on manifestations of Alexandra’s missing Nicholas; letters 8, 13, 20, 47, 64, 65 for nicknames.

[4] Ibid., 428 (letter 48), 434 (letter 52).

[5] Ibid., 455 (letter 73).

[6] Список полковникам по старшинству. Составлен по 1-е августа. [The List of Colonels by Seniority. Compiled as of August 1st], (Petrograd, 1916): 267.

[7] Письма Императрицы Александры Федоровны Къ Императору Николаю II [Letters of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna to Emperor Nicholas II], vol.1: 469 (letter 86).

[8] Joshua Sanborn, Imperial Apocalypse: The Great War and the Destruction of the Russian Empire, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014): 108.

[9] Письма Императрицы Александры Федоровны Къ Императору Николаю II [Letters of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna to Emperor Nicholas II], vol. 1: 469 (letter 86).

[10] Ibid., 576-577, 583 (letters 144, 145 and 148).

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