A Diamond-Studded Ivory Tower


All royal childhoods were isolated, but Nicholas Romanov’s childhood was isolated even by royal standards. And while his English cousin George’s closed childhood was at odds with the increasing openness of English society, Nicholas’s was a paradigm of the stagnation and closed nature of Russian society.

Imperial Russia was a colossus anchored to traditions a hundred years out of date. At 8.5 million square miles it covered almost one-sixth of the world’s surface, had a population of 120 million (the combined populations of Britain, France and Germany) and a standing army of over 1 million men. Its tsars lived on an unparalleled scale of public splendour; its grand duchesses staggered under the weight of their diamonds, its social season was more spectacular than anything in Europe. At the same time, it was an underdeveloped and miserably poor agrarian society, more sparsely populated than anywhere in Europe, and barely a nation in the accepted sense. Rather, it was an unintegrated collection of eighty-odd nationalities from Poles to Uzbeks who had little in common except varying degrees of allegiance to the tsar. Its institutions were archaic, its communications infrastructure was lamentable, its government administration unable to keep up. Foreign wars had almost brought it to bankruptcy. Five-sixths of its population were peasants—who bore the weight of its taxation. Less than 20 percent1 of Russians were literate by the end of the nineteenth century, as compared to around 95 percent of Britons. Educated Russians, from tsarist bureaucrats to the aristocracy to the small new professional class, knew and hated the fact that their neighbours in Europe routinely regarded the country as backward and “Asiatic”—a word with connotations of tyranny, decadence, corruption and barbarity. Some, who characterized themselves as social progressives and free-thinkers, longed for Russia to be more Western and “civilized.” Others, who called themselves Slavophiles, maintained that Russia was different, special, incomprehensible to literal-minded Europeans, and that Russians must stick to their own proud traditions.

Nicholas’s family, the Romanovs, had ruled Russia since 1613; but it had been only with the Napoleonic Wars that Russia had become a bona fide Great Power. In 1814, after defeating Napoleon, Tsar Alexander I had ridden down the Champs-Élysées as the arbiter of Europe. (It was surely an oblique nod to this epiphanic moment that caused Bismarck to crown his German emperor at Versailles in 1871.) The Russian tsars claimed their imperial status by virtue—somewhat implausibly—of being the heirs of the Byzantine empire. After the fall of Constantinople to Islam in 1453, the self-styled Grand Princes of All Russia had been the most powerful independent rulers left in the Byzantine—or Eastern Orthodox—Church. Prince Ivan the Great married the niece of the last Byzantine emperor, added the Byzantine two-headed eagle to his crest, adopted Byzantine court ritual and started calling himself “Tsar.” In so doing, he acquired a set of useful messianic myths about Russia’s world mission: to recapture Constantinople, or Tsargrad as the Russians called it, for Christianity (and rather more usefully, to gain secure access to Europe and the Mediterranean for its grain and navy), and to “protect” the Slavic peoples of the Balkans against the Ottoman empire. This dual mission caused his authority to be underwritten by the Russian Orthodox Church. The tsar became the great defender of Orthodoxy; the Church, tied closer to the state than in any country in Europe, declared that the tsar was God’s representative on earth and he must be obeyed at all costs.

Theoretically the tsar’s power was unlimited—the Romanovs liked to think of Russia and its empire as one enormous feudal estate in which everything derived from them. They were tenacious in their determination not to let go of a single drop of power. This meant that anyone trying to initiate change found it extraordinarily difficult, as any change could be seen as a challenge to the tsar’s prerogatives and summarily repressed. There were no representative assemblies of any kind, and no one, not even ministers and legislators—whom the tsar appointed and sacked as he wished—could be seen to make policy, law or any public initiatives without him. Everything must come from the tsar. Even divorce decrees needed to be personally signed by him. Anton Chekhov remembered2 a poor wretch from his childhood who languished forgotten for years in the town gaol, having been arrested for collecting money without permission to build a local church. Everyone in Europe who read a newspaper knew how brutally Russia had crushed the Polish separatist movement, how it tacitly encouraged Jewish pogroms, how it persecuted small religious sects, though because of press censorship not everyone in Russia did. The government seemed to go out of its way to persecute its greatest—and often far from radical—writers. Turgenev had been put under house arrest for writing a sympathetic review of Gogol; Dostoevsky was sentenced to death (commuted to four years’ hard labour in Siberia) for being a member of an innocuous group of liberal Utopians. European liberals—especially in England—hated tsarism as the symbol of all that was backward-looking and anti-democratic. Monarchists—especially in Germany—saw it as a reassuring bulwark of conservatism.

By the middle of the 1850s, however, Russia’s bureaucracy and its ministries were silting up, and the country was falling behind commercially and industrially. The dead hand of the state was the chief reason for this. A good example was the way that Russian society was still locked in the near-feudal hierarchy established by Peter the Great nearly 120 years before. Class segregation was enforced by the government—everyone was registered to a particular social estate, and your estate dictated your dress, the education you were entitled to, the occupations you could follow, where you could travel, how much tax you paid—the more socially lowly paid proportionally more. It was no accident that so many of the great Russian artists and writers of the mid-nineteenth century were aristocrats, and that the country had failed to industrialize. The problem for the government was that if Russia fell too far behind Europe it would lose its status as a Great Power. Being a Great Power, at the top of the international status tree—along with England, France, America, Austria-Hungary and the newcomer Germany—was vital to the tsarist government’s sense of itself, and, it believed, the empire’s very existence. The question was, could the country modernize and develop, even industrialize, without the tsar sacrificing an iota of his power, or even losing all of it? When Nicholas was born in 1868, it was this conundrum that had caused his grandfather, Tsar Alexander II, to introduce a series of modest reforms that would earn him the title of “liberator”—abolishing serfdom, liberalizing the press, introducing the beginnings of social mobility, and setting up zemstvos, local rural councils, which had considerable success in building the roads, schools and hospitals the state had signally failed to supply. But at the same time a series of assassination attempts on the tsar convinced conservatives in the government that even a modicum of liberalization was too dangerous for Russia.

Among those conservatives was Nicholas’s father, Alexander, the tsarevitch. Alexander was a man-mountain of shaggy determination. Like his ancestor Peter the Great, he stood well over six feet and was enormously strong, “built like a3 butcher” as one British journalist wrote. His party trick, brought out to intimidate foreign dignitaries and to amuse his children’s friends, was to bend pokers and forks in and out of shape. Unlike Peter the Great, he disapproved of Westernization: “He tried to be4 Russian down to the smallest details of his personal life, and that was why his bearing seemed less aristocratic than that of his brothers,” one of his courtiers wrote. “He claimed, perhaps without reasoning it out, that a true Russian should not be too highly polished in his manners, that he should have a touch of something like brutality.” Alexander made a point of being rough and deliberately provincial. He wore a long beard—a mark of deliberate Slavophilia and in stark contrast to his clean-shaven sophisticated brothers—and sack-like Russian peasant shirts, and was famously brusque, taciturn and deeply mistrustful of almost everybody. He was xenophobic and anti-Semitic and deplored his father’s reforms. He made a point of disapproving of the extravagance and Europeanized sophistication of St. Petersburg, and loathed its winter social season. He had no interest in art or culture, haute cuisine or good wine. He did like the country: his children’s most vivid memories of him were the walks he took them on, during which he taught them to start a fire, clear a path, follow an animal’s tracks. He was not especially bright and, like his nephew George, he was the second son and his education had been neglected—his views had been formed in the army. But he was an impressive figure, not least because he seemed entirely immune to self-doubt.

Alexander’s older brother, Nicholas, the heir, had died of TB in 1865. There was a pretty legend that on his deathbed Nicholas had joined the hands of his fiancée, Minny, daughter of the Danish king, Christian, and sister of Alexandra of Wales, and his brother to indicate his wish that they should marry. In reality, Alexander’s intended was banished abroad, and he was virtually frogmarched to Copenhagen to propose to his brother’s fiancée, who gracefully accepted. They were married in 1866. Minny seemed the opposite of her husband: she was tiny and delicately pretty—though not, everyone said, as pretty as her sister Alexandra—and charming. She was tougher and brighter than her sister; she had actually been known to read books5 and was an amateur painter. Like Alexandra she was extravagant, loved beautiful clothes, lavish jewels and parties—especially the St. Petersburg season. She was popular too—no mean feat as Russian aristocratic society was factional, competitive and gossipy. To everyone’s surprise, however, Minny and Sasha, as they were called in the family, were a great success. She charmed St. Petersburg so he didn’t have to. He turned out, unlike many Romanov men, to be extremely uxorious. They shared a strong, simple religious faith, a love of the outdoors—like her sister, Minny was a fine rider—a devotion to family, and an unsubtle taste for practical jokes. In their case typical “jokes” involved the throwing of bread pellets at dinner and the turning of water hoses on unsuspecting victims.

Their first son, Nicholas, was born two years later on 6 May 1868, the feast day of Job, whose stoic fatalism would have a certain appropriateness. Minny’s sister, Alexandra, wrote to her wishing she could send her own nurse, Mrs. Clarke, reminding her what had happened to Vicky’s son, “who came out6 wrong.” Alexander was present at the birth, showing a tenderness in his diary—“What joy it was,”7 he wrote; “… I was crying like a baby”—that belied his public image. Five siblings followed: a brother who died in infancy, then two boys and two girls: George and Xenia, and the babies of the family, Michael and Olga.

Nicholas grew up in a series of snow-covered palaces in the northern fastnesses of the Russian empire. Everything about the circumstances of his childhood conspired to make him innocent, naïve and young for his years. Alexander loved his children, but his misanthropy, overprotectiveness and insistence on complete obedience were not guaranteed to create big, confident personalities—and they didn’t. The rigid etiquette which surrounded Russian royalty insulated them from modern life and other people even more so than other royals—Alexander’s intense distrust of almost everyone beyond the family, his dislike of St. Petersburg and his concerns over security meant that Nicholas was denied even what St. Petersburg high society might have offered: a little cosmopolitanism, culture and company. As it was, contact with anyone save his brothers and sisters and servants was difficult and rare. “Servants, pets8 and relations, in that order,” was how the children prioritized their relationships with the outside world—court and society coming a long way after. Nicholas’s most constant playmate was his brother George, younger by three years, whose practical jokes—he was forever tripping up the servants and setting his pet parrot on the tutors—and bons mots so delighted Nicky that he would write them down and keep them in a box, bringing them out and shouting with laughter at them years later. He occasionally saw a few grand ducal cousins such as his cousin Alexander Mikhailovich, known as Sandro, and the children of Minny’s friend and lady-in-waiting Lili Vorontsova-Dashkova. One of the few children whom Nicky encountered beyond these was his governess’s son, Vladimir Ollongren, who joined his classes for three years when Nicholas was seven. For all the warmth within the family it was, inevitably, lonely.

The Romanov children, not unlike their English cousins Eddy and George, were said to be lively and jolly. Sandro, Nicky’s cousin, who first met him in 1875 when he was seven, recalled a slightly fragile, sweet-natured, smiling boy, who had a great deal of his mother’s charm. Vladimir Ollongren thought him a very happy child, keen on hopscotch and birds, his mother and the long theatrical rituals of the Orthodox Church which he liked to act out. His piety was something his younger sister Olga remembered too. Ollongren couldn’t help but compare the boy to his hulking father. Next to him, slight, quiet little Nicky seemed frankly “girlish.” The tsar Ollongren remembered as “a quite exceptionally cheerful and simple man;”9 several people observed that Alexander seemed to prefer children to adults.

Nicholas was utterly in awe of him. He seemed superhuman, so huge and strong, so utterly without doubt. When the imperial family were caught in a train derailment at Borki in 1888 in which twenty people died (whether it was a bomb or badly laid track was never established), Alexander single-handedly lifted the roof of the carriage in which his family was trapped, and saved them. He was extremely loving of his children, but he was ruthless about any sign of weakness, expected absolute obedience and could be extremely frightening. One observer wrote that even when talking normally he sometimes “gave the impression10 of being on the point of striking you.” Vladimir Ollongren recalled an occasion when he took the blame for something Nicky had done. “You are11 a little girl,” Alexander told his son crushingly. One member of the imperial household felt this created an uncomfortable atmosphere “of dissimulation12 and restraint” in the family.

Minny was no less powerful. She could be extremely imperious and took her position in society very seriously. With the exception of her firstborn, who adored her, her children found her both demanding and distant. Nicholas deferred to her well into adulthood. “I hope my13 Nicky will do everything to be friendly and charming with everybody and will be ready to carry out his personal duties even if they are boring at times,” she wrote to him when he was trekking across Siberia aged twenty-two, as if he were a small boy at someone else’s party. Her youngest daughter, Olga, who disliked her, felt that she went out of her way to scupper their sister Xenia’s marriage because “My mother just14 did not want to lose all control over Xenia.”

It was one of the peculiarities of the age that despite Russia’s political Anglophobia there was a strong strain of cultural Anglophilia in Russian society. Just like his cousins Georgie and Willy, Nicholas and his siblings spent their first years surrounded by English nurses and nannies, and the cold baths, long walks and plain food—porridge and boiled mutton—of an English nursery. Among the Russian nobility, as among many European royalty, English nannies were very much in vogue—one of the consequences being that many Russian aristocrats read and wrote English before Russian. Nicholas and his siblings certainly spoke good English from early on. The xenophobic tsar himself was devoted to his old English nanny, Kitty, who spent forty-six years in imperial service. Behind the walls of his favourite palace, Gatchina, described as an “English-style” stone palace complete with moat, the royal family lived neither in vast marble splendour as the Prussian did, nor in traditional Muscovite surroundings, but in modestly sized, distinctly English bourgeois-style rooms. Alexander disliked the public, palatial living of his ancestors, and the family inhabited a series of relatively small, stuffy rooms filled with bulky furniture and overstuffed sofas covered with English chintz.

Beyond their domestic arrangements, however, nothing about the Romanovs was small scale; everything was huge. Gatchina Palace outside St. Petersburg, where the family moved when Nicholas was twelve, had 900 rooms, most of them, except for the royal apartments, empty, dusty and dirty. One estimate put the number of royal servants across the Romanovs’ palaces at 15,000.15 The British royal family never lived on this scale. At George’s parents’ famously luxurious Christmas at Sandringham (“Dickens in a16 Cartier setting,” was how their grandson, the future Edward VIII, described it), there was one enormous Christmas tree round which presents for the servants were stacked. The Romanovs had six trees just for the family, in a hall many times bigger than any room in Sandringham. The Nicholas ball, the biggest court occasion of the St. Petersburg season, had 3,000 guests. Throughout the year there was a constant round of processions, formal receptions, presentations and banquets, all on a vast scale involving thousands of generals, churchmen, chamberlains, gentlemen and ladies of the court. At Anichkov Palace on Nevsky Prospekt, where the family spent the early months of the year, Nicholas would watch his mother dressing each evening, fussed over by five maids and the Mistress of the Wardrobe, stepping into the heavy silver brocade dress prescribed by imperial etiquette, ten rows of pearls around her neck—so covered in jewels she looked like an oriental deity. In spring, the family went to Peterhof, the huge Romanov estate on the Gulf of Finland, and stayed in one of the many family villas that dotted the estate. Summer was spent on the royal yacht, with perhaps a trip to Denmark or to the estates in balmy Livadia in the Crimea. Every move was a logistical nightmare. For a three-week trip to Denmark, the family was routinely accompanied by twenty railway trucks of baggage and an entourage of a hundred, to say nothing of the security around them. Since the first assassination attempt on Alexander II in 1866, the royal family had been surrounded by a wall of security. When they travelled by train from St. Petersburg to Moscow, soldiers lined the entire 400-mile track to protect it from sabotage.

The lives of all European royals were circumscribed by ritual and etiquette, but Russian ritual and etiquette were the most interminable. All royalty had to learn to stand for hours, but the Russians stood the longest. At Easter, even the smallest child was stuffed into full court dress and required to stand through a three-hour church service followed by an Easter egg–giving ceremony during which the tsar personally greeted the 5,000 men of the imperial guards regiments, and presented each with a porcelain egg. This could take all day. Once they were out of the nursery, etiquette pursued the children everywhere: at lunch and dinner they often ate with Alexander’s entourage. Meals lasted exactly 50 minutes,17 the youngest were served last, and Nicky’s sister Olga recalled that the children often had time for only a few mouthfuls before it was all over. On one occasion Nicky was so hungry that he prised open his gold cross which had in it a fragment of the True Cross embedded in wax, and ate the contents, wood and all. It was, he confided to Olga, “immorally good.”18 Henceforth anything really delicious was always “immorally good.”

There were compensations. At Gatchina, the children had a menagerie including an albino crow, a wolf and a tame hare, and an enormous indoor playground. The palace’s Arsenal hall had a billiard table, a fortress full of toy soldiers, a mini-mountain to climb and a fully functional model kitchen. Next door was a room of stuffed animals and beyond it hundreds of rooms to explore, including the fairy-tale room, full of frescoes illustrating Pushkin’s stories. Outside in the thousands of acres, there was a lake, an echo grotto and secret passages leading back into the palace.

Like Willy and George, Nicky left the nursery when he was seven, with his brother George, to be educated by his governess, Alexandra Ollongren. It was an induction a good deal gentler than that of many of his Russian cousins who were forced immediately into a life of austere military discipline. He saw his parents twice a day, at 11 a.m. to discuss his day and briefly before bed, and sometimes he would be “commanded” to accompany his father on an afternoon walk. He was bright, a fast learner with an aptitude for languages, and his English was particularly good. Then, aged ten, in 1879, having easily passed the middle school exam taken by boys of his age, he was handed over, in the usual way for a European prince, to a military governor, Grigory Danilovich, who oversaw both his military training and the rest of his education. Even at the conservative Russian court Danilovich was regarded as hopeless. “That old dotard19 of a Jesuit,” one member of the Romanov household later called him. Nicky referred to him as the “Cholera;” his cousin Sandro thought Danilovich “simple-minded.” Nicholas’s education became skimpy: a smattering of history, which he really enjoyed, a bit of geography and chemistry, and instruction in English, French and German—at which he was very good. He was also taught to dance, as the tsar had to lead the polonaise at every imperial ball. Like Bertie and Alexandra, the tsar and his wife weren’t very exercised about education. Alexander felt he’d done perfectly well without it; Minny, like her sister, believed that good manners, religious education and a decent grasp of languages were quite sufficient. Neither they nor Danilovich saw any need for larger thinking about how to prepare the heir for his future rule. Danilovich told Nicky that “the mysterious forces emanating during the sacrament of taking the oath on the day of the coronation provided all the practical data required.”20

Nicky’s favourite tutor was his English teacher, Charles Heath. Heath, a popular former master at the Alexander Lycée, St. Petersburg’s grandest school, didn’t just teach English, he taught English public school values: decency, fairness and the virtues of self-control and good manners, the alleged qualities of an English gentleman. “Aristocrats are born,”21 he told the boy, “gentlemen are made.” It was a lesson Nicky absorbed; from his late teens his great courtesy and almost English politeness were frequently commented upon—and not always appreciatively. Such control was “un-Russian.” As one of the government’s most able ministers, Count Witte, would later write with some bitterness, “I had rarely22 come across a better-mannered young man than Nicholas II. His good-breeding conceals all shortcomings.” In fact, Heath’s concept of gentlemanliness was almost the only novel idea in the whole of Nicky’s childhood.

Not surprisingly, Nicky’s idea of life outside his tiny world was extraordinarily limited; nor was it helped by his parents’—perhaps understandable—desire to protect their children from the world’s harsh realities. The depth of the children’s inexperience is encapsulated in the fact that though their mother gave them a relatively spartan upbringing, it had no context: many European aristocrats disdained cash, but the children had no idea of the value of anything. Etiquette forbade any member of the imperial family from setting foot in a shop. As a teenager Xenia gave her mother a sapphire-encrusted silver perfume bottle for Christmas which she’d picked out of a selection that Cartier had sent for her mother to see; Xenia had no idea that it was worth much more than the little presents she stitched herself. The Romanov children knew nothing about their grandfather’s reforms. Newspapers were banned from the nursery, as Minny, like Alexandra, insisted that politics be kept out of her children’s education. As far as they were concerned, General Cherevin, a senior officer in Okhrana, the brutal secret police, was “Friendly, generous and humble” and “very popular in St. Petersburg.”

   Not that Nicholas wouldn’t have liked more experience of the world. When they were in St. Petersburg, his and Xenia’s favourite pastime was standing for hours behind the high balustrades that surrounded Anichkov Palace, watching ordinary people walking down Nevsky Prospekt.

   Overlaying everything was a deeply idealized fantasy about “Russianness” which Alexander passed on to his children, but which was belied by practically everything about their upbringing. Almost nothing about the Romanovs was “Russian.” Their lives were those of Westernized aristocrats, their court etiquette was German, their parks and palaces were neoclassical, their home comforts English. Even by blood they were barely Russian at all, the product of endless marriages into German royal families. Nicholas’s mother was Danish, and his paternal grandmother was German, as his paternal great-grandmother had been. It was perhaps the reason Nicholas became so attached to the rituals of Russian Orthodoxy, the one “authentic” Russian experience open to him. He and his siblings knew hardly anything about “the real Russia”: they’d never seen the “black earth” of Russia’s central heartland; they barely knew Moscow, its traditional capital. They habitually idealized Russian peasants but never met any. They were told that their father’s affectation of peasant clothes was a sign of his deep understanding of the common people. They assumed that the palace servants, who’d often served the family for generations and had as little connection to the peasant communes as they did, represented the average Russian peasant. When they saw the masses beyond the palace, they were invariably soldiers cheering their father at reviews or weddings. “The look of love and dedication in all those upturned faces was unforgettable,” Nicky’s sister Olga insisted decades later. “… Between the crown and people was a relationship hardly ever understood in the West. That relationship had nothing to do with government or petty officialdom.”23

After the Russian Revolution overturned their lives, several of Nicky’s Russian cousins wrote memoirs dwelling on the miserable inadequacy of their childhood, the repression of personality that was demanded, how they were trained to engage with the modern world as little as possible and what a disaster this turned out to be. Sandro recalled the pointless isolation and strictness and how lonely he was. The Grand Duchess Marie, another of Nicky’s cousins, bemoaned the closedness and the helplessness it engendered: “they kept me purposely24 in ignorance of the situation into which I had been born.”

In March 1881, when Nicky was twelve, his grandfather Alexander II—having just that morning signed a new constitution which set up conditions for a very limited form of representative government—was mortally injured in a terrorist bomb attack. He was carried, bleeding profusely, to his study in the Winter Palace. Nicky was on his way to skate with his mother and his cousin Sandro. Hearing the explosions, the two boys ran to the palace, where they followed the blood on the marble floors to the emperor’s study. The tsar’s wounds were horrific: his right leg was torn off, his stomach was ripped open, his face covered in blood. “His face was25 deadly pale,” Nicholas remembered years later. “There were small wounds all over it. My father led me up to the bed. ‘Papa’ he said, raising his voice, ‘your sunshine is here.’” In front of his grandson and family, the tsar bled to death.

Alexander II’s death meant the end of Russia’s experiment with liberalization. His son, now Tsar Alexander III, tore up the new constitution and resolved to restore the autocracy. To ensure that no one misunderstood his intentions his first proclamation announced, “We shall preside26serenely over the destinies of Our Empire, which henceforward will be discussed between God and Ourself alone.” The government bestowed on itself special powers to suspend the rule of law whenever and wherever it felt threatened—a state of affairs that continued until 1917. Alexander brought in a slew of “counter reforms,” including severe press censorship, legislation to ban the employment of those regarded as politically suspect, the abolition of the autonomy of universities, and the harsh exclusion of those from non-noble or non-professional backgrounds from grammar schools and universities—so as to close down the social mobility that Alexander II’s reforms had allowed. In the name of quelling “rural disturbances,” the power of the new zemstvos, which had proved such a force for progress, was overridden by new government enforcers, “Land Captains,” who could impose punishments without trial and set aside court decisions at will.

Beyond the Russias, Alexander brutally extended his father’s not especially enlightened policy of Russification, from Poland and Finland to Muslim Transcaucasus. Local languages were outlawed; non-Orthodox believers such as Catholics, Muslims and Protestants were discriminated against; Jews, whom Alexander literally regarded as “Christ-killers,”27 were viciously persecuted: excluded from education, expelled from their homes and subjected to brutal, often police-initiated, pogroms. As a result, the 1880s saw the first wave of Jewish mass emigration from Russia, and created the perfect breeding ground for a generation of furious, disaffected revolutionaries. By the 1890s the disenfranchisement of peasant communities had created intense resentment, and the Russification policies helped a series of equally furious separatist movements to take root across the empire. Nor was Alexander able to put the genie back in the bottle, however much he wanted to: Russia was—slowly and painfully—changing.

At the time, however, Alexander was perceived in Russia as a great success: a big strong man to keep the empire safe. The 1880s were a time of confidence in Russia. It seemed, one of his nephews wrote, as if Russia had recaptured a “new proud,28 ‘imperial spirit.’” The literate classes largely accepted Alexander’s new repressive laws as the price of security. His swiftness in hunting down and hanging his father’s killers appeared to have utterly crushed the nascent revolutionary movement. Those who worked for him were impressed by his toughness and lack of self-doubt. Even clever, sophisticated men like his minister of finance, Serge Witte, who recognized the tsar was no genius and that his views were simplistic, praised his “noble outstanding29 personality.” He even managed at times to look progressive. He supported Witte’s plans for Russia’s industrialization, though the way capital was raised—through the exportation of grain levied from subsistence peasant farmers who needed it to feed themselves—would contribute to an appalling famine in the early 1890s. And he kept Russia out of expensive foreign wars. Not that Alexander felt any special warmth for anywhere abroad—quite the opposite in fact. “We have just two30 allies in this world … our armies and our navy. Everybody else will turn on us on a second’s notice.” He was inveterately xenophobic—even of the new Germany, led by Russia’s traditional ally, Prussia.

The two countries shared not only a long frontier but complex dynastic, cultural and historical links. Like the British royals, the Russian tsars had found the German kingdoms a handy source of wives—so much so that both the British and Russian royal houses were more German than anything else. There had been so much intermarriage with Germans that three of the junior branches of the Romanov family were naturalized German families: the Oldenburgs, the Leuchtenbergs and the Mecklenburg-Strelitzes. And for generations, in the absence of its own indigenous professional class, the Russian government had welcomed large numbers of clever, ambitious Germans into senior government office, to such an extent that a large proportion of senior Russian statesmen was German by descent. The relationship had always had a delicate balance. Until unification, the German states had always been the junior partner, even if culturally and intellectually they were far ahead. For educated Russians, Germany was the centre of culture: the home of Goethe, Schiller, Kant, Bach, Mozart, “German symphonism,” and more recently Nietzsche and even Marx. Russian audiences had embraced them all. It was Russia’s might, however, which had bulldozed Napoleon out of Germany.

Yet there had long been fault-lines in the relationship, and many Russians resented Germany’s cultural and intellectual dominance. Many Germans in turn distrusted the colossus which loomed on their eastern frontier. Germany’s rise onto the world stage and its implicit assertion that it was Russia’s equal, not junior, created a host of new strains and suspicions. In 1878, at the Congress of Berlin, Russia had been deprived of most of the spoils it had just won in the Russo-Turkish War, giving rise to a—not unjustifiable—feeling in St. Petersburg that Chancellor Bismarck was not quite the devoted ally he claimed to be. It was true: while Bismarck wanted to keep Russia sweet, he was not prepared to give unqualified support to its interests. He had also decided that he needed to be on good terms with Austria-Hungary—for which Russians of all classes felt a growing antipathy as both countries competed for influence in the Balkans. It was becoming increasingly and discomfortingly clear as well that Russia had become vulnerable to German financial muscle. Germany had become the Russian government’s main source of borrowed money, and it was the chief market for Russian wheat. If Bismarck closed the money markets or raised grain tariffs—as he would in the late 1880s—Russia was in trouble. It was galling to realize that Russia had nothing like the same purchase on the German economy.

Xenophobia was widespread across Europe, but it was particularly virulent in the Russian educated classes. Instinctive hostility towards other nations was inculcated, according to Nicky’s cousin Sandro, by the Orthodox Church “and the monstrous31 doctrine of official patriotism”: his class hated “Poles, Swedes, Germans, British and French,” while reserving special hatred for Jews, “the monstrous doctrine.” From the 1880s, moreover, rising nationalism and expansionist ambitions were being channelled into the notion of Pan-Slavism, and pointed at Germany as a dangerous potential rival to their ambitions in central Europe. Pan-Slavism had begun as a romantic, philosophical exceptionalism, a belief that Russian spirituality, the “all-uniting Russian soul,” had a unique ability and a special mission to heal “the anguish of Europe.” It had quickly turned into a chauvinistic justification of the Russian “mission” to dominate the Balkans, accompanied by the view that it was inevitable that the Teutons and the Slavs32 would eventually duke it out.

Nowhere was the complexity of the Russian-German relationship as vividly illustrated as in the new tsar’s family. His mother was Willy’s great-aunt; his grandmother was a princess from Hesse-Darmstadt. He was well aware how much Russia needed Germany. But his own Slavophilia made him bridle at German influence in Russia, and his wife bore Germany and the “Prussian barbarians,”33 as she called them, a virulent dislike quite as strong as her sister’s. Though she never directly interfered in politics, the German Foreign Office saw her as a worryingly anti-German influence.

Alexander’s accession pushed the imperial family further into retreat. The new tsar used his father’s assassination to justify his desire to move permanently out of St. Petersburg to the country, to Gatchina, 25 miles southwest of the city. Minny hated the palace’s vast echoing dreariness. “Cold, disgusting34 and full of workmen,” she described it to her mother. “This uninhabited, big empty castle in the middle of winter cost me many tears, hidden tears, for Sasha is happy to leave the city.” A new cordon of soldiers and secret police surrounded it. The children disliked the secret police, who followed them even on their walks in the grounds. Nicky, who would be irked by them his whole life, called them “naturalists”35 because they were always jumping out from behind trees. Visits to St. Petersburg became rare. The increasing isolation was not necessarily unwelcome, however. The children had become anxious in the aftermath of their grandfather’s death. Since then Nicky’s cousin Sandro heard “an explosion in36 every suspicious sound.”

It was no wonder that even the tsar described the family’s almost yearly summer visits to Denmark, to the Danish king and queen’s informal royal house parties, as like being freed from “prison.”37 In Denmark the imperial family felt “at glorious liberty” as they never did at home. They spent months there. “I shall never forget the thrill of walking down a street for the first time … It was more than fun! It was an education!”38 Olga remembered. Nicholas and his siblings found themselves in the unusual situation of being surrounded by other children who were of the same status as they were. The Romanov children regularly met their English cousins in Denmark. There is a group photograph taken at Amalienborg Palace in Copenhagen dated 1869, with George, aged four, sitting next to a one-year-old Nicky in a pram. The families met again the following year during the Franco-Prussian War, and again when five-year-old Nicky came to London with his parents in 1873 and stayed at Marlborough House. It was a relationship encouraged by Alexandra and Minny. “I fear that your39 sweet little Nicky has forgotten me,” Alexandra wrote when Nicky was eight, “which would make me sad as I love that angelic child.” There was a gaggle of families: the Danish cousins; the Cumberlands—the heir to the throne of Hanover, which had been dissolved by Prussia after the 1866 war, and his wife, Thyra, Minny and Alexandra’s younger sister; and the children of their brother George of the Hellenes, recently elected King of Greece, and his Russian wife, Olga, who was the tsar’s favourite cousin. The Russian, Greek and British cousins—each of whom had their own Georgie (“Greek Georgie” was particularly boisterous)—formed a club. The lingua franca appears to have been English—the British cousins were notably bad at languages and everyone else was fluent. The tsar would take the children off to catch tadpoles or steal apples; he let them ride on his knee and tug his beard; to all the children’s delight, he once turned a hose on the King of Sweden, “whom we all disliked.”40 George, so intimidated by his own grandmother, referred to the famously terrifying Alexander as “dear old Fatty”41 or “dearest uncle Sasha.”

Nicky and Georgie became, according to Olga, “close friends.” Georgie teased his girl cousins, reducing Olga to giggles in inappropriate places by quietly invoking an old joke to “come and roll with me on the Ottoman,”42 and calling Xenia “Owl.” The boys had much in common: both loved the outdoors; both were shy, young for their age and most comfortable at home with their families; both had a predilection for “romps” and practical jokes; both had possessive mothers (whom they both addressed in English as “Motherdear”43) and powerful fathers. They also looked eerily alike: the Danish servants were forever confusing them. In Denmark in 1883, when George was off at sea and he was fifteen, Nicky conceived his first crush on Toria, George’s favourite younger sister. “I am in love44 with Victoria and she seems to be with me,” he wrote in his diary. “… In the evening I tried to be alone with her and kiss her. She is so lovely.”

Despite their similarities the two boys were on opposite sides of a bitter international rivalry. It wasn’t too much to say that Russia and Britain were arch-enemies: both ideological opposites and imperial rivals. It was the imperial clashes that gave the ideological conflict bite—otherwise they would simply have been two countries on either side of Europe each minding its own business. But from the late 1870s, Britain and Russia, along with the other Western Great Powers, had launched themselves into a violent phase of territorial acquisition, carving up the globe beyond Europe into colonies and “spheres of influence.” There are many complex and conflicting arguments as to why the (mostly) Western, (relatively) developed powers all decided they needed an empire: the natural evolution of global power politics made it inevitable that the few rich, militarily superior, technologically developed powers would dominate and exploit the other, more “backward,” weak territories; the need of the industrialized nations for raw materials, and for new places to put their capital; a sense of fierce competition among the Great Powers and a perception that new territories were the way to steal a march on their competitors. All these aspects played their role. The colonizers believed that colonies provided opportunities for wealth and new markets—Britain’s empire, the exemplar, had made it the most influential and wealthy country in the world and allowed it to punch way beyond its own weight. As the biggest imperial power indeed, it saw itself as the world’s imperial policeman, a disinterested regulator of the world’s affairs by virtue of its utilitarian need to maintain the status quo and peace for free trade—a claim which had some truth but which the other Great Powers resented. The frantic new phase of territory-grabbing got into gear after 1882, the year of Britain’s quiet takeover of Egypt, which convinced the European powers—including three new would-be colony-hunters, Belgium and the newly unified Italy and Germany—that if they didn’t get in first, Britain would grab the whole of Africa. The so-called scramble for Africa revivified the old Anglo-French antipathy, as France tried to prevent Britain from establishing itself too comfortably in Egypt, and gave rise to a new reason for new colonies—that they might not necessarily contribute wealth, but that simply by existing they provided status, and proved the greatness of the Great Powers. For Britain, the arrival of more imperial competitors stimulated a fear that its dominance, its territories and its routes to its furthest-flung colonies might be threatened. The scene was set, as one empire competed with another, for an endless stream of nasty little regional conflicts.

In many respects Russia’s empire was different. It was one continuous outstretching land mass which had already in previous decades absorbed the Crimea, much of Poland, Finland, the central Asian territory bordering Mongolia and all of Siberia to the Pacific. Expansion had never been primarily about trade or markets but more about myths of conquest: that Russia had a God-ordained destiny to take up the legacy of the Byzantine empire and to dominate the Balkans and Asia, even to the Indian Ocean. The new imperial fever, however, gripped just as strongly as anywhere else. For the Russian elite, imperial expansion was an all-too-welcome distraction from Russia’s impossible internal problems and the need for domestic reforms. It subscribed to a simplistic equation which papered over a multitude of cracks: since empires kept countries great, why should not Russia keep itself in the first rank through territorial expansion? After all, the one thing it had plenty of was soldiers. The British imperial juggernaut, meanwhile, now had territory and interests in Asia, and the two countries found themselves constantly in conflict. “It is an axiom45 of Russian policy,” a seasoned British Russia-watcher wrote, “that the constant, most persistent and most effective opponent of Russian expansion is England.” One flashpoint was Constantinople and the Bosphorus. The Russians believed they had a God-given mission to take Constantinople for Christendom—and they wanted to secure the narrow channel of the Bosphorus, sometimes called the Turkish Straits, which joined the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. This was the route by which most of Russia’s grain travelled out of the country, and the exit for Russia’s southern fleet, which by the 1878 Treaty of Berlin was bottled up in the Black Sea.

The British believed Russia couldn’t be allowed to take Constantinople, firstly because it would threaten the security of their vital overland route to India; secondly because Russia’s presence in Turkey would destabilize the balance of power in eastern Europe and the Balkans to which the British were wedded; and thirdly because it would give Russia an advantage in next-door Persia. The two countries were competing for control there too: Russia because it was on its border, Britain because the land route to India lay through it, and because of the reserves of oil that were thought to lie hidden beneath it. The clash with Russia had led to Britain’s propping up of the crumbling Ottoman empire and its involvement in the Crimean War during the 1850s, which had sparked frenzied public antipathy between the two countries. In the Russo-Turkish War of the mid-1870s, Britain had not taken part, but British public opinion had angrily demanded intervention and that, as a song of the time went, the Russians “shall not have Constantinople.” Many Russians in turn believed that Britain had secretly backed and helped the Turks. The other flashpoint was ever-ungovernable Afghanistan, sandwiched between British India’s north-west frontier and Russian-controlled Turkestan. The idea that Russia was just waiting to invade India was a great bogey of British foreign affairs, even though the logistics of invading India—simply of getting over the Himalayas—made this virtually impossible. Russia, however, was relentlessly pushing forward its frontiers in central Asia, and the British periodically became obsessed with “securing” Afghanistan, and cast their eyes greedily towards Tibet. Each side was convinced that the other had no business there.

Imperial conflicts gave teeth to ideological divisions: to the British, Russia was the incarnation of tyranny. British opinion regarded itself as especially well informed on this subject, as it was in Britain—with its relaxed censorship laws—that writers such as Alexander Herzen and Tolstoy had published their indictments of the Russian system. The Russian government was infuriated by what it saw as Britain’s smug hypocrisy, which allowed it to harbour political enemies of the Russian state in the name of freedom, and to extend itself aggressively across the globe in any way it could, shamelessly exploiting the natives, while claiming it was on a mission to bring the benefits of civilization to the world. It was true that the British imperial justification somehow typically managed to mix two opposite arguments: a belief that the empire had philanthropically taken up the “white man’s burden” to civilize and improve the lot of inferior races (it was a given that subject races were inferior, though it was also understood that it was not done in polite society to talk too explicitly about this); and a conviction that stronger nations would inevitably dominate weaker ones. Though it was also rarely said in public, the British considered that most other empires treated their natives abominably. Sometimes they were right, as Anton Chekhov recognized. Having seen both British-occupied Egypt and Russian exploitation in the Crimea, where the native Tartar population had been systematically impoverished and had their land confiscated, he wrote in 1890, “Yes, thought I,46 the Englishman exploits the Chinese, sepoys, Hindus, but then he gives them roads, acqueducts, museums, Christianity; you too exploit, but what do you give?”

Among the two ruling dynasties the conflict had become personal. It was just as well that King Christian banned the discussion of politics at Fredensborg,* as Alexander’s Anglophobia was practically written into his DNA. Queen Victoria loathed Russia. “Those detestable48 Russians,” she’d complain, “they will always hate us and we can never trust them.” Over the years she denounced the Russian government as “wicked, villainous49 and atrocious,” the tsar as “full of hate … and tyranny,” and the people as “horrible, deceitful, cruel.” During the Russo-Turkish War she tried so hard to bully Disraeli into intervening that one politician’s wife observed that she had “lost control of herself, badgers her Ministers and pushes them towards war.”50 Alexander III detested her right back: “He said she was a pampered, sentimental, selfish old woman,” as well as “nasty” and “interfering.”51 Visiting German52 diplomats knew that the best way to put the tsar in a good humour was to tell damaging stories about the British royal family, especially the queen.

Minny and Alexandra, however, were determined that personal relations should be more than civil. To that end, in 1874 they had promoted the marriage of Bertie’s younger brother Affie to Alexander’s only sister, Marie, a union the queen had yielded to with bad grace.* Their husbands acquiesced, Bertie partly out of loyalty to Alexandra, partly one suspects because it was in his nature to try to get on with people and make them like him; Alexander because the relaxed freedom of Fredensborg was important to him. Both also believed in the idea of the brotherhood of royalty; Bertie thought of being royal as his “profession;” Alexander liked to talk about the “monarchical principle,” the idea that royalty was linked by supra-national bonds—a philosophy contradicted by everything else he believed. According to his daughter, he respected Bertie but didn’t really like him. On the other hand, Bertie’s much publicized differences with his mother—gleefully covered by the European press—definitely made the Russians warm to him. The Romanovs decided to make a careful distinction between friendliness with the British royals and antipathy to Britain. It must have been a difficult line to hold. “I loved uncle Bertie and George and so many others,” Olga told an interviewer decades later, “and they have done so much for me. But, of course, it has never been possible to discuss with them the utterly vile politics of successive British parliaments. They were nearly all anti-Russian—and so often without the least cause. So much of British policy is wholly contrary to their own tradition of fair play.” For Olga, her father’s ambivalence was translated into an uncertainty about the British royal family’s smell, which for her teetered somewhere between an evocative wintry garden scent and acrid damp mouldiness: “English royalty smelled of fog and smoke … we ourselves smelled of well-polished leather.”54

The fragility of the relationship between the two families was exposed whenever international relations became strained. In 1884–85, a crisis in Afghanistan seemed about to erupt into fully fledged armed conflict. “I can hardly see how we can avoid going to war with Russia now,” Bertie wrote to the British prime minister, William Gladstone, in the spring of 1885 at the height of the crisis. He told his mother that Russian “promises and assurances … are of no value whatsoever.”55 In fact, neither side wanted war and Britain and Russia eventually began negotiations that—to everyone’s surprise—produced a genuine resolution of boundary disagreements. Bertie met Alexander at Fredensborg that autumn, and reported to George that the visit had been “very quiet.” (Nicholas and Toria’s romance had cooled into friendship.) There were, however, other, equally bitter sources of dynastic conflict, namely Bulgaria, which to Alexander’s fury had proclaimed independence from Russia, under the leadership of Sandro of Battenberg, the German princeling the Russians had themselves installed. The Russians believed the newly independent Balkan states—many of which, like Bulgaria, had been liberated from the Ottoman empire with Russian blood and money—ought happily to acquiesce to Russian dominance. When he heard that Vicky, Wilhelm’s mother, wanted to marry her daughter Moretta to Sandro of Battenberg, Alexander couldn’t quell his suspicions that it was all a plot to build Anglo-German influence in the Balkans. The thought maddened him. In mid-1886 the Russians abducted Battenberg and forced him at gunpoint to abdicate. Bertie and Alexandra did not appear at Fredensborg that year. The couples met up, however, in the summer of 1887, just as Russia and Germany were falling out seriously. Bismarck’s son Herbert56 was convinced Bertie and Alexandra had used the visit to turn the tsar against Wilhelm with stories of his unfilial behaviour. It’s possible that57 the tsar and the Prince of Wales bonded that summer over shared suspicions and stories about the young kaiser-to-be.

In 1885, when Nicky was seventeen, a series of eminent ministers and academics was summoned to Gatchina to lecture the tsarevitch on international law, chemistry, military science and finance. It was a two-year mini-apprenticeship in government—a belated acknowledgement that one day he would actually be in charge of the whole Russian empire. How much benefit Nicky really derived from it was questionable. One of his lecturers, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, later said that when he tried to explain the workings of the tsarist state to Nicky, “I could only58 observe that he was completely absorbed in picking his nose.” Pobedonostsev was, nevertheless, an important influence in Nicky’s life. A senior Russian statesman and chief censor—the intelligentsia, who hated him, called him “The Grand Inquisitor”—he was fearsomely reactionary and was Nicholas’s father’s chief political mentor. He had come to believe that only autocracy in its most repressive form could “save” Russia and that Alexander II’s reforms had been a disaster. The masses, he said, were weak, childish and gullible; everything must be done to prevent the invasion of Western ideas such as freedom of the press and representative government. Russia must effectively stagnate, in order to keep the Romanovs in power. Many people believed Pobedonostsev was the moving force behind the domestic repressions of the 1880s.

His influence over Nicky, however, was predicated on his closeness to Nicky’s father’s views. The most forceful and pervasive influence in Nicky’s life was Alexander III, as one courtier wrote, “whom he venerated59 and whose example he followed assiduously even in small details of his everyday life.” But Alexander was six foot one and immune to doubt, and Nicholas, five foot five or six, was a far gentler, probably more intelligent, certainly more accomplished, person. In the claustrophobic, patriarchal atmosphere of his parents’ household, however, there had been little space to develop any independence of mind or much confidence in his own judgement. Nicky’s future sister-in-law, Victoria of Hesse-Darmstadt, would observe perceptively that Alexander’s “dominating personality60 had stunted any gifts of initiative in Nicky.”

Pierre Gilliard, who thirty years later would tutor Nicky’s son Alexis in similar circumstances, came to believe that raising a child in such an isolated environment was a recipe for disaster. Such a child, he concluded, was Nicky finally left Gatchina Palace and his family in the summer of 1887, just as he turned nineteen and in London Queen Victoria was celebrating her Golden Jubilee. Like Wilhelm, he joined the army, an elite guards regiment, the legendary Preobrazhensky Guards. “I miss you terribly,62 my dear Nicky,” his mother wrote. She also reminded him to be “polite and courteous,” to get along with everyone, but not allow “too much familiarity or intimacy.” “One has to be63 cautious with everybody from the start,” Nicky agreed, but he was very taken with his new life. “I am now happier than I can say to have joined the army and every day I become more and more used to camp life.” There was drilling and target practice, and then afternoons and evenings of cards, billiards and skittles. What could be nicer?

deprived of61 something which plays a vital part in the formation of judgment. He is deprived of the knowledge which is acquired out of the schoolroom, knowledge such as comes from life itself, unhampered contact with other children, the diverse and sometimes conflicting influences of environment, direct observation and the simple experience of men and affairs—in a word, everything which in the course of years develops the critical faculty and a sense of reality. Under such circumstances an individual must be endowed with exceptional gifts to be able to see things as they are, think clearly, and desire the right things. He is cut off from life. He cannot imagine what is going on behind the wall on which false pictures are painted for his amusement or distraction.

* Bismarck nevertheless liked to claim that it was a hotbed of anti-Prussianism and called it “The Whispering Gallery.”47 What was true was that the house parties had their share of the Danish queen’s disgruntled German relatives muttering about upstart Prussians.

* The marriage was not a success. Affie was a bully and a drunk who talked incessantly about himself and inflicted appalling violin recitals on everyone, and Marie hated England. The queen, with characteristic perversity, decided she liked her Russian daughter-in-law: “I have formed53 a high opinion of her … Everyone must like her, but alas! No one likes him! I fear that will never get better!”

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