Nicholas loved the army. As in Germany, the officers’ messes of the grandest guards regiments were gathering places for the sons of the grandest Russian families—“a jolly crowd1 of healthy young men discussing horses, ballerinas and the latest French songs,” as Nicholas’s cousin Sandro put it. Some of Nicholas’s days were full of drill. Plenty more were filled with late-morning lie-ins,2 skating with fellow guards officers, lunch with grand duke uncles and English afternoon tea with grand duchess aunts. During the season the nights were crowded with receptions, balls and trips to the ballet. Back at barracks, dinner involved getting fabulously drunk on champagne and port, then rushing out into the snow, stripping naked and howling like wolves. In 1891 Nicholas even acquired that obligatory aristocratic accoutrement, a ballerina mistress—with a great deal of prodding from his father, who set him up at the Imperial Ballet School’s graduation ball with a young dancer called Mathilde Kschessinska. Until its reinvention fifteen years later by Diaghilev, the ballet was regarded by the rest of St. Petersburg as old-fashioned, its main function to please the court and provide grand-ducal mistresses. The girls were both from respectable backgrounds and thrillingly demimondaine; they were also clean, as their health was constantly monitored, which was important in a city where over half the small ads in the newspapers were cures for VD.3Giggling and flirtatious, the tiny Kschessinska—at four foot eleven nearly six inches smaller than Nicholas—played the charming, breathlessingénue. She was actually a pragmatic and unsentimental adventuress determined to grab her opportunities. It took her nearly two years of—highly decorous—near-stalking to persuade the extraordinarily diffident Nicholas to install her as his mistress. It was a further six months before the affair was actually consummated.*
Nicholas also had a passion for uniforms and correct dress. He possessed the kit of every regiment in the empire down to the last inch of gold braid, and was starting to collect honorary ranks from foreign regiments. He also had several Russian “peasant” outfits, which like his father he liked to wear from time to time—trousers and a bright red blouse made out of silk no Russian peasant could have afforded. He thought of himself as frugal—just like his father, he had holes darned, collars and cuffs replaced—but the uniforms and outfits had cost millions of roubles. The appetite for uniforms and their tiniest details had become a mania ubiquitous at all the European courts. Wilhelm’s passion was worse than Nicholas’s. Even his entourage, the sine qua non of court conservatism, regarded him as “obsessed4 by this question of clothes and externals,” and he was constantly redesigning regimental and court uniforms, the helmets becoming increasingly Wagnerian, the plumes taller, the sashes thicker and shinier. Uniform was a reminder of royalty and the aristocracy’s control of the military, but it was also a marker of their superiority to the lower classes—black tail coats, one Russian grande dame observed, failed to “differentiate a5 gentleman from his lackey.” In Berlin, one writer noted, “Uniforms, no6 longer the livery of duty, were worn like feathers, to strut the owner and attract the eligible.”
Though England’s upper classes didn’t share the continental obsession with uniform, Edward and George were quite as obsessed with clothes as their European relations. Edward had led gentlemen’s fashion since the 1860s, despite his increasing girth, and though he looked dreadful in a uniform, he was the epitome of the English gentleman style and even had a tweed check named after him. He harboured what even those who liked him described as a childlike obsession with decorations and “buttons.” An incorrectly worn medal, an ill-matching pair of trousers and waistcoat, would send him into paroxysms of irritation, moments when trivia won out over significance. “It is very interesting7 Sir Henry,” he once interrupted a minister reporting on the latest exploits of the Amir of Afghanistan, “but you should never wear a coloured tie with a frock coat.” Lord Salisbury, who was famous for his extreme shabbiness, induced hysterics. Salisbury, who wielded real power and had no interest in clothes, regarded Edward as a fool. George was equally obsessed—the Royal Navy’s addiction to appearances merely compounded the tendency. He would never lead fashion, in fact he’d cleave stubbornly to the past. But like his father he was never less than perfectly attired, a white gardenia in his buttonhole. As king, he would send furious little notes to the prime minister of the day whenever a minister wore the wrong frock coat to the House of Commons.
The intricacies of dress were an expression of the pointless arbitrariness and the leisurely emptiness of court life, which had been invented in the eighteenth century by absolutist monarchs to keep control over their most senior subjects. Ironically, it had been embraced by those subjects as a manifestation of their exclusivity and their freedom from having to do anything useful—the more arbitrary and pointless the rules, the more complicated and peacock-like the uniforms, the more differentiated they were from the common herd. Now, by the 1890s, the courts had become disengaged in all senses from the rest of society, and their labyrinthine pointlessness and the elaboration of their uniforms seemed to have grown in inverse proportion. In Russia, as one historian noted, “The absence of public8 initiative … was attested all too vividly by the prevalence of uniforms.” At the Russian court every official had four uniforms, adorned with peacock and ostrich feathers, gold embroidered oak leaves and eagles, scarlet cuffs and braid—the more gold, measured to an inch, the higher the status.
The obsession with appearances extended further than uniforms into an insistence on certain rules and conformity of behaviour and had more sinister consequences than mere pointlessness and triviality. It almost guaranteed that a kind of hypocrisy became encrusted in the culture of court and the upper classes. In Germany, the dominance of and cultural fascination with the army pressed upon the Berlin court and predominant class a caricature hyper-masculinity In England the aristocracy’s insistence that they lead society by virtue of their virtue meant that they believed they must appear above reproach in everything. Too much was expected, too much forbidden. The conflict could be seen in Wilhelm himself: the imperative to be manly and soldierly all the time had turned him into a caricature and forced him to take refuge in periodic breakdowns. Among Edward’s aristocratic set public exposure was the ultimate sanction, but one could do almost anything society in the wider sense condemned—have mistresses, gamble, take an unseemly interest in livestock or small boys—as long as one wasn’t discovered or didn’t open up that world to scrutiny, for example by leaving one’s spouse. It was the price the ruling class found itself increasingly paying for laying claim to social seniority and power on the basis of seemingly pristine morality and perfect appearances. Aristocracies had perhaps always lived by appearances, but with a public increasingly self-aware and demanding, and a press increasingly powerful, when the rest of the world got a handle on scandal behind the court’s closed doors, the effects could be devastating; while those who kept irreproachably to the rules would too often be forced to live lives of desiccated self-denial.
Over 1890 and 1891, Nicholas was sent on a ten-month Grand Tour of Asia, from the Near East to the eastern edge of Siberia—the first Romanov heir ever to go so far east. As a child he had received dispatches from the Russian explorer Przhevalsky in Mongolia full of assurances that the people of Central Asia were simply longing to be subjects of the tsar, and he was excited by the idea of Russia’s imperial “mission” to rule Asia. Accompanying him was Prince Ukhtomsky, an Anglophobic Asia expert, who told him that the Eurasian steppe was Russia’s historic homeland, and expansion wasn’t so much conquering as coming home. But the trip also pointed up the irritating ubiquity of the British empire, taking in Egypt and India, where Nicholas shot tigers and complained sulkily of “the unbearableness9 of being surrounded once again by the English and of seeing their Red Coats everywhere.” Back in Russia, he began to receive government papers and attend occasional government council meetings. The experience utterly bored him. “I am simply10 unable to understand how one can possibly read this mass of papers in one week,” he wrote after he received the weekly delivery of government files in 1891. “I always restrict myself to one or two more interesting files while others go directly into the fire.” His father did not encourage him to feel otherwise. “He would not even have11 Nicky sit in the Council of State until 1893,” Olga recalled. “… My father disliked the mere idea of state matters encroaching on our family life.” When Sergei Witte, the tsar’s finance minister, suggested that twenty-three-year-old Nicholas should be given more responsibility in state affairs, Alexander snapped, “He’s nothing more12than a child. His judgment is infantile. How could he be president of a committee?” In truth, there was something immature and unformed about the young tsarevitch. Even in family photographs his as-yet-unbearded face was hard to pick out; it seemed yielding and distinctly unassertive.
It would have been a good time to take an interest in politics. Beyond Nicholas’s little world, a terrible famine was taking hold in the most fertile regions of European central Russia. By the end of 1892 it would leave half a million people dead, and many more helplessly impoverished. Their plight was made worse by the government’s gross incompetence. It initially denied the famine and forbade private relief efforts, then failed to provide adequate help itself. When the government finally and unprecedentedly called on the public, there was a massive wave of voluntary activity which put it to shame. In its wake came a chorus of criticism, which grew even louder when the government tried to demonize Leo Tolstoy, who had spent two years organizing aid for the famine and volubly criticizing the government. Nicholas, given a seat on the government’s ineffectual Special Committee on Famine Relief, was all but oblivious to this. Wilhelm, still smarting from the tsar’s rejection, wasn’t. He wrote to Queen Victoria with a certain schadenfreude: “A great financial13 catastrophe is looming in the background, and the throng of famished peasants is growing daily … I think this fearful calamity will—with Gods [sic] help—for sometime to come keep the Russians from making war upon their unsuspecting neighbours.”
On the other side of the world, George was an officer with the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean fleet. In many respects this was the naval equivalent of a European guards regiment: little chance of warfare, lots of parties, lots of sport, in a sequence of Mediterranean cities—Barcelona, Athens, Salonica. His time was constrained only by his parents’ constant fussing that he would be corrupted by the dissipations of Malta, where his uncle Affie, an enthusiastic drinker, held court as commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean fleet. Edward asked old naval contacts to keep George busy on exercises, and both parents were very relieved when George was sent to the North Atlantic to be captain of a small gunboat, shuttling up and down the Canadian coast. The extent of his Maltese “dissipations” had actually been markedly limited. He smoked a bit, drank abstemiously, spent his free time playing cricket and billiards and managed to kiss his cousin Missy—Affie’s lively, pretty daughter, ten years his junior, with whom he was at least a little in love—once. Unlike his cousins, he had been properly trained and his promotions were not honorary ones. He still had no love for the navy though, seasickness dogged him, he missed home and found it hard to make friends.
Both young men would be marked by their military experience. Nicholas admired what he saw as the straightforwardness and patriotism of the army, and felt comfortable among the privileged young officers as he would in few places beyond his own immediate family. As emperor he would show a marked preference for the company and—not always appropriate—counsel of aristocratic men from army backgrounds. As for George, in the navy he learned a devotion to strict routine, what his son later called “an almost fanatical sense of punctuality,” an intense suspicion of complication or anything not straightforward, a belief in hierarchy and the need for obedience, and a sense of his own Britishness in contrast to the cosmopolitan roots of the royal family. “He believed in God, in the invincibility of the Royal Navy, and the essential rightness of whatever was British.”14 British naval officers, as one historian of the British empire has observed, “were often fearfully15 ignorant of the world and only interested in their beloved navy.” The Royal Navy was not the place for George to have his eyes opened—nor was it meant to be. The forces encircling both young men did not want them to see too far beyond the lives planned for them. The point of Nicholas’s Grand Tour of Asia was the opposite of his ancestor Peter the Great’s mind-broadening European travels—to emphasize the might and right of Russia’s empire, and that its future lay in the domination of Asia.
In June 1891 George came home on leave to shoot, to see his brother Eddy, now a major in the 10th Royal Hussars, a cavalry regiment known traditionally as the Prince of Wales’s Own, and to attend his father’s fiftieth birthday. Eddy, a rather dilatory officer in Ireland, was a sweet-natured and likeable, if superficial, boy who loved clothes—even his father called him “collar and cuffs”—and fell in love a little too easily. He’d had crushes on a series of unsuitable princesses and society girls.* The two returned to Sandringham for their father’s birthday in November, an occasion from which their mother was pointedly absent. She was furious at Edward’s simultaneous involvement in two high-profile scandals. The so-called Baccarat scandal had put him humiliatingly in the witness box in a public trial for libel, and had led to hysterical denunciations of his gambling habits in the British popular press, especially when it was discovered the prince had his own set of chips with the royal insignia on them. (As the London correspondent of the New York Herald commented, you’d have thought the prince had “broken all the Ten16 Commandments at once and murdered the Archbishop of Canterbury.”) The other, marginally more private scandal concerned his former friend Lord Charles Beresford’s threat to make public Edward’s two-year affair with the beautiful and high-maintenance Frances Brooke, Countess of Warwick—a former mistress of Beresford’s. Alexandra, livid at her husband’s behaviour, had refused to come home from a holiday in Denmark and had taken their three daughters to stay with the tsar and tsarina in the Crimea.
A couple of days after Edward’s celebrations, George contracted typhoid. Alexandra rushed back from the Crimea—the journey took a week—and the family prepared for the worst. The illness had killed Prince Albert, and had nearly done for Edward in 1872. But George survived. By the end of December he was well enough to go to Sandringham for New Year’s. Then in the second week of January, Eddy, who’d got engaged only seven weeks before, came down with influenza. It turned into pneumonia and he was dead within the week. The children of the rich were almost as vulnerable to the killer diseases of the late nineteenth century as the poor. George had lost a brother at birth; Wilhelm two, both much younger than he: Sigismund, aged two, and Waldemar, aged fifteen. Nicholas had lost a brother in infancy, just the year before his younger brother George had been diagnosed with TB during their Grand Tour. Sent to live in the Caucasus for his health, George would die in 1899 of a coughing fit while out cycling. Small wonder that educated Victorians, so aware of the advances they had made in taming the world and bending it to their will, were obsessed by the power and pathos of death. “The only one17 who can possibly comfort is the Lord who is above us all and whose ways we mortals are sometimes at loss to understand,” Wilhelm wrote to the queen. In his diary Nicky noted, “The poor boy18 had just got engaged. I don’t know what to think—we are all in the Lord’s hands!”
Edward and Alexandra were devastated. They left Sandringham and it was a year before they could bear to go back. Little has been written about the effect of Eddy’s death on the Prince of Wales, but it seems that—in an agonizing way—it was the event which launched him into real maturity. Later that year the queen would finally give him access to government papers and he would play a significant role in smoothing over her bad-tempered objections to the Liberal Party’s election victory that year, by persuading a politician she liked, Lord Rosebery, to take a position in the government. But George was no less struck. “No two brothers could have loved each other more than we did,” he wrote to the queen in a moment of unusual emotional openness. “Alas! It is only now that I have found out how deeply I did before; I remember with pain nearly every hard word and little quarrel I ever had with him.”19 Eddy was the person, apart from his mother, to whom George was closest, and the one who by his very existence shielded George from a role he had no desire to fill.
While the prince and princess mourned, the queen set her mind to the practical task of turning George into a suitable heir. She quickly made him Duke of York, got him promoted to the respectable rank of post-captain, before he effectively quit the navy (something that didn’t in the slightest upset him. “Hate the whole20 thing,” he wrote on his last naval exercises off the Irish coast that summer. The rough weather had made him constantly seasick. “I hope I shall never be in any other manoeuvres.”). And she determined to get him married. While posted in the Mediterranean, George had fallen21 for his glamorous, outgoing cousin Missy, one of the best-looking and richest princesses in Europe. His parents made the initial overtures, only to have them turned down by Missy’s Russian mother. It seems that Marie, who had been unhappy in England, couldn’t bear the thought of her daughter coming under the dominating thumb of Queen Victoria. She married Missy off to the dull King Ferdinand of Romania instead. The queen briskly turned to Eddy’s fiancée, Princess Victoria Mary of Teck, known as May. She had expended considerable energy in reviewing suitable princesses for Eddy and saw no reason for her efforts to go to waste. There were precedents—the tsar had married his dead brother’s bride-to-be. But George, still dazed, didn’t want to think about it and found the thought of marrying his brother’s fiancée upsetting. The queen, however, was relentless. “Have you seen22 May and have you thought more about the possibility or found out what her feelings might be?” she wrote to him two months after Eddy’s death.
May was not anyone’s first choice as bride for the second-in-line to the throne. She wasn’t beautiful, or rich, or, by most European royals’ standards, sufficiently royal. Her father was the child of a morganatic marriage, a son of the ruling house of the large German kingdom of Württemberg, but his mother had been “only” a countess. When the possibility of May marrying the kaiserin’s brother had been floated a couple of years before, Vicky had helpfully reported to her mother that Dona had described the idea as a dreadful “mésalliance!!!”23 More than this, the Tecks were slightly embarrassing. May’s father, Franz, had excellent taste, but also public temper tantrums. Her mother, Mary Adelaide, a granddaughter of George III, was amiable, selfish, loud and seventeen stone. In the family she was known as “Fat Mary,” and Edward and Alexandra couldn’t stand her. Both parents were irredeemably extravagant and had had to flee the country to escape their creditors in May’s teens when they had got themselves into terrible debt. As for May’s siblings, one brother had kicked the headmaster of Wellington school through a hedge. No doubt as a result of years of being embarrassed by her parents, twenty-four-year-old May, however, was a model of quiet, dignified, slightly remote self-control, qualities which, as her biographer wrote, maybe a little ungenerously, “made it unlikely24 that Princess May would ever inspire a violent emotion.” But the queen, who didn’t care about morganism, and had dismissed a slew of other European princesses for being variously Catholic, “ugly, unhealthy25 and idiotic,” decided she was perfect for Eddy, who she judged needed a firm, moral hand. May had other qualities too; she was far better educated than either Eddy or George, and, perhaps in the manner of a poor relation who had always felt herself slightly outside the magic glow of royalty, she was utterly fascinated by, and was delighted to be part of, the British monarchy.
No one had predicted emotional fireworks but during the seven weeks of May’s engagement to Eddy, they had got on far better than anyone would have expected. But George and May, both extremely shy, did not immediately get on and remained awkward with each other. George was not so diffident with other women. There had been no awkwardness with Missy, who called him her “Beloved Chum,”26 and in his teens he’d fallen in love with Julie Stonor, the Catholic orphaned daughter of one of his mother’s ladies-in-waiting. His mother had allowed the friendship to develop, while rather cruelly making it clear it had no future. His three German cousins—Wilhelm’s younger sisters Sophie, Margaret (Mossy) and Moretta, who had stayed close to their mother and seen more of their English cousins—knew him as good-humoured, jolly and energetic. “George is such a dear & so awfully amusing,” wrote Sophie (but then she was married to the very dim Constantine). “Dear George! pretty red lips and white teeth that are always my delight,”27 wrote Moretta. As for Mossy, Vicky had rather hoped he might marry her.
It must have been almost a relief for George to escape to Europe. His mother and he went to Copenhagen28 in May, where they met up with Nicholas and the Russian family—a meeting which seems to have renewed the young men’s friendship. They spent hours talking in each other’s rooms. In the autumn George was sent to Heidelberg, a last-ditch attempt to improve his German and to do the rounds of the German relatives. After two months he had made no discernible progress. “It certainly is29 beastly dull,” he confided to a friend, longing to return to Sandringham for the shooting, but he visited Wilhelm in Potsdam, where the kaiser—no doubt because he was now a direct heir—paid him more attention than he ever had before: “William was most kind30 and civil to me. I have never known him so nice.”
Back in England it was clear that resistance was futile. By the spring of 1893, with everyone—apart from Alexandra—urging him to marry May, George went on a last holiday with his mother. In Athens, he had a long chat with Queen Olga of Greece, who during his years in the Mediterranean had kept a motherly eye on him and called him “Tootsums.” She told him that May would make a good wife. At home, bundled into the Richmond garden of his aunt Louise, a near-neighbour of the Tecks, where May just happened to be sitting, he proposed.
The whole affair had a pragmatic, anticlimactic air. The queen’s acerbic lady-in-waiting Lady Geraldine Somerset described the bride-to-be as “abundantly satisfied,31 but placid and cold as always,” and George as “apparently nonchalant and indifferent.” “Quite pleased32 and contented,” was the queen’s laconic description of George. The poet and anti-imperialist Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, observing them at a party a month later, noted, “He is a nice-looking33 young man, but she one of the least attractive of girls, coarse-featured, with an ill-tempered mouth and a certain German vulgarity, which will be terrible at 35.” The couple were not in love and they had almost nothing in common. May was as close as the royal family got to an intellectual, with a genuine appetite for art and books. George was indifferent to both and obsessed with shooting and stamp-collecting. His mother was still the most powerful force in his life and was determined to remain so. “It is sad to34 think that we shall never be able to be together and travel in the same way,” Alexandra wrote after their Mediterranean trip. “Yet there is a bond of love between us, that of mother and child, which nothing can ever diminish or render less binding—and nobody can, or shall ever, come between me and my darling Georgie boy.” But they were both well trained in doing their duty, and for May the marriage meant deliverance from a life of probable spinsterhood and financial security for her parents.
Time would not relax their mutual and sometimes excruciating shyness. For months after the engagement they remained incapable of talking to each other with any ease, instead sending each other painfully diffident letters. “I am very sorry that I am so shy with you,” she wrote. “I tried not to be so the other day, but alas failed … It is so stupid to be so stiff together and really there is nothing I would not tell you, except that I love you more than anybody in the world, and this I cannot tell you myself so I write it to relieve my feelings.”
He replied, “Thank God we both understand each other, and I think it really unnecessary for me to tell you how deep my love for you my darling is and I feel it growing stronger and stronger every time I see you; although I may appear shy and cold.”35
• • •
In Russia, Nicholas was still a young man in need of a wife, and so far his marital hopes had been frustrated. For years his heart had been set on Alexandra—or Alix—of Hesse-Darmstadt, another of Queen Victoria’s numerous grandchildren. They’d first met in 1884 at her older sister Ella’s wedding to his uncle Grand Duke Sergei.* She was twelve, pretty and tragic—her mother had died when she was six; he was a young sixteen. After several days of “romps,”36 he wrote in his diary that they were in love. Four years later in 1889, Ella brought her sister to St. Petersburg for the season with the conscious intention of snaring the tsarevitch for her. By the end of the trip Nicky was well and truly caught. “My dream37—” he wrote in his diary two years later, in 1891, “one day to marry Alix H. I have loved her a long time, but more deeply and strongly since 1889, when she spent six weeks in Petersburg.”
Alix was the sixth child of Queen Victoria’s daughter Alice, who’d married Louis of Hesse-Darmstadt. Darmstadt was a small, picturesque German duchy, best known as a centre of the arts, and for its well-connected, if impecunious, ruling family. Alix’s great-aunt had married Tsar Alexander II—a relationship that had helped keep the duchy from being absorbed by Prussia after it backed the losing side in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. Alix’s mother had died in 1878 while nursing the family through diphtheria. Though she could be somewhat cavalier about her proliferating grandchildren, the queen had taken an intense interest in her six motherless Hessian grandchildren. She found them English governesses and tutors, from whom she demanded monthly reports. Each autumn they came to stay at Windsor and Osborne—“the best part of the year,” according to Alix. She described the queen as “a combination of a very grand person and Santa Claus”38—rather different from the near-divinity who intimidated her English grandchildren. The queen allowed the Hesse children a levity she didn’t permit many of the other grandchildren. (She patronized their father dreadfully, and when he secretly married his Russian mistress a year after Alice’s death, she browbeat him into having the marriage annulled.) Alix was noticeably her favourite. She was blonde and good-looking—at least after the fashion of the time—and Queen Victoria, who was very susceptible to beauty, described her as “the handsomest39 child I ever saw.”
Perhaps as a way of feeling closer to the mother she had lost so young and to the grandmother who favoured her, Alix insistently described herself as English rather than German, speaking and writing by preference in English. It also expressed a sense of intense alienation from her circumstances. This was in part a not unusual aristocratic resentment at the Prussian domination of Germany—Alix claimed that Hesse-Darmstadt was separated “completely from the rest of Germany, which she looked on as Prussia and as a different country.” But it was personal too. Without a mother, a father, an army aristocrat who was often away, and with siblings considerably older than she, she had had a solitary childhood and had grown up self-absorbed, prone to pessimism and deeply religious. She was also mistrustful of, and extremely uneasy with, anyone beyond her immediate circle. She described an occasion on which she had to play the piano in front of her grandmother and guests as “one of the worst ordeals of her life.”40 Even her close family found her self-dramatizingly melancholic. “There was a curious atmosphere of fatality about her,” her English cousin Mary Louise wrote. “I once said, ‘Alix, you always play at being sorrowful; one day the Almighty will send you some real crushing sorrows and then what are you going to do?’” Her aunt Vicky couldn’t resist observing that the lack of a mother had made her “a little vain and conceited and affected at times.”41 But with shy, gentle Nicholas she had let her guard down. He was fascinated by her intensity and wanted to take care of her; she responded to his gentleness, vulnerability and warmth, and also perhaps to his slight air of submissiveness.
There were, however, obstacles. Queen Victoria was implacably against her granddaughter marrying a Russian, and she was also “bent on securing42 Alicky [the British family’s name for her] for either Eddy or George.” Alix had scotched that plan by making it abundantly clear, when she was summoned for appraisal to Balmoral in the summer of 1889, that she wasn’t interested. Eddy, her older sister Ella (who was determined that Alix would marry Nicholas) said dismissively, “doesn’t look43 overstrong and is too stupid.” Eddy, for his part, developed a massive crush on her. It was a measure of how much the queen liked her that, though stung by her rejection, she decided it showed strength of character.
The second problem was that Nicholas’s parents didn’t like Alix—perhaps recognizing her tricky personality would not be an asset in a tsarina. They had refused to give him permission to propose. Ella, who was popular with her in-laws, worked hard to bring them round. The third obstacle was altogether more difficult to overcome. When Nicholas finally gained his parents’ approval in January 1893 and went to Berlin to propose to Alix at another royal wedding—that of Wilhelm’s youngest sister Mossy to “Fischy” (Frederick Charles) of Hesse-Kassel—she turned him down. She couldn’t, she said, give up her Lutheran faith and convert to Russian Orthodoxy.
Reeling from her rejection, Nicholas was cornered by Wilhelm. Since the Reinsurance Treaty had lapsed in 1890, relations between Russia and Germany had been markedly chilly. A war on import duties between the two nations had intensified to the point that German industrial heavy goods had been all but excluded from Russian markets, and Russian grain from Germany, its one-time largest market. Relations between the emperors were no better. “My father thought44 him an exhibitionist and a nuisance,” the tsar’s daughter recalled. Wilhelm complained bitterly to Queen Victoria that Alexander had snubbed and avoided him, and that he was massing troops on the German border. The two things—the snub and the threatening army—seemed equally offensive. In retaliation Wilhelm had told the German army to contact the Russian Polish separatist movement, with the apparent aim of encouraging an uprising—though nothing came of it.45 Most worryingly, however, a few months before, Russia had done the unthinkable and made a defensive alliance with republican France, sandwiching Germany between two potential enemies—a disastrous situation for Germany, one that Bismarck had spent decades working to stave off.
Nicky’s arrival in Berlin revived Wilhelm’s appetite for “personal diplomacy.” He decided to arrange a one-to-one with the tsarevitch as a first step to improving Russo-German relations. He gave Nicholas a paper in which he argued that Russia should join the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria and Italy. The tsarevitch smiled and nodded and Wilhelm was convinced he detected a pronounced aversion towards France—an indication that the French alliance might perhaps not be long-lived. “Niki [sic] made an46 excellent impression on all of us, and proved himself in every respect a charming, agreeable and dear boy,” he wrote to Queen Victoria. “… He showed sound judgment and a quiet clear mind, which understands European questions much better than most of his countrymen and family”—a little parry at the tsar. In truth, however, Nicholas was just being amenable. Politics was the last thing on his mind. Crushed by Alix’s rejection, he confided in his diary that he wanted only to go home.
Germany and Russia did end up round the negotiating table later that year, but it owed nothing to Wilhelm or Nicholas. The German chancellor, Leo Caprivi, feeling the need for a dramatic gesture to counteract the new French alliance, offered the Russian government a new trade treaty on extremely good terms. Its passage, however, enraged the government’s Junker supporters who counted on high tariffs to keep Russian imports from competing against their own more expensive grain. The treaty would play a significant role in Caprivi’s later downfall, and expose, not for the first time, the great divisions in German society.
Back in St. Petersburg, Nicholas sought comfort from Mathilde Kschessinska and finally consummated the relationship. “I am still under47 her spell—the pen keeps trembling in my hand!” he wrote in his journal.
George’s wedding was set for early July 1893. It was the biggest royal event in Britain since the 1887 Jubilee, and the first public royal wedding in decades. “I should so48 much like Nicky to come, and he has never been in England. I do hope it can be arranged,” George asked his grandmother. (In fact, Nicky had come in 1873 aged five, but all he could remember was that the Shah of Persia who had been there too had shocked everyone with his “barbaric habits.”49)* The Romanovs accepted the invitation, and Edward, who loved organizing such things, set about arranging the tsarevitch’s visit. It was a mark of the young men’s closeness (and perhaps also of how few close friends George had) that Nicholas stayed at Marlborough House, where they spent George’s final bachelor evenings chatting until late in their rooms. Lest anyone think that such informality implied casualness, Edward crammed every moment of Nicky’s visit with incident—starting with a visit from his tailor, a bootmaker and a hatter. “Uncle Bertie is in50 very good spirits and very friendly, almost too much so,” Nicky, who found his uncle overwhelming, told his mother. “… Felt rather dizzy at first.” He was made an honorary member of the Marlborough Club; taken to watch polo; shown George’s new rooms in St. James’s Palace, which he thought “looks like a jail51 from the outside;” and taken to dinner with London’s grandest society hostess, Lady Londonderry (“Our hostess52 was delightful but a terrible flirt”). He went to “Captain Boynton’s World’s Watershow” twice. He gasped at the heat and marvelled at the 1,500 wedding presents—including a cow—the couple had been sent from across the empire. Watching the riders on Rotten Row, he commented, “what a pity53 we have nothing of the kind!” He even went to the Houses of the Parliament to hear the now elderly Gladstone speak. Though he was anathema to the European Right, Gladstone was world-famous as a great orator.* “I am delighted54 with London, I never thought I should like it so much,” Nicky wrote.
What Nicholas didn’t love was that “Everyone finds55 a great resemblance between George and me, I am tired of hearing this again and again.” He may well have found the round of events—garden parties, dinners, luncheons—at which the British royal family had to show themselves off to the people and be gracious to them, an exhausting contrast to Russian court life, which actively discouraged too much interaction. The likeness, however, was powerful and it was now emphasized by Nicholas’s cultivation of a carefully trimmed Van Dyck beard just like George’s. It led, the queen wrote, “to no end of56 funny mistakes, the one being taken for the other.” At one garden party George was asked what he thought about London and Nicky was congratulated on his forthcoming wedding.
The most surprising outcome of the visit was the effect that Nicky had on Queen Victoria. Age had not dimmed her intense dislike of Russia, and the two nations were bitterly arguing over Russia’s attempts to take over the Pamirs—the mountains bordering Afghanistan and Northern India. The British foreign secretary, Lord Rosebery, had recently threatened to send troops to root out Russian soldiers there. The queen received Nicholas at Windsor, arranging that she should be at “the top of the57 staircase” for his arrival and then process down slowly, presumably to demonstrate that she could keep anyone waiting if she pleased. She remembered the tsarevitch’s great-grandfather Nicholas I for his “undiplomatic bellowing,”58 and said publicly that she did not regard the current tsar as quite a gentleman. But Nicholas wasn’t at all what she had expected. He was so polite, so unassertive, such a gentleman (keen, naturally, to win the approval of his love object’s grandmother). “‘Nicky’ as he is always called”—you can virtually hear her melting—“… is charming and wonderfully like Georgie.” Even better, “he always speaks English & almost without a fault,” and he was—and this she really approved of—“very simple and unaffected.”59 Nicholas described Victoria as “a big round ball60 on wobbly legs,” who was “remarkably kind to me … She then awarded me with the Order of the Garter which was completely unexpected.”
The wedding took place on 6 July. Nicholas wrote that May was “radiant” and “much better looking than her photograph.” She wore white satin embroidered with silver roses, shamrocks and thistles. A number of courtiers complained rather meanly among themselves about the stiff little bows she gave her acquaintances. Alexandra, Nicky noted, however, “looked rather sad in church … George and his sisters also.”61 George had written solemnly a few days before of going to church with Motherdear for “the last time alone62 with her.” While Nicholas stayed on in London, George and May went to Sandringham to spend their honeymoon in their new home, York Cottage, a few hundred yards from his parents’ mansion, answering mountains of correspondence. Three weeks later they came to Osborne for Cowes Week, and were greeted with arches garlanded with flowers, flags and 900 schoolchildren cheering from carts draped with green branches. That night May sat next to the kaiser at dinner. “Fancy me,63 little me, sitting next to William, the place of honour!!! It seemed so strange,” she wrote to her mother. Wilhelm—another family outsider—brought all his charm to bear upon her, though he had been as dismissive of her morganatic antecedents as his wife.
Now it was Nicholas’s turn to win a bride. In March the following year he found himself reluctantly in the duchy of Coburg for the wedding of Alix’s brother Ernie of Hesse-Darmstadt, to “Ducky,” younger daughter of Affie, the queen’s second son, who had recently inherited the duchy from a childless uncle, and Princess Marie of Russia. Victoria herself and the kaiser and his mother were also guests. No one was very happy about the marriage except Queen Victoria, who had bullied the couple into it—Alix least of all. Ernie was homosexual but, as his grandmother endlessly reminded him, needed an heir, Ducky was very young and rich, and they were first cousins.* Alix’s father had died two years before, she was very close to Ernie and now she was about to lose her status as the head of his household. She forlornly planned a three-month trip to England “as I would64 only be in their way here.”
The drama of the tsarevitch and the bridegroom’s sister upstaged the wedding. Everyone knew that Alix had rejected Nicky, everyone speculated what would happen when they met. “Even my dear Mama65 thought she would not accept him, she was so pointed about it,” Vicky wrote. “I was in a state of painful anxiety,” Nicholas wrote to his mother, who had insisted he be present. “All the relatives one after another asked me about her.” Everybody—except possibly Queen Victoria—wanted Alix to say yes. Her family felt she was throwing away a glorious opportunity. The English hoped she might improve Anglo-Russian relations. Wilhelm hoped she would improve Russo-German ones. Over several days the couple were locked in rooms together. “She cried the whole time and only whispered now and then, ‘No, I cannot!’” Nicholas wrote to his mother. “The Emperor did what he could. He even had a talk with Alix.”66 Willy, ever keen to place himself at the centre of things, would later take full credit for playing “the part of cupid” with the lovers—though no one else did. In his memoirs he described himself dragging the bashful suitor up to his room, giving him a sabre, putting his fur cap on his head, and thrusting a bunch of roses into his hands. “Now,” he said, “go and ask for Alix.”67
On the last day of the wedding party, with Nicky’s uncles grand dukes Vladimir and Sergei sitting next door with Wilhelm, the couple was closeted one more time. “We were left alone,”68 Nicholas told his mother, “and with her very first words she consented … I cried like a child and she did too; but her expression had changed; her face was lit by a quiet content … She is changed. She is gay and amusing and talkative and tender … William was next door waiting for the end of our conversation with the uncles and aunts. I took Alix to see the Queen and then to Aunt Marie, where there were great embraces from the whole family.”
The queen was “quite thunderstruck, as though I knew Nicky much wished it, I thought Alicky was not sure of her mind. Saw them both. Alicky had tears in her eyes, but looked very bright, and I kissed them both … People generally seemed pleased at the engagement, which has the drawback that Russia is so far away … But as her mind is made up, and they are really attached to one another, it is perhaps better so.” She wrote of Nicholas: “He is so sensible and nice, & expressed the hope to come quietly to England to see Alicky at the end of June.”69 She insisted that Nicholas call her “Granny,”70 and for the rest of the visit she summoned them for morning coffee in her rooms and made them pose for photographs—photographs in which Alix remained resolutely unsmiling.
Victoria was deeply proprietorial of Alix. “As she has71 no Parents, I feel I am the only person who can really be answerable for her,” she told Nicky. “All her dear Sisters … looked to me as their second Mother.” She worried about her too, bombarding Nicholas with letters through the spring and summer of 1894 about Alix’s health and her “nerves.” Since her father’s death Alix had begun to complain regularly of exhaustion and pains in her legs. She seems to have had a period of depression, possibly even a breakdown. Did the queen acknowledge to herself the obvious truth that Alix’s “nerves” and her almost pathological discomfort in the company of people she didn’t know made her entirely unsuited for the public role of tsarina? Alix put the queen’s anxiety down to possessiveness. “Please do not72 think that my marrying will make a difference to my love for You,” she reassured her. “Certainly it will not, and when I am far away, I shall long to think that there is One, the dearest and kindest Woman alive, who loves me a little bit.” There weren’t many people who dared to call the queen a “Woman.”
“I am quite73 certain that she will make you an excellent wife and she is charming, lovely and accomplished,” George wrote to Nicholas—in English naturally—in what seems to have been his first letter to his cousin, signing himself, “Ever your most loving cousin Georgie.”
“My dearest old74 Georgie …,” Nicholas replied, writing as he would to all the British royal family, in his own impeccable English, “you can judge of my joy & of the state of happiness I am in now. I am delighted to be here at Coburg & find this place beautiful. Only the time is so taken up by the family (as in Denmark) that I find it even cruel to be torn away from my beloved Alix for a few hours, as I would prefer spending them with my own little bride!” An affectionate, if uninspired and somewhat desultory—once or twice a year at most—correspondence was born.
Nicholas decided to visit Alix while she was on her three-month trip to England, arriving on board his father’s new white yacht, Polar Star, nearly a year after his previous visit, in mid-June 1894. The month he stayed there, he wrote, was “paradisiacal happiness.”75 He and Alix spent several days at Henley with Alix’s sister Victoria, who was married to Louis of Battenberg (brother of the ill-fated Sandro and a rising man in the Royal Navy), then went on to Windsor (where Nicholas managed to lock himself “in a certain place”76—i.e., a lavatory—and only got out half an hour later with Alix’s help) and Osborne. They went boating on the Thames, picnicking at Windsor, and at Osborne they put on new-fangled swimming costumes and “walked in bare feet like a child by water.” When he confessed his affair to Alix she wrote in his diary, “I love you even more since you told me that little story, your confidence in me touched me, oh, so deeply …” She had taken to leaving little notes and quotes in English in his diary. “Sweety dear, have confidence and faith in your girly dear, who loves you more deeply … than she can ever say.”77 When George and May’s first child, a boy called David, was born during the visit, Nicholas travelled with the family to Richmond to see him and stand godparent. He worked hard to win the queen’s approval. Nicky “is most affectionate78 and attentive to me,” she observed. “She is very79 fond of you,” Alix had reassured him. Underneath, he bridled at “good Granny’s” supervision, her reluctance to let them out without a chaperone and her attempts to shoehorn him into court occasions: “I have to appear in a tail coat with red collar and cuffs and breeches and pumps—how ghastly!”80
Beyond the family, Nicholas cut a less impressive figure—he was such a “delicate-looking81 stripling” compared to his father, one courtier noticed; very young, “very bashful,” a German diplomat at the London embassy observed, lapsing into an “almost childish silliness, which, however, was rather likeable than otherwise.”82
What must have struck Nicholas forcibly, as on his previous trip, was the way that the English family—or at least Edward—made themselves so much more available than his own Russian family. Towards the end of the visit, he went to spend a few days with George and his father at Sandringham. The deceptively modest but (on the way to being) modern stately home was very different from the immense, draughty malachite halls of St. Petersburg or Berlin’s vast, chilly schloss, a monument to leisurely wealth in which a royal family chose not to be on duty. Edward took Nicholas to a horse sale in nearby King’s Lynn, where they ate lunch in a huge tent along with all the other diners, separated only by the dais on which their table was perched, everyone “gaping more at us,83 than the horses.” In Russia a Romanov would never have eaten among, and in full view of, the lower orders, but Edward positively enjoyed being on show. Even more unusual were Edward’s house guests. “Most of them84 were horse-dealers, among others a Baron Hirsch. The Cousins rather enjoyed the situation and kept teasing me about it; but I tried to keep away as much as I could, and not to talk.”
Baron Maurice de Hirsch was a Jew, probably the first Nicholas had ever met. Though in Europe Jews had had, more or less, the same rights as anyone else since the 1870s, in Russia anti-Semitism was still energetically inculcated by the Church, and they remained the poorest and most persecuted of minorities, victims of pogroms (the word comes from the Russian “to wreak havoc”), and a whole raft of persecutory and restrictive laws. Hirsch was a millionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist of German extraction who was known in Russia—though Nicky had clearly never heard of him—for his attempts to improve the lives of Russian Jews and for the millions he was spending on resettling Russian Jewish emigrants in America and Argentina.
Whilst nowhere was as anti-Semitic as Russia, Edward’s friendship with Hirsch was a mark of his worldliness and openness. He had made a point of admitting to his social circle a number of rich Jews and self-made millionaires, including the Rothschild brothers—Alfred, Nathan and Leopold—whom he had met at university, along with the Glasgow tenement boy turned tea millionaire Thomas Lipton and the furniture manufacturer Sir Blundell Maple. By contrast, the Romanovs spoke of “trade,” i.e., the new Russian industrial rich, with only slightly less disgust than they did of rich Jews, and many of the British upper classes exercised a “salon” anti-Semitism, welcoming in new money but sneering at it behind their backs. Edward’s friendliness was certainly due in part to his rich Jewish friends’ willingness to pay off his debts—it seems Hirsch had. But he was also fascinated by the energy and power of people who made and manipulated money, and he understood the importance of the new rich far better than the rest of his contemporaries among European royalty and the haute aristocracy. The Rothschilds, for example, were not just rich—their bank was the biggest financial institution in the world, and, as the British empire’s bankers, they had lent Disraeli the capital to buy shares in the Suez Canal and Cecil Rhodes the money to launch De Beers. Edward took a simple view of class and caste: there was royalty, and there was everyone else. This could manifest itself both as a pleasing lack of snobbery and colour-blindness, and as blunt racism. “Because a man85 has a black face and a different religion from our own there is no reason why he should be treated as a brute,” he commented on the way the colonial authorities treated Indians. “Either the brute86 is a King, or else he is an ordinary black nigger, and if he is not a King why is he here?” he reasoned when he placed the King of Hawaii ahead of the German crown prince at the 1887 Golden Jubilee.
In late August Wilhelm told the queen that the tsar was said to be mortally ill.87
Alexander was dying of kidney failure. He had been moved to the imperial family’s estates at Livadia by the Black Sea, in the hope that the Crimea’s famous “velvet” climate would revive him. The best German doctors had been summoned, but nothing could be done. By mid-October, when Alix arrived at Nicholas’s request, Alexander was almost blind and so weak he could hardly rise to kiss her, though he insisted on doing so in full dress uniform. Minny sent a telegram pleading for Edward and Alexandra to come. Perhaps mindful of the comfort she had given Alexandra after Eddy’s death, the Prince and Princess of Wales, plus an equerry, a lady-in-waiting and the prince’s friend Lord Carrington, the Lord Chamberlain, immediately set off across Europe. Alexander died painfully two days before they arrived on 2 November. He was forty-nine. “Lord, Lord,88what a day,” Nicholas wrote in his diary. “God has called to him our adored, our dear, our tender Papa. My head spins, I can’t believe it … it was the death of a saint!” The afternoon of his father’s death, he took the oath of allegiance in the gardens of the palace, surrounded by dozens of courtiers, family and servants all dressed in gold. The next day everything was draped in black.
Edward and Alexandra arrived to find the family in a kind of seizure. Minny had locked herself in her rooms. Nicky seemed cowed by his tall, confident uncles, grand dukes Vladimir and Sergei, and “harassed”89 by his ministers. The prospect of becoming tsar horrified him. In private with his family he tearfully confessed his terror. “What am I to do?”90 he asked Sandro. “What is going to happen to me, to you, to Xenia, to Alix, to mother, to all of Russia. I am not prepared to be Czar. I never wanted to become Czar. I know nothing of the business of ruling.” Olga remembered, “He was in despair. He kept saying that he did not know what would become of us all. That he was wholly unfit to reign. Even at that time I felt instinctively that sensitivity and kindness on their own were not enough for a sovereign.” It was Bertie, according to Olga, who “quietly began calming down the tumult that met them on their arrival … The last days at Livadia would have been beyond anyone’s endurance were it not for the presence of the Prince of Wales.”91 Alexandra took care of her sister; for the next month she accompanied her everywhere, even sleeping in her room. Bertie took over the funeral arrangements, tirelessly questioning their organizer, the minister of the imperial court (perhaps slightly to the minister’s exasperation), and set himself to befriend and encourage Nicky. “I cannot tell you92 what awful and trying days we are living through,” Nicky wrote to “Granny.” “… Dear aunt Alix and uncle Bertie being here—help also dearest Mama in her pain.” “I wonder what93 his tiresome old mother would have said had she seen everybody accept uncle Bertie’s authority in Russia of all places,” Olga observed.
It was Edward’s fourth visit to Russia. Since his marriage he had put himself out to be on good terms with his Russian in-laws, and in the last few years he had bestirred himself to meet them in Denmark—even if only briefly—almost every year. Though suspicious of Russia, he liked the idea of being an agent for the improvement of relations between the two countries, and no doubt Alexandra’s enthusiasm played its part. He had first gone to St. Petersburg in 1866, when Minny had asked him to swell her family’s numbers at her wedding. Almost bankrupted by a 60,000-crown dowry, the Danish family could afford to send only the crown prince, Freddi. The queen disapproved of his inveterate gadding about and thought he ought to stay at home more. But the British government had encouraged the trip, seeing it as an opportunity to clear some of the bad blood left since the Crimean War. Edward had leapt at the opportunity: “It would interest me94 beyond anything to see Russia … I should be only too happy to be the means in any way of promoting the entente cordiale between Russia and our own country … I am a very good traveller so that I should not at all mind the length of the journey.” He had made a good impression and returned in 1881 for Alexander II’s funeral and later for Alexander III’s coronation—but repeated imperial clashes had meant that diplomatic relations had never warmed up in the eighteen years since that first visit. A British official at the embassy in St. Petersburg had reported in June 1894—as Nicholas floated down the Thames—that “Popular opinion in95 Russia is strongly adverse to England.”
The British were just as unfriendly. In May the British foreign secretary, Lord Rosebery, had issued warnings that the Royal Navy would counter with force any attempt by the Russian Black Sea fleet to venture into the Mediterranean, and the year’s runaway bestseller was The Great War in England by the popular spy-writer William Tufnell Le Queux, a fantasy about a Russian invasion (“Throughout the land the grey-coated horde of the White Tsar spread like locusts”) which bespoke an almost hysterical fear and dislike of the enemy. Within the government, however, there was beginning to be a feeling that the traditional enmity with Russia was expensive and impractical. British naval strategists had started to admit that the Royal Navy would not necessarily be able to hold back the Black Sea fleet if it chose to enter the Mediterranean. British ministers had begun to agree that the chances of Russia invading India were extremely remote—though the Indian government disagreed with them. And now that Britain occupied Egypt and controlled the Suez Canal, the overland route to India didn’t matter so much. Edward—briefed by Lord Rosebery, who had recently taken over the prime ministership from the retiring Gladstone—planned to make a lastingly strong impression on the new tsar, in the hope that it might mark the beginning of a thaw.
When the tsar’s body made its seventeen-day journey to Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Edward and his entourage followed. They sent their observations back to Queen Victoria, who demanded descriptions. (“That old, tiresome96 woman at Windsor Castle telegraphs … for more letters,” grumbled the prince’s equerry, Sir Arthur Ellis.) They were overwhelmed by Russia. Everything seemed extreme: the tens of thousands of soldiers who lined the railway tracks from the Crimea to Moscow and St. Petersburg, the crowds of sobbing peasants, the vast, suffocatingly overheated palaces and the gorgeous, interminable, agonizingly slow ritual. On each of the seventeen days, the tsar’s family, its attendants and Edward—determined to show his support—and his entourage attended two services in dress uniform, kneeling for hours, then kissing the icon now held rigidly between the corpse’s fingers. It was exceptionally uncomfortable, boring and soon revolting, as “dear Papa”97 was “unfortunately starting to decompose very quickly.” Embalming didn’t solve the problem, and by the time Alexander was buried, his face had begun to rot. Ritual decreed it could not be covered, and the English visitors came to dread the “barbarous and98 unseemly custom.”
The funeral was on a vast scale and relentless. Sixty-one European royals arrived in St. Petersburg for it, making it the largest royal event the Russians had ever hosted. George—summoned by his father because the “opportunity to see99 the great capital of Russia is not one to be missed”—was a pallbearer.* It took four hours for the funeral cortège to reach Kazan Cathedral, “most fatiguing for101 those who walked in the procession.” George watched ice form on the Neva. Inside the church, “the crowd was so102 great that the master of the ceremonies could hardly get a passage for the Empress to enter, and 3 ladies fainted.” In the Russian Orthodox Church there were no pews so everyone stood. Throughout it all, Bertie was next to Nicky, and along with the Romanovs he kissed the lips of the dead monarch though “the smell was103 awful.”
A week after the funeral Nicholas married his fiancée. In Windsor, the queen wrote ominously, “Tomorrow morning104 poor dear Alicky’s105 fate will be sealed. No two people were ever more devoted as she and he are and that is one consolation I have, for otherwise the dangers and responsibilities fill me with anxiety.” Nicky spent the night before the wedding quietly with George, Greek Georgie and a Danish cousin, Waldemar. George told his grandmother,
Dear Alicky looked quite lovely at the Wedding … she went through it all with so much modesty but was so graceful and dignified at the same time, she certainly made a most excellent impression … I do think Nicky is a very lucky man to have got such a lovely and charming wife … I must say I never [saw] two people more in love with each other or happier than they are. When they drove from the Winter Palace after the wedding they got a tremendous reception and ovation from the large crowds in the streets, the cheering was most hearty and reminded me of England.
But no one else was quite so sanguine, not even the bride and groom. Nicholas looked “dreadfully pale106 and worn,” and confessed that it felt like “somebody else’s107 wedding and not mine.” Alix was pinned to the floor by the weight of the traditional silver brocade and cloth of gold, diamond-encrusted, ermine-lined, Romanov wedding dress that encased her, and it required eight pages simply to lift the train. She later said gloomily, “Our marriage108 seemed to me a mere continuation of the masses for the dead with this difference, that now I wore a white dress instead of a black one.” In her wedding photos, she looked thin-lipped and frowning. Her unease and discomfort when confronted by the vast company was palpable. “Even at this supreme109 moment no joy seemed to uplift her, not even pride,” wrote her cousin Marie of Romania, who didn’t like her. “Aloof, enigmatic, she was all dignity but she had about her no warmth.” Arthur Ellis, Edward’s equerry, noted, “Everything had the appearance110 of a forced air of mock festivity. All mourning put aside and an effort to appear cheerful—which was manifestly put on … a shadow of sadness seem [sic] to hang over the whole ceremony.” In the streets of St. Petersburg, 40,000 soldiers all took their hats off simultaneously. As they drove111 off in their carriage to Nicholas’s old childhood quarters in Anichkov Palace, Olga thought, “They looked so lonely, like two birds in a golden cage.”
“This is the first112 time I have been to Russia, I certainly have got a most excellent impression of the people and the country,” George told the queen. “… Nicky has been kindness itself to me, he is the same dear boy he has always been to me, and talks to me quite openly on every subject … and he does everything so quietly and nicely and naturally; everyone is struck by it and he is very popular already.” Actually George was not comfortable in St. Petersburg. He felt hemmed in and would go walking off into the city, which “greatly embarrassed113 the police who had charge of his safety,” and astonished the court. The Prince of Wales’s equerry observed, “The Duke of York114 is rather bored here and pining to get back to shoot.” In the two weeks he was away, he wrote twenty letters to May, all of them asking what was happening at home.
Despite the gloom, the wedding marked a revival of excitement in the rest of the British contingent. The new reign looked promising, and the Russian press was suddenly full of praise for the Prince of Wales. “It is 115impossible not to be struck with the gratitude evinced by all to the expression of English sympathy,” Arthur Ellis wrote. “We were not popular and suddenly we are almost beloved. This is mainly owing to two things—the manner in which the P. and Princess of Wales have thrown themselves into earnest sympathy with their relatives and the accepted fact that the new and beautiful Empress is almost an Englishwoman (we don’t say this to the Hessians).” They began to wonder over-excitedly whether the nice young tsar might turn out to be much more liberal than his father. A story did the rounds that after the wedding service Nicholas had gone into the street and told his troops to fall back so he could walk among the crowd without the usual wall of security. The London Daily Telegraph described it as “a liberality116 unheard of in Russia.” It seemed impossible not to make comparisons with “another young Emperor117 to his mother—under late similar circumstances—greatly to the Czar’s advantage.” Even Edward himself felt “The character and personality118 of the new Tsar give assurance of the benefits which would come of an alliance between England and Russia.”
Edward returned to England to a sea of praise. The prime minister told him, “Our relations with119 Russia are, I honestly believe, more cordial than at any period since the German war.” The British press—more accustomed to reviling the prince’s indiscretions—crooned over his “unsurpassed tact,120 dignity and good feeling. He has practically been the special ambassador of this country entrusted with a mission which only one standing very near to the throne could carry out,” The Times enthused. “It is scarcely121 an exaggeration to say,” the London Standard exaggerated, “that his personal intercourse with the new Czar has effected more in a few weeks than the most painstaking and sagacious Diplomacy would have brought about in a decade … the influence of the Throne in determining the relations between European Powers has never been disputed by those at all familiar with modern politics, it is sometimes lost sight of or ignored by the more flippant order of Democrats.”
“I can’t tell you,122 my dear Nicky,” George wrote from Sandringham, “how pleased I was to see you these few days in Petersburg, although it was all so terribly sad … you have always been so kind and dear to me; ever since we have known each other, I look upon you, if I may do so, as one of my oldest and best friends.”
* Kschessinska parlayed her way to being one of the stars of the Imperial Ballet and eventually bagged her own grand duke husband.
* Rumours that he might have been caught up in a scandal surrounding the male brothel at Cleveland Street have been convincingly scotched by his biographer Andrew Cook. He had, however, it seems, managed to catch gonorrhoea.
* This was another unhappy royal marriage: Sergei was a chilly, authoritarian homosexual, who had no idea how to communicate with his wife. Ella, however, became very popular with the rest of the Romanov family.
* This was true. The shah had shouted at his servants, spat out his food, belched in public, groped women and advised Bertie (who was highly amused) to execute the Duke of Sutherland because he was too rich.
* According to the British ambassador in St. Petersburg, Gladstone had apparently become bizarrely popular in Russia because he’d said that the Russian government’s treatment of prisoners in Siberia was no worse than the British shooting of three Irish tenant farmers at the so-called Michelstown massacre in 1887.
* The two would split several years later when Ducky ran off with Nicholas’s cousin Grand Duke Kirill, for which Nicholas exiled him from Russia.
* He had come by100 train with Heinrich, Wilhelm’s brother, bringing the latest British bestseller, The Prisoner of Zenda, an adventure novel about romantic but untrustworthy eastern Europeans.