Biographies & Memoirs

“The Little One Will Not Die”

ON August 19, 1912 (O.S.), Empress Alexandra wrote a letter from Peterhof to her old tutor, Miss Jackson, who was retired and living in England:

Darling Madgie:

Loving thanks for yr last letter—forgive me for being such a shockingly bad correspondent. I had Victoria’s visit for a week wh. was delightful, and Ella came also for 3 days, and I shall see her again in Moscow. Ernie and family we had in the Crimea, Waldemar came for 3 days on the Standart in Finland and Irene will come at the end of September to us in Poland, Spala.… Next week we leave for Borodino and Moscow, terribly tiring festivities, don’t know how I shall get through them. After Moscow in spring, I was for a long time quite done up—now I am, on the whole, better.… Here we had colossal heat and scarcely ever a drop of rain.

If you know of any interesting historical books for girls, could you tell me, as I read to them and they have begun reading English for themselves. They read a great deal of French and the 2 youngest acted out of the Bourg. Gentilhomme and really so well.… Four languages is a lot, but they need them absolutely, and this summer we had Germans and Swedes, and I made all 4 lunch and dine, as it is good practice for them.

I have begun painting flowers, as alas, have had to leave singing and playing as too tiring.

Must end. Goodbye and God bless and keep you.

A tender kiss from Your fondly
Loving old P.Q. No. III 

Despite the stream of visitors, the summer of 1912 was peaceful for the Imperial family. The girls were getting older: Olga was seventeen, Tatiana fifteen, Marie thirteen and Anastasia eleven. Alexis, who was eight, was a source of pride and relief. He was cheerful, mischievous and lively; he had been so well that year that Alexandra had begun to hope her prayers had been answered and he might be getting permanently better.

At Spala, six weeks after this letter was written, this hope disintegrated. That autumn, in the depths of the Polish forest, Nicholas and Alexandra were plunged into a crisis that seared them both forever.

   The Borodino ceremonies mentioned in Alexandra’s letter were a centenary celebration of the great battle before Moscow in 1812 when Kutuzov’s army finally gave battle to Napoleon. For the centenary, Russian army engineers had reconstructed the battlefield, rebuilding the famous redoubts marking the positions of French and Russian batteries, and identifying the spots where infantry and cavalry charged. Nicholas, mounted on a white horse, rode slowly across the battlefield, which was lined with detachments of soldiers from the regiments that had fought at Borodino. As a climax to the ceremony, an ancient Sergeant Voitinuik, said to be 122 years old and a survivor of the famous battle, was led forward and presented to the Tsar. Nicholas, deeply moved, warmly grasped the hand of the tottering veteran and congratulated him. “A common feeling of deep reverence for our forebears seized us there,” he wrote to Marie.

The ceremonies concluded in Moscow, which one hundred years before had burned before Napoleon’s eyes. Nicholas moved through cathedral services, receptions, parades and processions. He visited museums, attended balls and reviewed seventy-five thousand soldiers and seventy-two thousand schoolchildren. As she had predicted, Alexandra exhausted herself trying to keep up. With relief, she and her family boarded the Imperial train in mid-September for the westward journey to the Polish hunting lodges of Bialowieza and Spala. They stopped only once along the way; in Smolensk they took tea with the local nobility. That afternoon, reported the Tsar to his mother, “Alexis got hold of a glass of champagne and drank it unnoticed after which he became rather gay and began entertaining the ladies to our great surprise. When we returned to the train, he kept telling us about his conversations at the party and also that he heard his tummy rumbling.”

The hunting lodge at Bialowieza in eastern Poland was surrounded by thirty thousand acres of deep forest filled with big game. Along with elk and stag, it was the only place in Europe where the auroch, or European bison, were still to be found. At Bialowieza, the Imperial family began a pleasant holiday routine. “The weather is warm, but we have constant rain,” the Tsar wrote to his mother. “In the mornings my daughters and I go for rides on these perfect woodland paths.” Alexis, not permitted to ride, went rowing on a nearby lake. On one of these excursions, while jumping into a boat, he fell. An oarlock ground itself into the upper part of his left thigh. Dr. Botkin examined the spot and found a small swelling just below the groin. The bruise hurt Alexis, and for several days Botkin made him stay in bed. A week later, the pain and swelling had dwindled and Botkin believed that the incident was closed.

After two weeks at Bialowieza, the family moved on to Spala, the ancient hunting seat of the kings of Poland. Lost at the end of a sandy road, the wooden villa resembled a small country inn. Inside, it was cramped and dark; electric lights were left burning all day so that people could find their way through the tiny rooms and narrow hallways. Outside, the forest was magnificent. A clear, fast-flowing stream cut through the middle of a wide green lawn. From the edge of the lawn, small paths branched off into the forest. One was called the Road of Mushrooms because it ended at a bench surrounded by a fairy ring of mushrooms.

Nicholas threw himself eagerly into hunting. Every day, he rode off with the Polish noblemen who came to visit. At night, after dinner, the slain stags were laid out on the grass in front of the villa. While huntsmen stood beside the beasts holding flaming torches, the Tsar and his guests came out and examined their kill.

It was while Alexis was convalescing from his original fall in the boat that Alexandra first asked Pierre Gilliard to begin tutoring her son in French. This was Gilliard’s first intimate contact with the Tsarevich. He still did not know the nature of the boy’s disease. The lessons were soon interrupted. “[Alexis] had looked … ill from the outset,” Gilliard recalled. “Soon he had to take to his bed.… [I was] struck by his lack of color and the fact that he was carried as if he could not walk.”

Alexandra, like any mother, worried about her son being cooped up in the gloomy house without sunlight and fresh air. Deciding to take him for a drive, she had him placed in her carriage between herself and Anna Vyrubova. Bouncing and jostling, the carriage set off down the sandy roads. Not long after starting, Alexis winced and began to complain of pain in his lower leg and abdomen. Frightened, the Empress ordered the driver to return to the villa immediately. There were several miles to travel. Every time the carriage jolted, Alexis, pale and contorted, cried out. Alexandra, now in terror, urged the driver first to hurry, then to go slowly. Anna Vyrubova remembered the ride as “an experience in horror. Every movement of the carriage, every rough place in the road, caused the child the most exquisite torture and by the time we reached home, the boy was almost unconscious with pain.”

Botkin, examining the boy, found a severe hemorrhage in the thigh and groin. That night, a stream of telegrams flew off from Spala. One by one, the doctors began to arrive from St. Petersburg: Ostrogorsky, the pediatrician, and Rauchfuss, the surgeon, joined Fedorov and Dr. Derevenko. Their presence at Spala added worried faces and urgent whispers, but none of them could aid the suffering child. The bleeding could not be stopped and no pain-killers were given. Blood flowed steadily from the torn blood vessels inside the leg, seeping slowly through the other tissues and forming an enormous hematoma, or swelling, through the leg, groin and lower abdomen. The leg drew up against the chest to give the blood a larger socket to fill. But there came a point when there was no place else for the blood to go. Yet still it flowed. It was the beginning of a nightmare.

“The days between the 6th and the 10th were the worst,” Nicholas wrote his mother. “The poor darling suffered intensely, the pains came in spasms and recurred every quarter of an hour. His high temperature made him delirious night and day; and he would sit up in bed and every movement brought the pain on again. He hardly slept at all, had not even the strength to cry, and kept repeating, ‘Oh Lord, have mercy upon me.’ ”

Day and night, screams pierced the walls and filled the corridors. Many in the household stuffed their ears with cotton in order to continue their work. Yet for eleven days, the most critical part of the crisis, Alexandra scarcely left her son’s side. Hour after hour, she sat by the bed where the groaning, half-conscious child lay huddled on his side. His face was bloodless, his body contorted, his eyes, with hollow black circles under them, were rolled back in his head. The Empress never undressed or went to bed. When she had to sleep, she lay back on a sofa next to his bed and dozed. After a while, his groans and shrieks dwindled to a constant wail that tore her heart. Through the pain, he called to his mother, “Mama, help me. Won’t you help me?” Alexandra sat holding his hand, smoothing his forehead, tears running down her cheeks as she prayed mutely to God to deliver her little boy from torture. During these eleven days, her golden hair became tinged with gray.

Even so, she stood it better than the Tsar. “I was hardly able to stay in the room, but of course had to take turns with Alix for she was exhausted by spending whole nights by his bed,” he wrote to his mother. “She bore the ordeal better than I did.” Anna Vyrubova says that once when Nicholas came into the room and saw his son in agony, his courage gave away and he rushed out of the house, weeping.

Both parents were certain that the boy was dying. Alexis himself thought so and hoped so. “When I am dead, it will not hurt any more, will it, Mama?” he asked. In another moment of relative calm, he said quietly, “When I am dead, build me a little monument of stones in the woods.”

Nevertheless—incredibly, it seemed to Gilliard—outside the sickroom, the surface household routines went on unchanged. Polish noblemen continued to arrive to hunt with the Tsar, and Nicholas rode off with them into the forest. In the evenings, the Empress would briefly leave the bedside and appear, pale but composed, to act as hostess for her husband. Desperately, they played this charade, trying to conceal from the world not only the extent of the Tsarevich’s illness, but their own anguish.

Gilliard, watching from his newly intimate vantage point, could scarcely believe what he saw. One night after dinner, his pupils Marie and Anastasia were to present two scenes from Molière’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme before their parents, the suite and some guests. As prompter, Gilliard stood in the wings of the makeshift stage behind a screen. From there, he could see the company as well as whisper to the girls.

“I could see the Tsaritsa in the front row, smiling and talking gaily to her neighbors,” the tutor wrote. “When the play was over, I went out by the service door and found myself in the corridor opposite Alexis Nicolaievich’s room from which a moaning sound came distinctly to my ears. Suddenly I noticed the Tsaritsa running up holding her long, awkward train in her two hands. I shrank back against the wall and she passed me without observing my presence. There was a distracted and terror-stricken look on her face. I returned to the dining room. There all were happy. Footmen in livery were handing around refreshments and everyone was laughing and exchanging jokes.…

“A few minutes later the Tsaritsa came back. She had resumed the mask. She smiled pleasantly at the guests who crowded around her. But I noticed that the Tsar, even while engaged in conversation, had taken up a position from which he could watch the door, and I caught the despairing glance which the Tsaritsa threw him as she came in. The scene … suddenly brought home to me the tragedy of a double life.”

Despite all precautions, the shroud of secrecy surrounding the illness began to tear. St. Petersburg buzzed with talk, none of it accurate. There were blind guesses as to what had happened; a lengthy article in the London Daily Mail declared that the boy had been attacked by an anarchist and gravely wounded by a bomb. At last, after Dr. Fedorov warned Nicholas that the hemorrhage in the stomach, still unchecked, could be fatal at any hour, Count Fredericks received permission to begin publishing medical bulletins. Still, there was no mention of the cause.

Official announcements of the grave illness of the Heir to the Throne plunged Russia into national prayer. Special services were held in great cathedrals and in small churches in lonely villages. Before the blessed icon in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan in St. Petersburg, Russians stood and prayed night and day. There was no church at Spala, but a large green tent was erected for that purpose in the garden. “All the servants, the Cossacks, the soldiers and all the rest were wonderfully sympathetic,” Nicholas wrote to his mother. “At the beginning of Alexei’s illness, they begged the priest, Vassiliev, to hold a Te Deum in the open. They begged him to repeat it every day until he recovered. Polish peasants came in crowds and wept while he read the sermon to them.”

More than once, it seemed the end had come. At lunch one day, the Tsar was handed a note scribbled by the Empress from her place beside Alexis’s bed. Alexis was suffering so terribly, she said, that she knew he was about to die. Pale but collected, Nicholas made a sign to Fedorov, who hastily left the table and went to the sickroom. But Alexis continued to breathe and the agony continued. The following night, when the suite was sitting helplessly in the Empress’s boudoir, Princess Irene of Prussia, Alexandra’s sister, came to the doorway. With a white face, she begged the suite to retire, saying the boy’s condition was desperate. The last sacrament was administered, and the bulletin sent to St. Petersburg that night was worded so that the one to follow could announce that His Imperial Highness the Tsarevich was dead.

It was on this night, at the end of hope, that Alexandra called on Rasputin. She asked Anna Vyrubova to telegraph him in Pokrovskoe, his home in Siberia, begging him to pray for the life of her son. Rasputin immediately cabled back: “God has seen your tears and heard your prayers. Do not grieve. The Little One will not die. Do not allow the doctors to bother him too much.”

The next morning, Alexandra came down to the drawing room, thin and pale, but she was smiling. “The doctors notice no improvement yet,” she said, “but I am not a bit anxious myself now. During the night, I received a telegram from Father Gregory and he has reassured me completely.” A day later, the hemorrhage stopped. The boy was spent, utterly wasted, but alive.

The part played by Rasputin’s telegram in Alexis’s recovery at Spala remains one of the most mysterious episodes of the whole Rasputin legend. None of the doctors present ever discussed it in writing. Anna Vyrubova, the link between Rasputin and the Empress, writes of the telegram and the boy’s recovery without comment or evaluation. Pierre Gilliard, at that time a minor member of the household to whom many doors still remained closed, does not even mention Rasputin’s telegram. Strangely, even Nicholas, in writing to his mother, fails to mention the dramatic telegram from Siberia. His account, written after the ordeal had ended, was this:

“On Oct. 10 [O.S.] we decided to give him Holy Communion and his condition began to improve at once. The temperature fell and the pain almost disappeared and he fell quickly into a sound sleep for the first time. The family suite received Holy Communion and the priest took the Holy Sacrament to Alexis. It snowed all day yesterday, but it thawed last night. It was cold standing in Church but all that is nothing when the heart and soul rejoice.”

The Tsar’s silence in this letter on the matter of Rasputin’s telegram does not mean that he was unaware of it, or of the significance attached to it by his wife. Rather, it indicated his own uncertainty as to what had happened and his unwillingness to commit himself to belief in Rasputin, especially in a letter to his mother. Marie considered Rasputin a fraud, and a letter from Nicholas announcing that Rasputin had saved Alexis by sending a telegram from Siberia would have dismayed the Dowager Empress. Knowing this, Nicholas tactfully left Rasputin out of his account.

The remaining evidence is skimpy. Mosolov was at Spala. He suggests that Fedorov, the surgeon, may have had something to do with the recovery. Mosolov’s story is that at the height of the crisis Fedorov came to him and said, “I do not agree with my colleagues. It is most urgently necessary to apply far more drastic measures, but they involve a risk. Ought I to say so to the Empress? Or would it be better to prescribe without letting her know?” Later, after the bleeding had stopped, Mosolov asked Fedorov, “Did you apply the remedy you spoke of?” Fedorov threw up his hands and said, “If I had done so, I should not have admitted it. You can see for yourself what is going on here.” The implication that Fedorov did nothing is strengthened by the fact that later that year Fedorov met Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna and told her that “the recovery was wholly inexplicable from a medical point of view.”

Despite what Fedorov said, there is a possible medical explanation of this episode. After a greatly prolonged period of time, hemophilic bleeding may stop of its own accord. As long ago as 1905, Dr. M. Litten wrote: “It is impossible to predict in any individual case when the hemorrhage will be arrested; the great loss of blood itself seems to exercise a beneficent effect in the direction of constricting the hemorrhage. Anemia of the brain produces fainting accompanied by a reduction in blood pressure, and the hemorrhage eases soon after. Occasionally, on the other hand, it persists for so long a time that the patient bleeds to death.”

Today, long before a hemophiliac is allowed to reach this state, hemorrhage is arrested with transfusions of plasma. If plasma were not available, however, hemotologists agree that hemophiliacs often would find themselves in the state described.

Because the crisis at Spala is so obscure and yet so enormously important to what happened later, every possible explanation should be examined. In this context, it is reasonable to speculate that the arrival of Rasputin’s telegram did, of itself, have a beneficial effect on the desperate medical situation.

To begin with, one passage in Rasputin’s telegram—“Do not allow the doctors to bother him too much”—was excellent medical advice. With four doctors hovering anxiously around the bed, taking his temperature, probing his leg and groin, Alexis probably was denied the total absence of trauma he desperately needed. A clot, gradually formed, still fragile, could easily have been dislodged in the course of one of the doctors’ frequent examinations. When at last they left Alexis alone, either because they had given up or because of Rasputin’s advice to the Empress, the effect could only have been good.

There is another possibility, more shadowy, but important to consider. That emotion plays a role in bleeding has long been suspected. Recently, the hypothesis has been greatly strengthened. In 1957, Dr. Paul J. Poinsard, of Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia, described to an international symposium on hemophilia his belief “that the hemophiliac patient bleeds more profusely under a condition of emotional stress.” Turning the thesis around, Dr. Poinsard continued, “Emotional tranquillity with a feeling state of well-being appears to be conducive to less severe and less frequent bleeding than in the subject who is emotionally distressed.”

At the moment Rasputin’s telegram arrived at Spala, Alexandra, the only person with whom the semi-conscious Alexis had strong emotional communication, was in a state of frantic, if exhausted, hysteria. Alexis must have felt her fear and despair. Perhaps, in the manner Dr. Poinsard suggested, his condition was affected by these emotions. If it was, then the sudden overwhelming change in his mother’s emotional state produced by Rasputin’s telegram may also have affected Alexis. Alone, the new aura of calm and confidence probably could not have stopped the hemorrhage. But together with the natural reduction of the loss of blood caused by lowered blood pressure and the slow formation of clots, it may have helped. It could even, as Alexandra believed, have been the factor which turned back the tide of death.

Whatever the cause, everyone—doctors, court officials, grand duchesses, people who believed in Rasputin and those who hated him—recognized that a remarkably eerie coincidence had occurred. Only to one person was the mystery not a mystery. In her own mind, Alexandra understood clearly what had happened. To her, it seemed quite natural: after the best doctors in Russia had failed, after her own hours of prayer had gone unanswered, her plea to Rasputin had brought the intervention of God and a miracle had taken place. From that time, Alexandra was unshakably convinced that her son’s life lay in Rasputin’s hands. From this belief, enormous consequences were to flow.

   Once the crisis had passed, most of the Imperial household quickly returned to their normal pursuits. Nicholas received his ministers to discuss the war which Bulgaria and Serbia were waging against Turkey. He hunted, played tennis, walked in the woods and went rowing on the river. He took Anna Vyrubova out in a boat which hit a rock in a rapid current and almost capsized.

But for the two most intimately involved in the ordeal, recovery was slow. For weeks, Alexandra and Alexis sat together in his room. He was propped against pillows in his bed, while she sat in a chair beside him, reading aloud or knitting. “I must warn you that according to the doctors, Alexei’s recovery will be very slow,” Nicholas wrote to Marie. “He still has a pain in his left knee and cannot bend it. It has to be propped up on a pillow. But that does not worry the doctors for the chief thing is that the process of internal absorption continues and for this, complete immobility is necessary. His complexion is quite good now, but at one time he looked like wax, his hands, his feet, his face, everything. He has grown terribly thin but the doctors are now stuffing him for all they are worth.”

A month later, Alexis had recovered sufficiently to be moved back to Tsarskoe Selo. At the Empress’s command, the road from the house to the station had been smoothed and graded so that there should not be the slightest jolt. On the homeward journey, the Imperial train crawled at fifteen miles an hour.

Almost a year was to pass before Alexis could walk again. For months, his left leg, drawn up against his chest, refused to straighten. The doctors applied a metal triangle with sliding sides which could be moved to varying points as the leg permitted. Bit by bit, the triangle was widened and the leg extended. But even a year later, at Livadia, Alexis still was undergoing a series of hot mudbaths as a treatment for the limp he had acquired at Spala. Through all this time, official photographs of the Heir were posed either seated or on steps so that the bent leg would appear to be normal.

After Spala, Alexis became a more serious child, more reflective and more considerate of other people. For an eight-year-old boy, it was a matter to ponder that his father was autocrat over millions of men and the master of the largest empire on earth, and yet had no power to spare him the pain he had felt in his leg. For Alexandra, Spala was a supreme religious experience. She had been, for what seemed an eternity, in Hell. The power that vanquished Hell and saved her son had been a sign from Heaven. Beneath that sign stood Gregory Rasputin.

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