Russia and Great Britain: Nations United
by Ties of Love, Tragedy and Friendship

Victoria, Queen of Great Britain, at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, with her son Edward, Prince of Wales (right), and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia (left).
Seated on the left is Alexandra, Tsarina of Russia, holding her baby daughter Grand Duchess Olga. (Photo: 1896)

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As Britain celebrates the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, there will be many in Russia wishing her well, too. Not only do many Russians fondly remember her state visit to Moscow and St Petersburg in 1994, but many are aware of the various connections between the Windsors and the Russian Imperial Royal family, the Romanovs.

The royal love story between the two countries spans centuries, from the tsar who proposed to an English queen to the countless Russians today who love to watch the British Royal family on television. Katharine Starr, author of the The Devushka Diaries blog, wrote in April last year that “the royal wedding has captured Russia’s attention”. Starr attributed the phenomenon partly to historic links between the Windsors and the Romanovs and posts a remarkable photograph of Nicholas II and George V, who were cousins, looking identical in their twin sailor suits.

Ivan's terrible courtship

Imperial relations between Britain and Russia started long before either of the families was on the throne, back in the days of Queen Elizabeth I. Ivan IV (better known as Ivan the Terrible), who was the earliest ruler to call himself a tsar, first established diplomatic and trading links with Britain in 1553. A letter written by the tsar to Elizabeth I in 1569 suggests relations were not all plain sailing. He called the queen’s advisers “boors”who sought only “their own profit” and compared the Queen to an old maid. The letter backs claims that Elizabeth I rejected a secret marriage proposal from Ivan the Terrible. The historian Felix Pryor, author ofElizabeth I – Her Life in Letters, has called it “quite simply the rudest letter Elizabeth ever received”.

Romance and tragedy

Elizabeth I may have rejected the tsar’s advances, but three centuries later, the two Royal families were connected through inter-dynastic marriages. Two of Victoria’s granddaughters – Elizabeth and Alix – married Romanovs; their stories are fraught with romance and tragedy. Elizabeth married the tsar’s brother, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, in 1884, though Victoria did not approve.

Elizabeth’s younger sister Alix met the Russian crown prince Nicholas (Sergei’s nephew) at her sister’s wedding. The tsar disapproved of their relationship, hoping for a marital alliance with France, but Elizabeth and Sergei helped the young lovers write secretly to each other until finally, a decade after they had met, they were married. Alix converted to Orthodox Christianity and became Alexandra Feodorovna. Both met with a tragic end. After Sergei was assassinated in 1905, Elizabeth founded the beautiful Martha and Mary Convent in Moscow, before being murdered herself by the Bolsheviks. There is still a statue of her outside the convent and another above the doorway of Westminster Abbey. Alexandra and Tsar Nicholas II were executed with the rest of their family by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

Mementos from Russia

One of the most striking pieces at the royal Fabergé exhibition at Buckingham Palace last year was Queen Victoria’s silver-gilt notebook, a present from Tsar Nicholas II, which was signed by all the European kings and queens who came to Buckingham Palace for her Diamond Jubilee in 1897.

Among the many photographs of Russian and British royals is a well-known image of Queen Victoria with the Russian Imperial family at Balmoral Castle; Victoria is looking fondly at Nicholas and Alexandra’s nine-month-old daughter Olga, who is sitting on Alexandra’s lap (right).

Frances Dimond, a former curator of the Royal Photograph Collection, says that these old photographs show that there was “a European union that went on long before the EU. I like the idea that London was a meeting place for these people… it is fascinating to imagine them here, moving about among familiar places.”

Soviet encounters

One of the most entertaining commentators on early 20th-century politics was Ivan Maisky, Soviet ambassador to London in the Thirties and early Forties. In his diary, he describes the shock when Joachim von Ribbentrop, German ambassador to London, greeted George VI with a stiff-armed Nazi salute, almost knocking the king over, and a state banquet where the “food, unlike most English dinners, was tasty”. He recalled the young Princess Elizabeth, dressed in a light pink dress and clearly “terribly excited”.

In August 1940, Maisky wrote that the King’s wife, the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, “has set herself the task of bringing popularity and splendour to the Royal family”. Maisky’s comments suggest that Queen Elizabeth set the pattern for today’s busy royal schedules: “She never rests… bazaars, hospitals, telephone operators, farmers… she visits them all, gives her blessing, graces with her presence.” The current Russian ambassador, Alexander Yakovenko, recommends Maisky’s diaries to anyone considering a diplomatic career.

Last year, a statue of the astronaut Yuri Gagarin was unveiled on The Mall in London. Gagarin became the first human in space in 1961 when his Vostok spacecraft orbited the Earth. When he visited London later the same year, he was greeted by cheering crowds. The most recent biography of Gagarin, written by the literary critic and former Russian Playboy editor Lev Danilkin, tells how Queen Elizabeth II “sidestepped all regulations and invited the Soviet officer to her palace for lunch”, where she whispered advice about cutlery, joking that she was “born and brought up in this palace” and still didn’t know “in which order I should use all these forks and knives.”

Royal wedding fever

Last year’s royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton was watched with delight by many Russians. The fact that many of the invited guests had Russian origins because of the intricately intertwined European royal families, made the event all the more appealing to them.

A Russian friend praised the way the Queen has carried out her duties over the past 60 years, saying: “She is the single most admirable image of England and a perfect ambassador for the Commonwealth. Without any exaggeration, she does more work for the country than perhaps an entire ministry on the executive side of the government. She manages a very difficult family and she does that with considerable skill, too.”

And as Starr concludes in her Devushka Diaries, in an attempt to explain the appeal of monarchy: “There’s a little part in all of us that still believes (or wants to believe) in fairy tales.”

Source & Copyright: Russia Beyond the Headlines
8 June, 2012