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[Note about dates: Before the October Revolution of 1917, Russia operated on the Julian Calendar and the term Old Style is historically used in reference to dates from Imperial Russia. In the 20th century, the Julian Calendar was 13 days behind the Western style Gregorian Calendar in use today - Paul Gilbert]
On 30 July [Old Style] 1904 a great event occurred in the family of the Tsar – the birth of their long-awaited son, the successor to the Russian throne. The public was informed of the joyful news by a 301-gun salute from the cannons of the Peter and Paul Fortress. The birthday of the successor to the throne was a great festival, not just for the tsar and his family, but for the whole population. People went out onto the street, prayers of thanksgiving were offered in the churches, bells rang out and at night the city was illuminated by bonfires.
Traditionally the succession in Russia was based on the male line, but this was broken by Peter the Great, who published a ukase that the heir was to be appointed only by the tsar. After his death this led to a series of palace coups, resulting in the accession of Catherine I (1725-1727), Anna Ioannovna (1730-1740), Elisabeth Petrovna (1741-1761) and Catherine the Great (1762-1796). Finally in 1797 Tsar Paul I issued a ukase on the question, declaring that the succession was to be based on seniority and again only via the male line. After that the law was never breached.
Nicholas II had had four daughters in a row (Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia). As long as no male child was born, his younger brother Mikhail Alexandrovich was thus the official heir. For this reason the birth of a son, the fifth child, was an exceptionally important occurrence for Nicholas and his wife, Alexandra.
In his Diary for 30 July [O.S.] the tsar wrote: ‘An unforgettable and great day, on which we received so evident a sign of God’s love. At a quarter past one in the afternoon Alix had a son, who was named Alexei during prayers. Everything proceeded at a remarkable pace. As always I was with Mamma in the morning […] then I joined Alix to eat […] Half an hour later the happy event took place. No words are adequate to thank God for the consolation he has bestowed on us in this year of difficult tribulations […]’.
Tsarevich Alexei Nikolayevich, 1904
The happiness of Nicholas and Alexandra knew no bounds. The boy was healthy and a delight and soon became the family’s darling. ‘He is an amazingly calm baby, he almost never cries’, the happy father wrote in his Diary. A wet nurse was invited, but his mother never left the boy’s side. The tsarina’s intimate friend Anna Vyrubova describes little Alexei, ‘I saw the tsarevich in the tsarina’s arms. How beautiful and contented he was. With his golden locks, blue eyes and a wise expression on his face that was unusual for a child of his age.’
His christening was fixed for 11 August [O.S.] and was celebrated in the Church of Saints Peter and Paul in the Grand Palace at Peterhof. According to the tradition of the orthodox church his parents were not present. The most important godfather was the tsar’s uncle, Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich, while the Dowager-Tsarina Maria Fyodorovna was the main godmother. After the ritual the tsar presented his tiny son with the highest Russian order, the gold chain of Saint Andrew. The population of St Petersburg heard the news of the event via a twenty-one gun salute from the fortress of Peter and Paul, those in Moscow from the Secret Tower of the Kremlin. After the christening the diplomats who came to congratulate the family were invited to breakfast. A manifesto was also issued on the occasion, offering favours to the tsar’s subjects: amnesties or shorter sentences for prisoners, the abolition of corporal punishments, aid to orphans and the like.
But the family’s happiness was short-lived. Less than a month later the delightful boy baby whom everyone had welcomed with such joy, gave his parents the bitterest possible disappointment. Little Alexei’s navel suddenly started to bleed and it was beyond the power of the famous doctors who were called in to stop it. It was not until the second day that they managed to staunch the flow. From that moment on the health of the heir to the throne was the foremost problem for Nicholas and Alexandra both as parents and as heads of state. The family’s anxiety was made still greater by the fact haemophilia was hereditary in the dynasty of Hesse-Darmstadt. The disease was incurable and some members of this family had suffered from it. Queen Victoria had passed it on to her daughters Beatrice and Alice (Alexandra’s mother). Frederick who was Alice’s son and Alexandra’s brother, had died of it at the age of three.
The tradition of members of the tsar’s family being as it were ‘adopted’ by heads of guard divisions had a long history in tsarist Russia. For an heir to the throne to be made commander of a regiment was an exceptional honour. Only a few days after the birth of the tsarevich, the hetman or commander of the Astrakhan regiment of the Cossacks received a telegram from the tsar: ‘It is with great joy that I instruct you to inform the Cossacks of the Astrakhan unit that the Heir to the Throne Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaevich is appointed hetman of all the Cossack regiments. Nicholas .’
When the heir to the throne was a little older, the decision was made to start introducing him to the regiments that he was to command. In this context it is worth quoting the reminiscences of General Krasnov, who was there when the tsarevich was presented to the Astrakhan regiment. ‘His Highness took his successor by the hand and went slowly with him past the front line of the Cossacks […] And when His Highness walked on […], the Cossacks wept and waved their swords in their rough calloused hands.’
When the tsarevich was a year and a half old, he was introduced to the Finnish regiment. Nicholas II’s diary entry for 12 December 1905 reads: ‘At half past ten a church parade was held in the Exerzierhaus: for the first company of the Page corps, the Finnish regiment and the platoon of the Volyn regiment. Alexei was present and he conducted himself well. After the clergy had sprinkled with troops with holy water I took him by the arm and carried him along the front rank. The first time that the Finns and their commander saw each other.’ The occasion was depicted by the artist Boris Kustodiev in a painting of 1906, The solemn parade of the Guard of the Finnish regiment.
Pierre Gilliard, Major General Voyeikov, Tsarevich Alexis, Charles Sydney Gibbes, Pyotr Vassilievich Petrov
The tsar soon started taking his son to inspections and manoeuvres of army units to show him the role and power of an army for the survival of a state. Many regiments and private individuals gave the little boy presents. A delegation of Siberian Cossacks for example brought him a miniature Cossack battle outfit, with rifle, sword, lance and cartridge box. Workers from the Perm metal forging factories made a model of a cannon. Other sorts of presents were also made for him. From one of the factories in the Ural region he was given a collection of miniature farm tools and the pupils of the trade school in Odessa gave him a set of fitters’ tools. One of the most original presents was a working model of a printing press, given to him by the inmates of a Russian jail. One of the most remarkable ones was the electric train brought by the president of France.
When he was a little older, the tsarevich was provided with a tutor. This was the retired boatswain of the Imperial yacht Standart, Andrei Derevenko, who accompanied him everywhere. Except for his sisters however, he had no children of his own age to play with. Only the two sons of Derevenko and the son of the doctor Botkin were allowed to play and have fun with him. In general only a limited circle of people had access to the tsar’s family. The only place in Tsarskoe Selo where the family could go for a walk was the royal park.
Alexei grew up as a lively, energetic and even naughty young boy, but the adults of the family had to keep an eye on him all the time. They did all they could to protect the boy against any possible traumas. He loved working with his father in the park. They sawed down old trees and planted new ones, swept the snow away in the winter and built snowmen. The family spent the summer in the Crimea in the deep south of the country. There they went for long walks along the coast or in the mountains or they sailed in a boat or yacht.
Alexei with Andrei Derevenko
This was not the only instance, when doctors’ efforts had proved in vain, that Alexandra Fyodorovna sought her salvation with people with paranormal gifts, quack doctors and ‘wise old men’. She had ceased to have any faith in official medicine. Grigori Rasputin was recommended to her for the first time in 1907. He came late in the evening, saw how the boy and his mother were suffering and remained seated by Alexei’s bed, saying prayers. In the morning the child had recovered. From then on the family began to believe in the miraculous power of the ‘wise old man’ and appealed to him for help on many occasions.
The first time Rasputin is mentioned as having been at the court of the tsar was 1905. ‘We had the good fortune’, Nicholas wrote in his Diary, to meet the man of God Grigori from the province of Tobolsk’. Despite Russian society’s growing dislike of Rasputin, the tsarina ‘accepted him unconditionally’; for her it was enough that he knew how to relieve her son’s suffering.
The French ambassador Maurice Paléologue gives us a sharp character sketch of the man. ‘His gaze was both fierce and endearing, naive and cunning, distant and severe. During a serious discussion it was as though his pupils radiated magnetic waves […]’.
The most serious occurrence took place in the Belovezhski forest (now on the border of Belarus and Poland) in 1912. This great expanse of forest was one of the tsar’s favourite hunting grounds and he often went there with his entourage. The woods were famous for their wealth of game such as roe deer, bison and aurochs. The boatswain Derevenko describes the visit of the tsarevich whom Nicholas had brought with him in his diaries. They ‘sailed in rowing boats, they went into the forest in motor boats and saw twenty aurochs and a wild boar, they looked for mushrooms, built a campfire in the garden, cooked the mushrooms’. On 6 and 7 September the note is by someone else: ‘In the morning we stayed home, his leg was hurting and a compress was put on it, we played cards.’ And the next day: ‘The heir to the throne is still not well. We didn’t go out for a walk, we played draughts and did some drawing.’
Tsarevich Alexei Nikolayevich and Grigorii Rasputin
But they were powerless to do anything. The bleeding in his groin caused him unbearable pain, his temperature rose to 40 degrees centigrade, sometimes he lost consciousness. His condition was so bad that everyone was prepared for the worst. Alexandra did not leave his side for a minute. In a state of total desperation she ordered Anna Vyrubova to send a telegram to Rasputin, who at that moment was in his own homeland in Siberia. Next day they got his answer, ‘God has seen your tears and heard your prayers. Don’t be sad, the little boy is not going to die. Don’t let the doctors frighten him.’ The following day the bleeding stopped and the boy was able to sleep again. Vyrubova wrote,‘The boy lay there exhausted, completely worn out by the sickness, but he was alive.’
Only once Alexei had recovered a bit, did Nicholas II write his mother a letter, telling her that ‘the days from 6 to 10 October were the worst. The unhappy little fellow suffered agonies. The pains produced spasms that recurred every quarter of an hour. He was delirious […]. He could hardly sleep, or even cry; all he could do was groan and say, “Lord have mercy on me”.
Pierre Gillard, who kept a diary during the tsarevich’s last years wrote of his frequent bouts of sickness. It goes without saying that the fact that he was often ill prevented Alexei from studying seriously. It was not until 1913 that his education was at all systematic. His oldest teacher was Pyotr Petrov, who taught him Russian; Stanley Gibbs taught him English and Pierre Gillard was his French tutor. The tsarina herself took on the task of instilling in him the principles of statecraft and the Ten Commandments and she often also attended other lessons. In the Alexander Palace, where the family of the tsar lived a great deal of the year, Alexei had two rooms – a bedroom and a classroom where he had his lessons. As Gillard said, ‘with his great mental agility he would have been able to develop normally, if his sickness hadn’t prevented him. It meant that interruptions had to be allowed for, which made his education an extremely hard task, despite his natural abilities.’
In 1913 a major event was celebrated in Russia – the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty. Like the coronation, the closing festivities were held in Moscow. The ritual was planned down to the minutest details. The tsar was supposed to enter the Kremlin by foot while the tsarina and tsarevich rode on in their coach. At the time Alexei had not yet completely recovered from a bout of his sickness and was unable to walk. He had to be held in someone’s arms during the inspection of the regiments : ‘the fragile little figure of the Tsarevich stood out against the hands of a burly Cossack. The thin little arm of the Tsarevich clung to his strong broad neck, the emaciated little face of the tsarevich was so pale as to be almost transparent, and his amazingly beautiful eyes were full of grief.’
The boy’s health improved as he grew older, but nonetheless it was essential to keep an eye on him. Alexei had many toy soldiers that he loved playing with, especially when he couldn’t move about. With Derevenko and his two sons he laid out ranks of soldiers for a parade, a campaign or a charge. Playing with them gave him lessons in the science of war and in history. Among the toys was a relief map of the Battle of Borodino, that he had been given by the chamberlain Sergei Khitrovo. Not only did it give a general depiction of the war with Napoleon (1812), it also showed many separate episodes of the battle and views of the surroundings, the road and the buildings of the village of Borodino.
At home the loyal friend of the mischievous and highly active Alexei was his sister the Grand Duchess Anastasia, who was considered a ‘hopeless good-for-nothing’. The equerry Simeon Fabritski describes how Alexei raced around with the cabin boys when he was sailing on the Imperial yacht Polyarnaya zvezda (‘Polar Star’). Another contemporary describes an incident of 1913 in the Livadia Palace in the Crimea, when ‘Alexei Nikolaevich was feeling relaxed and happy and played […], with Kolya (Nikolai) Derevenko and made an incredible amount of noise, not sitting still in his chair for a moment before springing up again and diving under the table.’
‘When he got the chance he enjoyed life, like any other happy, active boy. When he was in good health, it was as if the palace was reborn, he was like a ray of sunshine lighting up everything and everyone’, wrote Pierre Gillard.
Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, Tsarevich Alexei Nikolayevich and Emperor Nicholas II at Tsarskoye Selo
As the successor to the Russian throne Alexei Nikolaevich was expected to attend many official festivities, receptions and parades. Most of them involved religious festivals of those regiments that he was commander of or where he belonged to the staff. His father had taught him from an early age to understand the art of war. He was presented with an army uniform which a number of regiments had combined to make for him and he wore it all the time, as can be seen from the many photographs that have survived. He often appeared in a sailor suit and cap with the name of the vessel ‘Standart’ on it and he wore other army uniforms just as often.
A ‘play regiment’ was specially set up for him, comprising the sons of the highest officers. Second-class naval lieutenant Derevenko was appointed commander. Military exercises, marches, inspections and gymnastic exercises to music were organized, with strict discipline being observed. On Alexei’s birthday in 1912 an inspection of the ‘play regiment’ was organized on the parade ground, in the presence of Alexei and the cream of St Petersburg society.
Alexei’s interest in military matters undoubtedly increased when the First World War broke out and Nicholas II departed for the real army. It was the first time that the tsar and his family had been separated from each other for an extended period. Alexei in particular missed his father, to whom he was devoted. On the other hand Alexandra realized that in the difficult circumstances of war the tsar had to act alone without any moral support. Gillard writes very well about this: ‘The tsar’s loneliness became burdensome. He was robbed of his greatest consolation, his family.’ In 1915 the tsarina wrote to General Headquarters in Mogilyov [now in Belarus]: ‘Our “Baby” has again gradually started asking if you couldn’t find a place for him at the Headquarters, but he would also be very upset if he had to leave me.’ It was a wretched situation for both of them, but in Autumn 1915 the tsar and his heir went to the front together. Nicholas II thought the journey to Headquarters would broaden his horizons. The tsarevich replaced his sailor’s cap with a military uniform. What Alexei did at Headquarters and how he conducted himself is known in some detail due to the copious correspondence between Nicholas and Alexandra and the reminiscences of their contemporaries.
Tsarevich Alexei Nikolayevich and Tsar Nicholas II sawing wood at Tobolsk in 1917
Later Alexei’s teachers joined him at Headquarters. But although he began his lessons again, they were not as frequent or regular as was desirable. Shabelski, the archpriest of the Russian army and fleet was at Headquarters when the tsarevich arrived. He recalls in his memoirs that, ‘Alexei Nikolaevich always breakfasted at the common table, sitting on the left hand side of the tsar. ’In the afternoon he ate with his teachers […]. Alexei Nikolaevich’s illness had a strong influence on his upbringing and education. As an invalid he was allowed a great deal of latitude and he was forgiven for things that would not have been acceptable in a healthy individual. In fact the limits of the permissible were often transgressed. To ensure that he did not become overtired, care was taken not to cram him, with all the obvious drawbacks for his progress. For instance in Autumn 1916 Alexei Nikolaevich became 13 – high school age, that is, or that of a third-class cadet – but he was unable to do fractions in arithmetic. The fact that he had fallen behind in his education could also have been due to the choice of mentors’. Shabelski was not only concerned about the heir when he was in the palace or at Headquarters; he was also thinking about his future. ‘I met him twice a day in the Palace, I saw how he related to people, how he played and indulged in pranks, and I asked myself “When he grows up, what kind of a tsar will he be?”’ But he did not come to any conclusion about him. He ended his remarks by saying, ‘The Lord has endowed the unhappy boy with marvellous natural qualities – a quick and powerful mind, resourcefulness, a warm compassionate heart, and, for a tsar, a brilliant simplicity; his mental and spiritual beauty matched his physical beauty.’
At Headquarters Alexei made friends with the cadets. They organized lessons and war games in the city gardens. He began to love the brown bread the soldiers ate. Sometimes he even refused the food at Headquarters, saying, ‘That’s not what soldiers eat.’
Many people have told the story of the tsarevich who stood on guard by his father’s tent. ‘In the summer there was one task the heir to the throne fulfilled that revealed both his love for army exercises and his affection for his father. In the morning […] before his father entered the tent Alexei was already standing with his rifle at attention before the entrance, to salute his Imperial Highness when he arrived […] and when the latter left the tent once more Alexei saluted him again; only then did he go off duty.’ The equerry Anatoli Mordvinov adds to Shabelski’s memories this detail, ‘[…] while he was waiting for his father’s arrival holding his tiny rifle […], he gave a salute; the most experienced junior officer in a model regiment of the time of Nicholas I [1825-1855] could not have performed this exercise with greater competence and elegance.’ Everyone who saw the tsarevich after his stay in the Headquarters, remarked that he was taller and more manly than before; gone were his childish fragility and his chubby cheeks, gone too was his timidity.
Alexei’s services were highly prized; in Autumn 1905 he was awarded the medal of Saint George and in May 1916 he was promoted to the rank of corporal. He spent the whole year of 1916 in the Headquarters. At the beginning of 1917 he rejoined his sisters in Tsarskoe Selo. Events then developed at breakneck speed, and on 2 March 1917 the tsar signed the document in Pskov declaring his abdication and that of Alexei, his heir. Before his definitive abdication, Nicholas II summoned his personal physician, professor Sergei Fyodorov; in the presence of Shabelski they had the following conversation: - ‘Tell me honestly, Sergei Petrovich: can Alexei Nikolaevich ever be completely cured?’ - ‘If Your Majesty believes in miracles, he can, because miracles have no limits. But if you want to know what science has to say about it, I have to tell you that there are no known cases in science of a complete cure for this disease.’ - ‘So, you regard his disease as incurable?’ - ‘Yes, Your Majesty.’ The tsarevich learned of the abdication from his tutor Pierre Gillard. An icon has been preserved for posterity to the memory of the martyr, the young tsarevich Alexei.