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Heir to an Empire

When they first met, he gave her a brooch. She, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, was just 12. He was little more than a boy yet, in one brief moment, the destiny of the last of the Tsars was set.

A vast land of rolling grassy plains, great rivers and endless pine forests covered in snow, in a country of 130 million people of many different races, languages and customs, a "Prince" was born into the Royal House of Romanov on 18 May 1868.

Grandson of a Tsar and son of a future Tsar, this chubby baby boy seemed, at the time, to be the very epitome of a child born with the world at his feet--a life of privilege lay before him. But history had reserved a more tragic role for him.

Russia, a century ago, was a great empire stretching from the Baltic Sea in the west to the Pacific Ocean in the east, its entire destiny controlled by one man--the Tsar. The Tsar's power was absolute. He spent most of his time in the great capital cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, with their fabulous palaces and ornately decorated churches, home of the religious leaders, the long-bearded priests of the Russian Orthodox Church.

A Tsar is Born

The fantastic, glittering court of the Romanovs and the sumptuous pomp and pageantry of the church was a long way from life in the Russian villages. "It is very far to the Tsar," ran an old Russian proverb, and for the millions of simple peasants who were his subjects, life had hardly changed during the 400 years since the days of the first "Tsar of all the Russias", Ivan IV or more commonly known nowadays as "Ivan the Terrible."

By the end of the 19th century, there were rumblings in the empire. The coming of the railroads had opened up the previously scattered and isolated towns and villages to trade and travel, while in the cities people were becoming better educated. There were growing demands that the Voice of the People be heard.

Who, of the glittering array of courtiers and prominent nobility that attended the christening, would have predicted that the baby, Nicholas Alexandrovich, was destined to be the last Tsar of Imperial Russia?

Life at Gatchina

Nicholas's early years were dominated by the larger-than-life personality of his father, Alexander III, who dominated his children as he was one day to dominate Russia. Huge and bear like at six feet four inches tall, he was an enormously strong man who could bend iron bars with his bare hands. He subjected his children to a disciplined regime, and extended this particularly to Nicholas, to toughen him up for his future role as supreme ruler of all Russia.

Life at Gatchina was strict. In the morning, Nicholas's father would rise at seven and have an ice-cold bath, and his young son was expected to follow suit. Next came a simple peasant breakfast of porridge, boiled eggs and rye bread. At lunchtime, the children ate separately from that of the Emperor and Empress.

Despite all his father's good efforts, Nicholas grew up a gentle, good-natured child, greatly enjoying the company and friendship of his younger brother George. His mother, Marie, was another natural ally. A gay, fun-loving woman, who relished their hectic social life of the St. Petersburg aristocracy, she was an extremely devoted mother, and was especially protective of her shy son.

Birth of a Princess

Nicholas was growing up in the bewildering complex of a palatial home near St. Petersburg, in the sleepy old town of Darmstadt in Germany, inside a Grand Duke's Palace surrounded by cobble stoned streets and chestnut trees, a little Princess cast sunshine all around her. Her father, Prince Louis, was Grand Duke of the Province of Hesse; her mother, Princess Alice, was the second daughter of Queen Victoria. Born on 6 June 1872, she was christened, on her parents' wedding anniversary, Victoria Alix Helena Louise Beatrice. She was called Princess Alix, but will always be remembered as Alexandra, the last Empress of Russia.

By all accounts, the little Princess was an exceptionally beautiful baby. Her mother, Princess Alice, wrote to Queen Victoria: "Baby is like [her sister] Ella, only with smaller features, and still darker eyes, with very black lashes, and reddish brown hair. She is a sweet, merry little person, always laughing."

A Baby Dies

was a warm and loving family, but one which was soon to suffer tragedy. One day in 1873, while Alice watched helpless and horrified, her baby boy, Prince Frederick, fell to his death from an upstairs window. The grief-stricken Alice somehow pulled herself together for the sake of the other children. Besides, she had her darling baby daughter, whom she nicknamed Sunny, for her smile. "Sunny in pink is immensely admired" she wrote to Victoria.

Alix, the Sunny Princess, spent most of her babyhood in the nursery of the house, known as the New Palace, in Darmstadt.

The nursery at Darmstadt was ruled by "Orchie", Mrs. Orchard, the classic Victorian English nanny--kind but firm. Life in the nursery, and later in the schoolroom, followed strict and very English rules, on the same lines as those laid down by Queen Victoria for her own nine children. Modesty in all things was the order of the day. Little Princess Alix's mother and father both gave away a great deal of their money to charity and, following the expense of building and maintaining the New Palace in Darmstadt, they were far from rich.

A Happy Childhood

Alix was brought up to follow the old-fashioned English virtue of "waste not, want not". The children's clothes and toys were simple and the food was plain. Not that the little Princess Alix cared much for dolls. To her, they did not seem "real" enough. Her naturally warm and loving nature drew her instead to animals--dogs and cats that responded well to the child's careful caresses.

Alix's party games were all great favorites with her. But the greatest favorite of all was dressing up. All the old boxes in her mother's wardrobe would be raided and brought out, and Alix and her brother and sisters would teeter around in the long, twisting corridors of the New Palace in high heels, boots, crinolines and furs, pretending, as they descended the grand staircase, to be fairy kings and queens.

Nanny Orchard's strict regime, the children were full of impish fun. A small pony carriage with a liveried footman at its head, designed to carry the children about the palace grounds, was often seen to career about wildly. One day, while playing a mad game of hide and seek with her brother Ernie, the six-year-old Alix fell through some glass panes in the garden. Her legs were badly cut by the glass, and she was to carry the scars of her adventurous high spirits all her life.

were often spent in one of the fairytale castles overlooking the Rhine. But winters were always spent in Darmstadt. Christmas in the New Palace was a particularly memorable occasion--a great family feast in which the entire household took part. But the poor of the town were not forgotten. Princess Alice made sure that gifts from her family were sent to all the hospitals--a tradition that Alix was later to continue as Tsarina.

Some of the most delightful of Alix's childhood memories were the visits to England to stay with her beloved grandmother, Queen Victoria. Alexandra would later delight in recalling to her own envious children the walks around the grounds of Balmoral and joyful memories of paddling and crab-hunting in English seaside resorts.

Tragedy Strikes

Sadly, one day in November 1878, tragedy struck Darmstadt when the incurable disease of diphtheria broke out in the New Palace. The entire family, with the exception of Princess Ella, went down with it. For a while, Princess Alix was the most dangerously ill of all of them. On 12 November, her mother telegraphed Queen Victoria. "This is dreadful," she wrote, "my sweet precious Alicky so ill. The doctor at once saw that it was a severe case."

At that time, in the absence of vaccination and other forms of preventive treatment, there was simply nothing that the medical profession could do. Grand Duchess Alice nursed her daughter constantly, sitting up with her the whole night, and going anxiously from one bed to another of her stricken family.

On 16 November, the youngest daughter, May, died. The other children, including Alix, began to pull through. But the Grand Duchess herself was exhausted. On 8 December, she too fell ill. She could no longer hold on, and finally passed away on 14 December 1878, aged 35, amid scenes of terrible family grief. Alix, only six years old, was devastated.

After her mother's death, Princess Alix spent much of her childhood in England where Queen Victoria personally supervised her upbringing and took it upon herself to ensure that she received a first-class English education. Alix was an excellent student who enjoyed most subjects, particularly politics, and had developed into a fine pianist. Her favorite tutor was an Englishwoman, Margaret Jackson, known as "Madgie".

The First Meeting

Growing up in Russia, Nicholas was educated by a succession of tutors. But the most important one, Constantine Pobedonostsev, was a bigot, full of racial and religious prejudices, who opposed all reforms and, above all, hated parliaments and free elections. But he was also a brilliant teacher, and his job was to instill in Nicholas's impressionable young mind the importance of his mission as the future Tsar of Russia.

He taught Nicholas that the Tsars were appointed by God whose will must never be challenged, and that any opposition from the people must, therefore, be crushed. In March 1881, something happened which seemed to Nicholas to underline the truth of his tutor's teachings. Nicholas's grandfather, Tsar Alexander II, known as the Tsar--Liberator because he freed the serfs, was blown to pieces by a terrorist bomb. The dying Tsar was brought back to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, and Nicholas, aged 13, watched in horror from the end of the bed as the doctors announced, "The Emperor is dead."

On that day, Nicholas's father, Alexander III, vowed that he would rule Russia with an iron hand--all opposition was to be ruthlessly crushed. He was determined that his son would one day uphold the absolute authority of the Tsar.

He accepted the views of his father and his tutor Pobedonostsev. But, unlike his father, he did not look or act like a great autocrat. Instead, he was an extremely charming young man, quite short and thin, with a smile described by a friend as "tender, shy, slightly sad."

In 1884, Princess Alix, aged 12, arrived in St. Petersburg for the first time to attend the wedding of her sister, Ella, to Grand Duke Serge, Nicholas's uncle. The wedding was held in the Winter Palace and Alix watched in awe as a golden coach drawn by white horses carried her sister to the chapel. During the wedding service, she caught the eye of the 16-year-old Nicholas. He would never forget what she was wearing that day--a white muslin dress with roses in her hair. A few days later, at a children's party, he pressed a small brooch into her hand. Flattered, she accepted at first, but then shyly returned the gift.

Next Chapter -- Star-Crossed Lovers