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Crowned in Glory
Alexandra's whole life revolved around her family. Yet private happiness had to be tempered by the duties of State. On Coronation Day, the pomp and splendor also brought terrible tragedy.
On 15 November 1895, the Grand Duchess Olga was born. As the guns of the Fortress of Peter and Paul thundered out the announcement of the birth, the people of St. Petersburg eagerly counted the shots. Three hundred would mean a son, a hundred and one, a daughter.
At the christening, the baby was taken to the church at Tsarskoe Selo in a gold coach, like a fairy princess, a mantle of gold covering her little body. "You can imagine out intense happiness now that we have such a precious little being of our own to care for and look after", wrote Alexandra to her sister.
Alexandra had often been lonely, during her first year in Russia, as Nicholas's responsibilities kept him very busy. Now, she devoted herself to the baby, and knitted endless jackets and socks for her. But ahead of her, in the spring, lay another event, quite different from the gentle domesticity of tending a first-born. The coronation of the new Tsar and Tsarina.
In the days before the coronation, Nicholas and Alexandra went into retreat at the Petrovsky Palace outside Moscow to prepare themselves for the ceremony with prayers and fasting. In the meantime, representatives of nearly all the royal houses of Europe arrived in the capital.
According to tradition , the uncrowned Tsar could not enter Moscow until the day before his coronation. On the sunny afternoon of 25 May 1896, the Tsar and his entourage made their formal entry into the city. The state entrance to the Kremlin was decorated sumptuously. Huge crowds lined the streets, from well-dressed ladies to peasants in their Sunday best, crossing themselves in emotion as the procession passed. At the head of the procession rode Nicholas surrounded by all the Grand Dukes and foreign princes. The Empresses followed in the beautiful gilt state coaches, their panels painted by the noted French 18th-century court painter, Francois Boucher.
The Dowager Empress Marie, went first. As she had already been crowned, 13 years previously, her coach was surmounted by a crown. The Empress Alexandra Feodorovna drove alone, as yet no crown on her coach. The long procession through the city lasted several hours. When it reached the Iverskaia gates, all disembarked and the Empress entered the Chapel of Our Lady, which contained the celebrated Iverskaia, a greatly venerated icon.
The coronation itself took place the next day, 26 May, in the old Ouspensky Cathedral--a magnificent setting for so impressive a ceremony.
The Cathedral had suffered greatly at the hands of Napoleon and his invading armies in 1812 but, since then, had been greatly restored. Now, it was unveiled in its ancient splendor. All the walls and pillars were covered with 15th-century frescoes depicting the Saints and scenes from the Bible.
The uniforms and robes worn by the Imperial party were woven from the finest fabrics. Fabulous jewels were on display. The Grand Duchess Ella, Alix's sister, wore her famous emeralds and the old Grand Duchess Constantine, wore her fabulous sapphires, every flawless stone two inches across. And as a backdrop to these sparkling bosoms, the altar screen of the Cathedral glittered with the purest gold and silver, encircling icons of priceless beauty.
As the coronation ceremony would last five hours, it began early. The Emperor and Empress walked to the Cathedral in a State Procession from the Kremlin. First came the Dowager Empress Marie, pale and serious, as if recalling her own happy coronation 13 years earlier. After her, each walking under a separate canopy, came Nicholas and Alexandra, attended by numerous courtiers in splendid uniforms. The Dowager Empress blazed with diamonds. The young Empress had no jewels, except for a string of pearls around her neck. At first flushed and nervous, she steadily grew in composure.
The Emperor wore the uniform of Russia's oldest regiment, the Preobrajensky. Nicholas had wanted to wear the robes of the ancient Tsars and their old, lighter crown, but iron etiquette insisted that he must wear the Imperial Crown, weighing nine pounds. This caused considerable pain as his forehead was still sensitive from the scar inflicted by the Japanese fanatic during his Far Eastern tour.
Before the altar stood members of the Russian Orthodox high clergy: metropolitans, archbishops, bishops and abbots--while at the front of the Cathedral, two coronation chairs awaited the future Tsar and Tsarina. Nicholas sat on the 17th-century Diamond Throne of Tsar Alexis--so named for the 870 diamonds encrusted in its surface. Alexandra sat next to her husband on the Ivory Throne--brought to Russia from Byzantium in the 15th century.
To Alexandra, the coronation was a time of intense emotion. Her head whirled with its mystic splendour and beauty and she felt as though she was becoming one with Russia, sealed for ever in its heart and soul. As she knelt in deep prayer with the entire congregation, the Metropolitan of the Russian Orthodox church lead a prayer for the Tsar. How Alexandra's heart went out to Nicholas when he knelt, this time all alone, while the others stood and prayed for Russia and his people. Next, the couple received Holy Communion and the Metropolitan anointed the Tsar with holy oils. Nicholas then entered the Sanctuary and received the Blessed Sacrament, just like a priest.
As Nicholas approached the altar steps, the chain of the Order of St. Andrew fell to the ground. This would have been a bad omen to the superstitious, so orders were quickly given to hush up the incident. But Alexandra was not troubled by this. She witnessed only the sunbeam that fell at that moment on her husband's head, which seemed to her a halo, so transported was she by the rituals.
The procession left the Cathedral on foot and returned to the Kremlin with the royal couple at the head. Bells pealed in all the "forty times forty" Moscow churches, cannon thundered and crowds roared.
A great banquet for 7000 guests was held in the Council Chamber of the former Tsars. According to tradition Nicholas and Alexandra dined alone, seated under a canopy wearing their robes and crowns. Foreign ambassadors drank to the Emperor's health while foreign royalty looked down from the upper gallery of the great hall, for only Russians could take part in the banquet itself. During the meal, foreign ambassadors were admitted one by one to drink the health of the Imperial couple.
Nicholas and Alexandra spent the rest of the day greeting their other guests--he still wearing the huge Imperial Crown and she still in her magnificent dress.
At the Kremlin, Alexandra had pressed a button hidden in a bouquet of roses, as evening fell. Moscow was immediately set ablaze with thousands of lights--a glimmering fairy city.
Throughout the celebrations, Alexandra looked radiant, as if reflecting the wonders that surrounded her. Her sister, Ella, looked especially magnificent in a Court gown of cream velvet embroidered with golden fuchsias. Other Grand Duchesses wore dresses of cloth of gold embroidered with autumn leaves, irises and other flowers. The immense bearded Emir of Bokhara, in oriental robes and wearing a Russian general's epaulettes made out of diamonds, caught the attention of the crowds, as did the Emperor of China's envoy. Li-Hung-Chang, unforgettable in yellow mandarin robes and peacock feathers.
Several balls and gala performances of opera and ballet had been planned to follow the Coronation. But disaster was to follow.
According to tradition, the day after the coronation belonged to the Muscovites, and a huge open-air feast for the people--to be attended by Nicholas and Alexandra--was arranged. The authorities had ordered hundreds of barrels of free beer that were to be distributed among the people, along with enameled souvenir cups.
Although many people were expected, it soon became clear that the authorities had vastly miscalculated numbers. A huge crowd gathered, eagerly awaiting their gifts. At first, all was well but, as the cartloads of beer began to arrive, a rumor started that there was not enough beer to go round, and that only those who got there first would receive any. Within minutes, what had started as a good-natured outing, suddenly became an ugly scene, as people started to run and push each other in their hurry to reach the carts. The small group of Cossacks that was on hand to keep order was soon brushed aside, and people tripped and stumbled into the ditches and trenches--soon to be trampled underfoot by the crowds. By the time the police had arrived, Khodynka looked like a battlefield.
At first, the full extent of the horror was kept from Nicholas. When he finally found out what had happened, he was horrified. Both he and Alexandra immediately wanted to cancel the grand ball scheduled to take place at the French Embassy that evening. But his advisers implored him to attend so as not to offend their French hosts--Russia's major ally. Nicholas and Alexandra relented and attended, their faces red with tears. But Alexandra went through the motions like an automation.
When the Imperial couple visited the hospitals, full of casualties, they were both deeply moved. The Tsar immediately ordered that the dead be buried in individual coffins at his own expense, rather than a common grave as had been originally intended. He also personally paid large compensations for the families of the victims.
But despite this, the impression that remained was of the dancing and festivities of the rich while thousands of poor people lay dying. The Tsar's many enemies, from radicals to revolutionaries, all pointed to the coronation as a symbol of the uncaring nature of the monarch and his "German woman".
After the coronation, Nicholas and Alexandra enjoyed a pleasant and relaxing stay with relatives, before embarking on a European tour. In the summer of 1896, they visited Vienna, Germany and Denmark, where Nicholas's grandparents lived, and then sailed to England to pay their respects to the ageing Queen Victoria.
Finally, and most memorably, they visited Paris, to cement the treaty of alliance that had been signed in 1894, the year of Alexander III's death. There, they were given a flamboyant reception. The spectacle of huge crowds lining the great boulevards and chanting "Vive L'Empereur" impressed Nicholas deeply--an impression that was to strengthen the entente between the two great nations of such contrasting political systems.
From the day of his accession until the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, Nicholas's day was divided up according to strict, unvarying rules. Breakfast was followed by interviews with ministers; afterwards there was always a short walk around the gardens; then audiences and guests for luncheon. Aftr that, a drive with his wife, more work until tea, and afterwards, more meetings with ministers until 8 pm, followed invariably by a social engagement.
Sometimes in the evening, the Tsar would take his wife on a sleigh ride far out on the "Islands", a favorite promenade in St. Petersburg. The rapid pace of the horses, the crisp snow flying under their feet, the quiet snowy Russian winter landscape--all were delights to them both. Alexandra loved her husband passionately, even fanatically, and such moments of intimacy were everything to her.
Right from the beginning of their marriage, Alexandra's life centered on her husband. Her days were arranged to seize any chance moment that the Tsar could give her. Always bright and cheerful, she was true to her childhood nickname of "Sunny", the name by which Nicholas nearly always called her. Increasingly, she came to appreciate her husband's innate chivalry, his restrained temperament and great sense of duty. More and more too, she began to realize that, however conscientiously he set about his work, he was, by temperament and inclination, unsuited for the massive role of a supreme and autocratic ruler that had been so prematurely thrust upon him. But in the early years of their marriage, she never sought to interfere with his political work, preferring instead to make a real home for her beloved husband and children.
Early in their marriage, Alexandra set about renovating and redecorating the Winter Palace and their living quarters at Tsarskoe Selo, where Nicholas had been born and had spent much of his childhood. Alexandra's tastes were deeply subjective, and her personality inevitably shone through her domestic arrangements. The walls of the private suites were lovingly hung with a discerning collection of paintings, and the tables were full of exquisite china and crystal. Yet, Alexandra was not solely a collector of antiques. Above all, she wanted these rooms to be comfortable, exuding a homely atmosphere of children and dogs rather than a cold museum.
Blissfully happy in their domestic life, Nicholas and Alexandra had three more baby daughters in four years. Tatiana was born in June 1897, followed by Marie in June 1899. In June 1901, came their fourth child, also a girl, christened, Anastasia.
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