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Shadows of Darkness
Despite the Tsar and Tsarina's outward opulence, gloom was drawing in on all sides. There were strikes, military defeats and assassination attempts--and the charismatic figure of Rasputin appeared on the scene.
Nicholas was content in his domestic life, but his problems as leader of the Russian Empire were enormous. Soon after his accession, he had made it clear that he would continue the policies of his father, and he dismissed as "senseless dreams" a deputation of Zemstvo--popular council delegates--for daring to suggest that they might participate in governing the country.
Surrounded by many irresponsible favorites, including his three powerful uncles who often attempted to bully him, Nicholas was presented with a distorted picture of Russian life. Unfortunately, he distrusted many of his better advisers, fearing the loss of his sovereign powers.
Yet, through all his political troubles, Nicholas's view of his role as Tsar remained almost childishly simple. He had been elected by God, and only God could remove him. All who opposed him or sought to influence him to become more liberal, he suspected of being devilish conspirators. The problem was that Nicholas was forever trying to be something he was not. A naturally gentle and somewhat indecisive man, he was entirely without the qualities required to be a tough and tyrannical ruler.
Eventually, the uncertainties and indecisions of his reign resulted in Russia's humiliating naval defeat at the hands of the Japanese in 1904. Nicholas was confronted with a growing revolutionary movement which came to a head in a wave of strikes, demonstrations, riots, and massacres of Jews throughout Russia in 1905. He reacted by giving orders to suppress the uprising, using the secret police, the Okhrana, and the full force of military power at his disposal. Perhaps the worst example of this short-sighted policy occurred in January 1905, when a demonstration of peaceful, unarmed protesters led by a radical priest, Father Gapon, went to the Tsar. They were met by bayonet-wielding Cossacks on horseback. This event, known as "Bloody Sunday", reinforced the feeling of some Russians that the Tsar was not their protector, as they hoped, but rather their uncaring enemy.
In spite of such alarming scenes, both at home and abroad, one ray of sunshine was allowed to enter the lives of Nicholas and Alexandra. On 12 August 1904, the longed-for son and heir to the throne of Russia, the Tsarevich Alexis Nicholaievich, was born. This child was the answer to so many heartfelt prayers. Alexandra had waited for him for so long, that her overwhelming joy was clear to all who saw this outwardly reserved woman pouring out her soul in intense prayer in church. Nicholas wrote in his diary: "A great, never-to-be-forgotten day, when the mercy of God has visited us so clearly."
For Nicholas, the birth of this "sunbeam" almost went so far as to outweigh in his mind all his political setbacks. The baby's christening at the Peterhof Palace on 24 August 1904 was like a pageant, and King George V of England (then Prince of Wales) was among the illustrious godparents. A great ceremony was held in honor of the birth of the new heir and was surrounded with a splendor to match its importance.
Alexis, the baby Tsarevich, was appointed honorary colonel of many regiments, and military decorations were showered upon his little head. As a public sign of his joy, Nicholas ordered amnesties of political prisoners and made large donations to various charities.
At his baptism, old Princess Galitzine, who had lived through the reign of many Tsars, carried the baby in her arms. So terrified was she of falling over, that she had rubber soles fixed to her shoes so that she would not slip on the marble floor.
Lying on a golden pillow, the baby was covered by a gold cloth lined with ermine, and cried loudly when old Father Yanisheff, the family priest, dipped him into the font.
According to Russian custom, the parents were not present at the baptism itself, but his small sisters, in short Court dresses, gazed open-eyed and somewhat nervously at the ceremony lest the elderly priest drop the precious parcel in the font. Olga, now aged nine, was given the privilege of becoming a godmother.
Six weeks after the christening, Alexandra noticed blood seeping from the baby's navel. The next day the bleeding stopped, but his parents' fears had been aroused. When he was a year old, Alexis started crawling about independently, but after the occasional tumble, his mother noticed large bumps and bruises on his arms and legs.
In deadly terro, but without speaking of it to anyone, Alexandra watched her darling with a fear in her heart that she dared not put into words. As the child grew older and more active, he developed typical swellings that pointed to haemophilia, the then incurable, untreatable blood disease. One of Alexandra's uncles had suffered from it and Alexandra realized that her only son, her beloved "Sunbeam", had that same terrible condition.
In Nicholas's heart all the battleships lost at the hands of the Japanese, all the strikes, revolts and attempted assassinations could not compare with the cruel blow dealt him through the pain wracked body of his little boy.
For years, this gentle and loving family man had desperately sought to be a strong and decisive monarch. But it was proving impossible to carry the burden alone, and more and more he found himself turning to his wife for support. She has the strength of character and the sheer willpower that he lacked, and when it came to making tough decisions, he fell completely under her influence.
In 1906, urged on by Alexandra, Nicholas took back all the concessions he had made to a free parliament. From that moment, no matter how great the opposition he faced, Alexandra never allowed him to forget that he, and he alone, was the supreme ruler of Russia.
But the couple had other troubles. At first, they had clung to the hope that their son's hemophilia was only a mild form of the disease. But the boy fell ill again. Because the condition had been passed down to her son through her, Alexandra felt forever burdened by a terrible sense of responsibility. The look of deep and inconsolable sadness that would come over her now settled on her forever.
For the sake of the boy's future, and the future of the monarchy, the parent's decided to hide their tragic secret from the world. The nature of the Tsarevich's complaint was unknown to almost all of Russia. Rumors flew; he was born defective, he was no longer alive, but no one knew for certain what was going on inside the walls of the Imperial Palace. More and more, Nicholas and Alexandra withdrew into a world of their own.
In 1912, Russia celebrated the centenary of the defeat of Napoleon's armies at Moscow. As part of the celebrations, the Imperial Family made a hunting trip to Poland. During this visit, the Tsarevich Alexis, then aged eight, injured himself while jumping out of a boat. Internal hemorrhaging heralded the most dangerous attack he was ever to suffer, and a further fall caused a bad relapse.
At first, the little boy cried loudly and continually, "Mama help me." In his earlier attacks, Alexandra, whose interest in hospitals had taught her the techniques of a skilled nurse, managed to soothe him and ease his pain. But now, she was powerless, and so were the doctors. "When I am dead, it will not hurt any more, will it?" Alexis would ask his helpless mother. As his strength gave out, his cries became a constant wailing which grew hoarser and hoarser, his gray eyes like sunken coals in his wan drawn face. In the evenings, Alexandra would sit with him, stroking his forehead and pressing his hands. Nicholas would pace up and down, his face haggard with anxiety.
It was at this stage that Alexandra turned in despair to a wandering faith healer and holy man, Gregory Rasputin. There had always been a mystical side to Alexandra's nature, and often in the past she had sought the advice of spiritualists and clairvoyants. Rasputin was summoned to the Palace and he prayed by the bedside.
It seemed to Alexandra that there was an improvement in the boy when Rasputin came, yet the doctors had told her that there was nothing more that could be done. Rasputin's message was consoling--the boy would not die. And, indeed, the next day, Alexis was better and continued to recuperate. The doctors pronounced him out of danger, and although he was to have further attacks later, Alexandra was convinced she had witnessed a miracle.
Problems crowded in on the Empress at this time. The glittering balls she attended angered the masses, even though they were social obligations that she herself might have wished to avoid.
Every evening, at a succession of balls, banquets and receptions, stunning dresses and fabulous jewels would be paraded against the imposing setting of the Winter Palace. Young officers wore beautiful uniforms--every regiment of guards had a special "gala" uniform. At Grand Balls, the Imperial servants wore special gold and scarlet liveries. Even the pages wore expensive feathered headgear, while the celebrated black ushers at the Winter Palace--one of them an American called Jim Hercules--wore Oriental costumes, lending a touch of the exotic East.
At a Grand Ball, the entrance of the Imperial couple would be heralded by the master of ceremonies tapping an ivory-topped cane with the Imperial eagle embossed in gold. The ball would then open with a stately dance--the Polonaise--which, by tradition, the Tsar and his wife would be expected to lead.
At the smaller concert balls (attended by some 800 revelers), the highest point would be supper under the palms in the conservatory of the Winter Palace. These sumptuous feasts became famous throughout the world for their superb cuisine.
Yet, for all the opulence and outward gaiety of these functions, neither Nicholas nor Alexandra relished the obligations of the St. Petersburg season. Nicholas, shy and timid by nature, tended to shun close contacts with his subjects and seemed to be able to relax only in the intimacy of his close family circle.
Alexandra was also a naturally shy person. At Grand Balls, when up to 2000 people were invited and she was expected to be introduced to half of them in an evening, she often found herself wishing the ground would swallow her up. Often her awkward Russian would falter, and she would blush deeply and look ill at ease. Coming to the position of Empress at such a young age, she had not the time to build up an intimate circle of friends to support and protect her during the rigors of social duty. There was no opportunity to get to know anyone better at official functions, and at the Court of the Tsar, where everything that happened was ordered by unalterable tradition, there was little opportunity for more informal gatherings. St. Petersburg society never really got to know Alexandra. Instead, her timidity was ascribed to haughtiness, her reserve to pride. Matters were not helped by what people saw as a sense of prudishness on Alexandra's part. Scandalized by the flaunted love affairs of St. Petersburg society, Alexandra crossed more and more names off the Palace invitations list--which only served to add to the antagonism against her.
Sadly, despite her considerable work for charity, particularly her patronage of hospitals, the Tsarina Alexandra never achieved a popular following among the Russian people.
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