The Borki train crash of 1888

The Romanovs had been frequent passengers of the Russian railways since the middle of the 19th Century. Boarding on the Imperial train at St Petersburg, they would start their journey to various locations including the Crimea, considered by many as the Russian Riviera, a beloved summer retreat of the family. After arriving at Sevastopol station, the Tsar and those accompanying him would take carriages to Livadia Palace in Yalta. There the days were quiet and peaceful as the Imperial family enjoyed the freedom of being outdoors without having to worry about protocols and safety risks, typical of the life at the Russian Court.

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Tsar Alexander III and his family c. 1889.

On October of 1888, Tsar Alexander III, his wife and children were returning to Saint Petersburg after a trip to the Crimea. Everything seemed fine; the family was having breakfast at the dining car and the train was running at high speed since the Tsar liked to travel fast, even though it was not advisable. When approaching the small village of Borki, the floor began to shake out of control as the locomotive and four cars derailed, crashing into the back ones before falling down a hill near the tracks, causing a horrific accident. Twenty-one people died instantly and many were left injured.

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The imperial train after the accident, 1888.

The Imperial family was miraculously spared. According to a letter sent from Nicholas to his uncle, they were thrown off their chairs with the impact and the table flew over his head. Still in shock from what had happened, the Tsarevich was relieved after realizing that his parents and siblings were well. The scene of the disaster, however, was catastrophic – the train had been destroyed beyond repair and there was blood everywhere – while some of the injured tried to climb out of the wreckage, others shouted out in pain, surrounded by those that had perished. According to official reports, Alexander III held the collapsed roof of the dining car on his shoulders, helping others to escape. The Tsar was undoubtedly a strong man, although some argued that this heroic feat did not actually happened.

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View of the crash scene.

An investigation began soon after in order to determine the cause of the accident, only to end with a conflict between the three investigators. Sergei Witte insisted that the crash had been caused by speeding, while Koni blamed the railroad officials and Kirpichev pointed out at rotten wooden ties. Nevertheless, Alexander III chose to promote Witte to Director of State Railways and let the two others go.

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Imperial train wagons after the accident.

When the news of the accident broke out, many Russians saw the survival of the Romanovs as a Divine intervention. A number of icons was gifted to the Tsar and his family in celebration of the miracle. A local landowner, Alexander Kuznetsov, also had the Church of Christ’s Resurrection built in Crimea to mark the event.
Although the family seemed to have escaped unharmed, the death of Alexander III in 1894 was later linked to the blunt kidney trauma suffered during the train crash.

Sources:
PERRY, John Curtis and PLESHAKOV, Constantine V. (2001) The Flight of the Romanovs – A Family Saga
MONTEFIORE, Simon Sebag (2016) The Romanovs: 1613-1918
Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia (2018) Borki Train Disaster
Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia (2018) Foros Church

The Romanov’s first visit to France

Tsar Nicholas II’s coronation took place at the Cathedral of the Dormition in Moscow on 26 May, 1896. After the ceremony, the Imperial couple was expected to travel to various Courts on both private and state visits, which they did, first arriving in Vienna on August 27th to meet the Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife Empress Elisabeth. After a few days, they left for Kiev in order to tour several institutions, and later for Breslau – in Germany – at the invitation of their cousin Kaiser Wilhem. Nicholas and Alexandra had the opportunity to see other cousins before continuing their journey, this time to Copenhagen, where they spent ten days with the Tsar’s maternal grandparents King Christian IX and Queen Louise of Denmark. In September, the couple went on board the Standart where they reunited with their first-born Olga and sailed to Scotland to visit Queen Victoria. Following a marvelous time spent amongst the British royals, the Romanovs finally arrived in France.

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Souvenir of Nicholas and Alexandra’s visit to Paris, 1896.

The state visit was a very important one, as Nicholas II was the first Tsar to set foot in French soil since the treaty of alliance had been signed by both countries in 1894. Despite the vast differences in their political structures – a republic and an absolute autocracy – the Franco-Russian entente had very strong ties that began at the end of the 1880’s, when the strained relationships with Germany made for a favorable approach of the two nations. This agreement granted loans of large sums of money to Russia to invest in the army and build railways, and in return, the French would get (and provide, if needed) military aid in face of a German attack.

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Nicholas II, Alexandra Feodorovna and Olga Nikolaevna, 1896.

The Imperial family received the warmest greetings from the crowds as they drove from Cherbourg to Paris, passing through the carefully decorated buildings, streets and chestnut trees that were covered with artificial blooms – Nicholas and Alexandra in the leading carriage – and ten-month-old Olga Nikolaevna with her nanny in another just behind them. Much to the delight of the Tsar, all eyes were on the Grand Duchess, who captured the hearts of the public by graciously waving at them. Wherever she went, one could hear the shouts “Vive le bébé et la nounou”, “Vive la Grande Duchess”.

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The Romanovs being greeted by the French people near the Arc de Triomphe, 1896.

In Paris, they were welcomed by President Félix Faure at Élysée Palace, and received various gifts from him such as toys for the baby and a Gobelin tapestry to the Tsarina. The number of functions to attend in only five days was enormous, including visits to the Louvre, the Panthéon, the Invalides, Ste. Chapelle and Notre Dame. Nicholas II also laid the foundation stone of Pont Alexandre III, before they left for Mint, Sevres and Versailles. The last one was perhaps the most interesting to Alexandra, where she was assigned Marie Antoinette’s rooms at the Palace for one night, and enjoyed a theatrical performance after the state dinner.

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Nicholas and Alexandra with President Félix Faure in Paris, 1896.

At the end of the tour, a magnificent military review was set up to properly pay farewell to the Romanovs. From there, the family went to visit Ernst Ludwig, Alexandra’s brother, in Germany for nine days before returning to Russia. Both the Tsar and Tsarina would cherish the memories of their wonderful stay in France for the rest of their lives.

Sources:
Massie, Robert K. (1967) Nicholas and Alexandra
Rappaport, Helen (2014) The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra
Buxhoeveden, Sophie (1928) The Life and Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna, Empress of Russia A Briography
Vovk, Justin C. (2014) Imperial Requiem: Four Royal Women and the Fall of the Age of Empires
Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia (2018) Franco-Russian Alliance

The Romanovs and the Red Cross

The Russian Red Cross was established by the order of Tsar Alexander II in 1867 with the purpose of helping prevent and alleviate suffering during wars and conflict by providing assistance to the wounded. The Tsar’s wife, Maria Alexandrovna, was in charge of the charity.
When Russia entered World War I in 1914, there was a shortage of nurses to tend the thousands of soldiers brought to the hospitals from the battlefields. As a result, the Red Cross initiated a number of nursing training programs throughout the country, reducing the year-long medical teaching to only two months of preparation. Several women from the Russian court enlisted and others helped by donating money and setting up hospitals. The Imperial family was also devoted to this endeavor with Alexandra Feodorovna and her two eldest daughters, Olga and Tatiana, completing the nursing training course.

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Alexandra Feodorovna with Olga and Tatiana as Red Cross nurses.

The Tsarina was fully committed to her new role as a nurse. The Catherine Palace at Tsarskoe Selo was turned into a military hospital, in addition to the other eighty-five that had been opened under her patronage. Alexandra, who suffered from chronic pain, spent the following months dedicating her full time to caring for those in need. She would change old dressings, clean and bandage the wounds of soldiers, as well as assisting the most difficult procedures, such as amputations. Sitting next to the soldiers’s beds and talking to them was another part of her daily routine, and many would often be surprised and emotional to see her up and about, caring for them, following up on how they were feeling with such consideration.
Her work inspired many Russian ladies, who would often help on the confection of bandages, linen and other supplies. Donations of food, clothing, blankets and several other items were also collected and redistributed throughout the country.

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Alexandra Feodorovna with Dr. Vera Gedroitz in 1915.

Olga and Tatiana had similar tasks as of their mother, like changing bandages, sterilizing surgical instruments and keeping company to the wounded. After some time, they were allowed to assist surgeries, starting with smaller procedures and quickly progressing into more serious ones, like the removal of bullets and amputations. The girls enjoyed being around the nurses and soldiers, to whom they were always talking, sharing stories and taking photographs.

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Grand Duchesses Tatiana and Olga with nurses and wounded soldiers.

The Big Pair was also trusted with their own positions in committees, Olga as vice-president of the Special Committee of Petrograd and Tatiana as patron and participant of the Committee of Her Imperial Highness the Grand Duchess Tatiana Nikolaevna for the Temporary Relief of Victims of War or the “Tatiana Committee” as it became known. The first had the purpose of raising funds for the Supreme Council and the second focused on helping refugees.

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Grand Duchesses Tatiana and Olga with patients in 1915.

Tatiana’s Committee was first financed by the Tsar’s funds and the state, but it did not take long until they began receiving donations from different fundraising initiatives. The charity helped refugees (and on various occasions non-refugees) in many different ways, like reuniting families, providing food, clothes and shelter. The funds were also used to set up orphanages and hospitals.

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The “Tatiana Committee” gathered with Alexandra, Olga and Tatiana in 1915.

Maria and Anastasia were considered to be too young to work as nurses, so instead the Little Pair became patronesses of their own hospital near the Alexander Palace, which received the name Hospital of Grand Duchesses Maria and Anastasia. Occasionally, Alexandra would let them watch the nurses tending to the wounded, but their work focused mainly on hospital visits. They were very serious about their duties, always visiting the soldiers, playing board games, talking and reading to them. The girls supported fundraising charities and helped lift the spirits of the bed-ridden men with their kindness and dedication.

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Grand Duchesses Anastasia and Maria visiting wounded soldiers at their hospital.

The Tsar’s mother, Maria Feodorovna, served as the president of Russia’s Red Cross. Besides visiting the wounded, she financed several charities, including orphanages, hospitals, schools and sanitary trains.

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Empress Dowager Maria Feodorovna (center) with Red Cross nurses and her daughter Olga Alexandrovna (sitting in front of her).

Olga Alexandrovna, Nicholas II’s younger sister, also worked as a nurse during the war. The Grand Duchess had previous medical experience acquired at the hospital she had funded out of her own pocket years ago. Unlike the others, Olga worked very close to the frontlines of her regiment, in Rovno, where she once found herself caught under Austrian fire. Due to this feat, she was awarded the Order of Saint George by General Mannerheim.

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Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna as a Red Cross nurse.

The family’s work was interrupted when the revolution broke out in 1917. Despite feeling the emotional and physical strain of such arduous work, the Imperial women devoted themselves to the Red Cross by helping the wounded and those who were somehow affected by the war.

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Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia with hospital patients in 1914.

Sources:
Massie, Robert K. (1967) Nicholas and Alexandra
Rappaport, Helen (2014) The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra
Buxhoeveden, Sophie (1928) The Life and Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna, Empress of Russia A Briography
Fleming, Candace (2014) The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia
Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia (2017) Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna of Russia
Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia (2017) Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia
Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia (2017)  Maria Feodorovna (Dagmar of Denmark)

The Engagement and Wedding of Nicholas and Alexandra

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Engagement photograph of Nicholas and Alix, 1894.

Nicholas and Alix first met in June of 1884 at the wedding of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich (Nicholas’s uncle) and Princess Elisabeth of Hesse and by Rhine (Alix’s sister) at the Winter Palace. In January of 1889, Alix returned to Russia to visit her sister for six weeks. She stayed at the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess’s home, Beloselsky-Belozersky Palace, in St. Petersburg. During the time she was there, Nicholas would often visit, which gave them the opportunity to spend a lot of time together. To no one’s surprise, the young couple fell in love. The Tsarevich knew his family would not approve of the match but his heart was set on the Hessian princess. After Alix’s departure back to Darmstadt, they began to exchange letters.

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Alix and Elizabeth (Ella) in 1889.

Despite the Tsarevich’s insistence, his parents had no intention of giving him permission to marry the bride of his choice. Alexander III and Maria Feodorovna had very strong anti-German feelings and rather different expectations for their son’s future wife. Two princesses were considered by the imperial couple, Princess Hèlene of France and Princess Margeret of Prussia. Nicholas was not attracted to either of them, and both women were also reluctant to accept the arrangement since they would have to give up their faith and convert to the Russian Orthodoxy.

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Tsar Alexander III with his family. Small Palace of Livadia, c. 1892.

The Tsar and Tsarina were not the only ones against the match. Queen Victoria hoped her granddaughter would marry her first cousin, Prince Albert Victor, thus becoming the future Queen of England. She invited them to Balmoral Castle at one occasion, confident that they would like each other, but Alix was sure of her feelings and her cousin did not appeal to her. Albert Victor, or Eddy as he was known by his family, tried to persuade Alix into agreeing with the arrangement, and was devastated when she wrote him a letter making it clear once and for all that she had no intention of being his wife. Queen Victoria was saddened by the refusal as she loved playing matchmaker, but ultimately respected her granddaughter’s wishes.

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Queen Victoria with Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, Princess Alix of Hesse, Princess Beatrice and Princess Irene of Hesse. Balmoral, 1887.

Challenging times fell upon the Romanov family in 1894, when Alexander III fell suddenly ill with nephritis, a kidney disease. The once strong, healthy Tsar was now in a condition that would only worsen as the days passed. Regardless of his feelings on the matter, he finally decided to grant Nicholas permission to marry Alix.
In April of the same year, royals from all over Europe gathered in Coburg for the wedding of Alix’s brother Grand Duke Ernst Louis of Hesse and by Rhine to Princess Victoria Melita of Edinburgh.

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Family gathering for the wedding of Ernst Louis, Grand Duke of Hesse to Princess Victoria Melita of Edinburgh in Coburg, 1894.

Shortly after arriving in Germany, the Tsarevich, who was representing the Russian Imperial family at the wedding, finally proposed to Alix. But, much to his surprise she refused. Just like the other princesses, Alix too was fearful of leaving her Lutheran faith. Elisabeth, a former Lutheran that married into the Romanov family and converted to the Orthodoxy, came to her sister’s aid and explained to her that changing religions was not going to be as dreadful as she imagined. Queen Victoria also intervened in favor of the match. Encouraged by his relatives to propose again, Nicholas did it and this time Alix said yes.

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Top row: Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich, Princess Alix of Hesse, Princess Victoria and Ernst Louis, Grand Duke of Hesse. Bottow row: Princess Irene of Prussia, Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, Princess Victoria Melita and Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich. Neues Palais, Darmstadt in April, 1894.

Plans started being made for the couple’s wedding to occur in the spring of 1895. However, by September of 1894, the health of the Tsar had gotten much worse. Alix was rushed to Livadia Palace in Crimea to meet her future father-in-law. She spent the following weeks by his sickbed along with Alexander III’s family, until his death on November 1, 1894. The next day, Alix converted to the Russian Orthodox Church, changing her name to Alexandra Feodorovna and her title from Princess to Grand Duchess.
Russia was in mourning, completely shocked by the sudden death of their Tsar. Nicholas decided he wanted to get married at once, instead of waiting another year. It was his wish to have the wedding at Livadia, but his uncles were against it, insisting it should take place in St Petersburg and ultimately got their way. If Nicholas wasn’t the heir to the throne, Alexandra would have returned to Germany and the young couple would have waited for the mourning period to pass. But under these circumstances, Nicholas was expected to be married in order to proceed with his coronation.

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Engagement photograph of Nicholas and Alix, 1894.

The wedding took place at the Winter Palace on November 14, 1894. The ceremony started with the procession to the Great Church, where Maria Feodorovna and Alexandra (and Nicholas right behind them) led the rest of the family. Royals, like Nicholas’ maternal grandfather Christian IX of Denmark, the Prince and Princess of Wales, George the Duke of York, and Grand Duke Ernst Louis (Alexandra’s brother) were among the many others present. The service was presided over by Father John Yanishev and lasted two hours. Due to court mourning, no reception followed the wedding.

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Wedding of Nicholas II and Grand Duchess Alexandra Feodorovna. Oil painting by Ilya Repin.

Nicholas and Alexandra later moved to the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, where in November of the following year, they would welcome their first child, the Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna.

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Alexander Palace

Sources:
Massie, Robert K. (1967) Nicholas and Alexandra
Vovk, Justin C. (2014) Imperial Requiem: Four Royal Women and the Fall of the Age of Empires
Buxhoeveden, Sophie (1928) The Life and Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna, Empress of Russia A Briography
Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia (2017) Nicholas II of Russia
Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia (2017) Alexandra Feodorovna (Alix of Hesse)
Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia (2017) Wedding of Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna