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Finding five cards from the Tsarina

By Boasson and Eggler St. Petersburg Nevsky 24.Bain News Service, publisher - This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs divisionunder the digital ID ggbain.01137.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., Public Domain,

Whilst researching on the correspondence of the last Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna (1872-1918) of Russia and Princess Marie Bariatinsky, one of the Tsarina’s first maids-of-honour (freilina) in her early years in Russia and a later friend, I discovered a series of unpublished letter cards in a collection in Vienna, from the Tsarina to Princess Marie.

The five-letter cards are autographed with the Tsarina’s monogram, ‘AF’ or simply ‘A’ and are written in bold or blue pencil, one dated 29 August 1912. The Tsarina’s name ‘ALEXANDRA’ appears in Russia under an embossed crown in either gold, blue or black. Originally identified as from the Tsarina to Queen Mary, I argued that the Tsarina’s letters to Princess Marie based on other existing examples usually began ‘Dearest Mary’, whilst the English Queen was usually exclusively referred to by Tsar Nicholas II and the Tsarina as ‘May’. I am indebted to INLIBRIS Gilhofer Nfg and most especially to Dr Christopher Frey (Books) who graciously photographed the cards and gave me permission to reproduce the text.

As Alexandra destroyed much of her private correspondence, these letter cards are an important survival in their own right, whilst some of the letters sent by the Tsarina to Princess Marie Bariatinsky are preserved in the Broadlands Archives (Greg King, The Last Tsarina, 403). One of those letters was written to Princess Marie on 28 October 1910 and betrays Alexandra’s health concerns: ‘What can I say about my health? For the time the doctors are contented with my heart… But have again strong pains in the legs and back…’ Alexandra refuted the allegations about her nervous condition, leading us to question that whether psychosomatic or otherwise, the conditions were nevertheless genuine, whatever the cause: ‘If people speak to you about my “nerves”, please strongly contradict it. They are as strong as ever, it’s the “over-tired heart”… very bad heartaches, have not what one calls walked for three years, the heart goes wild, fearfully out of breath and such pains’ (Broadlands Archives, cit., King, 177).

Alexandra’s cards are fascinating and allow a generous insight into the running of the Tsarina’s household, in Princess Marie’s functional capacity as both friend and in her supporting role to the Mistress of the Robes. Alexandra’s cards read as follows:

‘Dearest Princess, Please let Maria Pery know that I should I should [sic] like to hear her play this evening at 9. Lamsdorff knows her address, please let him know. – Hoping to see you at 12. Y. A. F.’ Maria Pery is presumably the same pianist and composer who made her London debut at the Wigmore Hall in 1901; I was advised by the Wigmore Hall archives in London regarding her performance in its Bechstein Hall on 19 June 1901, which included works by W. A. Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Liszt, Novak, Chopin and by Maria Pery, who included her own Erinnerung Op. 23 No. 1, Ungeduld Op. 15 No. 3, Rhapsodie Op. 25 and Intermezzo – Perpetuum Mobile Op. 1’. Little appears to be known of this remarkable woman. She returned the following year and gave a concert at the Wigmore Hall entirely of her own compositions. Presumably, she was touring the European capitals, if she was in St Petersburg.

Other letter cards were more business-like: ‘Please kindly compose answers to these two telegrams for me to sign. Do let Mlle O or Sonia [Orbeliani] try to write them, with your help, as later I shall have to ask them & they will find it difficult. – Best love, A’.

’Wednesday evening, 29. Aug. 1912, Dearest Mary, Please come to-morrow to me at 5 o’clock. Hope you will work on somewhere. My head is better, but not my heart and nor my forces, but God gives necessary strength I trust. Sleep well. Fond blessings fr. Yr. loving old A’.

Ten days earlier, Alexandra had written to her old English governess, Miss Jackson (‘Madgie‘) of the tercentenary celebrations for the Battle of Borodino in Moscow: ‘terribly tiring festivities, don’t know how I shall get through them…’ (cit., Robert K. Massie, Nicholas & Alexandra, 170). All this was before the Imperial Family left for Poland, where in October 1912, the young haemophiliac Tsarevich Alexei experienced a severe case of bleeding, a later effect of an earlier accident at Bialowieza, the imperial hunting lodge in east Poland. So, by August 1912, Alexandra was already exhausted before the worst attack of the Tsarevich’s haemophilia to date.

In more formal terms once more, Alexandra wrote the following card to Princess Marie, asking about her cousin, which must surely refer to Princess Helena Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein (‘Thora’), who was visiting St Petersburg that winter, which if so, dates the card to 1897: ‘Dearest Princess, Please kindly read this through & tell me if you think I can take my Cousin to-night to the theatre. If you can bring it back at 11 I shall be home & glad to see you. Y. A. F’.

The last card (undated) is full of warm concern and is typical of the kind of sincere interest the Tsarina took in the lives of her female friends: ‘Dearest Mary, Am most happy to know that you safely arrived. Tenderest love. Am dining at [in Russian, Anitchkov, the St Petersburg palace of her mother-in-law, the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna], otherwise should have peeped into your room. Sleep well. Am well tho [sic] tired after journey & emotion, A’.

How these letter cards from lost imperial Russia surfaced in Vienna remains unclear. As with much of the Tsarina’s private correspondence, the First World War intervened and made any communication sporadic until finally, the Revolution made correspondence extremely difficult. Princess Marie Bariatinsky visited the Tsarina in Russia in summer 1914 and the last (published) reference to her comes from a letter of the Tsarina to the Tsar, dated 6 May 1915: ‘At the stores Marie Bariatinsky & Olga Bariatinsky were making stockings, the same as they had been doing at Moscou [sic] so far’ ed. Joseph Fuhrmann, The Complete Wartime Correspondence of Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra, 126).

We know that Princess Marie left Russia for Rome in 1901, so perhaps these cards just made their own journey after both World Wars, itinerant across capitals in the possession of a displaced person.

They remain, however, as lasting traces of an imperial friendship.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian, writer and researcher. An expert on past British and European royalty as an academic subject, she speaks on matters royal historical for both TV and radio. She specializes in the family of Queen Victoria and Russian royalty, with a particular interest in royal weddings, speaking on historic royal weddings at Windsor for BBC Radio Berkshire prior to the first British Royal Wedding in 2018. She responds to media enquiries ranging from the BBC to private individuals. She was elected a member of the Royal Historical Society in 2017.