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Nicholas and Alexandra: A secret “code” book



Contained within the report made by Nicholas Sokolov, who was charged with conducting the official investigation into the fate of the Russian Imperial Family by the White Russian Government in February 1919, is an extraordinary set of four images, listed as ‘Nos. 15, 16, 17 and 18’ in my copy of The Sokolov Investigation, translation and commentary by John F. O’ Connor (1971).

It is a translation of sections of Sokolov’s The Murder of the Imperial Family, and the publisher’s note (Souvenir Press) reads that the photographs contained in this edition are from the Russian language edition of Sokolov’s book, of which this includes extracts in translation. I do not comment on Sokolov’s actual investigation in this, but it is noteworthy to mention that the Russian original annotations to the illustrations were preserved in this English edition. ‘Nos. 15, 16, 17 and 18’ are listed as: ‘The code of the tsar and tsarina’ (ed. John F. O’ Connor, The Sokolov Investigation, pp. 7).

The images show the little code book which was used by Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra, and it opens a remarkably poignant and tiny window into their private relationship. It must have been an item of extreme sentimental importance to the Tsarina because it was taken with the Russian Imperial Family to the very end. According to the Sokolov investigation, the little code book was discovered hidden in a pipe in the water-closet at the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg, where on 16/17 July 1918, the Russian Imperial Family, together with their faithful attendants, were brutally murdered. Alexandra took with her far more to Siberia than the Tsar (J. C. Trewin, The House of Special Purpose, 64).

Why was this book hidden in such a place, in the Ipatiev House? Was it merely stuffed there and forgotten about?

A virtual reconstruction of the Ipatiev House shows that the Bathroom and W. C doors are listed as ‘Room 7’ (Ipatiev House – Romanov Memorial, retrieved 25/3/19). I have checked the list of items found at Ekaterinburg in the Ipatiev House and its outbuildings and in the list of recorded items of imperial booty discovered in the houses of the soldiers who had guarded the Imperial Family at Ekaterinburg. I have also checked the list of books found in these locations, but the codebook is not recorded in any of these locations. Perhaps, due to this being a personal book and not designated for reading. The lists, however, were only representational of a small amount of what the Imperial Family owned. Some of the items initially at the Alexander Palace eventually found their way back into museum collections. What then, of this code book?

The Bathroom and W. C doors in the Ipatiev House at Ekaterinburg, presumably relating to the ‘water-closet’, where the code-book was found hidden (Public domain, via http://www.romanov-memorial.com/Inside.htm)

The codebook was a ‘Universal Telegraphic Phrase-Book’, containing a whole host of codewords, which could be used in private telegrams between the Tsar and Tsarina, to denote specific messages, names, words or places, one-page name headed ‘UNICODE’. The reproduced illustrations are dark and grainy, so it is difficult to decipher some of these coded words. ‘Palpare’ was to be the word for ‘Petersburg’ and ‘Palpst’ for ‘Peterhof’. Other words, such as ‘Vesper’ were to mean ‘Metropolitan’ and Vesica ‘Min. of Justice’. Most privately of all, the word ‘Memoris’ is accorded special importance, because Alexandra has written next to it that this is supposed to mean ‘I love you’.

I have managed to track down a copy of “UNICODE”: The Universal Telegraphic Phrase-Book (Sixth Ed., 1889). It describes itself as ‘A Code of Cypher Words for Commercial, Domestic, and Familiar Phrases in Ordinary Use in Inland and Foreign Telegrams’. This pre-dates the imperial engagement by some five years. Interestingly, I checked in it the word, ‘Memoris’, which is supposed to mean: ‘Have not received any letter from you. Telegraph at once to -‘ So, Nicholas and Alix were developing their own “code”, within a code.

As with so much of the Tsarina’s gifts, it contained a personal dedication to the future Tsar on the flyleaf. I read it (illustration No. 15.) as: ‘For my own beloved Nicky dear to use when he is absent from his [Russian word]. – fr y. loving Alix. Osborne, July 1894’. This places this little telegram codebook to the period after their engagement at Coburg in April 1894. The fact that Alix includes a Russian word, is supported by the fact that she had already begun to learn Russian in earnest, having taken Russian manuals to Harrogate, where she went in May 1894, to take a cure for her sciatica (Elizabeth Jane Timms, Princess Alix of Hesse’s visit to Harrogate, in Royalty Digest Quarterly, 1/2018, 40).

Mlle Catherine Adolfovna Schneider accompanied Princess Alix to Harrogate, Mlle Schneider being a reader to Alix’s elder sister, Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna, later receiving the title of ‘Hof-lectrice’ in 1905. Poignantly, like the little codebook, Mlle Schneider would follow the Russian Imperial Family to almost the very end. She was separated from them at Ekaterinburg and moved to Perm with the Tsarina’s lady-in-waiting, Countess Anastasie Hendrikoff (Hendrikova), and both were murdered the month after the Russian Imperial Family on 22 August 1918.

Princess Alix of Hesse was at Osborne in July 1894 with Queen Victoria. Tsarevich Nicholas was still in England at this point, because the bliss of their shared existence at Coburg and Windsor, obviously continued. We have extracts from the Tsarevich’s diary, which read as follows: ‘Alix and I went by char-a-banc to the shore, and sat on the sand looking at the waves…’ (cit., Maylunas and Mironenko, 80). This presumably was Queen Victoria’s private beach. On 11 July, the Tsarevich left Osborne on the imperial yacht, Polar Star: ‘After saying goodbye to dear Granny [Queen Victoria], I went to the landing stage with Alix. After parting from my darling bride, I boarded the cutter. Once on the Polar Star, I received a long letter from Alix…’ (cit., Ibid).

Alix stayed on at Osborne and wrote a number of letters to the Tsarevich. One of these has a little watercolour, which she has presumably painted onto the header of the message, to show a boat out at sea, with a beach in the distance. The letter is numbered and underlined with the words, in French: ‘Separes, mais toujours unis!’ [Separated, but always united] (Alexander Bokhanov, The Romanovs, Love, Power & Tragedy,76). She arrived back in Germany on 21 July 1894. We must presume then, that she gave the codebook to Nicholas (‘when he is absent’), to use before his departure from Osborne on 11 July.

According to a footnote in the book written by the Tsarina’s biographer, Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, Alexandra treasured every object from the period of her engagement to Nicholas, so much so that she took this codebook with her into imprisonment. The Baroness notes that during the period of their engagement, Tsarevich Nicholas and Princess Alix also corresponded by telegram in cypher, ‘using a small code that the Princess had bought’ (cit., Sophie Buxhoeveden, The Life and Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna, 39). The Baroness goes on to say that the little code book was ‘one of the tragic mementoes found in the house at Ekaterinburg’ (cit., Ibid). It is almost certainly the same codebook illustrated in The Sokolov Investigation.

We know from the wartime correspondence between the Tsar and Tsarina, that they regularly continued to send each other telegrams, headed formally with such examples as: ‘To his majesty’ or ‘To his imperial majesty the emperor’ and ‘To her majesty’ respectively (Joseph T. Fuhrmann, The Complete Wartime Correspondence of Tsar Nicholas II and the Empress Alexandra, pp. 18-19). En route to Ekaterinburg, the Tsarina asked that a telegram be sent to the remaining imperial children who had been left behind temporarily in Tobolsk, to say that she, the Tsar and their third daughter, Grand Duchess Maria, had “arrived all well” in Tjumen (cit., Buxhoeveden, 331).

Alexandra used secret codes both in her correspondence with close friendships of her youth, as well as in her diary. Her entry for the date 8 April 1894 – the day of her engagement to Tsarevich Nicholas in Coburg – contains various lines written in secret code, to denote a record of personal, emotional content (Elisabeth Heresch, Alexandra, Tragik und Ende der letzten Zarin, 83).

Nicholas sent Alix a telegram from Kronstadt to announce his arrival in England when he came during the summer of 1894 to visit Alix in England and visit Queen Victoria at Windsor. The telegram read as follows: ‘Leave on board Polar Star directly weather fine have written tenderest love Nicky’ (Heresch, 104). It is stamped Harrogate Ju 15 94 and was received by Post Office Telegraphs at 4.16p (Ibid).

According to Buxhoeveden, Tsarevich Nicholas telegraphed Princess Alix in early October 1894, to summon her to the imperial residence of Livadia in the Crimea, where his father, Tsar Alexander III, was now in a state of grave illness (Buxhoeveden, 39).

I have the text of this telegram: ‘To Princess Alice [sic] of Hesse (9 October Livadia): TOMORROW GOD GRANT IT WE SHALL MEET HALF-WAY FROM SIMFEROPOL TO YALTA WHERE WE SHALL HAVE LUNCHEON TOGETHER I AM COMING WITH SERGEI HOPE YOU ARE NOT TIRED FONDEST LOVE TENDEREST KISSES – NICKY’ (cit., Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, 98).

Queen Victoria, writing to Alix’s eldest sister, Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg, wrote: ‘If only the long journey and great gemueths bewegung [Emotional stress] do not hurt poor darling Alicky… Do tell Gretchen [Alix’s lady-in-waiting, Magarete ‘Gretchen’ von Fabrice] & Frn: Schneider to write every 2 or 3 days as Alicky may not have time to write often…’ (cit., ed. Richard Hough, Advice to a Granddaughter, pp. 126-27).

Gretchen did indeed write. Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice, sent a telegram from Balmoral to Gretchen Fabrice to Livadia: ‘Koenigin dankt sehr fuer Brief/ bitte oefters schreiben – Beatrice.’ [Queen thanks very much for letter/ please write often – Beatrice’. (cit., Alix an Gretchen, Briefe der Zarin Alexandra Feodorowna aus den Jahren 1891-1914 an Freiin Magarete von Fabrice, 43). Once in Simferopol, Alix sent a telegram to Tsarevich Nicholas to announce her intention to enter the Russian Orthodox Church on arrival at Livadia (Buxhoeveden, 39). Alix later sent Gretchen a sermon preached on the death of Tsar Alexander III, in the English Church at St Petersburg by the Rev. A. E. Watson, M. A., on Sunday 23 October 1894. It contained a handwritten dedication from Princess Alix with a pressed flower: ‘For my darling Gretchen, Nov. 1st 1894, signiert [signed] Alix’ (cit., Ibid, 42).

Telegrams, therefore, were at the centre of this period in the life of Tsarevich Nicholas and Princess Alix and from the beginning, part of their engagement.

The fact that this little codebook went with them to Ekaterinburg would be definite proof of how much it meant.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019


About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, an historical consultant and independent scholar. An expert on past British and European royalty, she speaks on matters royal historical for both TV and radio. She was also selected to speak on historic royal weddings at Windsor for BBC Radio Berkshire as part of the feature coverage for the first Royal Wedding in 2018. She regularly writes for journals, specialist magazines, newsletters and the web. She is a contributor to the academic genealogical journal Royalty Digest Quarterly, currently also writing for Tudor Life magazine and the English-speaking Czech newspaper Prague Post, for which she wrote a mini-series on the theme of Mozart and Prague. She specializes in Queen Victoria's family and Russian royalty and is an authority on Russia's last Tsarina, Alexandra Feodorovna (1872-1918), with a particular interest in her correspondence. As an historical consultant, she responds to a wide range of enquiries from media to private individuals, as well as for numerous books, talks and research projects. She has made a significant contribution to the field of royal studies and writes largely based on original research, making a number of important discoveries including 'lost' letters and searching for Queen Victoria's perfume. She was elected a member of the Royal Historical Society in 2017. A passionate supporter of historical and culture heritage, she has been an active member of numerous societies including The Georgian Group and Freunde der Preußischen Schlösser und Gärten e.V. Also a poet, her work has been published in various literary journals and magazines, including The Oxonian Review and Allegro Poetry. A mini collection is forthcoming in Trafika Europe Journal. Her first short collection of poems is scheduled for publication in 2020. She writes a guest history blog for Royal Central, the world's leading independent royal news site. She lives in rural Oxfordshire.