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‘Dearest Mary’: Letters from the last Tsarina

‘What sorrows this last year brought us, what endless anxieties, what worries and losses – God grant the new year may be a calmer and happier one for the whole of dear Russia. Sleep well and peacefully…’ With these words, Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna (1872-1918) closed a letter on New Year’s Eve 1900 to Princess Marie Bariatinsky, one of the few close friends of her early years as Empress in Russia. Princess Marie Victorovna Bariatinskaya was the eldest daughter of Prince Victor Ivanovich Bariatinsky and his wife, Maria Apollinarievna Butenieva.

Princess Marie had been made Alexandra’s lady in waiting in November 1896; the month of her coronation. She resigned her appointment in 1898 to return to her elderly parents. Alexandra at first was deeply sad at the loss of her friend, writing on her departure: ‘I long for you… to have such a true and devoted friend is indeed a gift of God and I thank Him for it dailyDon’t be anxious about me, I tell you openly all, so that you need not worry. I am careful, and rest all day and miss your dear company more than I can say. For your precious letter from the frontier a hearty kiss and many thanks. Your words of tender love did me much good….’ 

Unlike her other close friendships, there are no descriptions of private gifts of jewellery such as brooches, but we must imagine that gifts may have been exchanged, as they certainly were with her other friends at this period.

Tsarina Alexandra with Tsar Nicholas II and their first child, Grand Duchess Olga, ca. 1896 (Sergey Lvovich Levitsky [Public domain or United States Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The year 1900 had indeed been a sad one. It had seen the deaths of her Hessian uncles, Prince Wilhelm of Hesse and Prince Heinrich of Hesse as well as that of her British uncle, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, later Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Two weeks after writing this letter to Princess Marie Bariatinsky, the health of the Tsarina’s English grandmother, Queen Victoria, would begin to fail and the great journal she had kept since 1832 found its final entry. The Queen died at Osborne on 22 January 1901. Alexandra had written similarly to her close friend, Gretchen von Fabrice on a postcard: ‘What terrible sorrows this year has brought us – 3 Uncles gone…’ (Alix an Gretchen, ed. Heinrich von Spreti, 96).

Prior to New Year’s Eve 1900, Alexandra wrote to Princess Marie Bariatinsky, (16 July 1900): ‘My grandmother invites us to come to England, but now is certainly not the moment to be out of the country. How intensely I long to see her dear old face [the Russian imperial visit to Balmoral had taken place in 1896], you can imagine; never have we been separated so long, 4 whole years, and I have the feeling as tho’ I should never see her any more. Were it not so far away, I should have gone off all alone for a few days to see her and left the children and my husband, as she has been as a mother to me, ever since Mama’s death 22 years ago…’  This letter provides personal insight into Alexandra’s love for and view of her English grandmother, who had indeed attempted to be an ersatz mother to her far distant Hessian grandchildren, on the death of Grand Duchess Alice of Hesse, her second daughter, in 1878.

Tsar Nicholas II echoed this wish to see his ‘dearest Grandmama’ in a letter written from the imperial palace of Gatchina on 7 May 1900: ‘You mentioned in your letter about the possibility of our meeting this year. That is our constant wish to come over to England and see you… But if there were a possibility of coming and seeing you we would be happy of doing so…’ (Andrei Maylunas & Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, 197). Queen Victoria had expressed the wish to see Tsar Nicholas II and Alexandra in her letter written for the Tsar’s birthday in May, so clearly, the desire for them all to meet was strong.

The second letter we have that the Tsarina wrote to Princess Marie is like the first, not previously unknown; it was reproduced (like all the extracts) in the 1928 biography of the Empress by Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden. The occasion for the letter to her friend was essentially to express her thoughts to her at the close of the year and also to thank her for the icon which Princess Marie had sent her, to mark the recovery of Tsar Nicholas II from typhoid, during which Alexandra nursed her husband. It was the same disease which had been held to have been responsible for the death of her maternal grandfather, Prince Albert as well as that which caused her uncle, the future Edward VII to come so close to death at Sandringham in 1871, as Baroness Buxhoeveden correctly observed. Alexandra wrote: ‘Dearest Mary, – I feel I cannot go to bed without having once more thanked you from the bottom of my heart for the Image. It touched me deeply, and tears were not far off when you three gave it to me [Princess Marie and two others]. Bless you for your kind thought. I shall always take it with me everywhere as a remembrance of that anxious time and Xmastide and the beginning of the new century…’ (Quoted in Baroness Buxhoeveden, The Life & Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna, Empress of Russia, 88).

Princess Marie helped the Baroness in the preparation of her biography of the Empress by verifying ‘previous dates, names, incidents, etc’. (Ibid, vII). We must imagine therefore, that Princess Marie shared these letters from Alexandra with the Baroness; Alexandra personally burned much of her private correspondence in the wake of the Revolution, to prevent these papers falling into the hands of others. The Baroness wrote: ‘Princess Marie Bariatinsky had a fine and sensitive nature and great charm of manner. Her tact and worldly savoir-faire made her a great help to the Empress during her first years in Russia…’ (Ibid, 168).

A photograph exists in the personal albums of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, of the weakened Tsar Nicholas II recovering from typhoid at Livadia, still unable to leave his wheelchair. Nicholas II wrote in his diary: ‘My dear Alix nursed me and looked after me as well as the best nurse. I cannot express all that she was for me during my illness. May God bless her…’ (Quoted in Prince Michael of Greece, Nicholas and Alexandra, the Family Albums, 34). It will be remembered that Alexandra journeyed to Livadia in 1894 to the bedside of the dying Tsar Alexander III – and faithfully supported the Tsarevich Nicholas in the days leading up to his father’s death. We might imagine that his illness in Livadia may possibly have awoken fresh memories of the death of Tsar Alexander III for Nicholas; he himself wrote to his mother, Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna: ‘About my little wife I can only say that she was my guardian angel, and looked after me better than any sister of mercy!’ (Andrei Maylunas & Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, 201).

I wonder what happened to this ikon which Princess Marie gave to Alexandra. It will be recalled that the Imperial Bedroom in the Alexander Palace, the imperial private residence at Tsarskoe Selo outside St. Petersburg, contained hundreds of ikons and religious objects, many of which were hung on cords from the wall, arranged around the great ikon of the Feodorovsky Mother of God. Two ikon lamps were filled with rose oil, the scent of which was so strong that it was still overwhelming to visitors to the room as late as 1937, twenty years after the Imperial family had been moved to their Siberian exile. Alexandra erected a small chapel to the right of the bed, which she furnished with ikons. Because of the personal association with it being a gift from a close friend and in memory of the Tsar’s illness, we may suppose that this ikon could have found its way to the Imperial Bedroom among the many others that hung here, although these were for the most part, presented from monasteries and churches across Russia.

In 1901, Princess Marie Bariatinsky left Russia for Rome with her parents. (Buxhoeveden, 94). We know from Alexandra’s correspondence and diaries that her affection for any one of her friends and family did not dim with either time or distance. She wrote to Marie: ‘Separation makes no difference – friends remain the same, don’t they, dear? And you will have a lot to tell me about your life and interests, and I shall have my little ones to show you. Life brings us sorrows and trials without end, but all is for the best, and God gives one strength to bear one’s heavy cross, and go on fighting…’

Baroness Buxhoeveden states that it was the friendship however of the Grand Duchesses Militiza and Anastasia Nikolaevna which helped to fill the gap left by Princess Marie’s departure for Italy; again, this may have been more painful for Alexandra than may first appear, as true friendship in her early years in Russia was important at a time when she found the imperial cercle overwhelming, having felt shy even by the social balls back in her domestic Darmstadt.

Alexandra wrote to Princess Marie from St. Petersburg on 29 January 1901: ‘Dearest Mary, – I send you my most loving thanks for your dear letter from the frontier – it was great happiness hearing from you. I miss you and our cosy chats very much indeed, and since you left I have again had such a loss – it is very hard, but I cannot but be grateful, that God took her to Him [the death of Queen Victoria on 22 January 1901] and that her long and weary sufferings have come to an end. But to all that knew her it is a great loss, but she was well fit for Heaven – a pure, ideal Christian. Only an hour before the fatal news, I received her last letter, so you can imagine what a shock it was. But I must not write to you about sad things, though my heart is full of sorrow – and I am awfully anxious about Gretchen Fabrice – I hope the journey was not too tiring…’ (Quoted in Buxhoeveden, 167).

Another letter from 8 May 1901: ‘Thank God that your dear father is a wee bit better. I can so well imagine your feelings and know well the anxiety you are going through. [Alexandra’s father, Grand Duke Ludwig IV of Hesse had died in 1892]. Only that he should not suffer. God give you all strength and comfort. If I could have a wee word from time to time with news of him, I should be most grateful. The weather is glorious, so warm and nice. I sit working on the balcony. Anemones and blue flowers are out and the buds on the bushes are quite big, and the birds sing so sweetly. But enough for to-day. Good-bye and God bless you. Tenderest love from your devoted friend, Alexandra.’ (Quoted in Ibid, 169).

She wrote again to Princess Marie on 23 November 1905, in a letter that sheds light on Alexandra’s solemn and religious nature: ‘I must have a person to myself, if I want to be my real self. I am not made to shine before an assembly – I have not got the easy nor the witty talk one needs for that. I like the internal being, and that attracts me with great force. As you know, I am of the preacher type. I want to help others in life, to help them to fight their battles and bear their crosses… What can I tell you in a letter? Things are more than serious and intricate, and all one’s hope and trust must be placed in God. Serious times are yet ahead, and rough ones – One’s heart is so full…’ (Quoted in Ibid, 166).

Alexandra continued to see Marie, however, who sometimes visited Russia and stayed as her guest. We know this from a letter of Alexandra to Princess Marie in 1912: ‘Once more let me tell you how very happy I was to have seen you again, dear, after 5 long years of separation. It is a joy to see a dear friend so unchanged again, and to feel as though we had never been separated at all, these years. But that is real friendship that remains the same though time and space may sever one. A warm heart is a treat, and I always deeply, gratefully, value it….’ (Quoted in Ibid, 168).

Princess Marie continued to visit Alexandra as late as the summer of 1914. We know this from a letter that Alexandra wrote to the Tsar on 29 June 1914: ‘Marie Baryatinsky will lunch with us & spend her last afternoon with me…’ (ed. Joseph Fuhrmann, The Complete Wartime Correspondence of Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra, 14-15). The last (published) reference to Marie that I have been able to find is in a letter 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…’ (Ibid, 126).

Like much of the correspondence of Alexandra, the First World War intervened and put a stop to the letters which had been so much a part of Alexandra’s existence and identity, as a friend to the handful of women that she loved and with whom she had shared periods of her life. This correspondence with Princess Marie has in some ways I think, been overlooked, partly because it is incomplete and partly because it is embedded within an early biography of the Empress.

Princess Marie Bariatinsky’s cousin lived with her sister, Princess Olga, at Piazzi SS Apostoli 73 before the outbreak of the First World War. Today this is the Rome headquarters of the company CAF, a loan management service. Princess Olga died in Rome in 1932.

The last letter sums up I feel, essential elements of Alexandra’s character and intensely religious nature, expressed to someone whose close friendship she valued highly: ‘I thank God that He allows me to be the means of giving… a little comfort and brightness. After all, it is life’s greatest consolation to feel that the sorrowing need one, and that is my daily prayer, for years already, that God should just send me the sorrowing, and give me the possibility to be a help to them, through His infinite mercy…

The surviving extracts of this private correspondence provide for us further insight into the emotional attachments that the Tsarina formed, as she had done with those friends of her youth in Germany, as Princess of Hesse. Because the Tsarina greatly valued her friends and took an intense interest in every aspect of their lives, we also open a window onto the Empress’s own personality and character.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018.
About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.