Emperor Alexander III (1845-1894) was the penultimate Romanov Tsar of All the Russias. ‘Sasha’ as he was known to the family was a relatively simple man who had no expectation of becoming Russian Tsar, King of Poland and Grand Prince of Finland until his elder brother Nicholas died in 1865. As was custom, Sasha was forced by his father Tsar Alexander II to take his brother’s intended bride the Danish Princess Marie whom he married in 1866. Tsar Alexander III’s reign was haunted by the assassination of his father in 1881. The Imperial Family held vigil over the body mutilated by an anarchist’s bomb and watched the old Tsar slowly bleed to death on the floor of the Winter Palace.
In Miranda Carter’s book The Three Emperors (2009), Alexander is described thus: ‘Like his ancestor Peter the Great, he stood well over six foot and was enormously strong: built like a butcher. A Russian to his boots, he was not too highly polished in his manners and had a touch of brutality. He was deliberately provincial, wore sack-like Russian peasant shirts and was famously brusque, taciturn and deeply mistrustful of almost anybody’. Sasha’s xenophobia extended to calling Jews ‘Christ killers’.
As Tsarevich, Sasha disagreed bitterly with his father’s liberal policies and despised the court of St Petersburg’s admiration for European fashion and culture. Art, ballet, French cuisine and fine wines did not interest him though he was fortunate to have Grand Duchess Marie Feodorovna as consort who was arguably the most popular foreign princess to marry into the Romanov family for centuries. It was said that ‘Minnie’ charmed St Petersburg so Alexander didn’t have to. The Danish princess also took great delight in the fabulous Romanov jewel collection and the gowns she commissioned from Worth in Paris in which she shone while her husband remained an awkward figure in St Petersburg society.
Russia’s tenuous relationship with Britain since the Crimean War was somewhat improved because Marie Feodorovna’s sister Princess Alexandra had married Queen Victoria’s heir ‘Bertie’, the Prince of Wales. In 1873 Sasha and Minnie visited Bertie and Alexandra at Marlborough House, their official London residence. Sasha took the opportunity to visit Henry Poole & Co on the 1873 visit. He is listed as HIH the Grand Duke Cesarevitch de Russie and ordered a grey Angola pea coat lined silk, two white Imperial drill lounge vests, a black twill Angola frock coat lined silk and a DB (double-breasted) Angola pea coat.
The Russian Tsarevich returned to London in 1874 and, on that occasion, stayed at Buckingham Palace. He returned to Poole’s and ordered a grey Elysian beaver pea coat with a silk velvet collar, a pair of black French elastic trousers, a pair of lavender doeskin trousers and a white superfine frock coat trimmed with gold lace for Coachman Jarvis to be delivered to the Anitchkov Palace on the Nevsky Prospect in St Petersburg.
On his accession in 1881, Tsar Alexander III used his father’s assassination to move the Imperial family away from St Petersburg to a place of greater safety. He chose the remote Gatchina Palace that had 900 rooms; most of which were abandoned. The new Tsar allowed his father’s mistress/morganatic wife Catherine Dolgorukov to remain in her rooms at the Winter Palace and keep the blood stained uniform that Tsar Alexander II had died wearing. Minnie described Gatchina as ‘cold, disgusting and full of workmen’. ‘It has cost me many tears’, she wrote, ‘though Sasha is happy to leave the city’.
Wherever they went, the Imperial family were shadowed by the Okhrana, Russia’s secret police, and with good reason. Assassination attempts were legion. Lenin’s brother was executed after an abortive bomb plot against the Tsar and Tsarina using explosives hidden in hollowed-out books. Soldiers would line every inch of the 400-mile railway track between St Petersburg and Moscow when the Imperial Family travelled. And yet, the Tsar was popular with his people because he kept Russia out of costly foreign wars stating ‘we have just two allies in this world … our armies and our navy. Everybody else will turn on us in a second’s notice’.
Somewhat ironically, it was an accidental train derailment in 1888 that almost killed the entire Imperial Family including all five of Sasha and Minnie’s children. The man-mountain of a Tsar was said to have lifted the crushed roof of the train single-handedly to release his family. Coryne Hall’s book Little Mother of Russia surmises that the Tsarina may have suffered a nervous breakdown after the unfortunate event and that the Tsar drank heavily ever after the disaster. As a consequence, the Romanov family only felt truly safe outside Russian territories.
It was to the Prince and Princess of Wales that the Tsarina turned when the Tsar’s health began to fail during a stay at the Imperial Palace of Livadia in the Crimea. Two days before the Prince and Princess of Wales arrived, Tsar Alexander III died of kidney failure. The Prince of Wales organised the State Funeral of his friend Sasha because the new Tsar Nicholas II, Russia’s last, was incapable of assuming his responsibilities. As Nicholas prophetically told ‘Uncle Bertie’, ‘I am not prepared to be the Tsar’.