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The Romanovs in the Nineteenth Century

In 1913, Russia celebrated an important anniversary – the Romanov dynasty had been in power for three hundred years. The founding father of this renowned line, Michael Fyodorovich, had been elected tsar in 1613, at the age of sixteen, in a Russia that was rent by war and internal struggles. In 1913 while Russia has become one of the leading world countries with developed economy, the political situation was much the same: the Balkan wars, the looming spectre of global conflict and enormous domestic unrest foreshadowed the end of Romanov rule.

The exhibition At the Russian Court at the Hermitage Amsterdam focuses on the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, up to the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was a time of both lavish court culture and also great political and social upheaval, when a succession of six tsars ruled Russia. Some, like Paul I, are not so well known today. Others are more familiar, particularly Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia.

Paul I (1754-1801), Tsar from 1796

Paul I, son of and successor to Catherine the Great, was kept out of state affairs by his mother, whom he deeply resented. He subsequently implemented many measures designed to undo her policies. Directly after his accession, for example, he introduced a strict order of succession to the throne. This new law abolished Peter the Great’s ‘Rule of Succession’, which had allowed the reigning tsar to designate a successor, and established in its place the principle of primogeniture, whereby the tsar’s eldest son automatically became his heir. Women were henceforth excluded from the succession. If the tsar’s eldest son died, the next eldest took the throne. If the tsar had no son, the throne went to his eldest brother.

Paul disliked the Winter Palace, which he also associated with his mother, and so he built his own palace, St Michael’s Castle, a short distance away by the Summer Garden. This palace was intended to be a place of safety but, just forty days after it was completed, Paul was murdered there in his bedroom.

Trying to get political weight in Europe, Paul ! from 1798 to 1801 had also served as the Grandmaster of the Knights Hospitaller of Malta, an order which he took very seriously. He married twice. His first wife, Natalya Alexeyevna (born Wilhelmina Louisa of Hessen-Darmstadt, 1755-1776), died in childbirth. The same year, 1776, Paul married Maria Fyodorovna (born Sophia Dorothea of Württemberg, 1759-1828) and they had ten children. The imperial family spent a great deal of time at Pavlovsk, the new country palace built for Paul by Catherine the Great, close to her own summer palace at Tsarskoye Selo.

Alexander I (1777-1825), Tsar from 1801

Alexander I succeeded his father Paul I in 1801. Thanks to Alexander’s initial friendship with Napoleon, the Empire style was introduced into Russia, where it was soon deployed in a range of rooms in the Winter Palace, and in the tsar´s summer palaces as well. Paintings with Greek and Roman scenes adorned the walls, while furniture in Greek, Etruscan and Egyptian style made the interior. A national variation on the style, Russian Empire, also emerged.

Alexander´s subsequent enmity towards Napoleon, and his victory over the French emperor following the latter’s invasion of Russia, gave Russians an enormous sense of national pride, particularly when Alexander entered the defeated city of Paris with a grand parade on the Champs-Elysées.

At the age of fifteen, Alexander married Elizaveta Alexeyevna (born Louise of Baden, 1779-1826). The couple had two daughters, both of whom died before the age of two. Alexander suddenly died in southern Russia in November 1825. His body was apparently brought to St Petersburg and buried, as was customary, in the St Peter and St Paul Cathedral; but when the tomb was opened in 1925, it was found to be empty.

Nicholas I (1796-1855), Tsar from 1825

Alexander was succeeded by his younger brother Nicholas, a born soldier, since the second elder brother, Constantine Pavlovich, had renounced the throne. On his accession in 1825, Nicholas faced a major uprising by a military group dubbed the Decembrists who demanded that Constantine become tsar, but Nicholas suppressed the uprising severely. These events set the tone of his reign, which was characterised by militarism and strict autocracy. Nicholas drew up many new rules for court protocol and for ceremonial uniforms and gowns.

In 1817, Nicholas I married Alexandra Fyodorovna (born Frederica Louise Charlotte Wilhelmina of Prussia, 1798-1860). Alexandra loved reading, dancing and music, dressed elegantly and chose her jewellery with taste. It is said that she had a keen, ironic view of men. The couple had ten children, two of whom were stillborn.

Although Nicholas I claimed to have no understanding of paintings, the imperial art collections were greatly enriched during his reign. During a fierce fire in December 1837, the Winter Palace nearly burned down. Nicholas personally helped to carry the art treasures to safety. The Winter Palace was fully restored in the very short period and inaugurated in March 1839. Nicholas subsequently commissioned the German architect and painter Leo von Klenze to design a new building especially for the Hermitage art collections. In 1852, the New Hermitage opened its doors as an official museum, so that for the first time the public could have access to the imperial collections.

On the eve of Nicholas’s death, the Russian Empire reached its historical zenith, spanning almost 5 billion acres. He died under mysterious circumstances in 1855. According to rumours that have never entirely been disproved, he committed suicide when Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War seemed inevitable.

Alexander II (1818-1881), Tsar from 1855

The reign of Alexander II was characterised by a slew of reforms, including the abolition of serfdom, measures to improve education and the founding of a number of universities. His liberal and reformist policies did not meet with universal approval. Six attempts were made on his life, the last of which succeeded. At the site where anarchists attacked Alexander’s coach and retinue with home-made bombs, close to the Winter Palace, his son Tsar Alexander III built a church in his memory, the famed Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood (1883-1907).

In 1841, Alexander II married Maria Alexandrovna (born Princess Marie of Hesse, 1824-1880). Despite a poor health and fragile constitution, she bore the tsar eight children.

Alexander III (1845-1894), Tsar from 1881

Alexander III came to the throne unprepared to rule, as a result of the unexpected death of his elder brother Nicholas, who had died of tuberculosis. Alexander III, a much less progressive man than his father, adopted a rigid, conservative course and in public was known for his hard, cold demeanour. At home, however, he was an affectionate husband and father, a trait which he passed on to his son Nicholas II.

In 1866, Alexander married the Danish princess Marie Sophie Frederikke Dagmar (1847-1928), former fiancée of his dead brother, who took the name Maria Fyodorovna after her marriage. Maria was an attractive, highly intelligent, elegant woman who learned Russian in order to understand her new subjects, which made her very popular. Maria and Alexander had six children. Alexander died of nephritis at the Livadia Palace on 1 November 1894.

Maria was one of the few members of the Romanov family to escape the Bolsheviks after the Revolution. She managed to flee back to Denmark, where she died at Hvidøre, near Copenhagen. In 2006, her body was interred in the St Peter and St Paul Cathedral in St Petersburg, in accordance with her last wishes.

Nicholas II (1868-1918), Tsar from 1894 to 1917

The last Romanov tsar saw his empire degenerate from one of the world’s most powerful into an economic and military disaster. A weak and irresolute person by nature, he inherited his father’s stubborn attitude, which caused him to turn his back on democracy. His indecision prevented him from implementing alternative policies and in many respects he thus helped set the stage for the dramatic end of tsarist rule in 1917.

Nicholas’s marriage (1894) to Alexandra Fyodorovna (born Alix of Hesse, 1872-1918) produced four daughters, who were finally followed by a son and heir, Alexei. However, Alexei suffered from haemophilia and had to be kept out of the public eye. Nicholas and Alexandra gradually withdrew from public life as well. During the February Revolution of 1917, Nicholas was forced to abdicate the throne..He declared his brother Michael the new tsar, but no appointment materialised. At the end of 1917, the Bolsheviks seized power. Nicholas II and his family were imprisoned in Ekaterinburg, where they were executed together with four faithful servants in July 1918.

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