|1897. Both of these portraits were painted for their mutual grandmother, Queen Victoria.|
First cousins, four years apart. Both granddaughters of Queen Victoria with very close blood ties to the royal dynasties of Great Britain and Russia and Hesse, Greece and Prussia. Under dramatic circumstances, both came as brides into the Russian Imperial family. Both artistic. Both stubborn and over-inclined to harbor lingering resentments, unforgiving. Both of them passionate, devoted spouses and loving parents. Also, they both quite disliked and disapproved of each other.
Confident and socially adept, Princess Victoria Melita** - known in the family as "Ducky" - was railroaded into her first marriage with another first cousin, Alexandra's brother Ernst Ludwig of Hesse, by their mutual grandmother Queen Victoria. Introverted and socially awkward, Princess Alix - known by many in the family as "Alicky" - stood firm against everyone - including her beloved future husband - who was for or against the idea of her prospective marriage until she, in her own time, could decide if she would change her religion, something necessary if she were to wed the soon-to-be Tsar Nicholas II. She finally agreed to marry Nicky during the wedding festivities of Ducky and Ernie in Coburg in April 1894, her big decision effectively overshadowing the bridal couple.
|Postcard commemorating a visit to Darmstadt (Hesse) of Russia's Imperial couple.|
Married later that same year, Nicky and Alicky - now the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna - had one of history's most celebrated love-matches. Until the very bitter end. The Hessian marriage, by contrast, was doomed from the start. Though Ducky and Ernie had much in common, and soon had a much adored daughter, Ducky chafed at the responsibilities of her role as Grand Duchess of Hesse, often shirking her duties, often starting loud, sometimes violent rows with her husband. Most sided with the gentle Ernie - certainly his sister, the Empress Alexandra, did - and considered him the wounded party. But another factor in the deterioration of the marriage - unknown at the time and still uncorroborated - were Ernie's homosexual inclinations. And after Queen Victoria's death in 1901, the couple divorced, a very scandalous thing for the time and for their milieu. Ernie would remarry four years later, very happily.
|A snapshot of Nicky and Alix in the first years of their marriage.|
|Ducky and Ernie early in their marriage.|
That same year, Ducky wed yet another first cousin, her Uncle Vladimir's eldest son, the Grand Duke Kirill; apparently Ducky had been in love with Kirill well before her marriage to Ernie. There were many obstacles to this union: first cousins are not allowed to marry in the Orthodox church, Ducky was now a divorcée, and they had not been granted the necessary permission by the Tsar to marry. On hearing of the marriage, the Tsar - certainly encouraged by his wife, bitter over the former treatment of her brother - stripped Kirill of his titles and privileges, royal allowances, expelled him from the Russian navy, and banished him from Russia. The couple settled in France, living off funds from his father; their first two children, daughters, were born there. In 1910, after deaths in the Russian Imperial family had promoted Kirill to third in the line of succession to the Russian throne, the Tsar was compelled to reinstate him and allowed the family to return to Russia. Ducky was grudgingly allowed the title Grand Duchess Victoria Feodorovna. She was very much suited to her new role and fit in well with the Russian aristocracy and in the circle of her powerful mother-in-law, the Grand Duchess Vladimir - who, incidentally, loathed the young Empress. (The feeling was mutual.) Ducky, now styled the Grand Duchess Kirill, became very active in society - lavish dinner parties, balls, artistic events - but rarely crossed paths with her cousin the Empress, whose shyness and whose distrust and disapproval of St Petersburg society had almost entirely closed her off from those beyond her immediate family.
|The Grand Duchess Kirill, 1913.|
|The Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, circa 1914.|
Alix had come to Russia as "a bride at a funeral"; Nicky's father had died only days after her arrival. And later that same month, Alix and Nicky were married, and Alix was now the Empress of all the Russias, by temperament something she was entirely unsuited for. Extremely shy, the public responsibilities of an empress were a nightmare for her and, worse, her timidity often came off as cold reserve. She was constantly compared with her charming and beloved mother-in-law, the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna, and with the other gracious and formidable ladies of the court and society. Then, later, the tragedy of her son's health turned her ever more fervently to her adopted Orthodox faith, and her own real or imagined ill-health was another thing that kept her insulated from the outside world. But the self-imposed isolation of the Empress and her happy, very loving family caused dissatisfaction and dissent all around, as much in court circles as with the greater public, and set the stage for what would come.
The war came first. And when, three years later, the Revolution broke out and the Tsar abdicated, Kirill led his naval unit to the Duma and swore his loyalty to the interim government. He later explained that he did so to restore order and preserve the monarchy, but there were many of the Romanovs who never forgave him for what they considered treason. With the Tsar and his family under arrest and the situation worsening, the Grand Duke and Duchess Kirill took their daughters and left for Finland in June of 1917. Two months later, Ducky gave birth to their only son. That same month the ex-Tsar and his family were sent away to captivity in the town of Tobolsk in the Urals. And then a July night in the summer of the next year saw the murders of Alix and Nicky, their five children, their doctor, and three servants in Ekaterinburg.
|Nicholas and Alexandra in captivity at Tsarskoe Selo, not long before they were removed to Tobolsk, 1917.|
A year later, in the autumn of 1919, with the war ended, Kirill, Ducky, and the children left Finland for Germany. Thereafter, they divided their time between Germany and France, before settling permanently on the Breton coast in 1926. Kirill had suffered a nervous breakdown in 1923, Ducky tending to him devotedly, and the next year had issued a manifesto, officially declaring himself the "Guardian of the Throne", in the hopes of a restoration of the monarchy in Russia. Only weeks later, he proclaimed himself "Emperor of all the Russians", also proclaiming his son heir to the throne, Grand Duke and Tsarevich. With the death of Nicholas II and the presumed death of his brother, Grand Duke Michael, Kirill was next in line to the - now defunct - throne. But considering the irregularities of his marriage and his arguably treasonous actions at the time of the Revolution, many monarchists considered his pretensions invalid, and the émigré community found itself very divided in its loyalties. Ducky totally supported her husband's ephemeral goals.
|Kirill and Ducky, circa early 1930s.|
Ducky died as the result of a stroke in 1936 at the age of fifty-nine. After the Soviet collapse, the remains of Kirill and his wife were transferred from Coburg to the Grand Ducal Mausoleum of the Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul in St. Petersburg in 1995. Alix had been murdered in 1918 at the age of forty-six. The remains of Alix and Nicky and three of their children were discovered in the early 1990s, exhumed, and were later re-interred in the St. Catherine Chapel of the same St. Petersburg bastion in 1998, on the eightieth anniversary of their murder.
Kirill and his descendents persisted in their claim, and his granddaughter and her son are recognized by most as the pretenders to the Russian throne. A nonexistent throne, but the "Grand Duchess" Maria travels frequently to Russia and seems to be very popular there, so who knows; Russia is a very strange country....
Heinrich Anton von Angeli (8 July 1840, Ödenburg - 21 October 1925, Vienna), Austrian history and portrait painter. Adept at depicting the particularities of military uniforms, furs and fabrics and jewelry, he found much success in society portraiture, and traveled frequently between the cultural centers of Berlin, London, and Vienna. His best know work was done for the extended family of Queen Victoria, both in Britain and at the court of Berlin.
** I understand this multiple/changing name business is terribly confusing. Princess Victoria Melita, Ducky, Grand Duchess of Hesse, Grand Duchess Victoria Feodorovna, Grand Duchess Kirill? All the same person. At different times of her life and in different settings. Princess Alix, Alicky, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna? Also, just one person. Sorry....