On 14 May 1896, the day of the coronation, in all churches in St. Petersburg, the liturgy was read and prayers of thanksgiving recited. The ceremony began at 10 am; the emperor, his mother, and his wife seated on thrones on a special raised platform installed in the middle of the cathedral. At the end of the liturgy the emperor and empress were anointed and then took communion of the Holy Mysteries at the altar.
Almost one year after her marriage, Alexandra gave birth to the couple’s first child: Olga, who was born on 15 November 1895. Alexandra proved to be a fertile bride and three more girls followed Olga in the next five years: Tatiana on 10 June 1897, Maria on 26 June 1899 and Anastasia on 18 June 1901.
Three more years passed before the Empress gave birth to the long-awaited heir: Alexei Nikolaevich was born on 12 August 1904. To his parents’ dismay, Alexei was born with hemophilia, an incurable bleeding disease. Knowning how the disease claimed the lives of her brother and her uncle, Alexandra suffered of guilt for passing down the disease to Alexei and eventually suffered a breakdown due to the worry for her son’s health.
The oldest daughters – Olga and Tatiana – made up the so-called ‘the Big Pair’ while Maria and her younger sister Anastasia were referred to as ‘the Little Pair’. Maria was widely considered to be the most beautiful, known for her light hair and dark blue eyes. And in contrast to her younger sister, who was more mischievous and reckless, Maria was described as merry and good-natured.
As a young duchess, Maria reportedly loved to flirt and discuss her dreams of marriage and children. Her childhood nanny recalled how ‘One day the little Grand Duchess Mari[a] was looking out of the window at a regiment of soldiers marching past and exclaimed.
Oh! I love these dear soldiers; I should like to kiss them all!
The family was moved to the former governor’s mansion in Tobolsk by the provisional government that replaced the monarchy. Their living conditions deteriorated when the Bolsheviks came to power and moved the family to the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg. They were strictly supervised by 300 guards, confined to total isolation, and placed on soldiers’ rations (no butter or coffee).
Their windows were sealed and painted over as higher and higher walls were built around the building. The commanding officers could access any of the family’s rooms at any time and forced the prisoners to ring a bell to use the lavatory. The family was not permitted contact with the outside world through letters or newspapers.
At about 1 a.m. on July 17, 1918, in a fortified mansion in Ekaterinburg, the Romanovs – Ex-Tsar Nicholas II, Ex-Tsarina Alexandra, their five children and their four remaining servants, including the loyal family doctor, Eugene Botkin – were awoken by their Bolshevik captors and told they must dress and gather their belongings for a swift nocturnal departure.
The White army, which supported the Tsar, was approaching; the prisoners could already hear the boom of the big guns. They gathered in the cellar of the mansion, standing together almost if they were posing for a portrait. Alexandra, who was sick, asked for a chair, and Nicholas asked for another one for his son, 13-year-old Alexei. Two were brought down. They waited there until, suddenly, 11 or 12 armed men filed ominously into the room.
What happened next – the slaughter of the family and servants – was one of the seminal events of the 20th century, a massacre that shocked the World and still inspires a terrible fascination today. A 300-year-old imperial dynasty, one marked by periods of glorious achievement as well as staggering hubris and ineptitude, was swiftly brought to an end.
To avoid the corpses’ discovery, the guards stripped the bodies of clothing and jewels, mutilated them with sulphuric acid, and buried them in the Koptyaki forest. Soviet officials only announced the death of the Tsar; to avoid political backlash, they claimed that the family had been moved to a safe place. The remains were only found and authenticated decades later.