Nicholas & Alexandra - The last Tsar and Tsarina

18 September 2004 - 13 February 2005

Seldom has a personal story been so closely interwoven with the course of history as that of the last family of Russian Tsars. This exhibition presents the lives of the last Tsar and Tsarina, Nicholas II (1868-1918) and Alexandra (1872-1918), and of their five children Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia and the tsarevich Alexei. In 1918, sixteen months after the Tsar had abdicated, they were murdered by the Bolsheviks in Yekaterinburg, as symbols of the old Russia. Countless personal items, state documents, paintings, photographs and 'objets d'art' belonging to the family will be on display at the Hermitage Amsterdam, illustrating an impressive and moving personal story.

Childhood and marriage

Nicholas was the first child of the later Tsar Alexander III and the Danish princess Dagmar. When he was born on 6 May 1868, his grandfather, Alexander II, was still in power; his assassination in 1881 was a traumatic experience for the young Nicholas. At the age of 13 Nicholas became the 'tsarevich', the heir to the throne. His parents gave him an intimate, warm and uncomplicated childhood, exceptional for those days. Apart from his schooling, Nicholas was also actively involved in various branches of the great Russian army. As a young man he was sent out into the world by his father, and travelled to Japan, Egypt, India, China and Java.

With the happy marriage of his parents as an example, Nicholas began to yearn for a 'nest of his own' at an early age. His choice fell on a distant relative, Alix of Hessen (1872), a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. They first met in 1884, at the wedding of his uncle and her sister. On that occasion the 12-year-old Alix scratched their names on the window of the Winter Palace (i.e. the Hermitage), but it was not until after their second meeting, in 1889, that a marriage could be seriously considered. The biggest obstacle for Alix was conversion to the Russian orthodox church. When she finally agreed to this in 1894, there was nothing more to stand in the way of the marriage. However, the wedding plans were postponed by the death of Alexander III on 1 November 1894, which meant that Nicholas became Tsar Nicholas II. More than three weeks later, on 26 November, he married Alix, who was given the name Alexandra Feodorovna.

The coronation: the beginning of the exhibition

In 1896, two years after the death of Alexander III, Nicholas was crowned Tsar of all Russians, in the Assumption Cathedral of Moscow. The first room of the exhibition is devoted to this solemn event, which lasted four hours. On display are the impressive coronation costumes, the miniature regalia (made by jewellers of Fabergé) and menus of the countless banquets and dinners.

The coronation was overshadowed by the incident which took place four days later on the Khodinka field. In accordance with tradition, 400,000 coronation presents and food were to be distributed there in the name of the Tsar. The operation ended in disaster, with more than 1300 people being killed in the throng. However, the coronation festivities were not cancelled, which gave Nicholas and Alexandra an unfavourable reputation with the Russian people.

The family

Nicholas and Alexandra had a close family life with their four daughters Olga (1895), Tatiana (1897), Maria (1899) and Anastasia (1901). However, according to the law of the Russian empire, the title could only be passed on to a male descendant, so that their desire for a son became more and more acute. Alexandra's mental health suffered greatly under these circumstances and, combined with her deep religious feelings, this led to all sorts of contacts with representatives of mysticism. For example, the family worshipped the 19th-century Russian monk Seraphim, who had been canonized in 1903. Finally a successor to the throne was born: the tsarevich Alexei (1904). It soon became clear that Alexei suffered from haemophilia, a blood disease which affects only men and which means that any fall or injury can be fatal. The disease is passed on by the mother, and Alexandra had received it through her grandmother Victoria. In 1905 the couple came into contact with Rasputin, an uncultured monk from Siberia. By giving them hope of a cure for their son, he gained influence over the lives of the imperial family. This influence became so great that eventually, in 1916, he was murdered by representatives of the highest Russian nobility.

The exhibition focuses attention on the Tsar's family by showing a range of personal items: the daughters' dresses, photographs of the private apartments and an exceptional collection of small objects from Fabergé, which were intended as personal gifts. There is also a special focus on the heir to the throne, who was born exactly one hundred years ago - in 1904. The items on display in the Hermitage Amsterdam include his childhood uniforms and some of his favourite toy animals.

The church

In the Russia of the Romanovs the Tsar was the head of the Russian orthodox church. Nicholas and Alexandra were both deeply religious and surrounded themselves in their daily lives with many religious objects. The exhibition shows the imperial couple's personal icons, as well as examples of the famous Romanov tradition of giving lavishly decorated eggs to celebrate the Russian orthodox feast of Easter.

The state

In 19th-century Russia the first cautious steps towards democracy were taken. Nicholas' grandfather abolished serfdom in 1861, but with the assassination of Alexander II in 1881, all hopes of a peaceful political change evaporated. The assassination of the Tsar was adopted as an important argument against reform, particularly in the conservative circles around Nicholas. Unlike his father, Alexander III, Nicholas was a weak leader. In the early years of his rule this was not a problem, because in the late 19th century Europe was going through a prosperous phase with long-lasting peace and a flourishing economy. Although Nicholas was the head of the government, he did not involve himself much in national politics; a fatal attitude, as would emerge later.

Everything changed after 1905, the year in which Russia was defeated on the battlefield by Japan and also the year of Bloody Sunday, the day when thousands of Russians were shot while taking part in a procession to offer the Tsar a petition recommending certain reforms. Politicians urged the Tsar to lay down a new constitution and to establish the Duma, the first real Russian parliament. Initially the Tsar was not prepared to relinquish his absolute power, but in 1905 he gave his approval for a constitution, a cabinet and a parliament; Russia was gradually changing into a constitutional monarchy. However, Nicholas continued to oppose the development and it was not until 1915 that he agreed to let the parliament play a central role.

In the midst of all this political friction, an important jubilee took place in 1913: the celebration of the 300th anniversary of the House of Romanov. The festivities had scarcely finished when the First World War broke out. In spite of Nicholas's reluctance to take part in a European war and the fact that the German emperor was his cousin, Russia declared war on Germany in July 1914.

In this exhibition many items are displayed which are directly connected with the Tsar's political function: representatives of the Duma, photographs of public appearances and various items associated with the celebration of the Romanov jubilee.

Court life

Like many of their predecessors, the couple owned countless palaces and country estates, where innumerable court balls, banquets, ballet performances and fancy-dress parties took place. This exhibition shows the dazzling ball dresses of the Tsarina and her entourage. The family themselves preferred the 'simplicity' and quietness of the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoye Selo, which was refurbished in the 'new style' in the late 19th century. They spent their holidays in the villa at Livadia, on the Crimea, or in their dacha on the Gulf of Finland. They usually travelled in the luxurious royal train or in the Standart, the imperial yacht.

The end

At the end of 1916 political developments in Russia accelerated rapidly and the fate of Nicholas and Alexandra was sealed. The murder of Rasputin, the innumerable war victims, the inflexibility of the Russian nobility and the difficult relationship between the Tsar and the cabinet and the Duma, made the Tsar's position intolerable. In demonstrations people called for Nicholas's abdication. Eventually Nicholas did abdicate on 2 March 1917, after which the family went to live in Tsarskoye Selo, far from political life. Because of the threat of the advancing Bolsheviks, the government decided to move the Tsar and his family to Tobolsk, Siberia, in August 1917. After the Bolsheviks seized power in October 1917, the Tsar's family was regarded as a permanent threat to communism and the new Russia. In April 1918 the family moved to Yekaterinburg, where they were shot down in the night of 17 July in the cellar of the Ipatiev House. Their corpses were buried in the woods. It was not until the 1980s that the remains were discovered. In 1998 they were interred in the St Peter and Paul Cathedral in St Petersburg. In September 2006 the body of Nicholas II's mother, Tsarina Maria Feodorovna, will also be interred there. Just before the 1917 October revolution she fled from Russia and settled in Denmark, the country of her birth, where she died in 1928.

Opening hours

Daily 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Closed on April 26 and December 25

© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The Hermitage Amsterdam is located on Amstel 51, Amsterdam

Photo Janiek Dam

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