The story of the young Tsar and his family is one that is both beautiful and yet incredibly tragic. Nicholas II was the oldest surviving child of Alexander III and his wife Maria Feodorovna. Nicholas was a very much loved child and very close to his Danish mother, much like his cousin George V. He was brought up in complete awe of his father, the larger than life Tsar. Alexander was over six feet tall, strong (often compared to a bear), and had a truly autocratic personality. Alexander looked like a Tsar, talked like one, and commanded every room he entered like the leader he was.
Nicholas didn't share his father's physical stature or personality. Although very handsome, Nicholas was about 5'7, of slight build, and didn't conduct himself like an Emperor, perhaps because he never thought he would have to be one so early on in his life. He was intelligent, with an impressive memory, and a talent for languages. He was an excellent rider, hunter and dancer. He was gentle, quiet, friendly and sensitive to others' feelings. Anyone who met the Tsarevich, his title before he ascended the throne, took a liking to him.
The young Nicholas fell madly in love with his cousin Alix, Queen Victoria's favourite grandchild. The feelings were mutual, but Alix hesitated and refused Nicholas' fist proposal of marriage on the grounds that she would have to convert to Russian Orthodoxy to be his wife and Tsarina. From the very beginning, Russian society took a disliking to Alix, finding her to be haughty and cold. Although this was her public persona, in private Alix was a warm, loving and affectionate woman who adored her husband and children. Her mother called her Sunny, a nickname Nicholas also used, because she was always merry and laughing. Together, Nicholas and Alix created a caring, loving family. And even though Nicholas was often absent due to his many duties, he spent time with his daughters, doted on his young son, and regretted not being able to be with his wife as often as he wanted.
But if Nicholas was a success as a father and husband, he was a failure as a ruler. Blinded by the belief in his god-given right to rule, Nicholas failed to see that the tide was changing. Autocracy was on the out and democracy was starting to sweep across Europe. He refused to make the radical changes to Russia's government that were necessary. His inability to change with the times had terrible consequences.
Nicholas, Alix, his four daughters and young son were arrested and later executed. Nicholas was the first to die, but his daughters and son suffered a more painful death. The young grand duchesses had sewn diamonds into their corsets, effectively turning them into bullet proof vests, and had to be executed in a horrific manner. Perhaps the biggest tragedy in their untimely deaths is the fact that they could've been prevented. The British government had extended an offer of asylum, one which would have saved the Romanovs. George V, for his own reasons, persuaded the British government to withdraw its offer. George and Nicholas had been close as young men and wrote affectionately to one another throughout their lives. They looked so similar that they could have passed for brothers. Yet it was George V who essentially signed Nicholas' death warrant.
But before the end, the four grand duchesses lived happy and simple lives, surrounded by those who loved them, protected from the whispers (and shouts) of revolution. They are now often grouped together, with only Anastasia, the youngest daughter, having an identity of her own. But the grand duchesses were remarkably different.
Olga - Olga was in many ways like her father. She was shy, blunt, compassionate and very intelligent, with an insatiable appetite for literature. As the eldest daughter, Olga had perhaps the most pressure put upon her, but she remained, like her siblings, very sheltered from outside life. Unlike her two younger sisters, Olga was not described as beautiful by contemporaries, although she had pretty chestnut brown hair and blue eyes. During her teenage years she has a number of flirtations with officers, but her position would never allow any of them to come to fruition. She was only 22 when she was executed. Her name, distinctively Russian, derives from an Old Norse name meaning 'holy, blessed'.
Tatiana - Tatiana was the beauty of the family and the most well known of the grand duchesses during their life time. She had auburn hair and beautiful deep gray eyes. She was tall, slender and impeccably elegant, in many ways she fulfilled people's stereotype of what princesses should look like. But Tatiana was not just about beauty - she was a natural leader, self-assured of her capabilities and the bossy boots of the family. She managed her sibling, even Olga who was older by 18 months, and took charge when it was needed (and even when it wasn't). Her name is derived from the Roman Tatius and has no known meaning.
Marie - Marie was known to all as Mashka, and if Tatiana was the most beautiful, Marie (also often refered to as Maria) was the prettiest. She has light brown hair and blue eyes so big that they were known as 'Marie's saucers'. She was an amiable girl with a kind heart who was happy and excited about one day having a large family. Unlike her older sisters who often got into all sorts of scrapes, Marie never got into trouble, preferring to paint.
Anastasia - The best well-known of the sisters, Anastasia was rumoured to have escaped the execution which killed her entire family. She became a myth, but in truth Anastasia faced the same end as her sisters, brother and mother and father. Anastasia was a tomboy - vivacious, with a stubborn streak a mile long and was rather impertinent. She was a little imp. Unlike her sisters, she was a bit on the shorter side and given to chubbiness, but still very pretty with her strawberry blonde hair. Like her father, she was excellent at languages and picking up different accents. From the Greek Anastasios, her name means 'resurrection'.
Alexis - The baby of the family, Alexis was doted upon by his four older sisters and his parents. He was the much needed and wanted heir. Unfortunately, Alexis inherited hemophilia from his mother, who herself inherited it, ultimately, from Queen Victoria. Although often unwell, Alexis was always present - he was the centre of the family and his well being often dictated whether the family was on a high or a low. His name means 'helper' or 'defender'.
Images: Nicholas II of Russia by Earnest Lipgart. Nicholas II with his family. Nicholas with his children in Alexander Palace.