The Woman Behind the Throne: Maria Feodorovna, the Romanov Empress

Maria Feodorovna of Russia, 1881/Wikimedia Commons

Editor's Note:

C. W. Gortner holds an MFA in writing, with an emphasis on historical studies, from the New College of California. He is the internationally acclaimed and bestselling author of Mademoiselle Chanel, The Queen’s Vow, The Confessions of Catherine de Medici, The Last Queen, The Vatican Princess, and Marlene, among other books.

The Romanovs. To this day, a hundred years since their demise, they evoke fabulous gowns and priceless emeralds, winter balls in gargantuan palaces, lacquered carriages and private yachts, bejeweled Fabergé eggs and ethereal beauty. Perhaps because of their unimaginable finale in the cellar of a merchant’s house in Yekaterinburg, we remain fascinated by their opulence and tragedy.

Historical hindsight and photographs of the Romanovs have left us with haunting impressions of a family frozen in splendor, ill prepared and even more ill equipped to survive the forces building against them. Much has been written about Nicholas, Alexandra, and their children; far less has been dedicated to the Tsar’s mother, the Dowager Empress Maria, known as Minnie. Though she lived through the last three Romanov reigns and was an important figure not only within her family but also without, allegedly earning the begrudging respect of Lenin himself, she’s become a footnote in history, the Disney matriarch of Anastasia’s fable, forever in exile, mourning the mystery of her family’s fate.

Born Princess Dagmar of Denmark, Minnie was of minor royal lineage, coming into prominence when her father became king and her sister Alix wed the British heir, later Edward VII. Like Britain, Denmark had a constitutional monarchy, but this was still the era of Imperial hubris, with Queen Victoria, the Prussian Hapsburgs, and the Romanovs in Russia laying claim to swaths of Europe, India, and the east, their competitive duels over territory and importance at odds with a world moving toward the 20th century and shedding its awe of inviolate royalty.

Of the major Imperial houses, the Romanovs were the wealthiest and most powerful, ruling over the immensity of Russia, as well as parts of Poland, Finland, and Asia. Convulsive change under Tsar Alexander II, Minnie’s father-in-law, had led to the liberation of the serfs, a much-heralded move toward equality in a deeply divided classist society that, while laudatory, would also precipitate unexpected chaos — all of which Minnie experienced first-hand.

At the age of nineteen, Minnie married Alexander’s heir, later Tsar Alexander III, and went to live in Russia. She barely spoke the language but it didn’t matter; despite its ancient Slavic traditions, the Romanov court spoke French and was European in its manners. Like every foreign bride expected to fulfill her duty, she had to adapt to this new culture and win popular approval. She succeeded in great part due to her tenacity, as well as her outsider’s perspective. Unlike the Romanov grand duchesses, Minnie had known relative poverty as a royal, and she sympathized with the plight of the least fortunate in Russia. When she became tsarina, she funded educational centers for women, Red Cross hospitals, and the first chapter of the Russian Humane Society. She did all of this while raising five children and suffering the increase in violence directed against the Romanovs, which culminated in the 1917 Revolution. Her husband Alexander III was not a tsar like his father; respected and admired by his peasant subjects, he was despised by intellectuals for his despotic rule. Like him, Minnie witnessed the assassinations and abortive revolutionary attempts threatening the dynasty. Unlike him, she understood the world was changing and the Romanovs must change with it.

It’s tempting to contemplate what might have happened had Tsar Alexander III not died prematurely or his eldest son Nicholas II hadn’t inherited the throne. We know now that Nicholas’s ineffectiveness, his devoted yet contentious marriage to Alexandra, and the birth of their hemophiliac son, along with their association with Rasputin, contributed to their downfall. What is less known is that Minnie made courageous attempts to forestall the inevitable annihilation that would shift world history.

Her untold story inspired me to write The Romanov Empress. Hers is a cautionary tale of the perils of inequality, of excessive wealth hoarded by few at the expense of many, and of blind belief in the divine right to rule. But it is also a tale of a family unwilling to confront change, divided by age-old expectations at the advent of modernity. Minnie breached the cusp of two vastly opposing eras; born into the unquestioned privileges of one, her life was shattered by the social fervor of another. And yet, she endured.

Some readers will find a different portrait of the Romanovs in my novel. I wanted to reach beyond the mythology to uncover the hidden conflicts that don’t usually form part of their narrative. My intent was not to condemn or idolize, but rather to explore how both these fallible flesh-and-blood people and the complexity of the events surrounding them led to the disintegration of Imperial Russia.

In the end, however, this is the deeply personal story of woman not often celebrated: a formidable empress, a loving mother and wife, and above all else, a survivor.