On Monday I posted about the life of Grand Duchess Catherine (Ekaterina) Pavlovna of Russia. This post is about her granddaughter, Alexandra of Oldenburg, who also married into the Romanov family a lead a very sad life.
Grand Duchess Alexandra Petrovna of Russia (Born Duchess Alexandra Frederica Wilhelmina of Oldenburg; June 2, 1838 – April 25, 1900) was a great-granddaughter of Emperor Paul I of Russia and the wife of Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich of Russia, the elder. She was the eldest of the eight children of Duke Peter of Oldenburg and his wife Princess Therese of Nassau-Weilburg, half-sister of Sofia of Nassau, queen consort of Oscar II of Sweden. Alexandra belonged to the House of Holstein-Gottorp but grew up in Russia, where her family was closely related to the Romanov dynasty. Her father was a nephew of Emperor Nicholas I of Russia.
Princess Alexandra of Oldenburg
After Alexandra made her debut at court with a series of dinners and receptions, her parents arranged a high-status marriage for her. During a family dinner at the Anichkov Palace, Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich, the third son of Emperor Nicholas I and Princess Charlotte of Prussia, and also her first cousin once removed, proposed and she accepted to marry him. The engagement was announced publicly that same day, October 25, 1855.
The Russian Imperial family, in an attempt to control the Grand Duke’s excesses, he was a notorious womanizer, had propelled Grand Duke Nicholas to marry Alexandra, hoping that she would have a good influence on him. Alexandra, who had been raised in the Lutheran church, converted to the Russian Orthodox faith on January 7, 1856, and was styled as: HIH Alexandra Petrovna, Grand Duchess of Russia. The wedding took place on February 6, 1856 at Peterhof Palace and it was followed by a dinner ball at the Nicholas Hall of the Winter Palace.
Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich Of Russia
Alexandra was described by Anna Tyutcheva (1829-1889), a lady in waiting to Empress Maria Alexandrovna, as: “a sweet and docile creature… Although not beautiful, she is captivating with the freshness of her seventeen years of age, and also with the sincerity and kindness that shines on her face”. Tyutcheva later commented about Alexandra: “her complexion is, in fact, the only thing that’s good about her. Her facial features are rather plain and quite irregular”.
Alexandra loved her husband and her sons deeply but she felt it was also her duty to help those in need. She embraced wholeheartedly charitable work, spending her allowance on donations to schools, hospitals and other institutions. Plain and unsophisticated, Alexandra liked simplicity and preferred to dress modestly, avoiding public life. She dedicated her time to religion and to her consuming interest in medicine.
Grand Duchess Alexandra Petrovna of Russia
In spite of the differences in character and outlook, Alexandra and her husband lived in harmony for the first ten years of their married life. Initially, Grand Duke Nicholas respected and admired his wife’s interest in charities and medicine as well as her being extremely religious.
However, as time went by, Grand Duke Nicholas Nicholaievich grew tired of Alexandra’s increasing preoccupation with religion and began complaining of his wife’s lack of glamour and distaste for society. In 1865, the grand duke started a permanent relationship with Catherine Chislova, a dancer from the Krasnoye Selo Theater. Nicholas Nicholaievich did not attempt to hide his affair. He installed his mistress in a house visible from the study of his palace in St Petersburg. In 1868, Catherine Chislova gave birth to the first of the couple’s five illegitimate children.
Alexandra Petrovna was deeply upset by her husband’s infidelity. She was torn between her duties, the breaking up of her marriage and the death of her sister Catherine Petrovna in 1866. By 1870, nothing was left of her marriage except the bitterness. Alexandra found solace in her two sons and her charity work while her husband divided his time between his children with Alexandra and his second family. The couple’s palace in St. Petersburg was so large that they did not have to see each other.
When the Grand Duke arranged a change of class into the gentry for his mistress and the couple’s illegitimate children, Alexandra Petrovna appealed to Alexander II to intervene, but she found her brother-in-law less than sympathetic. “You see,” he bluntly told her, “your husband is in the prime of his life, and he needs a woman with whom he can be in love. And look at yourself! See even how you dress! No man would be attracted”.
Emperor Alexander II of Russia
In 1879, determined to get rid of his wife, Grand Duke Nicholas expelled Alexandra from the Nicholas Palace, publicly accusing her of infidelity with her confessor, Vasily Lebedev. Grand Duchess Alexandra, leaving behind her jewelry, clothes and possessions, had to move to her parents’ house. The same year, Alexandra suffered a carriage accident which left her almost completely paralyzed She could move neither her legs nor her right arm. Alexandra asked her brother-in-law, Emperor Alexander II, for help. Appalled by the scandal, Alexander II was not sympathetic towards Alexandra and instead made her leave Russia indefinitely to seek medical treatment abroad. Alexander II himself paid for the trip expenses.
Grand Duchess Alexandra Petrovna of Russia
In November 1880, the Grand Duchess left for Italy with her two sons on board the naval steamer Eriklik. She was hoping to find relief for her ailments in the mild climate of Naples. Her godson Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich and his brother Grand Duke Paul, who were on an Italian tour, visited her for two days. In January 1881, her estranged husband, Grand Duke Nicholas, arrived unexpectedly and took both their sons with him. According to Alexandra: he “made me experience things I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy”.
Alexandra left Naples in early 1881 and sailed to Northern Greece. With the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in March 1881, Alexandra asked for help from her nephew Alexander III, who was sympathetic towards her, unlike his father. Alexander III disliked his uncle and removed him from all his posts. He also lifted Alexandra’s exile, allowing her to return to Russia.
Alexandra started a new life in Kiev. Initially, she settled at the Mariyinsky Palace, the Emperor’s residence in Kiev, in the hope that she could recover. She completely relied on religion for solace and comfort. Bound to a wheelchair, the Grand Duchess decided to stay in Kiev for good. This was convenient for her husband, who wanted to divorce her so he could marry his mistress. Alexandra vehemently refused to grant a divorce and Nicholas hoped that he could be a widower so he could remarry, as it had been the case of his brother Alexander II, who after his wife’s death married his mistress. Alexandra, in spite of her poor health, outlived both her husband and her husband’s mistress.
In the summer of 1889, she recovered the mobility of her legs. She bandaged them tightly to relieve the pain. Alexandra became a nun, as Sister Anastasia, taking Holy Orders on November 3, 1889 in Kiev, while her husband was still alive. For the rest of her life, she worked at the hospital performing nursing duties, helping contagious patents and cleaning infected wounds. She often assisted in surgeries.
Catherine Chislova died in 1889, and Grand Duke Nicholas survived his lover by only two years. When he died in the Crimea in 1891, Alexandra Petrovna did not attend the funeral. She also refused to pay homage to her dead husband when the funeral catafalque, taking his body for burial in the St Peter and St Paul Cathedral in St Petersburg, came by train via Kiev on its route from the south.
Grand Duchess Alexandra as Sister Anastasia
The Grand Duchess remained close to her sons, who had taken her side in the family breakup. She was in the Crimea in 1898 when her daughter-in-law, Grand Duchess Militsa, gave birth to twin daughters, one of whom died shortly after birth. Alexandra took her granddaughter’s remains with her and buried the coffin in the convent cemetery in Kiev.
Afflicted with stomach cancer, Alexandra Petrovna died at Kievo Pechersky Monastery in Kiev on April 25, 1900, when she was 61. She was buried within the monastery graveyard in a plain white coffin, wearing her monastic habit. On the day of her burial, Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna attended a memorial service held in the Moscow Kremlin palace church.
In the 1950s, Alexandra’s remains were moved to the Lukianovskoe Cemetery. She was reburied in the garden at the St. Nicholas Cathedral of the Pokrov Monastery on November 2, 2009. Grand Duchess Alexandra Petrovna was canonized by the Holy Synod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church on November 24, 2009 as the locally venerated Reverend Grand Duchess Anastasia of Kiev, patron saint of all divorced men and women. Today her grave in the convent garden is again tended by nuns and her works continues.