The Science Museum’s latest, superb exhibition is called ‘The Last Tsar: Blood and Revolution’ and is based upon the extraordinary 100-year investigation into the disappearance of Russia’s last Tsar and his family – and the medical story attached to it.
I was enthralled by this combination of science, history, politics and geography and spent several hours in the Museum, retracing the lives of Tsar Nicholas II and his family. Please do visit it as soon as you can; in the meantime, I’m going to share a little of what I learned today. Believe me when I tell you that fact is stranger than fiction…
By 1917, 65 members of the house of Romanov, the last ruling dynasty of Russia, remained. They were related to many of Europe’s royal families: the Tsar, King George V and Kaiser Wilhelm II were all cousins. Nicholas’s mother, the Dowager Empress, was the sister of Queen Alexandra, the widow of Edward VII. Photos of various royal families, many never seen before, are displayed throughout the exhibition, providing tantalising glimpses into their lives.
Let’s revisit 1894, when the 26-year-old Nicholas became the last Tsar of Russia and the final ruler of the Romanov dynasty. His father, Alexander III, had been renowned for his conservative, autocratic policies and exceptional physical strength and Nicholas practised a Spartan lifestyle, exercising every day and enjoying good health.
One month after becoming Tsar, Nicholas married Queen Victoria’s granddaughter Alexandra (‘Alix’). Alix’s mother died when she was six, after which Alix was raised by the British monarch. Alix had much in common with her new husband, preferring a vegetarian diet, cold environment and secluded lifestyle.
Alas, the new ruling couple proved no less autocratic than previous rulers. The Tsar held absolute power over Russia and his subjects – politically, legally and even spiritually. Nicholas and Alix believed in the concept of autocracy as the foundation stone of Russian society and upheld their divine and incontestable right to rule. In a world that was rapidly modernising, this would be their downfall.
From the beginning of her marriage, Alix was under immense pressure to produce a male heir. In 1895, Nicholas and Alix’s first child, Grand Duchess Olga, was born – and three more daughters followed. With the birth of each daughter the pressure on Alix intensified and the exhibition does an excellent job of explaining how her mental and physical health suffered.
It didn’t help that the Tsarina’s ability to produce an heir was a matter of state interest. All of her pregnancies and the miscarriage she suffered were publicly announced and there’s no doubt that the intense social pressures had a severe impact upon Alix’s health. Marooned in a state of constant anxiety and suffering from numerous ailments, she was treated with gentle remedies and spas.
In 1902, Alix’s anxiety over producing a male heir caused her to manifest a phantom pregnancy. By now, she’d lost any remaining trust in professional medicine and was seeking comfort in her faith and in spiritual healing. Rumours abounded that Alix, never popular with the public, suffered from nerves and the exhibition provides a frank account of the way in which mental health was treated in Russia, illustrated by items including an ivory massager and special serum – and, more grimly, forearm restraints and a restraint jacket.
Finally, in 1904, a son was born to the royal couple: Tsarevich Alexei. Jubilation was soon followed by horror: Alexei was diagnosed with haemophilia, the so-called ‘royal disease’ that had already killed Alix’s uncle, brother and nephew. Queen Victoria, the first member of the British royalty to carry the gene for haemophilia, had passed it to her children Alice, Beatrice and Leopold.
In Russia any physical disability was perceived as divine punishment. Alexei’s haemophilia was concealed and all photos of him carefully staged. From now on, the family lived in constant fear for their longed-for-son’s life, withdrawing from public life. Distancing themselves from their subjects, however, triggered a chain of events with a tragic end.
Poor Alexei. The exhibition does an excellent job of bringing to life his suffering, and that of fellow haemophiliacs, as well as explaining the difficulties in treating this agonising disease (and the progress made in doing so). As he grew older, Alexei underwent massages, mud baths, natural chemical medications, leg braces and crutches. An intelligent and energetic boy, Alexei was advised against undertaking physical activities and sport.
With no cure in sight, spiritual and natural healers came calling – the last and most notorious of whom was Grigor Rasputin. Distrusted by the general public and the royal family’s friends and relatives, Rasputin nonetheless possessed an ability to settle Alexei’s condition during his periods of bleeding and became close to Nicholas and Alix. Without being in that royal bubble, it’s difficult to understand this friendship: one of his murderers, Prince Felix Yusupov, would later write “The strangeness of his manner was disconcerting and although he affected a free and easy demeanour, one felt him to be ill at ease and suspicious”.
This story was never going to end well and Rasputin’s assassination has been well-documented. As for the royal family, World War One brought challenges of a kind they’d never faced before. Nicholas and Alexei spent much time at the General HQ of the Russian army, while the Tsarina, Olga and Tatiana volunteered as nurses for the Red Cross. I hadn’t previously been aware of this and was fascinated by the photos of them undergoing training and hospital work.
As far as the Russian public was concerned, this was too little too late and a combination of devastating losses at the Front, lack of strong leadership and the assassination of Grigor Rasputin led to the Tsar, reluctantly, abdicating in 1916. When the Bolsheviks seized power in October 2017, the Romanovs’ fate was all but sealed.
The final section of the exhibition sensitively explores the final days of the Romanovs and the 100-year long investigation which followed. It’s an absorbing conclusion to an exhibition of the highest quality and one which I wholeheartedly recommend visiting. Thank you Historian Ruby for bringing it to my attention.