July 30, 2014

Tsarevich Alexei and the Worst 10th Birthday Ever

Tsarevich Alexei and the Worst 10th Birthday Ever

July 30 (old style; August 12, new style) marks the birth of the last heir to the Russian throne, Alexei, son of Nicholas II. This year, Alexei would have been 110; in 1914, as he turned 10, a political assassination had just escalated into the First World War.

If it hadn’t been for the Russian Revolution, the Romanovs could have had one more tsar – Alexei Nikolaevich, most likely to be remembered as Alexei II (Peter the Great’s father, Alexei Mikhailovich, being the first). But as he was only 13 when the monarchy collapsed, Alexei never got to rule: ever the tsarevich, never the tsar.

Among Alexei’s most famous traits was having hemophilia, like so many of his distant royal relatives. As a result, Alexei was routinely on the brink of death, as even minor bruises could result in unstoppable blood loss and hemmoraging. Saving the only heir to the throne from fatal internal bleeding was an important task, but doctors at the time had little to offer.  Enter Grigori Rasputin, a religious figure who combined the traits of wise man, holy fool, and healer, all in one.

Did Rasputin actually alleviate Alexei’s suffering? It certainly appeared so. Even a letter sent from miles away saying “he will not die” somehow coincided with an improvement in the tsarevich’s health. But what was more important was that Alexei’s mother, Empress Alexandra, saw Rasputin as not just a successful healer, but as the child's only hope. As mothers do, she was open to almost anything when it came to saving her son (who also happened to be the future of the Romanov dynasty).

The Russian public, however, disagreed.

A contemporary caricature depicting Rasputin's influence on the royal family

Alexei’s disease was a state secret, so how were the discontents to know why Rasputin was so welcome in the imperial family? From the outside, it looked like an uneducated peasant was influencing imperial decisions through the empress, with rumors of an affair fueled by an unfriendly press. How much influence Rasputin actually had on the emperor is beside the point – just the perception of his importance significantly discredited an already wobbly Russian monarchy.

Meanwhile, trouble was brewing elsewhere. A month before Alexei’s tenth birthday, on June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo. The "July Crisis" ensued, and we all know what happened next. The end result was, one hundred years ago, a nasty sequence of events:

  • July 28 - Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.
  • July 29 - Russia ordered partial mobilization in support of Serbia.
  • July 30 - Germany fully mobilized, and demanded Russia demobilize within 12 hours or face war. Russia said it was willing to negotiate terms of a demobilization. Germany refused to negotiate.
  • August 1 - Germany declared war on Russia.
  • August 2 - Germany attacked Luxemburg.
  • August 3 - Germany declared war on France.
  • August 4 - Belgium, vowing neutrality, refuses to allow German troops to pass through Belgium en route to France. Germany declares war on Belgium. Britain declares war on Germany. 

Not the best environment for a birthday party. And the icing on the birthday cake: August 12, on Alexei’s actual birthday, the world presented him with the start of the Serbian campaign, as Austria-Hungary crossed the Dvina into Serbia.

It was all downhill from there.

The last known photograph of Alexei and his sister Olga, en route to Yekaterinburg


Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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