Empress Victoria Feodorovna
(Princess Victoria Melita – Empress-in-Exile Victoria Feodorovna)
Author of the text: Alexander N. Zakatov
English translation: Russell E. Martin
Princess of Great Britain and Ireland, and Princess of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha
Malta’s past is replete with mysteries and legends and cannot but fascinate anyone with even the least bit of interest in history. The fascination begins with the mysterious ancient civilization that erected grand megalithic temples on the island. The Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, and Normans succeeded each other as rulers of this archipelago, a cultural mix that over time formed a unique historical and cultural environment that, in 1530, was finally inherited by the Order of St. John, better known as the Order of Malta.
The revolutionary upheavals that befell Europe at the end of the eighteenth century put an end to the Order’s rule of Malta. This period included the nostalgic attempt by Emperor Paul I of Russia to revive the Order of St. John as an outpost of Christian civilization, and to include the Maltese islands among the possessions of the Russian crown. Paul I’s plan never materialized for a variety of reasons and ended with his tragic death in 1801. But relations between Russia and Malta have since then been special and close. And there is something almost providential in the fact that it was on Malta in 1876, in the San Anton Palace, that the great-great-granddaughter of Paul I, one of the most remarkable and talented royals of the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was born: Victoria Melita, Princess of Great Britain and Ireland, and Princess of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, who was destined to become the Russian Empress-in-Exile.
Victoria Melita was the daughter of Queen Victoria’s second son, Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, and his wife, the Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovich of Russia, the daughter of Emperor Alexander II the Tsar-Liberator, who had married in 1874. Their son, also named Alfred, and daughter, named Marie (the future Queen of Romania), were born in Great Britain, but Victoria was born on Malta, when her father was the commanding officer of the HMS Sultan. (1) Her parents therefore gave her a second name—Melita—in honor of the ancient name for the island of Malta and its former capital. (2) Her nickname in the family, however, was Ducky. In English, the name literally means “duck,” or “duckling,” and in the figurative sense “darling”—not unlike the Russian diminutive nickname “golubushka,” which can mean “duck,” “ducky,” “little dove,” or “dearie.”
In 1886, the Duke of Edinburgh was promoted to commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean Fleet of the British Navy, and his family moved back to Malta for three years. The majestic beauty of Malta undoubtedly left a deep and enduring impression on the young sisters Marie and Victoria Melita: Marie became a well-known and accomplished writer, and Victoria Melita became a sensitive and gifted painter.
When Victoria turned 16 in 1893, her father inherited the throne of the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and he was transformed from an English prince into one of the ruling sovereigns of the German Empire.
Grand Duchess of Hesse-Darmstadt
The following year, Princess Victoria Melita married her first cousin, Grand Duke Ernest-Ludwig of Hesse-Darmstadt (Grand Duke of Hesse and the Rhine), who was eight years older than she and had already been grand duke for two years.
Their magnificent wedding took place in Coburg on 19 April 1894, where a galaxy of royal guests gathered to celebrate the occasion. The heir to the Russian throne, Tsesarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich (the future Nicholas II) wrote of the wedding in his diary: “Ernie (3) and Ducky make such a great couple!” (4)
Victoria Melita gave birth to a daughter on 11 March 1985, but there was no happiness in the marriage. Ernest-Ludwig had many fine qualities as a man. He loved his wife in his own way and shared her love of art. But his homosexuality, about which he was relatively open, shocked the princess, who had been raised in the spirit of strict Victorian morals.
The couple grew apart, despite all attempts to keep them together. The grand duchess got pregnant in 1899, but the child—a boy—was stillborn. In 1901, after the death of their grandmother Queen Victoria, who had opposed their divorce, Ernie and Ducky legally ended their marriage, and the grand duchess went to Coburg to live with her mother.
Marie Alexandrovna had by then become a widow. Her husband Duke Alfred had died in 1900, a week before his 56th birthday, wracked with grief at the death of his 24-year-old only son and heir, Alfred. (5)
In 1903, the only child of Ernest-Ludwig and Victoria Melita, Princess Elisabeth of Hesse and the Rhine, died of typhoid in Skierniewice, in the Kingdom of Poland (part of the Russian Empire), while visiting relatives with her father.
A Love that Overcomes All Obstacles
Victoria Melita courageously endured the difficult changes in her life. She coped with her feelings of loss, misfortune and sorrow, and soon acquired a new feeling: love for the Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich, whom she had met years before as a child, during her first visits to Russia in the 1880s and early 1890s.
Their friendship at first was entirely platonic. Kirill Vladimirovich was one of the most handsome Russian grand dukes. Victoria Melita might not be called a classic beauty, but her extraordinary charm and inner spiritual beauty were noted by everyone who knew her. Over time, they both realized that they could not live without each other. But there were many obstacles in their path to being together.
The fact that Kirill and Victoria were cousins was not really an insurmountable obstacle. Church canons in this area are interpreted variously, and in any case, the Church routinely gives dispensations for such marriages, especially when it comes to marriages between related dynasties. Emperor Nicholas II’s father-confessor, Archpriest Ioann Yanyshev, whom Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich had approached for advice, raised no objection himself and did not anticipate any objections from the Church’s hierarchy.
Divorce among members of the House of Romanoff and marriages with divorced persons were not preferred, of course, but neither were they prohibited by law. However, there was one complication: Victoria Melita was not only a divorced princess, she happened to be divorced from the brother of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. In the event she married Kirill Vladimirovich, Victoria would become one of the senior Russian grand duchesses, which was totally unacceptable to Alexandra Feodorovna.
Nearly everyone initially was against the marriage of Kirill and Victoria Melita, including Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna, and Kirill’s parents, Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich and Maria Pavlovna the Elder. In 1902, Kirill, who was then serving on the battleship Peresvet, was ordered to stay indefinitely in the Far East. Relatives hoped that the romance between Kirill and Victoria Melita was merely a passing infatuation, and that a prolonged separation and other distractions would bring it to an end.
But just the opposite happened. Each blow of fate only strengthened the love between them. Victoria Melita and Kirill found opportunities to correspond and send each other small gifts to keep their love alive. With the support of his uncle Grand Duke Aleksei Alexandrovich, Kirill was promoted to lieutenant-commander and transferred to the battlecruiser Admiral Nakhimov. He returned from his deployment and raced to meet with his beloved Victoria Melita.
Kirill’s resolve to dismiss all objections to his marrying Victoria Melita was bolstered by a terrible event in his life. While serving as a naval officer in the Russo-Japanese War, which broke out in 1904, Kirill found himself on the bridge of the battleship Petropavlovsk with Vice-Admiral Stepan Osipovich Makarov when it hit a Japanese mine, killing everyone standing near him, including Admiral Makarov. A large number of the crew perished in a subsequent massive explosion that turned the ship into a column of smoke and flame. (6)
“I was seized by the uncanny force of a swirling whirlpool. It gripped me and dragged me into the black depth of its funnel. Round and round I went with a mad, corkscrew-like motion, rushing round in ever-narrowing spirals until all around me became dark as night. All seemed lost now. It is the end! I thought,” Grand Duke Kirill later remembered. “There was a short prayer and a last thought for the woman I loved. Meanwhile, I struggled violently against the force that held me in its fearful grip…I struggled madly and suddenly broke surface.” (7)
He had to hold out for 40 minutes in frigid water clinging to the wreckage of a steam launch before being picked up by rescuers.
Having seen the face of death, a person rethinks many of his decisions and comes to understand what he truly values in life. As a result of this experience, Kirill firmly decided to link his life and future, no matter the cost, with the woman whose image he saw in that terrible moment when he thought all was lost.
The grand duke wanted to return to the war immediately after recovering from his wounds, but the Russian defeat in the Battle of Tsushima in May 1905 made it pointless to do so.
Kirill and Victoria Melita understood that to marry without the permission of the emperor was a serious legal infraction, which would have equally serious consequences for them both. But they worried more about the dynastic relations between Russia and Hesse-Darmstadt, which might very well be harmed by their marriage. They also felt it wrong to pursue their own personal happiness in a time of war. In 1905, however, these two barriers to their happiness disappeared: in February, Grand Duke Ernest-Ludwig of Hesse-Darmstadt remarried; and on 23 August / 5 September, Russia and Japan signed the Treaty of Portsmouth, ending the war in the Far East.
On 25 September / 8 October 1905, in the Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas in Tegernsee (in Bavaria), Kirill and Victoria Melita were finally married. Attending the wedding were the bride’s mother, Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna, the bride’s younger sister, Princess Beatrice of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (later a Spanish Infanta), Count N. Adlerberg, and members of the Coburg court. Grand Duke Aleksei Alexandrovich arrived later to congratulate the couple.
The first reaction in Russia to the marriage of Kirill and Victoria was firm and harsh. Kirill had come to St. Petersburg to explain himself to the emperor, but was promptly told that Nicholas II had stripped him of his naval rank and pension and that he was to depart the country within two days. In his anger, Nicholas II was even preparing to announce that Kirill had been deprived of his rights of succession to the throne. However, a Special Commission Nicholas II had formed to study this question had concluded that it was not possible to deprive a member of the dynasty of his or her rights to the throne without his or her consent. (8) Emperor Nicholas II’s anger eventually abated, and he forgave his cousin and his wife. On 15 July 1907, the marriage between Kirill and Victoria Melita was officially recognized by an Imperial decree, and his wife and children were registered as members of the Imperial House of Russia, with all the dynastic rights, status, and titles as defined in the laws of the Imperial House. (9)
Kirill Vladimirovich wrote in his memoirs about this moment: “Both he and the Empress [Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna—A.N.Z.] were always more than kind to Ducky and me after my return from exile.” (10)
Service to Russia
Even before the end of the couple’s exile, Victoria Melita converted to Orthodoxy on 17/30 January 1907, taking the name Victoria Feodorovna. Shortly afterward, she gave birth in Coburg to her first child, a daughter named Maria. In 1909 she gave birth in Paris to her second child, also a daughter, named Kira, whose godfather was Emperor Nicholas II.
After their permanent return to Russia in 1910, Grand Duchess Victoria Feodorovna began to participate actively in social and cultural projects, became a patron of the arts, and supported philanthropy across Russia. She became a member of the Council of the Imperial Women’s Patriotic Society, and a trustee of a school named after the heir, Tsarevich Aleksei Nikolaevich.
Kirill and Victoria lived with their daughters in St. Petersburg in a house at 13 Glinka Street. In her free time, Victoria Feodorovna liked to work in and design gardens and to paint, improving on a skill she had been studying since childhood. She also enjoyed and supported various kinds of technical innovations. Since childhood, she was fond of horse riding, and she now mastered the “iron horse”: automobiles. She even became the patron of an auto rally, named in her honor as the “Victoria Rally.”
The couple was in Riga at the start of one of these rallies when they received news of the beginning of the First World War. Kirill and Victoria set off by car to Tsarskoye Selo, but were forced to switch to trains because the roads had filled with vehicles, essentially grinding all travel to a halt. They barely managed to find seats on a 3rd-class carriage, and they were extremely happy and relieved even for that.
Kirill Vladimirovich was immediately appointed to the headquarters of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief and became inspector of the naval units attached to the army, then took command of the naval battalions. In 1915, he was promoted to rear admiral and appointed commander of the Naval Guards and chief of Naval Battalions and River Flotillas.
Victoria Feodorovna, like other royal women of the House of Romanoff, set about organizing aid to soldiers in the Russian army. As the Inspector of the Military Medical Organization of her mother-in-law, the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, Victoria Feodorovna participated in the creation of field hospitals, living quarters and workshops providing basic needs for wounded soldiers, warehouses for linens and medical supplies, first-aid stations and mobile kitchens, and in the creation and deployment of military medical units and military ambulances. “She helped in making her motorized ambulance work one of the best run auxiliary services in Russia,” wrote Kirill Vladimorovich. “It worked with great regularity and was absolutely reliable.” (11) In the first year of the war alone, the “ambulance service of Her Imperial Highness Grand Duchess Victoria Feodorovna” transported more than 13,000 wounded, saving many lives.” (12) The grand duchess also rendered assistance to the allied Romanian army, helping to locate and identify prisoners of war through the International Red Cross and establishing cemeteries for Russian and Romanian soldiers who fell on the battlefield or died in hospitals. She personally went to the front lines and, while under heavy enemy fire, helped to evacuate the wounded to the rear. For her extraordinary displays of courage, Victoria Feodorovna was awarded the St. George Medal in all four classes.
Many members of the Imperial House were critical of some policies being pursued by Emperor Nicholas II. In some respects the critics were right, and in some others they were wrong. Both Kirill Vladimirovich and Victoria Feodorovna were among those who expressed opinions that conflicted with some of the official policies of the government. But it would be quite wrong to consider them or Kirill’s mother, Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, members of an “opposition.” Accusations of “conspiracies” or “intrigues” are without foundation and are based on gossip and rumours from sources that that were not credible. The weight of the historical evidence shows that the family of the Vladimirovichi was no more an “opposition” than were, for example, the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna or Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, the sister of Empress Alexandra.
In February 1917, Kirill Vladimirovich, together with his uncle Paul Alexandrovich and cousin Mikhail Alexandrovich, tried to slow the escalation of revolutionary unrest in order to “preserve Nicky’s throne by every means possible” (13) . At first, Kirill hoped to organize a coordinated effort to suppress the uprising, but when he realized that command and control on various levels—governmental, military, and the city—had broken down, he began to look for other ways to save the situation. He supported the proposal in a manifesto composed on the initiative of Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich (14), which offered a path to compromise with the leaders of the State Duma, who seemed to him to be more moderate and open to negotiation than the more radical revolutionaries in the Petrograd Soviet.
All of these political maneuvers, including the arrival of Grand Duke Kirill at the head of the Naval Guards at the State Duma, were in vain.(15) On 2 March 1917, Nicholas II abdicated the throne for himself and his son in favor of his brother, Mikhail Alexandrovich, who was next in the line of succession. On the following day, Mikhail Alexandrovich deferred his ascension to the throne until such time as the Constituent Assembly determined what form of government Russia was henceforth to have. On March 8, the Provisional Government arrested the former emperor, Nicholas II, and his family. That same day, Kirill Vladimirovich resigned all his ranks and commands.
Victoria Feodorovna was pregnant while all these events were happening. In June, the couple decided to take advantage of an offer by their friend General Paul von Etter to join him at his estate in Haiko in the Grand Duchy of Finland, which was then still part of the Russian Empire. On 17/30 August 1917, in the city of Borgo, a son was born to the couple, whom they named Vladimir. In September, they returned to Haiko to stay until the Grand Duchess and her newborn son were strong enough to travel. Their plan was to return to Petrograd. But fate had other ideas.
Kirill Vladimirovich and his family were the only Romanoffs who survived the revolutionary whirlwind, who did not deliberately flee their homeland for safety abroad, but ended up outside the boundaries of Russia only by chance: because the Grand Duchy of Finland, where they were then living, had declared its independence from Russia.
The Imperial Mission in Exile
As the Civil War raged in Finland, Kirill and Victoria were in constant mortal danger. Several times their very lives hung by a thread. After the defeat of the Finnish “Reds,” Kirill and Victoria got the opportunity to move to Western Europe. In 1920, they left Finland with their children for Germany: first to Victoria’s sister, Princess Alexandra of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, and then to Munich, where her mother, Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna, joined them as they traveled on to Zurich. Sadly, in that same year Kirill and Victoria both lost their mothers. Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, Kirill’s mother, had managed to escape Soviet Russia, but died after a brief illness in Contrex;ville, France, on 24 August 1920, and Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna, Victoria’s mother, died suddenly in Coburg on 22 October 1920.
From April 1921, Kirill and his family lived in Cannes, in the south of France.
Meanwhile, the Civil War in Russia had ended with the victory of the Bolsheviks. The “Whites” had essentially been defeated in 1920, and the last pockets of resistance were eliminated in 1921-1922. Conflicting rumors circulated about the fate of Emperor Nicholas II, Tsarevich Alexei, and Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich. Despite the official announcement by the Bolsheviks of their execution, many still held out hope that they (or at least one of them) had been saved.
Among the members of the Imperial House who ended up abroad after the revolution, Kirill Vladimirovich was the senior Romanoff: the senior member of the senior line. By the normal operation of the law, he had become the Head of the Romanoff dynasty and Emperor de-jure. Though still not fully convinced of the deaths of Nicholas II, Tsarevich Alexei, and Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich, who were above him in the line of succession, Kirill assumed the “interim” title merely of “Curator of the Throne,” which, functionally, was “regent.” He signed a decree to this effect in Cannes on 26 July / 8 August 1922. At the same time, Kirill Vladimirovich appealed to the military—both “Red” and “White”—to end the divisions that were tearing his homeland apart. In this way, he began to formulate a concept of national reconciliation, a concept which was further elaborated in later years in the appeals and statements of other, subsequent Heads of the Russian Imperial House in exile. (16)
In June 1924, Kirill and his family moved to the Edinburgh Palace in Coburg, which had been given to them by Maria Alexandrovna.
Having reviewed the results of the investigation by N.A. Sokolov and the overwhelming evidence that all the male issue of his uncle Alexander III—all those who stood in the line of succession above him—had been killed, Kirill came to the conclusion that his duty now was to accept officially the rights and duties that passed to him under the laws of the Russian Empire. On 31 August / 13 September 1924, Kirill Vladimirovich signed in Coburg a manifesto confirming inheritance of the title of the Emperor-in-Exile. (17)
Victoria Feodorovna completely supported her husband, defending him from the attacks of his enemies and from pressure from those who did not support this decision, lifting his spirits at this stressful and difficult time. It is sometimes said that she did all this out of her own ambition, but there is no serious foundation for such accusations. Objective accounts from this time report that Victoria, as well as Kirill, were driven only by a strong sense of purpose, their firm moral beliefs, and an indomitable resolve to fulfill their duty, and never by vanity. They clearly understood that the positions which they had inherited promised them much more in the way of suffering, hardships and burdens than honour or the fleeting pleasure of bearing high and ancient titles. It would have been far easier and lucrative for them to remain “aloof from it all,” living their lives comfortably and anonymously as the senior grand-ducal family and hobnobbing with various notable people and groups, without taking genuine responsibility for anything that the laws of succession required of them. But they were instead guided by their sense of duty to their ancestors and descendants.
In November 1924, Victoria Feodorovna visited the United States on the invitation of the American Ladies Charity Club, with the goal of raising funds to assist Russian refugees. She was accompanied on this trip by Kapitolina Nikolaevna Makarova, the widow of Admiral Stepan Osipovich Makarov, who died on the bride of the battleship Petropavlovsk; Princess Vera Kirillovna Meshcherskaia; and Vice-Admiral Nicholas Arkadievich Petrov-Chernyshin. The visit was an enormous success. The effort netted more than $40,000, which, with Victoria’s approval, Julia Loomis, the president of the American Ladies Charity Club, donated to the Russian Red Cross. (18)
In 1925, Kirill and Victoria’s daughter, Maria, married Prince Karl, the Hereditary Prince of Leiningen (the future 6th Prince of Leiningen). Their second daughter, Kira, married in 1938, after Victoria’s death. Her husband was the future Head of the German Imperial and Prussian Royal House, Prince Louis-Ferdinand.
“Victoria’s House” in Saint-Briac
In the winter of 1927-1928, the Imperial Family moved to the village of Saint-Briac on the Emerald Coast of France.
Kirill and Victoria first encountered this extraordinary and beautiful place quite by accident in 1921, thanks to an invitation from Infanta Beatrice to spend a summer with her in Brittany, at her country house “Ker Briac au Tertre.” (19) Their time in this beautiful place so impressed them (20), that they returned again and again and finally chose to move to Saint-Briac permanently.(21)
In the summer of 1925, Kirill Vladimirovich purchased a house in Saint-Briac that he named “Ker Argonid” (which is Breton for “Victoria’s House”), in honour of his wife. This modest, traditional Breton house was in great need of repairs and restoration. But the Imperial Family had little money after the Revolution, and so the renovations had to be put off. In 1926, ,Kirill wrote his brother Andrei: “I play golf and watch how painfully slowly our house construction is coming along.” (22) Three months later, after they had temporarily moved to the “H;tel des Peyre”, (23) he jokingly shared his frustrations with his brother: “Now I sit with Vladimir, the sole master and bourgeois owner of an unfinished house, with a smoldering fireplace and running water”. (24) Finally, by the end of 1927 the house became suitable for living, and the Imperial Family left Coburg. In 1929, the Chancellery of his Imperial Majesty, the main coordinating institution of the Russian Imperial House, also moved to Saint-Briac.
Victoria Feodorovna was a constant support to her husband and his work as Head of the Imperial House. She was active in the legitimist monarchist movement that had formed around her husband; she became a patron of the Russian youth in the monarchist “Mladorossi” movement, and worked energetically to strengthen the international and inter-dynastic relations of the Romanoff dynasty. In addition, she also became deeply involved in the social and cultural life of Brittany, including charity work.
The memoirs of people who knew Victoria the best paint a picture of a wonderful woman: a person with a firm, sometimes even rigid character and great dignity, but at the same time quite modest, tactful and compassionate.
Victoria was a student of human nature and valued more than anything sincerity and directness.
People could and did get the wrong impression of her. She could sometimes seem harsh or arrogant. Of course, her upbringing in the stiff and rigid British court of the Victorian era, plus the hardship and pain she suffered in her lifetime, left its mark on her manner of behavior. Thus, some who had only a single or passing interaction with her might leave that experience thinking she was aloof and haughty. Only when a person got closer to Victoria did they understand that behind the stern and impregnable “facade” was a kind, warm and tender heart.
It reveals a great deal about her true character that she was always willing to admit a mistake and to ask for forgiveness when she had unintentionally hurt or angered someone.
Victoria loved her children selflessly, and they in turn looked to her as their main authority figure in the family.
She had a very cultivated taste, a rich spiritual life, a heightened sense of duty, and limitless courage. She could at times be caught up by some bold plan that had been presented to her, a quality that sometimes, unfortunately, was exploited by opportunistic persons. But her excellent education, cultured up-bringing, and her own common sense always in the end protected her from making rash or ill-considered decisions that might harm her reputation. She was keen to understand all the new political movements of Europe in the 1920s and early 1930s, including Italian fascism and German National Socialism, hoping to find an alternative to predatory, self-indulgent, and soulless capitalism, on the one hand, and, on the other, utopian and godless communism. But in utter disgust she condemned the anti-Christian, racist, and hateful tendencies that appeared in Hitler’s ideology.
Victoria Feodorovna’s religious feelings knew no fanaticism or Pharisaism. She converted to Orthodoxy out of conviction, and her attachment to the Orthodox Church was rooted in her sincere acceptance of the teachings of the Church and her respect for its Hierarchs. However, she disliked false and “showy displays of piety.” Only those who truly knew her could sense the depth of her faith. Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky), the First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, who visited the Imperial Family in Saint-Briac in July 1929, recalled: “I would like to point out that Empress Victoria Feodorovna, following the example of other royalty who converted from Protestantism to Orthodoxy, with amazing speed and yet full sincerity, was imbued with the spirit of Orthodoxy. And I remember how, when we were in Saint-Briac, the Empress was praying with great tenderness and tears in front of the miraculous Icon of the Mother of God of the Sign, and then suddenly took out a pearl brooch and laid it on the holy icon, and said: ‘Please accept this small donation from me.’ Throughout our stay in Saint-Briac, we were touched by the fact that in her conversations and in all her interactions with visitors who had come there, the Empress remained always natural and at ease, yet, at the same time, also ever majestic and simple, as befits a Russian Orthodox tsaritsa.” (25)
In addition to receiving their countrymen from Russia, the Imperial Family was also often visited by many French, English, and American friends and families who lived in or periodically came to northwestern France. “The Imperial Family lived in Saint-Briac quite modestly,” wrote the Director of the Chancellery, Vice-Admiral Harold (George) Karpovich Graf. “But their simple life never gave the impression that they were poor because everyone there lived a simple, rustic life.” (26)
The Art and Fate of the Imperial Artist
The natural and man-made beauty of the Emerald Coast gave new direction and inspiration to Victoria Feodorovna’s artistic interests.
Many of the women of the House of Romanoff had artistic talent to one degree or another. Paul I’s wife, Empress Maria Feodorovna, was a recognized authority in medal artwork, and she herself carved cameos and statuettes, painted, and sculpted. Almost all the empresses, grand duchesses, and princesses had become quite accomplished artists. After many years of neglect, the works of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna (wife of Nicholas I), Maria Feodorovna (wife of Alexander III), Holy Royal Passion-Bearer Alexandra Feodorovna (wife of Nicholas II), and Royal Martyr Elisabeth Feodorovna can now be objectively appreciated for their skill and beauty. The simple, but extremely warm, paintings of Nicholas II’s sister, Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, have become especially well-known. Unfortunately, despite the variety of publications about the life and social work of Empress Victoria Feodorovna, her achievements in art are known only to a narrow circle of specialists. This book fills in this gap and corrects the injustice done to the Imperial Artist, who in her own time had earned the respect of fellow artists and critics.
The bay of Saint-Malo has long attracted painters of various genres and levels of skill. Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, ;mile Bernard, Paul Signac, Henri Rivi;re, Alexandre Nozal, Victor-Paul Grandhomme, and other famous French artists all spent time and worked there. (27)
Victoria Feodorovna became very close to the Nozal family. Alexandre Nozal was an extraordinary landscape and portrait artist, who died in 1929 (28) , but his daughter-in-law, Julie Nozal, the daughter of the famed enameller, art jeweler, and portrait medalist Victor-Paul Grandhomme, and who herself was a well-known engraver, became the Empress’s friend and supported and encouraged her passion for art. They painted together and worked on a range of protects. They together produced an illustrated prayer book (1929), a Book of Revelations (1930-1931) (29), and a Gospel according to Luke. These unique books, all illustrated by hand, are broadly recognized as masterworks of art. The Gospel of Luke, which includes floral ornaments and headpieces by Victoria Feodorovna and illustrations throughout by both Julie Nozal and the Empress, was published in a small print run and is today a prized bibliographic rarity. (30)
The family home of Victor-Paul Grandhomme and Julie Nozal, “Les Emaux,” on the intersection of Rue de la Mer and Rue du Moulin in Saint-Briac became a place for friendly gatherings and painting, not only for Empress Victoria Feodorovna, but also for her daughter, the Grand Duchess Kira, and, when they were visiting, Queen Marie of Romania and Infanta Beatrice, Duchess of Galliera. Her regular circle of friends included the sculptor ;mile-Jean Armel-Beaufils and his wife Suzanne (Zannic), herself a noted sculptor and daughter of the Belgian painter Louis Duvivier.
Victoria Feodorovna never claimed to be a “great artist” and recognized the reputations and talent of the more experienced artists in her circle. Even so, her abilities and distinctive style were significantly above the amateur level. Her works are interesting not only from a historical point of view, but because they have deservedly received high praise from world masters and art historians.
The Empress had a small art studio built on to “Ker Argonid” as a place of her own to work. There she drew sketches and painted, and also devoted time to embroidery. She became especially accomplished embroidering flowers and still lifes.
In 1930, Kirill and Victoria celebrated their silver wedding anniversary at the Peyre Hotel. In 1931, Emperor Kirill went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In 1933, Kirill and Victoria’s son, Tsesarevich Vladimir, turned 16 years old, the age of dynastic majority as established by the law of succession for heirs to the throne. In accordance with these same laws, he took the solemn oath to observe and preserve Russia’s Imperial law of succession.
In 1934, the Imperial Family was officially invited to London for the wedding of their niece, the daughter of Grand Duchess Elena Vladimirovna (Kirill’s sister), Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark, who married Prince George, Duke of Kent. The wedding was the last major dynastic celebration that Victoria Feodorovna attended.
In the summer of 1935, Victoria Feodorovna’s health and, even more importantly, her spirits began to decline. Relatives and friends observed that the Empress was beginning to show her age and to feel weak and gloomy. The only thing that raised her spirits and distracted her from sad thoughts was taking care of her son and overseeing his education, and also embroidering what would turn out to be her last panel.
A number of books and articles about the life of the Imperial Family in exile make reference to discord between Kirill and Victoria that supposedly began to emerge in 1933. Of course, problems can occur in any marriage, and it is impossible to rule out completely the possibility that misunderstandings had arisen between them. It should be noted, however, that all the vague rumours and references to a conflict arising out of Emperor Kirill Vladimirovich’s supposed extramarital interests are based entirely on speculation, fragments of correspondence taken out of context, unverified quotations, or simply salacious gossip.
In Harold (George) Karlovich Graf’s short Memoirs on Empress Victoria Feodorovna, which was published in 1937, after the Empress’s death but a year before Kirill’s, he writes: “Lies, deceit, double-faced behaviour and infidelity always brought out the anger and resentment in her. When her eyes burned with such contempt, she could look at you so critically and coldly that the guilty could not stand her gaze.” (31) Of course, if Kirill Vladimirovich had truly been unfaithful to his wife, his personal secretary would surely have known about it and would not have put such an emphasis in the memoirs on Victoria Feodorovna’s stark condemnation of infidelity, especially with the poignant words and tone he used.
This, of course, is an indirect argument; but as Graf’s memoir and other relevant historical sources indicate, the causes of Victoria Feodorovna’s depression (and possibly other psychological problems that made her insecure and suspicious of others) were general exhaustion, her crushed hopes of returning to Russia, and her feelings of helplessness in the face of a world around her that seemed only to be growing more cynical, violent and cruel.
On December 20, 1935, Victoria Feodorovna went to Amorbach to be present when her daughter (Princess Maria of Leiningen) gave birth to her next child and to help care for the newborn during the first month of her life. At least this was the plan. Kirill Vladimirovich escorted his wife to Gare de l’Est train station in Paris and saw her off.
Both the baby and the mother came through the birth fine, but the Empress caught a cold. When she began to feel a bit better, the doctors allowed her to get out of bed. She went out into the corridor and but immediately exposed to a draft. Her illness came back with a vengeance. Victoria returned to bed and gradually stopped eating and communicating with others. She was diagnosed with influenza, a serious enough situation alone, but made much worse by a subsequent stroke. Emperor Kirill and Tsesarevich Vladimir rushed to Amorbach. Victoria was still alive, but no one was sure if she could recognize anyone. On 2 March 1936, Empress Victoria Feodorovna died at the age of 59. Her funeral was small and private in the family mausoleum of the Dukes of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.
The funeral service was officiated by the rector of the Church of St. Elizabeth in Wiesbaden, Archpriest Pavel Adamantov.
In Paris, a panikhida (requiem) was served on the evening on 2 March in the Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevsky (which was then under the omophorion of Metropolitan Eulogius) and in the Church of the Holy Three Hierarchs on rue Petel (under the omophorion of the Patriarch of Moscow). On the next day, 3 March, another panikhida was served by Metropolitan Eulogius with a large assembly of clergy. According the account published in the newspaper Bodrost’ (Courage): “Before the service began, the Metropolitan delivered to those gathered a heartfelt sermon, recalling in it the selflessness with which the Empress accepted the cross of her royal service during these years of difficulty for Russia, when, according to God’s providence, it fell upon her to undertake the task of keeping alive the idea of the Russian monarchy, an idea dear to us all. Her sacrifice and service may only be fully appreciated by future historians.” (32) Among the members of the Imperial House and relatives of the dynasty present at the service were: Grand Dukes Boris Vladimirovich and Andrei Vladimirovich, with their morganatic spouses; the widow of Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich, Princess Natalia Sergeevna Romanovskaia-Brasova; the wife of Prince of Imperial Blood Gabriel Konstantinovich, Princess Antonina Rafailovna Romanovskaia-Strelninskaia; and the widow of Prince Peter Alexandrovich of Oldenburg, Olga Vladimirovna of Oldenburg.
The royal court in Belgrade declared a 30-day official period of mourning. (33) The First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky), already immobilized by illness, blessed Archbishop Feofan (Gavrilov), his cell attendant Archimandrite Feodosii (Melnik), and the Russian clergy of Belgrade to serve a panikhida for the Empress.
Before the panikhida, Archbishop Feofan gave a sermon, in which he noted that “after converting to Orthodoxy, the Empress became a zealous daughter of the Church, praying with ardent tears before the miracle-working Icon of the Mother of God [the Kursk-Root Icon of the Sign—A.N.Z] and donating jewelry from her slender means for its metal cover. Later, the Archbishop reminded everyone how the Empress spent her entire life serving others, working with her own hands to raise funds for charity and patriotic projects.” (34) At the suggestion of the Archbishop, those who gathered for the service sent a telegram to Kirill Vladimirovich: “Your Imperial Majesty! The Russian community, gathered together here at the Russian Church in Belgrade on 3 March to pray to the Most High for the repose of the soul of your wife, Empress Victoria Feodorovna, with one heart send to Your Imperial Majesty our deepest condolences for the great sorrow that has been visited upon you and your most august family.”
“Many Russian patriots,” wrote Nicholas P. Rklitskii, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper Tsarskii vestnik (and the future Archbishop Nikon of Washington and Florida), “on basis of Russian laws that were in force before the Revolution, regarded the deceased royal to be the Russian Empress, and their conviction is not simply a partisan opinion but rather stems from the moral feelings of many Russian people who deplore the Revolution and condemn its many crimes. And therein lies the moral significance of legitimism. The grief of these people standing at the tomb of their Empress will be especially deep and profound. We cannot even imagine the grief of her Imperial spouse. We can only say that the sincere and fervent prayers of the Russian people in these days rise up to the Throne of the Most High not only for the soul of the departed Empress, but also, with feelings of sorrow and compassion for her husband, for the most august Head of the Imperial House of Russia. (35)
Victoria’s death was literally the cause of death of Emperor Kirill Vladimirovich. His love, which had endured so many hardships, remained strong to the end of his days. “There are few who in one person combine all that is best in soul, mind, and body,” he wrote in his memoirs. “She had it all, and more. Few there are who are fortunate in having such a woman as the partner of their lives—I was one of these privileged.” (36)
Kirill outlived Victoria by little more than 2 years. On 12 October 1938, he passed away and was buried next to his Ducky.
On 7 March 1995, through the efforts of the Grand Duchess Leonida Georgievna, the widow of the son of Kirill and Victoria, the Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich, the remains of Emperor Kirill Vladimirovich and Empress Victoria Feodorovna were, in accordance with their final wishes, moved from Coburg to the mausoleum of the House of Romanoff in the Ss. Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg.
In Saint-Briac, where Victoria had lived for 15 years, a monument to her was erected, designed by ;mile-Jean Armel-Beaufils and his wife Zannic, with funds provided by the townspeople and the English community of Saint-Briac.
A stone monument was placed at the former front gates of the home of Victor-Paul Grandhomme and Julie Nozal, “Les Emaux,” through which the Empress frequently entered. Julie Nozal remarked that, after the death of her friend the Empress, no one was allowed to enter through these gates any longer, and she blocked forever this entrance with this monument—a stone archway and pillar with a bas-relief of the Empress and the inscription: “Victoria-Melita. Saint-Briac. 1921-1936.”
The monument was unveiled on 11 May 1937. Attending the ceremony were members of the Imperial Family, the Infanta Beatrice, the mayor of Saint-Briac, Gaston Dambreville (37) , the mayors of the neighbouring towns of Dinard and Saint-Lunaire, the English vice-consul in Saint-Malo, as well as the Catholic rector of the church of St. Briac and the local Anglican priest, who both worked with the Empress on various charity projects.
“Ker Argonid,” which continued to belong to the Imperial Family into the 21st century, was sold in 2006 and has been partially renovated. But the inhabitants of the Emerald Coast fondly remember the Romanoffs and are proud that, for more than 80 years, four generations of the senior, legitimate branch of the House of Romanoff lived among them. The street on which the house is located, which once bore the name of Victoria Feodorovna, has been officially renamed the chemin du Grand Duc in honour of her son, the Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich, who was Head of the Imperial House from 1938 to 1992, and who, in 1991, initiated the process of returning the dynasty to its homeland. To this day, Saint-Briac regularly hosts exhibitions related to the history of Russia and the Romanoffs.
During her official visit to Malta in 2017, Victoria Melita’s granddaughter, the current Head of the Imperial House of Russia, the Grand Duchess Maria of Russia, visited the San Anton Palace, where she met with the President of Malta, Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca. After her conversation with the Maltese head of state, the Grand Duchess viewed a memorial plaque in memory of her grandmother’s birth, after which, in the “Russian Chapel” of the palace, a member of the Grand Duchess’s organizing committee, Hieromonk Nikon (Levachev-Belavenets), sang the hymn “Eternal Memory” for the “Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna and the most pious Empress Victoria Feodorovna.”
The connections that link different eras has not been broken. The memory of the Imperial artist Victoria-Melita—Princess of Great Britain and Ireland, Princess of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Grand Duchess of Hesse and the Rhine, Grand Duchess of Russia, and finally Empress-in-Exile Victoria Feodorovna—lives on and continues to help preserve Russia’s historical heritage and bring people and nations closer together.
An abridged version of this book was previously published: Alexander N. Zakatov, “Tsarstvennaia khudozhnitsa Victoriia Feodorovna,” Russkoe iskusstvo 4 (2019): 90-99, with illustrations.
(1) Alfred commanded the HMS Sultan from February 1876 to April 1878.
(2) Melita (or Melite) has been known since the Arab conquest of the island as M[e]dina.
(3) “Ernie” was the Ernest-Ludwig’s nickname in his family.
(4) Dnevniki imperatora Nikolaia II (1894-1918), ed. S. V. Mironenko, vol. 1: 1894-1894 (Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2011), 65.
(5) Official sources report that the young Alfred (1874-1899) died of consumption, but rumours swirled that the actual cause of death was the wound her received in a suicide attempt.
(6) The Petropavlovsk was lost on March 31 / April 13, 1904, on the feast day of one of the most important heavenly intercessors for the house of Romanoff, the Holy Martyr Hypatius of Gangra. The miraculous salvation of Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich on that day foreshadowed his future mission as emperor-in-exile.
(7) Kirill Vladimirovich, Moia zhizn’ na sluzhbe Rossii (St. Petersburg: “Liki Rossii,” 1996), 198. English text from Kirill Vladimirovich, My Life in Russia’s Service: Then and Now (London: Selwyn & Blount, 1939), 168-69.
(8) GARF (Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv Rossiiskoi Federatskii/State Archive of the Russian Federation), fond 601, opis' 1, delo 2138, ll. 119-127v.
(9) Sobranie Uzakonenii 1907 g. July 20, otd. I, st. 956; RGIA (Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi istoricheskii arkhiv/Russian State Historical Library), f. 1276, op. 3, d. 961, l. 5.
(10) Kirill Vladimirovich, op. cit., 214; English quote from Kirill Vladimirovich, My Life in Russia’s Service, 183.
(11) Kirill Vladimirovich, op. cit., 228; English quote from Kirill Vladimirovich, My Life in Russia’s Service, 196.
(12) “Reports on the Military Organization of [Grand Duchess] Maria Pavlovna, 1914-1915.” GARF, f. 655, op. 1, d. 79, l. 40.
(13) Correspondence of Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich and Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich. GARF, f. 601, op. 1, d. 2098.
(14) “Manifesto of the Grand Dukes.” GARF, f. 601, op. 1, d. 2095, l. 1v; f. 5881, op. 2, d. 369, ll. 10-11.
(15) On this episode, see Alexander N. Zakatov, Imperator Kirill I v fevral’skie dni 1917 g. (Moscow: Izdatel’skii tsenr “Novyi vek,” 1998).
(16) See: Alexander N. Zakatov, “Osmyslenie prichin i sledstvii Revoliutsii 1917 goda Rossiiskim imperatorskim domom Romanovykh,” in Stoletie Revoliutsii 1917 goda v Rossii. Nauchnyi sbornik, vol. 1, ed. I. I. Tuchkov (Moscow: Izdatel’stvo AO “RDP,” 2018) (=Trudy istoricheskkogo fakul'teta MGU, vyp. 108, series II: Istoricheskie issledovaniia, 60, 30-53); and Materialy konferentsii: http://www.hist.msu.ru/about/gen_news/38247/ (accessed 27 February 2018).
(17) See: Alexander N. Zakatov, “Stanovlenie dinastii Romanovykh v izgnaii,” in Istoricheskii vestnik, vol. 3 (150): Romanovy: dinastiia i epokha (April 2013): 208-53 (pt. 1); vol. 6 (153): Istoriia – svidetel’nitsa vremen (December 2013): 146-237.
(18) According to various estimates, the ratio of the purchasing power of the US dollar in 1925 to that in our time is approximately 12 to 1. Thus, the amount collected in 1924 corresponds to approximately $480,000 today.
(19) “Briac House on the Mound,” located on the Salt Beach in Saint-Briac.
(20) In August 1921 they were joined by Queen Marie of Romania.
(21) Jean-Pierre Bihr and Jean-Pierre Lebret, Regards sur Saint-Briac (Saint-Jacut-de-la-Mer: Presses Bretonnes, 1990), 74-76.
(22) Letter from Emperor-in-Exile Kirill Vladimirovich to Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich of 30 July 1926. ARID Arkhiv Rossiiskogo imperatorskogo doma/Archive of the Russian Imperial House), f. 7, op. 1, d. 42, ch. 1, l. 70.
(23) Now the “H;tel du Centre.”
(24) Letter from Emperor-in-Exile Kirill Vladimirovich to Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich of 21 October 1926. ARID, f. 7, op. 1, d. 42, ch. 1, l. 74.
(25) Nikon (Rklitskii), Archbishop, Zhizneopisanie blazhenneishego Antoniia, mitropolita Kievskogo i Galitskogo, vol. IX: Mysli i suzhdeniia o Russkom narode, ob Evraziistv, o Bratstve Russkoi Pravdy. A S. Pushkin. F. M. Dostoevskii. Tsarskaia vlast’ i Sv. Pravoslavie. Xhristoliubivoe Russkoe Voinstvo. Russkoi molodezhzi (New York: Izdanie Severo-Amerikanskoi i Kanadskoi eparkhii, 1962), 273-74.
(26) G. K. Graf, Na sluzhbe imperatorskomu domu Rossii, 1917-1941: Vospominaniia (St. Petersburg: Izdatel’stvo BLITs, 2004), 197.
(27) L;o Kerlo and Ren; Le Bihan, Peintres de la C;te d'Emeraude (Douardenez: Chasse-mar;e, 2003), 192-225.
(28) L;o Kerlo, Madeleine Kerlo, and Ren; Le Bihan, Saint-Briac peint par Alexandre Nozal. 1852-1929 ([Morlaix]: Kerlo-Antiquit;s Le Vieux Moulin 1992).
(29) Acquired by Empress Victoria Feodorovna’s niece, Queen Maria of Yugoslavia, wife of King Alexander I the Unifier. Bihr and Lebret, Regards sur Saint-Briac, 114.
(30) Evangile selon St. Luc ([Paris]: Editions du Raisin, 1934). The print run was very small: 100 copies were printed on white Montgolfier parchment, and 5 on Chinese paper.
(31) G. K. Graf, Vospominaniia o ee velichestve gosudaryne imperatritse Viktorii Feodorovne (Shanghai: Russkii prosvetitel’nyi komitet, 1937), 3.
(32) Bodrost’, 8 March 1936.
(33) The Dowager Queen Maria of Yugoslavia, mother of King Peter II, was born a Princess of Romania, the daughter of Queen Marie of Romania and the niece of the late Empress Victoria Feodorovna.
(34) Tsarskii vestnik, 13/26 April 1936.
(35) N. P. Rklitskii, “Russkaia skorb’,” Tsarskii vestnik, 25 February 1936.
(36) Kirill Vladimirovich, op. cit., 213; English quote from Kirill Vladimirovich, My Life in Russia’s Service, 182.
(37) Mayor of Saint-Briac from 1931 to 1943.
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