The Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia
Once upon a time there was a Duke – a Grand Duke – Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia.
He was a Grand Duke because he was the fifth son and seventh of the children of Tsar Alexander II and a brother of his successor Tsar Alexander III. He was born on May 11, 1857 during the time of the Autocracy. He would grow up to be handsome, powerful and rich beyond imagination.
Like all male members of the Romanov dynasty, he followed a military career, and he fought in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78, receiving the Order of St George for courage and bravery in action. In 1882, his brother, Tsar Alexander III, appointed him Commander of the 1st Battalion Preobrazhensky Life Guard Regiment, a position he held until 1891.
In 1884, Sergei married Princess Elisabeth of Hesse, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Their marriage remained childless, but they became the guardians of the two children of his brother, Grand Duke Paul, who was banished from Russia for entering into a morganatic marriage without permission. Sergei’s marriage was childless as it is generally considered that the Grand Duke was homosexual and the marriage was for public consumption only.
The Princess Elizabeth, now a Grand Duchess, was the elder sister of Princess Alix of Hesse who would marry Tsar Nicholas II.
At twenty-six, the fair-haired Grand Duke was reserved, intelligent, well read and refined. Over six feet tall, his extremely slim figure was accentuated by a corset, worn in the manner of Prussian officers.
With his closely cropped hair and neat beard, Sergei Alexandrovich cut an impressive figure. When Consuelo Vanderbilt, then Duchess of Marlborough, met him in Moscow, she considered him to be “One of the handsomest men I have ever seen.” Described by his brother-in-law Ernest Louis, Grand Duke of Hesse as “tall and fair with delicate features and beautiful light green eyes”. Very self-conscious, he held himself very stiffly and with a hard expression in his eyes.
He stood very straight and had a habit of playing with one of his jewelled rings, turning it around his finger. He kept his feelings rigidly in check, and many mistook his reserve for pride. Few had the chance to know him well. He was noted for his adherence to the Church, took a deep interest in Russian antiques and art treasures, and was interested in archaeology, attending and sometimes chairing meetings of the Archaeological Congress.
From the 1870s, Sergei and his younger brother Paul were kept in Russia by their studies. They were destined to follow a military career, but their tutor, Admiral Arseniev, encouraged Sergei’s linguistic, artistic, and musical abilities. He was fluent in several languages and learned Italian in order to read Dante in the original. His interest in Italian art and culture intensified as he grew older. He painted well and was musical, playing the flute in an amateur orchestra. He enjoyed acting and steeped himself in the early history, culture, and traditions of Russia. He liked to read and in time came to know many of Russia’s great writers personally, among them Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, whose work the Grand Duke read and admired. He met Dostoevsky over dinner at the Winter Palace where he was invited by Sergei’s professor.
While shy and reserved, he made no secret of his disapproval of fashionable society and its lax ways, and he defied all criticism. He found it hard to cope with opposition and easily lost his temper. In his home, he demanded tidiness, order, and discipline, and he expected to be obeyed. His niece, Marie Queen of Romania remembered him: “Dry, nervous, short of speech, impatient, he had none of the rather careless good humor of his brothers . . . but for all that we loved him, felt irresistibly attracted to him, hard though he could be.”
And hard he could be. Grand Duke Sergei was an autocrat to the core.
After the death of Alexander III, “Uncle Sergei,” who was also brother in law to Nicholas II (each having married the sister Hesse Princesses) became a trusted advisor to the new Tsar.
The coronation ceremonies of the new Tsar and his wife, as tradition demanded, took place in Moscow and Sergei as Governor General of the City was in charge of overseeing the arrangements. Towards the end of the festivities, according to custom, every newly crowned Tsar presented gifts to the populace; Khodynka Field, on the outskirts of Moscow, was where the distribution was held since the coronation of Tsar Alexander II. The choice was questionable, as the field was normally used as a military training ground and was crisscrossed with ditches. Nevertheless, Sergei, as Governor General approved the plans. Although a crowd of nearly half a million was expected from all over Russia, only one squadron of Cossacks and a small detachment of police were sent to maintain order.
The great body of people began to surge forward in the direction of the booths where the gifts were to be distributed As it did so, men, women and children, hundreds of whom had no idea what was happening, fell or slipped on the uneven ground and were crushed and trampled underfoot. Others suffocated in the mayhem. The police, far too few in numbers, were helpless to do much and even the Cossacks when they arrived were unable to stop the catastrophe. One thousand three hundred people, many hideously mutilated and unrecognizable, were killed and twice that number were seriously injured.
Rather than cancel the evenings festivities Sergei recommended that the dance go on; that a coronation should not be interrupted for a period of mourning.
The night of the tragedy Tsar Nicholas II, for diplomatic reasons, attended a ball in honor of the French; because of that, his reputation suffered for what was perceived to be his lack of sympathy for the victims.
As Governor General of Moscow under Alexander II, Sergei, the lover ofpoetry, Italian and the arts was no better. Grand Duke Sergei was a political hardliner who shared his brother’s inalienable belief in strong, nationalist government. Sergei’s tenure began with the expulsion of Moscow’s 20,000 Jews. It started four weeks before he arrived in person, after the publication of an imperial decree by the Minister of the Interiors by which all Jews of lower social stance (artisans, minor traders and so on) had to be expelled from Moscow. On 29 March, the first day of Passover, the city’s Jewish population learned of the new decree that called for their expulsion. In three carefully planned phases over the next twelve months, Sergei saw to it that Moscow’s Jews were expelled.
At the same time, however, severe restrictions were imposed on the students and professors in the universities as a part of state’s policy of conspiracy prevention and elimination of revolutionary ideas. By the end of 1904, Russia had suffered disastrously in the Russo-Japanese War and the country was in turmoil. As discontent and demonstration multiplied, so did the pressure on Sergei to maintain order. Sergei was of the opinion that only the utmost severity could put an end to the revolutionary ferment. Thousands of students and intelligentsia were jailed or executed.
Sergei had thus become a prime target of revolutionary assassins. And among those potential assassins was the poet Ivan Kalyayev.
Kalyayev was born in Warsaw into the family of a Russian police inspector father and a Polish mother. He attended Saint Petersburg University but soon became involved in student protests, was briefly imprisoned, and then expelled from the University and sent into exile in Ekaterinoslav. Thereafter he tried to return to University, but was denied entrance due to his political activities. When Kalyayev was 24 he joined the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Labour Party but soon broke with them, dissatisfied with what he considered “just talk”, i.e. propaganda that did not lead to direct action.
He decided to completely devote his life to revolutionary actions. At that time Kalyayev became convinced that political terror was the only way to realize his political ideas. He became the very epitome of what can only be described as as moral approach to terrorism. He would slay from a profound sense of moral outrage yet always accepting personal moral responsibilities.
“I loved the revolution with the tender, profound love felt for it only by those who made it an offering of the whole of their lives.”
Kalyayev voluntarily aborted his first attempt to murder the Grand Duke when he beheld his target’s wife and child riding along in the carriage in which he meant to toss his bomb.
In this behavior, Kalyayev presents us with the fascinating specter of a terrorist whose certainty of the justice of his crime does not excuse himself from the moral responsibility of his crime. He would not kill the mother and child for the crimes of the husband and father. Camus would write a play about this in 1949 exploring the morality of terrorism.
He carried out the assassination two days later, killing the Grand Duke and his coachman as the Grand Duke was approaching his official residence in the Moscow Kremlin. Kalyayev was arrested immediately.
When the blast that had blown her husband to shreds shook Nicholas’s palace and rattled the windows, the Grand Duchess rushed to the scene of the explosion. Stunned but perfectly controlled, she gave instructions and kneeling in the snow, helped to gather up Sergei’s still-bleeding remains. The bared torso, part of the skull, a hand bone fragment, fingers, a still booted foot, were placed on a stretcher and covered with an army great coat. She also picked the medallions that Sergei wore around his neck and clutched them in the palm of her hand.
The mug shot
Elizabeth spent all the days before the burial in ceaseless prayer. She understood the words of the Gospels heart and soul, and on the eve of the funeral she demanded to be taken to the prison where Kalyayev was being held.
Brought into his cell, she asked, ‘Why did you kill my husband?’ ‘I killed Sergei Alexandrovich because he was a weapon of tyranny. I was taking revenge for the people.’
“Do not listen to your pride. Repent… and I will beg the Sovereign to give you your life. I will ask him for you. I myself have already forgiven you.”
‘No!” replied Kalyayev. ‘I do not repent. I must die for my deed and I will… My death will be more useful to my cause than Sergei Alexandrovich’s death.’
Kalyayev was sentenced to death. ‘I am pleased with your sentence,’ he told the judges. ‘I hope that you will carry it out just as openly and publicly as I carried out the sentence of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Learn to look the advancing revolution right in the face!’
After the Grand Duke’s death, Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna retired from the royal family and founded the Russian Orthodox convent of Martha and Mary, where she dedicated herself to the care of Moscow’s poor and suffering. She was murdered during the Russian Civil War in 1918, together with her maid, also a nun. Their bodies were smuggled to China and eventually reached Jerusalem. The wooden coffins were met at the railway station by the deputy British governor, Sir Harry Charles Luke, and taken for burial at the Church of Maria Magdalene on the Mount of Olives.
The poet Kalyayev was hanged on May 23, 1905. Today no one remembers his poetry.