By Mats Vederhus and Helene Gammelmark Pedersen
When the last Russian tsar, Nikolas II, was assassinated on July 17, 1918, over three hundred years of Russian monarchy disappeared with him. What many don’t know is that part of the Danish royal family died out at the same time.
A very select few who experienced the royal family up close were so lucky that they survived the 1918 massacre – most of them because their surname wasn’t Romanov. One of those who could tell her story was Theodora Krarup. She returned to Denmark after the revolution and published the book 42 Years in the Kingdom of the Czar and the Soviet Union.
A new life in Russia
Krarup was educated as a painter in Paris and enjoyed traveling. Tired of Denmark and full of adventurous spirit, she departed from Helsinki on a cold December day in 1896 by train to St. Petersburg – Russia’s then capital. When she arrived it was Christmas Eve. One of the first things Krarup did in St. Petersburg was get an audience with the widowess (Tsaritsa) Dagmar.
According to Krarup, the Empress had a deep and slightly hoarse voice, with a strange accent. Widowess Dagmar, former Princess of Denmark, was the mother of Nikolas II – Russia’s last czar. The painter introduced herself to the Empress, and recorded the following dialogue from the first meeting:
– I think you’re competent, and if you want you can paint a picture for me of my late husband, Alexander III. Do you think you can do that?, asked Dagmar.
– Yeah, I’m pretty sure I can.
– Good. Then I’ll pick up his tuxedo jacket. You can put it on a manequin. I’m assuming you know what he looked like from photographs.
Theodora Krarup ended up painting a number of portraits for Dagmar. The Empress had been brought up by her mother, Queen Louise, to turn her dresses inside out as they began to grow old – so she was frugal in her habits. That’s why she always wanted to know what Krarup was using the money for, so she knew they weren’t going to waste.
Dagmar had been married to Alexander II, by his father Christian IX, who later became known as “Europe’s father-in-law” because of all the lands his children ended up ruling. But when asked the Danish professor of Russian history, Erik Kulavig, points out that it was hardly of great importance. Still, he admits it may have helped a few businessmen. Kulavig explains that Alexander II thought it was time to find the future empress outside Germany, where they had traditionally been picked up. The choice thus fell on Denmark. He sent his eldest son to Copenhagen to ask for Dagmar’s hand in marriage.
– Unfortunately he died a year later, but on his deathbed he asked Dagmar to marry his younger brother, the later Alexander III.
In order to marry into the Russian tsar family, a religious foundation is required. This led Dagmar to convert from Lutheranism to Russian Orthodoxism and change her name to Maria Feodorvna. According to Kulavig, it is normal to change names on this occasion.
The death of Alexander III
Dagmar’s second husband, Alexander III, died in 1894. According to Krarup, English newspapers at this time wrote that Dagmar didn’t want her eldest son Nikolas as tsar. He was weak, and she preferred the younger Mikhail, who was intelligent and loved by everyone. In hindsight, she was probably right. Alexander died when he was 49 years old and therefore never had time to educate Nikolas in the role of tsar.
As if that weren’t enough, Nikolas had decided to engage with Princess Alix of Hesse, who was known as powerless and petty. She never got along with her mother-in-law, and this contributed to a persistent bad relationship between the old and the new court. These elements helped to influence the tragedy that would unfold.
Nevertheless, Nikolas appointed Mikhail as tsar after his abdication in 1917 because he wanted his son Aleksey to remain in his and Alix’s custody. One of the many ironies of history that took place during the Russian revolutions was that Dagmar finally got her dream fulfilled, 23 years later. Mikhail, like Nikolas, was eventually also killed. His body was taken to a steel mill and thrown into the ovens.
One of the very few who came close to Nikolas’ new tsar family was Gregory Efimovich Rasputin, usually known only by his surname. Like so many others, Theodora Krarup was fascinated by the tall and ungainly healer from Siberia. He’d come to the young royal couple through common acquaintances who’d recommended him for Aleksey, the heir to the throne born with haemophilia.
Rasputin had become so famous in St. Petersburg that Theodora had to stand in line to get an audience with him. He was dressed in a white silk shirt with embroidered motifs, and asked her to sit down. In her book 42 Years in the Kingdom of the Czar and the Soviet Union, she describes her first encounter with him:
“My impression of him was not such that I immediately fell on my knees, which I later saw that many women did, even the most distinguished and proud. But I cannot deny that from his person radiated great, one could actually say, dominant power. The hair and full beard were a kind of dark brown.
– What’s your name? Rasputin asked after I greeted him.
– Theodora Ferdinandovna – a painter, I replied.
After this conversation, Theodora happily agreed to paint Rasputin for 300 rubles.
Due to his supposed healing abilities and his ability to get women to kneel before him, it may not be surprising that a rumor began to spread that Tsar Nikolai’s wife, Alix, was unfaithful with Rasputin…
– Some historians believe that the rumors that Rasputin had access to the Empress’s bedroom and that the Tsar was made into a cuckold played a greater role in the collapse of the Tsar dynasty than anything else, says Kulavig.
Not least because both Nikolai and Alix insisted on the very highest discretion about the son’s alexia hemophilia. If it emerged that the heir to the Romanov throne was suffering from a potentially fatal illness, they thought it would be a huge scandal. No one therefore knew the true reason for Rasputin’s presence.
Ironically, all this discretion led to Alix, already unpopular among the people, becoming even more unpopular. Her dealings with Rasputin suddenly became more gasoline on the fire for those who wanted a revolution in Russia.
To Theodora Krarup, Rasputin said the rumor was just that – a rumor. First and foremost, he wanted to help little Aleksey and support his mother and father with help and advice when they asked him to.
Rasputin was eventually killed by, among others, Felix Yusupov, a Russian aristocrat, a late December night in 1916. The Yusupov genus was a noble genus in Russia, and close friends of the Tsar family. They believed that Rasputin’s involvement in imperial affairs would eventually destroy the entire Romanov family. They had no idea how right they were. There are those who believe that Rasputin and the rumors surrounding him were crucial to how bloody the tsar family massacre became. When the troublemaker was murdered, Theodora Krarup was in his house, waiting for him to come back from a night out.
The start of the revolution
Only a few months after the attack on Rasputin, the chaos in Russia began to take shape. World War I had erupted in 1915, and the tsar’s loss to Japan in the war of 1904-1905 was still fresh in the memory of the regular Russian. At that time, when Interior Minister Aleksander Bulygin suggested that political concessions might be in place, the tsar replied: “One would think you were afraid a revolution would break out!” Bulygin then pointed out that the revolution had already started. The Tsar could not, politically or socially, be on the losing side of this new war.
Despite Germany losing World War I, they ended up winning against Russia by spending significant sums to send Vladimir Lenin back to Russia from exile and helping him financially. When the tsar was forced to abdicate after the October Revolution in 1917, he and his family was eventually moved to Tobolsk, and later to Ekaterinburg by train. By this time, Dagmar had already made it to safety in Kiev.
– After a quarrel with her daughter-in-law, Alix, and her son about Rasputin – whom she would have removed from court because she thought he was destroying Russia – she left the capital and settled in Kiev. She lived there until 1919, when she reluctantly evacuated Crimea on an English warship, says Kulavig.
When 300 years of tsarism disappeared
Theodora continued to contact the Tsar family via letters. In Tobolsk, Alix missed an English marmelade she used to eat, something Theodora made for her and sent in the mail. In return she received a plethora of goods that had become almost impossible to obtain: macaroni, flour, butter, tea, coffee and the like.
Nikolas and Alix were eventually moved with the children to Ekaterinburg, where they would finally meet their destiny.
When Nikolas and Alix were shot down on orders from Moscow on July 17, 1918, over three hundred years of Russian monarch genealogy disappeared with them. When Dagmar died 80 years old on October 13 at Klampenborg outside Copenhagen, she had remarkably managed to survive her husband and two sons. Her only daughter had managed to escape to England, and died in 1960 outside the clutches of Communists.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the almost total annihilation of the Romanovs, there were rumors that the Danish-Russian monarch genealogy had survived. Almost from day one, it was said that the Tsar’s youngest daughter, Anastasia, must have somehow survived. In 1991, her body was found buried in the forests outside Ekaterinburg with her family. DNA and images were used to identify the bodies, although it was initially thought that Anastasia’s body was actually Maria’s. The only problem was that there were two bodies missing.
The bodies were found in 2007 and believed to be Maria and Aleksey. But this is contested by the Russian Orthodox Church to this day, which refuses to turn the bodies into saints and bury them with the rest of the family. Therefore, over a hundred years after the death of Tsar Nikolas II, the question of the survival of the Danish and Russian monarch genus remains an open mystery.