Nicholas + Alexandra

Nicholas & Alexandra - Tsar & Tsarina

They called one another Nicky and Alicky, Sunny and Lovey-dear, hubby and wifey: they were the last Emperor and Empress of Russia (a title they preferred to Tsar and Tsarina) and all they really wanted was a recreation of English bougeois family cosiness amid the snows and barbaric splendours of Old Muscovy. We looked at their terrible last days in an earlier blog: now let’s inhale the ambience of their lives in splendour.

Alexandra (our Queen’s great great aunt; and Prince Philip’s great aunt) was largely brought up by her grandmother Queen Victoria to whom perhaps she owed her love of fresh air and extreme cold: Victoria suffered so terribly from hot flushes all her life that she would have fires lit by Balmoral staff abruptly doused with buckets of water; she drove out daily whatever the weather; and like two other great sovereigns, Maria Theresa and Catherine the Great liked the windows flung wide at all times. As Empress (as we can see from numerous photos) Alexandra loved spending snowy sub-zero afternoons wrapped in furs on her balcony at Tsarskoye Selo: her sinister friend, Anna Vrubovya, the introducer of the serpent Rasputin into Eden, lived in a damp cottage in the palace grounds so cold that visitors kept their feet drawn up on divans from the icy floors.

Like many depressives, Alexandra was much affected by extremes of temperature and when not out in the cold she would retreat to her claustrophobic bedroom, furnished by Maples Ltd of the Tottenham Court Road. Here twin beds were pushed together under a tent-like canopy and battalions of ikons hung over and opposite the sleepers. Later, a photo of Rasputin’s mutilated corpse would be hung at the end of the Empress’s bed. The air, already laden with the attar of roses burning perpetually for 23 years in the ikon lamps, was heavy with Alexandra’s own white rose perfume and that of her full English breakfasts: Nicky was long up + dressed before his wife’s tray of bacon and eggs appeared, with toast and Coopers Oxford, a pot of very strong tea and a packet of 20 Players.

Having demolished all this (she suffered agonies from heart palpitations) Alex would often paint, sitting up in bed; or else, dressed in loose drifts of white silk, withdraw to a sofa in her Mauve Boudoir, decorated in her favourite colour with the exception of the pale green carpet. Everything else was mauve and cream, and the room filled with vases of immense size, crammed with violets, roses, lilac, wisteria, peonies and stocks brought daily by train across thousands of miles from the Imperial hothouses in the Crimea.

Here her five children would visit her, and Nicholas join her for tea and cigarettes from exquisitely coloured and jewelled Faberge boxes: he chain-smoked of course, and was always redolent of birch-cured Russian leather from his boots. When he had courted Alex in England, Queen Victoria remarked she always knew when he was in the palace from the scent of his leather luggage. If you take a look at the list of monarchs supplied by Creed (its on the lid of every box) you will see the Emperor’s name though details of commodities delivered are lost.

The offensive smells of Rasputin – the stale garlic, the drink, the sweat – left Alexandra  untroubled. Maybe she thought them subsumed by what she saw as his holiness. We know from her letters to the Tsar that just before the Revolution she visited an aged mystic, bed ridden in a country hovel – “but NO SMELL!” said the Empress. Perhaps that too she could see as a sign of sanctity.

Poor hysterical deluded Alexandra: this old woman gave her a magic comb and a magic apple to avert the coming cataclysm of 1917. A strange and weird combination of Snow White, the Gotterdammerung and Mr Pooter….

The Best Smell of All

Tsarina Alexandra Aroma Folio Les Senteurs Blog

“Delicious cool air” wrote the poor Tsarina Alexandra in her diary during her final imprisonment at Ekaterinburg. Over and over again she and the Tsar write about the smells dominating the last months of their lives in the hot Russian spring + summer of 1918.

Cooped up on the first floor of the Ipatiev House with their five children, residual staff of servants and a battery of Bolshevik guards Nicholas and Alexandra were oppressed by claustrophobia as a double palisade was erected to shield the “House of Special Purpose” from the outside world. The final horror was the whitewashing and then sealing of all the windows, to be opened only as a special privilege after much bargaining, pleading and resolutions of the local Soviet.

All the Imperial Family felt the heat dreadfully and the Tsarina was most afflicted by the constant miasma of cooking and food prepared on oil stoves. The Tsar chain- smoked which exacerbated halitosis caused by chronically bad teeth, neglected for twenty years due a phobia of the dentist’s chair, despite the Russian Imperial dental service being  the finest  in the world. The guards reeked of alcohol, sweat,unwashed hair and clothes, stale tobacco; there was an insufficiency of lavatories;a couple of Imperial dogs romped around; while a group of dusty stuffed bears moulted and shed on the staircase. The days when the window sashes were dropped a few inches were recorded in ecstasy in the prisoners’ diaries

The Tsar writes lyrically of a June thunderstorm which cleared the air, the rain bringing the scent of all the gardens of Ekaterinburg into the rooms. Outside in the garden bloomed lilac and honeysuckle which the Romanovs were allowed to pick during their brief periods of exercise. The Grand Duchesses still had the last of their favourite Coty perfumes, each of the four girls her own flower scent; the Tsarina used her personal white rose perfume. Lights burned in front of the ikons: had Alexandra managed to bring the attar of roses which always scented the holy images at Tsarskoye Selo?

That image of the rain-soaked gardens is so powerful; the desire for this kind of perfume experience is so popular,so instinctive. Matin d’Orage recreates a thicket of gardenia flowers and foliage scenting the air after a storm; the sublime Lys Mediterranee evokes a springtime garden on the Riviera, on a morning spangled with dew and the breath of the sea. Find your own freedom and refreshment – and escape – in scent.

Image from Wikimedia commons