31. The coronation of Nicholas II (1896)

The Life and Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna, Empress of Russia by Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden.

At the Coronation the whole old-world pomp of the Russian Court was displayed. It was a glorious pageant for the whole country, apart from the importance it had in the eyes of those who saw in the religious rites the real consecration of their sovereign. Everything was done to foster this feeling in the people who came to Moscow for the celebrations from every part of the vast Russian Empire. The Emperor granted amnesties to prisoners, and bounties to all classes of his subjects: fines were remitted, and facilities given for payment of taxes...

The next day, heralds in mediaeval dress read out the proclamation announcing to 'the good people of Our first capital' that the coronation was fixed for the 26th of May and was to be held in the old Cathedral of the Assumption, `Ouspensky Sobor'. This was a fitting setting for so impressive a ceremony. Though the Cathedral had suffered much at the time of the French invasion in 1812, when Napoleon's troops had stabled their horses there, its ancient splendour had long since been restored. All its walls and pillars were covered with fifteenth-century frescoes, depicting the Saints and scenes from the Old and New Testaments. This brilliant background enhanced the beauty of the uniforms and robes. The jewels worn were wonderful, the Grand Duchess Serge's famous emeralds and the old Grand Duchess Constantine's sapphires, every flawless stone of which was about two inches across, attracted the attention of all. The `Ikonostase' (altar screen) glittered with gold and silver, and in it were enshrined some very old and venerated ikons. The ceremony began early in the morning and lasted for several hours. The Emperor and Empress came on foot to the Cathedral in a state procession from the Kremlin. First came the Dowager-Empress alone, pale and serious-looking, with sad eyes, that reminded the onlookers that her own coronation had been not many years before. After her, each walking under a separate canopy, came Nicholas II and the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, attended by numerous court officials in splendid uniforms. In contrast to the Dowager-Empress, who was blazing with diamonds and wearing an Imperial crown, the young Empress had no jewels except a string of pearls round her neck. She wore a Russian court dress of silver tissue, her hair in two long love-locks', and no ornaments on her head where the Imperial crown was to rest. She looked lovely. At first she was a little flushed and nervous, but regained her self-possession as the ceremony proceeded. The Emperor wore the uniform of the Preobrajensky regiment, the oldest regiment in Russia. He had at first expressed the wish to wear the robes of the old Tsars and their old eMonomach' crown, as the newer 'Imperial' crown was very heavy (9 lb) and he had suffered from acute headaches ever since he had been wounded in the head by a Japanese fanatic at Otsou. Iron etiquette proclaimed the change impossible, and the Emperor was condemned to suffer considerable pain from the heavy crown.

The whole long five-hours' ceremony was a time of intense emotion to the Empress Alexandra. She was not tired at all, she told her sisters, everything was so beautiful. It seemed to her to be a kind of mystic marriage to Russia. She became one with Russia, sealed for ever a Russian in heart and soul, and so she remained from that day and all her life. The long Mass, the robing of the Emperor, his investiture with the Imperial insignia, she saw as in a dream. It is easy to imagine how ardent were her prayers as she knelt with every other person, while the Metropolitan read the prayer for the Emperor, and how her heart went out to his when he knelt, this time all alone, the others standing, and prayed for Russia and his people. Then Their Majesties alone received the Holy Communion, and the Metropolitan anointed the Emperor with the holy oils. On this one day, the only time in his life, the Russian Emperor enters the sanctuary and receives the Blessed Sacrament like a priest. When Nicholas II went up the altar steps the chain of the order of St Andrew fell to the ground — a bad omen to superstitious eyes. But the Empress was not troubled by this She only saw the sunbeam that fell at that moment on his head, and felt it to be a kind of halo. The Emperor crowned himself, the Metropolitan handing him the crown. Then the Empress left her place and knelt before him. The Emperor took off his crown and touched her forehead with it. Then he took a smaller crown and with the utmost gentleness put it on her head. Her ladies fixed it on. The Emperor kissed her, took her hand as she rose, and both went to their places on their thrones. The church ceremony ended with the Empress Marie and all the Princes present doing homage to their crowned and anointed ruler. When his mother approached, pale with emotion, the Emperor's embrace seemed to everyone to be, not that of sovereign to subject, but of a dutiful son to his mother.

The whole procession left the Cathedral on foot and returned to the Kremlin. This time the Emperor and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna headed it in full regalia. Bells rang in all the '40 times 40' Moscow churches, cannon thundered, and the countless multitudes in the streets shouted themselves hoarse. The Imperial couple turned at the top of the celebrated 'red staircase', and bowed low to the crowd three times. This symbolized their greeting to the country. In the palace they passed the representatives of their Mahommedan subjects, whose religion did not allow them to enter a Christian church. These were, certainly, the most picturesque of all the guests; the splendour of their dress alone would take pages to describe. In a room by themselves stood a group of people in ordinary clothes. The foreign Princes inquired who these were, and were told that they were all descendants of people who had saved the lives of Russian sovereigns at different times. There were descendants of Ivan Soussanine, who had, by sacrificing his own life, saved the first Romanoff from the hands of the Poles, others who had saved Alexander II from assassination. Their presence spoke of the constancy of Imperial gratitude, but was a suggestive reminder.