Russia’s Tsars typically surrounded themselves with the opulence they felt befitted their status as the autocratic rulers of the world’s largest country. Their palaces were sumptuous and vast, ornate gilded statements of power and wealth. But not every occupant of the throne was as enamoured with what had developed as the imperial style. The last Tsar, Nicholas II, had tastes that to many seemed downright bourgeois.
In 1895, the Tsar moved his family from St Petersburg’s Anichkov Palace to the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo. The ability to move between palaces is the preserve of only the most privileged in society, but, in the Russia of 1895, it also represented a decisive break with the past. The Tsar would leave behind showy, opulent, over the top and imperial St Petersburg for the decidedly more restrained, family-orientated and simple Tsarskoe Selo.
It created a surreal situation for the last of the Tsars; he would be viciously denounced by leftist agitators for maintaining a royal lifestyle whilst his people suffered through poverty, hunger and war whilst simultaneously coming under fire from Russia’s aristocrats for not being sufficiently imperial and emulating bourgeois domesticity.
Where did this desire for the (relatively) simple life come from? Most historians agree that the driving force behind the creation of a quieter, family-orientated home was Nicholas’s wife, the Tsarina Alexandra.
Alexandra had been born as Her Grand Ducal Highness Princess Alix Viktoria Helena Luise Beatrice of Hesse and by Rhine. Not humble by any standards, but, when compared to the exalted circles of the Russian court, it was a comfortable rather than luxurious and privileged upbringing.
Alexandra was also raised in the Victorian tradition of domesticity, eschewing vulgar displays of ostentatious wealth and enjoying simpler pursuits. Indeed, she was often directly schooled in this Victorian mindset by Queen Victoria herself during holidays at Balmoral.
By the time Alix moved to Russia to become the wife of the future Tsar, her tastes, outlook and views had already been formed and much of the rest of her life was then spent bridling at the constraints of imperial life.
Baroness Buxhoeveden suggested that the Tsarina’s taste in interior design was of a “sentimental rather than an aesthetic nature”. The royal parents re-created “a middle-class home meant to raise children in a setting accessible to, but separate from, the state and the court”. The interior was specifically designed “to be neither imperial in style nor in any way grandiose”.
Their private rooms were decorated in “clashing styles and cluttered with ornaments and objects of sentimental value”. Critics sniped that the tasteless reached its apogee in the Tsarina’s ‘mauve boudoir’.
A tourist guide to the area picks out a particular example of the couple’s middle-class taste: “the most outstanding room of the modest palace is the art nouveau styled Maple room, a somewhat more middle class salon than you would expect from a Russian tsar, it’s an elegant example of fin de siècle tastes”.
Later, with the palace firmly in Soviet hands, visitors would be shown around “the old-fashioned, art-nouveau style furniture, the cheap, outmoded oleographs and sentimental pictures, the English wallpaper, the profusion of knick-knacks scattered around on every available surface”. It reminded visitors of the “typical parlous of an English or American boarding house [or a] second class Berlin restaurant”.
Much of the furniture for the new apartments was “ordered from Maples, the London-based furniture manufacturer and retailer, which sent out orders from its Tottenham Court Road store.”
Although it is hard to imagine the Emperor and Autocrat of All The Russias shopping on London’s Tottenham Court Road, his household became one of the store’s biggest customers. One of the attractions was that the simple and modern furniture was more familiar to Alexandria and reminded her of her childhood in English palaces and at the ducal palace in Darmstadt.
Chernavin gave a first hand account of the private apartments at Tsarskoe Selo, commenting that the royal couple’s aesthetic taste “was on the level of that of a rich bourgeois who crammed their rooms with anything that was offered them by obliging purveyors”.
Whilst the Royal Family still enjoyed wealth and privilege beyond even the imagination of most of their subjects, it was ironic that they should be the target of public resentments. Russia had, in her long and turbulent history of Romanov rule, had far more profligate, wasteful and expensive Tsars.