How did a woman born so blessed end up so utterly cursed? Starting as a Danish princess, Maria Feodorovna rose to become a celebrity Tsarina known for her seductive beauty, iron will, and influence over her son Nicholas II. But in the blink of an eye, she lost every last shred of her glamour and power—and it happened in one of the most infamous plot twists in history.
1. Her Family Loved Making Babies
Despite the name we know her by now, Maria Feodorovna wasn’t Russian at all. She was born Princess Dagmar of Denmark, and her family was nothing to sneeze at. Her favorite sister, the elder Alexandra of Denmark, went on to marry King Edward VII of England. Meanwhile, her father King Christian IX was famous as “The Father-in-Law of Europe” because of the scads of good matches he made for his girls. But when Maria’s time came, she blew her sisters out of the water.
2. People Went Wild For Her Beauty
As Maria came of age, it became clear she was going to catch a very big fish indeed. Simply put, she was beyond gorgeous, and there are reams of historical evidence to prove it. Practically every person with a pulse wouldn’t stop raving about her “Grecian outline of face,” her “inborn majesty,” and her “flashing eyes,” not to mention her keen intelligence, way with words, and innate fashion sense.
No less than Queen Victoria was eyeing up Maria for marriage to one of her younger sons, and even noted that she was “cleverer” than her sister Alexandra. But Maria had one man in particular in mind.
3. She Met A Russian Prince Charming
In the 1860s, when Maria was barely a teenager, she met Nicholas Alexandrovich, the Crown Prince of Russia. The encounter set off a drastic chain of events. Nicholas, or “Nixa” as his family called him, fell madly in love with Maria after only seeing a photograph of her. In short, Nixa had it bad, and wrote to his mother, “I think only about her.”
So when he actually went over and met her in person, he instantly set his plan in motion.
4. Her Lover Was One Heck Of A Catch
For the next while, Nixa did everything he could to put himself in the best light for Maria—and to be fair, he was one fine specimen. The very ideal of Romanov manhood, Nixa was slender yet strong, intelligent yet lively, and nicknamed the “crown of perfection” in his home country. His charisma assault worked a charm: Soon enough, Maria was just as head over heels for the Tsarevich as he was for her.
By the summer of 1864, Nicholas proposed. Tragically, this is where things went terribly, terribly wrong.
5. Her Fiancé Ghosted Her
Over the next months, the besotted lovers wrote fervent and frenzied love letters to one another, the missives piling up as both refused to skip describing single detail or emotion to the other. And then Maria’s lovesickness turned to fear. Although they had been writing daily, at one point, Nixa stopped writing her entirely during his stay in Florence.
Worried, she half-jokingly asked if he had replaced her with a “dark-eyed Italian.” His answer was more chilling.
6. Her Love Fell Ill
In truth, Nixa had been feeling under the weather for quite some time during his travels. He was now too sick to really respond to the love of his life. At first, doctors thought it was rheumatism, but then Maria’s fiancé began to show even more disturbing signs, including a stiff neck and back as well as intense sensitivity to light. By the time they figured out what was really wrong, it was too late.
7. She Got A Devastating Telegram
With his health declining rapidly, Nixa went to the south of France to try to get better. The next news Maria heard was a nightmare. Nicholas had cerebrospinal meningitis and didn’t have long left to live. As Nixa’s father, Tsar Alexander II, telegrammed her: “Nicholas has received the Last Rites. Pray for us and come if you can.”
It was a call Maria couldn’t help but answer, but it was more painful than she could have possibly imagined.
8. She Watched Her Prince Perish
At 21 years old, Nixa was already withered and fading on his deathbed when Maria arrived. She proceeded to sit vigil with the rest of his family, including Nixa’s younger brother Alexander. Of course, it didn’t help: within days, he was gone, perishing painfully in late April. Maria was so devastated at his passing that his parents had to haul her away from his cold body and carry her out of the room.
As if that weren’t enough drama, a dark and bizarre twist was on the horizon.
9. She Got An Indecent Proposal
While Nixa was in the throes of his last breaths, he made one stunning confession. He hinted that he wanted Maria to move on and still marry—and more than that, his chosen groom was none other than his own brother, Alexander. Wordlessly, the fading Tsarevich tried to bring his fiancée’s hand together with his sibling’s, giving the pairing his blessing.
Only, Maria didn’t handle that suggestion well at all.
10. She Nearly Lost Her Mind
Utterly heartbroken, Maria couldn’t even bear to stay where Nixa had passed for much longer, much less think about his brother in that way. She went home without any further discussion of the matter. In fact, she was so devastated, her family fretted about her mental and physical health, and Queen Victoria lamented, “how terrible for poor Dagmar.”
But, well, the Russian family had no such tact. They immediately committed a faux-pas.
11. The Russians Hounded Her
By this point, the Russian Empire was desperate for a prestigious marriage and more Romanov heirs, and the new Tsarevich’s mother thought Maria was still the perfect bride. She made a push to get her back with her other son—and her tactics were alarming. She needled Maria’s mother to send the girl to Russia again so relentlessly, the family had to write back that there was no way that was going to happen until she had “strengthen[ed] her nerves.”
But if Maria and her mother were aware of the whole story, they might have shut things down right then and there.
12. She Was Second Best
The entire time that the Tsarevich Alexander’s mommy was trying to set him up with Maria, the Tsarevich himself was hardly acting like a lovesick suitor. In fact, he was deeply in love with someone else entirely: His mother’s lady-in-waiting, the princess Dusenka. In fact, Alexander had recently told his parents that he’d give up the throne just to marry her.
Yep, Maria’s second Prince Charming was more like a frog…but the story doesn’t end there.
13. She Had A Forced Engagement
While Maria was back in Denmark nursing her broken heart, the Russian royal family came up with a diabolical plan. Insistent that their surviving son marry his deceased brother’s fiancée (!), they quite literally forced a protesting Alexander to sail over to Copenhagen in 1866 and seal the deal with Maria. At this point in his diary, a heartbroken Alexander wrote, “Farewell, dear Dusenka.”
It was set to be a disaster—until another twist came.
14. She Couldn’t Forget Her Old Love
Despite the fact that Maria was grieving and Alexander was pouting, the pair of them turned a corner on this visit. Then again, Alexander had just the right approach: Kicked into high suitor gear by his parents, Alexander leaned heavily on his brother’s memory to charm Maria, looking through old photos with her. And when the time came, he asked exactly the right question.
15. She Had A Creepy Love Story
When they were looking at old photos of Nixa in better days, Alexander got bold and asked if Maria “could love him after having loved Nixa, to whom they were both devoted.” The princess’s reaction was immediate. Breaking down into tears, she confessed to him that because of their shared and eternal love of Nixa, she now could only imagine marrying Alexander.
It was a very creepy way to start an engagement…and Maria must not have known quite what she was getting into.
16. Her New Suitor Was A Brute
Maria’s two sibling suitors were actually frighteningly different from each other. Where Nixa had been the image of a refined Romanov, Alexander was infamous for his brute strength and brutal temper. He could rip entire decks of cards with just his bare hands, and on one occasion tied a silver fork in a knot in order to threaten an enemy to back off, saying, “That is what I am going to do to [you].”
It must have been an enormous shock for sweet, elegant Maria when she realized her husband-to-be was an oaf. But there was no stopping the wedding now.
17. She Had A Fairy Tale Wedding
In the fall of 1866, Maria’s whole life changed. After heading over to Saint Petersburg, she married the Tsarevich Alexander in a massive, golden-flecked Orthodox ceremony, taking the official name “Maria Feodorovna” when she converted to the Russian religion. When it was all settled, she was the future Empress of Russia—and she started off by surprising everyone.
18. She Became A Celebrity
To everyone’s amazement, the Russian people loved Maria. As in, borderline fanatically adored her. It helped that she genuinely admired the country and took great pains to learn Russian as fast as she could…but still, nothing could have prepared her for the Russian response. The commoners were so into her, they would often break out into cheers and applause for her in public appearances rather than for her husband, AKA the heir to the Russian empire.
Although this would have dangerous consequences, for now, Maria was riding high. And there were more surprises in store.
19. Her Marriage Surprised People
If people were taken aback by Maria’s popularity in her new country, the next development was gobsmacking. Against all odds, she and Alexander had an extremely successful marriage. In fact, it was the first Romanov union without mistresses for generations, and Queen Victoria herself deigned to comment that “Maria seems quite happy and contented with her fat, good-natured husband.”
And let’s just say Alexander showed his love in very convincing ways.
20. She Got A Famous Gift
Alexander loved to lavish Maria with gifts, including one extremely famous present. In 1885, he commissioned the first-ever Faberge egg for Maria from the jeweler Carl Faberge as an Easter gift. It went down so well with his wife, Alexander kept doing it every year, as did the next generation of Romanovs. But although Maria managed to make a brief paradise out of her early matrimonial tragedy, everything she had painstaking built started to slowly crumble from that point on.
21. She Performed Her Duty Perfectly
In 1868, practically right on time, Maria gave birth to her first child—and to all of Imperial Russia’s delight, it was a son, the future Nicholas II. In quick succession, she had three other children; George, Xenia, Michael, and Olga. And this was where the problems started. Maria might have had a wonderful relationship with her husband, but she had a very messed up relationship with her children.
22. She Was A Jealous Mother
Some mothers play favorites, but nothing compared to Maria’s unequal treatment of her own children. While she doted on and was extremely possessive of her precious boys—especially her heir Nicholas—she all but ignored her daughters, leaving them to beg for attention from their father. Still, while Nicholas might have been Maria’s golden boy, trouble was brewing with him already.
23. Her Son Was Trouble
Unfortunately for the royal family, Nicholas didn’t live up to his mother’s high opinion of him. While Maria mooned over the boy, her husband Alexander grew increasingly worried about the heir, who was growing up to be softer and simpler than he wanted. When someone once suggested Nicholas take a more active role in helping govern the country, the Tsar snapped back about his own son: “Have you ever tried to discuss anything of consequence with His Imperial Highness?”
It was a bad omen that would only grow more disastrous as the years went on—but before Maria knew it, her family was about to get a whole lot more dysfunctional.
24. She Was A Priss
Maria’s father-in-law, the current Tsar Alexander II of Russia, was a fearless, autocratic, and passionate man who had already survived several attempts on his life and who couldn’t have cared less about catering to public opinion. But what he did next made Maria’s blue blood run cold. In clear defiance of court etiquette, Alexander insisted on marrying his long-time mistress Catherine Dolgorukova….just a month after his old wife passed.
It shocked the eminently proper Maria—and then he twisted the knife in.
25. She Flexed Her Power
When Maria’s father-in-law started parading the “hussy” Catherine around court and insisting that Maria and the rest of the family accept her—as well as their newly-legitimized children—as if she had been there all along. Maria was having none of that and refused to let the royal children mix with her brood. Although this incensed the Tsar, Maria wasn’t done yet.
26. She Dealt A Spiteful Blow
Maria hadn’t spent her life learning how to charm people just to let Catherine swan in and ruin her pristine image. She got revenge in the most humiliating way. On one infamous occasion at a reception in the Winter Palace, Maria publicly snubbed Catherine by refusing to kiss her, instead only deigning to give the woman her hand to kiss.
It was a shocking put-down for the time, and the Tsar was so aghast, he yelled to her that he had “a good son, but you—you have no heart.” It seemed there would be no end to the rising family feud…but there would, and it was unimaginably violent.
27. Her Family Literally Exploded
In March 1881, the first crippling disaster hit the Imperial family. On the morning of the 13th, Maria’s father-in-law Tsar Alexander II was hit with yet another assassination attempt after an assailant threw an explosive at him while he was traveling back to the Winter Palace. When Maria caught a glimpse of the ruler in the bloody aftermath, she prayed for his survival. It was all in vain.
28. She Had A Bloody Path To The Throne
Just hours after the incident, the seemingly invincible Alexander II succumbed to his wounds, turning Maria into the Tsarina of all Russia and her husband into the new Tsar. Her diary reveals her true, dark feelings about that day. Far from any satisfaction in meeting her destiny, Maria was merely terrified for her husband, writing “Our happiest and serenest times are now over. My peace and calm are gone, for now I will only ever be able to worry about Sasha.”
It was a dark premonition, and Maria could have no idea how right she was.
29. Everyone Was Out To Get Her
From then on, Maria would never feel safe. Even her coronation was filled with disturbing omens, as her guards exposed yet another conspiracy to off her and her husband just before they were crowned. Despite her continued popularity with most Russians, Maria grew skittish and withdrew her family from St. Petersburg to the remote and better fortified Gatchina Palace.
But behind its ornate and heavily guarded doors, all was not well in the Tsarina’s new court.
30. She Was A Party Girl
Maria knew she wielded immense power and commanded intense love in her royal circles, and she made sure everyone knew it. She loved throwing extravagant balls and often stayed up all night dancing in front of her admirers—so much so that her more introverted husband Alexander often had to dismiss the musicians one by one at big soirees just to get her to stop.
With Maria drawing so much attention, she made one bitter and formidable enemy.
31. She Had A Rival
Perhaps the only other woman in the Russian court who possessed equal beauty and grace as Maria was her sister-in-law, Grand Duchess Marie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. Married to the Tsar’s brother, Marie swanned about St. Petersburg and earned the reputation of an “ideal hostess” who was “the life and soul” of a party. That put her in direct competition with our Tsarina…and the women didn’t handle it maturely at all.
32. Her Court Plotted Against Her
Besides occupying the same spaces, Maria and the Grand Duchess had other reasons for tension. For one, the Grand Duchess was very German, and Maria—thanks to her Danish roots—despised Germany with all her heart. But that was the least of her hatred. The Grand Duchess was infamous for loudly proclaiming in private boudoirs that her husband, the Grand Duke Vladimir, could do a better job of running Russia than his brother Tsar Alexander.
When Maria got wind of this, she did not play nice.
33. She Was A Mean Girl
The elegant and proper Maria still knew how to hit where it hurt. When she heard about the Grand Duchess’s petty plots and complaints, she took to scornfully calling her “Empress Vladimir” among her friends—and consistently supported cutting her royal allowances. In other words, it was on. And soon, the smug Grand Duchess’s horrible wish came true.
34. She Had A Horrific Stroke Of Luck
In 1888, Maria had been Tsarina long enough to get settled into the role. Then suddenly, her world plunged into a waking nightmare. Although she had spent most of her reign living in fear of intentional attempts on her husband’s life, that October she faced something else entirely. She and her family were traveling by train to St. Petersburg when an unimaginable horror struck by complete accident.
In the middle of their journey, the royal train completely derailed, careening off the tracks at high speed. Onlookers were stunned, and then chaos reigned.
35. She Was In A Violent Accident
The damage to the train cars was gruesome to look at. A full 21 people died on impact as steel and fire collided and exploded. After those first brutal moments, survivors immediately began a frantic search for the royal family, who they had last seen congregating in the dining car before the crash. When the dust finally settled, no one could believe their eyes.
36. Her Husband Saved Her From A Tragic End
Somehow, miraculously, all the Romanovs had survived. But that wasn’t even the most unbelievable part. In an effort to save his wife and children, the strongman Tsar Alexander had even held the roof of the dining car up after it collapsed, allowing the family to escape unscathed. Or, so the aides thought—though they wouldn’t know the dark truth until years later.
When word got back to St. Petersburg that Maria and her heirs had survived the devastating crash, many supporters began praising it as evidence of their holiness. Her enemies, however, had other ideas.
37. Her Enemies Prayed For Her Demise
While Russia was rejoicing that their beloved Tsarina survived the so-called “Borki Train Disaster,” Maria’s old rival Grand Duchess Marie had another take on the matter. Her response was downright cruel: When she heard the news, she apparently lamented Maria and the Tsar’s survival, sneering “We shall never have such a chance again.” Still, the wheels of a much worse fate were already in motion.
38. Her Heir Defied Her
As Maria’s son Nicholas reached his mid-20s, the family naturally began looking for a suitable bride to marry their scion. Until fate dealt Maria a much different hand. Instead of hand-picking her future daughter-in-law like she wanted, Maria had to watch as her son fell in love with and set his sights on Princess Alix of Hesse, Queen Victoria’s absolute favorite granddaughter. This was a disaster for one big reason.
39. She Hated Her Son’s Choice Of Bride
Like many a possessive mother-in-law before her, Maria was against the idea of her baby Nicholas marrying. Except, well, Maria was justified in her dislike of Alix in particular. Although Maria was actually Alix’s godmother, the German princess exhibited a whole lot of issues. After all, the girl had watched nearly her whole family die of diphtheria when she was just a child, and the trauma turned her into a neurotic young woman who was still extremely stubborn when she wanted to be.
With these flaws, both Maria and the Tsar couldn’t imagine that Alix would make a good Russian Tsarina. Only, there was a much darker problem.
40. She Suspected A Dark Secret
Maria had a problem with Alix’s bloodline—and not just because she was German in an age right before WWI. No, the real problem came from Alix’s relation to Queen Victoria. In recent years, all of Europe had become aware that Victoria’s female descendants often carried the gene for hemophilia, a disease that prevented blood clotting and fatally affected their male children; Victoria had already lost her own son and grandson to the condition.
In other words, Maria saw Alix as a particularly dangerous game of Russian roulette, and tried to get Nicholas to reconsider. It did not go how she planned.
41. She Fought Viciously With Her Son
The first obstacle to preventing this royal wedding was the fact that Nicholas was seriously in love with Alix, and no amount of Maria’s begging, pleading, or insisting was going to change his mind. Then again, she had raised a boy who thought it was his divine right to rule. During the height of their arguments, Nicholas commented, “I wish to move in one direction, and it is clear that Mama wishes me to move in another—my dream is to one day marry Alix.”
Still, Maria was used to manipulating people with her charm, and she might have convinced her son eventually. Before she could, though, life threw her another terrifying curveball.
42. She Broke Down
In 1894, in the midst of driving Nicholas away from the idea of Alix, Maria came to a horrific realization. Her husband Alexander had been in fragile health in recent months, but that autumn he took a turn for the worse. It soon became undeniable that the Tsar of all Russia wasn’t going to make it. Suddenly, it didn’t matter who Nicholas married, as long as he made a male heir for the line.
At long last, Maria allowed him to propose to Alix—and she was only just in time.
43. She Witnessed Her Husband’s Harrowing Final Hours
Over the next weeks, Alexander’s health failed even more rapidly, but Maria was almost never absent from his side. She nursed him constantly, no doubt bringing flashbacks to her time with her doomed fiancé Nixa’s all those years ago. The Tsar’s reciprocal devotion to her was evident in his final hours; he murmured to her during this time, “Even before my death, I have got to know an angel.” But when the end came, it was grim.
44. Her Past Came Back To Haunt Her
On the first of November 1894, the 49-year-old Tsar Alexander passed, turning Maria into a Dowager Empress and her son Nicholas into the Tsar. Yet there was something not quite right. The patriarch’s illness had been swift and acute, leading many to wonder what hit him. The answers were devastating. According to some evidence, the blunt force trauma Alexander suffered during the Borki Train disaster may have been, in part, responsible for his kidney failure.
Whatever the cause, Maria had no choice but to pick up the pieces. She failed miserably.
45. Her Loss Unhinged Her
In the wake of Alexander’s passing, Maria was utterly heartbroken….and more than a little unhinged. In her diary, she describes Alexander’s last moments in loving, creepy detail, relating how she “saw the blissful smile and the peace in his face that came after.” Her own daughter remembered how my “mother still held him in her arms” long after the body went cold.
It was intense and borderline bizarre grieving—but Maria got one harsh awakening.
46. She Had One Very Unhappy Birthday
In the midst of her very particular grieving process, Maria’s son threw her for another loop. Using Maria’s upcoming birthday as an excuse to suspend the traditional mourning period, Nicholas carted over Alix of Hesse and married her on November 26, 1894—a week after his father’s funeral. For the sake of her dynasty, Maria approved, but she gave one chilly welcome to her new daughter-in-law.
47. She Was A Monster In Law
Although Alix was the new Tsarina, Maria wanted to make sure the upstart princess still knew who was boss. See, in Russian customs, the mother of the Tsar, not his wife, takes precedence in court goings-on, and Maria was very much still running the show in Nicholas’s palaces, and demanding his attention at all hours of the day. If Alix had any problem with this, Maria’s performance during her coronation shut her right up.
48. She Competed With Her Daughter-In-Law
Nicholas and Alix’s coronation was supposed to be their moment to shine, but Maria snatched their thunder in the worst way possible. Each of the royals arrived in separate carriages, and while the crowd applauded politely for the new Tsar and his wife, Maria exited her coach to “almost deafening” clapping from the crowd. Perhaps delighted at winning this initial popularity contest, Maria then came up with a power-hungry plan.
49. She Humiliated Her Son
With her husband gone and Nicholas as the Tsar, Maria soon lost all her rose-colored illusions about her favorite son and began to see him as Alexander had: A boy still too naïve to truly rule. Unable to sit by idly and watch him fumble with the country she loved, Maria elbowed her way into the politics of the nation in a way she never had before, acting as Nicholas’s confidant and advisor. But she didn’t stop there.
50. She Was A Master Manipulator
Throughout this play for power, Maria knew that her most dangerous rival was now the Tsarina, and she did everything she could to undermine Alix. Her tactics were ruthless. Knowing that Alix was shy and reserved, Maria turned her outgoing, extroverted charm dial to eleven, giving ball after ball and showing off her dancing techniques while Alix hung back in the corners.
As a result, Maria’s popularity with the Russian people stayed as high as ever, while Alix’s sunk to new lows—a failure that the Imperial-minded Maria couldn’t forgive even as she helped orchestrate it. And then Alix committed the worst sin of all.
51. She Was Extremely Judgy
One of the only reasons Maria had relented to Nicholas’s choice of bride was the need to get a male heir into the Romanov line, so she was appalled when Alix only had a string of girls, starting with Olga, then Tatiana, then Maria, then Anastasia. Indeed, after nearly a decade, Maria had no Tsarevich for a grandson, and she had no problem letting Alix know her disapproval about this. But before Maria could needle her more, tragedy struck.
52. Another Tragedy Ravaged Her Life
In 1899, Maria’s second son George—one of the very favorites of her brood—contracted tuberculosis and perished in the Caucasus. It was yet another reminder for Maria about the fragility of life…and the fact that the Romanovs were another male heir down. And although she tried to keep it together for the sake of her son and the nation, the damage was beginning to show.
53. She Was Falling Apart
For the entire duration of George’s funeral service, Maria kept a stone face, displaying her placid constancy for the entire Russian public to see. But all that crumbled in private. As soon as the ceremony was over, the Dowager tore from her pew, snatched George’s top hat that had been resting on his coffin, and rushed to her carriage outside so she could sob her heart out away from prying eyes.
The time for a royal grandson had never been riper. Yet tragically, when a boy finally did come, Maria’s troubles began in earnest.
54. She Got A Long-Awaited Wish
In the summer of 1904, the Tsarevich Alexei Romanov came into the world at long last. Spoiled from the very minute of his birth, the royal family—including Maria—saw him as their great white hope. They were in for a devastating truth. After Alix’s labor, doctors noticed that Alexei’s cut umbilical cord wound wouldn’t stop bleeding. It was the first sign that the worst had happened.
55. Her Grandson Had A Fatal Flaw
Over the next few days, the whole royal family faced a horrific reality: Alix was a carrier for hemophilia, and she had passed it on to her only son. Tsar Nicholas, Alix, and Maria herself were thunderstruck with grief, and it drove them to a controversial decision. They decided to keep Alexei’s illness as a state secret, known only to their loyal inner circle.
It was supposed to save them…but it only set off their plummet from grace.
56. Her Legacy Was In Grave Danger
As Maria’s grandson Alexei grew up, he faced mortal danger time and time again by the smallest of accidents; for example, a 1907 fall in the park produced a hemorrhage that laid him up in bed for days with a grotesquely swollen leg. Maria worried constantly, both for her grandson and her dynasty—but before long, her daughter-in-law Alix gave her something even more terrifying to fret about.
57. She Met Her Most Formidable Enemy
Desperate to save her son, the Tsarina infamously went to great lengths to “heal” Alexei, including becoming involved with a series of charlatans and false mystics who claimed to have supernatural powers. The most notorious of these, of course, was Grigori Rasputin—and the moment the impeccable, elegant Maria laid eyes on the magnetic, unkempt Russian peasant, she burned with hatred. Unfortunately, it was that hatred that would be her downfall.
58. She Despised Rasputin
Like everything her daughter-in-law did, Maria vehemently disapproved of Alix’s new obsession with Rasputin. She sneered that the Tsarina was fascinated with “crazy, dirt, religious fanatics,” and (rightly) predicted that the Tsar and Tsarina’s association with such an unhinged fringe figure would ruin the prestige and power of the throne.
Furious, she flexed her influence and demanded Nicholas get rid of Rasputin. It backfired horribly.
59. She Tried To Topple The Mad Monk
By the time Maria made her move, it was already too late. Rasputin had dug his nails into her son and his wife. While Nicholas gave her the silent treatment after her “request,” Alix outright denied her mother-in-law’s wishes. Oh, but it got so much more dangerous than that. With son and mother finally at odds with each other, Alix saw an opening to snatch some power of her own. It spelled the ruin of the entire family.
60. She Fell From Grace
Within weeks and months of her miscalculated attempt to exile Rasputin, Maria suddenly found herself on the outs of Romanov politics. Now, instead of going to his mother for advice, Nicholas ran to his wife Alix—when he wasn’t running to Rasputin himself, that is. Maria knew exactly what this meant. Alix was insular, paranoid, and unfriendly to strangers; the exact opposite of what a diplomatic advisor should be.
Marie knew the Tsarina’s decisions could hardly hold the country together for long. As she told one of her confidants, “I see we are nearing some kind of catastrophe and the Tsar listens to no one but flatterers.” We now know that Maria’s premonition was, once more, eerily accurate. Yet fewer people know about her last violent and desperate hours trying to save the Romanovs.
61. She Watched Her Country Fall Apart
In 1914, yet another blow struck the Romanovs with the ignition of WWI. The conflict plunged the empire into poverty, political turmoil, and louder criticisms about their dependency on the stranger Rasputin. Maria must have thought she’d have more time to get back into Nicholas’s good graces and right the Russian nation, but she now realized the buzzer was about to go off.
Out of options, the Dowager Empress came up with one of the most traitorous plots history has ever seen.
62. She Committed An Unforgivable Betrayal
Maria had learned to wait for no man, not even her own son, to come to his senses when he was being a fool. She decided it was time to take the throne into her own hands, almost literally. As Russia flailed in battle, historical documents reveal the height of Maria’s treachery. She likely conspired with other Russian nobles to ask her son one more time to exile Rasputin—and if he refused, she would forcefully depose him in favor of her grandson Alexei.
So why didn’t Maria go forward with the coup? That’s the thing: She did. It just went horribly.
63. She Made An Enormous Mistake
Maria executed her part of the plan perfectly, and traveled to St. Petersburg to meet Nicholas and initiate the first phase of the plot—asking him once more to banish Rasputin. But there was a crucial piece of information she was missing. As it happened, Tsarina Alix had got wind of the plot and forewarned Nicholas about his mother’s betrayal.
So when she arrived, Maria got way more than she bargained for.
64. Her Own Son Exiled Her
Forearmed for his mother’s soft attack, Nicholas’s response was brutal. He banished his mother from both his sight and the capital city as a whole, sending her packing back to her own palace in Kiev with her hands empty. A triumphant Alix later wrote, crowing, “it’s much better Motherdear stays…at Kiev, where the climate is better and she can live as she wishes and hears less gossip.” Me-ow.
It was a vital moment in this game of thrones, and Maria had just lost. Her reaction was heartbreaking.
65. She Disowned Her Son
From this moment on, it seemed that Maria gave up entirely on her son and his family. She never visited St. Petersburg again, and the very few times Nicholas visited her, it was without his wife and with much criticism when he arrived home. Eventually, Maria lost contact with her favorite child, and all but forsook him. But she still had one last tragic betrayal in her.
66. She Got Life-Changing News
In 1916, a short time after her failed coup, Maria got word that nobles had finally managed to kill Rasputin during one freezing Russian winter night. It was joyous news for all the old believers in the Romanov dynasty, and many thought the Imperial glory had just been snatched from the jaws of defeat. Accordingly, Maria’s friends began contacting her to go to St. Petersburg once more and try again to oust Alix from influencing the Tsar. Her answer stunned them.
67. She Abandoned Her Baby
To everyone’s astonishment, the exhausted Maria declined to do anything at all. While she openly acknowledged that Alix was still ruining her son’s rule—in Maria’s words, “Let her enter a convent or just disappear”—the Dowager Empress washed her hands of the Romanov court, and she wasn’t about to humble herself in front of her son again.
She would live to deeply regret it. Her son, however, wouldn’t live at all.
68. She Lost Her Crown Overnight
The very next year, Maria got the shock of her lifetime. In 1917, all of Russia’s problems and discontentment finally came to a head. The Russian revolution swept through the nation, and before the Romanovs could react, the rebels deposed Nicholas II. Almost literally overnight, Maria was no longer an Empress, and Russia no longer had a Tsar for the first time in centuries.
Maria and the rest of the Romanovs were reeling, but they had no idea how bad it would get.
69. Her Friends Turned To Foes
At first, Maria likely thought she could scrape together some sense of normalcy from the unprecedented situation; she was, after all, the rock of her family. She was wrong. Maria visited Nicholas for the first time in a long time, but even as she chatted with him about the future, the ground began shifting beneath her feet. When she returned to Kiev from her reunion, the city had turned on her; anti-Romanov tensions abounded, and she no longer felt safe in her own palace.
There was only one thing to do, and it was an act she could have never debased herself to do before.
70. She Was A Refugee
Fearing for her life, the former Dowager fled Kiev on a humble train to the friendlier Crimea alongside a whole host of other Romanovs, each of them once noble and now refugees. The Romanov royal family, however, was not among them. Nicholas, Alix, and their children were with the new government, negotiating an exile out of Russia and into the United Kingdom.
If all went well, Maria could possibly join them later. But all did not go well, and Maria would never see her son or grandchildren again.
71. The Government Ended Her Baby
After Maria holed up in Crimea for months on end, she received the single worst news of her life. While she had been hiding in safety, her son and his children had fallen into the hands of Vladimir Lenin and his Bolsheviks—and they were now deceased. The forces executed the entire family on July 17, 1918, and Russia was now reborn in fire.
It was tragic, bloody, and near senseless, and Maria couldn’t handle the truth. Quite literally.
72. She Was In Total Denial
Until her final day, the old Dowager absolutely refused to believe that her son and grandchildren were no more. Unable to face the grim reality, Maria would entertain wild ideas about what really happened to them, writing in her diary, “I am sure they all got out of Russia and now the Bolsheviks are trying to hide the truth.” Even years later, when someone confronted her with the possibility of the Romanovs’ ends, she retorted, “Nobody saw Nicky die.”
However, this wasn’t the only way that Maria’s mental state began to decline.
73. She Left Russia Unwillingly
For a long time after that fateful day in 1918, Maria insisted on staying in Crimea, certain that somehow the situation would revert back to the utopia she thought it was when she first married Tsar Alexander III. It took her favorite sister Alexandra of Denmark begging her to come to live with her for Maria to finally cross the Black Sea into England, leaving Russia behind forever.
It was going to be a new beginning, but it was far from paradise.
74. She Was Sloppy Seconds
Maria had spent practically her entire life believing she was innately regal and thus better than nearly everyone around her. Her time with her sister gave her a deep, psychological cut. In the elder Alexandra’s house and home country, she was a deposed Empress of a foreign nation, while Alexandra was the current Dowager of a still-powerful monarchy.
It was yet another reminder of everything Maria had lost, and she couldn’t stand the bitter taste of being “number two.” It led her to one last isolating choice.
75. She Became The Last Of Her Breed
Although Maria still loved Alexandra with all her heart, she quietly but firmly moved out of her sister’s home—indeed, she moved out of England altogether, first staying with family in Denmark and then settling into her own place in Copenhagen. Although many Russian émigrés visited her during this time to pay their respects to the lost Empress, Maria still insisted on wearing blinders to any news they had about her son’s “death” or the end of her empire.
Yet even in this self-imposed ignorance, Maria still got horrific tidings.
76. She Lost Her Favorite Sister
In November 1925, the final loss of Maria’s life occurred. Her older and most beloved sister Alexandra passed, and even Maria couldn’t deny the truth of the tidings. She slipped into a deep depression, and the burden of all her grief—acknowledged or otherwise—was now too much for her to bear. As her son-in-law put it, “She was ready to meet her Creator.” Well, Maria got her wish.
77. She Never Admitted The Truth
In 1928, fewer than three years after Alexandra’s passing, Maria followed her into the dark at the age of 80. And while Maria had spent her days since her Crimean exile with one foot in a fantasy realm, her surviving daughter Olga believed, in the end, she must have come to terms with Nicholas’s demise. As Olga wrote, “I am sure that deep in her heart my mother had steeled herself to accept the truth some years before her death.”
In actuality, though, it was probably very good that Maria never knew the truth about Nicholas’s tragic end, because the details are unforgettably disturbing.
78. Her Son Met An Awful End
When Maria shielded herself from admitting the end of her son Nicholas, she also shielded herself from learning just how botched the Bolshevik execution was. After detaining the royal family in Ipatiev House, ominously nicknamed “the house of special purpose,” for weeks, the rebels awakened the entire brood in the early morning hours of July 17.
They then brought them down into the basement and opened fire. But, horrifically enough, it didn’t end there.
79. She Didn’t Want To Know The Truth
Instead of a mercifully swift end, Maria’s son and her grandchildren received one of the most drawn-out ordeals in Russian history. The Romanov children had hidden jewels inside their clothing in case they needed money to make a quick escape, and these baubles acted as bullet-proof vests, sending the ammunition ricocheting into the walls and leaving them very much alive when the smoke of the first round cleared.
In the end, nauseated officers had to take bayonets and finish the job. Perhaps, then, Maria paradoxically saved her sanity when she denied reality.
80. She Was A Diamond Of The First Water
For all the immense tragedy in Maria’s life—and oh my God, there was so much—people still fondly remember her happier days. She still retains a reputation as one of the most fashionable nobles to ever grace history; famous Parisian couturier Charles Fredrick Worth once wrote about her, “Bring to me any woman in Europe—queen, artiste, or bourgeoise—who can inspire me as does Madame Her Majesty, and I will make her confections while I live and charge her nothing.”