Sunday, August 14, 2011

Almost an Empress - Anna Feodorovna of Russia

Grand Duchess Anna Feodorovna of Russia
Born Princess Juliane of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld

From a portrait by Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun
(The Royal Collection)

Little has been written about the Grand Duchess Anna Feodorovna of Russia in English so it's not surprising that many people reading about the Romanovs are not familiar with her. And yet, she bears that distinction as the first princess who married into the Romanov Family to be divorced from her husband. She was related to almost all royal families in Europe, and perhaps the most famous of her relatives was Queen Victoria. Anna Feodorovna was the sister of Queen Victoria's mother, the Duchess of Kent, as well as Leopold, King of the Belgians, thus, Anna was aunt to Victoria.

Anna Feodorovna began her life as Princess Juliane of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. She was born in Coburg on September 23, 1781, the third child of Franz Anton, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Saafeld, and Augusta Reuss of Ebersdorf. As was the case with most princesses, Juliane was educated privately at home by governesses, and may have had passed her childhood rather uneventful. Both of her parents were intellectual: her father was especially interested in botany and astronomy, while her mother, a woman widely known for her beauty, was said to be gay and witty. Juliane, as we learn more about her later, got most of that liveliness from her mother.

Meanwhile, in Russia, Catherine the Great was 'successful' in securing a match between her favorite grandson Alexander and the ravishing Princess Louise of Baden. With her firstborn grandson safely married off, the indefatigable Empress Catherine was now planning of arranging the marriage of her next grandson, Grand Duke Constantine. But while Alexander inherited the charm and good looks of his mother, Constantine resembled more his father, both physically and temperamentally. Paul was described as "quick-tempered... there's an imprint of tyranny in his nature, but there are times when he is most generous. He is similar to a water hemlock, which is both a medicine and a poison". 

Even before the search for a suitable wife for Constantine began, a proposal from the court of Naples had arrived unexpectedly. The King and Queen of the Two-Sicilies wish to marry off one of their daughters to Constantine. But Empress Catherine reacted to this proposal rather negatively: a Russian grand duke was too good for an insignificant Neapolitan princess. So what better court in Europe can offer a suitable match? Empress Catherine, herself German-born, only wanted a German princess for her grandson.

And so in 1795, Catherine ordered one of her generals, Andrei Budberg, to travel around the courts of Europe. His 'secret' task was to search for a princess suitable for Constantine. On his way, he got sick and was forced to stop and stay in Coburg. There he heard about its princesses: Antoinette, Sophie and Juliane, and conveyed to the mother of the princesses about the task he was assigned to. The mother was delighted about the prospect of one of her daughters becoming a grand duchess of Russia. Upon General Budberg's return to Russia, he reported to Catherine about the Coburg princesses and agreed to invite the young the girls and their mother to Russia.

At the invitation of Empress Catherine, Antoinette, Sophie and Juliane, with their mother Augusta, arrived in Russia. They were very well received by the Empress, noting that the princesses were pretty. Prince Adam Czartoryski upon meeting them wrote about the guests: "The mother was intelligent, well-educated and affable; her three daughters were all characterized by refinement and beauty. Frankly speaking, it was rather painful to see this mother, who arrived in a strange country, offering her daughters like goods for sale, and watching anxiously to discover who among them will catch the eye of the Empress and that of the Grand Duke Constantine." The Empress shared her opinion about the guests with Baron Grimm: "The Hereditary Princess of Saxe-Coburg was excellent, a woman worthy of respects, and her daughters are pretty. It is a pity, that our fiance must select only one; it is good to leave all three. But it seems our Paris will give the apple to the youngest. You shall see; he prefers Julie... actually, Julie the prankster, is the best."

According to Countess Golovina, Constantine appeared to have no desire to get married. But he had no choice but to do so, because the Empress 'ordered' him. After three weeks of spending time with the Coburgs, Constantine finally made his selection: he chose to marry the prettiest of the three girls, the dark-haired Juliane. Grand Duchess Elizabeth Alexeievna wrote about her future sister-in-law: "She is a charming child - good, loving and trustworthy. I did not want another friend but her. Her hazel eyes are full of life; there is much honesty about them. She also has a very pretty mouth." Juliane was received into the Russian Orthodox Church and was given the names and title Anna Feodorovna, Grand Duchess of Russia. She and Constantine were married on February 2, 1796; the groom was only 17 and the bride not yet 15.

Initially, Constantine was obviously delighted with his very young wife. Anna was not only pretty, but also exuberant and inclined to be frivolous. The Empress was likewise delighted of this new addition to her family, and wrote about Anna's appearance: "She has a round face... Has large eyes that reflect intellect and energy; eyelashes and eyebrows that are almost black, small mouth, crimson lips. Very pleasant smile, excellent teeth and a face with fresh colors..." At the time of his engagement, Constantine wrote to his former tutor Cesar Laharpe, happily reporting his current thoughts about his upcoming marriage : “I am in a very pleasant position in life; I'm going to marry the Princess Juliane of Saxe-Coburg. Greatly I regret, that you did not see her. She is a beautiful young woman and I love her with all of my heart!"

Catherine also commented that these two people were both 'mischief-makers', and she seemed very much contented, knowing and seeing that everything between the couple was working very well. Little did she know how this marriage would eventually make the couple, especially Anna, terribly unhappy.

Less than a month into their marriage, the cracks in Constantine and Anna's marriage began to appear. Constantine was a carefree and unpredictable young man with a violent quick temper. His only passion was the army, and he loved the freedom that he gave up because of his marriage. To be tied into a marriage at a very early age simply didn't suit him. The tenderness he felt for Anna at the early part of his marriage was quickly transformed into roughness and he started treating his wife rudely. She hated his obnoxious behavior and his amorous escapades. He was never faithful to her and began neglecting her even though she was becoming increasingly attractive. People in the Russian court started calling her "The Evening Star". Anna should have had the support of her parents-in-law, but they proved to be unhelpful. The now Emperor Paul had no affection whatsoever to her and did not give her his support, simply because his 'much hated' mother chose her for Constantine. The hostility that Anna had to endure deeply affected her health and she became increasingly ill. She began to faint frequently. On the coronation of the new Emperor and Empress on April 16, 1797, Anna was forced to take the trip from St. Petersburg to Moscow despite being very sick at that time. The Emperor falsely believed that Anna was just pretending about her illness, but upon realizing that she was really sick, he visited her and said: "Now I see that this is serious, and I am very sorry that you are so sick. I confess, until now I thought that this little habit of yours was acquired during the past reign and I'm trying to eradicate it." Despite her uncomfortable situation, she found true friends through her sister-in-law Elizabeth and her husband Alexander. Elizabeth, especially, was her constant support and companion. Anna would spend her free-time as much as possible with her, and soon a friendship sprang up between them, and they became each others' confidant. Anna once confided to Elizabeth that she was attracted to Prince Constantine Czartoryski and he to her, and when Elizabeth tried to reprove her, Anna cried and talked about her husband's tyranny. (Note: Prince Constantine Czartoryski was the younger brother of Prince Adam Czartoryski, Alexander I's best friend and a rumored lover of the Grand Duchess Elizabeth.)

According to the memoirs of Countess Golovina, maid-of-honor to the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, Anna had a different temperament from Elizabeth, and how two people with contrast personality became best friends baffled the Countess. She described that Anna:
"...Had a very pretty face, but neither had grace of movement nor education, and she had a romantic little head that was the most dangerous to her because she was totally lacking in knowledge and principle. She had a kind heart and was naturally quick-witted, but, not possessing any virtues likely to safeguard her against temptations, she was surrounded by dangers on every side, while the atrocious behavior of [her husband] contributed further to bewilder her ideas."
Then she mentioned that Elizabeth was the sort of companion that have good influence for her, and added:
..."But circumstances and the daily more painful events of her life hardly permitted her to know her own mind."
Whether Anna and Prince Czartoryski took their fascination to one other in another level was open to conjecture.

Meanwhile, Anna's present situation with her husband began to take a toll in her health. It was said that she was afflicted with syphilis by her husband; whether this is true or not, Anna had had enough of him. Her doctors advised her to take cures in Bohemia, and this is just exactly what she wanted: away from Constantine. She had been thinking of leaving him, if there was only a way, and this trip offered her that opportunity. When she told Constantine that she was ill and that she want to spend some time abroad, he held himself responsible for her illness. He told her that he regretted his actions and promised to make it up to her. Anna refused to believe this, and decided to continue on her trip.

Before leaving, she confided to Elizabeth that most probably they would not see each other again. Anna was already determined to leave Russia, using as her pretext her eagerness to visit and stay with her relatives for a short time. In the early months of 1799, Anna left Russia for Coburg. She was thinking of not returning to Russia anymore and confided to her parents her situation. However, they refused to help her. Marriage was still marriage no matter how terrible the situation can be. At the same time, Paul I may have had some doubts about her daughter-in-law's reason for leaving Russia, and he immediately summoned her back to Russia. With no support from her family, and fearful that the Emperor might vend his anger to those who helped her 'escape', she decided to return in October 1799 in time for the wedding of Constantine's sisters, Alexandra and Elena.

Constantine and Anna decided to try to improve their relationship and settled in Tsarskoe Selo. But after a few months, she was ill again. They moved to St. Petersburg so she can receive appropriate care. Constantine showed some kindness to her, but this harmony was short-lived. He started an affair with a Polish countess, Joanna Grudzinska. He wanted to marry her and was desperate to be free from Anna, but Paul I thundered that he would not let them divorce. The couple continued their marriage in name only but decided to live apart. Then Paul I was assassinated in 1801, and Constantine, free of his father's stern command, surrendered himself to drinking and debauchery.

Anna never complained and endured this with patience. Then a rumor started to circulate that Anna took Ivan Linev, an officer in the cavalry regiment, as her lover. When Ivan was questioned about his involvement with the grand duchess, he declared that he had been with Anna in her bedroom. Of course, he was lying. How could he enter the room of the grand duchess when all her maids and ladies-in-waiting were constantly present? Anna was confronted by an angry Dowager Empress Maria, and she vehemently denied the rumors. No one came in her defense; she was left all alone with these vile accusations. Even her friend Elizabeth, when she tried to help Anna, had to face the wrath of the Dowager Empress.

Defenseless against the court's hateful slander and the anger of the Dowager Empress, Anna left Russia for Coburg in 1801, without ever coming back. Almost immediately, the Grand Duchess began negotiations for a divorce. However, the Dowager Empress appealed to the couple to reconsider divorce because she did not want the imperial family's reputation to be marred by a divorce scandal. In 1814 , during the invasion of France by Russian troops, Emperor Alexander I of Russia expressed a desire for a reconciliation between the Constantine and Anna, but Anna flatly refused. On 20 August 1820, the marriage of Constantine and Anna was officially dissolved by a manifesto of Alexander I. The same year, Constantine married his mistress Joanna Grudzinska: a morganatic union.

Now this is quite interesting to note. By 1814, Alexander I was left without a direct heir: his two daughters had died during infancy, and he had a cold relationship to his wife, so no children would ever come from them. His heir was his brother Constantine. By this time, Constantine was still officially married to Anna, although separated from her. Alexander asked him to go after Anna. He was hoping that if the couple had a full reconciliation, they would become the future Emperor and Empress of Russia. However, things didn't go that way. Furthermore, Constantine, despite his roughness and obnoxiousness, cherished no desire of becoming Emperor. He was more than content with his life with Joanna. In 1823, he secretly renounced his claim to the throne.

Anna Feodorovna was only a few steps away from becoming an Empress Consort of Russia. But like Constantine, she had no desire for that position. After her divorce from Constantine, she settled in Switzerland where she died in August 12, 1860. She was a great lover of music, and her home was the center of musical life in that era: diplomats, musicians and writers flocked her home. She remained constantly in contact with her dear friend in Russia, now the Empress Elizabeth, and received news about the court and the country. Despite the stigma suffered by divorced people, Anna never experienced thus. She was always received warmly and sympathetically by royals and aristocrats throughout the courts of Europe, and anyone who came in contact with her were fascinated not just by her personality but also by her glittering recollections about the magnificent Russian court where she once became a part of.


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