Alexandra of Saxe-Altenburg, Grand Duchess Alexandra Iosifovna of Russia (detail)
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Alexandra Iosifovna of Russia, née Princess of Saxe-Altenburg

Intro

The charming Princess Alexandra of Saxe-Altenburg (1830 – 1911) was the fifth daughter of Joseph, Duke of Saxe-Altenburg and Duchess Amelia of Württemberg.

In 1848 she married Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich of Russia, taking the name Alexandra Iosifovna.

She is an ancestor of the British, Greek, Romanian, Yugoslav and Spanish royal families through her eldest daughter Olga, who was Queen of the Greeks from 1867.

Marriage and issue

In the summer of 1846, Alexandra met Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich of Russia, who was visiting Altenburg. Konstantin was the second son of Nicholas I, Emperor of Russia, and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, born Princess Charlotte of Prussia.

Konstantin stayed for a few days in the castle of Alexandra’s father. His visit had been organised by the young woman’s aunt, Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, née Princess Charlotte of Württemberg. Elena was married to Grand Duke Michael Pavlovich, younger brother of Tsar Nicholas I. Elena Pavlovna was therefore Konstantin’s aunt by marriage and Alexandra’s aunt by birth.

Konstantin was liberal, while Alexandra was conservative and a woman of lively nature. Although their temperaments differed, they both shared an interest in music and enjoyed duets at the piano.

Konstantin was fascinated by the youthful beauty of Alexandra, who was tall, slim and attractive. He quickly fell in love and couldn’t wait to marry her: “I don’t know what is happening to me. It is as if I am a completely new person. Just one thought moves me, just one image fills my eyes: forever and only she, my angel, my universe. I really do think I’m in love. However, what can it mean? I’ve only know her just a few hours and I’m already up to my ears in Passion“. She was only sixteen and Konstantin was nineteen; they were engaged but had to wait another two years before they could marry.

Alexandra arrived in Russia on 12 October 1847 and was welcomed by a great fanfare and popular celebrations, with jubilant crowds lining the streets and balconies. It is said that Alexandra looked so much like her fiancé’s sister, Grand Duchess Aleksandra Nikolaevna, who died in childbirth, that her future mother-in-law burst into tears when they first met.

In February 1848, Alexandra converted to Russian Orthodoxy, taking the name Grand Duchess Alexandra Iosifovna.

Alexandra and Konstantin were married in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg on 11 September 1848. Konstantin received the Marble Palace as a wedding gift from his parents. Strelna, on the Gulf of Finland, which Konstantin inherited at the age of four, was instead the couple’s country retreat.

The vivacious Grand Duchess Alexandra Iosifovna took a special interest in the grounds of Strelna, establishing a free gardening school, where she gave lessons. There were also educational toys for children: a wooden tree and trampoline for gymnastics and the transplanted cabin of one of Konstantin’s frigates.

One year after his marriage, Konstantin inherited the Pavlovsk Palace, south of St. Petersburg, from his uncle, Grand Duke Michail Pavlovič. The grand ducal family financed an imposing concert hall at Pavlovsk Station, which proved popular with the middle classes and attracted names such as Johann Strauss II, Franz Liszt and Hector Berlioz.

Later, Alexandra and Konstantin bought the Oreanda Palace in Crimea, which had originally been built by Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna and left to her second son.

Konstantin and Alexandra had six children: Nikolai, Olga (who became Queen of the Greeks in 1867), Vera, Konstantin, Dmitry and Vyacheslav.

Family crisis

In 1867, Alexandra’s eldest daughter Olga married King George I of Greece. She was only sixteen years old and initially Konstantin did not want her to marry so young. In July 1868, Olga’s first son was born, who was named Konstantin after his grandfather. The daughter’s new life coincided with the beginning of the break-up of Alexandra and Konstantin’s marriage.

Although only forty years old, the struggles and hard work of the previous decade – between naval and judicial reforms and the liberation of serfs – had aged Konstantin prematurely, so that he began to focus more on his personal life.

After twenty years of marriage, the Grand Duke had become estranged from his wife. The couple’s differences of opinion and political interests had, in fact, strained their relationship. Alexandra was as conservative as her husband was liberal and soon Konstantin turned elsewhere for sexual intimacy.

In the late 1860s, Konstantin embarked on an affair and conceived an illegitimate daughter, Marie Condousso. In the 1880s, Marie was sent to Greece and later served as a lady-in-waiting to her half-sister, Queen Olga.

Shortly after Marie’s birth, Konstantin began dating Anna Vasilyevna Kuznetsova, a young ballerina at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Anna was twenty years younger than her lover and in 1873 their first child was born, to be followed by four more.

Konstantin bought his mistress a large and comfortable dacha on his Pavlovsk estate, thus accommodating his second family in close proximity to Alexandra, whom he now called the ‘government–issue wife’. With this gesture, Konstantin supplied his political enemies with ammunition, while Russian society reacted to the scandal by siding with his long-suffering wife Alexandra, who tried to endure his infidelity with dignity.

In 1874, a new scandal broke out when it was discovered that Alexandra and Konstantin’s eldest son, Grand Duke Nikolai Konstantinovich, who had led a dissipated life and had revolutionary ideas, had stolen three precious diamonds from an icon in Alexandra’s bedroom, aided by his mistress, an American courtesan. Alexandra’s 24-year-old son was found guilty, declared insane and banished to Central Asia for life.

Alexandra suffered another blow when her youngest son, Vyacheslav, died unexpectedly of a cerebral haemorrhage in 1879.

Later years and death

In June 1889, Alexandra’s 18-year-old granddaughter, Princess Alexandra of Greece, returned to Russia to marry Grand Duke Paul, younger brother of Tsar Alexander III. Towards the end of the wedding celebrations, Konstantin suffered a stroke. This was followed in August 1889 by another severe stroke that left him unable to walk and speak.

For the remaining three years of his life, Konstantin lived with his wife in his favourite palace in Pavlovsk, having one wing of the building to himself. Alexandra’s grandson, Christopher of Greece and Denmark, wrote in his memoirs that Konstantin felt so frustrated by being under his wife’s control all the time that one day he grabbed her by the hair and beat her with his cane.

Despite his illness, Konstantin tried to enjoy himself as much as he could. Kirill Vladimirovich remembered the skating parties in Pavlovsk, which Konstantin attended from his sleigh, and the ‘smell of cigars’. Kirill found Alexandra a formidable woman, with her ‘high pitched voice….driving about in an open carriage with a kind of awning over it, which could be opened and closed like an umbrella. I have never seen anything quite the same anywhere else, and think that she was the only person in the world who had such an ingenious cover to her carriage‘.

When Konstantin died in January 1892, Alexandra arranged for her lover Anna to visit Pavlovsk and pray at Konstantin’s bedside.

Alexandra died on 6 July 1911 at the age of 81 and was buried next to her husband in the Cathedral of Peter and Paul.

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