For the previous thirty years Theo had been a production engineer. In 1967, two years before he discovered his true parentage, he had cofounded a coil-winding firm, Theobar Engineering. It was the culmination of a technical career that had started with an apprenticeship at General Aircraft at the London Air Park in Feltham. After reclaiming his father’s name, he died in August 2007 as Theo Faberge; his daughter, too, was born a Woodall but is now known as Sarah Faberge.
After reclaiming his father’s name, he died in August 2007 as Theo Faberge; his daughter, too, was born a Woodall but is now known as Sarah Faberge.
Nowadays, of course, the price of Faberge alone commands attention. Besides, value is surely a consequence, not the cause, of whatever makes this particular jeweler’s works so special.
One reason for the mystique attached to Faberge’s name can be found in the sheer quality of his work. As Queen Mary, wife of Britain’s.
After 1917’s inevitable cataclysm, the eggs disappeared in the chaos of the times. Most eventually emerged, carefully preserved in the Kremlin’s vaults, only to be earmarked for sale in Europe and America by Communists eager for foreign exchange. Since then they have been bought and sold by monarchs, entrepreneurs, and collectors.
Of all the nineteenth-century czars, Alexander II had come the closest to being a modernizer. A pragmatic statesman, he had responded to Russia’s disastrous defeat in the Crimean War by overseeing a series of reforms to the empire’s judiciary, censorship, education, and armed forces. Most famously, the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 had earned him the title “Czar Liberator.” Twenty years later, on the morning of his assassination, Alexander had signed a document convening an elected national council; it was on its way to the printers when he was assassinated. None of Alexander’s reforms were enough for his more radical opponents. In 1879 a small clique of students had formed the Narodnaya Volya—the “People’s Will”—a Nihilist movement dedicated to revolution.
It is hard to know what the new czarina, Marie Fedorovna, made of all this. By the time she had married Alexander, her father was Christian IX, king of Denmark; her elder sister Alexandra was married to the prince of Wales, the future Edward VII; and her brother Wilhelm was king of Greece.
The sense of responsibility that had begun Marie and Alexander’s marriage would eventually deepen into something more.
That “ancient saying” long predated Faberge, of course, but there is no doubt that in the course of Alexander’s reign an Easter egg from the jeweler became an integral part of his family’s Easter celebrations.
Only three rules were established: that each annual Easter gift should be egg-shaped, that designs should not be repeated, and that each egg should contain a “surprise” for the empress. Faberge would respond to inquiries with a smooth: “Your Majesty will be content.”
Five show Danish royal residences: Bernsdorff Castle, which became the young princess Dagmar’s home after her father was named King Frederick’s successor; the Amalienborg Palace, to which she moved after her father’s accession to the throne in 1863; Fredensborg Castle, where the extended family would gather each summer.
Overuse of the award meant that the Saint Stanislas was the least prestigious of the various chivalric orders within the czar’s gift, and the classification shows that Faberge still had some way to go, but the honor was a measure of the distance he had already traveled. He must have worn the order’s Maltese cross—red-enameled, gold-bordered, and pearl-tipped—with pride.
The recognition added lustre to what was already a flourishing business. The firm of Gustav Faberge, still named after Carl’s father, provided an ever increasing selection of objects—silverware, jewelry, trinkets, carved animals, and decorative pieces—to customers that ranged from Russia’s emerging middle class to the highest strata of society. In 1887 the firm had broadened its appeal by opening a branch in Moscow. Faberge’s French predecessors could produce four such colors—not just red and green, but white (using nickel or palladium) and yellow (copper and silver). They called the result quatre-couleur gold. As Faberge’s goldsmiths developed their techniques, they eventually doubled the range—adding blue (using arsenic as the alloy metal), lilac (zinc), purple (aluminum), and gray (iron) to the palette.
It was in their enamelwork, however, that the workshops extended the possibilities of jewelry making most conspicuously.
In October 1890 Alexander’s heir, the czarevitch Nicholas, boarded a Russian naval vessel, the Memory ofAzov for a nine-month tour around southern Asia.
Halfway through the voyage, stocks had to be replenished. In all, Faberge’s bill for the czarevitch’s generosity came to 15,500 rubles ($7,500/8170,000).
Long before the attempted assassination, Nicholas’s brother had left the voyage.In the words of one designer, “The Hermitage and its jewelry gallery became the school for the Faberge jewelers.” Its collections of items from prerevolutionary France provided the greatest inspiration: the 1893 Caucasus and 1891 Memory of Azov eggs imitate the jewelers of Louis XV’s court; while the equally opulent but more classical design of the 1890 Danish Palaces Egg is in the style of Louis XVI. The attributions catch the eye.The complacency with which the czarist authorities regarded the onset of the crisis, and the incompetence with which they eventually tackled it, showed clearly the fallibility of the autocratic system. Even the regime’s natural allies among the nobility started to question its legitimacy. Faberge’s eggs, of course, do not hint at the catastrophe among the czar’s peasant subjects.
A Continuation of the Long Funeral Ceremonies
In 1894 the imperial family’s Easter celebrations took on an entirely different hue: little more than a week before the festival, Princess Alix of Hesse, a tiny German principality, had finally agreed to marry the czarevitch Nicholas.
The initial obstacle to the match had been Alexander and Marie’s disapproval. In previous generations there had been almost a tradition of marriage between the Romanovs and German royal families— enough for the Almanach de Gotha (the arbiter of status to nobility across Europe) to argue that the correct name of Russia’s ruling house was Holstein-Gottorp Romanov. Twenty years later the French ambassador to Russia, Maurice Paleologue, would calculate that Nicholas himself was only i/i28th Russian. Marie’s Danish ancestry, however, made her a committed Germanophobe. Alix would not give up her deeply held Protestant beliefs for the Orthodox Christianity that the czarevitch’s bride would have to espouse. This was no mere whim; Alix expressed her determination in sad but forthright letters to both Nicholas and his sister Xenia. Her refusal left no apparent room for argument.
Only the forthcoming marriage of Alix’s brother, Ernst, to “Ducky,” a cousin of Nicholas’s, gave any cause for hope.
The next morning he went directly to Alix and formally proposed, to be met with continuing intransigence. Two hours of conversation proved fruitless. All Alix could reply to Nicholas’s entreaties, as the tears rolled down her cheeks, was a quiet but emphatic, “No, I cannot.”
Nicholas, however, was determined, and he had unlikely allies among the other royal visitors. Over the course of the week almost all of them would add their persuasive powers to his. An aunt explained to the young princess how easy she had found her own conversion after marrying a Russian grand duke; so did Alix’s sister Ella. Her cousin
Kaiser Wilhelm II of Prussia saw political advantage in the renewal of Russo-German ties and did all he could to encourage the match. Only Alix’s grandmother, Queen Victoria, disapproved.
Alix finally capitulated on April 8, 1894, one day after her brother’s wedding. There were to be no more doubts. Nicholas’s joy was unconfined. He told his mother, “the whole world is changed for me: nature, mankind, everything; and all seem to be good and lovable and happy.” Only Nicholas’s duties as a good Orthodox Christian dampened his celebratory mood.
Alexandra was not to be so deprived for long. As the younger daughter of a minor German princeling she had been far from rich. The thrift she had practiced as an unmarried princess would continue to affect her behavior as czarina years later. Now, however, she was marrying into extraordinary wealth. Her formal engagement present from Nicholas was a pearl and diamond necklace, bought from Faberge for 165,500 rubles ($8o,ooo/$i.9 million). His parents went even further for the future daughter-in-law they now welcomed with every outward enthusiasm. They gave her a sautoir of pearls, each carefully selected by Faberge himself. Valued at 250,000 rubles ($i20,000/$2.9 million), itwas the most expensive item ever to emerge from his workshops.
Over the summer following Nicholas and Alix’s engagement, the truth behind Alexander’s condition emerged. He had incurable kidney disease, and its diagnosis coincided with the emperor’s rapid deterioration.
Before the ceremony itself came the procession through the Winter Palace. Ten thousand guests filled its massive state rooms, craning for a glimpse of the young couple. Afterward, thousands more filled the Nevsky Prospect, Saint Petersburg’s main street, cheering their new czar and alarming his bride with the intensity of their devotion. When it was finally all over, the newlyweds took an early dinner and, in the words of Nicholas’s diary, “went to bed early as she had a bad headache!” The next day the court was back in mourning, and Nicholas, struggling to come to terms with his new responsibilities, was at work. Alexandra’s verdict on the whole day is perhaps only to be expected: “The wedding seemed only a continuation of the long funeral ceremonies she had so lately attended.”
Carl Faberge, too, was feeling the effects of death in the family. In 1893 his father had died, at age seventy-nine. Gustav had of course long since retired; even the name of the company he had founded had been changed—to C. Faberge—some time before his death. The death from lung disease of Carl’s younger brother, Agathon Faberge, in 1895 would be far more untimely.
Agathon Faberge may already have been ill by the end of 1894, but even if he was still apparently healthy, Carl would have had a lot to think about. Court suppliers are always vulnerable to a change of regime. What if the new czar’s taste differed from his father’s? Four months before Nicholas’s untimely accession, his sister the grand duchess Xenia had married their cousin the grand duke Alexander Mikhailovitch.
Moreover, Nicholas was equally devoted to his wife. He closed his diary for 1894 with a reflection on the events of the year: his father’s death, his subsequent accession to the throne, and, most of all, his marriage to Alexandra—”Together with this irrevocable grief the Lord has rewarded me also with a happiness that I could never have imagined. He has given me Alix.” For his mother’s sake, Nicholas would continue the tradition of giving a Faberge egg each Easter. For his wife’s sake, he would double it.
Furniture from Alexandra’s preferred English supplier, Maple’s, lent many of the rooms a touch of domesticity. The room’s color was inspired by a sprig of lilac given to her by Nicholas: mauve, the ultimately fashionable hue of the Victorian era. The silk that lined the walls came from Paris and cost more than any egg from Faberge—an extravagance that the parsimonious Alexandra would probably have abhorred if she had ever been told how much she was spending.
Nicholas and Alexandra moved into the Alexander Palace soon after their first Easter as a married couple. From that point of view, the 1895 Twelve Monogram Egg can be seen as their parting gift to the dowager empress, as they stopped sharing her roof. Perhaps that is why the 4,500-ruble bill ($2,200/854,000) for the egg carries an annotation in Nicholas’s hand specifying that the cost be split between his and his wife’s private purses. Alexandra would surely have appreciated the opportunity to make such a gesture. When she was only six, she had lost her own mother (Queen Victoria’s daughter, Alice) to diphtheria. Marie’s letter to Nicholas immediately after their engagement hoped that “dearest Alix will look upon me as a loving mother who will receive her with open arms, like her own dear child.” In return, Alix addressed her as “Darling Motherdear.” Newly arrived in an alien world, fortified only by her love for Nicholas, she sought solace in the idea that she could be a daughter to the widowed Marie.
That was perhaps understandable. The six rooms they occupied might have been ample for a bachelor prince, but for an emperor and his wife they were barely adequate. Alix had to borrow her mother-in-law’s sitting room to receive guests. Meals were taken en famille, with Marie very much in charge. Even her servants and ladies-in-waiting, Alexandra found, had been chosen for her by her mother-in-law. Nor could Alexandra find it easy to forget that, for all her welcoming words after the engagement, Marie had spent years trying to persuade her son of Alexandra’s unsuitability as a wife.
Then, aged twenty-two, Alexandra had followed the love of her life to Saint Petersburg, arriving there as the emperor’s betrothed. There had been no time to practice the Russian she had started to learn on her engagement, and her French came with a strong German accent. She was an outsider, and as she grew to understand what was going on around her, she could hardly fail to be shocked by the stories of mistresses and adultery that seemed almost commonplace in the relaxed moral atmosphere of Saint Petersburg.
The saddest aspect to all of this is that with people she trusted, Alexandra could be fun-loving and enjoyably indiscreet. Only a few friends, however, were allowed this close. The result was a woman who couldbe appropriately regal and haughty when it was warranted, but also believed that, when empress, her prime duty had been to charm her subjects.
The eggs that Faberge produced for the dowager empress over the next twenty years captured all of this. Many naturally memorialized her life with Alexander; they were serious, even stolid creations— appropriately grave memorials. Others, by contrast, were delightful, whimsical concoctions, often built around family portraits and containing ingenious mechanisms and automata.
The Pansy Egg, for example, that Nicholas gave to Marie in 1899, takes its name from the violet enameled pansies that are its main decщration. The egg’s real charm, however, lies in the way the surprise lives up to its name: all the easel’s eleven miniatures pop out simultaneously when a tiny knob is pressed. Similarly, Marie’s Cuckoo Clock Egg from the following year is at first sight an elaborate egg-shaped table clock. Its true ingenuity becomes apparent only when a button is pressed: a grill opens on the top of the clock, and a flapping, feathered bird rises up to sing a brief song before once again descending.
An earlier creation, 1898’s Pelican Egg, is in some ways even more ingenious. Covered in engraved gold, the egg itself unfolds into eight secеions, each hinged to its neighbors to form a screen of eight oval miniatures. Each miniature portrays an educational institution patronized by Marie. This was a small sampling of her charшtable commitments. According to one biography, she was patroness to twenty-seven institutes for daughters of the nobility, seventy-seven girls’ schools, one hundred thirteen children’s homes, twenty-three hospitals, and twenty-one homes for blind children, as well as numerous old people’s homes, orphanages, and sanatoria.
These three eggs all have symbolic meanings as well. According to Victorian tradition, pansies were a sad declaration of love—a mixture of happiness and pain. So we can read the 1899 egg as something more than a celebration of Marie’s family—a memorial, too, of the marriage from which it had sprung.
The kingdom is saved, and Dadon is able to enjoy a peaceable old age. In the story’s denouement, however, Dadon’s two sons kill each other in a quarrel over a princess of Shamakhan, who shimmers “with beauty like the dawn.” Despite the cockerel’s warning that she is the source of his kingdom’s peril, Dadon falls in love with the princess and bears her back to his capital. There he refuses the astrologer’s request to give him the princess and kills him, but in his turn Dadon is pecked once on the head by the cockerel, and dies.
A few years later Rimsky- Korsakov would do so more explicitly, in his last opera, based on the same story.
The symbolism is even clearer in the Pelican Egg. The bird from which it gets its name sits on its top. She is feeding her young in the nest, and the connotations are obvious. For Marie, the “little mother” epithet, used of every czarina, carried real weight; the educational institutions that the egg represents are evidence enough of that. There is a reason, however, for Faberge’s choice of a pelican; it has always been a symbol of maternal love. There is a popular (but false) conception that in extremis the mother pelican will feed her offspring with her own flesh: maternal love can bring pain as well as pleasure.
Faberge even experienced the effect of what Pobedonostsev, Nicholas’s old tutor, called Alexandra’s “small mind”: the empress’s habit of giving detailed specifications for pieces with budgets that were far too limited for what she required. Faberge’s only solution would be to produce something according to his own designs, and pretend he had lost the empress’s drawings.
Whatever Faberge’s personal views about Alexandra, he still had to produce an egg to be given to her each year. Like Marie’s, each had to be different from any predecessor, and, like Marie’s, each had to contain a surprise that would enchant the empress. One of the bones of contention between the two empresses was that Marie had refused to give up any of her public positions to her daughter-in-law. Alexandra’s one attempt to start up something on her own—a charitable project that she called Help Through Handwork—failed when the aristocratic women who originally signed up found that membership did not give them special access to her.
Each exquisite picture had its own memory for the young czarina: the German palaces where she had been brought up and, later, wooed by her husband; the British residences where she would go for holidays with Queen Victoria; and the Russian edifices of her marriage—the Winter Palace, where she and Nicholas had married, the Anitchkov, where they began life together, and the Alexander Palace, to which they had now moved.
Even her famously maternal grandmother, Queen Victoria, thought she was going on too long with breastfeeding.
Here, surely, was a subject whose rich vein Faberge could mine more deeply in future eggs, celebrating the family of this very domestic empress. To most observers, however, Alexandra’s daughters provided little reason for celebration. If she had one duty as czarina, it was to bear her husband a son. The successors of Catherine the Great had determined that a woman would never again sit on the throne of Russia; no daughter could be czar.
In the absence of a son, Faberge could not continue producing eggs that celebrated dynastically unnecessary daughters, however much their parents loved them. The Lilies of the Valley Egg set no trend for future creations. Faberge had to look elsewhere for inspiration.
The egg from 1897 had already established a precedent. In that year Nicholas had given Alexandra what many consider to be the greatest of all Faberge’s “public event” eggs. It commemorated their joint coronation as emperor and empress in 1896, and succeeded both as an example of technical brilliance and as a piece of coherent design, whose colors, metalwork, and surprise all recalled the ceremony.
At one level, therefore, the Coronation Egg is a clear demonstration of Faberge’s genius—proof that the loss of his brother Agathon as chief designer had been no more than a temporary setback. From the point of view of the egg’s recipient, however, it is doubtful whether any design could have been less welcome. It hardly matters that to modern tastes the whole concoction may be too rich, or that the miniature coach itself is a technical achievement rather than a piece of true artistry. What is important is that by Easter 1897 the imperial couple would surely have preferred to forget an event that should have been one of the high points of Nicholas’s reign but turned out very differently.
As for Alexandra, that replica of her state coach can only have been an unpleasant reminder of her journey into Moscow: the huge cheers received by her mother-in-law, the rather more muted welcome for her husband, and the deathly silence that greeted her, the German interloper. She was already marked by the unpopularity that would characterize her reign.
Recriminations were quick to follow. What many, including members of the imperial family, found even harder to forgive was Nicholas’s more immediate reaction to the tragedy. Guided once again by his domineering uncles, who closed ranks around their beleaguered brother Serge, the czar did not ask for the French ambassador’s ball that evening to be canceled. Instead, the court danced while the wounded died. The emperor’s subsequent hospital visits, and the donations he made to the family of every victim, were entirely overshadowed. The whole affair would remain a cause of resentment for the rest of Nicholas’s reign.
The contrast between the pageantry of Nicholas’s coronation and the squalid existence endured by most of his subjects had been thrown into sharp relief.
All these considerations seem to have passed over Faberge’s head.
The Warm and Brilliant Shop of Carl Faberge
Whatever the failings of its ruler and the autocratic system he embodied, Russia was booming. By the end of the nineteenth century it had the fastest-growing economy in Europe. Factories had sprung up around every major city. Enterprises were expanding; fortunes were being made. The country’s cultural life was vibrant, too. In literature Turgenev and Dostoyevsky were dead, but Anton Chekhov was at his peak, Maksim Gorky’s career was just beginning, and even Tolstoy remained active, promulgating moral theories on the renunciation of property that ensured he was persona non grata with the czarist authorities. Composers such as Glazunov, Taneiev, and Rachmaninov had taken up the baton laid down by Tchaikovsky. The painter Wassily Kandinsky, the actor and director Konstantin Stanislavsky, and the choreographer Sergey Diaghilev were developing the ideas that would lead to revolutions in their art forms. Even in the sciences Russia could claim breakthroughs such as Dmitry Mendeleyev’s formulation of the periodic table, and Ivan Pavlov’s discovery of the conditioned reflex.
By all accounts Carl Faberge was a model employer. Few were fortunate enough to find skilled employment at a firm such as Faberge’s. Most became unskilled factory hands, on wages of around one and ahalf rubles per week ($0.7/$i8), and lived in unimaginably squalid conditions— fifteen to a room if they were lucky, on a plank bed in the factory barracks if they were not. Landlords and entrepreneurs made fortunes, but precious little ofit trickled down to the poor.
Paris greeted the twentieth century with its own celebration of the prosperity brought by international trade: the Exposition Universelle of 1900. It was a measure of Carl Faberge’s growing status that he was invited to sit on the jury judging the exposition’s jewelry. The honor meant he could not take part in the competition, but he could still exhibit; naturally he wanted to show off his firm’s greatest creations—its eggs.
The official response was clear: “Monsieur Faberge’s work,” according to one notice, “reaches the limits of perfection, with jewels being transformed into real objets d’art.” Later, Henry Bainbridge put the reaction of French goldsmiths more colorfully: ” ‘Louis XIV, Louis XV Louis XVI! Where are they now?’ they said, and themselves replied: ‘In Saint Petersburg, for we now call them Faberge.’ ” The acclaim was not universal; followers of art nouveau found many of the designs old-fashioned; to them the groundbreaking jewelry of the Frenchman Rene Lalique was unmatchable. One of Faberge’s fellow jury members, Rene Chanteclair, found the Memory of Azov Egg “a little overdone” and criticized the design of the Lilies of the Valley Egg. Nevertheless, this was a crucial moment in the history of Faberge’s firm, as it achieved full international recognition. The jeweler himself was awarded the Knight’s Cross of France’s Legion d’Honneur, and his son Eugene, who had joined the firm in 1895, was made an officer of the French Academy. Faberge was at his peak.
Two years later, in 1902, the inhabitants of Saint Petersburg were accorded the same privilege as their Parisian counterparts, when, according to a contemporary advertisement, an exhibition of “Faberge artifacts, antique miniatures, and snuffboxes belonging to members of the imperial family and private persons” was held at the “von Dervis mansion.” The entrance fee was “one ruble, 10 kopeks” ($0.5/$1з), hardly a prohibitive sum, but enough to keep out the riffraff, for whom this was most of a week’s wage. Interestingly, the advertisement also states that the exhibition was being held “in aid of schools under the august patronage of Her Majesty the Empress Alexandra Fedorovna and the Imperial Ladies Patriotic Society.” Alexandra had, it seems, finally managed to carve out at least one educational role for herself.
There, in the gold drawing room of Vera von Dervis’s recently renovated house on the so-called English Embankment, one of the Russian capital’s smartest residential streets, pride of place was taken by two glass display cases.
Until these two exhibitions Faberge’s eggs had been a well-kept secret, a part of the czars’ private lives. Now, for the first time, the public became aware of what the jeweler could achieve when supported by Romanov patronage. The eggs started to acquire their status as the ultimate symbols of czarist wealth and extravagance. By 1906, when the English nanny to Alexandra’s children, Margaret Eagar, wrote her memoirs, it was natural for her to tell her readers of the Yellow Room in the Winter Palace, next to the empress’s bedroom, where “are exhibited the famous Easter eggs which were at the Paris exhibition. These are the work of Faberge, the most renowned goldsmith in Europe.”
Consuelo Vanderbilt, however, did better than either of her compatriots. In 1895 her social-climbing mother had forced her to marry the duke of Marlborough (whose family fortunes, in turn, needed bolstering by the Vanderbilts’ railway millions). It was a famously unhappy marriage. Consuelo probably derived scant consolation from the fact that on a trip to Russia with her husband in 1902 she had sufficient social status to be placed next to the czar at one Winter Palace ball, and to dance with his brother the grand duke Michael, at another.
“The Ancestor Who Appeals to Me Least of All”
Just as Faberge was using the Trans-Siberian Railway Egg to celebrate Russia’s modernization, Nicholas and Alexandra were rediscovering a love for their country’s past. For Easter 1900, they had decided to revive an ancient tradition, that the emperor and empress should spend the Orthodox Church’s most important festival in Moscow.
Later that year, while on holiday in the Crimea, Nicholas fell ill with typhoid fever.
Vivacious and unconventional, these two sisters had married well for princesses from a minor Balkan state—one to Duke George of Leuchtenberg, and the other to Nicholas’s cousin, Grand Duke Peter Nikolaevitch. They drew Alexandra into their circle in Saint Petersburg and introduced her to “our friend Philippe,” as both she and Nicholas came to call him. By the end of 1901 the empress had asked the medium to help her conceive an heir, a czarevitch.
The first—”court”—ball had a guest list of three thousand. It always began with a polonaise—little more than a procession around the ballroom with the czar and czarina in the first two couples. Through the evening the dancing would get more informal, culminating in the mazurka, Marie Fedorovna’s favorite but of little interest to the shy Alexandra. The other state occasion, the “Bal des Palmiers,” was a much more intimate affair, where only perhaps five hundred guests sat down to dinner.
It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that in 1903 these two great state occasions were markedly different from their predecessors.
The spectacle was magnificent, and the statement it made about Nicholas’s preferences was rendered more powerful by the year in which it took place. Two hundred years before, in 1703, Peter had ordered the foundation of Saint Petersburg; in 1712 it became Russia’s new capital, its window on the West. More than one hundred thousand men had died to build the city on marshland by the river Neva. Yet Nicholas chose Saint Petersburg’s bicentenary year to remember, as if it were a golden age, what Russia had been like before Peter’s rule, when Moscow was still its capital. As he bluntly admitted to his court marshal, Peter “is the ancestor who appeals to me least of all.”
Perkhin had been responsible for the production of twenty-eight imperial eggs—more than half the final total. Perkhin’s place as senior workmaster was taken by his friend and assistant, Henrik Wigstrom.
Nevertheless, the goldsmith must have gathered, possibly from those court balls, that his emperor’s real passion lay elsewhere. The following year—1904— Nicholas’s gift to Alexandra would be something much more explicitly oriental, a direct celebration of Moscow, the ancient capital supplanted by Saint Petersburg—the Moscow Kremlin Egg.
Enameled white and crowned by a golden onion dome, the egg is modeled on one of the cupolas that top the Kremlin’s most important place of worship, the Uspenski Cathedral. This was where Nicholas had been crowned in 1896, and where he had celebrated Easter day itself on that crucial visit in 1900. Windows in the egg’s side give a view of an interior where carpets, icons, and decorations are so faithfully rendered you can almost smell the incense. The whole ensemble has a deliberately oriental feel, reflecting how Byzantine architecture and ritual had inspired the Uspenki’s builders and clergy.
The Moscow Kremlin Egg may well be the most ambitious of them all. At more than fourteen inches high, it is certainly the most substantial; and its cost—11,800 rubles ($5,700/$i30,000)—made it the most expensive egg that Faberge had yet made. Interestingly, it is also the least like an egg.
We Shall Have to Show Dirty Diapers Japan had made no progress with its attempts at negotiation. Three days before the attack, its envoy in Saint Petersburg had been called home.
The much vaunted Trans-Siberian Railway remained only a single track and was still not completed: supplies for the beleaguered defenders of Port Arthur had to cross Siberia’s Lake Baikal by either sledge or ferry, depending on the season. Moreover, Russian tactics remained rooted in the nineteenth century, and were consistently trumped by an enemy that had successfully made the leap from feudal society to industrial power in a single generation.
The final blow came in May 1905. Russia’s Baltic fleet had spent seven months sailing halfway around the world to challenge Japan’s superiority in the Pacific.
Repression was nothing new to czarist Russia, but this was a massacre of peaceful demonstrators in front of bourgeois promenaders on Saint Petersburg’s main street. The world’s press was there to witness it. Bloody Sunday would become one of the defining events of Nicholas’s reign. It destroyed the moral stature of his regime in the eyes of both the world and his people.
It was only then that Nicholas turned to the most capable of all his ministers—Count Witte, newly ennobled after his surprisingly triumphant return from peace negotiations with the Japanese.
The commitment blinded him.Taking out a revolver, the grand duke threatened to shoot himself there and then unless Witte’s recommendations were adopted.
Two days later Czar Nicholas signed Witte’s October Manifesto. Russia was on the path to democracy.
Jubilation greeted the proclamation of the new freedoms. The general strike was called off, the liberal intelligentsia reveled in what had been achieved, publishers gleefully exploited the relaxation in censorship rules.
For the first time Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik party played a part. In December 1905 the Moscow uprising turned the former capital into one vast battleground.
The time for full revolution, however, had not yet come. Apparently re-legitimized by its constitutional concessions, Nicholas’s regime embarked on a punitive campaign against its own people. As Nicholas himself put it, “terror must be met by terror.” In the six months after the publication of the October Manifesto, an estimated fifteen thousand people were executed, at least twenty thousand wounded, and forty-five thousand deported or sent into internal exile.
It must have been a relatively easy decision for the czar to cancel his orders for Faberge eggs, first in 1904, and then the following year. He continued the practice for six subsequent Easters, creating a collection of eggs outshone only by the czarinas’ own. A marriage that had begun only as a means of uniting two vast fortunes ceased to have any meaning.
In 1906 Faberge’s optimism proved justified. It was true that the internal situation was not yet entirely peaceful—a breakaway peasant republic less than eighty miles from Moscow was only finally suppressed in July—but Nicholas was not the sort of person to let a minor civil war disturb the rhythm of his life. When the internal crisis had been at its peak the previous autumn he had spent most of his days out hunting.
So for Easter 1906 Nicholas finally gave Alexandra the Moscow Kremlin Egg. This could not have been rushed off in a matter of months; presumably it, too, had spent the last two years in Faberge’s storerooms.
The Moscow Kremlin Egg can hardly have evoked happy memories for its recipient. Of all the political assassinations during the troubles of the previous two years, the bloodiest had been the murder of the grand duke Serge, Nicholas’s uncle and still governor of Moscow. A revolutionary had thrown a bomb into his carriage just as it was leaving the safety of the Kremlin.
Not only was Nicholas the grand duke Serge’s nephew; Alexandra was Ella’s sister. Twenty years before, their wedding had provided the stage for “Nicky” and “Alix’s” first meeting. For years before her own marriage, Serge and Ella had been Alexandra’s best friends in Russia.
Alexandra knew who to thank for the longed-for arrival. Her sessions with Vachot had initially led only to false hope—a phantom pregnancy that was probably the result of anemia. Nevertheless, her faith in the Frenchman had not wavered, even when he commanded her to pray to an apparently nonexistent saint by the name of Serafim.
No event since the coronation could have provided Faberge with a better subject for an egg than the arrival of the czarevitch.
In Marie’s Love Trophies Egg, this was a miniature easel, carrying a portrait of all the imperial children. While Alexandra’s Rose Trellis Egg contained a locket with a picture of Alexis alone, painted on ivory. Both these surprises have since been lost.
The eggs themselves are each made of highly decorated enamel. Marie’s is pale blue and lies on its side, held in the air by four columns between which hang swags of pink enameled roses. Alexandra’s is pale green and covered in a latticework of diamonds and pink enameled roses—the “rose trellis” that gives the egg its name. With hindsight, however, the eggs’ muted nature seems all too appropriate. By 1907 Nicholas and Alexandra’s joy at Alexis’s birth was overlaid with a deep and fearful anxiety.
Bumps would grow into dark swellings beneath the skin. By the time he was two, Alexis’s condition was clear. He had inherited the gene for the “royal disease” from his mother, who had in turn inherited it through her own mother from Queen Victoria. His blood would not clot; he had hemophilia.
Alexandra was all too familiar with the condition. Her nephew Prince Henry of Prussia died at four years old, just before Alexis’s birth. Triggered by a recessive gene on the X chromosome, hemophilia only ever manifested itself in men. There seems to have been no reason for this, except that perhaps the royal couple could not face the prospect of another hemophiliac child. Alexis was the sole chance for the continuation of Nicholas’s line on the throne of Russia, but the odds were against him even surviving childhood, let alone becoming czar and fathering further heirs of his own.
A Good, Religious, Simple-Minded Russian
Unlike Alexander and Marie’s retreat from the terrorist threat twenty-five years before, however, this was no grudging displacement. Nicholas and Alexandra moved to the Alexander Palace because they wanted to.
So Alexandra’s Easter gift in 1908 was especially appropriate.
This happy conjunction of theme and design may simply be the result of luck. In 1901 Marie Fedorovna had received a similar Easter gift based around her own summer residence—the Gatchina Palace Egg. From now on, every egg that Nicholas gave her would end up in the same place. By contrast, the Gatchina Palace Egg had been a rare instance of the jeweler failing to understand Marie Fedorovna.
The upper half opens out and is hollow; the lower half has been left solid, but its internal surface has been carved to resemble waves. On this sea sails another miniature replica—of the czar’s yacht, the Standart.
Commissioned by Alexander III in Copenhagen at a cost of just below four million rubles ($2 million/$44 million), the Standart was then the largest yacht in the world. Showing admirable decisiveness, she ensured that all the passengers were safely stowed in the lifeboats, and gathered together valuables before she herself left the yacht.