The destination for history

Tsar-crossed lovers? The truth about Nicholas II and ‘Matilda’


Controversy has erupted in Russia over a new film. Matilda directed by Aleksei Uchitel, deals with the love affair between the future Nicholas II, the last emperor of Russia, and the young Polish ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska (Matilda Kshesinskaya) of the Imperial Ballet in St Petersburg. The affair, which began slowly and reached its peak in 1893, was broken off before Nicholas’ betrothal to Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine in 1894.

Nicholas II and his family have been canonised as Passion-Bearers and opponents consider the film sacrilegious. Outside the offices of the production company activists have burnt cars and there have been processions, protests and threats to burn down any cinemas who show the film. Many Russians are offended because the film shows intimate scenes between Nicholas and his mistress, even though he was still unmarried at the time (as was Mathilde). State Duma Deputy Natalia Poklonskaya said that showing saints having sex ‘offends the feelings of believers.’

And all this before it has even been on general release.

From what I have heard from friends in Russia the film is pure fiction, with a whole load of events included which simply did not happen. Yes, there was an affair between Nicholas and Mathilde – Nicholas’ own diaries bear witness to this, as do surviving portions of Mathilde’s diaries. No, she was not at the coronation and nor could Nicholas have seen her there. And ‘no’ to a whole lot of other things included in this film.

When I was writing Imperial Dancer I investigated claims that she and Nicholas continued to meet after his marriage and found them to be untrue. Like his father Alexander III, Nicholas II was entirely faithful to his wife. The Russian Orthodox Church has placed billboards around Moscow which display ‘words about love’ exchanged between Nicholas and Alexandra. No-one has ever doubted their love for each other.

As for Mathilde, her life was dramatic enough without resorting to fiction. After the affair with Nicholas ended she became mistress to two more Grand Dukes. One of them was the father of her son. Which one is still open to debate. When told that she should be proud of having two Grand Dukes at her feet, Mathilde said, ‘What’s so surprising about that? I have two feet!’

She partnered the great Vaslav Nijinsky on the stage, amassed great wealth and became a force to be reckoned with in the Imperial Theatres. After the revolution the Bolsheviks requisitioned her mansion and Lenin made speeches from the balcony. Forced to flee, almost nothing remained and her jewels, worth millions of roubles (presents from the Grand Dukes, which she flaunted on stage) were lost on the gaming tables of Monte Carlo.

So should film be fact or fiction? I have no objection to historical films providing they stick to some semblance of the truth. After all, truth is often more exciting than fiction and nowhere is this more apparent than in the life of Mathilde Kschessinska.

By Coryne Hall

You might also be interested in:

Sign up for our newsletter

By this author

show more books