On 30 July 1904, the prayers of millions across the Russian empire were answered with the birth of His Imperial Highness, Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaevich, the only son of Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna.
However, this blessing came with a secret curse — that of the hereditary and deadly disease known as hemophilia. The young heir’s blood would not clot, and he ran a constant risk of deadly internal hemorrhage. This illness was treated as a state secret, but there were often rumors about the boy’s health.
His hemophilia shaped his entire childhood. While the disease itself caused him much suffering, it also changed the way he was raised. His parents were, by necessity, extremely careful that he not injure himself in anyway, and even had two sailors follow him around to protect him from the bumps and bruises inherent to being a lively boy. This extra protection led to him being a bit spoiled, but he was still known to be a happy boy and he was often a prankster. His tutor, Pierre Gilliard, did eventually convince his parents to give him a bit more autonomy and to learn self-control.
However, it wasn’t just his childhood that was defined by his illness — the destiny of the entire empire was at stake. When Alexei’s condition worsened and he nearly died at Spala in Poland, his mother turned to the faith healer (often incorrectly called a monk) Gregory Rasputin. Rasputin seemed to be able to comfort the boy and slow the internal bleeding that threatened to kill the young Tsarevich. How, or even if, this worked is still not understood to this day, although some have suggested that it was a kind of hypnosis.
The focus that the Empress had to give to her son’s illness, as well as the questionable influence of Rasputin, played not a small role in the breakdown of the empire itself. The strain of ensuring the heir’s survival ended up being part of the demise of the entire imperial system, though of course it is an over-simplification to imply that it was the only factor.
Outside of the ravages of his illness, Alexei was an enthusiastic boy with a love of all things military. He accompanied his father to Stavka, the military headquarters, during the First World War. He enjoyed his time there, living and eating like a soldier.
During the family’s captivity after the revolution, Alexei’s condition worsened. By 1918, he was unable to walk, and, the night of the shooting, his father had to carry him down into the cellar where their lives were to end.
Alexei only lived to be thirteen — he was killed alongside his family in Yekaterinburg in 1918. The only survivor of the shooting was Alexei’s spaniel, Joy, pictured below.
All dates prior to February 1918 given in Old Style (OS) format unless otherwise noted.