The last Russian Empress ordered an ornate cigarette case from her favorite jeweler as a present for her husband. Vanora Bennett traces the connection between the House of Fabergé and the doomed dynasty

On an April day in 1897, as the melting ice of the Neva beside St Petersburg's Winter Palace cracked and slid downriver to the Gulf of Finland, the young Russian Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna, who was eight months pregnant with her second child, bought a present for her husband from the court jeweler, Carl Fabergé.

The dark-haired, statuesque 24-year-old was planning ahead. She was going to give the enameled silver-gilt cigarette case to Emperor Nicholas II – an inveterate smoker – when their baby was born. Alexandra, an English-speaking granddaughter of Queen Victoria, known in her family as 'Alix', probably imagined her beloved 'Nicky' taking it out and lighting a celebratory cigarette while listening to 102 cannon shots booming outside – a number that would signal that the male heir Russia was longing for had been added to the Imperial family.

The rectangular cigarette case made by August Holmström, the workshop's chief jeweler since 1857, was given rounded corners, delicate lavender enameling, finely chased vines and an Imperial double-headed eagle. It would have appealed to any turn-of-the-century admirer of Art Nouveau, but Alexandra had long been a fan of the style's fluid curves. As a bride, she had brought with her a love of Jugendstil, the German variety, from her native Darmstadt in Germany – one of the major European centers of this fin-de-siècle form. She is credited with facilitating its spread into her new homeland under its Russian name, Stil Modern. Its emphasis on national romanticism alongside traditional and historical images chimed with her own growing fascination with the folksy Muscovite Russia of the past, a love endorsed in 1903 by a ball at the Winter Palace at which the entire court wore traditional costumes.

However, the cigarette case was not brought out to celebrate the birth of a son in 1897. There were only 101 cannon shots. The new-born, a second royal daughter called Tatyana, joined her elder sister Olga in the nursery.

Tatyana's birth marked the end of a relatively carefree period for the last Tsar and his wife, who had spent the first three years of their marriage relishing their success in overcoming opposition from both sets of parents to their love match and enjoying their first baby. Their outwardly prim domesticity – a regime of fresh air, early nights, nursery food, pet names and chintz – was much mocked by sophisticates at court. But, as historian Robert Massie has pointed out, their marriage was based on an intensely passionate physical love.

Seven years of growing dynastic anxiety followed the gift of the cigarette case. There were three more pregnancies in the next four years; one ended in a miscarriage, while the other two produced female children. Whatever private joy this gave the little girls' parents, on the streets the celebrations grew ever more muted. People expected a Tsarevich. The pressure on Alexandra, whose German blood and stiff manners had from the start failed to endear her to Russians, was intense.

In increasing desperation, the Empress – who, since converting to Russian Orthodoxy on her marriage, had developed a taste for her adopted homeland's folk remedies and peasant wisdom – sought help from a motley crew of mystics and healers: barefoot Matryona, epileptic Mitya Kozelsky, Maitre Philippe of Lyon and, finally, Rasputin. To no avail. After the birth of her fourth daughter, Anastasia, in 1901, even family members could barely conceal their gloom. One cousin, Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, remarked: "Forgive us, Lord, if we all felt disappointment instead of joy; we were so hoping for a boy."

The cigarette case was just one of many treasures – among them two Easter eggs a year that the Tsar gave his wife and mother – ordered by the Imperial family over the years as presents. The Empress's love of fashionable jewels might have been her only connection with the rest of the court, but it was a mixed blessing for the Fabergé craftsmen whose received her orders. According to Valentin Skurlov, a St Petersburg historian whose accounts of life in the Fabergé workshop are based on diaries, letters and reminiscences in Russian archives, the royal family were the most infuriating of the firm's clients. This was not only because Imperial commissions, delayed in several court departments by Russia's bureaucrats, were always urgent: "Everything had to be done quickly, as though by the wave of a magic wand". It was also a result of the Empress's "combination of a rudimentary notion of art and curiously middle-class stinginess," writes Skurlov. The inflexible Alexandra would accompany her orders with her own sketches and set the cost of the article in advance.

Since it was impossible, both technically and artistically, to make the articles according to her sketches, Carl Fabergé was reduced to trickery to explain the inevitable changes – a misunderstanding by the master, or the loss of the sketch. There was no point in offending the most important client in Russia. Fabergé never charged more than the price set by the irritable Empress.

It wasn't until the summer of 1904 that, at last, Tsarevich Alexei's birth allowed Russia to hear the 102nd cannon shot and rejoice that the Romanov dynasty's future was assured. Alexandra doted on her only son, but her happiness and relief at having fulfilled her procreative duty were short-lived.

Little Alexei's first year of life was marked by Bloody Sunday (when peaceful demonstrators were shot), a humiliating defeat in Russia's war against Japan, and the first, failed Revolution. Even before it was discovered that the Romanov heir suffered from hemophilia inherited through his mother, Russia was caught up in the repeating pattern of revolt, botched reforms, and state repression that ended Imperial rule by 1917 and led to the shooting of the former Tsar and all his family in a cellar in the Urals a year later.

Through these travails, Nicholas, bearded, narrow-eyed and painfully shy, smoked in silence. The cigarette case given him by that pretty young wife – who with the years was becoming increasingly anxious, hysterical, domineering and determined for him to assert himself – was a reminder of happier times past. In 1917, after the demise of the Imperial dynasty, the case was delivered to the Kremlin, whose new Soviet masters would, 14 years later, sell it to an American businessman. It cost 103 roubles.

Vanora Bennett is a British author and award-winning journalist.

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