While most royal marriages were arranged and out of convenience, Russian Tzars never deprived themselves of sincere love and affection. Influencers from the shadows, mistresses of Emperors held massive power which they often used to better their personal or their family’s social status. However, they mostly loved the royal men they were having affairs with, which we can be sure of today due to hundreds of love letters and memoirs preserved from the past.
Duality of their motifs, and unusual, baffling life stories make these ladies enigmatic, even hundreds of years after their death. Still, for whatever reason they were held in such high regard by Emperors, all of them have left a mark on history and arguably even influenced its course.
Yekaterina Dolgorukova (Alexander II)
Stemming from a well known aristocratic family of Dolgorukovs, Yekaterina was a daughter of Prince Michel Dolgorukov and his wife Vera Vishnevskaya. As a good friend of her father, Emperor Alexander II often visited the Dolgorukov family estate and first met Yekaterina when she was twelve years old. After her father’s death left the family impoverished, Emperor paid for education of all Michel Dolgorukov’s children, including Yekaterina who was sent to prestigious Smolny Institute in Sankt Petersburg. During an official state visit to the Institute, Alexander once again met with Yekaterina, and couldn’t hide his attraction to then 16-year old Princess. As affection turned out to be mutual, Emperor secretly paid visits to the Institute and two went for numerous walks and carriage rides. Despite being in love with the Emperor, Yekaterina was determined not to become just another mistress, as Alexander had many.
After his wife Maria Alexandrovna became ill with tuberculosis and was prescribed into celibacy by doctors, Alexander made sure he had many women at his disposal. However, out of her growing love for him and perks their romance would bring to her noble but poor family, Yekaterina eventually became a lover to then 48 year old Emperor in 1866. In order to keep her as close as possible, Alexander made Yekaterina lady-in-waiting to his fragile wife, and their passionate romance continued in shadows. However, everyone in the court knew about Emperor’s relationship with Dolgorukova, with some even claiming she influenced his political decisions and was plotting to become an Empress herself.
Giving birth to 4 children, Yekaterina was even accused of trying to eliminate 7 children Alexander had with his wife Maria from the throne race in favor of her own offspring. However, Tzar ferociously defended his lover, writing to his sister Queen Olga, “Yekaterina preferred to renounce all social amusements and pleasures so desired by young ladies of her age…and has devoted her entire life to loving and caring for me. Without interfering in any affairs, despite the many attempts by those who would dishonestly use her name, she lives only for me, dedicated to bringing up our children.” As he promised her many years before, less than a month after Empress Maria’s death, Alexander married Yekaterina. Highly unpopular in court unlike Emperor’s deceased wife, Dolgorukova was met with cold and unfriendly reception by the royal family.
Still, great love Emperor had for Yekaterina and vice versa was apparent and is saved for eternity in numerous letters they exchanged during their 20 year long romance. Unfortunately, their love was cut short after Alexander was murdered by anarchists in 1881. Unaccepted by family, Yekaterina was not allowed inside the church during the Funeral Mass, but ordered to stand on the doorway along with 3 of her living children, all by Alexander. After her husband’s death, she moved out of Russia and settled in France along with her children, living on a 3 million rubles pension. There, she enjoyed a life of a wealthy socialite, and eventually survived her husband by 26 years.
Maria Naryshkina (Alexander I)
Born as a daughter of a Polish Prince, Maria married an aristocrat named Dmitry Narishkin at the tender age of 16. Known for her charm and breath-taking looks, Maria regularly attracted attention at balls and ceremonies. A natural beauty lauded for her modest taste in clothes and jewelry, Maria usually wore a simple white dress without any gems or accessories when other court ladies were competing in extravagance. As written in memoirs by Vigel, “Ideal facial features and impeccable forms were all the more vivid with the permanent simplicity of her attire”.
Falling in love at the first sight, Emperor Alexander I had no doubt regarding his intentions toward Naryshkina. With her husband’s blessing, Maria became Emperor’s mistress in 1799. Engaging in a public relationship, Alexander and Maria went to balls together and attended various ceremonies, while his lawful wife Elizabeth was left behind.
Beloved by both the court and royal family, Naryshkina’s end goal was to get Alexander to divorce his wife and marry her. Everything seemed to go in her favor, since Alexander was shamelessly parading their love for the whole world to see as if he was not married at all. However, her plans failed out of unknown reasons, as Emperor refused her request for him to leave Elizabeth and make herself Empress by marriage instead. Suddenly and unexpectedly, their passionate romance ended in 1814. During the relationship, Maria gave birth to five children of whom at least four were Alexander’s. However, all of them were recognized by her husband Dmitry and bore the surname Naryshkin.
Anna Lophukina (Paul I)
Born into a well known noble family like all great mistresses of Russian Tzars, Lophukina won Emperor Paul I over when she was only 19 years old. Noticing her at the ball in 1796., Emperor ordered that her entire family be brought over to Sankt Petersburg and given various roles at the court. Immediately after the arrival of Lophukins to the palace, Anna’s father Pyotr was granted a title of Prince and was appointed for a position of General Prosecutor. Anna herself was a notorious court lady who was consistently awarded with prestigious state honors such as Order of St. John, seemingly without any reason. Although Empress Maria tried to sabotage her husband’s affair with Lophukina in many occasions and ways, Anna’s influence on the Emperor turned out to be too strong.
Despite her short stature and general lack of any remarkable physical assets, tales of Paul’s acts of devotion to Anna surpass every love novel ever written. Painting the walls of Mikhailovsky Castle so that they would match Anna’s gloves or naming dozens of ships after her were just a few of his many grandiose gestures. However, due to the growing burden of her poor reputation caused by the affair with the Emperor, Lophukina eventually ended her romance with Paul in 1799. and asked for his blessing to marry another man. Desperate and heartbroken, Paul allowed her to marry her long term friend Prince Gagarin, but never stopped hoping she would eventually return to him. His wish never came true as he was assassinated by the conspirators two years after their parting., aged 27, with Lophukina dying just 4 years later of consumption, aged 28.
Mathilde Kschessinska (Nicholas II)
A prima ballerina and glamorous socialite of noble Polish descent, Mathilde met Nicholas II after one of her performances at the age of 17. Falling in love at the first sight, Nicholas purchased a luxurious manor for Kschessinska in Sankt Petersburg, where they would mostly meet in private for the next four years of their affair. Known for her ruthless and competitive nature, Mathilde often used her relationship with Nicholas to further her influence and fame at the Imperial Theatre. An extraordinarily gifted dancer, she was extremely capricious, stubborn and prone to sabotaging her rivals. Despite his devotion and passion he had for Mathilde, Nicholas ended their affair in 1894., after the death of his father and subsequent marriage to Alexandra Feodorovna.
After many years of miserable marriage which produced a frail, hemophilic heir, lives of Nicholas II, his wife and their children ended in a tragic and brutal way. On the other side, Mathilde notoriously entertained affairs with two Grand Dukes of House Romanov, cousins Sergei Mikhailovich and Andrei Vladimirovich. She even gave birth to a son in 1902., and admitted she wasn’t sure which one of two Great Dukes was his father. Mathilde eventually went on to marry Andrei Vladimirovich, and moved with him to Paris after the October Revolution. Opening a prestigious ballet school which was attended by the likes of legendary dancers such as Margot Fonteyn and Tatiana Riabouchinska, Mathilde dedicated the rest of her life to tutoring and training of young ballerinas. Eight months before her 100th birthday, Mathilde died in Paris in 1971.