No one called her a beauty. In some photos, her teeth look slightly crooked. Even friends criticized her figure and her tutus had to be specially designed to disguise her short muscular legs. But there was one thing everyone agreed on. When Mathilde Kschessinska danced, she commanded the stage.
Mathilde, or Mala as her family called her, came from a family of dancers. At the age of 8, she was accepted into the Imperial Ballet School, following her brother and sister. She graduated the age of 17. First in her class, she had also earned the right to a solo at her graduation performance.
It was customary for the Imperial Family attended the performance. Tsar Alexander III was so impressed with the young dancer that, when it was time for supper, he sat Mala between himself and his son, the 21 year old Tsarevich Nicholas. “Careful, now,” he joked to his son. “Not too much flirting.”
Alexander didn’t have to worry. The awkward Nicholas remarked to Mala about the plainness of the school’s stemware, a comment hardly likely to send a young girl’s heart racing. But Mala didn’t care. She'd already fallen in love with Nicholas and his soulful blue eyes. Determined as always, she wrote in her diary “…he will be mine!”
Historians have speculated that Alexander deliberately introduced his son to the young dancer. Neither he nor his wife approved the Tsarevich’s interest in Princess Alix of Hesse Darmstadt, the future Tsarina Alexandra. They may have hoped the diminutive Mala would provide a suitable distraction.
And ‘suitability’ was definitely an issue. Nicholas had been seeing a beautiful but Jewish opera singer. The Tsar, fiercely anti Semitic, broke up the affair. The young woman and her household were removed from St. Petersburg, never to return. Mala was Polish and Catholic. That, the Tsar could handle.
Besides, there was also a long tradition of Grand Dukes taking their mistresses from the Imperial Ballet. Rumor had it a special passageway ran from the Grand Ducal loge to the stage, giving the Grand Dukes easy access to the dancers. The girls were atrractive and, on the practical side, the dancers’ health was carefully monitored. There was little to no chance of disease.
As for the dancers, the protection of a Grand Duke guaranteed good roles, spacious dressing rooms and other privileges. And, of course, the Grand Dukes showered their mistresses with jewels, gifts, houses and servants.
At first, things between the Tsarevich and Mala appeared to move slowly. She was the one who made sure to speak to him at performances or wave to him on the street. By the summer, her career had picked up and, at one performance, she was given a dressing room with a window that looked out on the Imperial entrance. There she was able to stand and talk to Nicholas and the other young Grand Dukes.
It was a start but the quiet Nicholas did little more than talk. Before the affair could progress, the Tsar announced that Nicholas and his brother, Grand Duke George, would leave that fall for a nine month tour of the Far East. Mala was crushed.
But Nicholas did have feelings for Mala. Before he left, he asked his fifteen year old sister, the Grand Duchess Xenia, to keep him informed on the two ladies in his life, Princess Alix and his ‘friend’ Mala. Like any 15 year old, Xenia kept her brother’s secret, sharing it only with all her friends on the most ‘confidential’ terms. The relationship between Mala and the Tsarevich quickly became a topic of gossip.
Nicholas’s trip was cut short by an attempted assassination. He returned to St. Petersburg but had no opportunity to spend time with Mala. As for Mala, her godfather took her to visit Europe. The trip was said to be a belated reward for her graduation but there’s no question her family hoped to quell the spreading rumors.
It was not until the spring of 1892 that Nicholas, disguising himself as one of his friends, worked up the nerve to visit Mala at her parents’ home. It was the first of many visits, visits that became so frequent the Prefect of Police showed up one night to warn the Tsarevich the Tsar had noticed his absence from the palace and was demanding to know where he was.
The Tsar now feared his son would set up house with Mala and possibly have children. The pressure was on to get the Tsarevich married.
Meanwhile, Nicholas bought Mala gifts—a gold and diamond bracelet, a necklace with diamonds the size of walnuts--jewels the dancer proudly wore on stage. Now there was no more talking through windows. Mala entertained the Tsarevich and the other Grand Dukes in her dressing room. When her performance was over, she’d slip away to meet Nicholas and go for supper.
One night they went to Cubat's, a restaurant frequented by the often drunk and rowdy Grand Dukes. The evening got out of hand. Dishes and glassware were broken and when the owner tried to break the party up at 2 AM he was told to ‘mind his own business.’ A police officer, unaware the Tsarevich was present, ordered the party to leave. They refused. The Prefect of Police was called and Nicholas threw a bowl of caviar at his head. Mala had to help calm things down. The next day, needless to say, Nicholas was summoned to meet with his father.
Nicholas was sent on ‘maneuvers.’ Mala moved out of her parents’ home, into a house paid for and staffed by Nicholas. At her parents’ insistence, her sister lived with her.
When Nicholas returned, he visited frequently, causing the police considerable concern. He’d leave Mala at dawn, walking back to the Anichkov palace alone. Of course he was shadowed by the Okhrana. It was a matter of safety. But a furious Nicholas threatened to ‘crush the face’ of any policeman he caught spying on him.
Mala’s career continued to flourish but by the summer of 1893 she knew Nicholas’ interest had started to wane. By 1894, the Tsar’s health was deteriorating. Anxious to see Nicholas married, his parents gave permission for him to court Princess Alix. Nicholas broke off his relationship with Mala. Shortly after that, his engagement to Princess Alix was announced.
But the story wasn’t over. Determined to save the relationship, Mala sent Princess Alix a series of anonymous letters, all written to blacken Nicholas in her eyes. It didn’t work. Princess Alix showed the letters to Nicholas who recognized them as coming from Mala. He admitted the affair.
Mala’s effort to stop the marriage effectively ended her relationship with Nicholas. In her memoirs, she wrote her happiness was gone, her heart broken. Her life, she said, was over.
It wasn’t. The indomitable dancer went on to become the mistress of two Grand Dukes—some say three—finally marrying Grand Duke Andrei in the years after the revolution. She survived two World Wars, a revolution and a civil war. The jewels she was given were lost, some to war and revolution, most on the gaming tables in Monte Carlo but her skills and her talent as a dancer were passed on to students like Margot Fonteyn and Alicia Markova. She died in December 1971 at the age of 99. There was no question hers was a full life.
(If you care to read more about a remarkable woman see her memoirs Dancing In St. Petersburg, or Coryne Hall's biography Imperial Dancer. Adrienne Sharp's novel The True Memoirs of Little K is also excellent. Photos and a short film clip can be seen on YouTube at