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Last days at Tsarskoe Selo, being the personal notes and memories of Count Paul Benckendorff; telling of the last sojourn of the Emperor & Empress of Russia at Tsarskoe Selo from March 1 to August 1, 1917
translated by Maurice Baring
About this time the Emperor was reading aloud one evening to his family in the schoolroom. The weather was fine and very hot. The windows were wide open and the electric lights on; suddenly the room was invaded by soldiers under the guidance of the chief of the Corps of the Guard. They examined all the lights, made a search of the whole room. A sentry had thought he had seen signals made from the window with white and red lights. It was discovered that a lamp with a red shade had been hidden and then had become visible, while one of the curtains was flapping in the wind, and this had led the soldier to believe a system of signalling had been established between the Palace and the town.
On the 17th of May my step-son, Alexander Dolgorukov, came to see us in the kitchen. The news that he brought us was more or less reassuring.
On the 21st of May, towards 9 in the evening, Colonel Korovichenko called on me to announce that he was leaving shortly and would be replaced by Colonel Kobylinsky. On this occasion he told us that he had seen during the day F. A. Golovin, Commissionaire of the Government, who looked after and liquidated the affairs of the Ministry of the Court. As the cost of living had become appreciably higher, the butler, Olivier, the bakers and the pastry cooks of the Court had considerably raised the price of the meals and commodities which they furnished. This had been sanctioned by the commissionaries of the Government, and the cost of the Emperor's table had been increased by 50 per cent and the price of everything else raised by 75 to 100 per cent.
F. A. Golovin was alarmed, now that the newspapers left nothing alone, that the red press would publish these prices. He feared that if the cost of the Imperial table became known, the extreme parties would demand the transfer of the Emperor and his family to a fortress. It was impossible to reduce the cost although the menus were cut down by half, because we were bound by contracts. The commissioner saw only one issue for the situation which he himself had created, and that was that the cost of the Imperial table should be determined by Count Rostovtsev, the Empress's secretary, who looked after the private fortunes of their Majesties and their children. These sums were very small. The Emperor's capital did not amount to a million roubles (£100,000), that of the Empress to a million and a half, with which they had to pay numerous pensions. The fresh expenses which they wished them to defray were very heavy. In spite of the protestations of Dolgorukov and myself, the Commandant insisted, owing to the menace of the danger which he said was imminent. If their Majesties could defray the cost of their table, nothing could be said; but if these expenses had to be defrayed out of the people's money there would be a scandal. I had to inform their Majesties of this the next day, and it was decided that the cost of the table should be shared by the Emperor and the Empress and their children; each paying a share out of his or her personal fortune. We reduced the expenses still further, as far as it was possible, and this painful episode was definitely closed. On the 25th of May, the Empress's birthday, we waited upon Her Majesty before Mass without congratulations. On the same day we received the news that Baroness Buxhoeveden's mother had died at Kazan, after a short illness. She wished to leave at once, but gave up the project on account of the difficulties of the journey, and because of the delay in the reception of the news. She decided to await the arrival of her father, who had already left Copenhagen. On the 27th of May, before Vespers, the Empress had a Requiem said for the repose of the soul of the Baroness. On the same day Dr. Botkin left the Palace, owing to the grave illness of his daughter-in-law.
Countess Anastasia Hedrikova and Baroness Sophie Buxhoveden in 1917On the 28th of May, Colonel Korovichenko, left us. He had been appointed Commandant of the troops for the area of Kazan. He came to see us in the evening to say good-bye. A few months later he was massacred at Tashkent in the prison where he had been imprisoned by the Maximalists. Colonel Kobylinsky replaced him as Commandant of the Palace. We gained by the go exchange. Kobylinsky had served in the regiment of the Guards at St. Petersburg before the war at Warsaw. He was a just man, not impregnated with revolutionary ideas; he had served at the front, and got on well with the men. As he had been twice wounded in the war he was in feeble health, and he no longer had the ear of Kerensky as his predecessor, one of Kerensky's old friends.
On the 3rd of June, Kerensky came once more to the Palace, inspected the sentries, saw the Emperor for a few moments, went to luncheon with all his suite at the Grand Palais, ordered, as usual, the best wine from the cellar, and went away. This time his conversation with the Emperor was most uninteresting. All he told him was that he intended to start for the front shortly, in order to try to start an offensive and make a vigorous effort to help the Allies. He counted on his eloquence to instil courage into the troops, and to bring about victory. About this time the activity of the Bolsheviks, both in the town and in the provinces, began to make itself felt. Lenin, Zinoviev, Trotsky, and all the fanatics who have up to this moment governed our unfortunate country by terror, and have landed it in shame and opprobrium, had already appeared on the scene, and their party gained ground from day to day in the Soviets of workmen and soldiers, and everybody was astonished at the weakness shown by the Provisional Government towards them.
From the left; a palace servant, a guard and Grand Duchess Tatiana; carrying sod in the Alexander Palace park during the imprisonment of the Imperial Family
At the Palace incidents with the officers and soldiers of the Guard were incessant. There were disagreeable altercations with the officers of the 2nd regiment of the Rifles of the Guard, on account of the bread and other provisions which the servants sent to their families, who were already suffering from the increased cost of living. It was in vain we convinced them that the provisions were bought on savings made on their own rations. It was of no use. It became necessary to forbid the servants to send away anything when the 2nd regiment was on guard. It had been laid down that the families of the servants could come at fixed times to the door of the kitchen to speak to them. The 2nd regiment created so many difficulties and vexations on each occasion that the Commandant himself forbade the interviews whenever this regiment was on duty. About this time the 3rd regiment of the Rifles of the Guard were sent to Tsarskoe for duty in the Palace. It was as badly composed as the 2nd, and equally zealous. They at once made life very hard for us. This regiment had been garrisoned in the fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul at St. Petersburg and chiefly consisted of Bolsheviks.
On the 14th of June, I received from F. A. Golovin an official paper demanding my resignation, as well as that of Dolgorukov, and giving as a pretext that in the present circumstances the Emperor could not be attended by persons who were servants of the State. He asked me also to inform the Maids of Honour that from the 1st of July they could no longer receive any salary.
On the 20th of June, the news of the victory of the army of the South and of its advance in Galicia and in Bukovina spread to St. Petersburg, to Tsarskoe, and reached us. The Emperor immediately ordered a Te Deum to be sung the next day in the chapel of the Palace, at which we all assisted. The joy was very great. We did not know at that time at what price this success had been gained nor of the disastrous and shameful retreat by which it would be followed. This pseudo-victory was the signal for the general downfall of our army and of the daily increasing successes of the Bolsheviks. During the first days of July, their armed revolt was put down, but Kerensky did not have the courage to crush this rabble completely: on the contrary, he saved and bid the chiefs, to whom he was tied by their common revolutionary activity of old days. On the 27nd of June, Colonel Kobylinsky, our new Commandant, came to see me. We thought of some ways of lessening the friction between the soldiers and the servants, to make our life easier. He was full of goodwill, but undecided and weak. He complained a little of the enormous correspondence of the young Grand Duchesses, which took up a great deal of his time and prevented him from delivering us our correspondence as quickly as he might. Another time he come to tell me that he had received orders from the Commander-in-Chief to intern the Grand Duke Boris Vladimirovich in the Alexander Palace, in order to cancel - for reasons of economy - the guard on the Grand Duke's house. As I told him that I would have a room made ready for him, he told me that one room would be insufficient, as the Grand Duke would be accompanied by a lady who had received permission to be with him. I protested energetically against the impropriety of this lady inhabiting the same house as the young Grand Duchesses, but as the order was precise, he would listen to nothing. I do not know how the matter would have ended if he had not heard by telephone that the Ministry of Justice had ordered the Grand Duke to be released.
On the 2nd of July, the little Grand Duke, the Tsarevich, invited us to come into his room to be present at a cinematograph display. Shortly before the revolution the firm of Pathé had presented him with a small cinematograph with a large number of films. An electrician in the Palace had put the machine in order, and we were able to take part in a very successful display. These entertainments were repeated twice and gave infinite pleasure to the little Grand Duke. He enjoyed acting as host, and received us with a childish animation which was charming to see. He is very intelligent, has a great deal of character and an excellent heart. If his disease could be mastered, and should God grant him life, he should one day play a part in the restoration of our poor country. He is the representative of the legitimate principle; his character has been formed by the misfortunes of his parents and of his childhood. May God protect him and save him and all his family from the claws of the fanatics in which they are at present!
Prince Lvov, having resigned on the 8th of July, Kerensky - nobody knew why - was made President of the Council. For several days we were without a Government, and Kerensky had taken refuge with his family in the Grand Palais at Tsarskoe, giving dinners at the expense of the Court, driving about Pavlovsk in the Emperor's carriage, thanks to the shameful servility of one of the officers of the stables, Izmailov, who did everything to toady to him. There was a continual traffic of motor-cars between Tsarskoe and St. Petersburg. On the 10th of July he left again, and on the 11th we learned that he had accepted the post of President of the Council, formed his ministry, and was established in the rooms of the late Emperor Alexander III in the Winter Palace. This installation, in addition to being offensive, brought about the sack and pillage of the Winter Palace in October. On Sunday, the 11th of July, at 11 o'clock in the morning, Kerensky came to the Emperor to report that the situation in the town had become alarming. He would be obliged to take energetic measures, and he thought it would be more prudent for His Majesty and his family to leave, and to settle in the interior of the country, far from factories and garrisons, in the country house of some landed proprietor. He said that he himself and the Emperor were in great danger. The Bolsheviks "are after me and then will be after you". The Emperor asked if it might be Livadia, and Kerensky accepted this idea as being feasible. He begged His Majesty to start packing at once, and to be ready to start in a few days. He added that he had sent agents in every direction, that one would be sent to Livadia; he in a week's time would be back at Tsarskoe, to report, and to take the final orders. He frequently mentioned the Grand Duke Michael's estate in the government of Orel, and seemed inclined to decide on that. He advised us to make out preparations as secretly as possible, so as not to arouse the suspicions of the soldiers of the Guard.
Above: Tatiana holds her dog Ortino in her lap with her sister Anastasia alongside. This photo was taken in the Imperial Park during their imprisonment.After Mass, the Emperor told me the purport of this conversation. Their Majesties were, on the whole, satisfied with the news. Any change from the actual state of things, and above all the certitude that they would not be sent abroad, which they feared more than anything, pleased them. They hoped to leave for Livadia, and little by little they were persuaded that this would be so. We were all of us struck with this news, which boded no good. The disorders in the city and the Bolshevik propaganda in the provinces were a menace, and we had little confidence in the sincerity of the Government. We agreed to keep it a secret, but when they were out walking, their Majesties talked of it to every one, and we had to beg them not to confide in any one save the personnel required for packing, and to confine themselves now to choosing such persons and servants as they wished to accompany them.
Their Majesties chose the following persons: Baroness Buxhoeveden, Countess Hendrikova, Mlle. Schneider, Prince Basil Dolgorukov, Dr. Botkin and M. Gilliard. Further, it was agreed that they should ask the Government's permission to replace me by some one else of the suite. Their choice fell on A.D.C. General Tatishchev, who, on learning that the Emperor had chosen him, accepted without a moment's hesitation. Besides this, we tried to establish a roster, and with this purpose we drew up a list of persons who would go in waiting on certain days, fixed in advance, on their Majesties. Dolgorukov was to be replaced after several months by Naryshkin. Despite the promises which were made to us that this project would be put into execution, they were not kept, and on the day on which I am writing these lines, we are without news of all these people. Baroness Buxhoeveden was not able to leave with the Sovereigns as she had to undergo an operation. She left in the month of November, but she was not allowed to reach the Empress. She stayed several months at Tobolsk without seeing her, and came back to Europe via Japan.
On the 16th of July, Colonel Kobylinsky came to see me in the evening to talk over the journey. I had made a full list of questions concerning the journey, and the stay at the new residence. He undertook to deliver it to the necessary authorities and to obtain an answer. He said he did not know what spot had been chosen, but he spoke of the Orel as a country which was quiet. We were much upset, but did not abandon the hope that the Crimea might be chosen.
Kerensky had started for the front. The armed revolt of the Bolsheviks at St. Petersburg became more serious, and for a week we heard nothing of the departure. The revolt was put down by the vigorous action of General Polovtsov, but Kerensky on his :return was not satisfied, called upon the General to resign, and conferred all sorts of favours on the Bolsheviks, which brought about the definitive victory of this party in the month of October. This was the greatest mistake made by this man, whose double-faced and ambiguous policy landed Russia into the terrible situation in which she has been for two years.
On the 22nd of July, the name-day of the Empress-Mother, we all went to Mass in the chapel of the Palace.
On the 25th of July, the Commandant came to tell us that our departure had been fixed for the evening of the 31st July - 1st August, and that we should begin to pack immediately, and as quietly as possible. On the next day, at 2 o'clock, General Anitchkov, who had been warned, would come to the kitchen of the Palace to take our orders. The Commandant still pretended not to know the destination which had been chosen, but said the journey would last three or four days.
On the morning of the 28th of July, I received a visit from the Commandant and from Paul Mikhailovich Makarov, who had been appointed by the Provisional Government to accompany the Emperor during his journey and to see him established. He refused to tell us the destination, but from different indications which he gave, we guessed that it was Tobolsk. He supplied me with answers to all the questions I had put and we were able to get on with our preparations. Makarov was a professional architect: a socialist revolutionary, he had, under the old regime, been in prison for a time. He was an honest man, and we owed him nothing but thanks. He did us a good service by putting the house at Tobolsk in order. It was in a deplorable condition. Their Majesties were forced to stay a whole week on board a squalid steam-boat before they could move into the Governor's house. As the day of departure drew near the sadness of the coming separation became greater.
On the 30th of July, the birthday of the Tsarevich, we went to Mass, and at 2 o'clock in the afternoon a holy ikon, which was greatly venerated, was brought from the Church of Our Lady of the Sign (A feast of purely Russian origin.), which is next to the Lyceum. It was brought in procession and the clergy of this church were admitted to the Palace and to the Chapel. The Te Deum was sung and prayers were said asking God for a prosperous journey for their Majesties, their children and all those who accompanied them. The scene was moving. The ceremony was as poignant as could be: all were in tears. The soldiers themselves seemed touched, and approached the holy ikon to kiss it. They followed the procession as far as the balcony, and saw it disappear through the Park. It was as if the past were taking leave, never to come back. The memory of this ceremony will always remain in my mind, and I cannot think of it without profound emotion. In the course of the day we all went, as usual, to the kitchen-garden, and groups were taken.
From left: Vassili Dolgurukov, Pierre Gilliard, Countess Anastasia Hendrikova, Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, Countess Benckendorff (seated), Count Benckendorff, unknown; photo taken July 31, 1917.On the 31st of July, everything was ready at the Palace for the departure, but all the luggage was still in the different rooms. I wrote to the Commandant to draw his attention to the enormous quantity of luggage which would have to be taken to the station; for besides the personal effects there were the kitchen utensils, the cutlery, the wine, and all the effects of the servants. I informed him of the number of packages, the number of porters which would be required at the Palace, and at the station, and the number of motors which would be necessary. I received no answer. Not only was the Emperor's destination kept secret, but also the hour of departure and the proposed route. We saw continuous bustle going on round the Palace, but nobody spoke to us, and until the evening we learned nothing. At 11 :30, 1 waited upon the Empress to say good-bye. She gave me a small medal of St. Nicholas of Bari and was touching in her kindness to me. I have retained the most vivid and profoundly grateful memory of this audience. After luncheon, their Majesties sent for my wife and myself to say good-bye. The Emperor was as calm and self-possessed as usual. We all went once more into the garden, and His Majesty took exercise and sawed wood as before. He told me to see that the vegetables and the wood that had been sawn and made ready in the park should be distributed among the servants who had taken part in the work. We dined for the last time as usual. For my wife and myself the separation from her son made the situation still more poignant.
About 10:30 in the evening, I learned that the Commandant had ordered the Commandant of the Corps of the Guard by telephone to transfer the luggage into the round room and to employ fifty men for this duty. The Commandant of the Guard told me that his men refused to do this work for nothing and asked three roubles each. I was obliged to consent. I telephoned to the Commandant that there were not enough of men and that the transfer of the luggage would last all night. He answered that he was busy. The men began to collect the luggage, and it was divided between the two trains which had been ordered. The first train consisted of wagon-lits of the International Sleeping Car Company, with a restaurant car, and was for their Majesties and their suite. The second train was to take the servants. The escort was supplied by the four regiments of the Rifles, and was to remain in the place to which their Majesties were being sent and were to form the guard there.
About 11:30, Kerensky came to the Palace. He told me that the Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich would arrive in a moment. He had arranged the interview, so that the two brothers might take leave of each other. I informed the Emperor, who was moved and astonished. In the corridor I met the Grand Duke. He embraced me effusively. Kerensky first entered into the Emperor's room, followed by the Grand Duke and the officer on duty. He sat down at the table and looked at the scrap-books. The officer stayed near the door. The interview lasted ten minutes. The brothers were so moved and embarrassed at having to talk before witnesses that they found scarcely anything to say. The Grand Duke went out in tears and told me that he had not even been able to notice whether the Emperor was looking well or not. Kerensky remained in the waiting room and spoke of one thing and another. As he had on several occasions said that the absence of their Majesties would only last a few months, I asked him, in front of witnesses, when their return to Tsarskoe could be expected. He informed me that in the month of November - once the Constitutional Assembly was closed - there was nothing to prevent their Majesties from returning to Tsarskoe, or going where they wished. I knew quite well that he was not saying all that he thought, and I learned later that he was far from thinking this, but I took advantage of what he had said to close the apartments of the Emperor, to preserve them from molestation. Towards 12:30 he told me to tell their Majesties that it was time for them to start, and that the train had been ordered for 1 o'clock in the morning. Dolgorukov came to tell us that there were as yet no trucks or motors, that the luggage was ready in the round hall, but that nothing had been moved. Kerensky seemed agitated. He got up and said he would go to see why his orders had not been carried out, and that we were to hold ourselves in readiness. The trucks did not arrive until after 1 o'clock, and the transfer of the luggage was begun and was not finished by 4 o'clock in the morning.
Their Majesties, the children and all of us were ready to start, and we were assembled in the hall and looked on at the work, which was being scandalously done. The soldiers and officers, almost without exception, had their caps on, talked loudly, swearing about the work which they had been made to do, sat down almost next to the Emperor. The scene was as disgraceful as it could be. The news which arrived from the station was vague and contradictory. About 4 o'clock, they came to tell us that the trains could not start before 6 o'clock in the morning; the trains which had been expected at ii.3o had not arrived from the town, and that they were without news as to the reason. There was consternation among the authorities present, and even Lieut. Kuzmin, who had been there all night, without speaking to any one, was not able to hide his anxiety. They feared that the railway men had learned the destination of the trains, and would not let them proceed, that being corrupted, they would oppose the Emperor's departure. On hearing this news, the royal family retired to their rooms to try to take a little rest. I took advantage of this to go into the Emperor's room to take leave of him. He embraced me with effusion, thanked me for my twenty-three years of service, was kind and affectionate. We were both of us moved to tears. Never will I forget these good-byes. I realised full well that the separation would be for long, that the past would never come back, and I already feared the tragic end of this good and dear Sovereign. When I returned to the hall, I saw that my wife had sent for tea and that the ladies and some of the officers were assembled to drink it. Their Majesties, not being able to get any rest in their own rooms, soon came back. The Emperor went up to my wife and asked for some tea. The officers present got up and declared out loud that they would not sit at the same table as Nicholas Romanov. One of them - a captain who had served all his life in the Guards, who had been wounded and was a Knight of St. George was covered with shame and told me that Kuzmin had just threatened to bring him before a revolutionary tribunal, because he had spoken to one of the Grand Duchesses. Others said that they could not show their true feelings before the soldiers, but the hateful character of the scene which had just taken place, and which had not escaped the notice of the Emperor, who always saw everything, was not diminished by these private assurances.
Time passed and no news arrived. It was daylight. The Commandant of the town of Tsarskoe was of opinion that the departure could not take place, and that after this failure it would be impossible to arrange a fresh journey. Colonel Kobylinsky, worn out with fatigue, had thrown himself into an arm-chair and was asleep. About 6 o'clock, we heard sounds of motor-cars hooting. The motor-cars entered the park and drew up at the entrance. Kerensky got out, went up to the Emperor and told him that the train was ready. He shook hands in a very familiar manner with the Empress and the Grand Duchesses, and assured them that he had slept very well, which was not true, for he had spent the whole night dancing about in a fever of agitation, and had almost despaired of getting the Emperor away.
Their Majesties, the Tsarevich and the Grand Duchesses Olga Nicholaevna, got into the first carriage, Colonel Kobylinsky sat on the box. Kerensky with his suite went at the head of the column. The three Grand Duchesses, Countess Hendrikova and Mlle. Schneider were in the second carriage, Dolgorukov, Botkin and Gilliard in the third. Lieut. Kuzmin with his officers formed the escort. The Emperor, with great gravity, bade us a list good-bye, - and this family of martyrs left the Palace, which had been their home for twenty-three years, for ever.
I stayed in the Palace with my wife until the next day. When they arrived at the Alexandrovskaya, station on the Warsaw line, their Majesties were obliged to walk on foot for about fifty yards along the railway line, because the train had not yet entered the station, but was in a siding. No steps had been prepared. They were obliged to hoist the Empress into the carriage. The Grand Duchesses, in spite of their youth, found it difficult to get into the train. The train started at 7:30 in the morning instead of 10'clock at night. Dolgorukov wrote to me and Markarov told me that the journey was fairly comfortable, in the train, and on the steamer. At the stations the blinds had to be pulled down, and nobody was allowed to show himself at the windows. Every day the train stopped in the open country for an hour and the travellers were allowed to take exercise.
Their Majesties arrived at Tobolsk about the 10th of August, and lived there fairly comfortably until the beginning of May 1918. They were then transferred to Ekaterinburg, where their martyrdom began. The Emperor was shot on the 16th of June - old style - (the night of July 16/17 according to the Western calendar, r.a.) in 1918. The fate of the Empress, their children, the suite and those servants who went with them is still unknown to us at the moment I am writing.
Left: Nicholas as a prisoner in the Imperial Park
I was attached to the Emperor sincerely, and with all my heart. He was very young when he ascended the throne, with no experience of life or of affairs, and his character never had a chance of being formed. To the end of his life he lacked balance, nor could he grasp the principles that are necessary for the conduct of so great an empire. Hence his indecision, his limitations and the fluctuations which lasted throughout his reign. He was very intelligent, understood things at once, and was very quick, but he did not know how to reconcile his decisions with the fundamental political principles which he entirely lacked. Very kind-hearted, he was always ready to do a service, or to do anything that he was asked to do, sometimes without ascertaining whether it were feasible, and whether his decision might not be contrary to principles, whose violation would do more harm than good.
During the last years of his reign there was often talk of the influence, political and other, that Gregori Rasputin had exercised over their Majesties. Neither the Emperor nor the Empress ever mentioned him to me. I am convinced that the political influence of Rasputin was nil. The appointment of ministers, which, during the latter years, proved so fatal, can be explained otherwise, and if certain persons thought it necessary to approach that person for their private ends, they may have derived personal advantage, but he never had any influence on the course of political events. He knew how to work on the religious sentiments of the Empress, who - as so often happens to persons of the Protestant religion who are converted to the Orthodox or to the Catholic religion, and go to extremes - attached great importance to the outward forms of worship, and went so far as to take interest in local superstitions. The Emperor, I am certain, did not share these views, and if he gave the Empress a free hand in these matters, it was because he was jealous of the peace of his married life; besides which he had no time to arrange things in the way he would have wished.
In his private life he was touchingly kind to those near him. Easy of access, he never refused to listen to those who wished to see him, in spite of the number of papers he had to read every day. His family life was exemplary. He adored the Empress and his children: the Tsarevich - the little Grand Duke - was the special object of his affection. His tardy birth, the poor state of his health, made him the idol of his parents. I often heard the Emperor say, in times of trouble during his reign, that he would accept all sufferings if he could leave Russia in order and prepare for his son an easy and a happy reign.
He had retained happy memories of the all too short periods in his youth when he had served in regiments, and the only treat he allowed himself was to take part from time to time in the dinners of the regiments of the Guard. He liked above all things to talk to the officers about the details of their service, and of their life in the garrisons. He was temperate in his tastes; he ate little, drank but little wine, caring little for sport and riding. He felt a real craving for action, and was fond of walking and violent exercise; but his real affection was for his family, with which he was identified, and which was always the object of his unique adoration. Intelligent, good, well-meaning, his character did not allow him to respond to the gigantic events of the closing years of his reign. Weary and over-burdened as he was, these events crushed him.