When I woke up, grey dawn was creeping in at the window. Glancing at my-clock, I saw it was 9 A.M.; the nights are long in these Northern latitudes. By the time I was dressed, however, the sun was shining brightly, and indeed glorious sunshine was the one and only charm of Tobolsk in winter. Every day, during the few short hours it appeared, the sun was as powerful as in a Swiss mountain resort.
I did not dawdle over my toilet, as I was in a hurry to go and see the Commandant, Colonel Kobylinski, who was in charge of the Imperial Family. I asked my way from passers-by, and I soon reached the Colonel's house. He was greatly astonished at seeing me, for he had been awaiting a telegram announcing my arrival at Tyumen in order to send one of his men to meet me and act as an escort. He gave orders that I should be allowed to enter the Korniloff house in which the Household of the Emperor and Empress were living and into which no one could go without his permission, telling me that he would follow me in a few minutes.
The Korniloff house had belonged to a wealthy merchant and stood on the main street, the Tsarskaia (which had of course been renamed Liberty Street in 1917). Opposite to it I noticed a moderately sized white stone house to which my attention was drawn on account of a high, evidently new, wooden paling that cut off. part of the street running beside it. Sentries were posted all around this paling at a distance of some ten paces from each other, and a double post stood at the gates. When I glanced up at the windows I stopped short in surprise, for I saw looking out two youthful figures in pink and blue blouses that I knew well. They were the two Grand Duchesses Marie and Anastasia. When they saw me they began to gesticulate wildly. Then evidently they called the others, for in a moment all four Grand Duchesses were at the window waving their hands, while the youngest jumped up and down in her excitement. I waved my hand in return, pointing to the Korniloff house to indicate where I was going. At this moment the Commandant appeared and rapidly marched me in. The sentries on guard in front of both houses were getting uneasy at seeing signs exchanged between their prisoners and an unknown person, and were ready to arrest me.
I had to wait a few minutes in the hall for my luggage to come from the hotel, for the Commandant could not allow me to join my colleagues before one of his officers and the members of the soldiers' Soviet had personally ascertained that I had brought no papers of any kind for the prisoners. This of course I had not done, having given a promise to that effect, and knowing besides that I would be searched. This operation was a long and, for me at least, a tedious performance. Two soldiers, with bayonets fixed to their rifles, were posted at the foot of the stairs, to prevent my dashing up, I suppose, while the others under the supervision of the officer examined every single thing in my luggage. My dressing-case was turned inside out. My underclothing, my shoes, every item of my wardrobe were all separately examined. Every box and bottle was opened, every book shaken. So thorough was the search that one man even thought it necessary to take a sip out of a bottle which very obviously contained some hair-wash, suspecting me of having infringed the prohibition laws. Prompted by Christian charity, I advised him not to touch it, assuring him that it was only quinine water that I used to make my hair grow better. He still insisted on sampling the stuff, with the result that he was nearly sick, spat violently, and swore that "these aristocrats' medicines were as nasty as themselves."
I heard the sequel to this the next morning. One of our doctors told me that my words of warning had evidently impressed themselves on the soldier's mind. He came to Dr. X, and a little sheepishly described some funny symptoms he had about the tongue. "You see," he said, "I happened to drink some specially efficacious hair-wash, and I think the hair must have started growing on my tongue. I have a kind of prickly feeling about it, and I should be much obliged if you could give me some medicine which would prevent the hair growing. It would be so extremely inconvenient if it should get longer." The doctor could not imagine how the man could have got such an idea into his head, but knowing that a long and involved tale would follow any questions on his part, prescribed some harmless stuff. His patient went off perfectly satisfied, and convinced that it was due to the medicine that the hair-wash never produced any bad results.
At last the search of my belongings was completed, the soldiers went away, and I was allowed to run up and join my friend and colleague. Countess Anastasie ("Nastinka") Hendrikoff, who, with both the Emperor's gentlemen, had been standing looking on from the landing above. The Emperor and Empress had been accompanied to Tobolsk by the Countess; the Empress's lectrice. Mademoiselle Schneider, a Baltic Russian; the Master of the Household, Prince V. A. Dolgoroukoff; General I. L. Tatistcheff; two doctors, and the Tsarevich's tutors, Mr. Gibbes and Monsieur Gilliard. These all lived at the Korniloff house with the exception of Monsieur Gilliard, who was lodged with his pupil and they crossed the road to join the Imperial Family at meals. The ground floor of the Korniloff house was occupied by Dr. Botkine and his family and by the Kommissars. The rest of the party had the rooms on the first floor, but as the house had previously been used as law courts it had one immense room in the middle and only three small ones besides this. It was inadequate accommodation for the Household and servants, so the big hall had been divided into cubicles by wooden partitions, not reaching to the ceiling, which all opened into a corridor. One of these cubicles was allotted to me, and the Empress had had it made quite comfortable by sending over some of the furniture from her own bedroom, but I must say the absolute lack of privacy was sometimes embarrassing.
Of course my colleague and I chattered endlessly about everything that had occurred since we separated four months before. Nastinka's dark eyes glowed and her cheeks flushed when I gave her the latest news of Inotchka, her only sister, who was slowly dying of consumption in the Caucasus. The two sisters were all the world to each other, and it was from Inotchka's bedgide that Nastinka had rushed back to Tsarskoe Selo on the news of the revolution to join the Empress in her danger. Now she seldom had news, and mine was the first detailed account of her sister that she had heard. Dolgoroukoff had a sick old mother at Petrograd. Poor Tatistcheff was the only one who had no near relations; he had left an old mother of ninety in Russia, when he went with the Emperor to Siberia, and she had died a few weeks before I started. They, in their turn, gave me all the details of the wearisome journey from Tsarskoe Selo to Tobolsk in August, explaining that the Emperor had not known till he was on board the train to what destination he was going. The journey which had caused so much apprehension had, however, been uneventful and not uncomfortable. The house assigned to the Imperial Family at Tobolsk had been used as barracks, and it was some time before it was fit to be lived in. The general impression I gathered was that the first few months at Tobolsk had been a rest after the atmosphere of heavy menace which had surrounded us all at Tsarskoe Selo. There was no turbulent soldiery whose presence was a daily threat (Tobolsk was not garrisoned). There were no factories, and political agitators had not reached that backwater. The soldiers who guarded the Emperor had been chosen from among the most disciplined element of the Tsarskoe Selo rifle battalions, and were at first not aggressive, and the population of the town was not hostile. The sympathetic demonstrations I had heard spoken of in Petrograd were legends, but when the Tobolese stopped before the Governor's house, where the Emperor lived, it was from a kind of friendly curiosity if not from actual sympathy. They were, needless to say, at once moved on by the sentry. The Imperial Family were led at first to expect that they would be given more freedom, and the Empress hoped that the young people at least would be allowed to go for walks, under an escort if necessary. It seemed such useless cruelty to shut up four young girls and a small boy, who were not themselves State prisoners - this distinction was several times emphasised under Kerensky's rule. But during all the long months at Tobolsk, from August to May, the Imperial Family were never allowed to take a single outside walk. They had to tramp round and round the small enclosure within the deal palings that I had noticed on arrival. The space inside had been an unpaved street. It was dusty when it was dry, a quagmire in spring and autumn, and a deep snow plain in winter. Beyond this the house had no garden, unless a tiny cabbage patch could be called by that name. It was pitiful for the children. Even at Tsarskoe the poor little Tsarevich, who never otherwise complained, had said to me wistfully: "Oh, if only once I could go out for ten minutes' walk, just beyond the gates."
Those closed gates! How we all loathed them! 0nly people who have been prisoners can understand what physical aversion a closed door may cause! A thing which otherwise one never notices, once it becomes a symbol of one's dependence, is so galling that it produces a feeling of acute irritation whenever one chances to glance at it.
Only on Sundays were the Imperial Family allowed to pass their gates, when, guarded by an armed detachment of soldiers, they were taken to church. No outsider was allowed to assist at that early service, and the crowd that assembled to see them pass was kept at a distance by the soldiers. The people looked on silently, but sometimes one could see an old peasant kneeling down in prayer, or some woman crossing herself. After January, at the soldiers' order, the walks to church were stopped, and a priest came to celebrate Mass in the house. The Household, who had, on the whole, to submit to the same rules as the Imperial Family, were allowed, as a concession, to take walks from time to time. At first they were authorized to go out alone, later they were accompanied by an armed soldier. These expeditions generally resulted in unpleasanthess, for the soldiers considered the walks a waste of time for them and an attempt on our part to evade the prison rules which they would have liked to enforce with full severity.
I waited impatiently during the whole of that first day for the Commandant to come and take me to the Empress, as he had promised to do in the course of the afternoon. Unfortunately, he was not the sole master. He shared his powers with the civilian Kommissar, Pankratoff, who pandered to the soldiers in order to gain their support. Pankratoff was a former political exile, a theoretic Socialist, and, though he was not unkind, he feared to make any concessions on his own responsibility. Pankratoff insisted that I should not be allowed to join the Imperial Family till the matter had been discussed by the soldiers' Soviet. He was afraid of offending them, and of exciting them to "excesses."
"Excesses!" I learnt to abominate that word, which was for ever in his mouth! Everything, to hear him, would produce excesses. Finally, a couple of months later, he precipitately fled from Tobolsk, fearing, as he said, excesses against himself. His unfortunate suggestion started endless discussions. All the soldiers' Soviets, as well as the town Soviet, had to say their word. Days passed, and no decision was reached. Sometimes a day was fixed. I waited for hours with my hat on my head, and then the Commandant would come in and say that our meeting was again put off. It was to be a continual disappointment. I really believe that there was ground for the Empress's suspicion that some of the soldiers who were particularly hostile to her, and who saw that she greatly longed to see me, found pleasure in devising a means to vex her by refusing. She wrote to me daily, clinging to the slight hope that as a Christmas treat I should be allowed to go to her. A trifling incident that occurred on that day dispelled all hopes, for one of the soldiers mistook Countess Hendrikoff for me, and insisted on asserting that I had secretly disobeyed orders and had been to see the prisoners. There was no likeness whatever between us, but Countess Hendrikoffhappened to have changed her usual coat for one that was rather like mine. There was no disproving the matter, as our word was never believed, and after this it only remained for me to wait patiently till the men should see fit to waive their objections.
For the sake of the children and servants, the Imperial Family had the Christmas tree that had always been a feature of their Christmas celebrations at home. A tree was, of course, an easy matter to get in this land of forests, and it was adorned by the children with all the humble things that Tobolsk could produce. The Empress and her daughters had spent weeks in working small trifles for everyone, using the material they could get on the spot and the silks they had brought with them. They were all expert needlewomen and managed to make the prettiest things out of the coarse, hand woven, country linen, on which they drew their own designs.
I was not permitted to go to church on Christmas Day, and spent lonely hours by myself, for even Miss Mather was never allowed to visit us. She now had lodgings in the town, and it was characteristic of the Empress that she did not forget my old friend at Christmas, but included her in the number of those to whom she sent personal greeting. She sent her a little picture of holly and mistletoe that she had painted, with a charming note, in which she called herself a "countrywoman's daughter" and included her Christmas wishes. To me the Empress sent a tiny Christmas tree and some table-cloths and pillows embroidered by herself and her daughters, to which the Emperor added a little vase with his cipher on it, which he happened to have. On Christmas morning we heard waits singing in the hall. Siberia kept scrupulously to the old customs which had begun to disappear in Russia. Troops of children went about in the streets headed by one of the church singers, carrying a large lantern shaped like a star fixed on a long pole. They sang quaint old chants, "glorifying the Lord Jesus," to old-time tunes. From house to house they went, and it appeared that their great desire was to sing before the Tsarevich, but this was not allowed.
In a letter I had from the Empress on New Year's Eve (old style) she spoke of her joy at still being in Russia and all together. During these long months of unceasing humiliation and hardships her wonderful courage never wavered. Her great faith had given her that serenity of spirit which made her the rock on which all her family leaned, and which was the admiration of all those who approached her. Neither she nor the Emperor ever complained. They bore everything with the most wonderful dignity and calm. My colleagues told me how acutely the Emperor was suffering. He realised the chaotic conditions into which the country was gradually drifting; the war was not won, and he felt that the sacrifice of his abdication had been in vain. The culminating blow to both the Emperor and Empress was the news of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. They were heart and soul with the Allies, and this was perhaps the event that grieved them most.
The long winter days wore on in endless monotony. They passed most easily for the young people, who had their usual daily routine of lessons. The Emperor and Empress had to create hourly occupations for themselves, in order to kill their thoughts. Prince Dolgoroukoff had been the Emperor's playfellow in his childhood, and his company and that of General Tatistcheff as well as that of the two tutors was a great resource. All these were intellectual men of wide interests, and all could talk on general subjects outside Russia and its politics. Tatistcheff had been a military attache for many years, and both the tutors were exceptionally good conversationalists. Reading was of course the chief solace for everyone, and when the books brought from Tsarskoe had been read, the local lending library was brought into requisition. This was by no means well stocked, and the books, from their appearance and often from their contents, might have belonged to the earliest settlers, but still they were better than nothing.
The house in which the Emperor lived was fairly large and not too uncomfortable, but was bitterly cold. The temperature outside was only a few degrees warmer than in the Polar Circle, and was only made bearable by the absolute stillness of the air. The Imperial Family were allowed to keep their own servants and cooks, but had to be very economical, as the small supply of money they had brought with them was dwindling. The Bolshevik Government had given the order that they were to be put on soldiers' rations, so they paid for their own fare, which was of the plainest. When their clothes wore out they could not be replaced, as the shops gradually sold all their reserves and no new stocks came in. If sometimes new material appeared on the market it was at a fancy price. As the winter went on the difficulties daily increased. The worst feature was the absence of any rehable news from the world outside. At first the Emperor received a few copies of The Times, but later the soldiers got suspicious, and their Soviet decreed that the paper should be translated into Russian and submitted to their censorship daily before being given to the Emperor. The Times! Naturally, the Emperor never saw it again. Sometimes at the beginning one or other of the tutors would get a foreign paper, but this did not last, nor did the Siberian papers reach us after January. These had not much news in them, but they were better than nothing, for when we had to fall back on the local paper we may be said to have been completely cut off from news. This was a parody of a newspaper printed on brown packing paper, and containing only a few telegrams, so much touched-up and distorted that even their sense was obscure, and only issued for the advertisements of sale and barter contained in it. Every month its only sheet dwindled, till, when it expired in the spring, it was about the size of a half-sheet of foolscap.
Though we got letters now and then, these had to be so carefully worded that they did not say much. All our correspondence, both the letters addressed to us and those we wrote, was censored officially by the Commandant and unofficially by the Soviet. Goodness knows how many letters never reached us. I had a proof of how carefully the soldiers read the missives addressed to us when a friend of mine sent some chocolate for the Tsarevich accompanied by a letter to me. It appeared that a little later my friend got a postcard, seemingly in my writing, asking her to send some more chocolate and telling her to do so quickly, as we were shortly to be moved away from Tobolsk. We knew nothing of this at the time. The postcard was signed with the name by which my friends all call me, but there was just a slight difference in my handwriting, which the lady in question attributed to my writing less carefully than usual. She immediately bought the chocolate, which was a great luxury, and sent it. None of us ever got it, as we had never received the first parcel, but the soldiers probably enjoyed it.
As I was not allowed to visit the Empress, Her Majesty opened the window of her room at a fixed hour daily and stood for a few minutes before it, wrapped in her coat. I did the same in the opposite house. Sometimes she would speak as if to someone in the room behind, and, the street being narrow, I heard the sound of her voice in the still air. Unfortunately, to my great disappointment, I was only able to catch a word here and there, and of course could not answer, as the sentries would have noticed this; but at least I saw her. The Empress had got woefully thin, her beautiful features were pinched, and her eyes had a strained look. She sent me a lock of her hair. I was shocked to see that it had turned quite grey. I saw the Emperor and his children daily from my window, which being on the first floor allowed me to overlook their whole little enclosure. They made paths and shovelled away the snow for exercise. The Emperor always stopped for a moment when he came out and glanced up to my window, slowly raising his hand to his cap. I could not make any recognition of his salute, for fear it should be thought a secret signal code, but he never failed in this gracious greeting.
During the whole of the first three weeks I spent at Tobolsk in the Korniloff house, only once did the soldiers condescend to depute one of themselves as the obligatory escort and take me for a walk. That day I went to the cathedral, which was high up on the hill. My guard proved to be a good-natured creature, who said he would walk two steps behind me, "for it would look better." We foiled up the steep hill, sliding and slipping on the ice. The soldier helped me in a most friendly manner: going up a few steps in front of me and steadying himself by his rifle, which he planted firmly in the ground, he lent a hand to pull me up. The cathedral was an uninteresting modern church, in which was the shrine of St. John, whose recent canonisation had given vent to much religious squabbling. My escort behaved quite reverently and stood at the door while I went in. I returned quite pleased, but when in a few days I asked to go out again the men refused. "It was too cold, too slippery, and besides they had other plans for their afternoon." This was their usual answer, and for this reason my colleagues preferred to take their outings mostly within the enclosure of the Governor's house, and except on very rare occasions did not insist on availing themselves of the permission to go about the town which had been stipulated for on their arrival.
My presence in the house seemed to be a continual eyesore to the soldiers. We constantly heard the sound of loud discussions issuing from the guardroom, which was just under Countess Hendrikoff's room. One day, at the end of January, Pankratoff came up to tell me that the soldiers, finding it wearisome to take me for walks, which they would have to do, as I could not spend the whole winter within four walls, had decided that it would be better for me to move to lodgings in the town and come without an escort to spend the day at the Korniloff house. I protested, but Pankratoff urged me to submit, holding out the hope that the order might be revoked in time. I had to agree, and after all, I thought, it came nearly to the same thing, and I should have the advantage of joining Miss Mather and of spending my evenings with her. This I did, and continued living a semi-prisoner's life, seeing no one and going nowhere except to the Korniloff house, for our gentlemen advised me to avoid making any acquaintances in the town. They were sure that a sharp watch would be kept over me and every word of mine would be commented on, and that the smallest thing might prove the cause of much unnecessary unpleasanthess.
A special thank you to firstname.lastname@example.org for scanning the text for this online edition.
Contact Bob Atchison for comments on this site.
Other books on Russian History from the Alexander Palace Association:
The Life and Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna by Sophie Buxhoeveden | Memories of the Russian Court by Anna Vyrubova | Thirteen Years at the Russian Court by Pierre Gilliard | Last Days at Tsarskoe Selo by Paul Beckendorff | St. Petersburg - Imperial City | Charles Cameron - Imperial Architect by Georges Loukomski | Tsarskoe Selo in 1910
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