Our various residences - St. Petersburg - The Moika, its servants and guests - A supper at The Bear restaurant.
0ur movements during the course of the year always followed the same invariable order: we spent the winter between St. Petersburg, Tsarskoe Selo and Moscow; in summer we were at Arkhangelskoye; the autumn found us at our Rakitnoe estate for the shooting, and toward the end of October we left for the Crimea.
We seldom went abroad, but my parents sometimes took my brother and myself on a tour of their various estates which were scattered all over Russia; some were so far away that we never went there at all. One of our estates in the Caucasus stretched for one hundred and twenty-five miles along the Caspian Sea; crude petroleum was so abundant that the soil seemed soaked with it, and the peasants used it to grease their cart wheels.
For these long trips, our private car was attached to the train; it was so comfortable that we were far better off in it while visiting our estates than we would have been in houses which had. often not been lived in for years. The coach was entered by a vestibule which in summer was turned into a sort of veranda containing an aviary; the songs of the birds drowned the train's monotonous rumble. The dining-drawing room-which would now be called a living room-was paneled in mahogany, the chairs were upholstered in green leather and the windows curtained in yellow silk, Next came my parents' bedroom, then my brother's and mine, both very cheerful with chintzes and light wood paneling, and then the bathroom. Several compartments reserved for friends followed our private apartments. Our staff of servants, always very numerous, occupied compartments next the kitchen at the far end of the coach. Another car fitted up in much the same way was stationed at the Russo-German frontier for our journeys abroad, but we never used it.
On all our journeys we were accompanied by a host of people without whom my father could not exist. My mother would have preferred rather less commotion, but she was always very nice to my father's friends. As for my brother and myself, we loathed them, for they deprived us of our mother's company. I must admit that they disliked us just as much as we disliked them.
St. Petersburg, called the "Venice of the North" because of its situation in the Neva estuary, was one of the finest capitals in Europe. It is difficult to imagine the beauty of the Neva River with its quays of pink granite and the splendid palaces that bordered it. The genius of Peter the Great and Catherine II was apparent everywhere, in the beautiful monuments, wide avenues and lovely buildings.
The railings of the garden in front of the Winter Palace were designed for the Empress Alexandra by a German architect. The palace, built at the beginning of the eighteenth century by the Empress Elisabeth, is the masterpiece of the famous architect Rastrelli. The railings are hideous, but no matter what was done to disfigure the Winter Palace, it always retained its majestic dignity.
St. Petersburg was not entirely Russian; a European influence was introduced by the empresses and grand duchesses who, for nearly two hundred years, were foreign princesses-most often German-and also by the presence of the diplomatic corps. With the exception of a few families that kept up the traditions of old Russia, most of the aristocracy who lived there were very cosmopolitan. They bad a snobbish infatuation for foreign countries, and loved to visit them . It was considered good form to have one's laundry done in London or Paris. Most of my mother's contemporaries affected to speak French only, and spoke Russian with a foreign accent. My brother and I found this most irritating, and always answered old ladies in Russian when they addressed us in French. We were considered ill-mannered and boorish, but we did not mind that as we preferred more bohemian circles where we had a far better time than in their strait-laced company. Here, as everywhere, civil servants were for the most part corrupt and unscrupulous, obsequious to their superiors, indifferent to everything but personal advantage, and totally lacking in patriotism. As to the "intelligentsia," they were a focus of disorder and anarchy, and a serious danger to the country. This group tried to spread dissension between the people on the one hand and the Government and the aristocracy on the other, by sowing seeds of envy and hatred. When the representatives of this group assumed power during the Kerensky period, they proved how incapable they were of governing.
The Imperial theaters of St. Petersburg and Moscow deserved their reputation for excellence. Until the middle of the eighteenth century the Russian theater, properly speaking, did not exist, for most of the actors were foreigners. The first national theater was created in 1756 during the reign of the Empress Elisabeth, at the instigation of her chief adviser, Prince Boris Yussupov. The Russian theater received fresh impetus when Catherine the Great entrusted the management of all the Imperial theaters to my greatgreat-grandfather. It can be said that the influence of Prince Nicholas is at the root of the development of the Russian stage, and the high level of its artistic quality has been maintained to this day in spite of tragic upheavals. Everything crumbled in Russia except the theater. Thanks to Diaghilev, who was the first to call the attention of Europe to the riches of Russian art, both Russian opera and the Russian ballet have acquired a world-wide reputation. Who does not recall the enthusiasm with which their first appearance was greeted at the Chatelet in Paris? Diaghilev bad been at pains to bring with him the most outstanding artists: Chaliapin, the unforgettable "Boris Godounov"; decorative artists such as Bakst and Alexander Benois; peerless dancers such as Nijinsky, Pavlova, Karsavina and many others. These artists were soon as celebrated abroad as in Russia, and several of them trained pupils who still keep up the tradition of the Imperial ballet. But our comedies, and Russian dramatic art in general, are less well known in foreign countries. Only in Russia could our great actors be heard in the national classic repertoire or in that inspired by folklore. Plays by Ostrovsky, Cbekov and Gorki were always great favorites; Nicholas and I never missed a good play, and we knew most of the performers personally.
Our house in St. Petersburg stood on the Moika Canal. Its exterior was chiefly remarkable for its fine proportions. A very handsome semicircular inner court with a colonnade led to the garden.
The house was a present from Catherine the Great to my greatgreat-grandmother, Princess Tatiana. It was a real museum, filled with works of art, a place one could visit again and again without ever tiring of its beauties. Only some of the drawing rooms, ballrooms and galleries had retained their eighteentbcentury appearance. The picture galleries led to a small Louis XV theater. In the foyer next to it, supper was served after the performance. Sometimes great receptions were held at which the guests numbered up to two thousand people. On these occasions supper was served in the galleries, and the foyer was reserved for the Imperial family. These receptions were always a source of amazement to foreign guests. They were astonished that hot suppers in Sevres services, or in gold and silver dishes, could be served to so great a number of guests in a private house.
Paul, our old butler, reserved for himself alone the privilege of waiting on the Tsar. As he was very old and a trifle blind, be often spilled wine on the tablecloth. He had retired from service when the last of the Moika receptions to be honored by the presence of our sovereign took place, and the event had been carefully concealed from him. The Tsar noticed Paul's absence, and smilingly remarked to my mother that on this occasion the tablecloth stood a chance of remaining clean. He had not finished speaking when the old man appeared like a ghost, his breast covered with decorations, to take a shaky stand behind the Tsar's armchair. He remained there, in his old place, throughout the meal. In order to avoid mishaps, Nicholas II carefully held the old man's arm when being helped to wine.
Paul was in our service for over sixty years. He knew all my parents' friends and acquaintances, and treated them according to his own personal likes and dislikes without regard to their rank or quality. A guest who was not in his good graces was sure to go short of wine or dessert. When General Kouropatkin, who commanded the ill-fated expedition to the Far East in 1905, was our guest, our old butler marked his contempt by turning his back on him, spitting on the floor and refusing to wait on him at table.
I can still see Gregory, our head porter, in his feathered cocked hat and carrying a halberd. He was less harsh with the unfortunate General. One day during the first World War, when we were entertaining the Dowager Empress, Gregory came up to her and said: "Does Your Majesty know why General Kouropatkin's name has been forgotten in the choice of the Army's commanding officers? If he bad been given a command he might have atoned for his mistake in Japan." The Empress repeated this to her son, and two weeks later we heard that General Kouropatkin had been given a division! Our servants were devoted to us and took their duties very much to heart. At a time when houses were still lighted by candles and lamps, a considerable staff was needed to attend to the lighting. The manservant who was in charge of the staff was so grieved when electric lighting was introduced that he drowned his sorrows in drink and died from its effects shortly after.
Our personnel was recruited from all parts of the world: Arabs, Tartars and Kalmucks brightened the house with their multicolored costumes. They were all under the direction of Gregory Boujinsky. This faithful servant showed the extent of his devotion when the Bolsheviks came to plunder our property. He died under the most atrocious torture without revealing to his tormentors the hiding places in which our jewels and most precious possessions were concealed. Although the fact that these hiding places were discovered a few years later made his sacrifice vain, its value is in no way impaired, and I wish to pay a tribute in these pages to the heroic fidelity of Gregory Boujinsky who remained staunch, and preferred a horrible death to betraying his master's secrets.
The basement of the Moika Palace was a labyrinth of rooms lined with sheets of steel, with a special device for flooding them in case of fire. These cellars contained not only innumerable bottles of the finest wines, but the plate and china used for big receptions, as well as a great many objets d'art for which no room had been found in the galleries and drawing rooms. There were enough of them to stock a museum, and I was shocked to see them lying in the dust, abandoned and forgotten.
My father's apartments, which looked out on the Moika Canal, were on the ground floor of the house. They were extremely ugly but crowded with objets d'art and valuable curios: paintings by great masters, miniatures, bronzes, porcelains, snuff boxes, etc.... I was not much of a connoisseur at that time, but had a passion for precious stones, which was probably hereditary. One of the showcases contained three little statues which I particularly liked: a Buddha cut from a lump of ruby matrix, a Venus carved out of a huge sapphire, and a bronze Negro holding a basket filled with precious stones.
Next to my father's study was a Moorish room looking onto the garden, entirely covered with mosaics, and copied exactly from an apartment in the Alhambra. In the center was a fountain surrounded by marble columns; along the walls were divans draped in Persian fabrics. I was very much taken with this room because of its voluptuous oriental atmosphere, and liked to sit and dream there. In my father's absence I would get up tableaux vivants, assemble all the oriental servants, and disguise myself as a sultan. Seated on a divan wearing my mother's jewels, I fancied myself a satrap surrounded by his slaves. One day I staged a scene to represent the punishment of a disobedient slave; Ali, one of our Arab servants, was the slave. He lay prone at my feet, pretending to beg for mercy, and, just as I raised a dagger to stab the culprit, the door opened and my father appeared. Quite indifferent to my histrionic talent, be flew into a violent rage: "Clear out, all of you!" There was a general scurry as Pasha and slaves jostled each other to escape from the room, and from that day on I was forbidden to set foot in that delectable place.
On the other side of my father's rooms, at the end of a suite of drawing rooms, was the music room where a collection of violins slept in deep peace, for no one ever practiced or played there.
My mother's rooms were on the first floor and looked out on the garden. This floor also included state chambers, drawing rooms, ballrooms and galleries at the end of which was the theater. My paternal grandmother and my brother and I lived on the second floor, which also contained a chapel.
The real center of the house was my mother's suite of rooms. It seemed as though they were filled with her radiant personality and pervaded by her grace and beauty. Her bedroom was hung with blue damask, the furniture was of inlaid rosewood; long Cabinets contained her jewels. On reception days, the doors were left open, and everyone could admire her magnificent jewelry. There was something mysterious about that room: a woman's voice would be heard calling each person in the house by name. The maids used to run in, thinking that their mistress needed them, and were seared to find the rooms empty. My brother and I heard the voice several times.
The furniture of the petit salon had belonged to Marie Antoinette; paintings by Boucher, Fragonard, Watteau, Hubert Robert and Greuze hung on the walls, the rock crystal chandelier had graced Mme. de Pompadour's boudoir, the most lovely knickknacks were scattered on the tables or displayed in cabinets: gold and enameled snuff boxes, ashtrays of amethyst, topaz and jade with gem-incrusted gold settings. My mother usually sat in this room, which was always filled with flowers. When she spent an evening at home and was alone, my brother and I dined with her. We had our meal on a round table lit by crystal candelabra. A fire burned brightly in the hearth, the rings on my mother's slender fingers sparkled in the fitful candlelight, and I still recall with a heartache these evenings of happy intimacy. That charming little salon, the exquisite background of an exquisite woman will remain forever in my memory; those were moments of perfect happiness. It would have been impossible then for us to foresee, or even to imagine, the misfortunes that were to overtake us.
As Christmas drew near, there was great activity at the Moika. Preparations lasted several days. Perched on ladders, all of us, including the servants, decorated the big tree, which reached to the ceiling. The glittering glass balls and "angels' hair" had a special fascination for our oriental servants. Excitement rose to a high pitch as tradesmen delivered the presents chosen for our guests On Christmas Day these friends, who were mostly children of our own age, arrived with empty suitcases which they took home filled with gifts. When the presents had been distributed, we all had chocolate and delicious cakes, after which the children went to the playroom where the great attraction was a miniature switchback railway.
We had a very good time, but the party usually ended in a fight; I was in the front line of battle, delighted to have the opportunity of soundly thrashing the playmates I disliked and who were smaller than I!
On the following day, another Christmas tree was prepared for our servants and their families. A month before this, the servants had made out a list of the presents each one wanted, and this list was given to my mother. Ali, the young Arab who bad played the part of the culprit slave in the memorable performance I gave in the Moorish room, once asked for a "shiny toy," which turned out to be the tiara of diamonds and pearls that my mother had worn one evening when she attended a ball at the Winter Palace. Ali bad been literally dazzled on seeing my mother-who usually wore very simple clothes-dressed for court, and blazing with jewelry. He probably mistook her for a goddess, for he fell on his knees before her and was with great difficulty induced to rise.
Easter was celebrated in great state. Our very intimate friends and most of our servants came with us to the Holy Week services, as well as to the Easter midnight Mass in our private chapel. Many guests joined us at the supper which followed this Mass. Like all good Orthodox Churchmen we were supposed to have fasted for seven weeks, so Easter night's supper was always a gargantuan feast with suckling pigs, geese, pheasants and torrents of cbampagnc-then Easter cakes adorned with paper roses and surrounded by a ring of colored eggs. Most of us were ill the next day as a result.
After supper we always went down to the servants' quarters with our parents. My mother was careful that the servants should always be well fed, and their fare differed very little from ours. We wished them a happy Easter and kissed each one three times, according to the old Russian custom. One of my father's whims consisted in continually changing dining rooms. Almost every day we dined in a different room, and this complicated the table service to an uncommon degree. Nicholas and I, who were often late, were sometimes obliged to run all over the house before discovering where dinner was being served.
My parents kept open house, and no one ever had the least idea how many guests would be present at meals. A number of those who invaded our house at mealtimes, sometimes bringing their children, were poverty-stricken people who were more or less supported by wealthier families, turn and turn about. Such persons were excusable, others less so. As, for instance, a very rich old lady who, although she owned a fine house, made it a practice to be a perpetual guest at other people's tables. She always arrived toward the end of the meal and exclaimed with incredible impudence on entering: "Now the wild beasts have finished, I shall be able to lunch in peace."
General Bernov, whom I have already mentioned, and Princess Galitzin, one of my mother's friends, hated each other cordially and never lost an opportunity of baiting each other at table or anywhere else. One evening when the General was in a particularly bad mood he refused to take Princess Vera home, as had been arranged. "Get along with you," he said to her; "you'll be just as stupid when you reach home as when you left here." She had rheumatism in her right thumb and was forever sucking it, hoping to lull the pain; I always refused to kiss her hand. Her celibacy was a source of continual regret to her: "I'm sorry I have remained an old maid," she would say to my mother; "now I shall never know how 'it' is done."
Each winter, my Aunt Lazarev stayed with us for several months in St. Petersburg. She was always accompanied by her children, Michael, Vladimir and Irene. Vladimir was about my age and I have already written about this companion and accomplice of my youthful escapades. The last of our practical jokes ended in our being separated for years.
We must have been twelve or thirteen when one evening during our parents' absence we suddenly thought of going out disguised as women. My mother's wardrobe supplied us with all we needed for this fine scheme. Once dressed, made up, adorned with jewelry and muffled in fur-lined velvet pelisses that were much too long for us, we slipped out by a secret staircase and sallied forth to wake up my mother's hairdresser. As we said we were going to a fancy-dress ball, he agreed to lend us wigs.
Thus attired, we prowled around the city. We soon attracted the attention of passers-by on the Nevsky Prospect, which was the hunting ground of all the St. Petersburg prostitutes. To get rid of the men who accosted us, we replied in French: "We are already engaged," and pursued our dignified way. We hoped to escape them for good and all by entering The Bear, a fashionable restaurant. Forgetting to leave our pelisses in the cloakroom, we took a table and ordered supper. It was atrociously hot in the restaurant, and we were stifled in our furs. Everyone stared at us with great curiosity; some officers sent us a note, inviting us to have supper with them in a private room. The champagne began to go to my head: removing a long string of pearls, I made it into a lasso and amused myself by aiming it at the heads of people seated at a neighboring table. Naturally, the string broke, and the pearls scattered all over the floor, to the joy of those present. Finding ourselves the cynosure of all eyes, we became uneasy and thought it would be prudent to slip away. We had found most of the pearls, and were on our way to the door when the headwaiter came with the bill. As we had not a penny, we were obliged to see the manager and confess. The good man proved most indulgent, was very much amused by our adventure, and even lent us the money to take a carriage home. On arriving at the Moika, we found every door closed; I called outside my faithful Ivan's window, and he was convulsed with laughter to see us in our ridiculous getup. But the next day things took a bad turn. The manager of The Bear sent my father the missing pearls and the supper bill.
Vladimir and I were confined to our rooms for ten days and strictly forbidden to leave them. A short time afterward, my aunt left, taking her children with her, and several years passed before I saw my cousin again.
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