The Crimea-Koreiz - My father's strange fantasies - Our Neighbors - AiTodor - My first meeting with Princess Irina - Kokoz - How I won the favor of the Emir of Boukhara.
Until the end of the eighteenth century the Crimea was an independent state ruled by a khan. The charming palace which belonged to its Tartar sovereigns can still be seen at Baktchisarai, its former capital. When it was conquered by Catherine the Great in 1783, the Crimea was annexed to Russia and the khan was dethroned and replaced by a governor.
The country is enchanting, not unlike the Riviera but wilder. High, rocky mountains follow the coast, pine forests run down the slopes to the shores of the Black Sea, which is as capricious as a woman: sparkling gaily in fair weather, dark and fearsome when a storm sweeps over it. The climate is mild and the countryside a riot of flowers, mostly roses.
The Tartar population was lively, friendly and picturesque. The women wore full Turkish trousers, a tight-fitting jacket of some bright shade, and a small embroidered cap to which a veil was attached. But only married women veiled their faces. Girls dressed their hair in a multitude of tiny plaits and all women, married or single, dyed their fingernails and hair with henna. Men wore an astrakhan cap, colored shirt and baggy trousers which narrowed at the ankles. The Tartars were Moslems; above their flat-roofed, whitewashed houses towered the minarets of mosques from which the voice of a muezzin could be beard calling the faithful to prayer, night and morning.
The Crimea was the Imperial family's favorite holiday resort, and also that of a large portion of the Russian aristocracy. Most of the estates were grouped along the southern coast, between the ports of Sebastopol and Yalta. As they lay close together, neighborly relations were friendly and social gatherings frequent. We owned several estates in the Crimea. The two most important ones were Koreiz, on the Black Sea, and Kokoz in the heart of a valley surrounded by high mountains. We also had a house on the Bay of Balaklava, but we never lived in it.
Koreiz was a rather ugly gray stone house which would have looked better in a town than at the seaside. However, it was friendly and comfortable. Pavilions reserved for guests were scattered throughout the park. The air was filled with the fragrance of thousands of La France roses, whose delicious scent also invaded the house. The gardens and vineyards stretched terrace upon terrace down to the seashore.
My father had inherited Koreiz from his mother, and carried out his own ideas both in his management of the estate and in the alterations he made. For a time, he had been an ardent enthusiast of sculpture and bought an inconceivable number of statues. The park was overcrowded with them; nymphs, naiads and goddesses peeped out of every shrub and thicket; it was most Olympian-looking. On the seashore he built a pavilion and a swimming pool where the water was kept at a medium temperature so that one could bathe at all seasons. Bronze groups representing scenes from Tartar legends stood on the shore, and a Minerva on the jetty recalled the Statue of Liberty brandishing her torch. There was even a water nymph on a rock; each time this statue was swept into the sea by a storm, it was immediately replaced.
My father's fancies sometimes took the most extravagant forms. I can still remember my mother's astonishment when be made her a birthday present of Ai-Petri, a mountain which towers above the southern coast of Crimea. It is a bare rocky peak, the highest on the peninsula, without a tree, or a shrub.
Each autumn, he organized a sort of fair called The Sheep Fair. Everyone was invited to it, from the members of the Imperial family down to the population of the neighboring villages. Herds of sheep and goats arrived from the Kokoz Mountains; a blue ribbon was tied around the neck of each sheep and a pink one around that of every goat. Everyone could eat and drink as much as he pleased, and there was the added attraction of a free lottery. People wandered among the sheep and goats and the display of food, wondering what it was all about, and vaguely expecting some surprise. But nothing happened and everyone went home without the least idea of what they had come for. However, to avoid hurting my father's feelings, they faithfully came back the next year.
The buyers of our wines got the fruit from our orchards as a bonus, but the trees bad been so skillfully grafted that it bad become impossible to recognize the species of these hybrid products, as their taste no longer corresponded to their appearance!
My father loved the open air. He was fond of planning long excursions on horseback in the mountains. These sometimes lasted a whole day. He led the party and quietly went his own way without listening to the guides or paying any attention to his companions. His taste for fishing had an unexpected repercussion on my education. He went out at dawn one day and returned with a strange little man. He said to me: "This is your new tutor." He had found him standing on a rock, rod in hand, and had immediately invited him to fish from his boat and then brought him home to lunch.
My new tutor was a dirty, evil-smelling dwarf. The whole week through, he wore the same white shirt trimmed with scarlet tassels; on Sunday mornings he put on a dinner jacket, a colored cravat and yellow shoes. My mother was horrified and protested vehemently, but my father was so delighted with his latest discovery that he refused to listen to her. As for me, I loathed the man from the moment I set eyes on him, and made his life such a burden that he soon gave notice.
My father then decided that I should have a spartan training. He began by removing from my room all the furniture that I had chosen with such loving care and replaced it with a camp bed and a stool. I watched the removal in a state of suppressed rebellion. Apprehension was added to my fury when I saw the servants bring in a suspicious-looking cupboard which they deposited in the middle of the room. I tried to open it but in vain, which made me still more apprehensive.
Next day my father's valet, who had apparently been given the role of chief torturer, pulled me out of bed, seized me in his muscular arms and locked me into the cupboard. I was immediately drenched in a shower of icy water. As I never could stand cold water, my feelings can be easily imagined. In spite of my screams and all my efforts to get out, the door of the cupboard remained closed till the supply of water came to an end. The shock I got was so great that when the cupboard was finally opened I fled naked through the passages like a madman, rushed out of the house and, without stopping to take breath, climbed to the top of a tree. My yells roused the whole house. My parents ran out and ordered me to come down, which I only consented to do when they promised me faithfully that there would be no further cold showers, I even threatened to throw myself from my perch if they did not promise. My father had to give in, but I caught a severe cold and was ill for weeks.
Our departure for the Crimea was always a Red-letter day for Nicholas and me and we eagerly looked forward to the moment when our private coach would be coupled to the Nord-Sud Express.
We left the train at Simferopol where we spent a few days with Aunt and Uncle Lazarev. My uncle was Governor of the Crimea. Everyone loved him because of his even temper and his great kindliness; his wife was no less popular, We adored our charming, gay aunt; she had a very pretty voice and was always ready to sing for us and get up amateur theatricals.
We went with the Lazarevs to Simferopol when my uncle took up his appointment. All the notables had gathered at the station to meet their new governor, My uncle looked very dignified in full uniform but, as be passed from one coach to the other in order to alight from the train, he slipped between the two cars and fell astride one of the buffers, and it was in this unconventional position that be took over his new duties.
From Simferopol we continued our journey in a big landau which held the whole family. Other carriages with the servants and our luggage followed in the rear. Our staff, although numerous, was small compared with that of some Russian families when they traveled. Count Alexander Cheremeteff not only took all his servants and their families with him, but also his musicians, and even a few cows from his farms to be sure of having fresh milk during the journey.
Nicholas and I loved these expeditions. Everything amused us: the change of horses which took place twice on the way, the choice of a suitable spot for lunch, the meals eaten in tents. Above all, we were happy to be alone with our parents, for this happened all too seldom.
During one period, a surprise always awaited us on reaching Koreiz, which we owed to the overseer's fertile imagination. For ,instance, he once had the strange idea of inscribing in black ink on each object in the house what he considered to be its value; -many of our things were irreparably damaged. Another time, he had the whole house painted red with white lines imitating bricks. My father's beloved statues had not been spared: they were painted flesh-color to give them a life-like appearance. This was the last time the overseer was able to exercise his imagination .at the expense of our possessions, for my father dismissed him.
It took a whole year to scrape the paint off the house and the statues.
Among our retainers at Koreiz was a poor halfwit, a strapping great fellow of Tartar origin called Missioud. He was colossally tall and afflicted with a large goiter, This innocent giant adored his master and followed him like a shadow. My father was bored to death by his slavelike devotion but did not want to hurt his feelings, so invented an occupation for him: dressed as the keeper of the seraglio, in a black caftan embroidered in gold, equipped with a gun and hunting born, his job was to guard a fountain in front of the house. Each time a visitor arrived, Missioud would sound his horn, fire off his gun and shout "Hurrah!" Sometimes, however, he got flustered and did his act at the departure, instead of at the arrival, of guests, which was not so well received.
We were in St. Petersburg when my father received a telegram from the Crimea which read: "Missioud informs His Highness that he is dead." Poor Missioud, on falling seriously ill, had composed the telegram himself, asking that it be sent off after his death.
Koreiz was truly a Promised Land for our friends; they could come there with their entire family and servants and live exactly as they liked. And life was charming in that country full of fruit and flowers, among a friendly, kindly population.
My brother and I always looked forward eagerly to the arrival of our cousins. We used to go bathing with them, and took baskets of fruit to eat on the beach. We went for long rides on our tireless little Tartar ponies, and when in Yalta we never failed to pay a visit to Florin, the French pastry shop where the cakes were delicious.
On the day after our arrival at Koreiz, an endless procession of neighbors would call on us. Field Marshal Miliutin, who was over eighty, walked the five miles between his estate and ours. Baroness Pilar was a friend of my grandmother or, more precisely, was her devoted slave. Small and fat, her face covered with hairy warts, she managed to be pleasant and amusing in spite of her incredible ugliness. She lent herself to all my grandmother's whims, and the latter entrusted her with her silkworms and made her collect snails.
Prince Galitzin's leonine appearance-he was a giant with a tousled mane of hair-justified his Christian name, Leo. Always half tipsy, he never missed a chance of creating a scandal and, not content with drinking himself, tried to intoxicate all his friends with the wine from his vineyards. He always brought a number of cases of wine and champagne with him. No sooner had his baroucbe entered the courtyard than he would start to bellow in his stentorian voice: "The guests have arrived!" Alighting from his carriage, he immediately began juggling with bottles of wine and would break into a drinking song:
Drink to the dregs, Drink to the dregs.
I would rush out to meet him, hoping to get a first taste of his excellent wines, but before so much as greeting anyone he ordered the servants to unload and open the cases. Then he invited the whole household, masters and servants, to join him in a wild carouse till most of them were completely drunk. On one occasion he so pestered my grandmother, who was then over seventy, that she threw the contents of her glass in his face. He pounced on her and carried her off in a wild dance, with the result that the poor old lady had to take to her bed for several days.
My mother dreaded Prince Galitzin's visits. She once locked herself in her rooms for twenty-four hours on account of this madman's frantic outbursts which no one could control. When all the servants were intoxicated, he would totter to a sofa and fall asleep for the night. It was the most difficult thing in the world to get rid of him next day.
Count Serge Orlov Davidoff lived alone at Selame, his estate on the sea. He was feeble-minded, and physically was a monster with tousled hair, gaping nostrils and a lower lip drooping to the chin. Always a fop, he sported an eyeglass and white gaiters, and scented himself with chypre, which did not prevent him smelling like a goat. He was very goodnatured and even rather likable and his favorite pastime was playing with matches. A generous supply of these was always placed near him, and he spent hours lighting them and blowing them out; after which he would go away without having said a single word. One of the happiest days of his life was when I brought him a box of matches a yard long which I had found in a shop on the boulevards in Paris.
His ugliness and feeble-mindedness did not prevent his taking an interest in women. He once caused a scandal during a religious ceremony celebrated at the Winter Palace in the presence of the Imperial family. According to etiquette, the ladies were in court dress; Count Orlov put on his eyeglass and inspected their decolletages with such loud chuckles that he was asked to leave the church. Gossip credited him with several love affairs; be that as it may, he was certainly very sentimental and touchingly faithful. He never forgot my mother's birthday, and whether she happened to be at Koreiz or not would always bring her a huge bouquet of roses.
One of our near neighbors, Countess Kleinmichel, owned a considerable library, mostly composed of works on Freemasonry. One day a parchment document in Hebrew was discovered there and sent to St. Petersburg to be translated into Russian. This translation was published in the form of a pamphlet entitled The Protocols of Zion; most of the copies disappeared mysteriously the day they were published. They were probably destroyed, but in any case it is a fact that during the Bolshevik Revolution anybody found with this pamphlet in his possession was shot on the spot. A copy found its way to England, and is now in the British Museum; it was translated into English under the title of The Jewish Peril and into French under that of Les Protocoles de Sion.
Countess Panine was a highly intelligent woman with very advanced opinions. She lived in a sort of feudal castle where she received politicians, artists and writers. It was at her house that I met Leo Tolstoi, Chekov and also a charming couple: the wellknown singer Yan-Rouban and her husband, Pohl, a talented composer and painter. Madame Yan-Rouban gave me singing lessons and often came to our house. I don't know when I have met a singer with more flawless elocution, or one who rendered Schumann, Schubert and Brahms more sensitively.
Among the estates that lay near Sebastopol, one of the finest was Aloupka, belonging to the Vorontzov family. Walls and statues were smothered in wisteria, and beautiful fountains graced the park. Unfortunately, the interior of the house was in a state of sad neglect, for its owners came there very rarely. It was rumored that a huge serpent lived in the ivy which covered the wall that surrounded the estate, and that this animal was sometimes seen to glide to the shore and disappear into the sea. This legend terrified me as a child, and I could never be induced to go walking in the neighborhood.
All these estates were situated on the coast of the Black Sea, not far from the little port of Yalta which was made so famous by the "Big Three" Conference in 1945. Yalta was a center for excursions, and was the home port of the Imperial Yacht Standart.
All the estates belonging to the Imperial family lay by the seaside. The Tsar himself lived in Livadia, a modern palace in the Italian style with large bright rooms, which was built in place of the former dark, damp comfortless building. The Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovitcb's estate, Ai-Todor, was near ours, and the memories it evokes are particularly dear. The old house was smothered in flowers, its walls were covered with roses and wisteria; everything about the place was infinitely pleasing, but most delightful of all was the lady of the house, the Grand Duchess Ksenia Alexandrovna. Her chief attraction lay not in her beauty but in the rare, delicate charm which she had inherited from her mother, the Empress Marie Feodorovna. Her wonderful gray eyes seemed to penetrate one's innermost soul, and everyone who came near her fell a slave to her grace, modesty and kindness of heart. From early childhood I looked forward to her visits and, when she left, I would wander about the rooms, rapturously sniffing a delicious odor of lilies of the valley which still lingered in the air.
The Grand Duke Alexander was "tall, dark and handsome," with a strong personality. His marriage to the Grand Duchess Ksenia, the Tsar's eldest sister, was a departure from the timehonored tradition by which members of the Imperial family married foreigners. He entered the Naval College of his own free will and remained strongly attached to the sea all his life. He was convinced that Russia needed a powerful navy, and succeeded in convincing the Tsar of this, but he ran up against the opposition of high naval authorities, the very ones who were responsible for the disastrous war with Japan. The Grand Duke took an active part in the development of the merchant marine, and it was at his instigation that a special Ministry of the Merchant Marine was created of which he remained in charge until the Tsar signed the proclamation convening the first Duma. When he resigned, however, he accepted the command of the Baltic destroyer flotillas, delighted to find himself at sea again. He was cruising in Finnish waters when he received a telegram calling him to Gatchina, where the Grand Duchess and her children were staying; his son Theodore was dangerously ill with scarlet fever. Three days later he learned from his manservant, who had remained on board the flagship, that the crew was about to mutiny and awaited his return to hold him as a hostage. Overcome with grief, he heard the verdict of his brother-in-law, the Emperor: "The Government cannot risk leaving a member of the Imperial family in the hands of the revolutionaries." Sick at heart, the Grand Duke made the delicate health of his children an excuse for going abroad.
He rented a villa at Biarritz and spent some months there with his family, and returned there regularly several years running. He was at Biarritz when Bleriot flew the Channel.
The Grand Duke had been one of the first to take a keen interest in aviation. He immediately realized the significance of Bleriot's exploit, and decided to do all he could to get Russia equipped with an air force. He made contact with Bleriot and Voisin, and returned to Russia with his plans all complete. He was received with sarcastic smiles.
"If I understand Your Imperial Highness rightly," said General Sukhomlinov, Minister of War, "you propose to introduce Bleriot's toys into the Army? May I ask whether our officers must leave the Army to go soaring over the Straits of Dover or whether the fantasia will take place in St. Petersburg?"
The fantasia took place in St. Petersburg, for the city had its first aviation week in the spring of 1910 General Sukhomlinov judged it "prodigiously diverting but without the least interest for national defense." Nevertheless, three months later, the Grand Duke laid the first stone of the Aviation School which supplied most of our pilots and observers in 1914
In his early youth the Grand Duke began to collect books for a naval library; on the eve of the Revolution, this library comprised more than 2o,ooo volumes. These priceless works were destroyed during the Revolution by a fire which broke out in the Grand Duke's palace, then used as a club for young Communists.
One day when I was out riding, I met a very beautiful girl accompanied by an elderly lady. Our eyes met and she made such an impression on me that I reined in my horse to gaze at her as she walked on. Every day I went riding on the same road, at the same hour, hoping to meet the lovely stranger again. I waited in vain and then wended my sad way home. But one afternoon the Grand Duke and the Grand Duchess Alexander called on us accompanied by their daughter, the Princess Irina. To my surprise and delight I recognized the girl I had met on my ride. This time I had plenty of time to admire the wondrous beauty of the girl who was eventually to become my wife and lifelong companion. She bad beautiful features, clear-cut as a cameo, and looked very like her father.
A little later I made the acquaintance of her brothers, the Princes Andrew, Theodore, Nikita, Dmitri, Rostislav and Basil.* None of them looked at all alike, but they had all inherited their mother's charm.
NOTE: * To reduce the expenses of the Civil List, Alexander III had issued a decree by which only children of the Tsar and his grandchildren in the male line would have the right to the title of Grand Duke or Grand Duchess. All other members of the Imperial family were to bear the title of Prince and Princess of Russia.
Our estate of Kokoz, which in Tartar means "blue eye," lay in the heart of a valley, near a small Tartar village of white, flatroofed houses. It was a corner of fairyland, especially in the spring when the apple and cherry trees were in bloom. As the old house was falling to pieces, my mother bad a new one built in the style of the country. From the small hunting lodge which had first been planned, it soon developed into a large and beautiful house reminiscent of the Khan Palace at Baktchisarai. It was white, with a roof of old glazed tiles which time had turned to soft shades of green. An orchard surrounded the house, a little stream ran by the gate; one could fish trout from a balcony. Inside, the furniture painted red, blue and bright green bad been copied from old Tartar furniture. Oriental fabrics covered the divans and walls. The light in the large dining room filtered through Persian stained-glass windows built just below the ceiling. At night, lights placed outside the windows gave out a soft and delicate glow which blended exquisitely with that of the candles on the table. From a marble fountain on one of the walls, water ran drop by drop, with a cool and plaintive murmur, into a number of small shallow basins. The fountain was an exact copy of one in the Khan Palace. According to the legend, a young and beautiful European girl had been abducted by the Khan and held prisoner in his harem. The damsel wept so continuously that her tears became a gushing spring known as The Fountain of Tears.
The "blue eye" was everywhere in evidence: in the stained glass of the windows, upon the fountain in the cypress grove, in the oriental pattern of the dinner service.
I often brought friends to Kokoz, which was only about thirty miles from Koreiz. Oriental robes were at the guests' disposal and everyone was costumed for dinner. King Manuel of Portugal once came to spend the day, and was so enchanted by Kokoz that he said he would like to stay forever. We often entertained the Tsar and Tsarina there, and they too had a great affection for the place.
The surrounding mountains were covered with forests and were full of elk. We used to go for long walks, and would stop and lunch in one of the numerous hunting lodges we had built on the estate. One of these lodges, called "The Eagles' Nest," stood on the edge of a cliff; we used to throw stones and put the eagles to flight and watch them as they wheeled majestically over our heads.
My father once invited the Emir of Bokhara and his suite for a day's shooting. After a very gay picnic lunch served in The Eagles' Nest, the butler handed round a tray of cigarettes with the coffee and liqueurs. With the Emir's permission everybody lit one. Then hell broke loose in the form of a magnificent display of fireworks, which caused such a panic among the guests that they rushed outside, thinking that an attempt had been made upon their lives! I was in fits of laughter at the success of the fake cigarettes I had bought in Paris. My laughter gave me away, and I was severely reprimanded by my father. A few days later, however, to everyone's astonishment, the Emir returned and pinned a diamond and ruby star on my breast. It was one of his country's most exalted decorations. He also asked to be photographed with me. He alone had appreciated the joke!
For questions or comments about this online book contact Bob Atchison.