Memories of Russia: 1916 - 1919 by Princess Paley

Chapter I

Last happy days, October 1916

Before coming to the melancholy and odious events of the years 1917, 1918 and 1919, I want to speak of a bright and happy moment, to tell of the indescribably glad memories which I cherish of our stay in the Crimea during the month of October, 1916. The war was then in full swing. The Grand Duke had been in command of the 1st Corps de la Garde since the previous June, and my beloved son, my Vladimir, after twenty months in the trenches, had just been appointed orderly officer in attendance on his father. Throughout the summer of 1916 these two, the two beings dearest to me in the whole world, had been running the greatest dangers day after day.

The Germans, who were au courant with everything, knew perfectly well the locality in which the Grand Duke was stationed, and exerted themselves desperately in the aiming of bombs at the house which sheltered him. Thus, to give an idea of their persistency, seventy bombs were discharged within the space of two hours upon the village of Sokoul where the Grand Duke and his staff had to spend several days in a refuge underground.

During this period I was at Tsarskoe-Selo with my little daughters, in the palace which we had had erected there and in which we settled down two months before the war, in May, 1914. A work-room, which was placed under the patronage of the Empress and of which I was the founder and President, had been set up in the ball-room, for which, alas! we had dreamt of other uses. . . .

In September, 1916, after two years of assiduous work and of efforts to obtain the necessary resources and materials, I was very much fatigued, and the Grand Duke's medical attendant, the faithful Obnissky, who looked after him with a devotion beyond all praise, held that a rest in a good climate would be good for me. There could be no question of my going abroad, so we decided in favour of the Crimea, which I had never seen and which I had often heard spoken of as a land to dream of.

I set out with my daughters and a somewhat numerous suite on October 1Oth/23rd, for Simeis, which is about forty miles distant from Sebastopol. The scenery along the route, from Baidar onwards, is certainly the most beautiful I have ever seen, with the one exception of the view of the Greek theatre at Taormina. That road from Sebastopol to Simeis recalls the Corniche road, but has even more windings. I t has on one side a sea of sapphire blue, while on the other it is overhung by rocks, all ready, so one feels, to crash down upon it. We had engaged at Simeis a floor in the house of a friend, and we installed ourselves there very comfortably, looking forward from day to day to the arrival of the Grand Duke and of niy son. The day when they arrived - so close to the days of misfortune and sorrow which were coming - seems to me the moment of my greatest happiness.

We spent three weeks in the Crimea, for ten days of which we had our dear war-heroes with us. The Grand Duke was accompanied by his faithful aide-de-camp and friend of twenty-one years' standing, General Efimovitch, and by Dr. Obnissky. We made long excursions by automobile. Yalta was usually the farthest point. we reached on these drives, as my daughter Nathalie was down with influenza (in spite of its being summer-time), and I was afraid to go too far away from Simeis.

A memory which proves that "telepathy" is no idle word dates from this visit. We had left behind us in Paris, in 1914, many friends whom we cherished and among them the Marquis de Breteuil. He had written to me several times during the war. In February, 1916, I had had a letter from him to which I had not had time to reply at once and which, I must admit, I no longer had in mind. In the Crimea, one evening when Nathalie was feeling worse and I was looking after her, I decided to write some letters to keep off the drowsiness which was coming over me. I experienced an over mastering sense that I must write to Henri de Breteuil. I wrote to him about a thousand matters, giving him particulars about the war, about the activities of the Grand Duke, about myself. . . . Three weeks later I received a black-edged letter. The Marquise de Breteuil wrote to tell me of the death of her husband, and added that my letter was dated the day and the hour of his death.

One morning I was walking in the park of Simeis, when, suddenly, a woman threw herself at my feet and clasped her arms round my knees. As soon as I had got over my first bewilderment, I drew her up and questioned her as to the reason of this proceeding. She had a lamentable tale to tell me. She belonged to a Jewish family and lived in Turkestan. Her brother, a doctor at Tashkend, had a young and beautiful wife whom he loved dearly, and a daughter of fourteen whom he adored. Kurds had broken into his house, bound and gagged the two young women and carried them away by force. Four months had passed without news of the prisoners, but the active inquiries made by the doctor had made him believe that the two were being kept with a view to selling them into a harem in Turkey. I said what I could to console the poor lady, promising to do all in my power. I wrote that same day to Tsarskoe Selo to the Empress, who replied to me by telegram three days later-on receipt, that is, of my letter-that she had given formal orders to General Kuropatkin, Governor-General of Kurdistan, with regard to the seeking out of the victims and the punishing of the guilty parties. Some days later Kuropatkin sent me a long telegram promising me that everything that was humanly possible should be done. The lady wrote me in December that the search had become active and that they were on the tracks of the two unfortunate women. She added that her family would never forget this kindness. Since the melancholy events I have had no news of her, and if I have mentioned this seemingly unimportant incident, it is to prove once again that the persecution of the Jews by order of the Government and of the Sovereigns was a pure legend. Whenever there was occasion to protect the weak the Empress never hesitated to intervene without regard for differences of religion or of race.

During our stay in the Crimea we several times visited the palace of Livadia, which the Emperor and Empress had had built in accordance with their own ideas. The view of the sea was superb and the park was planted with century-old trees, but the edifice was ugly. In the interior, amid decorations of a bastard Moorish description, one saw English furniture of the purest Maple and voluminous Louis XIV arm-chairs. An immense dining-room, a veritable refectory, was decorated with heavy and inartistic stucco work. A little Italian court-yard, which was paved in black and white and which led to the chapel, was the one thing which would have been attractive if it had not been out of place in this amalgam of styles, periods, and colours.

Not far from this modern palace stood the old house in which the Grand Duke had lived with his family and which was full of memories for him. It was there that the Emperor Alexander III died on October 20th/November 2nd, 1894. The Grand Duke and I and our three children made our way with intense emotion into the room in which this great monarch met his death. The utmost simplicity prevailed in it. The arm-chair in which Alexander III breathed his last remained where it had stood and a little black cross inlaid in the parquetted flooring served to perpetuate the memory. All was calm, great, noble, simple: the very image of the Sovereign who, had he lived on, would have known how to prevent the revolution and perhaps even the war. He was loved and feared in the interior of the country-loved by the French whose greatest friend and ally he had been and whom he had drawn out of their prolonged isolation. He was feared by all countries and even by England, a reflection which could not but be flattering for him and for the Russian diplomacy of his time.

Vladimir and the girls amused themselves taking photographs of this wonderful Taurida scenery, too little known, alas! by foreign visitors. The weather was superb, real summer days and mild nights. Nowhere have I seen a moon of such brilliant silver reflected in a sea of a blue so deep. The sound of the waves was like a caress. Often of an evening we left our sweet-scented, well-lit, comfortable rooms, in which bliss sat enthroned, to admire the enchanting spectacle of the Crimea night.

Meanwhile time was passing swiftly, and. it became necessary to tear ourselves away from these delicious surroundings. The Grand Duke. had to return to Headquarters, where he had been given the post of Inspector-General of the Guard, and we decided to stop and have a look at the town of Mohileff before returning to Tsarskoe; but the chief motive was to remain a few more days with my two beloved ones.
On the eve of the day fixed for our departure we received a telegram from Her Majesty the Empress Dowager, inviting us to make a halt at Kiev, which was on our way, and to lunch with her on November 14th/27th, the day of her anniversary. We were very well provided for in the railway compartment placed at the disposal of the Grand Duke, which was the very last word in comfort. On arriving at Kiev we decided not to leave the train to stay at the hotel. An automobile of the Court was sent to meet us, the Grand Duke and me. The Empress Dowager received us with that friendliness which is peculiar to her and that charm which she had transmitted to her august son: there was nobody with more charm of manner than Nicholas II. There were at least. eighty. persons. having lunch with the Empress that day. The Empress had the Grand Duke to her right and the Grand Duke Alexander Michaelovitch to her left. I was to the right of the latter. My neighbour invited us to lunch with him next day, "having," so he told me, "serious matters to discuss." At the same table sat Princess Georges Radziwill (Bichette), who had come from Bela-Tzerkow with some magnificent fruit and flowers, to wish une bonne fete to Her Majesty. Next day the Grand Duke and I and Vladimir availed ourselves of the invitation of the Grand Duke Alexander, who was stationed at Kiev as Chief of Aviation. He had quite a suite of persons attached to him and a General Staff (of which Prince Michel Muret was a member). The lunch was very gay; but afterwards the Grand Duke Alexander expressed the wish to be alone with my husband and me. He then spoke at length, with the eloquence of a man convinced, regarding the. immense danger which the Monarchy, and in consequence the whole of Russia, was running. He confided to us his grievances against the Emperor, above all against the Empress. Rasputin, who at that moment (a month before his death) was all-powerful, was in the eyes of the Grand Duke Alexander the initial cause of all the misfortunes. The Grand Duke Alexander told us of the reports which were current about the scandalous behaviour of the so-called monk, and of how General Djounkovsky for having wished, in full knowledge of what had been happening (Djounkovsky was head of the Gensdarmerie), to open the eyes of the Sovereigns, had fallen into disfavour. The appointment of Sturmer to replace Sazonoff, and under Rasputin's protection, was even more calculated to perturb people. The very name of Sturmer was odious, for he was of Germanic origin and national Chauvinism was just then at its height. The Grand Duke Paul, to whom the Grand Duke Alexander was saying nothing that he did not know already, listened very attentively, and asked him for what purpose he had entered upon this conversation. The Grand Duke Alexander replied that the whole family counted upon him (Paul) as being the Emperor's nearest and dearest relative and only surviving uncle."As soon as you get to Petrograd," he went on, "you should see their Majesties and speak to them' with all possible frankness and from your heart. My brother Nicholas Michaelovitch will talk with you about this as soon as you are back in town. You should call together a family council, with my brothers and the Vladimirovitchi (the three sons of the deceased Grand Duke Vladimir), for things will begin to happen suddenly very soon, and will drag us all down into the abyss."The Grand Duke and I were extremely disturbed by this conversation of which I have given but a scanty resume. Without admitting it to ourselves, we had indeed felt for a long time past that the danger was increasing every day. All the terrible indications were coming now to confirm our fears. The war had excited too many dissatisfied and unhappy people. There had been too many losses, too many broken hearts and stricken homes. The cost of living was increasing every day. In the army the best troops, the best organised, the most faithful to the Emperor, had been decimated in 1914 in Eastern Prussia, in 1915 in the Carpathians, and in 1916 in Volhynia. The new contingents were contaminated by the revolutionary ideas which were being now fomented by the Party of the Cadets (Constitutional Democrats). MM. Miliukoff, Kerensky, Gutchkoff, etc., lost no opportunity of sapping the foundations of the throne. Had not Gutchkoff said: "It is better that Russia should lose the war, provided the Monarchy shall have ceased to be . . ."? The supposed presence of Rasputin at Court provided them with an excellent opportunity. There were no horrors in the way of calumny that were not uttered at the expense of our unfortunate Empress. She refused to believe that such infamy was possible. In her eyes, and to the end, Rasputin was a saint, a martyr, calumniated, persecuted, as were the. saints in the earliest days of Christendom.

We left Kiev on November 16th/29th for Mohileff, where the Grand Duke, with his suite, reinstalled himself in a house which he had rented at the moment of his being appointed Chief of the Corps de la Garde. I and my little daughters remained in the railway compartment which we continued to use as a residence. We remained in it a week. The Empress and her children had come to pay a visit to the Emperor. We were sent word that on November 22nd (old style) the Emperor, the Empress, the four Grand Duchesses and the Tsarevitch would come and drink tea with us at four o'clock. Great excitement! Our excellent chef began at once to prepare all kinds of sandwiches and cakes and petits fours, in which he excelled, and I and Vladimir set to work to find nice out-of-the-way sweets and fruits. An enormous table was laid, for we were to be a numerous party. At the hour fixed, the whole Imperial family arrived. The Emperor was rather pale and seemed tired, the Empress looked beautiful and smiling, with a great deal of colour in her face. The Tsarevitch, with his refined and charming countenance, struck me by his look of fragility. The thinness of his neck distracted me. One could have taken it with two fingers. The four young Princesses, a little shy, placed themselves at one end of the table with the Grand Duke Dimitri, son of the Grand Duke Paul by his first marriage with the Princess Alexander of Greece. As hostess, I was at the other end of the table, the cups and samovar in front of me, with the Empress on my right and the Emperor on my left. The Grand Duke sat on the other side of the Empress. The afternoon passed gaily. The Empress wanted to know what I thought of the Livadia Palace, and I found myself torn two ways between the wish to be truthful and the fear of offending her. The Emperor came to my rescue and said with a laugh:

"The Princess has at Tsarskoe the most beautiful house in the world, a veritable museum. How can you ask her to say what she thinks of our house, in which we have put more or less anyhow the things we liked, and which has no kind of style at all? "

Meanwhile the young people had retired to the drawing-room, and Vladimir, the life and soul of the company as always, had set some round games on foot. There was no feeling of constraint, no awkwardness. We could hear them laughing and shouting, and the dear little Tsarevitch seemed to be amusing himself enormously. His parents had all the difficulty in the world to get him away towards seven o'clock.

I saw my beloved Sovereigns for the last time that day, for, later, I caught a sight of them only from a distance through the railings of the park in March, 1917, when they were prisoners of the abject Provisional Government.

Could I imagine on this happy occasion that I would have not only to suffer for the sacred person of the Emperor and for his family, and for the principle trodden under foot by wretches, but that two years later I would have my heart crushed by the most terrible of sorrows - the sorrow of the wife who loves and of the mother from whom her adored son is torn away to be subjected to a martyr's death?

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