Memories of Russia: 1916 - 1919 by Princess Paley

Chapter XXIV

Life in captivity

The Extraordinary Commission, the Tche-Ka, did not forget its threat to send us a Bolshevist doctor to verify the Grand Duke's illness. Some days after Vladimir's departure an army surgeon, getting on in years, small and pink and chubby-cheeked, came to see us. He saluted the Grand Duke in military style and asked permission to examine him, did so in a very cursory fashion and took a piece of paper and began to write. Then turning towards the Grand Duke, he read him his report in which he declared that "the citizen Paul Romanoff was too ill to undertake a journey of any kind." "You see, your Imperial Highness, the kind of Bolshevist doctor I am! These bandits, who have attached me to the Tche-Ka by force, under pain of being shot, imagine I shall lend my hand to their disgraceful deeds. Here is the report which I shall give them."

Thereupon, he put the paper in a pocket of his waistcoat, saluted the Grand Duke again in military style, turned on his heels and vanished.

We were relieved to have got over this visit so satisfactorily, but some days later a new surprise awaited us. The visit of another doctor from the Tche-Ka was announced. There was nothing for it but to submit and I went out to see what kind of person this new doctor might seem to me. I saw before me a handsome young man with regular features, large eyes, dull complexion, white teeth. He said to me:

"I beg of you not to be frightened over my visit. The Tche-Ka had no confidence in the report of the first doctor. They have sent me to verify and confirm his diagnosis or else reject it."

Then looking at me with his kind eyes he added: "Fear nothing, everything the best shall be done."

I led him in to see my husband, who asked him to sit down and began to question him regarding his career as an army surgeon, about the war, etc. While telling how he had served in 1916 in one of the regiments which were under the command of the Grand Duke, he went down suddenly on his knees before my husband and kissed his hand. Big tears,. which he did not try to keep back, coursed down his cheeks. Both my husband and I were much moved by this scene. There could be no doubt about . the man's sincerity. He was not one of the agents provocateurs whom everyone feared so much. He also drew up a report which was to the effect that in his opinion for any person so seriously ill as the citizen Paul Romanofi a removal would be a question of life or death, but knowing the suspicious attitude of the Tche-Ka, he said that Paul Romanoff ought to leave but would not reach his destination alive." This report produced its effect. He presented it at the right moment to the right person and from March until the end of July they left us in peace. We never again saw our doctor benefactor. If he be still living and should read these lines, I thank him heartily for the service he that day rendered to my poor husband.

Vladimir, after he had got to Viatka with his companions in misfortune, wrote to me at once and his letters were very regular. The princes were installed in a vast mansion requisitioned for the purpose. He had a big room which he shared with Princes Constantine and Igor, Princess John and her husband occupied another. The Grand Duke Serge Michailovitch was lodged elsewhere and they saw him but seldom. My son wrote that he had conceived the project of a drama in verse on the poet Lerm-ontoff, his life, his duel, and his death. By a chance, which the poor dear boy thought extraordinary, he had discovered in the house in which he was living an old and extremely rare edition of the poems of Lermontoff with a detailed biography of him.

"You see, mama darling," he. wrote me, "that my good luck has not abandoned me. Promise me therefore not to weep so much! "

Later, the Princess John, who escaped miraculously the terrible death which befell her husband, my son and other exiles, told me any number of things about my Vladimir. He was their great resource, he amused them and made them laugh till they cried with his drolleries, his mimicries, with all the exuberance and verve which were in his nature. Then suddenly he would become silent and leave them. They knew then that some new verse or a play or a satirical poem would result from this momentary separation. After a time, sure enough, he would return in triumph and would tell them his composition and be once again the charming creature whom they all adored. . . . Thus passed the end of March and half April and we lived from one of . Vladimir's letters to another.

One afternoon we ourselves committed the imprudence of accepting an invitation to a charity concert given in that same college for young girls at Tsarskoe where Vladimir had experienced his last triumphant success. When we entered the hall, almost the entire audience stood up and we went forward to seat ourselves in the front row, where places had been reserved for us. Later, when they arrested the Grand Duke, one of the complaints made against him was with regard to this so-called Monarchical demonstration at the concert.

It was also in April, 1918, that they took from us the two automobiles which were our sole distraction during this mournful period. The chauffeur, named Zvereff, who had been with us in the Crimea in 1916, and with the Grand Duke in the war, and who had served formerly with the Grand Duke Alexander and the Grand Duchess Xenia, had been growing daily more rude and insolent. One could no longer address the slightest remark to him. The cars were not properly looked after and he laughed at our complaints.

Some days before Easter he declared that he wouldn't come round until he had the time to do so, as he had to drive in our car Mme. Lounatcharsky, the wife of the People's Commisary of Fine Arts! It had indeed come to this, that we had to ask "Comrade Zvereff" whether he would be so kind as to take us for a drive. On the eve of Easter Sunday, which fell that year on April 2znd (old style), just as we intended going to YIidnight Mass in the church, he told us that he would serve no longer, that the automobiles had been requisitioned and that our garage, which was at the end of our garden, would serve as the automobile base for the needs of the Soviet. Thus disappeared the last of the three beautiful cars which we had brought from Paris.

I went very often into our palace, of which I continued to do the honours twice a week for the numerous visitors who came to see it. The rest of the time I was able to move about in it unwatched. Thus it came about that I was able to sell in small quantities and at fabulous prices some hundreds of bottles of wine which were on the first floor and which Gueorguenberguer had spared by oversight. It was necessary to provide food for the Grand Duke and the little daughters. Telepneff, who continued to pose as protector and friend, was destined one day to discover that there \vas still wine in the house. He sent Serge Korovine to tell Colonel Petrokow that they "would both be glad to have some bottles." It was the beginning of extortion. Korovine and Telepneff, less odious than the others, were nevertheless confirmed drunkards. We found, moreover, that Telepneff was just an extortionist, though with more agreeable methods than Gueorguenberguer. We had every week to deposit for him in a certain corner of the house, a dozen bottles of our best wines. Hoping always to gain time and wishing to have the protection of this influential personage, I acquiesced with the best grace in the world but all the same I began to be suspicious. After some time I realised by certain indications that if we wished our palace to remain intact I should have to pay for this security by other things over and above wine. Every week, therefore, I gave Comrade Telepneff 2,000 roubles, which had not yet sank to the ridiculous value at which thev now stand. That meant much more than 2,000 francs a week and it began to weigh heavily on our budget.

It was necessary also - and this by a thousand tricks and subterfuges - to procure flour and sugar, articles of consumption which were only to be found in the hands of Communist sailors and sometimes of the peasants in the country around. We were at the mercy of spies and were liable to being reported against at any moment. Good Pere Myron very often brought us flour and potatoes, carrying these burdens lightly OIl his back. He feared nobody, and when he was questioned as to what he carried and whither he was going he replied in those mysterious and ambiguous words of which the Russian staretzy have the secret.

The bread which was distributed by means of coupons was uneatable. It was a mixture of buckwheat, sand, plaster and straw, and it was out of the question for the Grand Duke to eat this bread. Therefore, I and my little daughters learnt how to make some white bread, which our dear papa in his indulgent way was nice enough to call "delicious."

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