HIS FATHER AND MOTHER
ALEXANDER III, son of Emperor Alexander II and of the Empress Marie Alexandrovna,
Princess of Hesse-Darmstadt, was educated at home, as was the custom in his day,
and did not attend any school. He had had one idea instilled into him above all
others-that of the omnipotence of the Tsars of Russia, and of the consequent necessity
of maintaining the prestige of the Imperial authority. On this latter point the
tradition inherited from his august father and his grandfather Nicholas I was
maintained in its full grandeur and integrity. The doctrine was continually impressed
on the future Emperor that the Russian Tsars are the masters whom God has willed
to bestow on Holy Russia in her boundless immensity. The Tsar was his Country's
guardian and a symbol of the national unity: he must stand forth as the last rampart
of paternal benevolence and chivalrous justice.
Alexander's mother had taught him to hold in high honour the ideas of marriage
and the family. She had, of course, been equally concerned that on its social
side her son's education should produce a docile submission to all the rigours
of etiquette and ceremonial.
In his personal sympathies he came much nearer to his grandfather, Nicholas
I, than to the liberal spirit of his father, Alexander II. He considered that
the evolution of the Russian people had to be slow and gradual-that too rapid
a development of its political institutions would foster the subconscious tendencies
towards anarchy that have always characterized the Slav race. He feared that precipitate
reforms would be followed by disorders and would prejudice the true interests
of the country.
It is well known what masterly expression Prince Troubetzkoy, a sculptor of
exceptional talent, who had been charged with the erection in St. Petersburg of
the equestrian statue of the great Tsar, gave to these conservative ideas of Alexander
III. With an iron hand Nicholas II's father grips the tautened rein of his massive
and almost clumsy palfrey. Every time I passed this marvellous statue in the Znamenskaya
Square I used to say to myself, old cavalry general that I am:
'Slacken the rein! A horse is not to be mastered by forcing him to mark time!'
The second element in the character of Alexander III on which it is necessary
to say a few words was his passion for everything that was characteristically
Russian. Emperor William I and certain petty German princes had exercised far
too much influence at the Court of Alexander II, and the reaction in the soul
of Alexander III was correspondingly violent. He grew to detest everything that
was German. He tried to be Russian down to the smallest details of his personal
life, and that was why his bearing seemed less aristocratic than that of his brothers:
he claimed, perhaps without reasoning it out, that a true Russian should not be
too highly polished in his manners, that he should have a touch of something like
brutality. He yielded to the exigencies of Court etiquette, but as soon as he
came into a more restricted circle of friends he threw off every artificial form:
he regarded ceremony as necessary only to German princelings with no other means
of sustaining their 'dying' prestige and defending their claim to existence.
Alexander's consort, the Danish princess, mother of Nicholas II, had been
brought up in one of the most patriarchal courts in Europe; and she instilled
into her son an unquestioning reverence for the principle of the family; she also
transmitted to him a great deal of the personal charm which had made her so popular
in Russia. All the Princess Dagmar's children were smaller in stature than their
uncles and aunts. The majesty of bearing that distinguished the earlier generation
did not descend to the last of the Romanovs. That was why Count Freedericksz,
the Minister of the Imperial Court, never tired of advising Nicholas II to ride
on horseback when he had to appear in public. I remember the Emperor saying once,
with a laugh:
'The Count loves caracoling in front of a crowd; I'm sure that is why he insists
that I should not go in a carriage.'
In spite of his short stature the Tsar was an accomplished horseman; his bearing
on horseback was very imposing.
Two of my friends, General Vassilkovsky, A.D.C., and Mr. Heath, the English
teacher of the heir to the throne, have given me some details of the education
of the children of Alexander III. According to them, the Emperor's children were
not well disciplined. One might fairly say that their manners were much like those
of the children of petty provincial nobles. Even when dining with their parents,
they did not deny themselves the amusement of throwing pellets of bread at one
another, if they knew that they would not be caught. They all had good health
and spent a great deal of time at sports, with the exception of George Alexandrovitch,
the second son, who had a weak chest and died in the flower of his youth.
Special attention was given to their language studies, and the tutors devoted
a great deal of care to correcting their pronunciation of foreign words. For the
rest, the children all had an excellent memory, especially for names and faces.
His good memory enabled Nicholas Alexandrovitch to gain a wide knowledge of history.
At the time when I first met him he was certainly a welleducated man. His parents
had taken no particular trouble over the education of his brothers and sisters.
The future Emperor's tutor was named Danilovitch, and had been given the title
of General A.D.C. My friend Vassilkovsky never called him by any other name than
'that old dotard of a Jesuit'. Danilovitch started his career as head of a military
school, and it was there that he was endowed with that sobriquet. He was in general
charge of the education of Nicholas II, and trained him to adopt an impenetrable
reserve, which was an essential trait of his own character. Alexander III was
ruthless even with his children, and loathed everything that savoured of 'weakness'.
The children and even the Empress herself were often obliged to conceal from him
not only mistakes of their own but those of persons in their entourage. Thus a
spirit of dissimulation and restraint was engendered in this family; and it did
not disappear after the father's death. Many a time have I heard Nicholas Alexandrovitch
speak in severe terms of people who had failed to keep their promise not to divulge
When he became Tsar, Nicholas II made it a fixed rule that he was in no way
bound by his position as monarch to do anything that he did not want to do. In.
this his natural timidity played a part. He hated to have to investigate anything,
to complain of anything, to 'stand up' to anybody. Following out his fixed rule,
he never worried and never grew heated, even in situations in which an outburst
of temper would have been only too natural. If he found anybody seriously in the
wrong, he brought the matter to the notice of the offender's immediate superior;
he commented on it in the gentlest of terms; and never in any case did he show
the slightest sign of disapproval to the actual offender.
The teaching of the 'Jesuit' Danilovitch had borne its fruits.
I can bear witness that the Tsar was not only courteous, but thoughtful and
affable towards all around him. His attitude was always the same, whether he was
with a Minister or a menial; he treated all men with respect, whatever their age
or position or social status.
He could part with the greatest ease even from those who had served him for
a very long time. The first word of accusation breathed in his presence against
anybody, with or without evidence, was enough for him to dismiss the victim, though
the charge might have been a pure fabrication. He did so without the slightest
regret, and without attempting to establish the facts; that, in his view, was
the business of the victim's superiors or, if necessary, of the courts. Still
less would it occur to him to defend anybody, or to examine the motives of the
calumniator. He was distrustful, like all weak persons.
Was he a good man?
It is very difficult to penetrate the depths of another's soul, especially
when that other is an Emperor of Russia. When he visited the military hospitals
during the war he showed a touching concern for the fate of the wounded. In the
cemeteries, before the thousands of crosses erected on 'fraternal' (collective)
graves, he prayed with a fervour that could not have been feigned.
The Emperor's heart was full of love, but it was a collective love', if the
phrase may be permitted; so that his feelings were very different from those which
plain men sum up in the single word 'love'.
He had a sincere and intense love for the Empress and his children; I shall
return to this later.
Did he love his more distant relations? I doubt it. Freedericksz was personally
responsible for dealing with all requests, big and little, submitted by members
of the Imperial family. The Tsar rarely refused one. Yet the Count told me many
times over that the Tsar bestowed honours or money or property without the slightest
sign of any satisfaction in the act. It was simply a part of his duties as sovereign.
It was a nuisance, and sometimes contrary to the interests of the State; but it
'had to be done'. It was out of the question to offend an uncle or a nephew. Once
the grant of the favour had been authorized, it would be some little time, the
Tsar hoped, before the beneficiary came back with some fresh importunity.
He had more regard for his two sisters and his brother Michael. He felt a
real tenderness towards his nephew Dimitri Pavlovitch, who had grown up under
his eyes and whose youth appealed to him. As for the rest, he knew how to show
just as much feeling as the proprieties demanded, just as much as was required
in the due performance of his duties as Tsar, as much as would stave off any unpleasantness.
INSINCERE OR TIMID?
He has been charged with insincerity. Instances are quoted of Ministers who
imagined that they enjoyed his entire confidence being called on, with staggering
suddenness, to resign. That is not quite just to him.
These Ministerial dismissals were peculiar events; but whatever the explanation
of the Tsar's actions, it must not be sought in any lack of straightforwardness.
In the Tsar's eyes his Ministers were officials like any others in the service
of the Empire. He 'loved' his Ministers in exactly the same way as he loved each
one of the 150 millions of his subjects. If a Minister came to grief the Tsar
regretted it, as every man of feeling would regret another man's misfortune. But
Count Freedericksz was the only one who reallyenjoyed the Tsar's confidence.
If a Minister was in disagreement with the Tsar, if some accusation had been
made against him, or if for any reason the Tsar no longer felt confidence in him,
Nicholas was still perfectly able to give him a friendly reception, to thank him
for his collaboration, and to shake hands warmly with him when he left and then
to send him a letter calling on him to resign.
This was certainly due to the influence of Danilovitch, the 'Jesuit'. The
Ministers did not allow for the Tsar's ingrained dislike of an argument.
Almost always the same vicious circle recurred. When he had appointed a new
Minister the Tsar would evince for some time the utmost satisfaction with him;
he felt entirely happy with the new official. This honeymoon period might last
quite a time. But then clouds would begin to appear on the horizon. They would
come all the sooner if the Minister was a man of principle, a man with a definite
programme. Statesmen like Witte, Stolypin, Samarin, Trepov, felt themselves on
fairly solid ground when their programme had received the Tsar's approval; they
imagined that their hands were then free in regard to all the details of its execution.
The Tsar saw things in a different light. Frequently he would try to impose his
personal views in matters of detail, such as the appointment of some subordinate
Confronted with this attitude on the part of their sovereign, the Ministers
would act as their temperament prompted. Some, like Lamsdorff, Krivosheyin, or
Sukhomfinov, temporized or compromised. Others were less compliant; they would
try to get their way by some devious method, or would try persuasion. It was thoroughly
dangerous for a Minister to turn to either of these expedients, but especially
the former, which exasperated the Tsar.
It must never be forgotten that Nicholas II had very little of the combative
spirit. He had a great capacity for grasping his interlocutor's thought halfway
through its expression, of appreciating every delicate distinction in a report,
of giving their true value to details which had deliberately been slurred over.
But he made a point of preserving the appearance of acquiescence. He never contested
the statements made by his interlocutor. He never adopted a definite and energetic
attitude, an attitude which would have enabled him to break the resistance of
a Minister, to bend him to his will and so to retain a useful servant in a post
in which he had gained experience. The Tsar was incapable of unmasking his batteries,
or of provoking his Minister to an energetic rejoinder that might have induced
the sovereign to change his mind.
The Tsar's contribution to a talk was never sharp or direct, never argumentative,
never hot-tempered, never made in other than even tones. The Minister would take
his leave, delighted at having, to all appearance, carried his point. But he would
be sadly mistaken. What he had taken for weakness was merely dissimulation. He
had forgotten that the Tsar was absolutely without moral courage; that he loathed
making a final decision in the presence of the person concerned. Next day the
Minister would receive a letter from him - a letter of dismissal.
I repeat: the very idea of discussion was wholly alien to the nature of Nicholas
II. We must not forget that he inherited from his father (whom he venerated, and
whose example he followed assiduously even in small details of his everyday life)
an unshakable faith in the providential nature of his high office. His mission
emanated from God. For his actions he was responsible only to his own conscience
and to God. In this view the Empress supported him with intense conviction.
Responsible only to his conscience, his intuition, his instinct - to that
incomprehensible thing which in our days is called the subconscious, and of which
the notion did not exist in the sixteenth century, when the Tsars of Moscow forged
for themselves an absolute Power. Responsible to elements that are not reason
and at times are contrary to reason. Responsible to imponderables; to the mysticism
that steadily increased its hold over him.
The Ministers relied exclusively on considerations that were based on reason.
Their arguments were addressed to the understanding. They spoke in terms of figures
and statistics, of precedents, of estimates and forecasts based on the principle
of the weighing of probabilities; they referred to reports from officials, to
the example of other countries, and all that. The Tsar could not have argued with
them, and evidently had no desire to. He preferred to write a letter announcing
his Minister's 'resignation'. The Minister had ceased to give satisfaction - nobody
could say how or why.
For the rest, the Tsar, like so many Russians, believed that no one can run
counter to his fate. What is to happen will happen! Everything will come right
in the end, for Providence is watching over us.
HIS SENSE OF DUTY AS SOVEREIGN
In other words, the Tsar took his role of God's representative with the utmost
seriousness. This was particularly evidenced in the sustained attention which
he gave to the consideration of petitions for the reprieve of condemned men. It
was this arbitrament over life and death that approximated him most closely to
As soon as a reprieve was signed, the Tsar would unfailingly urge me to pass
it on with all speed, so that the message should not arrive too late. I remember
receiving an appeal for reprieve late one night, during one of the Tsar's journeys.
I had my name sent in for an audience. The Tsar was in his own compartment,
and seemed astonished at my appearance at that late hour.
'I have ventured to disturb your Majesty,' I said, 'as it is a question of
a man's life.'
'You did entirely, entirely right. But how can we get Freedericksz's signature?'
(Under the law the telegram conveying the Tsar's reply could only be sent out
when it had been signed by the Minister of the Court, and the Tsar knew that Freedericksz
had gone to bed long before.)
'I will send the message over my signature, and the Count can countersign
it in the morning.'
'Excellent. Lose no time.'
Next morning the Tsar returned to the subject. 'Are you sure,' he said, 'that
the telegram was sent off at once?'
'Sire, it could not fail to be.'
'Can you guarantee that these telegrams containing my orders get priority?'
The Tsar seemed satisfied.
THE TSAR NEVER HAD A SECRETARY
As God's representative on earth, the Tsar conscientiously and systematically
set himself standards to which the ordinary mortal could not aspire.
It is a significant detail, not, perhaps, generally known, that this Tsar
of all the Russias never had a private secretary. He was so jealous of his prerogatives
that he himself sealed the envelopes containing his decisions. He had to be very
busy before he would entrust his valet with this relatively trivial task. And
the valet had to show the sealed envelopes, so that his master could satisfy himself
that the secrecy of his correspondence could not be violated.
The Tsar had no secretary. Official documents, letters not strictly of a private
character, were written, of course, by third parties. Taneyev drew up the 'rescripts'
to high dignitaries who were to be decorated. The Minister of the Court prepared
the official letters addressed to the members of the Imperial family. The drafting
of communications for foreign sovereigns would come within the province of the
Minister of Foreign Affairs - and so on.
But there were other things that the private secretary to a sovereign could
do - prepare reports, file papers, keep an eye on outstanding matters, receive
correspondence, all sorts of things. There was enough of this work to occupy two
or three confidential secretaries.
But that was the difficulty. It would have been necessary to take a third
party into his confidence, and the Tsar hated to confide his ideas to anybody.
There was another danger - the secretary might magnify his position, impose
his own personality, try to influence his master. To influence one who was not
prepared to consult anything but his own conscience. The very thought of it was
enough to make Nicholas II tremble!
The Minister of the Court encouraged His Majesty in this outlook, since it
would not have been pleasant to him to see an interloper come between the Sovereign
and his chief servant.
The Empress had a private secretary, Count Rostovtzev; the Tsar had none!
He wanted to be alone.
Alone with his Conscience.
I recall our return from Compiegne, where we had been present at a memorable
review of the French Army. We had been among soldiers, and, needless to say, many
hours had been devoted during the long railway journey to the study of a problem
in which all were intensely interested - 'Is the French Army capable of holding
in check the battalions of William II?'
The whole future of Russia's foreign policy depended on the answer at which
we arrived. Some of our specialists held that the French troops were less disciplined
and less stubborn in resistance than the Teuton phalanxes. Others declared that
in the defence of his own soil the French peasant would fight like a lion; events
proved that they were right. The disputants grew heated and excited. The Tsar
spoke not a single word!
At Livadia, during the holidays that Nicholas II allowed himself from time
to time, I had the honour of accompanying him on horseback on several occasions.
I was a little inexperienced in those days, and supposed that it was my duty to
'amuse' my master and keep him in conversation. I began with the latest news from
the papers, the big political events, the questions of the day. The Tsar replied
with evident reluctance, and changed the subject to tennis, horses, the weather,
mountains, and so on. Often, instead of giving any reply, he put the spurs to
his horse and galloped on, making any discussion impossible.
It did not take me long to understand. The Tsar never talked of serious matters
with members of his entourage, even if they belonged to the Imperial family. He
disliked expressing an opinion. He was afraid that his opinion might be retailed
to other people; in any case, he felt that he had enough important decisions to
take already without needlessly adding to them. The Ministers were in attendance
at the appointed times to receive his final decisions -that was quite enough.
It was all the easier for him to make this his rule since, whatever the occasion,
he unfailingly remained outwardly imperturbable. I remember the arrival of the
telegram reporting the total loss of the Russian Fleet at Tsushima. it came when
I was with the Emperor on a railway journey. Freedericksz had remained a good
half-hour in the Tsar's compartment; the Tsar had been utterly cast down. It was
now impossible for us to win the war; the Fleet, the object of such solicitude
on the part of the Emperor, was annihilated; thousands of officers whom he had
met personally and had learnt to appreciate highly had been killed.
An attendant came to tell us that His Majesty was taking tea in the dining-car.
We went in one by one. There was a dismal silence: no one dared to be the first
to speak of the terrible news.
The Tsar broke the silence. He talked to us of the army manoeuvres then in
progress, of various insignificant events. He went on talking for more than an
hour. Not a word did he breathe about Tsushima.
He left us with the impression that he was entirely unconcerned at what had
happened. Freedericksz undeceived us, telling us of the consternation that the
Tsar had shown an hour and a half before.
'His Majesty wants to see the Minister of War, in his compartment.'
General Sakharov had a long audience. He, too, when he came back from the
Imperial coach, told us that the Tsar had shown deep concern.
'His Majesty discussed the situation with me. He showed that he thoroughly
realized the problems ahead of us, and he sketched a very sensible plan of action.'
His composure is admirable.'
Much later I discovered how seriously the disaster of Tsushima had impaired
His Majesty's constitution, strong as it was.
YOUR PETER THE GREAT
In the whole of my seventeen years of service I only had occasion twice to
talk politics with my Imperial master.
The first time was at the bi-centenary of the foundation of St. Petersburg
by Peter the Great, that reforming Titan of our country. The newspapers were full
of articles devoted to the victories and the reforms of the creator of modern
Russia. One day I was talking enthusiastically of Russia's first Emperor. The
Tsar did not seem to want to pursue the subject. I knew how non-committal His
Majesty always was in conversation, but ventured to ask him whether he agreed
with me. After a short silence he replied:
'I recognize my ancestor's great merits, but I should be lacking in sincerity
if I were to echo your enthusiasm... He is the ancestor who appeals to me least
of all. He had too much admiration for European "culture"... He stamped out Russian
habits, the good customs of his sires, the usages bequeathed by the nation, on
too many occasions... It was a period of transition... Perhaps he could not have
acted differently... But to go on from that to say that I feel in any way drawn
As the conversation proceeded I gained the impression that the Tsar blamed
Peter the Great for the 'showman' element in all that he did. I seemed to hear
my august interlocutor pronounce the word 'adventurer'.
Apparently the Emperor long remembered the sympathetic interest that I had
shown in Peter the Great.
One day, in the Crimea, when we were ascending to the plateau of Outchan-Sou,
where a wonderful view is to be had of Yalta and its environs, the Emperor told
me what a pleasure it was to him to come to the southern shores of the Crimea.
'I should have liked to be able to live here always,' he said. 'Sire, why
not transfer the capital here?' 'I must admit,' the Sovereign replied, 'that the
idea has often occurred to me.'
The other officers joined in the conversation. Some thought the mountains
were too close to the sea, others that there was not room enough for all the public
'And,' said one, 'where shall the Duma be put?'
'On top of Ay Petri,' some one suggested.
'But Ay Petri is buried in snow in winter, and there would be no possible
way of getting up there for the sessions of Parliament.' 'So much the better,'
said an aide-de-camp.
Half an hour later, on the way down, the Tsar was at my side on a narrow footpath.
Turning to me, he said, with a little smile of resignation:
'No, it is impossible. Besides, once we had set the capital on the flanks
of these mountains, I should certainly have ceased to love them. Castles in Spain!'
Then, after a few moments' silence, he burst out laughing.
'As for your Peter the Great! If he had conceived any such plan, he would
have carried it out regardless of all the political and financial difficulties.
He would never have asked himself whether Russia could benefit from his pet idea!'
That was the last time we touched on the subject of the 'Reformer Tsar'.
His antipathy for that great creator of modern Russia was in keeping, in any
case, with the character and mentality of Nicholas II. It will be remembered how,
at the very outset of his reign, the young Tsar received a deputation from one
of the provinces of Russia, and gave them a rebuff that resounded from end to
end of the country. These delegates were sincerely imbued with liberal ideas,
and were all sincere constitutionalists. The Tsar made a short speech in reply
to their representations. It was as brusque in tone as a command, and ended with
this unhappily famous phrase:
'You must give up all these foolish dreams!'
This first public speech of the young Tsar's came as a thunderbolt to the
intelligentsia, who had hoped for a moment that Nicholas II would return to the
path of liberal reform on which his grandfather Alexander II had entered with
such success, and from which his father, Alexander III, had at once turned back.
IMPOSSIBLE TO BE TOO PRUDENT
My only other political conversation with Nicholas II had reference to Bulgaria.
It was in 1912.
The war with Turkey was approaching its end; the Bulgarian army was exhausted
after a series of superhuman efforts.
General Radko Dimitriev had sent me a letter asking me to inform the Tsar
that the appearance of the Russian Fleet in the neighbourhood of Constantinople
would be likely to modify the situation to the advantage of the Bulgarians. I
determined to speak to the Tsar on the matter.
After some remarks on the general political situation he replied, in substance:
'I am sorry for Bulgaria. But I cannot sacrifice Russian soldiers to enable
her to cover herself with laurels.' Then, after a moment's thought, he added:
'It would be best for you to send no answer at all to Dimitriev. I do not
want to drive him to despair... I am whole-heartedly on the side of the Bulgarians;
I admire their brave little army... But the slightest intervention on my part
might provoke a European war. It is impossible to be too prudent in these questions.'
He took up the reins of his charger, which went on at a quicker trot. We continued
on our way in silence. Then the Tsar repeated:
'A pity! There is nothing I can do for your Bulgarians.'
And he changed the subject.
A MODERATE NATIONALIST
Like his father, Nicholas II was keenly interested in all that was characteristically
Russian. I recall his words to Mme Plevitskaya, a singer well known and appreciated
for her singing of peasant songs. After a concert at Livadia he said to her:
'I thought it would be impossible for anybody to be more Russian than I am.
Your singing proved to me that it is not. I thank you with all my heart for that
The Tsar had a perfect knowledge of Russian. Our language is exceptionally
rich in terms denoting the degrees of family relationship; it has special names
for every category of relationship by birth and through marriage, not excepting
the most distant, and with particularly subtle shades of distinction. One day
the Tsar had a list of the terms used by the peasants brought to him. It was clear
to us at once that he was thoroughly acquainted with all of them, however quaint
or obsolete. None of us was able to answer the 'posers' that he set us in this
improvised examination-to the great joy of the children present.
'The Russian language,' said the Tsar, after abundantly demonstrating our
ignorance, 'is of such wealth that it is possible to give Russian equivalents
for every expression in any foreign language; no word of non-Slav origin should
be allowed to disfigure our speech.'
I remarked to His Majesty that I had made it an invariable rule that reports
submitted to the Sovereign should contain no expression of foreign origin.
'I think I have succeeded" the Tsar replied, 'in getting the other Ministries
also to adopt this excellent habit. I underline in red every passage in their
reports in which I find expressions of foreign origin. The Foreign Ministry is
the only one on which I have been unable to make any impression.'
I ventured to point out to His Majesty a foreign word which has no equivalent
in the Russian language:
'What can one say for "on principle"?'
'Really,' said the Tsar, after a few moments' thought, 'I cannot find a Russian
'Sire, there is a word in the Serbian language which expresses the idea. They
say satchelno, which means "behind the front"; this may be interpreted as "an
idea behind the front" - "subconscious and preconceived".'
'Very interesting. I am going to ask the Academy to set up a special Commission
to compile a dictionary of the Russian language, as is being done in France. We
have no record providing an indisputable source of reference for Russian phonetics
There was only one field in which the Tsar admitted his nationalism to be
qualified; and, in this instance, it is easy to understand it. He was very fond
of music, and placed in the same rank two composers of whom only one was Russian
- Wagner and Tchaikovsky. (The 'Ring' had been performed in the Imperial Theatres
by the express command of the Sovereign, and repeated regularly every year.)
I may add that the nationalism of Nicholas II had not the extreme character
of that of his 'monolith' father. Nicholas was far more cultivated than Alexander
III, and he also lacked the energy for the outbursts that the latter had sometimes
Nicholas II used to wear a sort of mujik's blouse at home, and looked well
in it. He had put one of his regiments, the Fusiliers of the Imperial Household,
into similar garb. He had entertained an ambitious idea of abolishing all the
modern uniforms of the Court dignitaries and replacing them by copies of costumes
of sixteenth-century boyars. An artist had been set to work on the necessary models.
But in the end the plan had been abandoned because of the expense it would have
entailed. The boyars were clothed in extremely expensive furs, and wore too many
diamonds and rubies and pearls.
The time had gone by (or perhaps had not yet come) for a combative nationalism
to be able to take root at the Court of Nicholas II
WHEN THE TOMBSTONE
In one environment only did the Tsar condescend to associate on equal terms
with others-among soldiers.
After the forced march referred to below, the commanding officer of a regiment
asked the favour of permission to enrol His Majesty as one of the soldiers of
his first squad. The day the request reached him, the Tsar sent for the military
service certificate of a soldier of the lowest rank, and himself filled it up.
He entered his name as 'Nicholas Romanov'. In the place for the date of liberation
from military service he wrote: 'When the tombstone lies over me.'
How significant his action looks in retrospect, and how true to character!
The famous forced march provides a convincing proof of the extreme conscientiousness
and sense of duty which inspired the Tsar as head of the army..
The Minister of War was at work on an important reform, the determination
of the type of clothing and equipment to be worn and carried in future by every
Russian infantryman. Those who have had army service, or have even had experience
of hiking, well know the importance of the smallest object added or taken off
when equipment has to be carried for ten hours a day. An ounce in excess of the
unavoidable minimum, when carried by each one of millions of men, may be of capital
When considering the modifications proposed by the Ministry, the Tsar certainly
hit on the best of all possible ways of deciding with a full knowledge of the
facts. He told only the Minister of the Court and the Commander of the Palace
of his intention. They had the full equipment, new model, of a soldier in a regiment
camping near Livadia brought to the palace. There was no faking, no making to
exact measure for the Tsar; he was in the precise position of any recruit who
is put into the shirt, pants, and uniform chosen for him, and given his rifle,
pouch, and cartridges. The Tsar was careful also to take the regulation supply
of bread and water. Thus equipped, he went off alone, covered twenty kilometres
out and back on a route chosen at random, and returned to the palace. Forty kilometres
- twenty-five miles - is the full length of a forced march; rarely are troops
required to do more in a single day.
The Tsar returned at dusk, after eight or nine hours of marching, rest-time
included. A thorough examination showed, beyond any possibility of challenge,
that there was not a blister or abrasion of any sort on his body. The boots had
not hurt his feet. Next day the reform received the Sovereign's approval.
William II wrote a letter congratulating the Tsar on his enterprise. It is
interesting to note that the letter had a slightly bitter undertone. Our military
attache reported later that the German Emperor had asked to be supplied with all
the cuttings from the Russian newspapers concerning the march. It seems that he
showed a good deal of vexationwhy had not that brilliant idea occurred to him?
As for the Tsar, he said afterwards, with obvious sincerity, that he greatly
regretted having authorizedthe publication in the newspapers of the story of his
forced march. He had made it entirely on account of military considerations, and
the publicity given to it was distasteful to him.
TO GO TO THE FRONT WITH THEM
The Tsar regarded himself as a soldier - the first professional soldier in
his Empire. In this respect he would make no compromise: his duty was to do what
every soldier had to do.
Indirectly, and within certain limits, that was the cause of the downfall
of the dynasty and of Russia.
The reader will have guessed my meaning. I am brought now to the subject of
His Majesty's assumption of the supreme command during the Great War. It is one
of the most enigmatical and most tragic pages of the history of the period with
which we are concerned.
Nothing is more dangerous for a great country at war than to retire a Generalissimo
who is surrounded by people whom he has learnt to know and to judge according
to their merits, and to give the command to another Generalissimo. This step is
only permissible in the last extremity; as a rule it can only be taken at the
cost of an enormous sacrifice. For Russia, the taking over of the supreme command
by the Tsar himself was bound to involve not only grave difficulties in the field
of strategy but incalculable political consequences. We know now that a great
war may cost a throne, even in a country much less ripe for revolution than was
The loss of his throne, with all the resulting convulsions, was the penalty
that a Tsar who had placed himself at the head of his troops and had been beaten
must inevitably suffer. I will pass in silence over the difficulties that followed
in the administration of an immense country tormented by endless complications
and deprived of the immediate presence of its Sovereign. The Stavka (G.H..Q.)
was too far from Petrograd; the effective power passed into other hands than the
Tsar's. It was a fatal risk to run.
The Tsar had two main reasons, military and political, for his decision. Military
considerations certainly played as decisive a part as the political and dynastic
considerations, with which I shall deal later.
To explain the considerations arising from the Tsar's feeling of military
duty, I must recall my memories of the period of the war with Japan.
Everybody knows how disastrous that war was for Russia. The troops left in
successive detachments, and the astronomical distances which separated us from
the theatre of operations swallowed them up like an insatiable Moloch; every day
there were fresh victims. Kuropatkin, the Generalissimo, said again and again,
'Patience, patience!' But the months went by without the smallest grain of good
news to give us fresh courage. Already there was talk of dissensions between the
principal military leaders - a very bad sign.
The Tsar was present at the departure of the troops whenever a large detachment
was leaving. He made wellphrased speeches (the more entirely improvised they were,
the more effective they proved), and distributed icons to each regiment as it
left. I used to note how sad and careworn he looked as he came away in silence
from these leave-takings. One day he said in my presence:
'I ought not to be bidding them farewell. It would be better to go to the
front with them.'
Few of those who were present had particularly noticed what he said. Later
on I realized its full significance.
It was hardly more than a colonial war - a war in China, so remote that it
took twenty days' journey by rail to reach the scene of hostilities-and the Tsar
thought of going to the front! His duty, as he saw it, was to be in the midst
of the fighting, at the point where danger was. He who would never accept promotion
above the rank of Colonel of the Preobrajensky regiment - was fretting at his
THE SUPREME COMMAND
The Great War.
The Winter Palace transformed once more into a huge factory for dressings
and surgical apparatus. The first successes.
My regiment of Horse Guards routing an enemy division... My son's letters
telling me of the splendid deeds of the Cossacks of the Guard, which he had joined...
Then, the annihilation of Samsonov's army... the general retreat... the inglorious
surrender of some of our fortresses... the mass evacuations of the populations
of territories abandoned to the enemy... the stories of espionage... Public opinion
began to show signs of alarm.
People set about hunting for a scapegoat. There was a tendency, especially
among the entourage of the Empress, to throw the blame for all the reverses on
the Generalissimo, Grand Duke Nicholas Nicolayevitch. It was said that in spite
of his forcefulness he was inclined to bow in passive resignation before 'Fate'-that
defect of so many Russians who accept defeat in advance at the hands of what has
been 'written in the decrees of Providence'. Instances were also being quoted
of undue severity towards brave Generals: some had taken their lives in consequence
of extravagant censure from the Grand Duke...
The Tsar said nothing. Disturbed but undecided, he let no sign of his secret
feelings appear. But for all his reticence he was anxiously watching what was
going on around him. Then, one day, he sent for the Minister of the Court and
announced his decision: it was his duty to take over the supreme command.
Freedericksz showed the utmost hostility to the idea.
The Tsar discussed it with other persons in his entourage. He found some encouragement,
especially in quarters attached to the Empress's Court. He considered that Nicholas
Nicolayevitch and General Yanushkevitch had made serious mistakes. General Alexeyev
was inclined to look on a battle-field as simply a chess-board; but he was an
officer of exceptional intelligence, and if he were made Chief of Staff he might,
the Tsar hoped, change the face of things.
The Tsar decided to go to his duty, the duty of active service.
THE SO-CALLED PLOT OF THE GRAND DUKES
From the political point of view the Tsar's decision is much more difficult
to explain. What follows is no more than guesses and indications. Nicholas Nicolayevitch,
the Generalissimo, certainly had plenty of 'go'; he had a reputation for firmness
and energy. The strong measures that he had taken against the civil populations
of the regions that had to be evacuated were quoted in evidence of what he 'could
do if he had his hands free'. The Left wing had claimed him for its own: it was
constantly said that it was he who had wrung from the Tsar in 1905 the October
manifesto, that first swallow of constitutional liberties; it was he who had championed
Count Witte, the author of the legislation which had set up the Duma. The Allies
were disturbed at the constant friction between the Government and the representatives
of the nation, and it was only too natural that they should urge forward the only
one of the Grand Dukes who could continue and bring to completion the work of
emancipation begun in 1905
It began to be whispered that the Empress was going to be sent to Livadia,
or else to a convent. If the Tsar did not fall in with the plan, he would be deposed
by a coup d'etat Nicholas Nicolayevitch would be made Victory Dictator, and when
he had won the victory he would become Tsar.
At one time there was almost open talk in Petrograd of a coming Palace revolution.
Had Grand Duke Nicholas Nicolayevitch himself been a party to the plot? I do not
believe it. I am convinced, indeed, that the plot existed only in the imagination
of drawing-room chatterers. The only courts then in Petrograd were those of the
Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna and the Grand Duke Nicholas Michailovitch; and neither
alone nor in association could they possibly have taken any decisive action. All
the other members of the Imperial family were at the front. After the Tsar took
over the supreme command, the Grand Duke Nicholas Nicolayevitch stayed in the
mountains of the Caucasus and Armenia. None of those who might have acted as his
agents were in Petrograd.. just before his nephew's abdication in 1917 he wrote
him the famous letter begging him 'on my knees' to abdicate; but that, I think,
is the only false step that can be laid to his charge.
But the State police, the Okhrana, were certainly aware of the rumours that
were so persistently in circulation in society circles. The Tsar could not have
been in ignorance of them. Did any documents come into his hands? I do not know.
In any case the idea of falling back on the Stavka (G.H.Q.), where it would
be virtually impossible for a coup d'etat to be carried out, might have been considered
for the political reasons that I have just indicated.
ed. But I shall always hold that for Nicholas II as I knew him it was the
military considerations that counted. The Empress may have been guided by motives
of a more personal character; she is said to have been jealous of the ascendancy
that Nicholas Nicolayevitch might gain with the mass of the people if the troops
under his high command won a decisive victory.
The aloofness which the Tsar made his rule of life was all the more pernicious
since he distrusted even the persons in his own suite. The only exception was
The Tsar came to the throne at the age of 26; his character was not then definitely
formed, and he had not had the experience needed to enable him to acquire the
art of judging people.
His only contact with the outside world up to then had been his stay in three
different regiments, for about six months each. One may be sure that life in these
regiments was made as pleasant and carefree as possible for the heir to the throne:
'Everything is in order in the regiment under my command'that sacramental formula
in the daily 'report' from every regiment, battalion or squad in the Russian army-will
have been the outstanding leitmotiv of the initiation into military duties of
He soon realized that the formula was deceptive; and that destroyed his trust
in people. He could detect a lie; but he could place no trust in truth. It was
his distrustfulness that rendered the task of the Emperor's immediate suite so
He strove as best he could against 'unprofitable servants' among Ministers
and members of his suite. And when he left for the front he took the opportunity
to delegate his powers to the Empress: he credited her with a great deal of will
power and strength of character.
I admit that his final abdication was the gesture of a tired man. He had lost
courage through his own hesitations. And he had assumed that he would be left
in peace, that he and his son would be able to 'cultivate their gardens' at Livadia.
But his supreme motive was his desire not to have to shed blood in suppressing
A FATHER WORTHY OF ALL PRAISE
The paternal love shown by Nicholas II was worthy of all praise. He adored
his children and showed special pride in them. I shall never forget how the Tsar
brought me for the first time into the presence of the Cesarevitch..
The child was a few months old. The Imperial family were cruising in the Finnish
fiords, and the nursery of the Cesarevitch was in a sunny spot on the Standard's
upper deck. I came past the Tsar just as he was coming away from the nursery.
'I don't think, he said, 'that you have yet seen my dear little Cesarevitch.
Come along and I will show him to you.'
We went in. The baby was being given his daily bath. He was lustily kicking
out in the water.
'It's time to take him out. Let's see if he'll be good in front of you.. I
hope he won't make too much noise!'
Alexis Nicolayevitch was picked up and dried, and did not show so very much
resentment. The Tsar took the child out of his bath towels and put his little
feet in the hollow of his hand, supporting him with the other arm. There he was,
naked, chubby, rosy - a wonderful boy!
The Emperor covered him up again and gave him to me for a moment; after that
we came away.
The Tsar went on talking to me of his son's strong constitution.
'Don't you think he's a beauty?'
He added, almost naively:
'His legs are in good proportion with his body. And, best of all, what lovely
'bracelets' he has on his wrists and ankles! He's well nourished.'
Next day the Tsar said to the Empress in my presence:
'Yesterday I had the Cesarevitch on parade before Mossolov.,
I had the impression that Her Majesty was not altogether pleased. Did she
think her husband had been too hearty and unreserved for a sovereign?
LOVER OF HIS WIFE
Nicholas II was much more than a loving and devoted husband. He was literally
the lover of his life's partner. He was a lover, and could not hide a slight feeling
of jealousy of the persons who made up his wife's entourage, of her occupations
and the things that belonged to her.
In every union there is one side that loves and another that lets itself be
loved. Of the Imperial couple, it was the Emperor who loved with his whole heart;
the Empress responded with an affection that showed her happiness in being loved
by one whom she cherished and esteemed.
But she herself showed jealousy of everything that deprived her of the company
of her husband. She had all the characteristic German conscientiousness, and she
understood how manifold were the Tsar's duties. Not only did she never prevent
him from working, but she actively encouraged him in his devotion to his duties
as head of the State. She readily recognized that Nicholas II needed the long
solitary walks that he took in order to be able to ponder over his decisions.
But she set rather narrow limits to what she regarded as 'work'.
Any talks with people unconnected with 'the Services', any receptions not
absolutely necessary for reasons of State, were, in her eyes, simply and purely
a waste of time. She did all she could to reduce to a minimum the occasions when
the Tsar undertook such 'duties'. She made no allowance for any exceptional circumstances
or any enthusiasm, no matter for what: everything had to be planned out in conformity
with the established routine.
Then there were the sacrosanct hours of reading aloud in the evening. I find
it difficult to imagine any affair of State of sufficient importance to induce
the Empress to forgo a single one of these fireside evenings, tete-a-tete.
The Tsar was a master of the difficult art of reading aloud. He could read
in Russian, English (the language in which their Majesties were accustomed to
talk and write), French, Danish, and even German (the language with which he was
least familiar). The head of his private library, Mr. Stcheglov, was expected
to provide the Tsar with about twenty of the best books of the month. At Tsarskoe
Selo these works were placed in a room opening out of His Majesty's private apartments.
One day when I came into this room the Tsar's valet saw me approach the table
on which the collection was laid out. He asked me not to touch the books. 'His
Majesty,' he said, 'himself arranges these books in a particular order, and he
has forbidden me once for all to disarrange them.'
It was from this collection that the Tsar chose the book of the evening for
reading to the Empress. Usually his choice would fall on a Russian novel giving
a general picture of one of the social classes in his Empire.
'I can assure you,' he said to me one day, 'that I am afraid to go into that
room. I have so little time, and there are so many interesting books! Often half
of the books have to go back to Stcheglov without even having had the pages cut.'
He added, almost apologetically:
'Sometimes an historical book or a book of memoirs has waited here for a whole
year, I so much wanted to read it. But it has had to go in the end.'
These readings aloud were at all times the favourite leisure occupation of
the Imperial couple, who looked forward to the quiet homely intimacy of their