- 1917 Interview with Anna Vyrubova
From Inside The Russian Revolution
by Rheta Childe Dorr
New York, The MacMillan Company
A reprint of this book is available from the Ayer Publishingwebsite.
An American Interview with Anna Vyrubova in 1917
ANNA VYRUBOVA SPEAKS
"Let any American mother imagine that her only son, who came into the world a weakling, and whose life had always hung on a thread, had been miraculously restored to health. Suppose also that the person who did this wonderful thing was not a doctor, but a monk of that mother's church. Wouldn't it be, natural for that mother to regard the man with almost superstitious gratitude for the rest of her life? Wouldn't it also be natural that she would want to keep the monk near her, at least until the child grew up, in order to have the benefit of, his advice and help in case of a return of the illness?"
I had heard the story of the Rasputin murder as told by one of the principals in the gory tragedy, Prince Felix Yussupoff, and now I was to hear it again, this time from one of the reputed "dark forces," of which Rasputin had been the head and front, Anna Vyrubova, the intimate friend and confidante of the Empress of Russia, and believed by many to be the chief accomplice of Rasputin. I had heard all sorts of horrible stories about this woman. It was said that she was Rasputin's procuress. It was said that she conspired with him to make the Empress believe that the Czarevitch would die if the monk were sent away from court, or if he voluntarily withdrew. On the several occasions, when he did go, Madame Vyrubova was said to have fed the child with minute doses of poison, so that he sickened, and when that happened of course the frantic mother demanded the return of Rasputin.
As the monk's appetite for power grew and he demanded the removal of this or that metropolitan or bishop, the removal or appointment of ministers, the suppression of newspapers that denounced him, the Czarina, urged on by her friend Madame Vyrubova, would insist that Rasputin should have his way. Otherwise he might leave, and the Czarevitch would surely die. Madame Vyrubova was also said to have conspired with a court physician to poison the Czar-, or rather to put constant doses of some toxic in his food in order to cloud his mind, and thus make him an easier dupe for the proGerman conspirators. They told the most amazing stories about this woman, making her out a sort ofa combination of Lucrezia Borgia and Jezebel.
Whether the provisional government believed these stories or not, the Duma members who forced the revolution evidently believed Anna Vyrubova to be one of the most dangerous of the inner court circle, or camarilla, which was planning a German peace. For when the Czar was forced to abdicate, and all the accused men of the camarilla were arrested and thrown into the fortress of Peter and Paul, Madame Vyrubova was also arrested and sent to the fortress. She was taken out of a sick bed-there had been an epidemic of measles in the royal family-thrown into an underground cell and kept there for three months. At the end of that time she was in such a state of collapse that the prison physician recommended her removal to a hospital. To this the provisional government consented, but when the order for her release was presented to the governor of the fortress, and he ordered her cell door unlocked, the soldiers on duty refused to obey the order. It was days before they were persuaded to let her go. Madame Vyrubova was sent to a hospital for a month, and then they set her free. That is, they permitted her to go to the home of her brother-in-law, who is a stepson of the Grand Duke Paul, and to live there under strict surveillance. They had searched her house in Tsarskoe Selo, and her rooms in the palace. They had put her through every kind of cross examination, not once but many times, and they were forced to admit that they could not discover a single incriminating circumstance, or any evidence of poisoning or conspiracy. They had to release her, but she was not allowed to leave the country, or even her brother's house, without permission, which, of course, would not be granted. She was watched all the time, and might be rearrested and given the third degree at any time if the least bit of evidence seemed to warrant it.
Anna Vyrubova is considered a very dangerous woman. She is one of two things, very dangerous or very much maligned. She gave me the impression, after two long, intimate talks, of a woman absolutely innocent of any wrongdoing. If she is a criminal she ought to be put in prison for life, for her powers of deceit are simply marvelous. I liked Anna Vyrubova, and I don't think I could possibly like a woman capable of poisoning little boys or handing innocent young girls over into the claws of a lascivious monk.
How I met this woman, how she came to talk confidentially with me, where I saw her and when, are not to be written just now. They could not be published without injuring a number of people, perhaps including Madame Vyrubova herself. I saw and talked with her soon after her release from the prison hospital. She was still a little drawn and haggard from the hardships and the terror of her experiences in Peter and Paul, and she was in the depth of despondency over the plight of her friend the Czarina. She is a very pretty woman, this alleged Borgia-Jezebel. She has an abundance of brown hair and her eyes are large and deeply blue. Her features are regular, and her mouth curves like a child's. Two or three years ago the train on which she was traveling between Petrograd and Tsarskoe Selo was wrecked, some say purposely. Madame Vyrubova was desperately injured, both legs being broken and her spine wrenched. She was lamed for life and walks with a crutch, but in spite of that all her movements are singularly graceful. One of the stories about her is that she was a peasant girl brought to court by Rasputin and forced on the Empress as a convenient tool of the conspirators. This is quite untrue.
Madame Vyrubova is a patrician by birth, and before she was born, and long before Rasputin appeared in Tsarskoe Selo, her family was attached to the court. The father and the grandfather of Madame Vyrubova were court officials, confidential secretaries to the emperors of their times. Both her parents are living and I have met them both. They are highly educated and unmistakably well bred. They are not. rich people, but they live in a very beautiful apartment in an exclusive quarter of Petrograd.
For more than a dozen years Mme. Vyrubova lived on terms of closest friendship with the Czarina. She did not live at court, at least she did not until after the murder of Rasputin, when she went to the palace to be near the frightened and despairing Empress. She had a house of her own in Tsarskoe Selo, and it was at her house that the Empress met the monk who was to have such a sinister influence on her after life. The Empress, who was never popular at court, and never happy there, liked to have a place where she could go and throw off her imperial character, be a woman among her intimate friends, care free. Such a refuge was Mme. Vyrubova's home to the melancholy Alexandra, wife of the Emperor of all the Russias. Mme. Vyrubova's husband was an officer in the navy, and gossip had it that he disapproved of his wife's friendship with the Empress, and disapproved still more of the people who were invited to meet her in his home. Rasputin was not the only one of the mystics and charlatans she met and talked with, it appears. The Empress was deeply religious, and she was interested in all kinds of strange and mystical doctrines. The husband of Mme. Vyrubova was not, and he feared, as well he might, that almost any kind of a political plot might be hatched by that "little group of serious thinkers" who met in his drawing room and in the scented boudoir of his wife. They quarreled. It got to the point where they did nothing but quarrel, and one day Mme. Vyrubova was given a choice between her husband and her friend. She chose the friend, and thenceforth she occupied the house in Tsarskoe Selo alone. The husband went to sea, and after a year or two he died.
Something of this Madame Vyrubova told me, and the rest a friend of the husband told me. In her story the husband appears as a jealous, unreasonable, bad tempered man, almost a lunatic. In her friend's story he appears a martyr. "I have not had a very amusing life," said Anna Vyrubova, in speaking of her marriage. She smiled, a little bitterly. "Perhaps that is one reason why I, like the Empress, was attracted to religion, why we both liked and trusted Rasputin. We did trust him, and to the end everything he did justified our confidence. As for the Empress's feeling for him I give you my solemn word of honor it was solely that of a grateful mother, and a devout member of the Orthodox church." And then she spoke the words with which I have opened this chapter. "Let any American mother imagine that she had an only son who had come into the world a weakling, one whose life had always hung on a thread, and that that child had suddenly and miraculously been restored to health. Let her suppose that the person who did this wonderful thing was not a doctor but a monk of her own church. Wouldn't it be natural for that mother to regard the man with almost superstitious gratitude for the rest of her life? Wouldn't it also be natural that she should want to keep the monk near her, at least until the child grew up, in order to have the benefit of his advice and help in case of return of the illness? Well, that is the whole truth about the Empress and Rasputin."
"But did Rasputin really heal the Czarevitch, and restore him to health?" I asked.
"Judge for yourself," she replied. "Perhaps you know how ardently the birth of a son was desired by both the Emperor and the Empress. They had four girls, but a woman may not inherit the Russian throne. A boy was wanted, and when at last he came, a poor little sickly baby, the Empress was nearly in despair. The child had a rare disease, one which the doctors have never been able to cure. The blood vessels were affected, so that the patient bled at the slightest touch. Even a small wound would endanger his life. He might bleed to death of a cut finger. In addition to this the boy developed tuberculosis of the hip. It seemed impossible that he could ever live to grow up. He was a dear child, always, beautiful, clever and lovable. Even had less hung on his life than succession to the throne it would have been hard to give him up. Each one of his successive illnesses racked the Empress with such terror and anguish that her mind almost gave away. For a long time she was so melancholy that she had to live in seclusion under the care of nurses. It was not so much assassins that she feared. It was that the child should die of the maladies that afflicted him. And, in addition to all this daily and hourly anxiety and pain she suffered, the poor Empress was torn this way and that by the grand dukes and all the members of the court circle. Each one had a remedy or a treatment they wanted applied to the doctors, new treatments, new operations in the air. The Empress was criticized bitterly because she wouldn't try them all. The Empress Dowager - well - " Vyrubova looked at me and we both smiled. The mother-in-law joke is as sadly amusing in a palace as in a Harlem flat.
"Then came Rasputin," continued Madame Vyrubova. "And he said to the Empress: 'Don't worry about the child. He is going to live, and he-is going to get well. He doesn't need medicine, he needs as much of a healthy, outdoor life as his condition can stand. He needs to play with a dog and a pony. He needs a sled. Don't let the doctors give him any except the mildest medicines. Don't on any account allow them to operate. The boy will soon show improvement, and then he will get well. '"
"Did Rasputin say that he was going to heal him?" I asked. "Rasputin simply said that the boy was going to get well, and he told us almost the day and the hour when the boy would begin to get well. 'When the child is twelve years old,' Rasputin told us, 'he will begin to improve. He will improve steadily after that, and by the time he is a man he will be in ordinary health like other men.' And very shortly after lie turned twelve years old he did begin to improve. He improved rapidly, just as Rasputin said he would, and within a few months he could walk. Before that, when he went out it was in the arms of a soldier, who loved him better than his own life, and would have gladly given his life if that could have brought health to his prince. The man's joy when the child really began to walk, began to play with his dog and his pony, was equaled only by that of the empress, For the first time in her life in Russia she was happy. Do you blame her, do you blame me for being grateful to Rasputin? Whether he cured him or God cured him, I know no more than you do. But Rasputin told us what was going to happen, and when it was going to happen. Make of it what you will."
Rasputin told the Empress of Russia that her son would begin to improve when he was twelve years old. Almost any doctor might have told her that it was not unlikely that he would begin to improve as soon as adolescence began. Many childish weaknesses, and even some very grave constitutional weaknesses, have been known to disappear gradually from that period. Empresses and ladies in waiting are not usually medical experts, but they might have learned that much from ordinary reading, if the doctors failed to enlighten them. But neither Alexandra nor Vyrubova knew it, and when Rasputin threw that gigantic bluff at them they grabbed it. As a guesser Rasputin was a wonder, for the almost impossible happened and the sick little Czarevitch lived up to his prediction. That's what I make of it.
When the Czarevitch grows to manhood, if he ever does, and reads the history of his father's and mother's last years as rulers of Russia, what a subject for reflection this whole Rasputin episode will afford him! He was the pawn shoved back and forth across the chessboard where the destinies of nearly two hundred million Russians, to say nothing of the Romanoff family, were being decided. He was the bait with which the biggest game in modern European politics was played. He and a wily monk and two women with a taste for mystical religion.
"This was the beginning of the close friendship between Rasputin and the royal family," Madame Vyrubova continued. "But it was by no means the only tie between them. Whatever anybody says about Rasputin, whatever there may have been that was irregular in his private life, whatever he may have done in the way of political plotting, this much I shall always believe about him, he was clairvoyant, he had second sight, and he used it, at least sometimes, for good and holy purposes. His prediction about the health of the Czarevitch was only one instance. Often and often he told us that such and such thing would happen, and it always did. The Emperor and Empress consulted him at several crises in their lives, and he always told them what they ought to do. In each and every case the advice was wise. It was miraculously wise. No one except a person gifted with second sight could possibly have known how to give it."
"Was Rasputin as bad as they say he was?" I asked.
"He couldn't have been," she answered. "But he may have been more or less licentious. Unfortunately you find men, even in holy orders, who are weak in certain ways. I can only answer positively for myself and the Empress. The charge that either of us ever had any personal relation with Rasputin was a foul slander. Nothing of the kind ever existed, or ever could have existed. Oh," she cried, a sudden flame dyeing her white cheeks, "how easy, very easy, it is to say that kind of thing about a woman. Nobody ever asks for proofs. Accusation and judgment are joined instantly together. Why, Rasputin was just a wandering monk when we met him. He was dirty, uneducated, uncouth. He did learn to wear a clean shirt and to preserve a sort of cultivated manner when he came to court. That was not very often, by the way. I am sure that the Empress did not see him more than six or eight times a year, and the Emperor saw him more rarely than that."
"Was he a German agent? Was he a part of the political intrigue that threatened a separate peace for Russia?"
Anna Vyrubova was silent for a long minute. She seemed to be pondering. Then she spoke, and her eyes were the candid eyes of a child. "Truly, I do not know. Certainly I did not believe it in Rasputin's lifetime, but now - I do not know. This much I do know, that it was difficult, very difficult, at the Russian court, to avoid being drawn into political intrigues. You know, of course, what a court is like."
"No," I said, "I don't know anything about a court. Tell me what it is like."
"There is only one word in English to describe it," replied Mme. Vyrubova. "That word is 'rotten.' A court is made up of numberless little cliques, each one with its endless gossip, its whisperings, its secrets and its plots, big and small. There is nothing too big or too small for these cliques to concern themselves with. They plot international political changes, and they plot private murders. They plot to ruin the mind and the morals of an Emperor, and they plot to break up a friendship between two women. They plot to raise this one to power and they plot to bring about the fall of another. They plot in peace and they plot in war. The person who lives at court and is not drawn into some of these plots is an exception to the rule. That is all that I can say. However, Rasputin, as I told you before, never lived at court. He did not even live in Petrograd. Most of his time was spent in Siberia, and he ought to have been in Siberia on the day he was murdered. But he had a home in Petrograd, where his wife and two daughters lived while the girls were being educated. Rasputin was very fond of those girls, and he was visiting them when that Yussupoff boy killed him." Mme. Vyrubova usually spoke of Prince Felix Yussupoff as "that Yussupoff boy."
Move Leaves in the Current
In an even, passionless voice Anna Vyrubova went on to tell me the story of the murder in the Yussupoff palace, as it had appeared to the slain man's devotees in Tsarskoe Selo.
"We knew that certain people were plotting to kill Rasputin. His life was attempted, you may know, at least three times. But it never entered our minds that Prince Yussupoff was in the plot. He was not a favorite with the Empress, who thought him a very dissolute young man. Still, he was in Tsarskoe once in a while, because his wife, who is a lovely girl, often came, and sometimes he came with her. On one of his last visits he saw the Empress. I was in the room and I heard him say, quite casually, that he had invited Rasputin to come to his house. 'My wife wants to meet him,' he said.
"We thought no more about it, but on the morning after the dreadful thing happened one of Rasputin's daughters called me on the telephone and asked me if I knew where her father was, and if not would I telephone the palace and find out if he was there. Some intuition seemed to tell me that something terribly wrong had occurred.
"Trying not to let my voice tremble, I asked the girl when her father had left the house and with whom. 'He left about midnight,' she answered. 'I don't know whose motor car it was that came for him, but he told us he was going to call on Prince Yussupoff.' I did not telephone the palace to ask about Rasputin. I went there as quickly as I could and told the Empress my news. 'He went to see Felix?' she exclaimed. 'Why should he have gone there now, when Irene is in the Crimea?' We looked at each other and the same kind of awful fear looked out of her eyes that had gathered in my heart. 'Send for the chief of police at once,' said the Empress. 'Tell him to come as fast as he possibly can.' It is almost too terrible for me to tell you. The police found the Yussupoff house in the most ghastly state of blood and - ugh!" she exclaimed, "it made me sick to hear them describe it, and it makes me sick just to remember it." After a moment she continued, real feeling in her voice. "The thing was not difficult to trace. The Yussupoff boy denied everything at first, made up a silly story about a dog that had to be killed."
When Mme. Vyrubova said this I admit I shuddered. It was evident that she did not grasp the subtlety of that "silly story about a dog that had to be killed."
"While Prince Felix was still insisting that no crime had been committed the police found the hole in the ice, and around it, on the snow, many bloodstains. And then they found the poor corpse. They had killed him, first by shooting and then by every horrible means in their power. He was shot in the head and in the body, crushed and mangled almost beyond recognition. There was one frightful, ragged wound across his stomach which could only have been made with a spur, the doctors told us. When he had been beaten until he was helpless those men tied him up with meters of rope and threw him in the river to drown. He must have regained consciousness at the end, because he had dragged one arm partially free and by his hand we knew that he tried to make the sign of the cross. Yussupoff persisted in his denials until Grand Duke Michael and his son drove to the palace and told the Czar that they were all more or less in it, and that it had been a good thing to do. A good thing to murder and mutilate a defenseless man! Well, you asked me what a court was like.
"There was a terrific time at the palace. The Emperor was horrified, and the Empress, I think, was nearer the insanity they accused her of than she had ever been before. They demanded the name of every man and woman connected with the plot, and promised that every one of them should be brought to sternest justice. But what power had they, after all? The grand dukes and the whole family stood as one against the Emperor and Empress. They declared that no one should be punished for that atrocious crime. I cannot tell you all they said and did, because that would be revealing confidences. But they held a strong enough club over the poor Emperor when they threatened to desert him in a troubled and uncertain time. He was absolutely forced to agree that only the principal plotters should be banished to their estates, and the others should be left unpunished. Afterward, when we could talk about it at all," Mme. Vyrubova resumed, "I reminded the Empress that the day before Rasputin was murdered that Yussupoff boy had telephoned to me asking me to arrange for him to see the Empress. She had declined to see him, and we both believe that if she had received him he would have killed her and then, very likely, me also. We are convinced that there was a great assassination plot all laid. But there is no proof."
This, then, is how the Rasputin murder appears in the reverse. Prince Felix Yussupoff did not look like a wholesale assassin to me, but, then, neither did Anna Vyrubova look like a poison plotter. Evidently you have to be accustomed to the atmosphere of courts to judge these things. I don't judge anybody in this grewsome drama. I leave that to history.
I asked Mme. Vyrubova why the court cliques plotted against the Empress. "It was inevitable," she replied. "The Empress came there, a stranger, a poor, beautiful, painfully shy young girl. She did not know how to flatter or win favor. She was studious, and she was devoted to her husband and children. They needed her devotion - oh, far more than the ordinary family needs that of the mother. You have heard, I suppose, some of the atrocious slanders that have been circulated about the Empress. One of these had it that she encouraged the Emperor in his weakness for alcohol because she wanted to keep him in a muddled state of mind and herself be the real ruler of Russia. The exact opposite is true. The poor Emperor did drink too much sometimes, but it was not her fault. There were others at that court who were vitally interested in keeping their Emperor in a muddled state of mind, and they constantly played on his weakness. His wife fought for him desperately, did everything in her power to save him from these men.
"Another slander said that the Empress tried to Germanize the court, and that she made her children talk German to her. The children almost never spoke a word of German to her or to any one else. Of course they were taught German, with other languages, but English and Russian were the only two languages spoken in the family circle. The Empress was anxious for all her children to be good linguists, but not all of them were gifted that way. Tatiana, the second daughter, for example, declared that she never would be able to carry on a conversation in French, the easiest of all foreign tongues. But English they all spoke from their cradles.
"As for the Empress's intrigues for a separate peace with Germany," and here Mme. Vyrubova's voice trembled with indignation, "that was the greatest nonsense and the wickedest slander of them all. From the time the war broke out until the revolution last February the Empress was tireless in her work for the Russian soldiers and their families. She fairly lived in the hospitals at Tsarskoe Selo. Immediately after breakfast every morning she began her rounds, dressed in the plain cotton frock of the Red Cross nurse. There was no duty too humble, no task too arduous for her to undertake. She stood beside the surgeons in the operating room, seeing the most dreadful amputations. She sat beside the suffering and the dying in their beds. 'Stand near me, czaritza,' a poor wretch would cry to her in his anguish and pain, and she would take his rough hand and soothe him, pray for him, that he might bear it for Russia. They loved her then, those men, though they turned against her afterward. We used to motor home for luncheon and then go to more hospitals. It would be 5 o'clock before we reached home, and then the Empress always sent for her children. What time did she have, will you tell me, for German intrigues?
"The home life of the royal family was happy and harmonious above any I have ever seen," interpolated Mme. Vyrubova. "The Czar worshiped his wife and the children worshiped both of them. Would you believe that some of those court parasites tried to break up that happy home ? Once when the Emperor was at Livadia, in the Crimea, some one sent each day a great basket of flowers to be placed on his writing table. Attached to the basket was my card. They thought they could make the Empress believe that I was carrying on an intrigue with the Emperor. As a matter of fact, the Empress asked me directly if I sent the flowers. I had not heard a word of it before, and if she had merely sent me away I should never have known the reason. Against me they plotted ceaselessly. Why? Because the Empress loved and trusted me. and I would have died for her, and they all knew it. They resented our friendship. They hated to see us sitting together hours at a time over our books. We read a great deal. It may interest you to know that we read many American books."
"What American books did the Empress read?" I asked.
"We read Mrs. Eddy's book, of course, and the complete works of the great American author, Miller."
"Miller?" I interrupted. "What Miller?"
"I don't remember his first name," said Mme. Vyrubova. "But you must know who I mean. He wrote many religious and philosophical works. The Empress was very fond of them."
I was obliged to confess that I had never heard of Miller, and Mme. Vyrubova looked her surprise.
"Another reason why the Empress, and of course myself, were unpopular was because the children were with us so much of the time. The Empress simply would not allow them to associate with the sons and daughters of the nobility. She wanted to keep them sweet and clean minded and good, and she knew that very few of the children of high society in Russia were fit companions for them. The daughters of our nobility are mostly frivolous, selfish, empty-headed girls, and as for the sons, they are too often debauched in early boyhood. You can imagine that the Empress's poor opinion of them and her refusal to allow her children to know them aroused great resentment. People always think their own children perfect, you know."
The former Empress of Russia is one of the enigmas of histories. Mme. Vyrubova, who knew her better than almost any other living woman, makes her out a religious devotee and something of a puritan. She does not reveal her as an intellectual woman, in spite of her love of books. A really intelligent woman in her position would not have spent so much of her time in the wards of hospitals in the one small town of Tsarskoe Selo. She would have used her brains, her vast wealth and her almost unlimited power to organize the work of the hospitals all over the war area. I have seen some of those hospitals, and while some of them are modern and well equipped, many are of the crudest description. I never saw such a thing as a fly screen in any Russian hospital. Flies seem to be regarded as harmless domestic pets even in contagious disease hospitals in Russia.
The Empress may or may not have been a German plotter. I heard it said on high authority that the minutest search of all the palace records, after the revolution, failed to unearth any evidence to that effect. Practically everybody in Russia, however, believes that she was a traitor to her country in the war. Those who are charitably disposed toward her say that she was melancholy, mad, irresponsible, and a weak tool in the hands of Russia's enemies. But when the days of revolution burst on the palace at Tsarskoe Selo, and the night of perpetual extinction began to descend on the royal house of Romanoff, it was this woman, the Empress of Russia, who alone showed strength of mind and character. She alone of the whole court kept her head and her cool nerve, and kept them to the last.
Much has been made of Alexandra's influence over the weak and yielding Emperor. It is said that the Empress, when arguments failed to move him, resorted to hysterical fits which invariably brought results. But this may be the merest gossip. Alexandra's influence over her husband was probably as strong as the average wife's, but is it not a little curious that, while few countries allow women to inherit a throne and not all countries allow women to vote, when anything happens to a dynasty they always discover that the queen was the only member of the family who had any brains or any strength of character? The troubles of the whole house of Bourbon have been ascribed to Marie Antoinette, and the fall of the third empire and the house of Bonaparte was caused by the malign influence of Josephine.
Rasputin is another actor in the drama who will have to be judged by the historians. I firmly believe that Rasputin as a dark force was very much overrated. I have no doubt that he was a wicked, deceitful, plotting creature, a monster of sensuality, an impostor and an all-around bad lot. That seems to be settled. But I cannot find much evidence that he was anything more than a tool of the German plotters, whoever they were. He exercised great influence, but it seems to me that almost everything he did was out of personal spite. He demanded the suppression of a newspaper that attacked him, the removal of a minister who insulted him. His principal activities were against men in the orthodox church. Here he was about as venomous as a rattlesnake. An obscure monk, it filled him with pride and joy to humble a bishop, to unfrock a priest, to influence appointments.
Rasputin had a small, mean mind, and his egotism was colossal. Of course the women fools at court who flattered and deferred to him, perhaps worse, fostered this egotism until it reached the limit of inflation. But Rasputin, I believe, will live in history more as a scandal than as a menace to Russia. He was a menace also, because a bad, weak man is often even more of a menace than a bad, strong one. The weakling is almost sure sooner or later to fall into the hands of plotters and criminals, and under their directing power he becomes as dangerous as a rabid animal.
THE PASSING OF THE ROMANOFFS
I asked Mme. Vyrubova to tell me what happened at the palace during the revolution and how the royal family received the news of its overthrow.
"I can tell you only what I personally know," she replied, " and I was very ill in bed when it happened. All the children had measles and, helping the empress nurse them, I was stricken too. The Empress was an angel. She went from one room to another caring for us, waiting on us, while all the time anxiety must have been tearing cruelly at her heartstrings. Once or twice she said something to me about trouble in Petrograd, food riots. "The scarcity of food had preyed on the Empress's mind for many months, and one of the last conversations she ever had with Rasputin was on that subject. The winter of 1916 set in early, and the snows were so deep that transportation of all kinds of things, food I included, was greatly impeded. I remember that the Empress said to Rasputin that nature itself seemed to be conspiring against poor Russia that year. "The rioting in Petrograd increased, and even in my bed I could hear echoes of it around the palace. Shots I heard and horrid yells. I tried to get out of bed, but the Empress soothed me. 'It is bad, of course" she said, 'but it will quiet soon. The poor people are mad with hunger. They will be given food and then all this will be over.' Soon the palace guards, the regiments on duty in Tsarskoe Selo, began to show signs of demoralization. They were afraid for their own lives, and you cannot wonder that they were. The Empress used to go out in the cold and snow in the dead of night and talk to the men, reassure them, comfort them. 'Nothing will happen,' she told them. But for her I believe the last man would have thrown away his gun and fled. Her will and her resolution alone kept them at their posts."
"Do you think that the Empress really believed that it was a riot and not a revolution?" I asked. It was history this woman was telling me, history that will live in libraries a thousand years after we two, and all of us, are dust. I wanted to know the exact truth.
"I am sure she did," said Mme. Vyrubova. "If she had dreamed that it was a revolution she would have sent earlier for the Emperor, who, you know, was at the front with his army. She was alone and she faced the trouble alone, but if she had known the full extent of the trouble she would have wanted the Emperor where he would be safer than out there among that murderous gang. She did not know that Russia was in revolution, nor would she believe it at first when she was told that the army had gone over to the revolutionists. The officers of the guard told her, but she simply shook her head. Finally, Grand Duke Paul came tearing out to Tsarskoe in his highest power motor car. He convinced her that it was true. Even then her steel nerves endured. 'Send for the Emperor,' she said calmly and sternly. 'I am going back to my sick children.' And she went."
The iron nerve displayed by the Empress of Russia when she learned that supreme disaster had befallen the house of Romanoff was in contrast to the emotion which overcame the deposed Emperor on his return to Tsarskoe Selo. At the time of his abdication, near the army front, he had behaved with dignity and self-command. He scornfully refused the whispered suggestion of one general that he escape in one of the high-power motor cars which always accompanied the imperial train. If the people wanted him to abdicate, he was ready to do so, and ready also to place himself at their disposal. Nicholas also showed himself to be a good Russian and no tool of the pro-German party, if reports are correct. When the news came that the army had gone over to the revolution some one near the Emperor, it is said, told him that there was one desperate way to avert the catastrophe. He could open up the Dvinsk front, let the enemy in, and thus by the sacrifice of his country save his dynasty. Nicholas refused even to consider such a crime. He committed many sins of cruelty in his time, and many more sins of stupidity. But in the end he showed himself no traitor. His return to Tsarskoe Selo was intended by Kerensky and the other members of the provisional government to be in accordance with his former rank, and orders were given to treat him with all respect and consideration. These orders, if Mme. Vyrubova is to be believed, were disregarded by the soldiers on guard at the Alexander palace, the home of the royal family.
In my last talk with Mme. Vyrubova she spoke with deep feeling of the rowdy reception given the returning Nicholas. "They blew tobacco smoke in his face, the brutes!" she said. "A soldier grabbed him by the arm and pulled one way, while others clutched him on the other side and pulled him in an opposite direction. They jeered at him and laughed at his anger and pain. When he was finally alone with his family and intimate friends he could not contain his grief but wept unrestrainedly. We all wept, for that matter: we who loved him."
It is to the credit of Kerensky and the ministers that they never would consent to any suggestion that Nicholas be thrown into a dungeon or otherwise harshly treated. As long as the family remained at Tsarskoe Selo, which was until the 1st of August, Russian style, and August 13 in the western calendar, it lived in its accustomed manner. The servants, most of them, remained at their posts, and while no member of the family was allowed to leave the palace grounds on any pretext, nor the palace itself except when accompanied by armed guards, they had the freedom of their home and the society of a few friends. They were not allowed to telephone, and all letters reaching them had first to be read by the officer in command of the guards. Mme. Vyrubova told me that in spite of Kerensky's good intentions, the deposed royalties were subjected to a number of petty annoyances which must have caused them all the resentment and humiliation their tormentors intended. The electric lights were sometimes turned off early in the evening, leaving the palace in darkness. There were days when the water was turned off and the family was deprived of bathing facilities. The soldiers on guard were not infrequently rude and churlish and openly exultant in the presence of their prisoners.
Kerensky cannot be held responsible for these things, but be was responsible for depriving the former Empress of the society of her most intimate friend, Mme. Vyrubova. I have already told how she was arrested while still suffering from the effects of measles and thrown into a cell in Peter and Paul. The cell was damp and insanitary, and the sick woman suffered extreme misery all the time she was there. Surrounded constantly by soldiers, who watched her night and day, she was never alone even long enough to dress or to bathe. She is lame, as I have stated, and once she fell on the slippery floor of her cell and was unable for a long time to rise. The soldiers on guard refused to help her, but simply stood and laughed at her efforts to reach her bed. "Twice during the months of my confinement they let my mother visit me," she told me. "But I was allowed to talk to her only in presence of the guard and across a wide table in the governor's room."
A friend of Mme. Vyrubova told me a still worse story concerning her imprisonment. Several times her father was visited by soldiers from Peter and Paul and made to pay large sums of money in order to insure his daughter from the most horrible indignities at the hands of the men who guarded her. He paid this blackmail. He had to. There was no power in Russia to appeal to, and Kerensky himself could not have prevented the murder or outrage of that lame and helpless woman in the fortress of Peter and Paul. She escaped the last insult men are capable of offering to women, and the government, after vainly trying to fasten the crime of treason on her, set Anna Vyrubova free under military surveillance. But they would not grant the Empress's plea to send her friend back to Tsarskoe Selo.
The first shock of dumbfounded amazement over, the royal family, which had never believed that it could be overthrown, regained its composure and accepted its destiny with quiet resignation. The Emperor became his adored son's tutor, and the Empress her daughters' constant companion. When spring came the whole family went out and made a garden. The hundreds of soldiers in Tsarskoe and thousands of people from Petrograd made pilgrimages to the palace grounds and watched through the high iron fence the former Czar spading up the ground and the former heir and his sisters planting and hoeing potatoes. The former Empress, in a wheeled chair or low pony carriage, for she was in feeble health, usually looked on smilingly.
Of course, the Tavarishi, or at least the extremists in the Council of Soldiers' and Workmen's Delegates, resented the respectful and considerate treatment accorded the captive royalties. They kept up a constant clamor for the removal of the Emperor and Empress to some dungeon in Kronstadt or Peter and Paul. Every once in a while the newspapers published a resolution to that effect passed by a committee of the council in Petrograd or Tsarskoe, or in a city more remote. A dispatch from Helsingfors said that the crews of three warships lying near there had passed fiery resolutions demanding that the Czar be turned over to the tender mercies of the ruffians at Kronstadt. The crew of the cruiser Gangoute went on record as saying: "This is the third time that we have expressed our will in this matter, and we have not been trifling. This is our last resolution. Next we shall employ force."
The government, however, disregarded all these resolutions and muttered threats. It may very well be, though, that the final decision to send Nicholas and his wife into Siberian exile came as a result of pressure on the part of the soviets. Kerensky may have feared a bloody tragedy at Tsarskoe Selo, and perhaps he had reason to fear it. At all events, the provisional government decided, some time in July, to transfer the family to one of the remotest spots in the empire, Tobolsk, in Eastern Siberia. The government kept this decision an absolute secret, as far as the deposed Emperor as well as the general public were concerned. A few days before the transfer was made one of the sovi ets, I think at Tsarskoe, held a stormy meeting at which great indignation was expressed over the ease and comfort in which the once royal family lived. "We eat black bread, they eat white," complained one impassioned orator. "We drink cold water and Nicholas drinks wine. My wife walks while his rides in a carriage. Where's the justice in that?"
Doesn't it sound like a deliberate plagiarism of one of the speeches made against allowing the sixteenth Louis to remain in the Tuileries? A lot of things have changed since the French revolution, but some human nature is just as small and mean as ever.
It was not until the Romanoff family was well on its way to Siberia that the transfer was mentioned in the newspapers. Many people knew of it, of course, and the news was passed from excited lip to lip in the capital a few hours after the special train left Tsarskoe Selo. In the newspapers of August 3 ( 16, old style) the carefully censored story of the departure was published. The full story, as far as I know it, reveals that for three weeks beforehand the garrison at Tsarskoe knew, or suspected, that something was about to happen to the captives. Two days before the event Kerensky went in person to the garrison and asked the soldiers to choose from their ranks a squadron of the most reliable and trustworthy men. They were needed, he explained, for a mission of great importance. Three hundred and eighty-four men were chosen, eight from forty-eight regimental groups. On the 3 1 st Of July (August 12) at midnight Kerensky appeared at the barrack, called the picked men together and told them that their mission was to escort the man who had been their emperor and autocrat into exile in far Siberia.
The royal family knew its fate before that time, but just when they were told has not been revealed. Kerensky told them, and I feel sure that he did it gently and courteously. But he refused them all information as to where they were going. On July 30 (August i i ) the confessor of the family held a service for those about to go on a long journey. Then they went to work to pack trunks and to choose among clothes, trinkets, furs, personal belongings, books, ikons, rugs and other essential things that would lighten exile and keep them in memory of other days. It is said that neither Nicholas nor Alexandra slept on the night before their departure, but wandered from room to room, hand in hand, mutely and sorrowfully bidding their beloved home good-by. Many others in Tsarskoe Selo refrained from sleep on that night. The garrison was wildly excited, and the streets of the picturesque little town were full of people. At 3 o'clock in the morning motor vans were driven into the palace grounds, and those near enough the gates could see that the vans were being loaded with trunks and boxes. At 6 o'clock a long train slowly backed into the station of Tsarskoe Selo, the station was surrounded by soldiers, and troops with loaded rifles marched out and lined both sides of the road from the palace to the station, each soldier carrying in his belt sixty rounds of cartridges.
Those who saw the departure differ in minor details, of course, because no two people ever see the same event exactly all alike. Especially an important event on which we would like to have all the details. But all the observers agree that Nicholas walked out of the palace and entered the waiting motor car with the calm manner of a man about to take a pleasure drive. Alexandra did the same. She walked without assistance, having apparently recovered her shattered health. The former Czarevitch, in a sailor suit and cap, danced ahead of his parents, in pleased anticipation of a journey, and the young grand duchesses also appeared in high spirits. They are extremely handsome girls, all of them, and people rather sympathetically observed that during their illness in February they had all had their luxuriant hair cut short.
Some of the observers say that the former Czar drove to the station alone, others say Kerensky followed him into the car and still others say that the family went together. Some say that Nicholas wore the uniform of a Russian army officer, others particularly noticed his gray suit. To some he looked dejected and tearful, and to others careless and cold. Some saw tears in his eyes when he entered the train, others marveled at the calmness with which he shook hands with members of the provisional government who were on the platform. To this day we do not know whether Louis XVI. laid his head on the block quietly or fought the headsman all over the place, although several thousand Frenchmen witnessed the execution.
It is said that the Emperor left Tsarskoe under the impression that he was being taken to Livadia, the beautiful Crimean estate toward which he yearned at the time of his abdication. He must have been profoundly shocked when he learned that instead he was speeding toward one of the bleakest and dreariest spots in Siberia. Before the train left the Emperor is said to have asked Kerensky, who accompanied him to the last, if the family would ever be allowed to return to Tsarskoe Selo. If he did, Kerensky's reply must have been evasive, for Nicholas told one of his suite, or is said to have done so, that he expected to return after the war.
The Empress, when told that the family was on its way to Tobolsk, is reputed to have smiled coldly and said: "I am glad we shall see Tobolsk. It is a place that has dear associations." Tobolsk, or its near neighborhood, it will be remembered, was the early home of Rasputin. Women of the French aristocracy mounted the guillotine with exactly such speeches on their lips, a last defiance of the mob.
"Why are there so many soldiers on this train?" asked one of the young grand duchesses. She was used to being escorted by soldiers, but the great number on this occasion excited her surprise. The children all knew that they were going into exile, and had been given their choice of remaining with relatives or going with their parents. Mme. Vyrubova's claim that the family bond is strong was borne out by their unanimous decision to go wherever their father and mother went.
Mme. Narychkine, one of the empress's faithful ladies in waiting, went with her, since the provisional government would not let her have Mme. Vyrubova or even allow the two friends to bid each other farewell. Prince Dolgorouki was permitted to go with the Emperor. The children retained a governess and the boy a tutor. Twelve servants accompanied the family. According to the depths of his nature and understanding, one feels a certain pity for the former autocrat of all the Russias, or rejoices wildly at his present plight. He had to be exiled, and perhaps Siberia was the best place to send him. But Siberia has a large variety of climates and places to choose among, and it seems to many people that the provisional government might have been a little more humane in their choice of a residence for Nicholas and his family. Whatever his shortcomings, however just his punishment, his five children never harmed anybody, and they deserve no punishment. According to accounts, every hour they spend at Tobolsk will be a punishment, and their time there will be short, because all of them will probably die owing to the frightful surroundings.
Tobolsk is a town of about 25,000 inhabitants, situated on the Irtish river, a little sluggish stream that drains, or partially drains one of the great marshes of eastern Siberia. The town is built on a marsh, and the mosquitoes which breed there are said to be of a size and a ferocity unequaled elsewhere. Malaria haunts the miasmas of the marshy forests that stretch for miles around the town and line the river banks. The nearest railroad is 300 versts distant. In winter, which endures eight months of the year, the place is shut off from the world. It is as remote from human association as the moon. The provisional government apologizes for Tobolsk as a choice on the ground of the necessity for remoteness.
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