Part One - Old Russia Alexander Palace Time Machine
Royalty Discussion Forum
Part One - Old Russia Chapter I

I was born on the beautiful estates in South Russia which belonged to my grandmother and my uncle. My father was Ismail Selim Bek Smolsky, whose ancestors hailed from Lithuanian Tartary, and my mother, before her marriage, was Mlle Catherine Horvat, whose grandfather had been invited by the Empress Elizabeth Petrovna to come from Hungary and assist in the colonization of South Russia. Colonel Horvat, who was half Serbian and half Hungarian by birth, was appointed general of the armies of the South by the Empress, and there is a story in our family that when he first arrived in Russia he was taken to the summit of a high mountain and told to look at the panorama of fields and forests lying beneath him.

Colonel Horvat dutifully admired the view, but an unexpected surprise awaited him. "Look well around you, M. le Colonel," said his guide, "the country, as far as you can see, is yours; it is the gift of the Empress! "Truly an Imperial gift, but all that remains of those great possessions are the estates where I was born. These properties were situated on the Dnieper, in the country known as "Little Russia," which in former times was the seat of the Ukranian Government. My forefathers became typical Russian noblemen; they were lavishly generous where their inclinations were concerned, and it is asserted that one of them once exchanged a large forest for a sporting dog which he especially coveted!

Revovka, my birthplace, was close to the other estates which came into our possession through Prince Goleniktcheff Koutousoff, the hero who saved Russia from falling into the hands of the French. It was a delightful old house, standing in a wellwooded park, with avenues of lime trees where the nightingales sang, and as I write, I can smell the unforgettable perfume of the limes, - and recall the beauty and peace of the surroundings; it was, indeed, a real fairyland. All was prosperity and happiness at Revovka. The village nestled close to the Great House, and my ancestors were buried in the church. There were rows of little cottages which were whitewashed every week; the roofs were thatched with reeds, and the gardens were gay with flowers. A cherry tree stood in every garden (cherry trees are typical of South Russia), it was the country of cherry trees, spotless houses and simple joys.

The peasants were on the best of terms with my family, and they regarded my grandmother Horvat as a beneficent deity who replaced the reed roofs when they were destroyed by fire, and who supplied them with unlimited quantities of fuel. They were quite contented, and my grandmother still employed some of the peasants who had once been given to her as serfs. In the old days, it was customary to include a few serfs in a bride's corbeille, and the ten peasants who had been chosen to accompany my grandmother to Revovka adored her. "People say that we were unhappy as serfs," they would often remark, "but we were always well looked after - our landlord and our owner was also our father."

The peasant as master or mistress was invariably a tyrant, and I remember hearing about a beautiful girl who had become the mistress of a great nobleman, and who outHeroded Herod in her arrogance. She employed her family to do her laundry work, and she always insisted upon her linen being rinsed in running water. If her petticoats were not sufficiently starched, the whole batch of her relatives was flogged. Personally, we did not resent the lack of starch, to this extent, but I suppose that this family flogging may be regarded as typical of the usual procedure of beggars on horseback!

My grandmother, Mme Horvat, nee Baroness Pilar, was the sweetest of women, and I loved her with a child's passionate devotion. She used to tell me all kinds of stories, and our old nurse ably seconded her. Whenever we walked by the river, and I exclaimed at the beauty of the lilies, I was thrilled anew by hearing how, long ago, when the Tartar hordes descended on Beletskovka, the women and children used to wade into the water, and shelter under the broad green lily-leaves until the marauders had passed. The peasants at Revovka were extremely superstitious, and they believed implicitly in witches and warlocks. It was common knowledge that certain women possessed tails and bewitched the cows, and woe betide the widow who mourned her husband too much! He would assuredly return in the likeness of a big snake, and make an unwelcome descent down the chimney. I was terribly scared by some of these narratives, and I much preferred the pretty customs prevalent at certain seasons, now vanished, alas! under the Bolshevik regime, since the teaching of Lenin would seemingly only include the ritual of blood in its category.

I chiefly remember the quaint methods of divination practised on New Year's Eve, when the girls of the village went out to listen at the closed doors, and those who heard a man's name mentioned were certain to marry within the year. They varied these proceedings by throwing their slippers over their heads, to see if they fell in the shape of anything that might be construed into an initial letter. Others preferred to try and catch the rays of the moon in a towel; all pretty gay conceits, dear to the heart of girlhood, and, on St. Catharine's Day, cherry tree branches were put in water, and, if the bare wood blossomed by Xmas, then marriage bells were about to ring.

Midsummer Day was sacred to the river, a survival doubtless of those pagan customs which are so difficult to destroy. Large fires were lighted along the river banks, and the village maidens, wearing wreaths, leapt into the water, across the fires, and left the wreaths in the river as an offering, perchance to the God of Streams. The next morning, they set out to look for their wreaths, and those who were lucky enough to find them discovered by the direction in which the wreath had been washed up the way by which marriage would come.

The storks brought luck, and they were invited to sojourn with us by means of wheels placed in the roofs on which they built their nests. The solemn birds were family friends, and, whenever a baby stork fell from its nest, everyone went to enormous trouble to put it back.

My grandmother had a passion for embroidery, and she employed from ten to fifteen girls constantly working for her. She believed that, as a typical industry, the art of embroidery in South Russia ought to be revived, and she spared no pains or expense over her hobby. She proved conclusively that the progress of the nations from East to West had left its traces even in embroidery patterns, as she often saw similar designs in antique carpets and Venetian work.

None of my grandmother's embroideries was ever sold: whenever a piece was finished, it was labelled with the date of its commencement and completion, and packed away in great presses, already nearly full of exquisite work. She presented a quantity of this embroidery to the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, the Tsaritsa's sister, when she was received into the Greek Church. My grandmother had the honour of acting as godmother to the Grand Duchess, and I believe her "christening" present was much appreciated. The embroideries were really wonderful: the designs were never drawn, the threads only were counted, and the pattern was evolved in this painstaking manner. Some of my grandmother's favourite designs were taken from Easter eggs, which were first covered with pinked-out wax, and colour inserted in them. Snow crystals formed another inspiration; my grandmother never tired of utilising anything decorative, and she was unusually successful. I like to think of those quiet days-the industrious girls, and the good feeling which existed between the employer and the employed. It is difficult to realise that the progress of Revolution has destroyed all this, that the great presses have been broken open and their contents dispersed to the four winds, and that to ask a peasant to pass her time profitably would be accounted a sin.

My grandmother, notwithstanding her patriarchal outlook, could be the " grande dame " when occasion warranted, and my old nurse used to relate how one of her neighbours, a certain Prince, came to ask her in marriage. This gentleman believed in the impressiveness of pomp and circumstance, so he arrived at Beletskovka in a carriage and six horses. He was most courteously received-and refused-by my grandmother, and, when he drove away, his horses, by some preconceived arrangement, cast their shoes in the avenue. These " cast off " shoes were solid silver, a mute testimony to his wealth, and, as he passed through the village, he and his postillions distributed undreamt-of largesse. The Prince was a haughty personage, who lived in a gorgeous mansion boasting fifty rooms. He gave two balls yearly, when an orchestra was specially sent for from Petrograd, a four days' journey from his estate. But in the Prince's opinion nobody, save my grandmother and our family, was good enough to associate (even as a dance partner) with him and his, so the balls were rather tame affairs, a few couples only taking the floor, but those who did were - like Caesar's wife - entirely above suspicion.

Silver horse-shoes, expensive orchestras, and other unconsidered trifles cost money, and, as the male members of this super-aristocratic family were all in Hussar regiments, financial ruin eventually came as an uninvited and unwelcome guest: it closed the doors of the castle, the orchestra came no more, and the ladies of the house sought refuge in an institution for nobIe ladies of fallen fortunes!

My great-aunt, the Baroness Nina Pilar, was a romantic figure in my childhood's memories, as her name conjured up the fascination which surrounds those who breathe and have their being in the air of Courts. She was Lady-in-Waiting to the Empress Marie, wife of Alexander II, and she made her appearance at Court when she was sixteen, under the auspices of Countess Tizenhausen (another great-aunt), Grande Maitresse de la Cour, who brought up Felix Soumarokoff, the grandfather of Prince Felix Yousopoff. There was a great deal of gossip about the paternity of old Soumarokoff, who had been confided, as a baby, to Countess Tizenhausen by an intimate friend, but nobody was ever any the wiser, and Soumarokoff's antecedents remained an unsolved mystery.

The Empress Marie loved Aunt Nina, and the Emperor was very kind to her until my innocent relative was the victim of chance, and a costumiere. The Emperor had become infatuated with a certain Princess Dolgorouky, and one day, when my aunt was walking on the Quai, looking especially attractive in a new costume, she suddenly heard a voice addressing her in most endearing terms. She turned sharply round, and found to her dismay that the voice was the voice of the Emperor! Explanations followed, and my aunt discovered that Princess Dolgorouky possessed a duplicate of her new costume, and, as their heights and figures were similar, it was a case, of mistaken identity.

The Empress was almost always ill, but her Court was distinguished by its elegance and refinement, and my aunt was one of the acknowledged leaders of fashion.

Like most pretty women, Aunt Nina had her love story, but she never married. Her Prince Charming was the Grand Duke Nicholas, to whom she was secretly engaged. But, when the Grand Duke asked the Emperor's permission to marry his inamorata, the Emperor, who had never forgiven the contretemps on the Quai, refused his consent!

The unhappy lovers met in Switzerland when Aunt Nina was in attendance on the Empress, and there they bade each other farewell, and threw their engagement rings into the lake. The Grand Duke never forgot his broken romance, although he, like most lovers, eventually married someone else! But he was present at my aunt's funeral, and stood silently and sorrowfully looking at the coffin which held many of the dreams and much of the enchantment of his youth.

Aunt Nina practically sacrificed her life to save that of the Empress, although the latter died years later at Petrograd, when, it is asserted, a luminous Cross appeared over the Winter Palace, typical of her physical and mental sufferings.

It so happened that when the Empress and my aunt were driving in Switzerland, their carriage was run into by a cart, and, in order to prevent one of the shafts from striking the Empress, my aunt stood up to protect her, and was badly bruised in the chest. Some time afterwards cancer developed, but my aunt survived her Imperial mistress, and became Lady-in-Waiting to the Empress Dagmar, and Grande Maitresse de la Cour to the Grand Duchess Elizabeth. The Grand Duchess was very much attached to her, and at her death she begged my grandmother to take her place. My grandmother, for family reasons, declined the honour, but she often used to visit the Grand Duchess and the Grand Duke Serge, and I remember hearing her describe the pathetic figure presented by the Grand Duchess after her husband's assassination, when she had relinquished the splendours of life and had become a nun at Moscow. My childhood was chiefly passed on my grandmother's estates. We led a somewhat patriarchal life at Revovka: a simple existence which will, I fear, never again return, and it is exceedingly difficult for me, as a Russian, to recognise the peasants of then and now. The average peasant was kindly by nature, entirely ignorant, and excessively difficult to educate. Whenever my grandmother tried to persuade her tenants to send their children to school, the answer was always the same: "Knowing how to read and write doesn't provide food. Our parents got on very well without education, our sons can do likewise." Their faith in the aristocratic class was boundless, they entirely depended on their landlords, but the Russian peasant has always, unfortunately for himself, been easily influenced by speeches and printed matter-hence the complete success of the Revolutionary Propaganda, and the belief in many of the false statements circulated in order to damage the Imperial family in the eyes of the people. I cannot defend our own attitude in not attempting to combat this danger; we were aware that it existed, but only one section, known as the Black Band, tried to destroy it by counter propaganda. Its eff orts were unsuccessful, it received no support, for the very good reason that nobody believed that the masses would rise. The Russian aristocrat, secure in his class prejudices, and his optimistic faith in himself, was as loth as the French aristocrat of 1789 to realise that his position was, or could ever be, insecure!

The South Russian peasant, as I knew him, was a poetical, simple soul. After dinner we often used to watch the men turning their horses into our meadows for safety, and securing the animals' legs with chains, in order to prevent any inclination to roam. They invariably sang whilst making these nightly preparations, and they danced afterwards in the bright moonlight which flooded meadows and woodland with a white radiance. They had many quaint customs at Revovka, which may not be uninteresting to English readers who only know the Russia of to-day as a strange and poisonous growth, and not as the orchid which had its home in the eternal snows-a curious simile, perhaps, but in my mind a correct one. Our country, in many respects, was an exotic growth; superrefinement walked cheek by jowl with ignorance, and an almost oriental luxury brushed the skirts of poverty. It was a land of extreme contrasts, where emotions and passions either ran riot or else were suppressed to an undreamt-of extent.

It was almost inconceivable at one time that the family coachman, who obstinately turned his horses' heads in the direction of home because he met a white dog in the road, could ever become the Bolshevik who would have murdered his employers instead of protecting them from the bad luck attendant on the unwelcome animal!

I must admit that my grandmother was as superstitious as her coachman. She believed implicitly in dreams, and an old woman from the village was always sent for to expound the more exciting ones. I remember that one of her dreams had a disastrous sequel, inasmuch as it involved the dismissal of a very devoted servant who, my grandmother dreamt, had attempted to kill her. She resolutely declined to see him again, and he was sent away to another estate. I supposed she was influenced in this by the knowledge that, on several occasions, she had dreamed true.

Our peasants confided all their joys and sorrows in my grandmother, and, when any of them married, we were always invited to the wedding. This invitation was issued on set lines; the bride-to-be, dressed in full national costume, plentifully bedecked with flowers and ribbons, came with her bridesmaid to the servants' sitting-room, where she was received by my grandmother. The girl thereupon knelt, and bowed three times, informing my relation what an honour our presence would confer on her family, and, gratified by the assurance that we would promise to come, she withdrew, all smiles! After the ceremony, which always took place on a Sunday, the whole of the wedding party came back to our house and assembled on the terrace, where a village orchestra discoursed strange sweet sounds, and where unwearied dancing enlivened the music and singing. We always gave one kind of present-a cow ! When I married, our employees surpassed themselves and gave me, not a cow, but two oxen!

We fasted on Christmas Eve until the first star appeared, when we partook of a heavy supper of which the fifteen courses always included fish. Hay was strewn under the tablecloth to remind us of the humility of the Manger, and it was customary for the children to carry the Christmas supper to their friends and relations. All the windows of the Chateau were darkened, but one was left open, and, when the first star appeared in the serene sky, this window was illuminated in honour of the Christ-Child. It was then that the children arrived "en masse," carrying revolving paper transparencies adorned with pictures of Christ; it was one illuminated stream of little children, and one of the prettiest sights imaginable.

New Year's Day was an occasion for general rejoicing, when the men of the village, assembled on the terrace to congratulate us, throwing wheat in our pathway as a sign of prosperity. We then witnessed the procession of our servants, who filed past us, accompanied by their special charges. First, came the stablemen leading the horses, who, in addition to being superlatively well-groomed, were adorned with gilt crowns and many ribbons. Then came the herdsmen with their grave-eyed steers, whose horns were gilded in honour of the New Year; the sheep were accompanied by the shepherds, and the cortege was terminated by the poultry maid, who escorted a turkey smothered in ribbons.

On the first New Year's Day after the Revolution, the crowd came to the Chateau as usual, but there was no procession of animals, no smiling faces, and no wheat-strewn pathway. We were confronted by scowling peasants, who roughly informed us that henceforth nothing belonged to us, since they were masters. But to do our own people justice, the better minded amongst them absented themselves, and only the worst characters were in evidence - and these, in their turn, were under the evil influences rampant in towns. I have no hesitation in stating that the motive power in the destruction of Russia emanated, and still emanates, from the Jews.

When the snows began to melt, the children and young people heralded the approach of Spring with song. joining hands, they wandered singing in the twilight, a lovely, living chain of Youth in its Spring-time. They repeated these songs at Easter, that wonderful festival of Resurrection and the rebirth of Nature. On Holy Thursday the Gospels were read in the churches until midnight, and everyone carried a taper. My mother's estates were situated in the mountains, and it was a picturesque sight when the peasants wended their way churchwards at Easter. The church was half-way up a steep ascent, and the procession of taper-bearers could be traced by hundreds of lights, as two villages participated in the ceremony.

Revovka was an entrancing home for a child blessed, as I was, with an imaginative temperament. We had our particular White Lady, a tragic phantom who haunted the Park, and who used to swing in the branches of the lime trees. She had been the mistress of one of my greatuncles, and she was buried in the Park. No one seemed to know her fate, but it was said that she was beautiful and unhappy. Her grave was marked with a flat stone, without any inscription, as the poor little creature had sought refuge from love and life in self-destruction. But Nature was kinder to her than Man, and an enormous bush of wild roses threw out caressing arms towards the cold stones, and showered pink petaltears on the unhonoured dead.

There was a similar forgotten grave on my father's property, formerly a hunting-box of the Kings of Poland. The occupant of this grave had been the mistress of a king, and, like the beauty of Revovka, she had killed herself ; but she was a restless spirit, and she used to haunt the Park and the house in the summer, running swiftly across the greensward, wearing little scarlet slippers and darting up the staircase, her scarlet heels tap-tapping as she went her way, unsubstantial and fantastic as the morning mist.

I used to dream all kinds of dreams, but I never anticipated what Destiny held in store for me. I was, by nature, timid; I was to become courageous through force of another's shining example. I was to see and experience the real meaning of selfless love, and I was to know the comfort and beauty of religion. I do not say that I was irreligiousfew Russians are really irreligious - our Belief is too deeply rooted - but I did not yet understand the meaning of the word Faith.

I always looked forward to our yearly pilgrimage to the Convent of Tchigrin, twentyfive miles away from Revovka. Custom ordained that we should proceed thither on foot, but the carriage invariably went with us! The convent contained a miraculous Virgin which, when the Turks pillaged Tchigrin, had been taken away by them. one day a disconsolate nun walking on the river's bank saw something floating on the surface of the water. The Virgin had returned to her convent, and from that time it became the scene of wonderful miracles, and many pilgrimages. I liked Tchigrin; it breathed an atmosphere of calm, standing alone in the midst of dense pine woods. But the wind, which respects neither convents nor humanity, was occasionally unkind to Tchigrin, as it swept away the sand which filled the crevices of the walls, almost like natural mortar, and the nuns daily brought bags of sand wherewith to repair the damage. This sandcarrying was an especial duty connected with Tchigrin, and occasionally it was a penance - but I think those simple creatures rarely deserved punishment.

I have perhaps devoted too much time to the festivals, ghosts and unexciting incidents of a country life. But I have done this in order to explain many subsequent happenings which would be otherwise incomprehensible to an English public. These events cannot, and must not, be judged entirely from an English standpoint. We are a race apart, our country is one of extreme mysticism and superstition. It is a land of miracles, where the holy pictures are believed to shed tears, and where every village possesses its seer and its saint. It would be possible to cover the length and breadth of England in a week's motoring tour, thus England is of necessity more circumscribed. One could not see Russia in such a manner. It is a country of vast distances, of densely populated cities, and lonely tracts which extend for thousands of miles. You cannot contrast the mode of life prevalent at Tooting with that of Tobolsk, or compare the customs of Moscow with those of Manchester. Our upbringing is entirely un-English. True, we are citizens of the world, we are indeed cosmopolitan, butonce a Russian, always a Russian. The Tsaritsa told me that, when she first came to Russia, she was greatly surprised to find that Russian servants did not understand the art of blackleading grates. She had always been accustomed to see shining grates in England when she stayed with her grandmother at Windsor-in Petrograd, shining grates were non-existent. We are miles apart from English ways in little things like these, and no Englishwoman worthy of the name has ever been known to be ignorant of the use of blacklead. But we ought not to be condemned for the nonrecognition of its virtue. It is merely a question of outlook. In connection with these differences of outlook, I cannot do better than quote. the words of a contributor to the "Daily Mail"; they will plead for my opinions, as the writer possesses the peculiar gift of racial and temperamental understanding:

"We have," he writes, "in England a cold fish-minded way of affecting to laugh at what we are prone to call local superstition. Let me tell you that this point of view will not work in Africa." (He is dealing, I fancy, with Morocco.) " What is obviously a childish hallucination in Hampstead or Newcastle is sober reality under this immense blue sky. You can disbelieve a lot of truths you do not understand as you strap-hang homewards, but you will learn to believe everything in Africa."

Might not this also apply to Russia?

next chapter

Top 10 Reasons NOT to Move To Austin

Learn about the hidden dangers of moving to Austin.

What is Responsive Web Design?

Learn tips and techniques for implementing responsive websites

Introduction by Bob Atchison

Home Page