Almost immediately after my arrival at Tsarkoe Selo, I made the acquaintance of Anna Virouboff, the Lady of the Avenue, and my distant cousin, as her grandfather and my grandmother were related. It is, exceedingly difficult for me to discuss Anna Virouboff, as I am confronted with the tremendous prejudice which exists against her. In England she appears to be a Borgia-like heroine of the films, an hysterical sensualist, the mistress of Rasputin, and the evil genius of the Empress. Her political power is supposed to have been that of a Sarah Jennings and a Catherine Dashkoff, and her influence at Court paramount, If I deny these charges, I shall lay myself open to the accusation of blind partisanship, and I shall be deemed an utterly untrustworthy chronicler; but, notwithstanding these possibilities, I can do no less than speak of Anna Virouboff as I knew her from 1907 until the day in March, 1917, when we were both removed from Tsarkoe Selo by order of Kerensky. Anna's father, General Tanief, was Honorary Secretary of State, and all her family were connected with officers in the Imperial House. She married the same year as myself, but before her marriage she was deeply in love with General Orloff, who commanded the Lancers, and who was a great friend of the Empress. Rightly or wrongly, Her Majesty thought that General Orloff would be too old a husband for Anna, and, although the General loved her, and desired nothing better than to marry her, Anna yielded her will to that of the Empress, and accepted Lieutenant Virouboff to whom she was married in the Palace Chapel at Tsarkoe Selo. The union turned out a complete failure, and I believe that the Empress's original interest in Anna was intensified by the fact that she was indirectly responsible for this unhappy marriage. The Empress accepted what she considered to be her responsibilities very seriously, as her salient characteristics were thoroughness and a fine sense of justice. It was not difficult for her to show more kindness to one whom she already loved, and whose unhappiness was now so poignant. Anna was one of those beings who always look as if someone has hurt them; one wanted to "mother" Anna, to amuse her, to hear her confidences, and to laugh at her exaggerated joys and sorrows.
In appearance, Anna is a person entirely different from the Anna Virouboff of the films and the novel, and she even dares to differ from more serious descriptions of her. She is of middle height, with brownish hair, large, appealing, long-lashed, grey-blue eyes, and a little turned-up nose. She has a baby face, all pink and white, and, alas for the Vampire the Anna of romance, she was then very fat. But her smile was charming, and her mouth pretty ; she was weak as water, as clinging as the most obstinate ivy, and the Empress treated her much in the way that one treats a helpless child. Anna was excessively good-natured, always ready to help others, in whom she was never able to see evil. This virtue (for I suppose it is accounted a virtue) was the ultimate downfall of Anna. She was too credulous, and, therefore, too easily imposed on. She adored the Imperial Family with the devotion of an adherent of the Stuarts, but - and now I am about to make a statement which will be probably treated with derision - she possessed no political influence whatever; she could not influence the Empress one hair's breadth; the Empress petted her, teased her, and scolded her, but she never sought Anna's advice, save in questions of charity.
The Empress and her former Lady-in-Waiting were, however, one where religion was concerned; they shared the same religious sympathies in the midst of an unsympathetic and jealous entourage, and, as Anna did not get on well with the entourage, this fact gave the Empress an additional reason to protect her friend. Anna told me that some of the Ladies-in-Waiting disliked the Empress solely on account of her friendship with her, and, although she had told the Empress that, were she given an official position, all jealousies and comments would be silenced, the Empress had refused to entertain the suggestion.
Later on, when I became on intimate terms with the Empress, she gave me the reason for her refusal.
"I will never give Anna an official position," she said. "She is my friend, I wish to retain her as such. Surely an Empress is allowed the right of a woman to choose her friends. I assure you, Lili, I value my few real friends more than many of the persons in my entourage."
Four years after her marriage, Anna met with a train accident. She never again walked without crutches, her body was completely deformed, but even then slander did not spare her, and evil tongues in Petrograd asserted that, as well as being the friend of the Empress, Anna Virouboff was the mistress of the Emperor! After her accident, the Empress gave Anna a carriage and pair, and often drove out with her. She lived in a pretty little house which had once belonged to Alexander I, and she usually lunched at home, after spending the morning at the Palace. " the children " liked her, everyone who really knew her liked her, and the best proof of her absolute harmlessness lies in the fact that after the Revolution she was never condemned to death. Surely, if she had been such an evil creature, the first action of those in authority would have been to destroy her ? But Anna Virouboff lives, and perhaps one day she will defend herself.
One Monday, shortly after my marriage, I received a note from Anna, asking me to dine with her that evening. Captain Dehn had been in Petrograd for several days, and, as I was rather lonely, I was glad to accept. The dinner was very gay, several officers had been invited, and Emma Fredericks, the daughter of the Minister of the Court, was also a guest. At half-past nine, we heard the sound of wheels, and a carriage stopped outside the house. Anna instantly left the salon, and, a few minutes after, the door opened, and, to our great astonishment, the Emperor, the Empress and the Grand Duchesses entered. They were all laughing, as this surprise visit had been arranged by the Empress, who, seating herself, told us to do likewise, and motioned me to come to her.
"I told you that I should see you again very soon," she said, smiling, and thereupon she began to talk in the most friendly and simple manner.
Once again I had that curious, inexplicable foreboding of tragedy, but no tragedy lurked in that bright, gay room, and my gloomy thoughts were soon dispelled when I was presented to the Emperor. This was the first occasion on which I had spoken to His Majesty, and I found him as charming and friendly as the Empress. His kind eyes, and his smile, struck me at once, he seemed to move in an aura of goodwill, and his peculiar fascinating charm of manner has been admitted even by his enemies, as M. Kerensky acknowledged that the Emperor possessed one of the noblest natures he ever met!
The Emperor, who bore a striking likeness to his cousin, King George of England, was a very amusing conversationalist, and blessed with a keen sense of humour. He instantly put me at my ease, and I made the acquaintance also of the Grand Duchesses, then quite girls, with whom I was later to become on terms of the closest friendship.
The Empress, having expressed a wish to play Halma, we had two or three games; she was greatly addicted to Halma, but she had one little lovable weakness in connection with it, She never liked to lose. The Emperor played dominoes in the next room, and afterwards Emma Fredericks sang, the Empress accompanying her. Her Majesty was a very good pianist, and played with rare feeling, but her excessive shyness often precluded her from playing in the presence of others. At midnight the Imperial family took their departure, and the Empress whispered to me: "Au revoir, we shall meet to-morrow."
She did not forget. I was commanded to go to the Palace on the morrow. It was Tuesday, and I remember how pleased I was. "Everything nice happens on a Tuesday," I kept saying, for this was an old belief of mine.
After my meeting with the Empress at Anna's house, I often went to Tsarkoe Selo, and the Grand Duchesses and I used to ride on the wooden switchback, which was set up in one part of the Palace. It was tremendous fun, and we slid and played together for hours, but I quite forgot that I was a married woman and that I had hopes of becoming a mother in some months' time. However, the Empress had some idea of my condition, and one day, after she and Anna had been watching our performance on the switchback, Anna drew me aside.
"Lili," she said, "I've a message for you. The Empress wants you to be very careful just now." She held up a playful finger. " So no more switchback!"
During the months that followed, the Empress manifested the greatest kindness towards me. She insisted upon her own doctor attending me, and, when the Imperial family went yachting about a fortnight before the birth of my baby, my husband received orders to absent himself from the "Standart, " and to remain with me instead. This act of consideration was due to the Empress, and it caused, like the "wireless," much petty jealousy and a good deal of comment.
But the expected baby delayed his arrival, and, when the Imperial family returned to Tsarkoe Selo, the Emperor's first words to my husband were:
"Has the baby come?"
"No, Sire, not yet."
"Well, well, don't worry, Dehn, these things will happen, you know."
However, the baby arrived next morning, and shortly afterwards Anna Virouboff came to make enquiries on behalf of the Empress, bringing with her two lovely ikons, and a package done up in tissue paper and covered with masses of rambler roses. The package contained a thin, fleecy shawl, and my happiness was complete when Anna told me that the Empress wished to be my son's godmother.
This was a great honour, but it presented difficulties, inasmuch as the Dehns, in order to benefit from certain family monies, were obliged to be baptized as Lutherans. The Empress was told about this, and, although she made no objection at the time, I was to discover later how deeply she was imbued with the faith of her adopted country. At the first christening, the Empress attended in person, and held the baby, now known as Alexander Leonide. She gave me a beautiful sapphire and diamond brooch, and all kinds of presents, and for seven years the question of the child's religion was never mooted between us. But, at the end of that time, the Empress told me that her dearest wish was that "Titi" (as she called him) should be received into the Greek Church.
"It is more than a wish, Lili," she said earnestly, "it is a command. I insist upon my godson being Orthodox. He must be baptized before Christmas."
This quiet persistency seems to me to afford one of the most conclusive proofs of how Russian the Empress had become. It may be argued that most converts are usually fanatics, but this was not so in her case. With that "thoroughness" which I have mentioned as one of her chief characteristics, the Empress was now more Russian than most Russians, more Orthodox than the most Orthodox. She was intensely religious. Her love of God and her belief in His mercy came before her love of her husband and her children, and she found her greatest happiness in religion at a time when she was surrounded by the panoply of Imperial splendour. She was to derive consolation from her religion throughout the Via Dolorosa of the saddened years, and, if it is indeed true that she met death in the noisome cellar-room at Ekaterinburg, I am sure that the same ardent faith sustained her in that last moment of agony. She told me that she had hesitated to accept the Emperor's offer of marriage until she felt that her conscience would allow her to do so and she could say with truth: "Thy country shall be my country, thy people my people, and thy God my God."
Titi's second baptism took place during the war at the St. Theodor Cathedral. I had come to Tsarkoe Selo from Reval, and the ceremony took place at 8 in the morning. The Grand Duchesses Marie and Anastasie were present at the first service, but the Empress, previously indisposed, came with the Emperor and the suite to the second service, and afterwards took Holy Communion. Titi was obliged to remain during both services, but he was a good little boy, and he held his lighted candle carefully and firmly the whole time.
After the service we went back to the Palace, and the Empress displayed more emotion than she had done at the first christening. I could see how deeply the religious question had affected her all these years. She told me how relieved she was, how pleased, how she felt now that all was well with the child, and she gave her godson a wonderful ikon of St. Alexander and a Cross engraved with her initials.
But I must return to the earlier days - I have wandered from my narrative to give this example of how Russian the Empress was at heart; hers was no eye-service - to know her made it impossible, to doubt her genuineness.
The Empress was always sweet with Titi. She adored children, and she often came to my house, when she nursed the baby and whistled to him. This amused her, and she declared that Titi knew her whistle and always opened his eyes whenever he heard it. I remember that on the morning after the " Lutheran " baptism the Empress paid me a surprise visit. "I've come to see the baby," she said. "Let me go to the nursery and fetch him."
I followed her upstairs, and she took Titi out of his cot and carried him to the drawing-room, where she played with him for an hour, sitting on the carpet to do so.
I think I am right in saying that our affectionate friendship began from the birth of Titi. It was then that the Empress first called me "Lili," and as "Lili" I caused much mystification during the Revolution, when this signature was supposed to possess some cryptic meaning.
The Imperial Family spent part of that year in Finland, whither my husband accompanied them, and I and the baby went to stay with his parents. I was at Petrograd during the winter, and I saw a great deal of the Imperial Family, and learned to love them all. They led the simplest of lives; the Emperor often amused himself during the evening with a game of dominoes, and I worked with the Empress and her daughters. It was a real "vie de famille," the life which appealed to them as individuals, but not the life which appeals to the smart world, with which the Empress had so little in common. This was my first Christmas at Petrograd, and I determined to have a little tree in Titi's honour. I came in from my shopping late in the afternoon of Christmas Eve, and at 6 o'clock. a courier arrived with a large box full of all kinds of "surprises." This was a present from the Empress she always sent a similar box at Easter, and it always arrived at 6 o'clock. Indeed, so punctual was this present, that my husband often used to hide the box and pretend that it had been forgotten - but I knew better!
We were invited to spend Christmas Day with the Imperial Family. There was a gigantic Christmas tree, the Grand Duchesses and the Tsarevitch thoroughly enjoyed themselves, and busied themselves in the distribution of friendship's offerings. The Empress had one curious fancy in connection with her Christmas trees: she always insisted upon blowing out the candles herself, and she was quite proud because she was able to extinguish the topmost candle by some extraordinary effort of breathing.
And now I feel I must speak of the real Tsaritsa, the Empress whose personality is known to so few - the Tsaritsa who was the most misjudged and unfortunate of human beings. I know in my heart that Time, the best historian, will make clear much that is dark. Even now, slowly, it is true, but none the less surely, people are beginning to wonder whether the Empress was in reality the pro-German and the hysterical exaltee she is supposed to have been. She did not deign to defend herself from the calumnies and lies which were scattered broadcast in Russia; to such a nature, these trials were sent by God all that she had to do was to endure. But I saw her tears when she and the Emperor received the news of the loss of the "Hampshire" and the death of Kitchener. These were no Judas tears -hers was the grief of the woman and the Sovereign at the death of a brave soldier, and yet, whenever her name is mentioned in England, people say carelessly: "Oh, she saw to the torpedoing of the 'Hampshire,' and wasn't she the mistress of Rasputin?"
A pro-German, and the mistress of Rasputin! Must this then, be the epitaph of the friend whom I knew, and the Empress to whom I owed the respect of a subject? I am not blind to the knowledge that any vehement defence may do her memory still more harm, but, nevertheless, I am impelled to write of her as she existed in her home, and in our hearts.
I have read and heard almost all that has been laid to her charge; I am no skilled writer, I know little or nothing of politics, but I can lay claim to some knowledge of my own sex. During the awful days of the Revolution, the Empress spoke to me as woman to woman. Her mind constantly dwelt on the days of her girlhood, her life with her grandmother, and the unhappiness of her childhood at Hesse Darmstadt.
The Emperor was the love of her life. She told me herself that he was her first love, but, the greater her love, the greater her fear lest she would prove unworthy. She gave herself to Russia when she married, and she accepted Russia as a sacred trust; but she and the Emperor were always more husband and wife than Emperor and Empress - they lived the intimate life of happily married people, they liked simplicity, they shrank from publicity, and this love of retirement was the source of many of the evil reports which assailed the Imperial Family.
The Empress told me that when she cried at the marriage of her brother her tears were said to be tears of jealous rage at seeing herself dispossessed of authority. "But, Lili, I was not jealous. I cried when I thought of my mother; this was the first festival since her death. I seemed to see her everywhere."
She described the dull Palace, its strict regime, her father's intermittent kindness, and how much she had looked forward to her visits to Windsor.
I think that the intimacy with her grandmother unconsciously brought out the Early Victorian strain in the Empress's character. She undoubtedly possessed this strain, as in many ways she was a typical Victorian; she shared her grandmother's love of law and order, her faithful adherence to family duty, her dislike of modernity, and she also possessed the " homeliness " of the Coburgs, which annoyed Society so much. The Russian aristocracy could not understand why on all the earth their Empress knitted scarves and shawls as presents for her friends, or gave them dress-lengths. Their conception of an Imperial gift was totally different, and they were oblivious of the love which had been crocheted into the despised scarf or the useful shawl-but the Empress, with her Victorian ideas as to the value of friendship, would not, or could not, see that she was a failure in this sense. The Empress was in many ways as thrifty as her grandmother, but she did not share the miserly proclivities of her uncle, the late Duke of Saxe-Coburg. Her father was not a wealthy man, in fact life at Darmstadt was occasionally a question of ways and means. The Empress had been taught to be careful. She was careful.
"When I was engaged, Lili, I showed my grandmother some of the jewels which the Emperor had given me. What do you think she said?"
"I cannot imagine, Madame."
"Well... she looked at my diamonds and remarked: 'Now, Alix, don't get too proud!' The Queen was a tiny creature, and she wore such long trains... but she was very forceful."
Then, reminiscently, "My sister Elizabeth and I always loved the little houses in England... dear little houses set in their pretty gardens. You'll see them one day, but I never shall."
Queen Victoria had instilled in the mind of her granddaughter the entire duties of a Hausfrau. In her persistent regard for these Martha - like cares, the Empress was entirely German and entirely English - certainly not Russian. I have mentioned her horror when she arrived at Petrograd and discovered that the servants were unaware of the use of blacklead. This was an actual worry to the Empress.
"I wanted my grates blackleaded every day," she said. "They were in a very bad condition, so I called one of my maids and told her to do the grate, only to discover that it was not within her province. Eventually a man-servant was sent for, but imagine, Lili, I had actually to show him how to blacklead a grate myself."
This practical side of the Empress was entirely distasteful to the entourage-they laughed at it equally as much as they criticised her friendships with people whom they did not consider in any way worthy of the friendship of an Empress of Russia. I and Anna came under the category of the unworthy, for, although we were well born, we were not of the " sang azur " of certain noble ladies who were desirous of admittance into the charmed circle. The Empress was accused of not being true to class, but on one point she was inflexible ; she allowed no interference with her friendships. I sometimes wondered why she preferred "'homely" friends to the more brilliant variety-I ventured to ask her this question, and she told me that she was, as I knew, painfully shy, and that strangers were almost repellent to her.
"I don't mind whether a person is rich or poor. Once my friend, always my friend."
Yes, her loyalty was indeed worthy of the name of a friend, but she put friendship and its claims before material considerations. As a woman she was right, as an Empress perhaps she was wrong.
The aristocracy never tried to understand the real Tsaritsa. Their pride was up in arms against her - she found no favour in their eyes. I remember an incident which went to prove this, and which was widely discussed at the time.
Princess Bariatinsky, who then happened to be one of the Maids of Honour to the Empress, was a charming woman, but, like most of the aristocracy, she was excessively proud. One day, hearing that the Empress was about to go out, the Princess held herself in readiness to accompany her, but the Empress left the Palace by another, entrance, accompanied by Mlle. Schneider, a Russian lady who gave the Empress lessons in Russian.
This unintentional slight was too much for the Princess. She, metaphorically and literally, put on her hat, and departed never to return, remarking as she did so: " Quand une Bariatinsky met son chapeau, c'est pour sortir." The Empress detested any form of snobbism. One day, during the Japanese war, she was busy at one of her working parties at the Winter Palace; the windows of the salon opened on to the Neva Quai, and from where she sat the Empress could see the soldiers and officers passing to and fro. Suddenly she looked intently out of the window-an expression of distaste on her countenance-and she sighed impatiently. An officer ventured to ask her what was the matter. The Empress pointed to the Quai:
"That is the matter," she said, indicating an officer who had just been saluted by some soldiers, but who had not returned the salute. "Why cannot an officer recognise the men by whose side he may one day fall? I detest such snobbism," she added, coldly.
The scandals about the Empress, circulated by propaganda and rumour, will be believed, alas! for many years. She is credited with dabbling in occult practices, with a belief in Spiritualism, and of even attempting to call up the illustrious dead in order to influence the Emperor, who is supposed to have indulged in various dramatic seances at the Winter Palace. Perhaps these stories originated in the more or less retired life led by the Empress. This retirement was often enforced-she was a delicate woman, but, although many writers state that she suffered from the hereditary malady of her father's family, she never mentioned its existence to me. Her heart was weak, owing to rapid child-bearing, and at times she experienced great difficulty in breathing. I never saw the slightest trace of hysteria. The Empress was apt to get suddenly cross, but she usually kept her feelings well under control, Apart from her delicate health, there was another reason for these periods of retirement. The Tsarevitch and the Grand Duchesses were often ailing, the Empress was a devoted mother, and she insisted upon being with her children and sharing the duties of a nurse. The maternal element was strongly developed in her; the Empress was never so happy as when she was "mothering" somebody, and, whenever a person had gained her affection and her trust, she never failed to interest herself in the smallest details connected with him and his.
Her occultism has been grossly exaggerated. Her superstitions were of the most trivial description: she thought that a bright day was propitious for a journey, that the gift of an ikon to her was not propitious, but her fancy for the sign of the Swastika was not for the Swastika as a charm, only as a symbol. She told me that the ancients believed in the Swastika as the source of motion, the emblem of Divinity. The significance of it as a "luck bringer" never crossed her mind. "Faith, Love and Hope are all that matter," she would say. I will readily admit that she possessed a strong element of mysticism which coloured much of her life; this was akin to the "dreaming" propensities of her grandfather, the Prince Consort, and environment, and the Faith of her adoption fostered this mystic sense. English writers condemn this trait. I have before me a book in which the author quoted the opinion of one of the most bitter enemies of the Empress. "Alexandra Feodorovrna," he says, "is an interesting type for future psychologists, historians and dramatic authors... a German Princess educated in England, on the Russian Throne, a convert to a peasant's religious sect, and an adept at occultism. She is made of the substance that those terrible, tyrannical Princesses of the XV-XVII centuries in the western countries of Europe were made of; those Princesses who united in their personality the despot Sovereign, bordering on the witch, and skirting the fanatical visionary, who were completely in the hands of their reactionary advisers, and their insinuating wily confessors.
I had read the book containing this extract before I began to write my memories of the real Tsaritsa. I read many passages with eyes half blinded with tears, sometimes I felt mine would be an impossible task. How could I, an unknown name in England, attempt to combat such statements? I am not assuming for one moment that the writer of the book was ill-disposed towards the Empress; he wrote for posterity, setting down his own opinion and that of others. But I am curious to know if he ever knew the Empress personally, and if he ever shared the intimate life of the Imperial Family. I did both not only in the days before and during the war, but also in the days of despair, when murder and sudden death faced us at every turn. It was then no time for pretence - but the Empress never changed; she was the same unselfish soul, the same devoted mother and wife, the same loyal friend.
The material for another book which was largely circulated in England was supposed to have been "given" to the author by a lady well known, and in great favour at Court. This novel - for it was, in many respects, fiction pure and simple - was mentioned to me, and, upon reading it, I was amazed to find the names of persons who never existed, and who were, therefore, never at Court. There was no attempt to hide names under pseudonyms or initials these imaginary beings lived, moved and had their being in the book as real individuals!
I was so much interested in the creative genius of the "Court Lady" that a friend of mine wrote to the part-author and asked him, on my behalf, to disclose her name. My request was refused: the part-author said that he was under an honourable vow of secrecy not to disclose the name of his collaborator!
But was this sporting? The book contained certain damning statements against the Empress, it bristled with inaccuracies; truly, anonymous Court histories cover a multitude of untruths! But surely those who profit thereby should have courage enough to come out in the open when certain questions arise. You either make a statement, or you do not. If you believe in its truth, you should not be ashamed to say why, and wherefore, and to acknowledge the source of its origin, but I am inclined to think that the words, "I gave my word not. to say who told me," place little value on malicious gossip, either in books or in everyday life.