The year 1912, although destined to end in the almost fatal illness of the Tsarevich, began happily for the Imperial Family. Peaceful and busy were the winter and spring, the Emperor engaged as usual with the affairs of the Empire, the Empress, as far as her health permitted, superintending the education of her children, and all of them busy with their books and their various tutors. Of the education and upbringing of the children of Nicholas II and the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna it should be said that while nothing was omitted to make them most loyal Russians, the educational methods employed were cosmopolitan. They had French, Swiss, and English tutors, but all their studies were under the superintendence of a Russian, the highly cultured M. Petrov, while for certain branches such as physics and natural science they were privately instructed in the gymnasium of Tsarskoe Selo. The first teacher of the Imperial children, she from whom they received their elementary education, was Miss Schneider, familiarly called "Trina," a native of one of the Baltic states of the Empire. Miss Schneider first came into service, years before the marriage of the Emperor and Empress, as instructor in the Russian language to Elizabeth, Grand Duchess Serge. Afterwards she taught Russian to the young Empress, and was retained at Court as reader to her Majesty. "Trina" was rather a difficult person in some ways, taking every advantage of her privileged position, but she was undeniably valuable and was heart and soul in her devotion to the family. She accompanied them to Siberia and there disappeared with them.
Perhaps the most valued of the instructors was M. Pierre Gilliard, whose book "Thirteen Years at the Russian Court" has been published in several languages and has been very well received. M. Gilliard, a Swiss gentlemen of many accomplishments, came first to Tsarskoe Selo as teacher of French to the young Grand Duchesses. Afterwards he became tutor to the Tsarevich. M. Gilliard lived in the palace, and enjoyed to the fullest extent the confidence and affection of their Majesties. Mr. Gibbs, the English tutor, was also a great favorite. Both of these men followed the family into exile and remained faithful and devoted friends until forcibly expelled by the Bolsheviki.
In his book M. Gilliard has recorded that he was never able to teach the Grand Duchesses to speak a fluent French. This is true because the languages used in the family were English and Russian, and the children never became interested in any other languages. "Trina" was supposed to teach them German but she had less success with that language than M. Gilliard with French. The Emperor and Empress spoke English almost exclusively, and so did the Empress's brother, the Grand Duke of Hesse and his family. Among themselves the children usually spoke Russian. The Tsarevich alone, thanks to his constant association with M. Gilliard, mastered the French language.
Every detail of the education of her children was supervised by the Empress, who often sat with them for hours together in the schoolroom. She herself taught them sewing and needlework, her best pupil being Tatiana, who had an extraordinary talent for all kinds of handwork. She not only made beautiful blouses and other garments, embroideries and crochets, but she was able on occasions to arrange her mother's long hair, and to dress her as well as a professional maid. Not that the Empress required as much dressing as the ordinary woman of rank and wealth. She had that kind of Victorian modesty that forbade any intrusion on the privacy of her dressing room. All that her maids were allowed to do was to dress her hair, fasten her boots, and put on her gown and jewels. The Empress had great taste in dress and always chose her jewels to finish rather than to ornament her costumes. "Only rubies to-day," she would command, or "pearls and sapphires with this gown."
The Empress and the children have been represented as surrounded by German servants, but this accusation is absolutely false. The chief woman of the household was Mme. Gheringer, a Russian lady who came daily to the palace, ordered gowns, did all necessary shopping, paid bills, and attended to any business required by the Empress. The chief maid of the Empress was Madeleine Zanotti, of English and Italian parentage, whose home before she came to Tsarskoe Selo was in England. Madeleine was a was a woman of middle age, very clever, and as usual with one in her position, inclined to be tyrannical. Madeleine had charge of all the gowns and jewels of the Empress, and as I think I have related, she was often critical of her mistress's indolent habits in regard to correspondence, etc. A second maid was Tutelberg, "Toodles," a rather slow and quiet girl from the Baltic. She and Madeleine were mortal enemies, but they agreed on one thing at least, and that was that they would not wear caps and aprons. The Empress good-naturedly acquiesced and permitted simple black gowns and ribbon bows in the hair for her chief maids. There were three under maids, all Russians, and all perfectly devoted to the Imperial Family. These girls, who wore the regulation caps and white aprons, cared for the rooms of the Empress and the children. All the maids, when the Revolution came, remained faithful to the family, and one of them, as I shall tell later, performed the dangerous service of smuggling letters in and out of Siberia. One girl, Anna Demidova, shared the fate of the family in 1918.
The Emperor had three valets, one of whom, Shalferov, who had served Alexander III, turned spy during the Revolution. Another, old Raziesh, also a former servant of Alexander III, died in the service of Nicholas II, and was replaced by Chemodurov, a fine and very loyal man. The third valet's name was Katov. All three, as their names testify, were Russians, as were also the three men in the service of the Empress, Leo and Kondratiev, both of whom died during the early days of the Revolution, and Volkov, who followed the Royal exiles as far into Siberia as he was permitted by the Provisional Government.
The children's nurses were Russians, the head nurse being Marie Vechniakova. Others I remember well were Alexandra, nicknamed "Shoura," a great favorite with the girls, Anna and Lisa, kind, faithful girls who spoke no word of any language except Russian. There were, of course, hundreds of house servants, and to my knowledge most, if not all of them, were Russians. The chef was a Frenchman, Cubat, a very great man in his profession. Sometimes, when an especially splendid dish had been prepared, Cubat was wont to introduce it, as it were, by standing magnificently in the doorway, clad in immaculate white linen, until the dish was served. Cubat became very wealthy in the Tsar's service, and now lives happily and luxuriously in his native France. He was, I believe, truly loyal to the Imperial Family, which is more than can be said for most of the servants. Their children were educated at the expense of the Emperor, and the majority, instead of choosing useful trades, elected to go to the universities, where they nearly all became Revolutionists. In my father's opinion this was due to the fact that the Russian universities and higher schools offered little if any technical training. Recognizing this, the Empress created in St. Petersburg a technical school for boys and girls of the whole Empire. In this school the students were trained to become teachers in many useful handicrafts, and in addition to this normal academy the Empress established in many governments schools where boys and girls were perfected in the beautiful peasant arts of embroidery, dyeing, carving, and painting. I give these details because I think it only just to offset with facts the lying slanders of sensational writers who could not possibly have known anything of the intimate life of the Imperial Family of Russia but who have substituted propaganda for truth.
None of these sensational writers knew or tried to know how simple, not to say rigorous, was the regime followed by the Imperial children. All of them, even the delicate little Tsarevich, slept in large, well-aired nurseries, on hard camp beds without pillows and with the least possible allowance of bed clothing. They had cold baths every morning and warm ones only at night. As a consequence of this simple life their manners were unassuming and natural without a single trace of hauteur. Although in 1912 the four girls were rapidly approaching womanhood - Olga was in her eighteenth year and Tatiana was nearly sixteen their parents continued to regard them as children. The two older girls were spoken of as "the big ones," and were given many grown-up privileges, as for example, concerts and the theater to which the Emperor himself escorted them. The two younger Grand Duchesses and the Tsarevich, "the little ones," were still in the nursery.
In the darkness of the mystery which surrounds the fate of these innocent children it is with poignant emotion that I recall them as they appeared, so full of life and joy, in those distant, yet incredibly near, days before the World War and the downfall of Imperial Russia. Of the four girls, Olga and Marie were essentially Russian, altogether Romanov in their inheritance. Olga was perhaps the cleverest of them all, her mind being so quick to grasp ideas, so absorbent of knowledge that she learned almost without application or close study. Her chief characteristics, I should say, were a strong will and a singularly straightfor. ward habit of thought and action. Admirable qualities in a woman, these same characteristics are often trying in childhood, and Olga as a little girl sometimes showed herself wilful and even disobedient. She had a hot temper which, however, she early learned to keep under control, and had she been allowed to live her natural life she would, I believe, have become a woman of influence and distinction. Extremely pretty, with brilliant blue eyes and a lovely complexion, Olga resembled her father in the fineness of her features, especially in her delicate, slightly tipped nose.
Marie and Anastasia were also blonde types and very attractive girls. Marie had splendid eyes and rose-red cheeks. She was inclined to be stout and she had rather thick lips which detracted a little from her beauty. Marie had a naturally sweet disposition and a very good mind. All three of these girls were more or less of the tomboy type. They had something of the innate brusqueness of their Romanov ancestors, which displayed itself in a tendency to mischief. Anastasia, a sharp and clever child, was a very monkey for jokes, some of them at times almost too practical for the enjoyment of others. I remember once when the family was in their Polish estate in winter the children were amusing themselves at snowballing. The imp which sometimes seemed to possess Anastasia led her to throw a stone rolled in a snowball straight at her dearly loved sister Tatiana. The missile struck the poor girl fairly in the face with such force that she fell senseless to the ground. The grief and horror of Anastasia lasted for many days and permanently cured her of her worst propensities to practical jokes.
Tatiana was almost a perfect reincarnation of her mother. Taller and slenderer than her sisters, she had the soft, refined features and the gentle, reserved manners of her English ancestry. Kindly and sympathetic of disposition, she displayed towards her younger sisters and her brother such a protecting spirit that they, in fun, nicknamed her "the governess." Of all the Grand Duchesses Tatiana was with the people the most popular, and I suspect in their hearts she was the most dearly loved of her parents. Certainly she was a different type from the others even in appearance, her hair being a rich brown and her eyes so darkly gray that in the evening they seemed quite black. Of all the girls Tatiana was most social in her tastes. She liked society and she longed pathetically for friends. But friends for these high born but unfortunate girls were very difficult to find. The Empress dreaded for her daughters the companionship of oversophisticated young women of the aristocracy, whose minds, even in the schoolroom, were fed with the foolish and often vicious gossip of a decadent society. The Empress even discouraged association with cousins and near relatives, many of whom were unwholesomely precocious in their outlook on life.
I would not give the impression that these young daughters of the Emperor and Empress were forced to lead dull and uneventful lives. They were allowed to have their little preferences for this or that handsome young officer with whom they danced, played tennis, walked, or rode. These innocent young romances were in fact a source of amusement to their Majesties, who enjoyed teasing the girls about any dashing officer who seemed to attract them. The Grand Duchess Olga, sister of the Emperor, sympathized with her nieces' love of pleasure and often arranged tea parties and tennis matches for them, the guests, of course, being of their own choice. We had some quite jolly tea parties in my little house also. In the matter of dress, so important to young and pretty girls, the Grand Duchesses were allowed to indulge their own tastes. Mme. Brisac, an accomplished French dressmaker, made gowns for the Imperial Family, and through her the latest Paris models reached the palace. The girls, however, inclined towards simple English fashions, especially for outdoor wear. In summer they dressed almost entirely in white. jewels they were too young to wear except on very great occasions. Each girl received on her twelfth birthday a slender gold bracelet which was afterwards always worn, day and night, "for good luck." I have described in a previous chapter the Russian custom of presenting each Grand Duchess, on her coming of age, with a pearl and diamond necklace, but this was worn only at state functions or very formal balls.
Alexei, the only son of the Emperor and Empress, a more tragic child than the last Dauphin of France, indeed one of the most tragic figures in history, was, apart from his terrible affliction, the loveliest and most and most attractive of the whole family. Because of his delicate health Alexei began life as a rather spoiled child. His chief nurse, Marie Vechniakova, a somewhat over-emotional woman, made the mistake of indulging the child in every whim. It is easy to understand why she did so, because nothing more heart-rending could be imagined than the little boy's moans and cries during his frequent illnesses. If he bumped his head or struck a hand or foot against a chair or table the usual result was a hideous blue swelling indicating a subcutaneous hemorrhage frightfully painful and often enduring for days or even weeks.
At five Alexei was placed in charge of the sailor Derevenko, who for a long term of years remained his constant body servant and companion. Derevenko, while devoted to the boy, did not spoil him as his women nurses had done, and the man was so patient and resourceful that he often did wonders in alleviating the child's pain. I can still in memory hear the plaintive, suffering voice of Alexei begging the big sailor to "lift my arm," "put my leg up," "warm my hands," and I can see the patient, calm-eyed man working for hours on end to give the maximum of comfort to the little pain racked limbs.
As Alexei grew older his parents carefully explained to him the nature of his illness and impressed on him the necessity of avoiding falls and blows. But Alexei was a child of active mind, loving sports and outdoor play, and it was almost impossible for him to avoid the very things that brought him suffering. "Can't I have a bicycle?" he would beg his mother. "Alexei, you know you can't." "Mayn't I play tennis?" "Dear, you know you mustn't." Often these hard denials of the natural play impulse were followed by a gush of tears as the child cried out: "Why can other boys have everything and I nothing?"
Suffering and self-denial had their effect on the character of Alexei. Knowing what pain and sacrifice meant, he was extraordinarily sympathetic towards other sick people. His thoughtfulness of others was shown in his beautiful courtesy to women and girls and to his elders, and in his interest in the troubles of servants and dependents. It was a failing of the Emperor that even when he sympathized with the troubles of others he was rather slow to take action, unless indeed the matter was really serious. Alexei, on the contrary, was always for immediate action. I remember an instance when a boy in service at the palace was discharged for some reason which I have quite forgotten. The story somehow reached the ears of Alexei, who immediately took sides with the boy and gave his father no rest until the whole case was reviewed and the culprit was forgiven and restored to duty. Alexei usually defended all offenders, yet when the day came when his parents, in deep distress, told him that Father Gregori, that is, Rasputin, had been killed by members of his own family the boy's grief was swallowed up in rage and indignation. "Papa," he exclaimed, "is it possible that you will not punish them? The assassins of Stolypin were hanged."
I ask the reader to remember that the Imperial Family firmly believed that they owed much of Alexei's improving health to the prayers of Rasputin. Alexei himself believed it. Several years before Rasputin had assured the Empress that when the boy was twelve years old he would begin to improve and that by the time he was a man he would be entirely well. The undeniable fact is that after the age of twelve Alexei did begin very materially to improve. His illnesses became farther and farther apart and before 1917 his appearance had changed marvelously for the better. He resembled in no way the invalid sons of his mother's sister, Princess Henry of Prussia, who suffered from his own terrible malady. What the best physicians of Europe had been unable to do in their case some mysterious force had done in the case of the Tsarevich. His parents to whom the young boy was as their very heart's blood believed that the healing hand of God had wrought the cure, and that it was in answer to the supplication of one whose spirit was able to rise in higher flight than theirs or any other's. They knew of course that the boy was not yet entirely well, but they believed that he was getting well. Alexei believed this also and it is certain that he looked forward to a healthy, normal manhood.
Alexei, like his father, dearly loved the army and all the pageants of military display. He had every kind of toy soldier, toy guns and fortresses, and with these he played for hours, with his sailor companion Derevenko, or "Dina" as the boy called him, and with the few boy companions he was allowed. Two of these boys were sons of "Dina," and a third was the son of one of the family physicians, by coincidence also named Derevenko. In the last years before the Revolution a few carefully selected boys, cadets from the Military School, were called to the palace to play with Alexei. These boys were warned of the danger of any rough play, and all were extremely mindful of their responsibility. It was because no other type of boy could be trusted to play with Alexei that the Empress did not often invite to the palace the children of the Grand Dukes. They were Romanovs, brusque and rude in their manners, thoughtless of the feelings of others, and the Empress literally did not dare to leave them alone with her son. But because of her caution she was bitterly assailed by her enemies who spoke sneeringly of her preference for "low born" children over the aristocratic children of the family.
The Emperor and Empress and all the children were passionately fond of pets, especially dogs. The Emperor's inseparable companion -for many years was a splendid English collie named Iman, and when in the natural course of time this dog died the Emperor was inconsolable. After that he had a fine kennel of collies, but he never made a special pet of any dog. The favorite dog of the Empress was a small, shaggy terrier from Scotland. This dog's name was Eira, and, to tell the truth, I did not like the little animal at all. His disagreeable habit of darting from under chairs and snapping at people's heels was a trial to my nerves. Nevertheless the Empress doted on him, carried him under her arm even to the dinner table, and amused herself greatly talking to and playing with the dour little creature. When he fell ill and had to be mercifully killed she wept in real grief and pity. Alexei's pets were two, a silky little spaniel named joy and a beautiful big gray cat, the gift of General Voyeikov. It was the only cat in the house:. hold and it was a privileged animal, even being allowed to sleep on Alexei's bed. There were two other dogs, Tatiana's French bull and a little King Charlie which I contributed to the menagerie. Both of these dogs went with the family to Siberia, and Jimmie, the King Charles spaniel, was found shot to death in that dreadful deserted house in Ekaterinburg.
How far, how unbelievably far away now seem those peaceful days of 1912, when we were watching the Tsar's daughters growing towards womanhood, and even in our minds speculating on possible marriages for them. Their prospects as far as marriage was concerned, I must say, were rather vague. Foreign matches, because of religion and even more because of the girls' devotion to home and country, were almost out of the question, and suitable husbands in Russia seemed to be entirely lacking. There was a time in his boyhood when Dmitri, son of the Tsar's uncle, Grand Duke Paul, was a great favorite with the Imperial Family. But Dmitri as he grew older became so dissipated that he quite cut himself off from the prospect of an alliance with any of the Grand Duchesses. There had once been a faint possibility of an engagement between Olga and Crown Prince Carol of Rumania. As early as 1910 the beautiful Queen Marie and her son visited Russia for the purpose of introducing the young people, but nothing came of the visit. In 1914 the family made a return visit to Rumania on the Standart, the Rumanian Royal family, including the old Queen, "Carmen Sylva," meeting the yacht at Constanza, on the Black Sea, and making a splendid fÚte which lasted for three days. This time the matter was seriously broached to Olga who, in her usual quick, straightforward manner, declined the match. In 1916 Prince Carol again visited the Russian Court, and now his young man's fancy rested on Marie. He made a formal proposal for her hand, but the Emperor, declaring that Marie was nothing more than a schoolgirl, good-naturedly laughed the Prince's proposal aside.
Not all these proposals ended so merrily. One day coming as usual to Peterhof, I found the Empress in tears. A formal proposal had just been received from the old Grand Duchess, Marie Pavlovna, aunt of the Emperor, for a marriage between her son Boris Vladimirovich and Grand Duchess Olga. This young man, Prince Boris, was much better known in questionable circles in Paris than in the Court of Russia and the mere suggestion of a marriage with one of her daughters was enough to reduce the Empress to mortified tears. Of course the proposal was rejected, greatly to the wrath of Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna, a Russian grande dame of the old school in which the debauchery of young men was regarded as a perfectly natural phenomenon. She never forgave the slight, as she chose to consider it, and later became one of the most active of the circle of intriguers which, from the safety of a foreign embassy in St. Petersburg, plotted the ruin of the Imperial Family and of their country.
In the summer of 1912 the family and their immediate household, including myself, went on another long cruise in Finnish waters. During the cruise the yacht was visited by the Empress Dowager of whom previously I had seen but little. I write with some hesitation about the Empress Dowager, who is still living, and for whom I entertain all due respect. She was, as I remember her then, a small, slender woman, not beautiful certainly, not as attractive as her sister, Queen Alexandra of England, but with a great deal of presence and, when she chose to exert it, considerable personal charm. The Emperor she apparently loved less than her other children, especially her son, Grand Duke Mikhail, and the Empress I fear she loved not at all. To the children she was affectionate but a trifle distant. I am sure that she resented the fact that the first four children were girls, and there is little doubt that she felt bitterly the affliction of the heir. Possibly she felt in her secret heart that it should have been her own strong son Mikhail who was the acknowledged successor of Nicholas II. I say this from my own conjecture and observations and not from positive knowledge. Yet after events, I think, confirmed my opinion.
The Dowager Empress after the death of Alexander III relinquished with rather bad grace her position of reigning Empress. In f act she never did relinquish it altogether, always taking precedence on public occasions of Alexandra Feodorovna. just why the Tsar consented to this I never knew, but certain it is that always, when the Imperial Family made a state entrance the Tsar appeared first with his mother on his arm, the Empress following on the arm of one of the Grand Dukes. Society generally approved this procedure, the Empress Mother enjoying all the popularity which the Empress lacked. There were actually in Russia two Courts, a large one represented by society and the Grand Dukes, and a small one represented by the intimate circle of the Emperor and Empress. In the one everything done by the Empress Mother was right and by the shy and retiring Empress wrong. In the small Court it was exactly the other way around, except that even in the palace a certain amount of petty intrigue always existed.
The visit to Finnish waters by the Empress Mother in 1912 was marred by no coldness or disharmony. When we went ashore for tennis the Emperor admonished us all to play as well as we could, "because Mama is coming." We lunched aboard her yacht and she dined with us on the Standart. On the 22d of July, which was her name day, as well as that of the little Grand Duchess Marie, she spent most of the day on the Emperor's yacht, and after luncheon I took a photograph of her sitting with her arm around the Emperor's shoulders, her two little Japanese spaniels at their feet. She made us dance for her on deck, photographing us as we danced. After tea the children performed for her a little French playlet which seemed to delight her. Yet that evening at dinner I could not help noticing how her fine eyes, so kind and smiling towards most of the company, clouded slightly whenever they were turned to the Emperor or the Empress. Still I must record that later, passing the open door of Alexei's cabin, I saw the Empress Mother sitting on the edge of the child's bed talking gaily and peeling an apple quite like any loving grandmother.
I do not pretend to understand the Empress Dowager or her motives, but, as far as I can judge, her chief weakness was love of power. She carried her insistence on precedence so far that the chiffres of the maids of honor of both Empresses bore the initials M. A. instead of A. M., which was the proper order. She wanted to be first in everything and could not bear to abdicate either power or influence. She never, I believe, understood her son's preference for a quiet, family life, or the changed and softened manners he acquired under the influence of his wife.
Next chapter: VII
Website © Bob Atchison 1998, 1999 | Comments on the website | Search all Alexander Palace sites by Keywords | Website built by Pallasart Web Design.