Memories Of The Russian Court

Livadia and the Crimea

In the autumn of 1909 I went for the first time to Livadia, the country estate of the Imperial Family in the Crimea. This part of Russia, dearer to all of the Tsars than any other, is a small peninsula, almost an island, surrounded on the west and south by the Black Sea and on the east by the Sea of Asov. A range of high hills protects it from the cold winds of the north and gives it a climate so mild and bland as to be almost sub-tropical. The Imperial estate, which occupies nearly half the peninsula, has always been left as far as possible in its natural condition of unbroken forests, wild mountains, and valleys. There was at the time of which I write but one short railroad in the whole of the Crimea, a short line running from Sevastopol, the principal port of the Black Sea, northward to Moscow. All other journeys had to be taken by carriage, motor cars, or on horseback.

The natural beauties of the Crimea would be difficult to exaggerate. The mountains, dark with pines, snow-covered during most of the year, make an imposing background for the profusion of flowering trees, shrubs and vines, making the valleys and plains one continuous garden. The vineyards of the Crimea are, or were previous to the Revolution, equal to any in Italy or southern France. What they became afterwards God knows. But certainly up to the summer of 1914, when I saw them last, the vine-clad hills and valleys of the Crimea were an earthly Paradise, as lovely and as peaceful as the mind can picture. From the grapes of the Crimea were distilled the best wines in Russia, among others an excellent champagne and a delicious sweet wine of the muscat variety.

Almost every kind of fruit flourished in the valleys, and in spring the wealth of blossoms, pink and white, of apples, cherries, peaches, almonds, made the whole countryside a perfumed garden, while in autumn the masses of golden fruit were a wonder to behold. Flowers bloomed as though they were the very soul of the fair earth. Never have I seen such roses. They spread over every building in great vines as strong as ivy, and they scattered their rich petals over lawns and pathways in fragrance at times almost overpowering. There was another flower, the glycinia, which grew on trailing vines in grapelike clusters, deep, mauve in hue, the favorite color of the Empress. This flower, too, was intensely fragrant, as were the violets which in spring literally carpeted the plains. Imagine these valleys and plains, with their vineyards and orchards, their tall cypress trees and trailing roses, sloping down to a sea as blue as the sky and as gentle as a summer day, and you have a picture, imperfectly as I have painted it, of the country retreat of the Romanovs. Here of all places in Russia they were loved and revered. The natives of the peninsula were Tartars, the men very tall and strong and the women almost invariably handsome. They were Mohammedans, and it was only within late years that the women had discarded their veils. Both men and women wore very picturesque dress, the men wearing round black fur caps and short embroidered coats over tight white trousers. It was the fashion for the women to dye their hair a bright red, over which they wore small caps and floating veils and adorning themselves with a wealth of silver bangles. These Tartars were an honest folk, absolutely loyal to the Tsar. They were wonderful horsemen, comparing favorably with the best of the Cossacks, and their horses, through long breeding and training, were natural pacers. To see a cavalcade of Tartars sweep by was to imagine a race of Centaurs come back to earth, so absolutely one was every horse and man.

The palace, as I saw it in 1909, was a large, old wooden structure surrounded by balconies, the rooms dark, damp, and unattractive. The only really sunny and cheerful room in the whole house was the dining room, where twice a day the suite met for luncheon and dinner. The Emperor usually presided at these meals, but the Empress being in bad health lunched privately with the Tsarevich. The Empress had been for some time a victim of the most alarming heart attacks which she bravely concealed, not wishing the public to know her condition. Oftentimes when I remarked the blue whiteness of her hands, her quick, gasping breaths, she silenced me with a peremptory "Don't say anything. People need not know." However, I was intensely relieved when at last she consented to have the daily attention of a special physician, this being the devoted Dr. Botkin, who accompanied the family in their Siberian exile, and shared their fate, whatever that fate may have been. Dr. Botkin, although a very able physician, was not a man of great social prominence, and when, at the Empress's request, I went to apprise him of his appointment as special medical adviser to their Majesties, he received the news with astonishment almost amounting to dismay. He began his administration by greatly curtailing the activities of the Empress, keeping her quietly in bed for long periods, and insisting on the use of a rolling chair in the gardens, and a pony chaise for longer jaunts abroad.

Life at Livadia in 1909 and in after years was simple and informal. We walked, rode, bathed in the sea, and generally led a healthful country life, such as the Tsar, eminently an outdoor man and a lover of nature, enjoyed to the utmost. We roamed the woods gathering wild berries and mushrooms which we ate at our al fresco teas, cooking the mushrooms over little campfires of twigs and dried leaves. The Emperor and his suite hunted a little, rode much, and played very good tennis. In this latter sport I was often the Emperor's partner and a very serious affair I had to make of each game. No conversation was allowed, and we played with all the gravity and intensity of professionals.

We had each year many visitors. In 1909 came sometimes to lunch the Emir of Bokhara, a big, handsome Oriental in a long black coat and a white turban glittering with diamonds and rubies. He seemed intensely interested in the comparative simplicity of Russian royal customs, and when he departed for his own land he distributed presents in true Arabian Nights' profusion, costly diamonds and rubies to their Majesties, and to the suite orders and decorations set with jewels. Nevertheless the souvenir of the Emir's visit to Livadia which I most prized was a photograph of himself for which he obligingly posed in the gardens. This photograph and hundreds of others which I took during the twelve years I spent with the Imperial Family I was obliged to leave behind me when I fled, a hunted refugee, across the Russian frontier. I have no hope of ever seeing any of them again.

The 20th of October, the anniversary of the death of Alexander III, was always remembered by a solemn religious service held in the room where he died, the armchair in which he breathed his last being draped in heavy black. This death chamber was not in the main palace but in a smaller house adjoining, one which in 1909 was used as a lodging for the suite. The last part of our stay in the Crimea that year was not very gay. The Emperor left us for an official visit to the King of Italy, and on the day of his departure the Empress, greatly depressed, shut herself up in her own room refusing to see anyone, even the children. It was always to her an intolerable burden that she and the Emperor were obliged by etiquette to part from each other in public and to meet again after each absence in full view of the suite and often of the staring multitude.

This autumn was made sad also by one of the all too frequent illnesses of the unfortunate little Tsarevich. The sufferings of the child on these occasions were so acute that everyone in the palace was rendered perfectly miserable. Nothing much could be done to assuage the poor boy's agony, and nothing except the constant love and devotion of the Empress gave him the slightest relief. We who could do nothing else for him took refuge in prayer and supplication in the little church near the palace. Mlle. Tutcheva, maid of honor to the young Grand Duchesses, read the psalms, while the Empress, the older girls, Olga and Tatiana, two of the Tsar's aides, and myself assisted in the singing. In the midst of our anxiety and distress during this illness of Alexei my father paid us a brief visit, bringing important reports to the Emperor, and this was at least a momentary bright hour in the sorrow of my existence. At Christmas time the Court returned to Tsarskoe Selo, both the Empress and the Tsarevich by this time much improved in health.

The next time I went with their Majesties to the Crimea we found the estate transformed and greatly beautified by the substitution of a palace of white marble for the ancient and gloomy wooden buildings. The new palace was the work of the eminent architect, Krasnov, who had also designed the palaces of the Grand Dukes Nicholas and George. In the two years Krasnov had indeed worked marvels, not only in the palace, which was a gem of Italian Renaissance architecture, but in many smaller buildings, the whole constituting a town in itself, harmonious in material and design.

I shall never forget the day we landed in Yalta, and the glorious drive through the bright spring sunshine to the palace. Before the carriage rode an old Tartar of the Crimea, one of the tribe I described earlier in this chapter. To ride before the Tsar's carriage was an ancient prerogative of these honest and loyal people, a prerogative which had to be resigned when carriages gave way to motor cars. No Tartar horse could have kept pace with, much less have preceded, a motor car of Nicholas II, for he always insisted on driving at a terrifying speed. But as late as 1911 he kept up the old custom of driving from Yalta to Livadia.

We drove, as I say, through the dazzling sunshine and under the fresh green trees of springtime until the white palace, set in gardens of blooming flowers and vines, burst on our delighted eyes. Russian fashion we proceeded first to the church, from whence in procession we followed the priests to the anointing and blessing of the new dwelling. The first day I spent with the Empress superintending the hanging of pictures and ikons, placing familiar and homely objects, photographs and souvenirs, so necessary to make a dwelling place out of an empty house, even though it be a royal palace. On the second floor were the private apartments of the family, including a small salon. The apartments of the Empress were furnished in light wood and pink chintzes and many vases and jars always kept full of the pink and mauve flowers she loved. From the windows of her boudoir one looked out on the wooded hills, and from the bedroom there was an enchanting view of the sparkling sea. To the right of the Empress's boudoir was the Emperor's study, furnished in green leather with a large writing table in the center of the room. On this floor also was the family dining room, the bedrooms of the Tsarevich and of the Grand Duchesses and their attendants, a large day room for the use of the children, and a big white hall or ballroom, seldom used.

Below were the rooms of state, drawing rooms and dining rooms, all in white, the doors and windows opening on a marble courtyard draped with roses and vines which almost covered an antique Italian well in the center of the court. Here the Emperor loved to walk and smoke after luncheon, chatting with his guests or with members of the household. The whole palace, including the rooms of state, were lightly, beautifully furnished in white wood and flowered chintzes, giving the effect of a hospitable summer home rather than a palace.

That autumn was marked by a season of unusual gaiety in honor of the coming of age, at sixteen, of the Grand Duchess Olga, who received for the occasion a beautiful diamond ring and a necklace of diamonds and pearls. This gift of a necklace to the daughter of a Tsar when she became of age was traditional, but the expense of it to Alexandra Feodorovna, the mother of four daughters, was a matter of apprehension. Powerless to change the custom, even had she wished to do so, she tried to ease the burden on the treasury by a gradual accumulation of the jewels. By her request the necklaces, instead of being purchased outright when the young Grand Duchesses reached the age of sixteen, were collected stone by stone on their birthdays and name days. Thus at the coming out ball of the Grand Duchess Olga she wore a necklace of thirty-two superb jewels which had been accumulating for her from her babyhood.

It was a very charming ball that marked the intro. duction to society of the oldest daughter of the Tsar. Flushed and fair in her first long gown, something pink and filmy and of course very smart, Olga was as excited over her debut as any other young girl. Her hair, blonde and abundant, was worn for the first time coiled up young-lady fashion, and she bore herself as the central figure of the festivities with a modesty and a dignity which greatly pleased her parents. We danced in the great state dining room on the first floor, the glass doors to the courtyard thrown open, the music of the unseen orchestra floating in from the rose garden like a breath of its own wondrous fragrance. It was a perfect night, clear and warm, and the gowns and jewels of the women and the brilliant uniforms of the men made a striking spectacle under the blaze of the electric lights. The ball ended in a cotillion and a sumptuous supper served on small tables in the ballroom.

This was a beginning of a series of festivities which the Grand Duchess Olga and a little later on her sister Tatiana enjoyed to their utmost, for they were not in the least like the conventional idea of princesses, but simple, happy, normal young girls, loving dancing and parties and all the frivolities which make youth bright and memorable. Besides the dances given at Livadia that year, large functions attended by practically everyone in the neighborhood who had Court entrée, there were a number of very brilliant balls given in honor of Olga and Tatiana after the family returned to Tsarskoe Selo. Two of these were given by the Grand Dukes Peter and George and the girls enjoyed them so much that they begged for another before Christmas. This time it was Grand Duke Nicholas who provided a most regal entertainment, preceded by a dinner for the suite, to which I was invited. I went because the Empress wished it, but I went rather unwillingly knowing that the atmosphere was not a friendly one. Their Majesties were at that time particularly friendly with Grand Duke George and his wife who was Princess Marie of Greece, as formerly they had been with Grand Dukes Peter and Nicholas and their wives, the Montenegrin princesses, Melitza and Stana, of whom more must be written later on.

In relating the events of the coming of age of Olga and Tatiana I must not forget to mention affairs of almost equal consequence which occurred in the Crimea in that season of 1911. The climate of the Crimea was ideal for tuberculosis patients, and from her earliest married life the Empress had taken the deepest interest in the many hospitals and sanatoria which nestled among the hills, some of them almost within the confines of the Imperial estate. Before the beginning of the reign of Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna these hospitals existed in numbers but they were not of the best modern type. Not satisfied with these institutions the Empress out of her own private fortune built and equipped new and improved hospitals, and one of the first duties laid on me when I first visited the Crimea was to spend hours at a time visiting, inspecting and reporting on the condition of buildings, nursing and care of patients. I was particularly charged with discovering patients who were too poor to pay for the best food and nursing, and one of each summer's activities when the family visited the Crimea was a bazaar or other entertainment for the benefit of these needy ones. Four great bazaars organized and largely managed by the Empress I particularly remember. The first of these was held in 1911 and the others in 1912, 1913, and 1914. For all of these bazaars the Empress and her ladies worked very hard and from the opening day the Empress, however precarious the condition of her health, always presided at her own table, disposing of fine needlework, embroidery, and art objects with energy and enthusiasm. The crowds around her booth were enormous, the people pressing forward almost frenziedly to touch her hand, her sleeve, her dress, enchanted to receive their purchases from the hand of the Empress they adored, for she was adored by the real Russian people, whatever the intriguing Court and the jealous political rivals of her husband thought of her. Often the crowd at these bazaars would beg for a sight of Alexei, and smiling with pleasure the Empress would lift him to the table where the child would bow shyly but sweetly, stretching out his hands in friendly greeting to the worshipping crowds. Indeed the people loved all the Imperial Family then, whatever changes were made in the minds of the many by the horrible sufferings of the War, by propaganda, and by the mania of the Revolution. The great mass of the Russian people loved and were loyal to their Sovereigns. No one who knew them at all can ever forget that.

Perhaps they were more universally loved in the Crimea than elsewhere because of the simplicity of their lives and the close touch they were able to keep with the people of the country. We went to Livadia again in 1912, in 1913, and last of all in the spring and summer of 1914. We arrived in 1912 in the last week of Lent, I think the Saturday before Palm Sunday. Already the fruit trees were in full bloom and the air was warm with spring. Twice a day we attended service in the church, and on Thursday of Holy Week, a very solemn day in the orthodox Russian calendar, their Majesties took communion, previously turning from the altar to the congregation and bowing on all sides. After this they approached the holy images and kissed them. The Empress in her white gown and cap looked beautiful if somewhat thin and frail, and it was very sweet to see the little Alexei helping his mother from her knees after each deep reverence. On Easter eve there was a procession with candles all through the courts of the palace and on Easter Sunday for two, hours the soldiers, according to old custom, gathered to exchange Easter kisses with the Emperor and to receive each an Easter egg. Children from the schools came to salute in like manner the Empress. For their Majesties it was a long and fatiguing ceremony, but they carried it through with all graciousness, while the Imperial household looked on.

Such was the intimate, the patriarchal relation between the Tsar and his people, and such was the real soul of Russia before the Revolution. I have often read, in books written by Western authors, that the Tsar and all the Imperial Family lived in hourly terror of assassination, that they knew themselves hated by their people and were righteously afraid of them. Nothing could possibly be farther from the truth. Certainly neither Nicholas II nor Alexandra Feodorovna feared their people. The constant police supervision under which they lived annoyed them unspeakably, and never were they happier than when practically unattended they moved freely among the Russian people they loved. In connection with the Empress's care for the tuberculosis patients in the Crimea there was one day every summer known as White Flower Day, and on that day every member of society, unless she had a very good excuse, went out into the towns and sold white flowers for the benefit of the hospitals. It was a day especially delightful to the Empress and, as they grew old enough to participate in such duties, to all the young Grand Duchesses. The Empress and her daughters worked very hard on White Flower Day, spending practically the whole day driving and walking, mingling with the crowd and vending their flowers as enthusiastically as though their fortunes depended on selling them all. Of course they always did sell them all. The crowds surged around them eager and proud to buy a flower from their full baskets. But the buyers were no whit happier than the sellers, that I can say with assurance.

Of course life in the Crimea was not all simplicity and informality. There were a great many visitors, most of them of rank too exalted to be treated with informality. I remember in particular visits of Grand Duke Ernest of Hesse, brother of the Empress, and his wife, Princess Eleanor. I remember also visits of the widowed Grand Duchess Elizabeth, who had become a nun and was now abbess of a wonderful convent in Moscow, the House of Mary and Martha. When she visited Livadia masses were said daily in the palace church. I ought not, while speaking of visitors, to omit mention of the old Prince Galitzin, a very odd person, but strongly attached to the Tsar, to whom he presented a part of his own estate, some distance to Livadia, and to which we made a special excursion on the royal yacht. Another memorable excursion was to the estates of Prince Oldenburg on the coast of Caucasia. The sea that day was very rough and by the time we reached our destination the Empress was so prostrated that she could not go ashore. It was a pity because she missed what to all the others was a remarkable spectacle, a grand holiday of the Caucasians who, in their picturesque costumes, crowded down to the shore to greet their Sovereigns. The whole countryside was in festival, great bonfires burning in all, the hills and on all the meadows wild music and the most fascinating of native dances.

Such was life in the Crimea in the old, vanished days. Simple, happy, kind, and loyal, all that was best in Russia.

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Tsar Nicholas II

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