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Early Days and Reflections
It is with a prayerful heart and memories deep and reverent that I begin to write the story of my long and intimate friendship with Alexandra Feodorovna, wife of Nicholas II, Empress of Russia, and of the tragedy of the Revolution, which brought on her and hers such undeserved misery, and on our unhappy country such a black night of oblivion.
But first I feel that I should explain briefly who I am, for though my name has appeared rather prominently in most of the published accounts of the Revolution, few of the writers have taken the trouble to sift facts from fiction even in the comparatively unimportant matter of my genealogy. I have seen it stated that I was born in Germany, and that my marriage to a Russian officer was arranged to conceal my nationality. I have also read that I was a peasant woman brought from my native Siberia to further the ambitions of Rasputin. The truth is that I am unable to produce an ancestor who was not born Russian. My father, Alexander Sergievich Taneyev, during most of his life, was a functionary of the Russian Court, Secretary of State, and Director of the Private Chancellerie of the Emperor, an office held before him by his father and his grandfather. My mother was a daughter of General Tolstoy, aide de camp of Alexander II. One of my immediate ancestors was Field Marshal Kutusov, famous in the Napoleonic Wars. Another, on my mother's side, was Count Kontaisov, an intimate friend of the eccentric Tsar Paul, son of the great Catherine.
Notwithstanding my family's hereditary connection with the Court our own family life was simple and quiet. My father, aside from his official duties, had no interests apart from his home and his music, for he was a composer and a pianist of more than national fame. My earliest memories are of home evenings, my brother Serge and my sister Alya (Alexandra) studying their lessons under the shaded lamp, my dear mother sitting near with her needlework, and my father at the piano working out one of his compositions, striking the keys softly and noting down his harmonies. I thank God for that happy childhood which gave me strength of soul to bear the sorrows and sufferings of after years.
Six months in every year we spent in the country near Moscow on an estate which had been in the family for nearly two hundred years. For neighbors we had the Princes Galatzina and the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess Elizabeth, the last named being the older sister of the Empress. I hardly remember when I did not know and love the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, as she was familiarly called. As small children she petted and spoiled us all, often inviting us to tea, the feast ending in a grand frolic in which we were allowed to search the rooms for toys which she had ingeniously hidden. It was at one of these children's teas that I first saw the Empress Alexandra. Quite unexpectedly the Tsarina was announced and the beautiful Grand Duchess Elizabeth, leaving her small guests, ran eagerly to greet her. The time was near the beginning of the reign of Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna, and the Tsarina was at the very height of her youthful beauty. My childish impression of her was of a tall, slender, graceful woman, lovely beyond description, with a wealth of golden hair and eyes like stars, the very picture of what an Empress should be.
For my father the young Empress soon conceived a warm liking and confidence and she named him as vice president of the committee of Assistance par le Travail. During this time we lived in winter in the Mikhailovsky Palace in Petrograd, and in summer in a small villa in Peterhof on the Baltic Sea. From conversations between my mother and father I learned a great deal of the life of the Imperial Family. The Empress impressed my father both by her excessive shyness and by her unusual intelligence. She was above all a motherly woman and often combined baby-tending with serious business affairs. With the little Grand Duchess Olga in her arms she discussed all kinds of business with my father, and while with one hand rocking the cradle where lay the baby Tatiana she signed letters and papers of consequence. Sometimes while thus engaged there would come a clear, musical whistle, like a bird call. It was the Emperor's special summons to his wife, and at the first sound her check would turn to rose, and, regard less of everything, she would fly to answer it. That birdlike whistle of the Emperor I became very familiar with in later years, calling the children, signaling to me. It had a curious, appealing, resistless quality, peculiar to himself.
Perhaps it was a common love of music which first drew the Empress and our family into a bond of friendship. All of us children received a thorough musical education. From childhood we were taken regularly to concerts and the opera, and our home, especially on Wednesday evenings, was a rendezvous for all the musicians and composers of the capital. The great Tchaikovsky was a friend of my father, and I remember many others of note who were frequent guests at tea or dinner.
Apart from music we received an education rather more practical than was the average at that time. In the Russia of my childhood a girl of good family was supposed to acquire a few pretty accomplishments and nothing much besides. Accomplishments I and my sister were given, but besides music and painting, for which my sister had considerable talent, we were well grounded in academic studies, and we finished by taking examinations leading to teachers' diplomas. I may say also that even in our drawing-room accomplishments we were obliged to be thorough, and when my father ventured to show some of our work to the Empress she expressed warm approval. "Most Russian girls," she said, "seem to have nothing in their heads but officers."
The Empress, coming from a small German Court where everyone at least tried to occupy themselves usefully, found the idle and listless atmosphere of Russia little to her taste. In her first enthusiasm of power she thought to change things a little for the better. One of her early projects was a society of handwork composed of ladies of the Court and society circles, each one of whom should make with her own hands three garments a year to be given to the poor. The society, I am sorry to say, did not long flourish. The idea was too foreign to the soil. Nevertheless the Empress persisted in creating throughout Russia industrial centers, maisons de travail, where the unemployed, both men and women, and especially unfortunate women who, through errors of conduct, lost their positions, could find work.
Life at Court was by no means serious. In fact it was at that time very gay. At seventeen I was presented, first to the Empress Dowager who lived in a palace in Peterhof known as the Cottage. Extremely shy at first, I soon accustomed myself to the many brilliant Court functions to which my mother chaperoned my sister and myself. We danced that first winter, I remember, at no less than twenty-two balls besides attending many receptions, teas, and dinners. Perhaps it was partly the fatigue of all this social dissipation which made so serious the illness with which in the ensuing summer I was stricken. Typhus, that scourge of Russia, struck down at the same time my brother Serge and myself. My brother's illness ran a normal course and he made a rapid recovery, but for three months I lay at death's door. After the fever succeeded many complications, inflammation of the lungs and kidneys, and an affection of the brain whereby I lost both speech and hearing. In the midst of my suffering I had a vivid dream in which the saintly Father John of Kronstadt appeared to me and told me to have courage and that all would finally be well.
This Father John of Kronstadt, whom all true Russians reverence as a saint, I remembered as having thrice been at our house in my early childhood. The gentle majesty of his presence, the beauty of his benign countenance had so deeply impressed me that now, in my desperate illness, it seemed to me that he, more than the skilled physicians and the devoted sisters who attended me, had power of help and healing. In some way I managed to convey to my parents that I wanted Father John, and they immediately telegraphed begging him to come. It was some days before the message reached him, as he was away from home on a mission, but as soon as he received word of our need he hastened to Peterhof. As in a vision I sensed his coming long before he reached the house, and when he came I greeted him without astonishment with a feeble movement of my hand. Father John knelt down beside my bed, praying quietly, a corner of his long stole laid over my burning head. At length he rose, took a glass of holy water, and to the consternation of the nurses sprinkled it freely over me and bade me sleep. Almost instantly I fell into a deep sleep, and when I awoke next day I was so much better that all could see that I was on the road to recovery.
In September of that year I went with my mother first to Baden and afterwards to Naples. We lived in the same hotel with the Grand Duke Serge and Grand Duchess Elizabeth who were very much amused to see me in a wig, my long illness having rendered me temporarily almost bald. After a quiet but happy season in southern Italy I returned to Russia quite restored to health. The winter of 1903 1 remember as a round of gaieties and dissipations. In January of that year I received from the Empress the diamond studded chiffre of maid of honor, which meant that, following my marriage, I would have permanent entry to all Court functions. Not immediately but very soon afterwards I was called to duty to the person of the Empress, and there began then that dose and intimate friendship which I know lasted with her always and which will remain with me as long as God permits me to live.
I would that I could paint a picture of the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna as I knew her before the first shadow of doom and disaster fell upon unhappy Russia. No photograph ever did her justice because it could reproduce neither her lovely color nor her graceful movements. Tall she was, and delicately, beautifully shaped, with exquisitely white neck and shoulders. Her abundant hair, red gold, was so long that she could easily sit upon it when it was unbound. Her complexion was clear and as rosy as a little child's. The Empress had large eyes, deep gray and very lustrous. It was only in later life that sorrow and anxiety gave her eyes the melancholy with which they are usually associated. In youth they wore an expression of constant merriment which explained her family nickname of "Sunny," a name by the way nearly always used by the Emperor. I began almost from the first day of our association to love and admire her, as I have loved her ever since and always shall.
The winter of 1903 was very brilliant, the season culminating in a famous ball in costumes of Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich, who reigned in the seventeenth century. The ball was given first in the Hermitage, the great art gallery adjoining the Winter Palace, but so immense was its success that it had to be twice repeated, once in the Salle de Concert of the palace and again in the large ballroom of the Schermetiev Palace. My sister and I were two of twenty young girls selected to dance with twenty youthful cavaliers in an ancient Russian dance which required almost as much rehearsal as a ballet. The rehearsals were quite important society events, all the mothers attending, and the Empress often looking on as interested as any of us.
That summer I again fell ill in our villa in Peterhof, and I remember particularly that this was the first time the Empress ever visited our house. She drove in a low pony chaise, coming up to my sickroom all in white with a big white hat and in the best of spirits. Needless to say, her unexpected visit did me a world of good, as did her second visit at our home in the country when she left me a gift of holy water from Sarov, a place greatly venerated by Russians. That winter with its artless pleasures, and the pleasant summer which followed, marked the end of an era in Russia. Immediately afterwards came the catastrophe of the Japanese War, so needlessly entered into. This war was the beginning of a long line of disasters which ended in the supreme disaster of 1917- 1 must confess that at the time the Japanese War made no very deep impression on young girls who, like myself, faced life lightly like happy children. We resigned ourselves to an almost complete cessation of balls and parties, and we put aside our pretty gowns for the sober dress of working sisters. The great salons of the Winter Palace were turned into workrooms and there every day society flocked to sew and knit for our soldiers and sailors fighting such incredible distances away, as well as for the wounded in hospitals at home and abroad. My mother, who was one of the heads of committees giving out work to be done at home, was constantly busy, and we obediently followed her example.
Every day the Empress came to inspect the work, often sitting down at a table and sewing diligently with the others. This was shortly before the birth of the Tsarevich and I have a clear picture in my mind of the Empress looking more than ever fine and delicate, her tall figure clad in a loose robe of dark velvet trimmed in fur. Behind her chair, bringing into splendid relief her bright gold hair, stood a huge negro servant, gorgeous in scarlet trousers, gold-embroidered jacket, and white turban. This negro, Jim, was one of four Abyssinians who stood guard before the doors of the private apartments. They were not soldiers and they had no functions except to open and close the doors, and to signify by a sudden, noiseless entrance into a state apartment that one of their Majesties was about to appear. The Abyssinians were in fact simply one of the left-overs from the days of Catherine the Great, in whose times dwarfs and negroes and other exotics figured as a part of Court ceremonials. They remained not because Nicholas II or the Empress wanted them, but because, as I shall later explain, it was practically impossible to change any detail of Russian Court life.
The following summer the heir was born amid the wildest rejoicings all over the Empire. I remember the Empress telling me with what extraordinary ease the child was brought into the world. Scarcely half an hour after the Empress had left her boudoir for her bedroom the baby was born and it was known that, after many prayers, there was an heir to the throne of the Romanovs. The Emperor, in spite of the desperate sorrow brought upon him by a disastrous war, was quite mad with joy. His happiness and the mother's, however, was of short duration, for almost at once they learned that the poor child was afflicted with a dread disease, rather rare except in royal families where it is only too common. The victims of this malady are known in medicine as hemophiliacs, or bleeders. Frequently they die soon after birth, and those who survive are subject to frightful suffering, if not to sudden death, from slight injuries to blood vessels, internal as well as external. The whole short life of the Tsarevich, the loveliest and most amiable child imaginable, was a succession of agonizing illnesses due to this congenital affliction. The sufferings of the child were more than equaled by those of his parents, especially of his mother, who hardly knew a day of real happiness after she realized her boy's fate. Her health and spirits began to decline, and she developed a chronic heart trouble. Although the boy's affliction was in no conceivable way her fault, she dwelt morbidly on the fact that the disease is transmitted through the mother and that it was common in her family. One of her younger brothers suffered from it, also her uncle Leopold, Queen Victoria's youngest son, while all three sons of her sister, Princess Irene of Prussia, were similarly afflicted. One of these boys died young and the other two were life long invalids.
Everything possible, everything known to medical science, was done for the child Alexei. The Empress nursed him herself, as indeed, with the assistance of professional women, she had nursed all her children. Three trained Russian nurses were in attendance, with the Empress always superintending. She bathed the babe herself, and was with him so much that the Court, ever censorious of her, complained that she was more of a nurse than an Empress. The Court, of course, did not immediately understand the serious condition of the infant heir. No parents, be their estate high or low, are ready all at once to reveal a misfortune such as that one. It is always human to hope that things are not as desperate as they seem, and that in time some remedy for the illness will be found. The Emperor and Empress guarded their secret from all except relatives and most intimate friends, closing their eyes and their ears to the growing unpopularity of the Empress. She was ill and she was suffering, but to the Court she appeared merely cold, haughty, and indifferent. From this false impression she never fully recovered even after the explanation of her suddenly acquired silence and melancholy became generally known.
Tsar Nicholas II