Memories Of The Russian Court

Spala and the Tecentenary

In the autumn of 1912 the family went to Skernevizi, their Polish estate, in order to indulge the Emperor's love for big-game hunting. In the vast forests surrounding the estate all kinds of game were pre-served and the sport of hunting there was said to be very exciting. During the war these woods and all the game were destroyed by the Germans, but until after 1914 Skernevizi was a favorite retreat of the Emperor. I had returned to my house in Tsarskoe Selo but I was not allowed long to remain there. A telegram from the Empress conveyed the disquieting news that Alexei, in jumping into a boat, had injured himself and was now in a serious condition. The child had been removed from Skernevizi to Spala, a smaller Polish estate near Warsaw, and to Warsaw I accordingly traveled. Here I was met by one of the Imperial carriages and was driven to Spala. Driving for nearly an hour through deep woods and over a heavy, sandy road I reached my destination, a small wooden house, something like a country inn, in which the suite was lodged. Two rooms had been set apart for me and my maid, and here I found Olga and Tatiana waiting to help me get settled. Their mother, they said, was expecting me, and without any loss of time I went with them to the palace.

I found the Empress greatly agitated. The boy was temporarily improved but was still too delicate to be taken back to Tsarskoe Selo. Meanwhile the family lived in one of the dampest, gloomiest palaces I have ever seen. It was really a large wooden villa, very badly planned as far as light and sunshine were concerned. The large dining room on the ground floor was so dark that the electric lights had to be kept on all day. Upstairs to the right of a long corridor were the rooms of the Emperor and Empress, her sitting room in bright English chintzes being one of the few cheerful spots in the house. Here we usually spent our evenings. The bedrooms and dressing rooms were too dark for comfort, but the Emperor's study, also on the right of the corridor, was fairly bright.

As long as the health of little Alexei continued fairly satisfactory the Emperor and his suite went stag hunting daily in the forests of the estate. Every evening after dinner the slain stags were brought to the front of the palace and laid out for inspection on the grass. The huntsmen with their flaring torches and winding horns standing over the day's bag made, I was told, a very picturesque spectacle. The Emperor and his suite and most of the household used to enjoy going out after dinner to enjoy this fine sight. I never went myself, having a foolish love of animals which prevents enjoyment of the royal sport of hunting. I even failed to appreciate, as the head of the estate, kind Count Velepolsky, thought I should, the many trophies of the chase with which the corridors and apartments of the palace were adorned.

What I did enjoy was the beautiful park which surrounded the palace, and the rapid little river Pilitsa that flowed through it. There was one leafy path through which I often walked in the mornings with the Emperor. This was called the Road of Mushrooms because it ended in a wonderful mushroom bench. The whole place was so remote and peaceful that I deeply sympathized with their Majesties' irritation that even there they could never stir abroad without being haunted by the police guard.

Although Alexei's illness was believed to have taken a favorable turn and he was even beginning to walk a little about the house and gardens, I found him pale and decidedly out of condition. He occasionally complained of pain, but the doctors were unable to discover any actual injury. One day the Empress took the child for a drive and before we had gone very far we saw that indeed he was very ill. He cried out with pain in his back and stomach, and the Empress, terribly frightened, gave the order to return to the palace. That return drive stands out in my mind as an experience of horror. Every movement of the carriage, every rough place in the road, caused the child the most exquisite torture, and by the time we reached home he was almost unconscious with pain. The next weeks were endless torment to the boy and to all of us who had to listen to his constant cries of pain. For fully eleven days these dreadful sounds filled the corridors outside his room, and those of us who were obliged to approach had often to stop our ears with our hands in order to go about our duties. During the entire time the Empress never undressed, never went to bed, rarely even lay down for an hour's rest. Hour after hour she sat beside the bed where the half-conscious child lay huddled on one side, his left leg drawn up so sharply that for nearly a year afterwards he could not straighten it out. His face was absolutely bloodless, drawn and seamed with suffering, while his almost expressionless eyes rolled back in his head. Once when the Emperor came into the room, seeing his boy in this agony and hearing his faint screams of pain, the poor father's courage completely gave way and he rushed, weeping bitterly, to his study. Both parents believed the child dying, and Alexei himself, in one of his rare moments of consciousness, said to his mother: "When I am dead build me a little monument of stones in the wood."

The family's most trusted physicians, Dr. Rauchfuss and Professor Fedorov and his assistant Dr. Derevenko, were in charge of the case and after the first consultations declared the Tsarevich's condition hopeless. The hemorrhage of the stomach from which he was suffering seemed liable to turn into an abscess which could at any moment prove fatal. We had two terrible moments in which this complication threatened. One day at luncheon a note was brought from the Empress to the Emperor who, pale but collected, made a sign for the physicians to leave the table. Alexei, the Empress had written, was suffering so terribly that she feared the worst was about to happen. This crisis, however, was averted. On the second occasion, on an evening after dinner when we were sitting very quietly in the Empress's boudoir, Princess Irene of Prussia, who had come to be with her sister in her trouble, appeared in the doorway very white and agitated and begged the members of the suite to retire as the child's condition was desperate. At eleven o'clock the Emperor and Empress entered the room, despair written on their faces. Still the Empress declared that she could not believe that God had abandoned them and she asked me to telegraph Rasputin for his prayers. His reply came quickly. "The little one will not die," it said. "Do not allow the doctors to bother him too much." As a matter of fact the turning point came a few days later, the pain subsided, and the boy lay wasted and utterly spent, but alive.

Curiously enough there was no church on this Polish estate, but during the illness of the Tsarevich a chapel was installed in a large green tent in the garden. A new confessor, Father Alexander, celebrated mass and after the first celebration he walked in solemn procession from the altar to the sickroom bearing with him holy communion for the sick boy. The Emperor and Empress were very much impressed with Father Alexander and from that time on they retained him in their private chapel at Tsarskoe Selo. He was a good man but not a brave one, for when the Revolution came, and the Emperor and the Empress sent for him to come to them, he confessed himself afraid to go. Poor man! His caution, after all, did not save him. He was shot by the Bolsheviki a year or two afterwards, on what pretext I do not know.

The convalescence of Alexei was slow and wearisome. His nurse, Marie Vechniakova, had grown so hysterical with fatigue that she had to be relieved, while the Empress was so exhausted that she could hardly move from room to room. The young Grand Duchesses were tireless in their devotion to the poor invalid, as was also M. Gilliard, who read to him and diverted him hours on end. Gradually the distracted household assumed a more normal aspect. The Emperor, in Cossack uniform, began once more to entertain the officers of his Varsovie Lancers, commanded by a splendid soldier, General Mannerheim, of whom the world has heard much. As Alexei's health continued to improve there was even a little shooting, and a great deal of tennis which the girls, after their long confinement to the house, greatly enjoyed. All of us began to be happy again, but one day the Emperor called me into his study and showed me a telegram from his brother, Grand Duke Mikhail, in which the latter announced his morganatic marriage to the Countess Brassova, of whom the Emperor strongly disapproved. It was not the marriage itself that so strongly disturbed the Emperor, but that Mikhail had solemnly given his word of honor that it would never take place. "He broke his word - his word of honor," the Emperor repeated again and again.

Another blow which the Emperor received at this time was the suicide of Admiral Shagin, commandant of the Standart and one of the closest friends of the family. The Admiral shot himself on account of an unhappy love affair, and deeply as the Emperor mourned his death he was even more indignant at the manner of it. Russians, I know, are inclined to morbidity, and suicide with them is not an uncommon thing. But Nicholas II always regarded it as an act of dishonor. "Running away from the field of battle," was his characterization of such an act, and when he heard of Shagin's suicide he gave way to a terrible mood of anger and grief. Speaking of both Mikhail and Shagin he said bitterly: "How, in the midst of the boy's illness and all our trouble, how could they have done such things?" The poor Emperor, to whom every failure of those he loved and trusted came as an utterly unexpected blow, how near was his hour of complete and final disillusionment of nearly all earthly loyalties.

We had a few weeks of peaceful enjoyment before leaving Spala that autumn. The girls, bright and happy once more, rode every morning, the crisp air and the exercise coloring their cheeks and raising their spirits high. The Emperor tramped the woods, sometimes with me as his companion, and on one of these outings we both had a narrow escape from drowning. The Emperor took me for a row on the river which, as I have said, had a very rapid current. Intent on keeping the boat well into the current, the Emperor ran us into a small island, and for a few seconds escape from an ignominious upset seemed impossible. I was thoroughly frightened, the Emperor not a little embarrassed, and ardor for water sports was, for a time, rather lessened in both of us.

On October 21 (Russian Calendar) we celebrated the accession to the throne with high mass and holy communion, and a few days later the doctors decided that Alexei was well enough to be moved to Tsarskoe Selo. The Imperial train was made ready and their Majesties decided that I was to travel on it with the rest of the suite. This was, as a matter of fact, contrary to strict etiquette, and the announcement created among the ladies in waiting much consternation, not to say rancor. There is no question that being a regularly appointed lady in waiting to royalty and having nothing to do when a mere friend of the exalted one happens to be at hand is a bit irritating, so I cannot really blame the Empress's ladies for objecting to me as a traveling companion. The Imperial train, now used, one hears, by the inner circle of the Communists, was composed of a number of luxurious carriages, more like a home than a railway train. In the carriage of the Emperor and Empress the easy chairs and sofas were upholstered in bright chintz and there were books, family photographs, and all sort of familiar trinkets. The emperor's study was in his favorite green leather, and adjoining their dressing rooms was a large and perfectly equipped bathroom. In this carriage also were rooms for the personal attendants of their Majesties. The Grand Duchesses and their maids had a similar carriage, and Alexei's carriage, which had compartments for the maids of honor and myself, was furnished with every imaginable -comfort. The last carriage was the dining wagon with a small anteroom where the inevitable zakuski, the Russian table of hors d'oeuvres, was served. At the long dining table the Emperor sat with his daughters on either hand, while facing him were Count Fredericks and the ladies in waiting. Throughout the journey of nearly two days the Empress was served in her own room or beside the bed where Alexei lay, very weak, but bright and cheerful once more.

This chapter may well close with one of the opening events of 1913, the jubilee of the Romanovs, celebrating the three hundredth anniversary of their reign. In February the Court moved from Tsarskoe Selo to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg a place they disliked because of the vast gloominess of the building and the fact that the only garden was a tiny space hardly large enough for the children to play or to exercise in. On reaching St. Petersburg the family drove directly across the Neva to Christ's Chapel, the little church of Peter the Great, where is, or was, preserved a miraculous picture of the Christ, very old and highly revered. The public had not been notified that the Imperial Family would first visit this chapel, but their presence quickly became known and they drove back to the Winter Palace through excited, but on the whole undemonstrative, masses of people, a typical Petersburg crowd.

The actual celebration of the jubilee began with a solemn service in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan, which everyone familiar with Petersburg remembers as one of the most beautiful of Russian churches. The vast building was packed to its utmost capacity, and that means a much larger crowd than in ordinary churches, since in Russia the congregation stands or kneels through the entire service. From my position I had a very good view of both the Emperor and the Tsarevich, and I was puzzled to see them raise their heads and gaze long at the ceiling, but afterwards they told me that two doves had appeared and had floated for several minutes over their heads. In the religious exaltation of the hour this appeared to the Emperor a symbol that the blessing of God, after three centuries continued to rest on the House of Romanov. There followed a long series of functions at the palace, with deputations coming from all over the Empire, the women appearing at receptions and dinners in the beautiful national dress, which were also worn by the Empress and her daughters. The Empress, for all her weariness, was regal in her richly flowing robes and, long-veiled, high kokoshnik, the Russian national headdress, set with magnificent jewels. She also wore the wide-ribboned order of St. Andrew, which was her sole privilege to wear, and at the most formal of the state dinners she wore the most splendid of all the crown jewels. The young Grand Duchesses were simply but beautifully gowned on all occasions, and they wore the order of Catherine the Great, red ribbons with blazing diamond stars. The crowds were enormous in all the great state rooms, the Imperial Family standing for hours while the multitudes filed past with sweeping curtsies and low bows. So long and fatiguing were these ceremonies that at the end the Empress was literally too fatigued to force a smile. Poor little Alexei also, after being carried through the rooms and obliged to acknowledge a thousand greetings, was taken back to his room in a condition of utter exhaustion.

There were state performance's at the theater and the opera, Glinka's "Life for the Tsar" being sting to the usual tumult of applause and adulation, but for all that I felt that there was in the brilliant audience little real enthusiasm, little real loyalty. I saw a cloud over the whole celebration in Petersburg, and this impression, I am almost sure, was shared by the Empress. She told me that she could never feel happy in Petersburg. Everything in the Winter Palace reminded her of earlier years when she and her husband used to go happily to the theater together and returning would have supper in their dressing gowns before the fire talking over the events of the day and evening. "I was so happy then," she said plaintively, So well and strong. Now I am a wreck."

Much as both she and the Emperor desired to shorten their stay in Petersburg, they were obliged to remain several weeks after the close of the official celebration because Tatiana, who unwisely had drunk the infected water of the capital, fell ill of typhoid and could not for some time be moved. With her lovely brown hair cut short, we finally went back to Tsarskoe Selo, where she made good progress back to health.

In the spring began the celebration of the Jubilee throughout the Empire. The visit to the Volga, especially to Kostroma, the home of the first Romanov monarch, Mikhail Feodorovich, was a magnificent success, the people actually wading waist deep in the river in order to get nearer the Imperial boat. It was the same through all the surrounding governments, crowds, cheers, acclamations, prayers, and great choruses singing the national hymn, every evidence of love and loyalty. I particularly remember when the cortege reached the town of Pereyaslavl, in the Vladimir Government, because it was from there that my father's family originated, and some of his relatives took part in the day's celebration. The Empress, to my regret, was not present, being confined to her bed on the Imperial train, ill and fatigued, yet under obligation to be ready for special ceremonies in Moscow. It would need a more eloquent pen than mine adequately to describe those days in Moscow, the Holy City of Russia. The weather was perfect, and under the clear sunshine the floating flags and banners, the flower-trimmed buildings, and the numberless decorations made up a spectacle of unforgettable beauty. Leaving his car at some distance from the Kremlin, the Emperor entered the great gate on foot, preceded by chanting priests with waving censers and holy images. Behind the Emperor and his suite came the Empress and Alexei in an open car through crowds that pressed hard against the police lines, while overhead all the bells of Moscow pealed welcome to the Sovereigns. Every day it was the same, demonstrations of love and fealty it seemed that no time or circumstance could ever alter.

previous chapter next chapter

Tsar Nicholas II

Tsar Nicholas II

2014 Best Website Award from the Texas Association of Builders

A website we developed won this prestigious award.

Home Builder 2015 Websites - Competive Pricing

Home Builders and Developers have been building unique and beautiful websites with Pallasart since 1995