We spent the summer months abroad that following year, 1895, and stayed in the home of the elderly Queen Victoria at Windsor Palace. Grand Duke Paul passed the days in a strictly familial setting. On Sunday afternoons, usually, the Queen of England and her eminent guests would go take their places on the large lawn in the garden. Queen Victoria would be seated in the center of the circular lawn, in her armchair placed on a small rise of earth. Then a most lively party began; all of the servants, men and women in Scottish national dress danced Scottish dances, which went on for hours.
I recall another royal custom from during our stay at Windsor. Every morning at 9 o'clock, the Scottish musicians would arrive and the tunes from their native instruments would awaken the Queen. They also would often organize stag hunts at Windsor, up in the mountains. We arrived at the hunting lodge in the evening, slept there and began the hunt at a very early hour. All of the trophies of that day's hunt would be taken back to the lodge, where special hunters received them and kept them for the participants in the hunt. After dinner, at nine o'clock, they would have arranged an illumination, where all of the local inhabitants of the area and the hunters would dance. The invited guests also danced, during which the horsemen would exchange kisses with the ladies. The dancing would go on all night. We would return to Windsor the next day. As I already said, the reason for the journey to England was the eventual marriage of Grand Duke Paul to one of the English princesses. However, that plan was never realized; the Grand Duke and the Princess, it was said, were not able to find "mutual affinity in their characters." We returned to Petersburg at the beginning of autumn.
Upon our return to Petersburg, life quickly regained its usual pace. The Grand Duke, as alwyas, avoided noisy distractions and was always at work in the Horse Guard Regiment. This occupation kept away the sad thoughts of his destroyed family life and calmed his nerves. He exactly followed the exercises of the Regiment and took an active part in his men's lives. In addition to the obligatory presence at the regular parties of the Regiment, Grand Duke Paul also regularly attended the officers' dinner once a week. So the spring of 1896 arrived without our having noticed it. I was then required to accompany the Grand Duke, this time to Moscow for the Coronation services. As always, we descended on the home of Grand Duke Serge Alexandrovich. This time Grand Duke Paul's children accompanied us, along with their governess, Miss Djunkovsky, sister of General Djunkovsky who later occupied a high position in the Russian Government.
Grand Duke Paul had much to do, as the Emperor has assigned him to receive all of the notable foreign guests who were arriving daily in Moscow. For each one he had to change his uniform, so he would be dressed in the appropriate uniform of each guest's country. A week passed and then the days of the Coronation itself began.
I will not go into describing the Coronation celebrations here; it has been done so many times already! I will only say that I had been charged to follow the ceremony of the Emperor's passing from the Petrovsky Palace to the Kremlin, the ancient place of all coronations. The Emperor was on horseback, the two Tsarinas were in a carriage. They were all greeted with great enthusiasm by the crowds. The next day I watched with my own eyes the solemn procession in Red Square to the Cathedral of the Assumption and the return to the Kremlin. I tried to go inside the Cathedral, but there were such crowds already inside that people were being crushed, so I decided to return to the Kremlin. Several minutes later Grand Duke Paul arrived and told me that the Emperor was going to follow soon and that he was to help him change into his uniform. Emperor Nicholas II arrived very soon after in his apartments. I extended my congratulations to him, and he thanked me with his usual friendliness. He was very pale and tired, but in good spirits. "Volkov, do you see? Look at what they have done to me!" he said to me, showing me his uniform and boots with soft soles. The uniform and bootsoles of the Emperor all had holes in them, from being worn while he practiced in advance and then worn them throughout the administration of holy anointing.
The parties, receptions and balls following the Coronation were darkened by the catastrophe at Khondinka, where 2,000 people were crushed to death. The same day as the catastrophe, I was taking a walk along the Khondinka and I met many groups of people coming back from that site and carrying the Tsar's gifts. The strange thing, though, was that not one person mentioned the catastrophe, and I did not hear about it until the next morning, at the Governor General's palace, where General Prefect of Police Vlasovski brought a special report. Grand Duke Serge Alexandrovich was very depressed by what had happened; he gave Vlasovski orders to return to him every hour with detailed reports on the progress of the investigation into the causes of the disaster. Then, the typical slowness of these matters set in; Prefect General of Police Vlasovski rejected any fault by Grand Duke Serge; the latter himself considered that the blame for the disaster lay on the incompetence of Minister of the Court, Vorontsov-Dashkov. Emperor Nicholas II himself took an active part in the investigation of the matter as to who was to bear responsibility for the Khondinka disaster. The end result was: Grand Duke Serge was found responsible, as was Count Vorontsov-Dashkov, and they were required to submit their resignations. Then, Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich put pressure on the Emperor by declaring that all of the Grand Dukes were going to quit their posts if Grand Duke Serge was to resign.
Emperor Nicholas II gave in, and was it was Vlasovski who was discharged. Some time later Count Vorontsov-Dashkov also left his post. In the days following I witnessed the gruesome sight of the wagons transporting the bodies from the Khondinka field to the morgues. The bodies were stacked up like logs and, with some difficulty, covered with canvas and sacks.
The Coronation ceremonies were brought to a close with a brilliant ball given by the French Ambassador, after that began the departure of the notable guests and their suites from Moscow.
Later, many times in the suite and in society I would hear it said or I would read that the disaster was a premonition of the misfortune that would befall the reign of Nicholas II. I can in all good conscience affirm here that, at the time, I never heard any such thing ever said by anyone. I have also come to the conclusion that since those statements did not come until later on with other disasterous events, those statements about Khonkinka are just boring as the ideas did not come until after the fact. Back home, in Russia, people love to attribute a sense of the occult and mysterious to events...
Go to Chapter 5.