Thirteen Years at the Russian Court Thirteen Years at the Russian Court Thirteen Years at the Russian Court

First Days of the War - Journey to Moscow - Pierre Gilliard - Thirteen Years at the Russian Court

AUGUST, 1914

At the moment when this historic scene was taking place in the Foreign Minister's room at St. Petersburg, the Tsar, the Tsarina, and their daughters were attending evensong in the little Alexandria church. I had met the Tsar a few hours before, and been much struck by the air of weary exhaustion he wore. The pouches which always appeared under his eyes when he was tired seemed to be markedly larger. He was now praying with all the fervour of his nature that God would avert the war which he felt was imminent and all but inevitable.

His whole being seemed to go out in an expression of simple and confident faith. At his side was the Tsarina, whose careworn face wore that look of suffering I had so often seen at her son's bedside. She too was praying fervently that night, as if she wished to banish an evil dream...

When the service was over Their Majesties and the Grand-Duchesses returned to Alexandria Cottage. It was almost eight o'clock. Before the Tsar came down to dinner he went into his study to read the dispatches which had been brought in his absence. It was thus, from a message from Sazonov, that he learned of Germany's declaration of war. He spoke to his Minister on the telephone for a short time and asked him to come down to Alexandria Cottage the moment he could get away.

Meanwhile the Tsarina and the Grand-Duchesses were waiting for him in the dining-room, Her Majesty, becoming uneasy at the long delay, had just asked Tatiana Nicolaievna to fetch her father, when the Tsar appeared, looking very pale, and told them that war was declared, in a voice which betrayed his agitation, notwithstanding all his efforts. On learning the news the Tsarina began to weep, and the Grand-Duchesses likewise dissolved into tears on seeing their mother's distress. (I had these details from the Grand-Duchess Anastasia NicolaIevna, who described the scene to me next morning)

At nine o'clock Sazonov arrived at Alexandria. He was closeted with the Tsar for a long time, and the latter also received Sir George Buchanan, the Ambassador of Great Britain, in the course of the evening.

I did not see the Tsar again until after lunch the next day, when he came up to kiss the Tsarevich (Aleksey Nicolaievich had not recovered from his accident when he made his condition worse by an imprudent act. He was thus unable to accompany his parents to St. Petersburg - a great blow to them). before leaving for the solemn session at the Winter Palace, at which, in accordance with traditional usage, he was to issue a manifesto to his people announcing the war with Germany. He looked even worse than on the previous evening, and his eyes sparkled as if he had the fever. He told me he had just heard that the Germans had entered Luxemburg and attacked French customs houses before war was declared on France.

I will reproduce here some of the notes I made in my diary about this time.

Monday, August 3rd. - The Tsar came up to Aleksey Nicolaievich's room this morning. He was a changed man. Yesterday's ceremony resolved itself into an impressive manifestation. When he appeared on the balcony of the Winter Palace the enormous crowd which had collected on the square fell on their knees and sang the Russian National Anthem. The enthusiasm of his people has shown the Tsar that this is unquestionably a national war.

I hear that at the Winter Palace yesterday the Tsar took a solemn oath not to make peace while a single enemy soldier remains on Russian soil. In taking such an oath before the whole world Nicholas II shows the true character of this war. It is a matter of life and death, a struggle for existence.

The Tsarina had a long talk with me this afternoon. She was in a state of great indignation, as she had just heard that on orders from the Emperor William II the Dowager-Empress of Russia had been prevented from continuing her journey to St. Petersburg and had had to go from Berlin to Copenhagen.

"Fancy a monarch arresting an Empress! How could he descend to that? He has absolutely changed since the militarist party, who hate Russia, have gained the upper hand with him. But I am sure he has been won over to the war against his will. He's been dragged into it by the Crown Prince, who openly assumed the leadership of the pan-German militarists and seemed to disapprove of his father's policy. He has forced his father's hand.

"I have never liked the Emperor William, if only because he is not sincere. He is vain and has always played the comedian. He was always reproaching me with doing nothing for Germany, and has always done his best to separate Russia and France,' though I never believed it was for the good of Russia. He will never forgive me this war!

GILLIARD NOTE: I cannot say that the Tsarina had any personal affection for France, a country with which she had no ties and no particular temperamental affinity. She did not understand the French mind, and took all the literary acrobatics of our "immoralistes " quite seriously. On the other hand, she thoroughly enjoyed the great nineteenth-century poets.

"You know that the Tsar received a telegram from him the night before last. It arrived several hours after the declaration of war, and demanded an immediate reply, which alone could avert the terrible disaster.' He thus tried to deceive the Tsar once more, unless the telegram was kept back at Berlin by those who were bent on war in any case."

Tuesday, August 4th - Germany has declared war on France and I hear that Switzerland also has mobilized. I have been to the Legation to get the orders for my ultimate departure.

Wednesday, August 5th - I met the Tsar in the park. He told me with immense pleasure that, as a result of the violation of the neutrality of Belgium, England has joined the great cause. The neutrality of Italy seems assured as well.

We have already won a great diplomatic victory. Military victory will follow, and, thanks to the help of England, it will come sooner than we think. The Germans have against them the whole of Europe, with the exception of Austria. . Their insolence and despotism have at last been too much even for their allies, Look at the Italians!

This evening I had another long talk with the Tsarina, who will not hear of my leaving for Switzerland. "It's ridiculous! You will never get there. All communications are interrupted."

I told her that an arrangement had been made between the French Embassy and the Swiss Legation, and that we should all go home together, via the Dardanelles.

"The trouble is that, if you have some chance - it's a very small one - of getting home, you will have no chance of getting back here before the end of the war. As Switzerland will not fight, you will be at home doing nothing."

At that moment Dr. Derevenko entered the room. In his hand he held an evening paper announcing the violation of Swiss neutrality by Germany.

"Again! They must be crazy, mad!" cried the Tsarina. "They have absolutely lost their heads!"

Realising she could not keep me now, she abandoned her resistance and began to speak kindly of my relations, who will be without news of me for some considerable time.

"I myself have no news of my brother," she added.

Where is he? In Belgium or on the French front? I shiver to think that the Emperor William may avenge himself against me by sending him to the Russian front. He is quite capable of such monstrous behavior! What a horrible war this is! What evil and suffering it means! . . . What will become of Germany? What humiliation, what a downfall is in store for her? And all for the sins of the Hohenzollens - their idiotic pride and insatiable ambition. Whatever has happened to the Germany of my childhood ? I have such happy and poetic memories of my early years in Darmstadt and the good friends I had there. But on my later visits Germany seemed to me a changed country a country I did not know and had never known. . . . I had no community of thought or feeling with anyone except the old friends of days gone by. Prussia has meant Germany's ruin. The German people have been deceived. Feelings of hatred and revenge which are quite foreign to their nature have been instilled into them. It will be a terrible, monstrous struggle, and humanity is about to pass through ghastly sufferings. ..."

Thursday, August 6th - I went into the town this morning, The violation of the neutrality of Switzerland is not confirmed and seems most improbable. It is impossible to travel via the Dardanelles. Our departure is thus postponed, and we cannot say when it will take place. This uncertainty makes me anxious.

Sunday, August 9th - The Tsar has had another long talk with me today. As before, he expressed himself with a confidence and frankness which can only be explained by the exceptional circumstances through which we are passing. Neither he nor the Tsarina ever used to discuss political or personal questions with me. But the amazing events of the last few days, and the fact that I have been so intimately associated with their troubles and anxieties, have drawn me closer to them, and for the time being the conventional barriers of etiquette and Court usage have fallen.

The Tsar first spoke to me about the solemn session of the Duma on the previous day. He told me how tremendously pleased he had been with its resolute and dignified attitude and its fervent patriotism.

"The Duma was in every way worthy of the occasion. It expressed the real will of the nation, for the whole of Russia smarts under the insults heaped upon it by Germany. I have the greatest confidence in the future now. . . . Speaking personally, I have done everything in my power to avert this war, and I am ready to make any concessions consistent with our dignity and national honour. You cannot imagine how glad I am that all the uncertainty is over, for I have never been through so terrible a time as the days preceding the outbreak of war. I am sure that there will now be a national uprising in Russia like that of the great war of 1812."

Wednesday, August 12th. - It is Aleksey Nicolaievich's birthday. He is ten today.

Friday, August 14th The Grand-Duke Nicholas Nicolaievich, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Armies (He was the grandson of the Tsar Nicholas I, and had been appointed Generalissimo of the Russian armies immediately after the declaration of war), has left for the front. Before leaving Peterhof he came to Alexandria to give the Tsar the first trophy of the war, a machine-gun captured from the Germans in one of the skirmishes which have marked the commencement of operations on the East Prussian frontier.

Saturday, August 15th - I was told last night that my return to Switzerland has been officially excused, I am told this is the result of the action M. Sazonov has taken at Berne at Her Majesty's suggestion. In any case, it is more and more doubtful whether the Swiss will be able to get away.

The Imperial family is to go on the 17th to Moscow, where the Tsar will observe the traditional custom and ask the blessing of God on himself and his people in the tragic hours through which the country is passing.

Monday, August 17th - The arrival of Their Majesties at Moscow has been one of the most impressive and moving sights I have ever seen in my life.

After the customary reception at the station we went in a long file of carriages towards the Kremlin. An enormous crowd had collected in the squares and in the streets, climbed on the roofs of the shops, into the branches of trees. They swarmed in the shop windows and filled the balconies and windows of the houses. While all the bells of the churches were ringing as if they would never stop, from those thousands of throats poured that wonderful Russian National Anthem, so overwhelming with its religious grandeur and pent emotion, in which the faith of a whole race is embodied:

"God save the Tsar! Mighty and powerful, let him reign for our glory, For the confusion of our enemies, the Orthodox Tsar. God save the Tsar!"

On the steps of the churches, through the great doorways of which one could see the light of the candles burning before the reliquaries, the priests in vestments, and holding their great crucifixes in both hands, blessed the Tsar as he passed. The hymn stopped, and then began again, rising like a prayer with a Mighty and majestic rhythm:

" God save the Tsar !"

The Procession arrived at the Iberian Gate (this is the gate by which the Tsars always entered to go to the Kremlin when they visited Moscow. It leads from the city to the Red Square, which against the eastern wall of the Kremlin), the Tsar got out of his carriage and, in accordance with custom, entered the chapel to kiss the Miraculous image of the Virgin of Iberia. He came out, walked a little way, and then stopped, high above the immense multitude. His face was grave and composed. He stood motionless to hear the voice of his people. He seemed to be in silent communion with them. Once again he could hear the great heart of Russia beating...

He then turned again towards the chapel, crossed himself, put on his cap, and slowly walked to his carriage, which disappeared under the old gate and went towards the Kremlin.

Aleksey Nicolaievich is complaining a good deal of his leg again tonight. Will he be able to walk tomorrow or will he have to be carried when Their Majesties go to the Cathedral? The Tsar and Tsarina are in despair. The boy was not able to be present at the ceremony in the Winter Palace. It is always the same when he is supposed to appear in public. You can be practically certain that some complication will prevent it. Fate seems to pursue him.

Tuesday, August 18th - When Aleksey Nicolaievich found he could not walk this morning he was in a terrible state. Their Majesties have decided that he shall be present at the ceremony all the same. He will be carried by one of the Tsar's cossacks. But it is a dreadful disappointment to the parents, who do not wish the idea to gain ground among the people that the Heir to the Throne is an invalid.

At eleven o'clock, when the Tsar appeared at the top of the Red Staircase, the huge crowd in the square gave him a magnificent reception. He came down slowly, with the Tsarina on his arm, and at the head of a long procession slowly crossed the bridge connecting the palace with the Cathedral of the Assumption and entered the church amid a frantic outburst of cheering from the crowd. The Metropolitan Bishops of Kiev, St. Petersburg, and Moscow and the high dignitaries of the Orthodox clergy were present. When Mass was over, the members of the Imperial family in turn approached the holy relics and kissed them. Then they knelt at the tombs of the patriarchs. Afterwards they went to the Monastery of Miracles to pray at the tomb of St. Aleksey.

Long after Their Majesties, had returned to the palace the crowd continued to collect in the square in the hope of seeing them again. Even when we came out several hours later there were still hundreds of peasants outside the palace.

Thursday, August 20th - Popular enthusiasm is waxing from day to day. It seems as if the people of Moscow are so proud of having their Tsar with them and so anxious to keep him as long as possible, that they mean to hold him here by manifest proofs of their affection. The manifestations are increasingly spontaneous, enthusiastic, and expressive.

Aleksey and I drive out in a car every morning. As a rule we go to the Monks' Hill, from which there is a magnificent view of the valley of the Moskova and the city of the Tsars. It was from this spot that Napoleon gazed on Moscow before entering it on September 14th 1812. It is certainly a marvellous view. In the foreground, at the foot of the hill, is the Monastery of Novo-Dievitchy, with its fortified enceinte and sixteen castellated towers. A little further back is the Holy City, with its four hundred and fifty churches, its palaces and parks, its monasteries with their crenelated walls, its gilded cupolas and innumerable domes of brilliant colours and strange shapes.

As we were coming back from our usual drive this morning, so dense was the crowd that the chauffeur was obliged to stop in one of the rather narrow streets in the Yakimanskaia quarter. The crowd consisted of humble folk and peasants from the district who had come into the city to shop or in the hope of seeing the Tsar. All at once there was a loud shout: "The Heir !... The Heir!..." The crowd surged towards us, surrounded us, and came up so close that our way was blocked, and we, so to speak, found ourselves prisoners of these moujiks, workmen and shopkeepers who struggled and fought, shouted, gesticulated, and behaved like lunatics in order to get a better view of the Tsarevich. By degrees some of the women and children grew bolder, mounted the steps of the car, thrust their arms over the doors, and when they succeeded in touching the boy they yelled out triumphantly: I've touched him!... I've touched the Heir!...

Aleksey Nicolaievich, frightened at these exuberant demonstrations, was sitting far back in the car. He was very pale, startled by this sudden popular manifestation which was taking extravagant forms which were quite novel to him. He recovered himself, however, when he saw the kindly smiles of the crowd, but he remained embarrassed at the attention bestowed upon him, not knowing what to say or do.

Personally, I was speculating, not without considerable anxiety, how all this would end; for I knew that no police regulations are issued for the Tsarevich's drives as neither the time nor the route can be fixed beforehand. I began to fear that we might meet with some accident in the middle of this unruly crowd swarming round us.

To my relief two huge gorodovy (policemen) came up, puffing and blowing, shouting and storming. The crowd displayed the unquestioning and resigned obedience of the moujik. It began to waver, then slowly drifted away. I then told Derevenko, who was following in another car, to go ahead, and by degrees we succeeded in getting clear.

Friday, August 21st - Their Majesties, before returning to Tsarskoe-Selo, decided to visit the Troitsa Monastery, the most celebrated sanctuary in Russia after the world-famed Lavra of Kiev. The train took us as far as the little station of Serghievo, from which we reached the monastery by car. Perched on a hill, it would be taken for a fortified city from a distance if the bright-coloured towers and gilded domes of its thirteen churches did not betray its true purpose. In the course of its history this rampart of Orthodoxy has had to resist some formidable assaults, the most famous being the sixteen months' siege by an army of thirty thousand Poles at the beginning of the seventeenth century.

This monastery, like Moscow and the towns of the Upper Volga, is a spot where the past seems ever present. It calls up visions of the Russia of the boyarin, the Grand-Dukes of Moscow, and the first Tsars, and vividly explains the historical evolution of the Russian people.

The Imperial family were present at a Te Deum and knelt before the relics of St. Sergius, the founder of the monastery. The Archimandrite then handed the Tsar an icon painted in a fragment of the coffin of the saint, one of the most revered in Russia. In olden times this image always accompanied the Tsars on their campaigns.

On the Tsar's orders it is being sent to General Headquarter's and placed in the "field chapel" of the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Armies.

The Tsar, Tsarina, and their children visited the little church of Saint Nikon and then stayed a few minutes in the ancient residence of the patriarchs. As time was pressing, we had to abandon the idea of visiting the hermitage of Gethsemane, which is a little distance from the monastery. In accordance with a practice still frequently observed in Russia, certain hermits still have themselves shut up here in subterranean walled cells. They live in prayer and fasting to the end of their days, completely isolated from the world, and the slit through which their food is passed is their sole means of communication with their fellow-men.

The Imperial family bade the Archimandrite farewell and left the monastery, accompanied by a crowd of monks who swarmed round the cars.

GILLIARD NOTE: The German General Staff knew only too well that in view of the extreme complexity of the Russian mobilization (the immense size of the country, the poor railways, etc.), it could not be countermanded without such a disorganization of the services as would prevent it being resumed for three weeks. A start of three weeks for Germany meant certain victory.

The twelve hours granted to Russia in the ultimatum expired at noon on Saturday, August 1st. Count Pourtales, however, did not appear at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs until the evening. He was shown in to Sazonov, and then formally handed him Germany's declaration of war on Russia. It was ten minutes past seven. The irreparable step had been taken.

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