BEFORE THE STORM
During 1916 the political atmosphere in the capital and in all the big towns became more and more threatening. The reverses of 1915 had unsettled the public mind and given rise to a not unnatural anxiety. The Russian temperament always fluctuates from extreme optimism to utter pessimism, and now the blackest view of the future was generally taken. The responsibility for all disasters was laid on the Government, without any allowances being made for the inordinate difficulties of the situation. There was bitter criticism behind the lines of what was done at the front. The revolutionary organizations, which were lying low, blew on the flame in pursuance of their own ends. They particularly directed their efforts towards encouraging attacks on the sovereign. The revolutionary movement of 1905 had been thwarted, mainly by the people's innate fidelity to the throne. There was nothing in the personal conduct of the Emperor that could shake his prestige, so the undercurrents began to be directed against the Empress, in the hope of weakening his position through her. Besides the exploitation of the exaggerated tales of Rasputin's influence, the most was made of the Empress's German origin. Tales of her pro-German sympathies were invented and assiduously spread. Stories were circulated of her desire for a separate peace, rumours which could gain credence only in the public's total ignorance of the Empress's character. This gossip would never have been listened to for a moment, had not the whole country's nerves been strained to such a pitch that nothing seemed too wild to be thought possible. I myself was asked in all seriousness whether the Grand Duke of Hesse was not hidden in the cellars of the Palace! And after the Revolution the whole Palace was searched for mythical wireless stations which were supposed to have been used for secret communications with the enemy. Needless to say, all these wild allegations were without the slightest foundation, and I mention them only to show the state of "war nerves" that had been reached at the time. The Empress's sympathy with the Allies and her fidelity to the cause for which Russia was fighting are known to everyone now. Sir George Buchanan, Sir John Hanbury-Williams, and M. Paléologue, all of whom knew her personally, have explained in their books that, even at the time, the stories were not believed by sensible people. Even Rodzianko, President of the Duma, and one of the Empress's most virulent enemies, says that "the wicked idea of treason on the part of the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna must be rejected once and for all. This charge was absolutely repudiated by the commission under Muraviev, who was appointed by the Provisional Government for the purpose of elucidating this matter in the light of documentary evidence."
I may as well say here that the authenticity of some of the Empress's published letters is in my opinion open to doubt.
An episode out of which a calumnious tale against the Empress was constructed was the arrival at Petrograd, in the late autumn of 1915, of a former friend of the Grand Duchess Serge, whom the Empress had known since her girlhood, Mlle. Marie Alexandrovna Vassiltchikov. This lady had settled in Austria long before the war and returned to Petrograd, bringing with her letters from her friends in Germany to different prominent people, among them one to the Emperor and another to Sazonov. The Emperor immediately sent his letter to Sazonov, with the remark that it needed no answer; neither the Emperor nor the Empress ever saw Mlle. Vassiltchikov. The Empress thought that she was trying to create a link between the countries, and considered her action wrong, as she thought that a separate peace would be dishonorable on Russia's part. She said so strongly, and was firm in refusing to have anything to do with Mlle. Vassiltchikov, who was sent to her estate in the provinces and ordered to reside there till the end of the war.
The Empress was very English in her feelings. Her upbringing and her long visits to Queen Victoria had all fostered her love for her mother's country. English was the language which came easiest to her. The Allies' cause was hers. All her recorded conversations and published correspondence show this clearly, and she rejoiced at the Allies' successes nearly as much as at the Russian ones. Her letters to her sister, Princess Louis of Battenberg, show that she followed with sympathy the movements of the British Fleet and British naval actions, both in the Dardanelles and in the Baltic. The sinking of the Lusitania and of the Portugal by the Germans moved her to the greatest indignation. The Breslau's bombardment of defenseless watering-places in the Crimea excited her nearly to fury. She was always longing, praying, hoping for victory over Russia's enemies. On August 15th, 1916, she wrote to Princess Louis: "How one longs for this terrible war to end-two years strain. Such awful losses all over the world. But I do not think it can be yet for a long while."
It must be said, to the shame of the upper classes of Petrograd society, that every idle gossiping tale was believed, or at least repeated and spread all over the country till the stories reached the masses, who accepted them as facts. When the stories drifted back to the Empress they distressed her terribly. How could it be said that she was untrue to the country she loved fanatically - the land of her husband and son? Russia was to her God's chosen land - Holy Russia. Happily for her, she was spared the bitterness of ever believing that the peasants had been poisoned by the revolutionary spirit. The Empress has often been accused of surrounding herself with a German cabal, and it may be worth while to note who were with her all through the war. Her ladies were Mme. Narishkin, née Princess Kurakin, Mistress of the Robes, and four maids-of-honour: Princess Orbeliani (who died December 15th, 1915), 0. E. Butzow (till the summer of 1915), Countess A. W. Hendrikoff and myself. Her gentleman was Count Apraxin, who was often away looking after her war charities, and lived in Petrograd. She had practically no man in the house between 1915 and 1917. The Grand Maréchal, Count Paul Benckendorff, came to assist at her receptions in Apraxin's absence. The Minister of the Court Count Freedericsz, and Count Benckendorff were among the noblest and most respected figures in society. All their sympathies were with the Allies, as Sir J. Hanbury-Williams and Sir George Buchanan have testified in their books. The Empress's most intimate friends at the time, Mme. Vyrubova and Mme. Dehn, were of purely Russian origin. These formed the whole of the Empress's entourage.
The Empress's committee for Russian prisoners of war was also used as a means of distorting the truth. From the very outbreak of the war Her Majesty had been distressed at the plight of the Russian prisoners in Germany and Austria, and had set up a committee to help them, under the presidency of Prince Nicholas Galitzin, the last Prime Minister, whom she received constantly in connection with this work. She was much disappointed at not being well enough to meet the first batch of exchanged prisoners from Germany and to hear their stories herself, and went to see them later at the Princess Helena Petrovna's hospital. She wrote to Princess Louis that the returned Russian prisoners were sad to look at. Clothes in an awful state, faces of those that had no arms covered with crusts of dirt, thin and famished looking, but intensely happy [to be back]. Very kindly treated in Sweden. The Swedish correspondent found those we sent to Germany better dressed and looking well fed. Sad things they told, if one only believes the half of what they say (August 23, 1915).
The Empress wrote this from the Emperor's account to her. In the same letter she spoke of her horror at the treatment that was meted out to the Russian prisoners. At the suggestion of the Swedish Red Cross, Russian nurses were sent to inspect the German and Austrian camps, while Austrian and German nurses came to Russia. Both parties were accompanied by neutral delegates. The Emperor of Austria and the German Empress having received the Russian nurses on their journey through Vienna and Berlin, the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, in the absence of the Dowager-Empress, who was the President of the Red Cross Society, received the German and Austrian nurses in an official audience. The Empress received the Russian nurses before they started, and saw them also on their return, to hear what had been achieved by them. This exchange of visits bettered the conditions of the prisoners in both countries. The Russians in the German camps were suffering greatly from hunger in 1916, and to the Empress's distress, her committee had in January 1916 to stop sending them food, as "they" (i.e. the Germans) "eat it all up." German prisoners of war were not in the Empress's province; she had nothing to do with them. Princess Henry of Prussia wrote to her sister officially through the Swedish Red Cross to point out the unwholesome conditions in which the German prisoners were working on the Murman railway. The Emperor had the matter inquired into, and the Empress sent an official answer to Princess Henry. To the Princess Louis she wrote on December 2nd, 1916:
What one says about the Murman railway is untrue. We have just seen people we sent to see all. The German prisoners won't eat cabbage, therefore fall ill more than ours of Zinga [i.e. scurvy]. They get paid 60 roubles a month for their work on the line, as they do it well. Out of that they eat for 40 roubles - have beds, huts and barracks. In summer they sleep out of doors. At the beginning, of course, things were not famous as so awfully far away.
She believed what she was told, and had done all that ordinary humanity dictated by having the matter investigated. This was also done in the few isolated cases when the Swedish Red Cross appealed to her personally, although it generally wrote direct to the Russian Red Cross Society.
Already by the autumn of 1915 the relations between the Duma and the Government had become strained, the former claiming that the latter was mismanaging the affairs of the country. Some of the Ministers shared the view that radical changes in the Cabinet were necessary. They considered that the Prime Minister, Goremykin, was out of date in his views, and presented a memorandum to that effect to the Emperor. The Emperor would not agree to Goremykin's dismissal, but, at the latter's instance, he gradually replaced those members of the Cabinet who were not in political agreement with the Prime Minister. This was the beginning of a series of political changes in the Ministry, which was called by some wit in the Duma "the ministerial leap-frog." The Emperor had taken over the command of the army, and was seldom at Tsarskoe. During one of his brief visits (February 23, 1916) the Emperor with his brother, the Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich, went to the Duma to be present with the representatives of the people at the Te Deum sung in thanksgiving for the taking of Erzeroum. The Emperor was warmly received; loyal speeches were made; and the visit was heralded as the healing of the misunderstandings between the Ministers and the Duma. There seemed to be a promise of unity on the "Inner Front." This did not last, however. The Duma disapproved of the choice of Sturmer as Prime Minister, and the appointment of the Vice-President of the Duma, Protopopov, as Minister of the Interior. Protopopov was greatly criticized. Later on the Duma clamoured for a Ministry of "National Confidence" ; a responsible Ministry, as in England, was desired. That meant a radical change in the whole system of government, which the Emperor hesitated to sanction, while he was only intermittently in complete touch with his Cabinet. Things seemed to have reached a deadlock. The French delegate, Thomas, said to Rodzianko, the President of the Duma: "Ce qui manque, c'est l'autocratie du gouvernement. "This was aptly said. There was no sign of the strong man whom the Empress had always hoped would appear to help the Emperor.
The Empress was anxiously following the course of events. She felt intuitively that things were going wrong, and feared that the governmental difficulties might affect even the war itself, and that her husband's hard work would have been all in vain. What would become of Holy Russia, should there be a recurrence of the events of 1905? She knew that the Emperor was anxious. He was worn out with his double work and was tied to military Headquarters when he felt he ought to be in touch with his Government. He was unable to see many people at Headquarters except the military around him, and he had no time to look about for new elements to be brought to the fore in this time of national danger. The Empress felt that, whatever it cost her, she must help him in this,bring him into touch with fresh people to choose from. She had always been in awe of the Ministers, and had never discussed any matters of importance with them. In 1915, however, she had begun to know some of them better. The Prime Minister, for instance, whom she called "Good old Goremykin," and whom she trusted, and some of the other Ministers sat on her charity committees, and she had to receive them often in connection with her work.
The Ministers took advantage of their audiences with the Empress, during the Emperor's long absences, to express their opinions to her, in the hope that she would pass them on to the Emperor. In her desire to find people, and realising all the intrigues that were going on, she communicated to the Emperor all the names of people mentioned by the Ministers, and those who were well spoken of in connection with her charities. In a conversation with me, she once said that one of the great trials of their position was that they constantly saw people intriguing against one another, and that it was very difficult to know who was really sincere in his advice. People whom they knew to be loyal to themselves would also, after some time, suddenly become touched with the spirit of intrigue and speak to the Emperor against others who were believed to be the sovereign's friends.
She groped blindly about, unable to verify the information she got, for she did not know the people herself and had met them only cursorily. Her one criterion was: Were the people strictly faithful to the Emperor? Were they loyal? She believed that she was beginning at last to hear public opinion and not only the opinion of the Court. Though she did not realise it, she was often mistaken, and was misled by those in whom she put. her trust. Of course, she never really "discovered" anybody. All the names she mentioned to the Emperor were those of prominent officials, who had already at some previous time held some important post. They were often brought to the Emperor's notice by others at the same time as by her, for the choice among his Conservative statesmen was small.
The Emperor preferred to appoint a man whom he heard favorably spoken of in several quartets and who was also suggested by the Empress, in preference to someone else about whom he knew less; but this does not mean that he was solely guided by the Empress's opinion. When he disagreed he did not like to give a direct refusal to her, but went his own way in silence.
In happier times Alexandra Feodorovna extremely disliked even mentioning anything reminiscent of his work to the Emperor. In 1905, when Count Freedericsz had, on one occasion, asked her to speak of some matter to the Emperor, she was with difficulty persuaded to do so, and when he asked her to repeat the attempt, she burst into tears. She was so ignorant of affairs that she was diffident, and she knew few men of note. She was, as a true woman, always guided by the impression of the moment, and she had now to rely on the few people she trusted. She thought Goremykin a good judge of men; and Protopopov had instilled into her a belief that he was thoroughly versed in the mentality of the provinces, and was an active and loyal man who would manage to put things right, if he were given time and not interfered with. In her own household there was nobody whose advice would have been of any value.
When the Empress once thought well of a person-in politics as in friendship - he had to reveal himself almost as a criminal before she would give him up. She was extremely conservative in her political opinions. Her idea was that the governmental policy was the right one, and that the peasants (the salt of Russia in her eyes) would not approve of a change ; and this was strengthened by hundreds of letters which she got, purporting to be written by the rural population, in which approval of the Government and loyalty to the sovereign were expressed. Even if the Empress had been told that the letters were not genuine, she would, in her inherent honesty, have disbelieved the story. She also received telegrams to the same effect from an ultra-Conservative "Union of the Russian People." All this convinced her that in autocracy lay salvation.
On October 9, 1916, the Holy Synod came in a body to Tsarskoe Selo to present the Empress with a Gramota (letter of commendation) as well as with a beautiful antique ikon. In the Gramota she was greatly praised for her work. The Empress was deeply touched by this. The Gramota was very rarely given (it was something like the Papal gift of the Rose), and she was especially pleased at this public approval shown her by the highest Church authority, as she knew what criticism her faith in Gregory Rasputin had excited. The commendation of her work by the Church was believed by her to mean that her efforts to be a help to the Emperor were also rightly understood by well-meaning people who gave her their support.
She was often mistaken in her views : events have tragically proved this. She had no party behind her, and no regular advisers. She acted largely on impulse. She saw Russia from one angle only, and that from a romantic one. Her belief in Russia's great future and her natural desire to preserve her son's inheritance were her only motives. She was no born politician, but a religious woman, highly strung, who struggled through a maze of difficulties and opposition, the full extent of which she did not realise, to be a help to her husband. It was the Emperor's fate to face a task so titanic that it would have demanded a reincarnation of Napoleon and Peter the Great, thrown into one, to carry it through successfully.
Next chapter: Rasputin's Murder
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