Memories Of The Russian Court

My Duties, Marriage and the Standart

Shortly after our return to Peterhof I went abroad with my family, stopping first at Karlsruhe, Baden, to visit my grandmother, and afterwards going on to Paris. The Empress had given me letters to her brother, the Grand Duke of Hesse, and to her eldest sister, Princess Victoria of Battenberg, both of whom I saw before leaving Germany. The seat of the Grand Duke of Hesse was Wolfsgarten near Darmstadt, a beautiful place surrounded by extensive gardens laid out according to the Grand Duke's own plans. After my first luncheon at the palace, during which the Grand Duke asked me many questions about the Empress and her life at the Court of Russia, I walked in the gardens with Mme. Grancy, Hofmistress of the Court of Hesse, a gracious and charming woman. She showed me the toys and other pathetic relics of the little Princess Elizabeth, only child of the Grand Duke's first marriage, who had died in Russia after an acute illness of a few hours. I also saw the white marble monument which the people of Hesse had raised to the memory of the child.

To the second luncheon I attended at the old Schloss came the Princess Victoria of Battenberg with her lovely daughter Louise. Etiquette at Hesse was of the severest order and I observed with some astonishment that the Princess Victoria curtsied deeply to her sister-in-law, Princess Eleanor, who though much younger than herself, was the wife of the reigning Grand Duke. The old Princess was a very clever woman and a brilliant conversationalist, although, to tell the truth, as she spoke very rapidly I lost a great deal of what she said. I remember her questioning me rather closely about the political situation in Russia, and although I was not very enlightening on the subject she was good enough to invite me and my sister to lunch with her at Jugenheim in the neighborhood of Darmstadt. Both the brother and the sister of the Empress entrusted me with letters to her, and I took them with me to Paris, not knowing that it would be a long time before I should be able to deliver them.

For in the midst of these pleasant days, all unknown to me, the tide of trouble and unrest was rising high in Russia. Beginning with a railroad strike in Finland, a succession of labor troubles and revolutionary demonstrations extending over a large territory brought about a serious crisis which for a time tied up most of the railroads and prevented our return to Russia. Of the cause of the trouble, and above all, of its ultimate consequences, I must say that I remained in complete ignorance. That the situation was grave of course I realized, and my heart went out to the Emperor on whom the responsibility of restoring order largely rested. But that this railroad strike, for that is all it seemed to amount to, was the beginning of a revolution never crossed my mind. I longed to get back to the Empress who I knew would be sharing the anxiety of the Emperor, but as a matter of fact I did not get back until after the manifesto of October, 1905, had been signed and delivered to a startled world.

This October manifesto, relinquishing the principle of autocracy, creating for the first time a Duma of the Empire, was the result of many councils, some of them dramatic, not to say violent. Count Witte and Grand Duke Nicholas were determined that the Emperor should sign the manifesto, a thing which he was reluctant to do, not because he clung to his privileges as autocrat of all the Russias, though I know that this is the motive still attributed to him by almost all the world. The Tsar hesitated to create a house of popular representation because he knew how ill prepared the Russian people were for self-government. He knew the dense ignorance of the masses, the fanatical and illgrounded socialism of the intelligentsia, the doctrinaire theories of the Constitutional Democrats. I can say with positive knowledge that Nicholas II fervently desired the progress of his country towards a high civilization, but in 1905 he felt very serious doubts of the wisdom of radical changes in the Russian system of government. At last, however, overborne by his ministers, he signed the manifesto. It is said that the Grand Duke Nicholas, in one of the last councils, lost all control of himself and drawing a revolver threatened to shoot himself on the spot unless the manifesto was signed. Whether this actually occurred or not I do not know, but from what was told me later by the Empress the scenes with the Grand Dukes and the ministers were painful in the extreme. When in one of the final councils the actual form of the national assembly was decided upon the Emperor, with a hand trembling with emotion, signed his name to the fateful document, all in the room rose and bowed to him in token of their continued fidelity.

The Empress told me that while these trying scenes were in progress she sat in her boudoir alone save for her near relative the Grand Duchess Anastasia, both of whom felt that in the stormy council chamber a child was being dangerously brought into the world. Yet all the prayers of the Empress, as well as those of the Emperor, were that the new policy of popular representation would bring peace to troubled Russia.

The Duma was elected, the Socialists alone of political parties repudiating it as too "bourgeois." I was present with all the Empress's household, in the Throne Room of the Winter Palace on the opening day of the Duma when the Tsar welcomed the deputies, and I remember with what a strong, steady voice, and with what clear enunciation, the opening speech was read. Of the proceedings of the first Duma I have no very definite recollections, because they were marked with endless and very wordy discussions rather than with any attempt at constructive action Everyone knows that the Duma was dissolved by Imperial order after a short life of two months.

Of these momentous political events which rocked Russia and were featured prominently in every newspaper in the world only faint echoes reached the inner circle of the Russian Court. This may sound incredible to readers in republican countries where the press is entirely uncensored and where public opinion in educated in politics. In the Russia of 1906 the reading public was a comparatively small one and the press was poorly representative of the really intelligent people of the Empire. Few men and fewer women of my class attached any particular interest to the Duma, the best we hoped for it being that in time it would become an efficient working agency, like the parliaments of western European countries, adapted, of course, to Russian needs. The first Duma we thought of only as a rather foolish debating society.

The Empress and I were engaged, at that time, with singing lessons, our teacher being Mme. Tretskaya of the Conservatoire. The Empress was gifted with a lovely contralto voice, which, had she been born in other circumstances, might easily have given her a professional standing. My voice being a high soprano we sang many duets. Sometimes my sister joined us and as she also sang well we formed a trio singing many of the lovely arrangements for three voices by Schumann and others. Occasionally came also an English friend of the Empress, a talented violinist, and among us we arranged concerts which gave us the greatest pleasure, although we always had to hold them in another building of the palace called the Farm in order not to disturb the Emperor, who, for some strange reason, did not like to hear his wife sing.

When summer came and while the Duma was talking out its brief existence we again took up our sea life, this time on board the large royal yacht the Standart. We cruised for two months, the Emperor frequently going ashore for tennis and other amusements, but occupied two days of each week with papers and state documents brought to him by messenger from Petrograd. The Empress and I were almost constantly together walking on shore, or sitting on deck reading, or watching the joyful play of the children, each of whom had a sailor attendant to keep them from falling overboard or otherwise suffering mishap. The special attendant of the little Alexei was a big, good-natured sailor named Derevenko, a man seemingly devoted to the child. It was in fact Derevenko who taught Alexei to walk, and who during periods of great weakness following severe attacks of his malady carried the boy most tenderly in his arms. All of these sailors at the end of a cruise received watches and other valuable presents from the Emperor, yet most of them, even Derevenko, when the revolution came, turned on their Sovereigns with meanest treachery.

On my days of regular service, Wednesdays and Fridays, for I was then a regularly appointed lady in waiting, I dined with the Imperial Family, and at that time I formed a close friendship with General Alexander Orlov, an old companion in the Royal Hussars with the Emperor. After dinner the Emperor and General Orlov usually played billiards, while the Empress and I read or sewed under the warm lamplight. Those were happy evenings, full of bright talk and laughter, and I came to regard General Orlov as one of my best friends. Already the hateful hand of jealousy and gossip had been directed against me by people who could not understand, or who, from motives of palace politics, deliberately misunderstood the Empress's preference for my society. Practically every monarch has some close personal friend, absolutely disassociated with politics and social intrigue, but I have noticed that these friendships are always misunderstood and frequently bitterly resented. I used to take my small troubles to General Orlov, at least they seem small now after years of real trouble and affliction. But even after these bitter years of sorrow and affliction the kindly counsels of the good old general often come back to me, as they did then, like a friendly hand laid on my hot and resentful heart.

I was then, in 1906, a fully grown and mature young woman and, as I could not help knowing, I was the subject of many conversations in the family circle because of my indifference to marriage. I had, I suppose, the normal amount of attention from men, and the usual number of suitors, but none of the young officers and courtiers with whom I danced and chatted made any special appeal to my imagination. There was one young naval officer, Alexander vyroubov, who after December, 1906, came to our house almost every day, paying me the most marked attentions. One day at luncheon he spoke with pride of the very good service to which he had just been appointed, and very soon afterwards I found myself greeted on all sides as his affianced. In February there was a ball in which I was formally presented as a bride, and in the after whirl of dinners, presents, new gowns and jewels, I began to share the excitement, if not the happiness, of those around me. The Empress approved the match, my parents approved, and no one except my old friend General Orlov expressed even a faint doubt of the wisdom of the marriage. But on the day when he spoke to me frankly, advising me to think seriously before taking such a serious step, the Empress entered the room and said in a decided voice that I had given my word and that therefore I should not be given any discouragement.

I was married on the 30th of April, 1907, in the palace church at Tsarskoe Selo. The night before I slept ill and in the early morning I awoke in a mood of sadness and depression. The events of the day passed more like a dream than a reality. As in a dream I allowed myself to be dressed in my white satin wedding gown and floating veil, and still in a dream I knelt before their Majesties who blessed me, holding over my head a small ikon. Then began the marriage procession through the long corridors to the church. First walked Count Fredericks, master of ceremonies of the Court. Then came their Majesties, arm in arm, with my little boy cousin, Count Karlov, carrying a holy image. Then I, walking with my father. I must have shown by my excessive pallor the anxiety I felt, for on the stairs the Empress looked at me with concern and having caught my eye smiled brightly and glanced upward reassuringly at the bright sky.

During the ceremony I stood quite still like a manikin, gazing at my bridegroom as at some stranger. I had one moment of faint amusement when the officiating priest, who was very nearsighted, mistook the best man for the bridegroom addressing us affectionately as "my dear children." The Empress, as my matron of honor, stood at my left hand with the four Young Grand Duchesses, and two others, the children of Grand Duke Paul. One of these was the Grand Duke Dmitri, who was destined to grow up to take part in the assassination of Rasputin. On the day of my marriage he was just a dear little boy, wide. eyed with the excitement of being one of a wedding party. After the ceremony there was tea with the Emperor and the Empress, and as usual when she and I parted there was an affectionate little note pressed into my hand. How like an angel she looked to me that day, and how hard it was for me to turn away from her and to go away with my husband. There was a family dinner that night in our home in Petrograd, and afterwards we went away for a month into the country.

It is a hard thing for a woman to tell of a marriage which from the first proved to be a complete mistake, and I shall say only of my husband that he was the victim of family abnormalities which in more than one instance manifested themselves in madness. My husband's nervous system had suffered severely in the rigors of the Japanese War, and there were many occasions when he was not at all responsible for what he did. Often for days together he kept his bed refusing to speak to anyone. One night things became so threatening that I could not forbear telephoning my fears to the Empress, and she, to my joy, responded by driving instantly to the house in her evening gown and jewels. For an hour she stayed me comforting me with promises that the situation should, in one way or another, be relieved.

In August the Emperor and Empress invited us both to go for a cruise on the Standart, and sailing through the blue Finnish fjords it did seem for a time that I should find peace. But one day a terrible thing happened, possibly an accident, but if so a very strange one, as we had on board an uncommonly able Finnish pilot. We were seated on deck at tea, the band playing, a perfectly calm sea running, when we felt a terrific shock which shook the yacht from stem to stern and sent the tea service crashing to the deck. In great alarm we sprang to our feet only to feel the yacht listing sharply to larboard. In an instant the decks were alive with sailors obeying the harsh commands of the captain, and helping the suite to look to the safety of the women and children. The fleet of torpedo boats which always surrounded the yacht made speed to the rescue and within a few minutes the children and their nurses and attendants were taken off. Not knowing the exact degree of the disaster, the Empress and I hastened to the cabins where we hurriedly tied up in sheets all the valuables we could collect. We were the last to leave the poor Standart, which by that time was stationary on the rocks.

We spent the night on a small vessel, the Asia, the Empress taking Alexei with her in one cabin and the Emperor occupying a small cabin on deck. The little Grand Duchesses were crowded in a cabin by themselves, their nurses and attendants finding beds where they could. The ship was far from clean and I remember the Emperor, rather disheveled himself, bringing basins of water to the Empress and me in which to wash our faces and hands. We had some kind of a dinner about midnight and none of us passed an especially restful night. The next day came the yacht Alexandria on which we spent the next two weeks. A fortnight was required to get the ill-fated Standart off the rocks on which she had so mysteriously been driven. From the Alexandria and later to the Polar Star, to which we had been transferred, we watched the unhappy yacht being carefully removed from her captivity. We had not been very comfortable on the Alexandria because there was not nearly enough cabin room for our rather numerous company. The Empress occupied a cabin, the Tsarevich and his sailor another one adjoining. The four little Grand Duchesses did as well as they could in one small cabin, while the Emperor slept on a couch in the main salon. As for me, I slept in a bathroom. Most of the suite found quarters on a Finnish ship which stood by.

After our return to Peterhof my husband became worse rather than better and his physician advised him to spend some time in a sanatorium for nervous patients in Switzerland. He left, but on coming back to Russia was noticeably in worse condition than before. In the hope that active service would be of benefit to his shattered nerves and disordered brain he was ordered to sea, but even this expedient proved of little benefit. After a year of intense suffering and humiliation my unhappy marriage, with the full approval of their Majesties and of my parents, was dissolved.

I kept my little house in Tsarskoe Selo, its modest furnishings beautified by many gifts from the Empress. Among these gifts were some charming pictures and six exquisitely embroidered antique chairs. A silverladen tea table helped to make the salon cozy, and I have many happy memories of intimate teas to which the Empress sent fruit and the Emperor the cherry brandy which he especially affected.

The little house, however, was far from being the luxurious palace in which I have often been pictured as living. As a matter of fact, it was frightfully cold in winter because the house had no stone foundation but rested on the frozen earth. Sometimes when the Emperor and Empress came to tea we sat with our feet on the sofa to keep warm. Once the Emperor jokingly told me that after a visit to my house he kept himself from freezing only by going directly to a hot bath.

The summer of 1908 the Emperor and Empress paid an official visit to England, but on their return they sent for me and again I spent a happy holiday on the yacht. Not altogether happy, however, for towards the end of the cruise my poor friend General Orlov, then near his death from tuberculosis, came to say good-bye to his Sovereigns. Correct in his uniform and all his orders the fine old soldier bade us all a brave farewell before leaving for Egypt, where he well knew that his end awaited him. Peace to his honored ashes. He lies buried at Tsarskoe Selo, where the Emperor and Empress often visited his grave. Poor Orlov, he too suffered from the malicious gossip of the Court where his honest admiration of the Empress was deliberately misinterpreted and assoiled. I can bear witness, and I do, that his greatest devotion was to the Emperor, his old comrade in arms, the friend of his youthful days.

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Tsar Nicholas II

Tsar Nicholas II

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