Memories Of The Russian Court

1916 - The Gathering Storm

To one who has always held the honor and faith of the Russian people very dear, who has never doubted that after the last hideous phase of revolution and anarchism has passed, the Russian nation will emerge stronger and better than ever before, the writing of these next chapters is a duty inexpressibly painful. I must tell the truth, otherwise it would have been better for me never to have written at all. Yet to picture in anything like its true colors the decadence of St. Petersburg society from 1914 onward is a task from which any loyal Russian must shrink. Without a knowledge of these conditions, however, students of the Russian Revolution will never be able to understand why the fabric of government slipped so easily from the feeble hands of the Provisional Government to the ruthless and bloody grasp of the Bolshevists.

During the entire winter of 1915, when the war was being waged on all fronts with such disaster to the Allies, when millions of men, Russians, Frenchmen, Belgians, Englishmen, were giving up their lives in the cause of freedom, the aristocracy of the Russian capital was indulging in a reckless orgy of dancing, sports, dining, yes, and wining also inspite of the Emperor's edict against alcohol, spending enormous sums for gowns and jewels, and in every way ignoring the terrible fact that the world was on fire and that civilization was battling for its very life. In the palace the most frugal regime had been adopted. Meals were simple almost to parsimony, no money was spent except for absolute necessities, and the Empress and her daughters spent practically every waking hour working and praying for the soldiers. But society, when it was not otherwise amusing itself, was indulging. in a new and madly exciting game of intrigue against the throne. To spread slanders about the Empress, to inflame the simple minds of workmen against the state was the most popular diversion of the aristocracy. A typical instance of this mania was related to me by my sister, who one morning was surprised by an unexpected visit from her sister-in-law, daughter of a very great lady of the aristocracy. Bursting into the room, this woman exclaimed delightedly: "What do you think we are doing now? Spreading stories through all the factories that the Empress is keeping the Emperor constantly drunk. Everybody believes it." I mention this story as typical because the woman involved afterwards became very prominent in the Grand Ducal cabal that forced the abdication, and she was also one of two women present in the Yussupov Palace on the night of Rasputin's assassination.

Every possible circumstance, no matter how inconsequential, was eagerly seized as capital by these plotters. A former lady in waiting, Marie Vassilchikova, long retired from Court and living on her' Austrian estates, came to St. Petersburg, I know not how, and asked for an audience with the Empress. Since Russia was at war with Austria this audience could not be granted, nor did the Empress even remotely desire it. Yet as the story was circulated Marie Vassilchikova was represented as having been sent for by the Empress to negotiate a separate peace with Austria, and that this treachery was frustrated only by the vigorous intervention of the Grand Duchess Elizabeth.

These stories were spread not only by Court and society people, but were made into a regular propaganda in the army, especially among the higher command. The propaganda was chiefly in the hands of members of the Union of Zemstvos, its most successful agent being the infamous Guchkov , who now, it is gratifying to know, has earned the contempt of every Russian political group, even including the Bolshevists. Thus in a whirl of heartless gaiety and an organized campaign against the Sovereigns and against the Empire passed the winter of 1915, the dark prelude of darker years to come.

In the spring of that year, my health being still very precarious, their Majesties sent me in charge of a sanitary train filled with invalid soldiers and officers to the soft climate of the Crimea. With me went a sister of mercy and the sanitary-corps man Jouk, of whom I have spoken. On the same train journeyed also three members of the secret police, ostensibly to protect, but really, as I well understood, to spy upon me. Their presence the Empress, who came in the pouring rain to see the train off from the station, was powerless to forbid, as she herself was constantly under the surveillance of the dread Okhrana. Our train traveled slowly, taking five days from St. Petersburg to the Black Sea. But this we did not mind as we were very comfortable, the weather became beautiful, and our frequent stops at Moscow and towns farther south were full of interest. Our destination was Evpatoria on the eastern shore of the Black Sea, and here all of us were cordially received, M. Duvan, the head man of the city, giving me for a residence his own flower-hung villa overlooking the sea. Here I spent two peaceful months, finding the mud baths wonderfully restoring, and meeting some unusually interesting resting people. I am sure that few people outside of Russia have ever heard of the Karaim, a racial group among the most ancient in the world and of whom, even then, a bare ten thousand existed. They were not Jews, although they worshipped in synagogues, because they acknowledged Christ as God, or at least a special prophet of God. They were, and are, if they still exist, a strange mixture of pious Jews and early Christians, left-overs from the days of the decaying Roman Empire when Judaism and Christianity were trying to unite in one faith. The head of the Karaim in Evpatoria was a fine black-bearded patriarch named Gaham, and with him I formed an almost immediate friendship. Dressed in the long black robe of his office, he used to sit with me for hours reading and reciting the legends of his people, many reaching back into the dim twilight of civilization. I liked the patriarch, not only for his simplicity and his kindness to me, but for his evident love and loyalty to the Imperial Family, a loyalty shared by all the people of the Karaim.

A telegram from the Empress told me that she was then leaving for the Stavka, from which she and the Emperor and the whole Imperial Family would proceed to the Crimea for an important military and naval review. Obeying her instructions I motored from Evpatoria to Sevastopol, through an enchanting landscape of hills and plains, the latter being literally carpeted with scarlet poppies. Arriving at Sevastopol, I had some difficulty in passing the guard, but the Empress's telegram, marked "Imperial," I had brought with me, and this proved the open sesame to the Emperor's special train. I lunched with the Empress and the Grand Duchesses, meeting the Emperor and Alexei when they came from the reviews at six o'clock. I spent that night in town, and the next day returned to Evpatoria, their Majesties promising to visit me within a few days. On May 16 they arrived and received a most enthusiastic welcome, not only from the townspeople but from the Tartars, who came in from the hills by thousands, from the people of the Karaim, and others as strange and as picturesque. The huge square before the cathedral was strewn with fragrant roses over which the Imperial Family walked to service. The next. few hours were spent in a round of visits to churches, hospitals, and sanatoriums, and it was to a late luncheon at my villa that they finally arrived. After luncheon we walked and sat on the beach, but the gathering crowd became so large and, so curious that the poor Emperor, who had looked forward to a sea bath and a swim, had to relinquish both. Alexei enjoyed the day, boy fashion, without regard to the crowds, playing on the beach and building a big sand fortress, which the schoolboys of the town next day surrounded by a high wall of stones to protect it from the ravages of the tide. We had tea in the garden, the Empress greatly enjoying the Oriental sweets sent her by the Tartars. In the evening I dined on the Imperial train and traveled with it a short distance on its way back to St. Petersburg.

In June I returned to Tsarskoe and resumed work in my beloved hospital training school. The weather was unusually hot but the Empress continued her constant duties in the hospitals and operating rooms. Often I accompanied her on her rounds, and it came to me as a painful shock that the surgeons and some of the wounded officers no longer regarded her, as before, with respect and veneration. Too often an officer would assume in her presence a careless and indifferent manner which even a professional nurse would have resented. The Empress never did. She must have noticed evidences of disrespect but no word of complaint ever passed her lips. When I ventured to suggest to her that it might be well to go less frequently to her hospital, she rewarded me with a look of reproach. Whatever other people did, whatever their attitude towards the War, Royalty knew its duty and would perform it faithfully to the end.

Both the Emperor and the Empress during all this rising tide of disaffection persisted in underestimating its importance. The Emperor especially treated the whole movement with the contempt which no doubt it merited but which as a national menace it was far too dangerous to ignore. I realized it keenly, but knowing how impossible it was to make their Majesties understand that everything that was said against me, against Rasputin, against the Ministers, was actually directed against themselves, I was obliged to keep my lips closed. My parents realized as well as I did what was going on. They had good reason, in fact, for only mother had received two most insulting letters, one from Princess Galatzina, sister of Mme. Rodzianko, whose husband was President of the Duma, and another from Mme. Timasheva, a woman of the highest aristocracy, letters which indicated a certain collusion between the writers. In them my mother was brutally informed that neither of the women desired any further acquaintanceship or association with her as she too undoubtedly belonged to the German-spy party. My parents at the time were living quietly in the little seaside town of Terioke, near St. Petersburg, and were studiously avoiding the vulgar orgies and intrigues of society.

In the midst of all these heart-breaking events I sought distraction in the enlargement and perfecting of my occupational hospital which was rapidly becoming overcrowded with invalids. I bought an additional piece of land and arranged for four portable houses to be brought from Finland. Two of these arrived duly, and I spent hours of absorbing interest watching them being put together on the newly acquired land. All these days I was constantly being bothered by people who, perhaps believing that the money I was investing in hospitals was another proof of my power over the Imperial treasury, tormented me with petitions of every kind and description, but all of them alike in the selfishness of their character. With cold hatred in their eyes, but with hypocritical words on their lips, these people besought my good offices with their Majesties on behalf of their sons, husbands, and relatives, all of whom were alleged to be worthy of promotions and of lucrative positions under the State. One woman of good social position invaded my hospital one day and treated me to a disgraceful scene because I had assured her that I was powerless to further her ambition to see her husband appointed head of a certain Government. Naturally it happened that some petitioners were poor and needy, and these, to the best of my ability, but without any po litical influence whatever, I did endeavor to help I know now, after witnessing true sympathy and kindness to prisoners and persecuted, like myself in later days, that I never did half what I might have done in the time of my prosperity. If better days come to Russia in my lifetime God help me to devote all that remains of my years to the poor and especially to prisoners. Now that I have tasted poverty, now that I have known the hopelessness of captivity, I know better than I did what can be done for the lowly and unfortunate.

A number of very disquieting events occurred to us during the summer. On very hot days it was the custom of the Empress and the children to drive through the woods and shaded roads to Pavlovsk, a few versts from Tsarskoe Selo. One stifling afternoon we started out as usual in two carriages, the Empress and myself leading the way. The horses were magnificent animals, apparently in the very pink of condition, but suddenly one of the horses uttered a piercing scream and dropped dead in his harness. The other horse plunged sidewise in terror and for a few minutes it was all the coachman could do to avoid an overturn. The Empress, pale, but as always courageous, got out of the carriage and helped me, who was still on crutches, to alight. The carriage of the children drove up, and getting in, we returned without further incident to the palace. Whatever caused the sudden death of that horse, or what was the object of that carriage accident - if indeed it was an accident - we never knew, but it left behind in my mind, and I think also in the mind of the Empress, a strangely sinister impression. The Empress nevertheless went steadfastly on with her hospital work, arranging in the convalescent wards concerts and entertainments for the pleasure of the wounded. The best singers, the most accomplished musicians, were secured for these concerts, and the men seemed appreciative of them. Yet over the head of the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna drifted darker and darker the shadow of impending doom. The things I dared not say to her began to reach her from others. In August came from the Crimea the head man of the Karaim, of whom I have spoken. From the first he made an agreeable impression on the Empress and the children, especially upon Alexei, who never tired of listening to his stories. But Gaham had not made the journey from the Crimea to relate legends and tales. He had previously been connected with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, serving in Persia and the East, and his acute mind was still occupied with the foreign affairs of the Empire on which he kept himself well informed.

Determined, if possible, to force the Empress to understand the gravity of the situation, he told her a number of extraordinary things which had come to his knowledge, among them an organized plot against the throne which was being carried on by near relatives of the Tsar in the seclusion of an allied foreign embassy in St. Petersburg. His story, involving, as it did, the ambassador of a friendly power, the trusted representative of an own cousin of the Emperor, seemed to the Empress too preposterous to be credited. Horrified, she ended the conversation, and a few days later she went, taking me with her, to visit the Emperor at the Stavka. What he had to comment on her report of an alleged ambassadorial plot against him I never knew, but I soon became aware that representatives of other foreign countries were undeniably hostile. At the Stavka were military commissions of practically every allied country, among them General Williams and his staff from Great Britain, General Janin from France, General Rikkel from Belgium, and high officers from Italy, Serbia, Rumania, Japan, and other countries, all accompanied by subordinate officers. One afternoon when the gardens were quite crowded by these men and men of our own army, and while the Empress was making her customary circle, I chanced to overhear a conversation among officers of the foreign military missions, in which the most slanderous words against her Majesty were uttered. "She has come again, it appears," said one of these men, "to see her husband and give him the latest orders of Rasputin." "The suite hate to hear her arrival announced," said another officer. "They know it means changes."

Worse things were said, but without waiting to listen I managed to make my way to the Empress, and that night inviting, as I was well aware, her irritation and disbelief, I related something of what I had overheard. I went further and reminded her of what we both knew, the increasing demoralization of the Emperor's staff. The Grand Dukes and the commanding officers were, as a matter of course, invited each day to lunch with the Emperor, but with insolence and audacity hitherto unheard of, many of the Emperor's near kinsmen declined these invitations. They gave the most trivial and transparent excuses for their absence - headaches, fatigue, previous engagements, alleged duties. The Empress listened to what I said, silent and distraught. She knew, and I also knew, that nothing she could say to the Emperor would make the slightest impression. His eyes and ears were still closed to the gathering tempest.

General Alexiev, Chief of Staff, and undoubtedly a valuable officer, had, I soon learned, been drawn into the plot. The Emperor suspected him to be in correspondence with the traitor Guchkov, but when questioned General Alexiev denied this vehemently. He was soon, however, to prove his treachery to the Emperor. There was in attendance on his Majesty at the Stavka an old officer, General Ivanov, a St. George Cross man, who formerly had held command of the Army of the South. This devoted and loyal old soldier General Alexiev knew he must get rid of, and this, had he been honest, he might have done by pleading age or decreased usefulness. Instead, he merely summoned General Ivanov and informed him that to the regret of the whole staff he was removed. The Chief of Staff was not responsible for this, he declared, the order having come from the Empress and her accomplices, Rasputin and Mme. Vyrubova. What General Alexiev said to the Emperor on the subject I do not know, but when next the two met the Emperor turned his head aside. This sudden coldness on the part of the Emperor, whom old General Ivanov loved dearly, made it impossible for him to seek an audience, and yet the general was valiantly determined not to leave the Stavka without presenting his case to the Sovereign. Calling on me that same day, he repeated to me, while tears rolled down his white beard, the lying words of General Alexiev against the Empress. Feeling it against reason and justice that the Emperor should remain in ignorance of this insult to his wife, I promised to speak to him about it, and this I did, but to little purpose. The Emperor's wrath against Alexiev was indeed kindled but he evidently felt that he could not, at that critical hour, dismiss an officer whose services were so urgently in demand. Afterwards, however, his manner towards old General Ivanov became conspicuously kind.

We remained for some time after this at the Stavka, days to me of such sad remembrance that I can scarcely endure the task of recording them. The Empress and her suite, the Grand Duchesses, and myself lived on board the Imperial train, motor cars coming each day at one o'clock to take us to staff headquarters to luncheon. Headquarters were in an ancient villa of the Governor of the Province, a rather old-fashioned and uncomfortable place. Even the huge dining room where the Emperor and Empress, the staff and the officers of the foreign missions met each day was a dull and gloomy room. When the weather became very warm this dismal apartment was abandoned, and luncheon was served in a large tent in a shady part of the grounds overlooking the town and farther away still the flowing tide of the mighty Dnieper. The only really bright circumstance of the time was the growing health and strength of the Tsarevich. He was developing marvelously through the summer, both in bodily vigor and in gaiety of spirits. With his tutors, M. Gilliard and Petrov, he romped and played as though illness were a thing to him unknown. With several of the allied officers, notably with the Belgian General Rikkel, he was also on the best of terms.

Every day after luncheon the maids came from the train with what gowns and other apparel we needed in for the remaining functions of the day. There was little room in the house in which to change, but we managed to appropriate a few nooks and corners, and to make ourselves as presentable as possible in the circumstances. In the Emperor's scant hours of leisure he loved to walk with his family in the woods along the river brink, and sometimes when I saw the Empress sitting on the grass talking informally with the peasant women who crowded around her, I took comfort, believing then, as I still believe, that the great mass of the Russian people were to the end faithful to their Sovereigns. As for the suite, most of them became increasingly indifferent, bound up in their foolish personal affairs, diverting themselves with whispered gossip and laughter, apparently quite indifferent to the calamitous progress of the War. People to whom religion is still in these cynical days a real refuge will understand me when I tell them what comfort I found in an ancient convent in the neighborhood, and in the poor little church which adjoined it. The one treasure of this church was an old and highly revered image of Our Lady of Mogilov and almost every day of that distressful summer I managed to spend a few minutes on my knees before her dark and mystic image. One day, feeling in my heart the imminence of a danger I dared not name even to myself, I took off my diamond earrings and laid them at the foot of the shrine where I had sought and received peace of mind. I hope my poor offering was received with grace by the saint, who of course did not need it, but whose helpless ones always do. A little later the monks presented me with a small replica of the image, and strangely enough this was the one ikon I was permitted to take with me when I was sent to the Fortress of Peter and Paul.

Of that unhappy summer of 1916 1 have only one or two more incidents to relate. One of these was a visit to the Stavka of the Princess Paley, wife of Grand Duke Paul. Coming from Kiev, where the Empress Dowager and the Grand Duke Nicholas Mikhailovich were in residence, it appeared ominous to me that they too, all of them, seemed to be inoculated with the delusion of the German spy and the Rasputin influence. Neither the Princess nor the Grand Duke were in the least tactful in the expression of their opinions on the subject. Another visitor to the Stavka was Rodzianko, who came to demand the instant dismissal of Protopopov, Minister of the Interior, once his friend and confidant, but now accused by the President of the Duma of being a lunatic. The Emperor received Rodzianko coldly, and did not even invite him to lunch. At tea that afternoon the Emperor said that the interview had angered him intensely as he knew quite well that Rodzianko's representations and motives were wholly insincere. Almost everything at the Stavka was growing worse and worse, the Grand Dukes being more insolent than ever and continually annoying General Voyeikov by ordering trains and motors for themselves without any regard to the requirements of the Emperor. It was with feelings of unspeakable relief that in November, 1916, we left the Stavka for Tsarskoe Selo. In the Imperial train with us traveled young Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich who even then was probably involved in a deadly plot against their Majesties. Yet this young man was able to keep up a pretense of friendship with the Empress, sitting beside her couch and entertaining her by the hour with amusing gossip and stories. Hearing the laughter the Emperor often opened his study door to listen and to join in the conversation. It was a merry journey home, yet within a few days after we arrived troubles again began to multiply. Entering the Empress's door one day, I found her in a passion of indignation and grief. As soon as she could speak she told me that the Emperor had sent her a letter from Nicholas Mikhailovich, in which the Empress was specifically charged with the most mischievous political machinations. "Unless this is stopped," the letter concluded, "murders will certainly begin."

Nicholas Mikhailovich, it appears, had gone to the Stavka from the group in Kiev, with the express object of delivering this letter. Every member of the staff knew his errand and expected him to be ignomin. iously ejected from the Emperor's study. Nothing of the kind happened, and the Grand Duke stayed to luncheon in the most friendly manner. I do not know what he said to the Emperor, but I do know that the letter was laid on the Emperor's desk. Nothing was said or done to avenge this deadly insult to the wife of Nicholas II whom undoubtedly he loved dearer than his own life. The only explanation I can think of was the Emperor's complete absorption in the War, and in his unshaken conviction that the plotters' gossip was entirely harmless. He had the kind of mind which could concentrate on only one thing at a time, and at this period his whole heart and soul was with the fight. ing armies. I well remember scraps of conversation with him during those days which indicated that in the back of his mind were many plans for future internal reforms. He spoke of important social changes which must come after the War, social and constitutional reforms. "I will do everything necessary afterwards," he said in more than one of these conversations. "But I cannot act now. I cannot do more than one thing at a time."

The Empress, I think, for all her sensitiveness to the abominable accusations brought against her, tried to preserve the same waiting state of mind. Most disagreeable incidents she kept to herself, yet one day she showed me a letter written directly to her by a Princess Vassilchikova, a letter so insulting that the Emperor was aroused to order the Princess and her husband, a member of the Duma, to their country estates. This letter was written on small scraps of paper evidently torn from a cheap writing tablet. "At least," said the Empress with faint sarcasm, "she might have used the stationery of a lady when addressing her Sovereign. "

What had taken possession of St. Petersburg society? I often asked myself. Was it a mob delusion, contagious, like certain diseases? Was it a madness born of the War similar to other strange hysterias which arose during some of the wars of the Middle Ages? That the delusion was confined to St. Petersburg and a few other towns frequented by the aristocracy was perfectly apparent. In the last days of 1916 the Empress with Olga, Tatiana, and General Racine paid a brief visit to Novgorod to inspect military hospitals and to pray in the monastery and church of Sofivsky Sobor, one of the oldest churches in Russia. Her visit was opposed, quite senselessly, by St. Petersburg society, which accused her of going for some bad purpose, God knows what. But at Novgorod the people poured out in throngs to greet her with peals of bells, music, and cheers. Before leaving the city the Empress paid a visit to a very old woman who had spent forty helpless years in bed, still wearing the heavy chains of penitence which as a pilgrim she had, almost a lifetime before, assumed. As her Majesty entered the old woman's cell a feeble voice uttered these words: "Here comes the martyred Empress, Alexandra Feodorovna." What could this aged and bedridden recluse have known or guessed of events which were to come?

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