One year at the Russian court/Chapter 10
On the 6th January 1905—Old Style—I made my entry into the most brilliant and exclusive society of Petrograd, and the occasion was for the annual blessing of the Neva on the feast of the Epiphany.
I was invited to witness the ceremony at the Winter Palace in the quality of "distinguished foreigner."
A small pavilion shaped like an ancient circular Greek temple, with pillars, open on all sides, had been erected on the frozen waters of the river in front of the Palace. In the centre a hole was pierced in the ice, until the waters were reached, when a bucket was lowered and brought up brimfull; this water was then blessed by the Archimandrite, some set aside for the blessing of new-born babes, and some for subsequently blessing all the colours of the various regiments quartered at Petrograd; the rest of the water was poured back into the hole in the ice, and thenceforth mingled with the river and then the whole Neva was blessed!
Formerly it was considered of the utmost importance that new-born infants should be completely immersed in the Neva—immersed as the rite of the Greek Church demands. It has been asserted on the best authority that the Archbishop, when his hands were petrified with cold, would sometimes let a child slip in, merely remarking indifferently, "Give me another."
I drove up to the Palace in my Uncle de Baranoff's Court equipage—I was staying with them at the time—which was drawn by a pair of prancing black horses, the men wearing scarlet and gold liveries contrasting vividly with the dazzling whiteness of the snow.
I was met at the foot of the staircase and escorted by Vicomte de Salignac-Fénelon, an attaché at the French Embassy, who whispered in my ear very discreetly:
"We may shortly be reduced to ashes."
"If that is so," said I, "we shall die in good company."
Every one at that time felt that he was living on a volcano, the formidable irruption of which might break out at any moment.
The various members of the Diplomatic Corps asked to be presented to me in turn, amongst them Count Berchthold, at that time Councillor at the Austro-Hungarian Embassy, who, since then and up to the time the war broke out, has played such an important role in his country's affairs, subsequently becoming Austrian Ambassador in Petrograd before the war and then Minister for Foreign Affairs in Vienna at the beginning of the war.
It is a privilege granted to Hungarian diplomats to wear their Magyar costumes on all State occasions, and certainly Count Berchthold was strikingly distinguished looking in his!
On the arm of the Dutch Minister, Monsieur de Wedde, I reached the Grand Ball-room and passed between the brilliant escort of Chevaliers-Gardes and Gardes-à-Cheval, besides others decked out in their magnificent uniforms, forming a cordon round each room.
At last we reached the room reserved for the corps diplomatique, where every one was assembled in front of the windows overlooking the Chapel erected on the Neva.
The clergy were wearing their most superb sacerdotal robes and ornaments, escorting the Emperor, the Grand Dukes and all the Court in procession. The spectacle was most imposing, rendered all the more so by the white mantle which was over all!
Presently there entered the drawing-room in which we were assembled the two Empresses and Grand Duchesses Xenia, Olga—both sisters of the Emperor—Marie Pavlovna and others dressed in their elaborate Russian Court costumes. This consists of velvet robes with round deep décolletage and long trains, and wearing on their heads the kakochnik scintillating with pearls, diamonds and other precious stones.
Some were in blue, others in pale green, bright pink, red, etc.; the ladies-in-waiting and maids-of-honour dress in the colour of the Grand Duchess, to whose court they belong.
Their trains were borne by pages from the well-known corps des pages.
I noticed again my Uncle Cherwachidze wearing his grand uniform, covered with gold lace and orders of every description—he seemed more than ever to form part of the train of his Empress.
Then came the Court and the clergy, defiling into the room next to ours, the latter intoning some wonderful Russian chants, which are so perfectly rendered that one imagines them to be instrument ally accompanied.
The anticipated attempt at assassination was not long delayed: presently some fragments of shrapnel shells fell into our room and quite close to the group of people where I was standing, smashing the panes of glass of one of the windows, which were strewn all over the floor. These shells had been fired from the Fortress of St Peter and St Paul situated on the opposite side of the Neva.
Ostensibly the guns were fired as a salute with blank cartridges, but through an oversight of the commanding officer one had been fired with live shells, the result being that a perfect hail of shrapnel fell on to the Chapel in which the Emperor had taken up his position, he of course being the object aimed at.
The Tzar during this terrible ordeal never moved a muscle except to make the Sign of the Cross.
I shall never forget the quiet resigned smile on His Imperial Majesty's countenance when he returned to the Palace—it seemed almost unearthly. In the street an unfortunate mounted policeman was killed, and on the floor beneath ours—the ground floor—five people were seriously wounded.
Seeing that the Emperor was safe we congratulated ourselves by saying: "Comme c'est chic! Nous avons eu même un attentat!"
After having met a number of friends, ladies and gentlemen in waiting, I was conducted into the dining-room on the arm of Monsieur Merghelynck, Councillor of the Belgian Legation, where a copious luncheon at small tables was prepared, and which we partook of with relish in spite of the regrettable incident.
Each table was presided over by a maid-of-honour, ours being a very cosmopolitan one, made up principally of diplomats, Russians, Germans, Austrians, and even a Turk.
On my right sat the War Minister, Sakharoff, who not long afterwards fell a victim to a bomb outrage.
Fate seemed to decree that poor Merghelynck should be continually the victim of some tragedy or other: he was in China during the siege of Pekin by the Boxers, where for his gallant behaviour while helping to defend the French legation he was the proud recipient of the Legion of Honour; he was in Serbia when King Alexander and Queen Draga were assassinated; and now that he is dead even his ashes are not allowed to remain in peace, for he was buried at or near Ypres, which is now, alas, only a heap of ruins.
During the winter 1904–1905 no ball took place at the Palace, both on account of the war with Japan and also on account of the internal troubles, so unfortunately I am unable to give a description of the supper which under ordinary conditions would have taken place in the Great Palm Hall which I had hoped to admire so much.
At Petrograd one is continually coming across small chapels at unexpected places, erected on the site of some Nihilist outrage against members of the Imperial family.
The Russian makes a great show of his religion, and he places an Icon in every room of his house, hung in a corner, very high up, just under the ceiling; and he causes every room in his house to be blessed once a year.
At my Aunt de Baranoff's the annual ceremony is carried out to the letter. Each member of the family, holding in his right hand a candle, follows in procession the "Winter Palace" pope, with his long curly hair carefully arranged, while he carries out the blessing by sprinkling holy water on his way.
Three days after—Sunday, January 9th, 1905, henceforth to be remembered as "Le Dimanche Rouge"—occurred the first sign of the coming irruption which had been anticipated for so long.
For a whole week previously the police had posted hand-bills imploring the public not to venture out of doors that day as trouble was expected, and that the police could not be held responsible for what might happen.
The day dawned more gloomily than usual, it had snowed hard all the previous night and it was still snowing. I witnessed the extraordinary and terrible sight of the crowd of malcontents and revolutionaries from the windows of 6 Millionne, where I was staying with my uncle, General de Baranoff. The Winter Palace was situated on the large square at the end of our street, quite near, so I could not be better placed. It was on the direct route to it. They kept on passing in small groups from early dawn, until they had become one compact mass beneath the windows of the Winter Palace, for Gapon, their leader, had ordered them to assemble at 2 p.m. in the huge palace square.
These misguided creatures were carrying all manner of implements, some even shouldered scythes, in fact anything they could get hold of, I expect. All wore a sad look of arrogance and disorder, even the children. Many of the women carried heavy bundles as if they intended to leave their homes for ever.
The doors and gates of every house and courtyard had been closed with heavy chains for fear of invasion and pillage. One felt more than ever that one was living on a volcano—and a very live one too—belching forth the most formidable elements of destruction.
Several times the Chevaliers-Gardes charged amongst the crowd; at first slowly but effectively—under our windows until the mob was hurled back.
My poor aunt was terribly frightened, and forbade me to go out that day, consequently I did not witness any of the bloody scenes which occurred, but which the papers grossly exaggerated. The Emperor and Empress showed themselves to the crowd from one of the balconies of the Palace, and their appearance seemed to have rather a soothing effect.
Many blamed the Emperor, others the army for the sanguinary rôle that was played that day, but what else could they have done under the circumstances?
The police organization was nil: Trepoff, its future head, had not as yet come to the fore. Three times the mob was summoned to disperse, three times they were warned what would be the result of their refusing to do so; but their only answer was sullen inertia and threatening.
Had not vigorous measures been taken at once, it is my firm belief that the Emperor would have shared the fate of Louis XVI.
Firing went on in the Nevsky Prospect and the Morskaia. We heard shots whistling past continually.
The Chevaliers-Gardes were obliged to make several simultaneous charges along the quays and other places that night.
The mob was not armed and remained silent. Their action was decidedly revolutionary, but it was by no means a general rising of a whole people in revolt. It was to be regretted that many quite innocent people who showed themselves in the streets out of curiosity were to be counted amongst the dead and wounded—but that was, of course, their own look out, as they should have hearkened to the warning.
Equipages were overturned; the malcontents stripped a general of all his clothes in spite of the cold, and then beat him. A young officer was thrown into a canal; and we were warned by a friend on the telephone from the Winter Palace that it was dangerous even to set foot in the street.
My poor Aunt de Baranoff was more terrified than ever, and told me in a trembling voice: "On no account turn on the electric light for fear of the revolutionaries firing into the windows"—in Russia there are no shutters—"and entering the house and murdering us all." This in spite of the fact of our house being part of the Palace of the Grand Duke, then Crown Property, and our courtyard filled with soldiers; so we consequently lived several days by candlelight, which seemed rather gloomy after the gorgeous light of the many chandeliers.
Gapon and several other leaders had really deceived these credulous masses and led them to believe that they would, by demonstrating, induce the Tzar to accede to their demands; but it was not long before the masses found out that they were being made the tools of their leaders' own ambitions to bring about a great political manifestation. Thus, discontent and loss of faith soon spread amongst them.
The most sinister news appeared in the papers on the following day, stating that the populace would be now supplied with bombs and firearms, that houses would be broken into and pillaged, but there proved to be no foundation for these anticipated fears.
However, there was still some disturbance that night, and fighting took place in the Sadovaia; but there was no bloodshed.
I dined that evening at the French Embassy and, as I drove through the streets, Petrograd seemed to be a changed city: troops bivouacking everywhere, rifles piled together, the soldiers and horses keeping warm beside huge beacon fires, the flames from which cast a lurid light over all the vast stretch of frozen snow.
The only Russians at dinner were Prince Dolgorouky and Baron de Ramsay—whose wife is English—the others having at the eleventh hour sent excuses: they had all contracted chills!
I had been obliged to keep my horses standing from an early hour, for the police order had gone forth that no carriage was to leave the stable after 7 p.m., as they feared trouble and as equipages were looked upon askance.
In case of the revolutionaries carrying out their threat of cutting the electric wires, the French Ambassadress drew our attention to a system by which all the candles in the dining-room could be lighted instantaneously by means of a connecting resinous tape, thus replacing the electricity.
The idea of placing the city under martial law was seriously entertained. The Palace and town were guarded by the military for many days; after that patrols went through the streets on business bent.
Every anniversary celebration in its turn made people dread a fresh outburst of disorder.
The failure to arrest Gapon surprised me very much. It was said in Petrograd that the authorities dare not make use of their powers. He played the most ignoble role and worked on the superstitious masses by dressing himself up in his sacerdotal robes—he was a pope—and with his hands aloft holding a crucifix he urged them on; then, again, he would make use of all kinds of disguises and appeared to be everywhere at the same time.
For a long time past he had rented a house in Petrograd, where he gave lectures, befriended by the Empress-Dowager and Grand Duchess Xenia. He was well informed about every detail concerning the secret police.
The money for this revolution—of which he was the life and soul—came from abroad, as is always the case where revolutions are concerned; the revolutionaries themselves were given three times the amount of their ordinary pay. Amongst the dead and wounded were many students disguised as women.
The most terrifying reports were circulated all over the town: Petrograd was to be set on fire, the nobles were to be massacred, while their properties were to be burnt and pillaged; this had already occurred in many places, notably in the Baltic provinces, of which the population consists of German-speaking people and is for the most part Lutheran.
Gapon and the other leaders preached to the peasants that the ground they cultivated was their own, their very own; that the nobles and the wealthy classes were robbing them, attributing to themselves certain rights which they had no business to possess—all the tenets which Lenin has preached to-day.
Tempers ran high in those days. Several stores of arms were pillaged and their contents stolen.
After his flight from Russia, Gapon, from his German lair, continued to issue pamphlets in the hope of creating more disturbance in the minds of his followers. A few months later he was most unexpectedly found dead, hanging from a beam in an uninhabited datcha or villa at Ozerky, on the line to Finland, near Petrograd.
As one can readily understand, the results achieved were not the fruits of the effort of a day, but rather of an organized labour, planned with the greatest care and followed with the greatest perseverance, accompanied by all the treachery and all the brutality of the Hun.