One year at the Russian court/Chapter 13
At that time motors were very rarely seen in Russia, the reason for this being, I suppose, that there were so few good roads; and when one did appear in the streets it immediately became an object of the utmost curiosity.
Another striking feature in Petrograd was that there was not a closed cab to be seen, nothing but little open vehicles, which struck me as being an almost barbarous custom considering the extreme cold of the place. I asked my aunt the reason of this; she told me that the authorities had once tried the experiment of "Voitures fermées—mais il s'y passait tant d'horreurs que l’on avait dû y renoncer."
The tziganes had an enormous success at Petrograd. I went to hear them play one night; their music was quite diabolical and so was the flashing of their eyes. They were the terrors of the mothers, and were responsible for many scandals—and even suicides. They played and sang with so much go and rhythm—it was quite bewildering; the hall was, needless to say, packed to overflowing.
At the time of my arrival in Russia the Dreyfus affair had been and still was the topic of general conversation, people's opinions over there being very diverse; the Protestant element—in England, too, I know—made him a hero and treated him as a martyr, whereas the Orthodox Church considered him a traitor and a renegade, which latter opinion as a loyal Frenchwoman I naturally shared, the opposite sides taking so much to heart their deductions that it was best to avoid touching on the subject altogether.
The Russian woman is, as a rule, very intelligent and well read, a charmer, even if she has no claims to any particular beauty; she is often the man's superior; and in spite of being sometimes a successful butterfly, she is at the same time capable of the greatest attachment and of the most profound devotion.
The Russian man, in spite of his fascination—being very often delightful to meet in society—never inspired me with sufficient confidence for permanence, and I was never able quite to overcome this sentiment.
My Aunt de Baranoff received on Wednesdays, my friends also came to see me that day, and round the welcoming samovar we made our cheerful plans.
Aunt Olga—as I always called her—received in the largest of the drawing-rooms, the ballroom, where there had often been much dancing before her daughter's marriage. In every fine suite of rooms in Russia there is always a ballroom. Round this very large salon, lighted during the day by numerous large windows, at night by great chandeliers, were ranged gilded chairs; and great mirrors in panels gave a final note of cheerfulness. The prettiest flowers were always to be found there in profusion, the Court florist coming to change them twice a week, and it was always a real pleasure to see their pretty petals in such bright hues, reminding one of spring and the warm sun, and contrasting so deliciously with the big snowflakes, which in their soft and silent fall, gently drifting against the panes, reminded one of the cold and of the ice from which that frail barrier of glass alone protected one.
Among my aunt's servants there was an old Court man-servant, with a face as cunning as that of an old fox. He was called Grakoff, and moved about without truce or respite in his gold braided gaiters. Unluckily one evening he took it into his head to drink certain pharmaceutical "drops" which my Uncle Peter used to take. Finding them no doubt to his taste, he administered to himself the whole contents of the bottle, so that poor Grakoff was found on the ground more dead than alive, and there was much difficulty in setting him again on his thin old legs—always rather shaky.
On another occasion, I do not exactly know what had passed between him and my dear young cousin, Petia, but the fact remains that Petia came to announce to me with a triumphant smile that he had thrown that old fox of a Grakoff in full dress, with all his gold lace, into his bath, from whence the poor old thing escaped with his head hanging down like a wet poodle. I found this proceeding very Russian—I must admit that it enchanted me—and at the end of the corridor I saw a form dripping from all parts disappearing with all possible speed.
Petia was not entirely without mischief. Mon Dieu, he was young and I absolve him. He liked to come home at the latest possible hours, a matter more desired than easy of accomplishment, as my aunt before going to bed used to go and see if the doors were safely bolted. Upon this he asked me to reopen them—later. I refused to do such a thing, and said: "Do what you like; that is not my business. I promise you I will be discreet, but I will not be your accomplice. Why not ask your old âme damnée of a Grakoff?" But since the unseasonable bath the old âme damnée may well have had a pressing desire for vengeance. Petia invited me sometimes to come into his study to smoke one of those delicious scented Russian cigarettes. There were generally some of his friends there, and all set themselves to talk French, with sometimes amusing results.
My aunt continued often to amuse me. One day, having noticed that a certain friend of the family's and I had talked much together, she teased me on the subject. "Oh, aunt," I replied, "that doesn't count, you know quite well he is married." "But, my dear," she said to me, with her kind smile—ce sourire qui savait la vie—"they are the easiest to catch." And she seemed to say, "How naïve you are my poor child!" This answer, in fact, upset all my ideas of life, all the pious doctrines upon which I had been nourished till then.
I thought this power of reasoning quite delightful and typically Russian, disclosing the quantum of moral sense existing out there.
It must be said that divorce is of frequent occurrence in Russia. It is, however, practised by the wealthier classes; as, although the Holy Synod is easy to approach, it knows how to charge!
Couples often so easily disunited, after meeting one another continually in society—for Russian society being very exclusive, is in consequence limited—reconsider their first step and decide to resume their former matrimonial state; therefore, if one has lost touch with one's Russian friends during any length of time, one is obliged to be extremely circumspect on returning to their midst when informing oneself from one member of a family of the rest of his belongings; and it is best to be on the safe side by seeking outside information in the first instance.
Apart from this, however, the other extreme is often to be found, which might be termed of Slavic origin, at least in its outward demonstrations.
I knew a certain Gentleman of the Chamber who lived at the Monastery of La Laure so as to be close to his wife, who had died eight years before and whose remains lay in the cemetery there, going twice every day to pray by the grave—and he was by no means an old man!
Russia being, above all things, a country of contrasts, a country of great extremes, one should not be astonished by any apparent diversity. There, as in the rest of the world, divorce is badly viewed by the serious Protestant community, and, naturally, by the Catholics, but, as the Greek Church authorizes it, one must not judge its votaries too harshly!
The Greek Church is the State religion. If one of the parents is Orthodox, all the children born of that union must belong to that religion, which renders a marriage between an Orthodox and a Catholic practically impossible, since this latter religion also now exacts Catholicism for all the children if one of the parents is Catholic.
It was not so at the time when my grand-mother was born, she and her sisters were Catholics like their mother, the brothers Protestant like their father.
In Russia, there is no middle-class as in the West. Society is, in other words, the nobility; and then comes what is known there as the "Merchants," who are absolutely ignored and very much despised by the former, although they are often very rich.
In Russia there were two kinds of caviare, the kind for the zakouski and that of the newspapers.
The first is delicious. The zakouski is an assortment of hors-d'œuvres arranged like a buffet on a table in a corner of the room in which the lunch or dinner is served. It is partaken of standing up, off a small plate, and amounts, in fact, to a real meal as a preparation to give one an appetite instead of satisfying it.
There is generally fresh caviare and also preserved caviare, and delicious pickled herrings with quantities of other good little dishes, which the men wash down with vodka.
I was extremely fond of this caviare, but did not feel the same affection for that of the newspapers, especially during the Revolution. One of them reached us showing nothing after its title but five lines, and the five last ones! This variety of caviare is a thick black substance; if one tries to scratch it off, it spreads more and more and seems to become more and more opaque.
The liberty of the Press certainly did not exist then.
The Jesuits were not tolerated in Russia, their influence, intelligence, savoir-faire and cunning were feared. The Dominicans were looked upon kindly, as well as a few other Orders, and I consider that the exception was really flattering to their Order.
As for the Jews, they were looked at askance. There were no Jews admitted into the army, only a percentage of them were educated in the public schools, and that percentage was very small.
In Russia Jews are not known in society at all; besides, out there, they had not "depalestined" themselves as with us. Poland was full of them; at Vilna, for instance, two-thirds of the population were Jewish!
As in England, even more than in England, tea is the drink of the Palace as well as of the izba. In this cold country one often needs a hot drink, and the samovar, that really national object with its gentle, warm murmur of boiling water, is the first friend to greet you in a Russian house.
Russian tea is very good; the green tea is excellent, very scented and very strong. It comes from China on the backs of camels; therefore, the salt air has not robbed it of any of its first delicacy and strength. A slice of lemon generally replaces the milk and cream customary with us.
Women drink it in a cup, men from a glass in a gold or silver mount with a handle.