Authors: Gloria Whelan
for Pat and Gus
The Winter Palace
Misha’s St. Petersburg
The Alexander Palace
A Voyage on the Standart
War Comes to the Palace
Last Days at the Alexander
Return to the Oaks
The Angel on the Square
I could feel the crowd holding its breath, awaiting the moment when Tsar Nikolai II and Empress Alexandra would arrive. On this February day all of St. Petersburg was celebrating three hundred years of rule by the Romanov Tsars. How I longed to be with Mama. As a special friend of the Empress, she was already in the cathedral. I burrowed deeper into my fur-lined coat to escape the winter winds that swept across Russia all the way from icy Siberia. The soft warmth of the coat curled around me like a friendly
cat. From the balcony of our mansion Misha and I looked across St. Petersburg’s main avenue, the Nevsky Prospekt, to the Kazan Cathedral. The cathedral’s two wings seemed to gather in all of St. Petersburg.
Imperial carriages and shiny black chauffeured automobiles rolled up to the cathedral’s entrance. Grand dukes in military uniform and grand duchesses in court gowns and diamond tiaras stepped onto the red carpet.
The city of St. Petersburg itself was dressed in an ermine robe of snow, its frozen river and canals glittering like the duchesses’ diamonds. In the distance the sun shone on the brightly colored domes of the Church of the Resurrection. “Look, Misha,” I said, “The domes look like a tumble of crown jewels.”
He scowled. “You are a romantic child, Katya. When I look at that church, what I see is Alexander’s blood.”
“Misha, that was years ago,” I scolded. The church was built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II, Tsar
Nikolai’s grandfather, had been assassinated. When Mama was only a baby, she witnessed the terrible scene. Her papa held her up to see Tsar Alexander only seconds before the bomb went off. Even now, after so many years, she trembled when she told the story. “No one thinks of such things now,” I said, but Misha’s expression did not change. Misha would not let himself be happy. He was cheerful only when he was worrying himself to death.
Misha, whose proper name was Mikhail Sergeyevich Gnedich, was sixteen and thought he was a man. He attended the Tenishev School and lived with us, for his mama was my mama’s dearest friend, as close to Mama as a sister. Misha’s papa died bravely for Russia in a naval battle in faraway Manchuria. His mama died soon after of typhoid, though some said it was of a broken heart. When I was four, my own papa died in that war. Though Mama was very sad, she did not die like Misha’s mother.
Misha was tall. He was also thin, and he looked as
though he did not eat much, which was not true, because he ate all the time. He took such large portions, the footman who served him had to fight to keep a smile from his face. Misha had blond hair, which he smoothed down with water to tame the curls, so he always looked like he just came out of a bath.
The naughty thing about Misha was that he was forever criticizing our beloved Tsar, which made everyone furious with him. Once Mama sent Misha away from the table for blaming the Tsar for the war in which his papa and my papa died.
Afterward, when I stole upstairs to Misha’s room to take him food, Misha said, “It is time the Tsar let the people decide for themselves what is best for their country.”
“You are wrong,” I said. “How can the people decide when they are uneducated and ignorant?”
Misha asked angrily, “Whose fault is it that they are uneducated?”
I told Misha that the Tsar, whom everyone called
“little father,” was God’s representative on earth and must surely know what was best for Russia. Misha’s ideas were dangerous, and I worried that they would get him into trouble.
Now Misha turned away from the balcony. “I’m going down into the street with the people,” he said, and added in a sarcastic tone, “I want to hear what they are saying on this glorious occasion.”
“Misha, take me with you,” I coaxed.
“With your fancy clothes and your furs?” He shook his head.
“Wait a moment,” I pleaded. “I’ll borrow something from the servants’ hall.”
The servants were all at the windows watching the ceremony, so it was a simple thing to snatch an old wool cloak from its peg and slip away unseen. It must have belonged to a cook, because it smelled of onions and vinegar. There was little warmth in the cloak, for the wool was worn and thin.
Misha gave me one of his disapproving looks when
I returned. “You must always have your own way, Katya. Your mother spoils you.” That taunt was an old story with Misha. I paid no attention but followed him out a side door, hurrying to keep up, for he was stalking on ahead, pretending not to know me.
I had been on the Nevsky Prospekt hundreds of times, but always with Mama or my governess, Lidya. Never before had I seen such crowds. When I finally caught up, I hung on to Misha. As the people pressed against me, I whispered to him, “They smell.”
Under his breath Misha hissed, “They have no soap, and for that matter how much water can you carry up four flights of stairs?”
“Everyone has water in their houses,” I protested.
“You are a fool, Katya. You know nothing of the world.” He shook off my hand and pushed his way to the front of the crowd. The sun disappeared behind dark clouds. A wet snow began to fall. I pulled the thin cloak more closely about me.
An old babushka with no teeth held up a picture
of the Tsar and Empress. Children waved small Russian flags, hopping from one foot to the other to keep warm. The cannons from the Peter and Paul Fortress sounded a twenty-one-gun salute. Cheers grew into a roar. The crowd pushed toward the street, carrying us with them. There, right in front of us, rolled the scarlet-and-gold carriage of the Tsar and Empress. Soldiers stationed along the curb stretched out their arms to hold the crowd back, but the people hurtled forward like a runaway train. I saw one of the soldiers aim his gun at the crowd, but an officer knocked it aside. The crowd were loyal subjects of the Tsar and asked nothing more than to get a little closer to the ruler they loved.
The crowd poured into the street to see the carriage with its team of six white horses and its gold-jacketed coachmen. It was a miracle that no one was caught beneath the carriage wheels. I looked up, and there was Tsar Nikolai in his uniform, golden epaulettes on his shoulders, rows of brightly colored
decorations splashed across his chest. He looked amused rather than frightened by the crowd, but Empress Alexandra had a look of terror on her pale face. With one hand she clutched the diamond crown nestled on her red-gold hair, and with the other hand she clasped a necklace with a pink pearl as large as a sparrow’s egg. From the look of fear on her face you might have thought the crowd was after her jewels. As the carriage wheeled into the entrance of the cathedral, the crowd drew back like a huge beast letting out its breath.
I was giddy with excitement. I poked Misha cruelly. “There, you see. The people love the Tsar.”
Misha shrugged. “Even starving people like a good show, Katya. Now come inside before you get trampled and I get blamed. And Katya, you must promise not to tell your mama of our little adventure.”
At the mansion I pulled off the cloak, still damp from the wet snow. There was a tear in it. “I hope no
one sees me put it back,” I whispered.
Misha gave me yet another of the looks that always make me feel guilty. “I didn’t tear the cloak,” I protested. “It happened in the crowd.”
“Here. This will buy a new one.” Misha slipped some rubles into the cloak’s pocket. I gave him a sullen look, angry that the generous gesture had not been mine. That was another fault of Misha’s. He was better than me.
I kept my promise not to tell Mama. When she returned from the cathedral, she was in a good mood. She let me sit cross-legged on her bed while she changed from her court dress with the train and the red sash across her chest to the ball gown she would wear later that evening. Breathing in her perfume and the scent of her powder was like a stroll in a garden. Her gown was white silk with tucks and pleats and a froth of lace at the neck and around the sleeves. It was so delicious, it looked like you could eat it with a spoon. Before she slipped the dress over her petticoats, I was
allowed to help Mama’s maid, Anya, tug the laces of Mama’s corset to nip in her waist.
Tiny and birdlike, Anya hopped around like a little sparrow, a
. She did everything for Mama. When I was grown, I would have my own Anya to fix my hair and keep my dresses nicely and to order about as Mama ordered Anya about.
Anya hopped up on a stool to fashion Mama’s golden-brown hair into twists and curls. As she worked, Mama gossiped with her about the ceremony.
“It was sad. The little Tsarevich, Alexei, was so ill, he had to be carried into the ceremony. Then such a disgraceful thing happened.” Mama’s face in the mirror was frowning. “That despicable creature Rasputin insisted on sitting in the section assigned to the imperial family. He had to be led out of the cathedral.” Mama shuddered. “Certainly it was an inauspicious beginning for the ceremony.”
I had heard about Rasputin, whom some called a holy man. Everyone knew that he was much admired
by the Empress. “If he is so bad,” I asked, “why does the Empress like him so much?”
Mama had forgotten I was there. When she heard my question, she gave me a sharp look, then turned back to Anya. “Anya, go and see that Vadim has the carriage ready. Katya, come and help me to fasten my sapphire necklace.”
Holding the sapphires in my hands was like holding bits of the clearest, deepest blue water. I thought of how, when I was little, Mama let me take out, one by one, diamonds, emeralds, and sapphires from her jewel box to hold up to the sunlight.
As I fumbled with the necklace’s clasp, Mama said, “I should not have spoken in that way about Rasputin, Katya, and you must never repeat what I said. Whatever his faults, he is a holy man, and he has been of the greatest service to the Empress in her worries over Alexei.”
Alexei was the only son of the Tsar and the Empress. First there were four daughters, one after the
other. Just when everyone thought there would be no heir to the throne, Alexei was born.
“Mama, what is wrong with Alexei?” He was often seen being carried about. Everyone knew that he was not well, but no one knew what the trouble was.
“He is a delicate child, that’s all.” After first arranging her skirts so that they would not be crushed, Mama settled next to me and took my hands in hers. Her eyes were bright and her cheeks flushed. I thought how pretty she was and despaired over ever having her beauty, for my nose was stubby rather than slender like Mama’s. You could barely see my pale eyelashes, while Mama’s were a thick, dark fringe.
“Katya, I wish I could wait until tomorrow when there would be more time to talk calmly with you, but I must give the Empress an answer this evening.” Mama’s chin was in the air, and her graceful neck was stretched out. I could tell something had happened to make her proud. She took a deep breath. “Empress Alexandra has done me a great honor, Katya. She has
asked me to come to the Alexander Palace and be one of her ladies-in-waiting. And of course you would come with me.”
“Oh, Mama!” The breath went out of me. I knew the Empress was fond of Mama. My governess, Lidya, had told me Mama was one of the few women at the court who understood the Empress. Many thought the Empress cold and aloof, but Mama had told me she was only shy. Empress Alexandra had come to Russia as the bride of the Tsar. She had been a princess from a small German state and could hardly speak Russian. Lidya said the glitter and sophistication of the Russian court had overwhelmed the Empress, who had drawn inside herself.
The task of the ladies-in-waiting, though it was more a privilege than a task, was to see to all the little things that made life more comfortable for the Empress. Ladies-in-waiting did her errands, answered her letters, and kept her company. I was proud of Mama’s honor, but I guessed what it would mean.
“We’ll have to leave our home here, won’t we?” The Zhukovsky mansion had been in Mama’s family since the reign of Peter the Great, over two hundred years ago.
Mama looked about the rooms as if she were considering how they might all be packed into a box. With a sigh she said,
and nodded. “We’ll have to stay at the Alexander Palace, but we’ll keep our house open for the sake of the servants, and of course Misha must continue to live here. And there will be occasions on her travels when the Empress might take another lady-in-waiting with her, and we can return home.” Mama was looking closely at me. I was not sure I wanted to leave my dear home. I considered creating a fuss, insisting I didn’t want to go. Perhaps Mama would make some excuse to the Empress. At the same time I was excited at the idea of living in a palace.
“What about the Grand Duchesses?” I asked. I worried that the four daughters of the Tsar and the
Empress would look down on me because I was not royalty.
“They are another reason for our going. The youngest, Anastasia, is eleven, only a year younger than you. The Empress thinks the two of you would get on well. All the girls are well behaved. They have not been pampered. They take cold baths every morning and have their lessons with a tutor just as you do. It will be a great advantage for you to share those lessons.”
Mama got up and shook out her skirts. “Now that is enough, Katya. There will be plenty of time for questions tomorrow, and we won’t be going to the Alexander Palace for a while yet. You will have plenty of time to get used to the idea.” Mama gave me a searching look. “Shall I tell the Empress I would be honored to be her lady-in-waiting?”
I nodded. Mama swept up her sable cape. She reached down to give me a quick hug, and her sapphire necklace scratched my cheek. She hurried from the room.
I tried to feel honored, but I knew that from now on our lives would depend on the plans and the whims of the Tsar and the Empress. Their wishes would be our commands. And what would the girls be like? Maybe taking a cold bath every morning would put you in a bad mood for the rest of the day.
I would have to leave my beloved St. Petersburg. The Alexander Palace was in Tsar’s Village, a town twenty-six kilometers away. I thought of all I would have to give up. Just yesterday, Lidya and I had wandered into Peto’s toy shop and stopped at Eliseev’s Food Emporium on the Nevsky, where Lidya had read off a list Mama had given her. Later in the day Eliseev’s carriage would deliver to our house baskets of delicacies: jars of caviar, plump peaches from the Crimea, and shortbread from Scotland that melted in your mouth.