Read an Excerpt
The True Memoirs of Little K Paris, 1971
My name is Mathilde Kschessinska, and I was the greatest Russian ballerina on the imperial stages. But the world I was born to, the world I was bred for, is gone, and all the players in it are also gone—dead, murdered, exiled, walking ghosts. I am one of those ghosts. Today in the Soviet Union, it is forbidden to utter my name. The authorities have wiped it from their histories of the theater. I am ninety-nine years old, an old lady with a hairnet and a pinched mouth and yet they still fear me. I stood barely five feet at the height of my fame—my shoe size a three—but now I neither stand nor walk. I sit with my eyes closed in my Paris home of fifty years and live in the past, the mementos of my old Petersburg life all around—sepia photographs of the imperial family and of my son, my father’s icon of Our Lady of Czestokowa, his ring with the arms of Count Krassinsky, a medal from the tunic of my husband’s old uniform from the Horse Guards. Like those things, I, too, am a relic. But traces of that old world remain, you know, buried somewhere beneath this world. The Winter Palace. The Maryinsky Theater. Tsarskoye Selo. Peterhof. I see that world more clearly than I see the avenues and trees outside my window here in the 16th Arrondissement. What is there to interest me here? The hippie boys in their psychedelic pants, the hippie girls in their short skirts and long, uncombed hair? The world I knew was grand, the court more elaborate than the French court under Louis XIV. I was the lover of two grand dukes, the mistress of the tsar. The last tsar.
He called me Little K.
It Started Like This
I can still see the imperial Romanov family, not that of Nicholas and Alexandra, but the imperial family of my youth—Tsar Alexander III and his wife and his children, of whom Niki was one. The imperial family, the imperial family is coming. I see them coming down the hall from the little school theater, with its wooden chairs set in rows before the primitive stage where we students had just performed—I in the coquettish pas de deux from La Fille mal gardée—toward the big rehearsal room where the celebratory dinner was set. This was the day of my graduation performance, March 23, 1890. I was seventeen. The Romanov tsars were patrons of a great string of imperial theaters—in Petersburg alone we had the Maryinsky, the Alexandrinsky, the Mikhailovsky, the Conservatoire, the English Theater—and patrons, too, of the artists who filled their stages and the students who filled the theater schools. Why, look what happened to the little girl who one year ran after the emperor when he made his annual visit to the school for the graduation performance. Breaking away from her chaperones and catching up with him, she kissed his hand, and Alexander, touched, asked her what she desired. Seizing the moment, like any good opportunist—and I have always admired an opportunist, being one myself—she whispered, To be a boarding student. And he said, grandly, Done. Just like that she was given a bed and with it a stature greater than the simple day student, over whom she could now lord herself. Yes, the family always attended the annual graduation at the school, and down its halls they made a parade far more thrilling than any royal processional we enacted on the stage. Down the broad corridor strode the emperor, taller than anyone, a trunk like a barrel, his forehead a stone wall, and behind him the empress, tiny like me. Where is Kschessinska? he called. He knew my name because I was the youngest daughter of the great Felix Kschessinsky, who had been dancing for the Romanovs for almost forty years. That was how the tsar knew my name and as for why the tsar liked me, called for me: perhaps because I was the theatrical expression of his consort, small, bright-eyed, dark hair set in waves. Yes, that must have been why. He saw how we were alike. I ruled my world with the same great vivacity she used to rule hers, and wasn’t my world but a miniature of her own—its rituals, its hierarchies, its costumes an echo of the elaborate Romanov court? I lived my life in one world, but I planted my foot—my slipper—in the other.
That day, that day of my graduation performance where I took the first prize, a heavy volume of the complete works of Lermontov—which I never read but planned to use as a flower press and then never opened even for that!—the emperor moved the girl who was to sit at his left at the school’s modest supper table and put me in her chair, placed Nicholas at my left, and then said, Don’t flirt. By which, of course, the emperor meant the opposite. If the emperor was a giant, the tsarevich was a faun—small, slightly built inside his uniform, his cheeks pretty and soft. I had seen him before that day only from a distance, but now both he and I were almost adults—he would finish with his tutors and lessons that spring and later that year he would hide the childish softness of his face with his new beard, but on this day his cheeks and chin were exposed and it made him seem gentle; this gave me a courage that had he looked any more formidable I might not have had. I understood my talent had brought me into a new orbit, one with a path higher up into the heavens, and I was not afraid to fly there. At seventeen I knew better how to flirt than Nicholas did at twenty-two, and I was prepared to do so as soon as he spoke to me first. I knew at least that much: to wait. Until then, I pinched at the little blue forget-me-nots sewn to my dress to keep my fingers from pinching at him. And what did the tsarevich finally say to me? He gazed at the plain white drinking glasses set at each place rather than look at my face, which was, I am sure, radiant from the attention of his father and the proximity of the heir. I was never a beauty, my two front teeth tilt inward, the dog teeth protrude, the Russian tabloids drew me that way in caricature, but I was eager and I had those eyes, eyes like a fairy. Louis XV kept his mistresses in the Parc des Cerfs. The gossips would later call me the fairy of the Parc des Cerfs. So what did the tsarevich say to the fairy while he looked down at the table? Don’t laugh. This: I’m sure you don’t use drinking glasses like these at home.
That was the best he could manage. A few months later he would join the Hussars and begin to drink and carouse with his fellow Guards, who prodded him out of his timidity. But this Niki, slow and shy, made my work so much harder! Drinking glasses? What was I to say to that? Accustomed to the crystal of the Minister Service or the Petrograd Service, I’m sure Niki found those plain glasses clumsy, though I would never have noticed it. I pretended I had. Smiling, I flicked at one with two fingers to laugh at its dull ting. The milieu of the Romanovs was quite extraordinary, you know. I spent my life trying to imitate it. To join it.
It was no accident, our initial introduction. It occurred by the emperor’s direct design, as did everything in Russia. After all, the country was the fiefdom of the tsar and it existed only for his pleasure. We girls at the Imperial Theater Schools were no exception. From our ranks, the emperors and the grand dukes, the counts and the officers of the guards, chose their mistresses, kept an eye out for a shapely leg or a pretty face. Why, one of them described the ballet as an exhibit of beautiful women, a flower bed in which everyone can pick the flowers of pleasure. The officers on horseback used to follow the coaches stuffed with girls as we traveled from the school to the theater—a tradition that dated back decades to even before the Maryinsky was built, when the coaches took the girls to the old Bolshoi Theater on Theater Square, where my father danced before it was razed—calling out to us and asking our names, which our chaperones forbade us to give, though we wanted to. I had to put my hand over my mouth to keep my name from spilling out: Mathilde-Maria. To keep us pure and to protect us from the syphilis that plagued the capital, we were sequestered from all outside influence—and equally sequestered from the schoolboys. Girls were penned together on the first floor of the school, boys on the second. Separate dormitories, schoolrooms, rehearsal rooms, dining rooms. We knew the boys existed, of course, for during ballroom class we practiced with them the minuet and quadrilles, where we were forced to touch, but we were not permitted to look into each other’s eyes while doing so. The governesses watched us closely and they would swoop in to scold at any sign of forward behavior. Our day clothes were laughably modest, the dresses full of buckles and over-laid with aprons, and beneath our skirts we wore long, dark stockings; our practice clothes were a knee-length version of a street dress; our fur-lined coats were so dark and sober we called them penguins. And we looked like penguins in them, waddling around and around the courtyard—the only freedom we were allowed. We couldn’t play wildly—no bicycles or balls, no ice sliding or ice-skating, no toy swords for the boys. We were property of the Imperial Ballet and if we were injured we were of no use to it and the money spent on us gone to waste. At lunch and supper the governesses counted us off two by two as we lined up for the dining hall. At night the other students slept in a single vast room of fifty or more beds, each bed dressed in white like the coffin of a child, and at the head of each bed a small table with an icon and the school number of each girl.
Why all the numbers, all the counting? To ensure that what had happened to a girl of some years ago did not happen again. Her elopement with an officer of the Horse Guards had made a fantastic scandal. Each afternoon she found some excuse to stand in the window of the dormitory and watch him ride by, a far too glamorous spectacle to be borne, in his white uniform and silver helmet, and driving two bay horses. He had to have been a spectacle, for Theater Street was normally empty of traffic except for the vast old-fashioned carriages that conveyed us students about. That he paraded unnoticed across the Anichkov Bridge and along the back side of the Alexandrinsky Theater must be myth, and in that myth, of course, his beloved had to be beautiful, very beautiful—girls in these kinds of stories are always beautiful, like princesses. So one afternoon she borrowed a maid’s shawl—yes, the princess disguised as a peasant—and slipped out a side door into her future, which I hope was bright. And since her wedding day no girl older than fifteen was allowed home for a holiday other than three days at Christmas and Easter Sunday itself.
I myself was not a boarding student. My father was an Honored Artist of the Imperial Theaters, invited to St. Petersburg by Nicholas I, who loved dancers massed on the stage almost as much as he loved bayonets massed on the parade ground. And my father used his influence to spare me that spartan school life, so at odds with the ebullience of the actual theater we would soon serve. He didn’t want my spirit broken. And perhaps that was his mistake.
Nevertheless, whether we lived at home or at school, our virginity was carefully guarded until our graduation day, when it was then offered up. Sewn into costumes that exposed our necks, our arms, our bosoms, our legs, we decorated the stage for the pleasure of the court, all those aristocratic balletomanes who handed down to their sons their subscriptions along with their titles, who sat in the boxes and first stalls of the Imperial Theaters for the best views and aimed their lorgnettes or opera glasses at us. In the smoking rooms, at the intervals, they debated our merits. It was a reciprocal attraction. We needed protectors to advance our careers and to supplement our miserable salaries with dinners, gifts, wreaths, and flowers. And as our costumes imitated the dress and jewels of the court, so we developed a desire to possess the silks and velvets we wore for a few hours each day, the gold that embroidered those fabrics, the gems to which our colored glass aspired. There were many girls at the school who came from nothing—why, Anna Pavlova was the daughter of a laundress—and whose liaisons could help the fortunes of their families. This was a long-standing tradition. Count Nikolai Petrovich Sheremetiev, in the eighteenth century—back when each nobleman had at his country estate his own theater and his own serf opera company, ballet company, orchestra—made a mistress of one of his opera singers and then secretly married her. In my time the grand dukes Konstantin Nikolaevich and Nicholas Nikolaevich, uncles of Tsar Alexander III, each kept a mistress from the ballet, and of Nicholas Nikolaevich’s illegitimate children with the ballerina Chislova, the boy served in the Life Guards Horse Grenadiers and the girl married a prince. Sometimes these protectors married the girls they had made their mistresses and these girls became matriarchs of some of the greatest aristocratic families of Russia. Kemmerer, Madaeva, Muravieva, Kantsyreva, Prihunova, Kosheva, Vasilieva, Verginia, Sokolova, all were ballerinas of the 1860s and earlier who married noblemen. This possibility, rather than a reverence for the art, motivated many mothers to take a pretty child or a graceful one to the auditions on Theater Street. But some of us, of course, remained only mistresses.
The imperial wives saw to our suffering, you can be sure of that, even if a man’s mistress came from the court itself, from a noble family. No matter. When Niki’s grandfather Tsar Alexander II was murdered, his second wife—long his mistress, and no Romanov woman forgot those years—was barred from his funeral! Unfortunately, he died before he could make her his empress and legitimize the positions of his children by her. And so at his sudden death his first family moved immediately against her. The family would have taken her title of princess from her if they could. And what of this was her fault? She was seventeen to the emperor’s forty-seven when she met him strolling in the Summer Garden, with its four long avenues leading to the Neva, its linden trees and its maples making green walls through which filtered the wet scent of that water, its wrought-iron fences barring as it should dogs, muzhiki, in their bright-colored shirts and high boots, the working class, and Jews. Who asked the young Ekaterina to wait for him in a secluded ground-floor room of the Winter Palace? Who gave her children? Who eventually moved her into that palace? She was a Dolgoruky, the daughter of a prince, from one of the oldest aristocratic families in Russia, and still the women of the court labeled her a schemer, a fornicator, a social climber. Imagine what they would say of me.
She was seventeen, a girl walking in a park east of the Champs de Mars.
And so was I seventeen. And that next week after graduation, in my best clothes, my hair curled in the fashion of the time, I walked not in the Summer Garden, but along Nevsky Prospekt, anxious to follow up my first meeting with Niki with another, during the great afternoon promenade that began each day after lunch and ended before twilight, at which time the workmen would drag their ladders from street to street, lighting each gas lamp by hand, before the evening’s salons, parties, dinners, and balls.
Perhaps a word here about Petersburg, which those of us fortunate enough to live there called simply Peter. The city is a handful of islands divided by canals and rivers, all facing the Gulf of Finland. More than a dozen bridges join Peter’s disparate parts—Admiralty Island with its palaces and theaters, Hare Island with the Peter and Paul Fortress, Vasilevsky with the German Quarter and the stock exchange, Petersburg Island with its wooden houses and later its art nouveau mansions, the Vyborg side with its military barracks and later its factories. We were once, in 1611, simply a Swedish fortress—Nyenshants, which means Neva Redoubt—but it was Peter the Great in 1703 who decided to build on this spot a capital city. Here a new city shall be wrought. / Here we at Nature’s own behest / Shall break a window to the West. That’s Pushkin, from “The Bronze Horseman.” That, unlike the Lermontov, I read. Actually, Peter is a city neither Eastern nor Western, but both. It is European, like Paris, in its avenues, squares, parks, in its buildings of granite and marble, but unique in its long, low palaces reflected in the water, the rivers and canals that give the air its luminosity. When I dream of Peter I dream of light. Yes, the city is Western in design, but Eastern in its colors of brick red, mustard yellow, lime green, and cornflower blue, and Eastern, too, in the animals we kept like peasants in our courtyards by the great stacks of chopped wood—I myself, to have fresh milk, kept a cow at my mansion on Petersburg Island in 1907! And in the rooms, the private rooms, behind the granite classical façades, behind the pale, gilded salons, you will find the décor runs to patterned carpets, rich wall fabrics, the ubiquitous black or glazed tile Russian stove stoked from September to May, the polished silver or brass samovar full of scalding tea. We had no time to fully shed what was Eastern about us, for at Peter’s command the city was erected as swiftly as a stage set, within fifty years. Russians say Peter made his city in the sky and then lowered it to the ground, complete. But it was not Peter who made this city. Serfs and conscripts dug the foundations for it with their bare hands, carried off the dirt in their shirt fronts, hauled and stacked the marble, granite, slate, and sandstone. Two hundred thousand laborers died of exhaustion, of cold, and of disease transporting and erecting that stone, and we say the city is built on their bones, and on their bones is where the beau monde of Petersburg paraded each afternoon.
Yes, Petersburg started as a fortress and even in 1890 Petersburg was a military town; sixty thousand men were garrisoned there in vast barracks on Konnogvardeisky Boulevard behind the Horse Guards Ménage or at the western edge of the Champs de Mars or by the Winter Palace or the Alexander Nevsky Monastery or the Obvodny Canal or in the Vyborg District, and the city was colored by the greenish-gray uniforms of the Grenadiers, the white and silver of the Horse Guards, the crimson jackets of the Hussars, and the blue and gold of the Cossacks. These men and their officers were not in Peter just to train but also to play. The high social season began in January, sparked by the twelve balls given by the tsar at the Winter Palace. Court servants in green jackets and black feathered caps and soft leather gloves delivered thousands of cards stamped with gold double-headed eagles inviting the deliverees to the palace. Its great halls on those nights would be lit by ten thousand beeswax candles and garnished with pruned fruit trees in enormous pots and vases thick with pink roses, Parma violets, and white orchids sent north by train in heated cars from the warm Crimea, along with bowls full of fruit embossed with the tsar’s silhouette. Hundreds of troikas and carriages would clot the palace square, pulling close to the braziers, flames rising like red fountain spray to the black sky, their drivers carrying hot water bottles, sable blankets, and bottles of vodka—for even the blankets and braziers were not enough to keep these men warm. These balls went on until three o’clock in the morning, until the final polonaise. Too much vodka, though, while you waited for your master, and you felt overheated—if you tossed off your robe you might sleep your way to a frozen death. Although the square was shielded from the Gulf of Finland by the immensity of the palace itself, there are no words to explain the cold of a Petersburg winter. The lights from the palace lit up a white and black world—brittle ice and flakes and drifts of snow, the steaming black breath from the horses and the waiting men.
The season ended at Lent, after which society went to the country, to the islands outside Petersburg or to the Crimea at the Black Sea or to estates around Moscow, until the end of summer military maneuvers called them to the village of Krasnoye Selo near Peter, which boasted a great parade ground, around which the wooden villas of the officers lay like fringe. Ah, the lovely rhythm of those days. After maneuvers the court traveled to Europe, but by late August the ballet, the opera, the French theater had begun once again to adorn the stages, and their audiences eventually returned and began once again to adorn the blue velvet parterres and the loges to applaud the art we actors, dancers, musicians perfected just for them. During my time there were nineteen courts in Petersburg—the tsar’s, his mother’s, and seventeen grand ducal courts—several thousand people when one counted all the family members and courtiers; and these aristocrats along with the ambassadors and the Diplomatic Corps and the Guards and the occasional provincial nobleman came to the theaters every night during the season. You must remember we had no television, no radio, no cinema; Russian winter days are short, and there are many dark hours to fill. The Imperial Theaters produced plays, operas, operettas, concerts, and ballets, and of these performances at the Maryinsky, fifty were the ballet, and of those, forty performances were by subscription only. It fell to the director of the Imperial Theaters, Ivan Alexandrovich Vzevolozhsky, an aristocrat himself who could trace his lineage to Rurik and the princes of Smolensk, to supervise the production of all these amusements, and to Marius Petipa, the French dancer who had come to Petersburg in 1847 and clawed his way up to succeed St. Léon as ballet master of the Imperial Ballet, to create all the pas for them. He had help from the second ballet master, Lev Ivanov—who became a family friend and who loved my father’s meals, unfolding his linen napkin and saying, Let’s have a bite, but who never received the credit he deserved for his work, being a Russian in a Francophile court. M. Vzevolozhsky favored the Petersburg theaters over the Moscow ones, and why not? The court, after all, was here. At the Maryinsky one saw the same faces night after night. We were like family facing each other across the footlights, they very vocal relations, for the balletomanes would call out to us freely, Go, Mala, or More roles to Tata, to urge us to dance harder or to urge the directorate to reward exceptional talent. And, of course, there would be boos and hisses, as well. It was the court’s interest in the ballet that led eventually to the great Tchaikovsky’s composing for it and to the flowering of the art. Once I became famous, I delayed my return to the stage until later and later in the season, until the more prestigious months of December and January, as if I, too, were an aristocrat who had just returned from Europe to Peter. But that is ahead. At this moment I am still seventeen.
Alexander III on the day of my graduation had instructed me, Be the glory and the adornment of our ballet, and so I determined to be just that; and as I had chased first prize at my school, so I determined to chase the first prize outside of it: the tsarevich. I took so long with my toilette that April afternoon of my promenade I almost missed my chance to tag him. Now everyone has long, straight hair parted in the middle, a generation of girls who wear their hair like children in the nursery, but in 1890, we wore our hair tightly curled, wet it with sugar water and wrapped it around curling papers, spent hours pinning it to dry. I had a rivulet of bangs at the top of my forehead, tendrils fell before my ears, and that day I wore a ruffled blouse with a doubled length of brocade secured at the neck by a brooch, dabbed my violet scent behind my ears—for in 1890 each eau de cologne was made of just a single flower’s scent—and in this costume of a young lady, my school clothes packed away now, I walked the fashionable section of Nevsky Prospekt, where in the shops one could buy soft French gloves or Chinese tea or English soaps, past the site where Eliseyevsky’s would open in 1901, a shop so fancy it was hung with chandeliers and where one could buy the fruit and nuts of any region, to the Fontanka Canal, to the mustard-and-white façade of the Anichkov Palace where Niki’s family lived while in the capital, his father having eschewed the Winter Palace except for official receptions. The imperial family lived among us then—it was only later that Niki and his family secluded themselves so completely from Petersburg society that people forgot what they looked like. Right away I spied the tsarevich sitting on the balcony with his fifteen-year-old sister, Xenia, he smoking, of course, the two of them leaning forward in their chairs to look through the railings at the passersby. I slowed my pace, the better to be seen. Niki blew smoke from his mouth and nodded to me. I nodded back. He nodded at me again but he did not rise and approach the rails. What could I do but walk on?
So. That was our second encounter and it was not much. I understood from it that it would not be as easy for me as it had been for Princess Ekaterina Dolgorukaya, whose tsar lover did not cower behind balcony railings but instead boldly arranged to meet her again in the Summer Garden on those paths beneath the linden, and just as boldly ravished her one afternoon in the Babigon Pavilion at Peterhof on a beautiful July day, the Gulf of Finland glinting in the distance, heat and perfume everywhere, flower petals crushed between her fingers.
No. Those next few weeks I would ride around and around the city with the family’s Russian coachman I begged from my father. Not every family could afford its own coachman, especially a Russian coachman in his centuries-old costume who drove with his arms held out stiffly in front of him as if in balletic port de bras and who, as we plowed our way through the streets, shouted throatily at every other carriage, cart, and person in our way. Though I wanted to show him off, as well as myself, I might as well have stayed at home. For though I drove along the Morskaya, strolled Nevsky Prospekt, applauded the races at the Horse Ménage, even in a ridiculous act of desperation paced once again back and forth on Karavannaya Street across from the Anichkov Palace, the tsarevich took no notice of me at all. The stage for my seduction was not meant to be Petersburg, though I did not know this, but most unexpectedly the summer encampment at Krasnoye Selo in August.
The Imperial Guards of Petersburg and dozens of regiments from the provinces converged at Krasnoye Selo for summer maneuvers away from the Petersburg heat and swirling dust, 130,000 men in their pale canvas tents erected by the great parade ground along the Dudergov and Ligovka rivers. How the Romanovs loved their uniforms and their bugles and their horses! Niki’s great-grandfather Nicholas I would weep at the sight of a great group of uniformed soldiers. There were white tunics and scarlet, the long blue coats and gold belts of the Cossacks, the Golden Grenadiers in their gray coats and tall gilded helmets—each regiment with its own epaulets, ribbons, braids, crosses, medals, ornaments, hats. Some regiments wore papakhi of bleached lamb, other Cossack regiments wore dark wool; still other officers sported visored caps festooned with feathers and medallions. Until almost the end of his life, Nicholas fiddled with the uniforms of his regiments, adding a row of buttons here, another golden braid.
He had talent as an artist, you know, had been taught to handle pencils and watercolors by Kyril Lemokh, the curator of art in the Russian Museum of Alexander III. He drew landscapes. I saw a few. One sketch held no figures, only a tree, a field, a red dirt road glowing like brick in the sun; in another a small wooden boat had just been pushed off from the shore, and one could see a lone figure hunched on it, two men on the very edge of the land who must have shoved the boat off for their friend, the tall, tall grove of birch trees in the background dwarfing them all. They were pictures drawn by a boy who loved the natural world and who found in it a place where a tsar was not a giant but simply part of a larger whole. But Niki gave up painting, other than making sketches in his record book of the gifts he was given. And later in life, I suppose, uniforms became the paper he drew upon.
The big show on the vast plain at Krasnoye Selo shimmered in the late July heat, the waves of heat soothed into stillness only when they reached the woods and hills that marked the boundaries of the big grassy space, which served as stage for the precision marching, the smart turns and lunges with saber and bayonet. The elite of Petersburg society turned out for the Great Review, seated in stalls near a thatch of trees, the women wearing summer whites, their hats and parasols caught by the breeze, undulating like the leaves and catkins of the beech trees above them. The ministers of the court stood in their tails and top hats beneath tents on the Emperor’s Mound, and the tsar, the empress, and the grand dukes and duchesses inspected the troops from their horses and carriages, then joined the ministers to survey the rows and rows of men who filled the plain, marching in unison, flags held high. The next two wars Russia fought would be disastrous failures for her, leaving men like these and millions of others lying dead on the battlefields across Europe and Russia. But no one would have guessed this then.
No, that summer in 1892, at Krasnoye Selo these actors stood out on that great plain enacting battles they never lost.
This, however, was not theater enough. There must be evening entertainment, as well.
And so a wooden theater in the Russian style was built at Krasnoye Selo, a theater as big as the Mikhailovsky in Peter, a bright place of balconies hung with striped silk drapes and tasseled valances, and we artists performed there twice a week in July and the first part of August, when the grand dukes and the emperor and his family came to the camp, leaving behind their marble palaces to stay in their graceful wooden villas, with canvas awnings and wide verandas. In the evenings, all the theater artists stood at attention in the theater windows that overlooked the private imperial entrance to salute the imperial entourage as they disembarked from their landaus and troikas. The men wore their military regalia even to the theater. The grand dukes all sat in the first row; in the second and third ones sat their officers, with the ladies after and junior officers beyond, and in boxes opposite one another sat the tsar’s family and the families of the ministers of the court and the military. I used to spot my turns by all the medals and decorations shining on the men’s breasts.
The grand dukes and the emperor and the tsarevich always stopped by after lunch to chat with the dancers or to watch rehearsals, and they mounted the stage between the evening’s entertainments—a comedy first and a ballet divertissement second—to greet all the performers. Great beauty, which I did not possess, could shape one’s fate. And so I worked even harder to shape mine, with my pretty hands and my little feet and my lively conversation. Like my father, I have always been gay, with the gift to make those around me also so. And this was how Nicholas was finally drawn to me—by my charm. He would seek me out on that stage and stand in the sun to chat with me, showing his white teeth at my jokes, while I tried to hide my crooked ones. Sometimes I touched a button on his tunic or rose en pointe or made flying birds of my hands in my rapture at being so close to him. I had noted how Niki seemed most at ease around those who were merry, like us theater artists or like his rowdy cousins, the Mikhailovichi, or his fellow officers at camp, with whom Niki drank himself beyond drunkenness until they all played “the wolves,” which involved crawling naked in the grass, howling and biting one another, before drinking on all fours from vats of champagne and vodka their obliging servants hauled out for the young men’s pleasure. One afternoon, in my hurry to make sure I didn’t miss the chance for conversation before rehearsal, I ran onto the little stage right into the uniformed belly of the emperor, who took one look at my flushed face and said, You must have been flirting. But he was wrong. I was just eager to begin! My brief moments with the tsarevich at camp were more important to me than the evening’s show, and they were still all I had of him.
Yet it was not only with Nicholas that I chatted, for when else would so many Romanov men be assembled in a single place to which I had access? I attempted to charm every man with a title—who knew what use he might one day be for me?—including Grand Duke Vladimir, one of Niki’s many uncles, who served as minister of the Imperial Theaters and was a great lover of the arts. An old man, but a valuable one—no?—given his position. He would come sit in my dressing room and visit with me while I painted my lips red. He didn’t talk but rather boomed wherever he went, and his voice from his box could be heard all over the theater as he commented on the dancers. What? What is this? A sparrow? he cried when a young, thin girl appeared, poor thing, to perform a few spindly steps. Or he bellowed, Let us all go home, when the first-act curtain fell on a ballet he didn’t like. Vladimir believed he should be a tsar rather than a grand duke and he acted like a tsar, despite the birth order that put his brother Alexander on the throne. Vladimir’s wife, Miechen, the second-ranking woman in the empire, carried on like a tsaritsa herself. It was her annual Christmas bazaar in the Hall of Nobles which heralded Peter’s holiday season. The Empress Vladimir, Niki’s mother bitterly called her. The day the tsar’s train derailed in 1888, almost crushing the imperial family as they ate chocolate pudding in the dining car, was for Vladimir a day close to triumph. We shall never have such a chance again, Miechen whispered indiscreetly to her friends at court. At Krasnoye Selo, Vladimir gave me his photograph to keep in my dressing room. Yes, the imperial family signed photographs of themselves for their intimates the way cinema stars do for their fans today—and on mine Vladimir inscribed the words Bonjour, dushka, which meant little darling, and he sighed that he was too old for me.
He was too old for me, but Niki was not, and just when it appeared my impassioned twice-weekly flirting with Niki the Hussar before the chartered train hauled me the thirty versts back to Peter had utterly failed to have the desired effect, and when only one week remained of maneuvers, Niki suddenly asked me to wait for him in the alley behind the theater after a performance that August night. He wanted to double back from his villa after supper to take me for a ride in his troika. Need I spell out my answer? What had inspired this sudden and uncharacteristic boldness on his part? I had seen him watching me with special interest from the imperial box, which at this theater was designed to look like a Russian peasant’s hut. It must have been my costume that evening of tulle, the bodice embroidered with two great flowers that lay, one each, over my breasts. Or perhaps my little dance—for while the other girls had performed that night as a flock of birds or a school of fish, I had been given the adagio, the love duet, my hands laid tenderly on the forearms and shoulders of my cavalier. I remember Niki’s invitation gave me trouble tying the sash of my white summer frock as I readied myself in my dressing room that night, and my hair sprang away from my face like the wild wig of Dr. Coppelius. The covered walkway to the theater was deserted by the time I came out, most of the dancers having already boarded the train back home to the capital, and the theater itself had gone dark. A tiny pulse flicked at the base of my throat. What if he didn’t come for me? I would have to trudge to the villa where my older sister, Julia, also a dancer, visited with her beau and cry to her like a baby that I had missed the train. I went with some trepidation to the alley, where I stood alone, trying to smooth out everything about me, including my emotions, which were in a jumble. I waited. Before me the sandy yellow drive unwrapped itself, became dark and grainy, emptied into nothing. In the park and garden beyond the theater the summer insects made waves of sound, which crested and fell. Many are the stars in a Russian night, and here, fifteen miles from the capital, the sky made a plain well-furrowed with stars above the infertile, difficult earth below. Eventually I heard the bells of a troika and at the sound I was smart enough to feel a small moment of premonitory dread—on what journey was I now embarking and with what consequences? But I could not go back, would not go back. The troika appeared, the lanterns swinging from it shaking the stars from the sky and sticking them all around the tsarevich, who glowed like a saint on an iconostasis. He put out a hand with a grin and pulled me up onto the seat beside him for our wild ride, driving that troika across the parade grounds and through the small village, where all the streets and thoroughfares were empty, as if by decree. These streets, this village, these cities, Russia itself, one-sixth of the landmass of earth, belonged to him—or soon would—and when I was with him, it belonged to me, too. What was he showing off to me that night when he drove me across the plain, abducted me, as I later read in his journal—the countryside or himself?
It’s not easy to drive a troika, you know. Of the three horses only the middle one wears the reins, and it takes all the driver’s strength and skill to steer well. We Russians love speed, and Nicholas was flaunting his skill in the obstacle course of the village, on the dark mass of the parade ground. He wanted to impress me. He smiled at me without taking his flashing eyes from his horses, from the dusty yellow highway, sluiced down all through the day by barrels of water hauled from the Ligovka River on one-horse carts, wetted now by the evening dew. I was the one now too shy to look at him, though I peeked at him, sideways. The beauty in the family belonged to Niki—no pug nose and bulging eyes like his sister Xenia, no sunken cow face like his sister Olga. No photograph does justice to the balance and nobility of his face. And those eyes—no one who saw those pale blue eyes could forget them. But his eyes were more than tools of seduction. He used them to probe the soul. If I had the eyes of a fairy, he had the eyes of a god.
The country believed, you know, that its tsars were divine.
I ended up at the villa of my sister’s beau, Ali, after all, in the early hours of the morning. He shared the villa with his friend Schlitter, a fellow officer, and what an entrance I made there, on the arm of the tsarevich—not as the baby sister blubbering at having missed the train, but as Venus triumphant! The five of us had supper and laughed for hours, Schlitter pulling a long face and saying, No candle for God and no poker for the devil, as he was the only man without a woman, a sally that pleased me enormously as it meant the tsarevich made up a pair with me.
For a moment, anyway.
I heard in the early months of his winter marriage to Alix, Niki took her, too, on nighttime rides, on a sleigh skimming the streets of Petersburg and the ice of the Neva.
And what kind of wife would I have made him? Could I have stood his future—imprisonment and a martyr’s death?
I can assure you this: if I had been his wife, that would not have been his future.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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