Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, November 3, 2022

Eyewitness to War & Revolution, Part 1 of 4

Editor's comment: This is the first of four excerpts from the recently published book Four Thirds of Our Life, the autobiography of Nina Alekseevna Krivosheina. Krivosheina lived through revolution and the two world wars that enflamed Russia and Europe in the 20th century. The volume was translated and annotated [with notes in brackets] by our Assistant Editor Kimball Worcester. The series will be presented each Thursday in November 2022. MH

1.  Wartime Work

Translator's comment: Nina Alekseevna Meshcherskaya (b. 1895) is the younger daughter of the prominent Russian industrialist Aleksei Pavlovich Meshcherskii, who produced transportation steam engines (see Roads "The Russian Ford"). During the war, the family lived in Petrograd, with some time spent also in Tsarskoe Selo, where this excerpt takes place in 1916.  KW

I was assigned to one of the workrooms, as the places then were called, where volunteers assembled packages of knitted goods or presents for the field army. These workrooms were run by some high-society organization or a noblewoman, and for the most part it was young ladies from high society or families connected to these organizations who worked there. Although my parents (indeed our whole family) were quite far from court and hadn’t striven to any connections with court circles, there were still some ties to that world. After all, the break between the so-called bourgeois and court worlds didn’t yet exist. . .

The Catherine Palace from the Garden

In 1916 we spent the whole summer, until September, in Tsarskoye Selo, in a very large dacha on the road that led to Pavlovsk . . . As it turned out, Princess Putyatina was in charge of a workroom in the Catherine Palace where they made up packages and gifts for our “heroes in grey.” [This usually referred to firefighters before the war, but likely she is here referring to soldiers.] She proposed to Mama that I come work in the workroom every day from four to six in the evening. I wasn’t too keen on this, but hanging about all day alone in the garden was worse, so we quickly sewed a white robe from some fine batiste, and on 15 June I went to work at the workroom. 

To enter, one had to cross the huge square in front of the palace. I arrived right on time and Princess Putyatina, waiting in the vestibule, led me to a larger area—the door opened directly from this vestibule. There stood two long tables, rather far apart from each other, and on them were laid out large cardboard boxes of gauze, some scissors and thread. Soon all the young ladies who worked there turned up. There were about fifty of us. Princess Putyatina showed me to a chair and went off to a different table. We started work exactly at four o’clock. We cut up the gauze and rolled it into bandages. This business seemed quite mad—picking rags like a grandmother in the Turkish War? After all, there did exist hand-held machines for cutting bandages. Get two or three, no more, and in two hours a few people could cut and wind endless bandages, but making up the packages had to be done by hand, of course. The absurdity of this work amazed me—even though it wasn’t exactly the era of complicated machines and computers. Nevertheless, I was the daughter of a prominent engineer, who spent her childhood in a factory amidst the noise of machinery, the same ones that, as has been posited, bring happiness to humanity. 

The girls chattered loudly, laughing, everyone in tailored white robes. In general, it wasn’t boring, but it rankled me that there was almost no Russian to be heard—they spoke French, English, and—surprisingly—German! Next to me, left and right, the chairs remained empty, also those opposite me. Apparently, someone hadn’t shown up or had taken ill. 

At precisely four-thirty, two liveried servants began bringing trays of tea. The tea was hot and sweet, served in exquisite porcelain cups, accompanied by a small dish with two buns from the royal bakery. These buns were unforgettable, given their lightness and taste. After about ten minutes the tea service was deftly and discreetly taken away, the clock on the wall struck five, and at the same minute the door to the vestibule opened crisply and one of the liveried giants impressively declaimed with a distinctive voice,

“The duchesses approach!”* Absolute silence reigned, and through the door from the vestibule they entered in single file, the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatyana, Mariya, and Anastasiya. Of course, everyone stood up. The grand duchesses began walking around the tables, greeting everyone with a handshake, and we made a small curtsy. Then Olga came farther into the room and sat at the head of the second table, but Tatyana sat opposite me, with Mariya on my left and Anastasiya on my right, and I suddenly seemed to be in a “royal triangle.” 

Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatyana Knitting for the Troops


*(Author's footnote: In the palace the grand duchesses were spoken of as “duchesses” not “princesses” to distinguish them from other princesses who might be there, so no one would confuse them.) [The word for a royal princess is knyaginya, whereas a noble princess is knyazhnya, from the same root word but signifying different ranks. The term in Russian for a royal princess is “grand (or great) princess” and is traditionally translated into English as “grand duchess.” Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna was born in 1895, Tatyana in 1897, Mariya in 1899, and Anastasiya in 1901. Their brother, the Tsarevich Aleksei, was born in 1904. All five were executed in July 1918.]


The grand duchesses painstakingly took on the work with gauze and bandages, while all fifty young ladies fell silent and devoted themselves to the work—silence reigned, complete and undisturbed; it was, of course, impossible to speak in the presence of the grand duchesses, and to address them directly was forbidden by ancient court etiquette. So both tables were silent, everyone, including Princess Putyatina and her son Alik—and a whole hour passed in this painful quiet. The clock again struck: six o’clock. First the Grand Duchess Olga stood up and bowed to those seated at her table with a nod of her head. Everyone stood up and made a light curtsy. Olga approached our table, and at that moment her sisters rose. Everyone at our table stood up at the same time and curtsied, and the Grand Duchesses Tatyana, Mariya, and Anastasiya bowed slightly to us. The door to the vestibule seemed to open itself, and they followed their elder sister, not hurrying, disappearing somehow unnoticed through the open door. A minute passed, less, and the workroom broke into conversation and laughter. We moved the chairs, covered the boxes on the table, gathered the scissors, and within five minutes the workroom emptied, the work finished. 

For a whole two months I went every day after lunch to work in the workroom, life offering me nothing else during this time. My sister left every morning for the city to work in the surgical department of an infirmary for the seriously wounded run by the Holy Synod and returned to Tsarskoe Selo around seven in the evening. After lunch, my mother went immediately in a car to her infirmary, somewhere near Tsarskoe Selo, and I remained at the dacha by myself. Our English governess was living with us then, as a retired servant, of course. I spent day and night in the despair that hadn’t left me for one minute after the destruction of my plans, when the project of marriage [to the composer Sergei Prokofiev] and travel to Italy fell apart in the winter of 1915. 

I went diligently to the workroom, got somewhat used to it, rolled the bandages no worse than the others did, befriended someone, and carried on some pleasant banter, mostly, though, in Russian—it seemed more appropriate during this harsh war. I really enjoyed the tea ceremony: after all, they didn’t have to treat us to this tea—we could’ve just gone home and had tea there! It was delicious and, what’s more, so exotic to have tea in the Catherine Palace! Along with everyone, right at five o’clock, I fell silent, stood up, made the now usual curtsy, and sat down comfortably so as to barely stir for the entire hour. 

Given the power of the most basic manners, it was difficult for me to look at my neighbors, Grand Duchesses Mariya and Anastasiya—I couldn’t turn my head and stare at them. As soon as I lifted my eyes, my gaze met the Grand Duchess Tatyana, and it was difficult to tear it away from her, she was so endearing and attractive! The strong principle instilled in us since childhood by our English “Miss” was “Child, don’t stare!” I applied this principle poorly, although, of course, I didn’t “stare,” but I did cheat a bit and looked about as if I was searching for a bandage or scissors. I won’t try to describe her, since any portrait is usually inadequate. After all, there are many photographs from precisely that period. Best of all, I could see her hands on the table, and they were beautiful. On her right arm was a heavy gold bracelet with a large Ural sapphire in the center and a similar ring—that winter I gave just such a ring and bracelet to my sister. She loved them and wore them all the time. Gold jewelry like that was very much in fashion at the time and was quite ornate. It wasn’t done for young ladies to wear precious stones, but semi-precious was completely acceptable. In short, if much remained uncommunicated, then at least this bracelet and ring were familiar and made some sense, and I so wanted to tell the grand duchess that my sister had the same ring and bracelet…

In the course of two months this silent ritual of bandage rolling was broken only once. On that day, a door opened in the opposite corner, behind the other table at the head of which sat Grand Duchess Olga, and Alik Putyatin rolled in a large wheelchair, in which sat the lady-in-waiting Orbeliana. All the grand duchesses jumped from their chairs. Of course, we also stood up, and the grand duchesses approached the lady-in-waiting, one after the other curtseying deeply to her and kissing her hand. Olga and Tatyana responded briefly to her questions. They spoke in French, and although they had been only a short distance from me [before], this was the first time I heard their voices. The conversation was conducted very quietly. After two or three minutes, Alik returned with the invalid chair and took the lady-in-waiting Orbeliana into the Catherine Palace. There were no living quarters there, so she had arrived in her invalid chair from somewhere else and Alik had just met her at the entrance to the park. 

There was one other time: Grand Duchess Anastasiya (she then looked such a young girl, her hair down her back and a fringe on her forehead) suddenly bumped my leg under the table and, turning to me, very sweetly burst out about her clumsiness in French, “Oh! je vous en prie, excusez-moi” [Please excuse me!], to which I automatically answered, without adding “Your Highness,” —“Oh! mais ce n’est vraiment rien.” [It’s really nothing.]

I knew that sometimes the empress visited the workroom in the Catherine Palace, and it was already two months since I started going there every day. Even though it felt like I had gotten used to everything there, the unnatural silence still didn’t seem any more understandable. Just the opposite—the question became all the more compelling: why were they forbidden to talk with us? Even about the most ordinary things? Sometimes I wanted to talk about it with some of the other young ladies—what it seemed like to them, normal or not? But I never did, and I regret it to this day. Sometimes it seemed to me that for them it was understandable, while it wasn’t for me. In a word, a grievance of some sort had developed, and as I later found out, it wasn’t against me alone. [Presumably she is referring to the isolation created by the empress for her immediate family. She disliked and distrusted the nobility and much of the court, in part because of the opposition many of them had toward Rasputin.]

On the day that turned out to be the last day of my attendance at the Catherine Palace workroom, a friend of mine named Katya (I’ve forgotten her surname) reported to me that after a long absence, the empress was to visit the workroom the following day. “Well, how does one make a deep curtsy and kiss her hand around a chair? It’ll be very awkward.” “Not at all,” said Katya, “just back away from the chair a little, and it’ll be fine.” [The empress also rode in an invalid chair quite often.]

I went home and along the way made a firm decision. In the evening, as soon as my mother returned from her infirmary, I went to her room and announced that I wasn’t going to the workroom the next day, since the empress would be there, and I would have to kiss her hand. I wasn’t prepared to do that. It was so unexpected that Mama was dumbstruck; she tried to persuade me, but mainly she had one question—why? why? I was silent, frowning, and finally exclaimed, “She’s a German! I don’t want to kiss her hand, and I won’t!”

Was I such a patriot or had I acquired revolutionary or socialist thoughts? To understand this, one has to go back to the atmosphere of those days, full of rumors, whispers, gossip about “Grishka.” [Grigorii Rasputin] and about “the German woman” [Empress Aleksandra, born a German princess of Hesse, also a granddaughter of Queen Victoria.] It was just six months before the February revolution, when, in fact, everything was already ended, beyond recovery—but we didn’t know that yet. We only sensed that we were on the edge of a precipice. . .

Mama sent a note, or telephoned, to Princess Putyatina to say I had unexpectedly taken ill. In the middle of August, we went to Kislovodsk, to the Ganeshin sanatorium. 

When we got back to Petersburg (I hate Petrograd; St. Petersburg would’ve been so much better then!), I began working right away at a different workroom, specifically, in the Marble Palace, where the Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich (the poet K.R., grandson of Tsar Nikolai I) lived with his large family. [The Marble Palace was built over the years 1768 to 1785, a gift to Catherine the Great from Count Orlov.] In charge of this workroom was Natalya Ivanovna Sergeeva, the wife of the Russian ambassador to Sweden, then to Serbia. . . Everything was different in the Marble Palace, which was on the Embankment. There were nineteen of us working in the splendid drawing room on the second floor, with Natalya Ivanovna herself supervising us—a stern and solid lady—and we worked in earnest. At one table all the bandaging materials were prepared, but, of course, the bandages weren’t rolled by hand. Everything was done with a special machine. At another table, things were packed up, very tasteful and tidy gift-packets. We had to learn this. No tea was served, alas, and it didn’t enter anyone’s head to skip out on the dot of five. Whatever work needing doing, we did—wartime!

One day in December, when Natalya Ivanovna was in the workroom, the door to the room suddenly burst open, and in ran Princess Elena Petrovna—the wife of Prince Ioann Konstantinovich and daughter of the late Serbian king Peter I (Karageorgevich), sister of the future Yugoslav king, Aleksandr. She was sobbing loudly, wringing her hands, and shrieking. She addressed Natalya Ivanovna (who of course knew her well, as she had been the wife of the Russian ambassador in Belgrade at the beginning of the war): “Oh! Mon Dieu! C’est fini! C’est fini! Il ne les a pas resus, il n’a pas voulu…C’est la fin! C’est la fin! nous sommes perdus!” [My God! It’s over, it’s over! He didn’t receive them, he didn’t want to… It’s the end, it’s the end! We’re lost!] And she put her head on Natalya Ivanovna’s shoulder, without restraint or embarrassment, and poured with tears, from time to time uttering in short bursts, “C’est atroce! C’est atroce!” [It’s an atrocity! It’s an atrocity!]

All nineteen of us girls stood like stone. Finally, Natalya Ivanovna remembered us and signaled to us to go silently to the door, saying in a calm, quiet voice, “Girls, finish your work and go. Go until tomorrow.”

All this was long ago, and the details are well known, but on 17 December, Rasputin was murdered. This was a time of open condemnation, rumor, gossip, hearsay, endless versions of the ugly, bungled murder in another palace—the Yusupov Palace on the Moika. [Nina Alekseevna gives the date in Old Style. It was 30 December, New Style.]

Continued next Thursday, 10 November 2022, with Nina Alekseevna's account of the February Revolution.


The four articles in this series are excerpts from the forthcoming volume Four Thirds of Our Life, the autobiography of Nina Alekseevna Krivosheina.

Four Thirds of Our Life is available now in hardcover at  and is coming soon in paperback at Amazon.

1 comment:

  1. What an usual perspective on the war. That bit of patriotism is so telling.
    I would like to read more of this.