Thursday, December 27, 2018

DAY 26: A Russian Imperial Christmas

Lord Randolph Churchill was in political disfavor in December 1887, having impetuously resigned his Cabinet posts in Lord Salisbury's government the previous year. From restlessness and a probable desire to get out of England during the dispiriting winter months, he decided to travel to Russia for Christmas--and unusually, he took Jennie with him.

The trip alarmed Queen Victoria, who viewed Randolph with intense suspicion. She assumed he would seize his chance to interfere in Crown and Government policy toward Russia. She instructed her prime minister, Salisbury, to inform all foreign European governments as well as the British public that Lord Randolph "is going simply on a private journey, in no way charged with any message or mission from the Government..." To her son, Bertie, the Prince of Wales, she wrote: "I cannot, I own, understand your high opinion of a man who is clever, undoubtedly, but who is devoid of all principle, who holds the most insular and dangerous doctrines on foreign affairs, who is very impulsive, and utterly unreliable....Pray don't correspond with him, for he really is not to be trusted and is very indiscreet, and his power and talents are greatly overrated."

Minnie (L) and Alix in matching winter gowns

Bertie disagreed. He thought his mother was wildly overreacting. He persuaded his wife, Princess Alix, to give Jennie Churchill a letter of introduction to Alix's sister, Minnie--who was now the Czarina of Russia, Empress Maria Feodorovna. 

The letter opened every possible door to the Churchills at the very summit of Imperial society. Jennie reveled in the varied scenes the trip offered, setting down her observations in long letters to her sisters and sons. Her reporting would later become the basis of a magazine article and further developed as part of her memoirs.

To live for months every year, buried in that cold, monotonous silence, is quite enough, I should imagine, to account for the vein of sadness which seems to be the basis of the Russian character, and which betrays itself in all Russian music and painting...

Jennie would, of course, respond first to music and painting.
Great Gatchina Palace

The Churchills met Czar Alexander III and Maria Feodorovna in the Great Gatchina Palace, roughly an hour by train outside of St. Petersburg. The Czar took the opportunity to inform Randolph that the Dardanelles were Russian turf, and that his Government would do well to stay far away from the Black Sea. Randolph naturally reported this conversation to the Prince of Wales, which alarmed Queen Victoria.

Dagmar of Denmark, later Empress Maria
Feodorovna of Russia

Jennie toured the palace with Minnie, and privately marveled that despite the hundreds of rooms, the imperial couple preferred to spend much of their time in one large hall filled with comfortable chairs and writing tables, scattered with their children's toys, even dining there informally. But their tastes were the simplest, and the Czar particularly affected tiny rooms, though they were much at variance with his towering frame and majestic bearing, Jennie wrote.

watercolor by Edward Gau of Alexander III's study at Gatchina

What Jennie may not have understood was that Alexander III, taking power after his father's assassination in 1881, was profoundly mistrustful of his own subjects--and preferred the isolation of Gatchina to the more public and exposed Winter Palace at St. Petersburg, where he had grown up. Alexander and Minnie's son, the eventual Nicholas II, would grow even further isolated from everyday Russians and would in turn be assassinated in 1917 with his entire family.

Sleighing in St. Petersburg
After a period of holiday celebration in St. Petersburg, when Jennie skated on the frozen Neva and traveled about the city by sleigh, the Churchills were invited back to Gatchina over New Year's Eve--traveling in a private train with 150 other guests. They were treated to an evening of one-act plays, each in a different language, followed by supper. Jennie was seated near Minnie so that the two could converse. The next morning, the Imperial Court assembled for a formal reception to greet the New Year.

Jennie's perceptions of Moscow are particularly vivid: ...the narrow streets filled with a motley crowd of fur-clad people, the markets with their frozen fish or blocks of milk, from which slabs would be chopped off, and carcasses of beasts propped up in rows against the stalls....The temperature was some twenty degrees below zero, and Jennie observed that upperclass Russian women rarely went outdoors. She found them highly educated, as a result--their time being spent in extensive reading and the mastery of languages. It was, however, a matter of surprise to me that women eminently fitted by nature and education to influence and help those struggling in the higher vocations of life, should have seemingly but one ambition, to efface themselves, to attract no attention, to rouse no jealousies, she wrote.

Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow
The Churchills attended the opera with the Governor-General of Moscow, Prince Dolgoroukoff, an elderly man who had run the city for two decades. Later, Jennie discovered he had ordered all beggars off the streets of Moscow so that the Churchills would not be annoyed by them; and he had deployed a pair of detectives to follow Jennie and Randolph everywhere they went--to ensure their personal security. The Moscow visit concluded with a dinner for six hundred in the Churchills' honor, at the British Embassy.

Winston and Jack spent that Christmas with their grandmother Fanny, the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough, at Blenheim. The boys' nanny, Everest, had contracted diptheria, and the Duchess was effectively keeping the young Churchills in quarantine at Woodstock. She wrote to Randolph that she was relieved when Winston returned to school--because he was a "handful," and used "bad language" she thought was harmful to Jack!

For more images from THAT CHURCHILL WOMAN, visit the  Pinterest board behind the novel. 

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