Habent sua fata libelli, or What the Grand Duke Wrote.
by Hugh Fitzgerald (Oct. 2006)
Books have their dates, and books have their fates, and at a sale at the Library of Serendip I recently discovered a copy of Once A Grand Duke, published in 1931, a book of memoirs by Grand Duke Alexander of Russia. The title promised monarchical nostalgia of the Czarist court, along the possible lines of Madame Cantacuzene, the descendant of General Grant who married a Russian and ended up consorting with grand duchesses in St. Petersburg. And since Grand Duke Alexander Mihailovich’s claim on our attention was that at the time of his writing he was among the last living Romanovs, why would one think otherwise? Furthermore, the publisher was not some high-toned house of the period – Boni and Liveright, or Lippincott, or the new entry, Alfred A. Knopf, but instead humble Garden City Publishing (of unidentifiable Garden City, New York). And there was slight foxing on some of the pages. I was taking a chance.
The book did not disappoint.
It opens with a scene set in St. Petersburg, on December 14, 1825, after the death of Alexander, when Nicholas I became the Czar, and includes a useful disquisition on the Decembrists, those revolutionaries, including several of Pushkin’s schoolmates and fellow poets (Ryleev, Kuchelbecker), who inspired by liberal currents, wanted to end the Czarist despotism. The author writes sympathetically of these revolutionaries, distinguishing one from the other. This was not to be the usual droshky-under-the-porte-cochere set of memoirs. An attractive mind has appeared from which we may derive profit and pleasure – the mind of the author.
But I was still suspicious. When would Rasputin, that essential character in all Czarist court memoirs of the period, even more so in those that were written after Fulop-Miller’s sensationalistic tales of the Mad Monk appeared in the 1920s, finally make his appearance? When would the whole thing degenerate into what the Czarina said to Rasputin, what Rasputin said to the Czarina, and what cousin Nicky said to both? When would the causes of the Russian Revolution be attributed to Rasputin, and the Freemasons, and other conspiracies, rather than to the deep deficiencies of the Russian despotism, and of the current despot?
I needn’t have worried. In a book of 340 pages, Rasputin is mentioned on only six of them, quickly dealt with, briskly dismissed. And this was especially surprising, given that the man who killed Rasputin after a dinner at his house was none other than Prince Feliks Feliksovich Yusupoff, the son-in-law of Grand Duke Alexander himself, and that surely, by the time this memoir was written, Grand Duke Alexander might have caused a splash by offering the inside story on the plotting to kill Rasputin. Everyone and his brother was doing so, after all. In Paris, the unsavory Purishkevitch published “Comment j’ai tué Raspoutine” with the house of Povolotzky et Cie. But for Grand Duke Alexander, who was not out to make a splash but to record, for posterity, the truth of things, partly truths about himself, partly truths about his relatives, partly truths about Russia, Rasputin’s role was exaggerated:
“The figure of Rasputin captivated the imagination of the civilized world. Serious historians and prolific novelists wrote many a thick volume dedicated to the part played in the Russian debacle by that illiterate Siberian ‘moujik’ whose long black beard assumed devilish proportions under the pencil of cover designers.
The ‘truth about Rasputin’ is sufficiently simple. He rose to power because of another ‘sterling virtue’ of Nicholas II which stamped the character of the Czar as strongly as his unfortunate politeness. The Czar was a devoted husband and a loving father. He wanted to have a son. Four girls were born, one after another, within seven years of his marriage to Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt. It preyed on his mind. He all but reproached me for having had five sons within the same period of time. Unbelievable as it may sound, by friendship with the Empress suffered a slight setback on account of this difference in the sex of our children.
[Then the author proceeds to describe the arrival of a certain “Dr. Philippe,” a charlatan who “claimed to possess the power to influence the sex of an unborn child. He prescribed no medicines that could have been checked by the court physicians. His great secret consisted of a complicated series of ‘hypnotic passes,’ something akin to the modern theory of ‘twilight sleep.’”]
….Two years passed, On July 30, 1904, the Empress gave birth to the long awaited son, and he was named Alexis. The defeats on the Japanese front faded into insignificance next to this joyful event. At the age of three, while plying in the garden outside the palace, Alexis fell and started to bleed…..it was the dread ‘hemophilia,’ hereditary illness of all the male members of her father’s family for the past three hundred years…The stage was ready for the appearance of a miracle worker, and the two Montenegrin grand duchesses encountered no difficulty in persuading the Empress to receive Rasputin.
‘He is marvelous. He is a new saint. He cures all ills. He is a simple peasant from Siberia, but you know, Alix, God never entrusts His power to the spoiled children of sophistication.’
The contempt of Grand Duke Alexander for this naïve faith in the seeming naïve, the yurodivy from Siberia, Rasputin – is palpable. And no doubt he had to be destroyed, one way or another. But Rasputin does not play a central role here, as so many monarchical memoirists and sensationalizers of the period assigned to him. The mistakes were larger than the moral and intellectually disarray at court, and concerned the justified grievances, of tens of millions of people, and the passivity of the Czar, whose duty, as Grand Duke Alexander saw it, was to protect the people in whose name he presumed to rule. That the Czarina sought solace in the company, and hope in the assurances, of a cheap wonder-worker, was damaging to the Court’s image, but should not have been exaggerated:
“The rest of the Rasputin epic hardly needs telling. It is still open for discussion whether the absence of attacks of hemophilia merely coincided with his visits to the palace, or whether that scheming fakir successfully used mysterious methods known to the Mongolian medicine men of his native Siberia. As far as the Empress was concerned, he saved her son from death. Nicholas II despised Rasputin and took great exception to his repeated visits. Shortly before the war, Rasputin was obliged to leave for Siberia, where his former peasant mistress stabbed him and he nearly died. The attacks of hemophilia recurred! The Czarina cried and begged her husband to authorize the recall of the ‘savior of Alexis.’ Rasputin returned in triumph. This time he intended to extract considerable profit out of his curative powers. He concluded a business alliance with a group of unscrupulous adventurers. His letters of introduction signed in an appallingly illiterate hand made their appearance on the desks of high government officials and in the private offices of prominent bankers. The same society that demanded his blood a few years later invited Rasputin to its receptions and asked him for all sorts of favors.”
It was the son-in-law of the Grand Duke Alexander, Prince Felix Youssupoff, who is credited with the killing of Rasputin, a fact mentioned laconically. The Grand Duke has something else. This is mentioned, in passing, but the author has more important things to write about than the sensational pseudo-yurodivy from Siberia As one of the few in the royal family who listened to the “sound of time” (shum vremeni), Alexander recognized what was coming, even if he could not have predicted Lenin in a German-supplied railroad carriage, headed toward the Finland Station in St. Petersburg:
“On December 25, 1916, nine days after Rasputin was assassinated in the palace of my son-in-law, Prince Felix Yousoupoff, I sent the Czar a long letter predicting the revolution and demanding drastic changes in the ranks of the Government. My concluding paragraph read as follows:
‘Strange as it may sound, Nicky, we are witnessing the unbelievable spectacle of a revolution being promoted by the Government. Nobody else wants a revolution. Everybody realizes that the moment is too dangerous to afford the luxury of internal troubles, while there is a war to be fought and won,--everybody with the exception of your ministers. Their criminal actions, their indifference to the sufferings of the people, and their continuous lies, will force the people to revolt. I do not know whether you will take my advice or not, but I do want you to understand that the coming Russian Revolution of 1917 is a pure product of the efforts of your Government. For the first time in modern history, a revolution is being engineered not from below but from above, not by the people against their Government, but by the Government against the welfare of the people.’”
[A footnote on page 185 adds: “All my documents having been confiscated by the Bolsheviks during my imprisonment in Crimea, in 1918, I am quoting this and following letters from the book of Secret Imperial Papers published by the Soviet Government in Moscow in 1921.”]
He might have left it there, so that we could admire his perspicacity alone. But he adds evidence that similar predictions of the effects of misrule were made by three of his brothers:
“I was not alone in diagnosing the situation. Eight weeks before, on November 1, 1916, my eldest brother, Grand Duke Nicholas Michailovich, presented to the Czar a sixteen-page memorandum classifying the crimes committed by Stuermer, then the head of the Government.
On November 11, 1916, my other brother, Grand Duke George Michailovich, put on paper the impression so his visit to General Brussiloff, at that time commander of the armies of the southwestern front. ‘My dear Nicky,’ wrote George, ‘unless a new Government, responsible for its actions before the Parliament, is created within the next two weeks we are all headed for a debacle.’
On November 15, 1916, still another brother of mine, Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich, who had resided in London since 1891, joined his voice to the chorus of warnings: ‘I just came back from Buckingham Palace. Georgy” (familiar name for King George of England) ‘is very much upset over the political situation in Russia. The usually well-informed agents of the British Secret Service predict a revolution in the very near future. I sincerely hope, Nicky, you will fin dit possible to satisfy the just demands of our people before it is too late.’
‘What is it? Treachery or stupidity?’ exclaimed Professor Paul Milukoff, the popular leader of the liberal party, from the parliamentary tribune.
Alas, it was neither the one nor the other. It was something considerably deeper and extremely more dangerous: Nicholas II, Czar of all the Russias, commander-in-chief of fifteen million soldiers, maintained with all the fervor of a passive Christian that “’God’s wishes shall be fulfilled.’ I nearly swooned on hearing this stupefying formula.
'Who, in Heaven’s name, Nicky, has taught you this unique way of worshiping your God? Do you call it Christianity? No, Nicky, it sounds more like the Mohammedan fatalism of a Turkish soldier, who is not afraid of death because the wide-open gates of Paradise are awaiting his arrival in the Great Beyond. True Christianity, Nicky, means Action even more than it does Prayer. God entrusted to you the lives of one hundred and sixty million men, women, and children. God expects you not leave a stone unturned n order to improve their lot and assure their happiness….No warnings could have impressed him. He was walking toward the precipice thinking that such was the will of his God.”
Not only the Czar, but those who hated the Czar, and wanted to tear down the ancien régime coute que coute, are furiously attacked by the author:
“The anti-regime activities of the Russian aristocracy and intelligentsia could easily make a thick volume of ‘Boners,’ to be dedicated to the former Russian liberals now crying over the ‘good old days’ in the streets of Paris and New York, but the first prize for arrogant stupidity should be given to the Russian press of the period. A man’s achievements counted for nothing with the Russian newspapers unless his antagonism to the existing regime had been plainly expressed by him, both verbally and in writing. Scientists and musicians, actors and writers, painters and bridge builders were judged according to the intensity of their radical sentiments. I need not go further than quote the sad experience of philosopher Rosanoff, columnist Menshikoff and novelist Lesskoff.”
Here is how Grand Duke Alexander describes Rosanoff (Rozanov):
“As for Rosanoff, even the unique originality of his philosophy and his universally recognized genius did not save him from being ostracized by the newspapers, the magazines, the clubs and the literary associations. The voluminous “Rosanoffiania’—by now it has grown in to hundreds of volumes—began to appear only after his death, when the arrival of the Bolsheviks made all feuds of the past look supremely ridiculous. During his lifetime the man who had anticipated Freud by a whole generation was reduced to the writing of small pieces for Menshikoff’s paper. Shortly before the war, a prominent Russian publisher revolted at the sight of this talent being wasted in such an ignominious fashion and engaged Rosanoff to write under the pen-name of Varvarin for his well-known Moscow newspaper Russkoie Slovo. A delegation headed by Dimitry Merejkovsky (the author of Leonardo Da Vinci) called on the brave publisher and presented him withan ultimatum: he had to choose between them and Mr. Rosanoff-Varvarin.
‘But, gentlemen, gentlemen,’ begged the publisher, ‘surely, you cannot deny Rosanoff’s genius.’
‘We are not interested in his genius,’ replied the delegation. ‘Rosanoff is a reactionary and we cannot afford to work with him on the same newspaper.’
Mr. Merejkovsky is to be found at present in Paris, shedding tears of regret over the golden age of the Russian reactionaries and overburdened with admiration for the memory of the philosopher he deprived of a chance to earn a living.
In a delightful piece entitled ‘The Revolution and the Intelligentsia” and written immediately after the victory of the soviets, Rosanoff described the predicament of Mr. Merejkovsky and all other former Russian liberals in the following manner: ‘Having thoroughly enjoyed the gorgeous spectacle of the revolution, our intelligentsia prepared to don their fur-lined overcoats and return to their comfortable houses, but the overcoats were stolen and the houses burned.’”
His attacks on the Czar, or on the Czar’s misreading of the political situation, are remarkable not only because of their family relationship, but because he had often seen the Czar, been friendly with him. Grand Duke Alexander’s estate at Ay-Todor was next to the Czar’s palace at Livadia. Alexander and Xenia saw Nicholas and Alexandra frequently. Nor were those among the political opposition, whom he attacks so vigorously for their irresponsibility at a critical period of Russian history, distant from his own views, roughly those of an old-fashioned liberal, who wished for a constitutional monarchy in which the Duma would hold power. His memoir is not special pleading for one or the other. He could not stand stupidity, and there was plenty of stupidity to go round – otherwise the Bolsheviks would never have been able to take power.
In Russia, in the dozen years leading up to the Revolution of November 1917, Russian society became steadily unhinged. There was the year 1905, with its demonstrations and suppressions. There was the humiliating and unexpected defeat of Russian in the Russo-Japanese War. There was the withdrawal by the intelligentsia of support for the government, and in that government, a succession of would-be reformers and would-be reactionaries, of those who thought they could hold on without concessions and those who did not make the right kind of concessions, with names like Witte and Stolypin and Plehve, and then there were the events that scandalized, from the collapse of the stands at Khodynka, to the Czarina’s mad faith in the still-madder Rasputin. And finally there came World War I, with more than 12 million Russia men under arms, under-equipped, and often underclothed and underfed, and at times badly led. Yet, despite all that, the success of the Bolsheviks was still not inevitable.
In Iran, for half-a-dozen years, when the price of oil quadrupled and the Shah, and his court, and his country, received between 1973 and 1979 huge sums of money, that money helped to similarly unhinge the ancien regime presided over by the Shah. Though vainglorious and stupid and insufficiently ruthless, compared to Khomeini he was practically Winston Churchill. He wanted to transform Iran, and thought mere money could do it. He insisted that Iran would become the “second industrial power of Asia” and still worse, he appears to have believed his own prediction. He could not conceive that the village Islam of Khomeini, who had been in exile in distant France, could possibly prevail, and did not think his reforms were stoppable. But Islam did prevail, as will happen in a land full of Muslims. And Islam, in a Muslim land, can stop everything. And those reforms were stopped. Secular opponents of the corruption at court, often left-wing sympathizers with the line of Mossadegh, assumed until it was too late that they would use Khomeini. They could not conceive that the opposition based on Islam, that of often-illiterate villagers (they forgot about the audiocassettes with Khomeini’s fiery speeches, taped in France, distributed all over Iran) and of bazaris, could prevail. They soon realized that they were wrong. As in Russia, where as the Grand Duke notes, so many of the disaffected intelligentsia failed to realize how their attacks on the government weakened not only the particular monarch, but the entire structure of authority, and in so doing, prepared the country for the opportunistic infection of Bolshevism. The abandonment of the Russian government by the intelligentsia, that so infuriates the Grand Duke, is not unlike the abandonment of the Pahlevi reforms that among other things had led to great improvements in the position of non-Muslims in Iran. In both cases, dislike of corruption and misrule by a particular despot led to mistakes in judging the full malevolence and danger of what would follow. Both the resistible rise of Lenin (returning in that sealed wagon-lit supplied by the German General Staff) and that of Khomeini might, had Bolshevism been understood, or the real Islam, not taken place. Some things are nearly inevitable. But the establishment of the Bolshevik regime, and of the Islamic Republic of Iran, were not.
In Once a Grand Duke, a book full of interesting things, two passages particularly struck me.
One was about antisemitism. Grand Duke Alexander Michailovich might have shared, might have reflected, at least some of the attitudes commonly held, or believed to be held, in court circles. And Western assumptions and mental clichés about Czarist generals attending services at the Russian Cathedral on the rue Daru, and lamenting how Russia had been turned over by “the Jews and the freemasons” to the Bolsheviks, is undercut by the remarks of Grand Duke Alexander. He seems more in tune with Kerensky, Miliukov, Nabokov (father of the famous writer), and all those who took part in that important volume “Vekhi” (including a certain Kistiakowsky, father of the famous chemist), or in English "Landmarks," a book of essays by divers hands containing proposals for the reform of the Russian government and society, including the recognition of the rights of non-Russian minorities and full legal equality for Jews in the Empire.
Here is the Grand Duke on his resistance to antisemitism:
“Trying to be honest with myself I concluded that I was handicapped in my ‘mental operations’ by a terrific overproduction of hatred. Hatred for individuals and hatred for nations. I stood a fair chance of curing myself from the former: my animosity against individuals centered only on teachers, tutors and supervisors. But I felt helpless in the presence of the latter. It was not my fault that I hated the Jews, the Poles, the Swedes, the Germans, the British and the French. I blamed the Greek Orthodox Church and the monstrous doctrine of official patriotism—beaten into me by twelve years of study—for my inability to treat with friendliness all these nations that had never committed a crime against me personally.
Until I came into my first contact with the church, the word ‘Jew’ signified for me an old smiling man who delivered chickens, turkeys, ducks and other poultry at our palace in Tiflis. I felt a genuine sympathy for the kind expression of his wrinkled bearded face, and could not believe that he traced his ancestry straight to Judas. But my reverend teacher persisted in his daily descriptions of the sufferings of Christ! He played on my childish imagination and succeeded in making me see a murder and a torturer in every worshiper of Jehovah. My timid attempts at quoting the Sermon on the Mount were waved aside with impatience. “Yes, Christ did advise our loving our enemies,’ said Father Titoff, ‘but that should not affect our views of the Jews!’ Poor Father Titoff! In his clumsy provincial way he was merely imitating the preachings of his betters who were promoting anti-semitism for over eighteen centuries from the pulpits of the houses of God. The Catholics, the Episcopalians, the Methodist, the Baptists, all these supposedly Christian creeds and denominations have equally contributed to the despicable cause of fostering hatred, while the anti-Jewish legislation of Russia found its principal support among the high priests of the Greek Orthodox Church. In fact, the Jews began to suffer persecution in Russia only with the advent of the rulers whose blind obedience to the dictates of the church proved stronger than their understanding of the spirit of a great empire.
‘The Czar of Russia cannot divide his subjects into Gentiles and Jews,’ blue-penciled Nicholas I across a project prepared by the bishops and suggesting to limit the legitimate activities of the Russian Hebrew; ‘he defends his faithful subjects and he chastises the traitors. No other criterions should guide his decisions.’
Unfortunately for Russia, my grandfather’s capacity for ‘imperial thinking’ was not inherited by his successors, and my coming of age coincided with the introduction of cruel and dangerous measures inspired by the holy men of the Russian Synod.”
And still later, writing about the fateful year 1905, with the anti-government unrest spreading, led at times by such suspect figures as Father Sergei Gapon, who turned out to be an agent of the Czarist police, he notes:
“The orgies of the year of damnation 1905 continued in every-increasing tempo.
The end of October witnessed a series of Jewish pogroms which the very liberal Mr. Witte cared not to stop. A self-made Machiavelli, he imagined he would acquire the support of the extreme chauvinistic elements by letting a drunken mob of hoodlums destroy the shops and the houses of the Hebrew population. The man was both despicable and pitiful in his involvements.”
This is a surprising take on Count Witte, whose two volumes of Memoirs (Vospominaniya), published in the emigration in the 1920s, present him as a genuine liberal, which is what he wanted to be thought of (and of course, a peacemaker at Portsmouth), and so he has entered history. The view presented by Grand Duke Alexander, who had no reason to attack Witte as bidding for the “support of the extreme chauvinistic elements” offers a view new to me. One comes away thinking less of Witte, and a great deal more of one member of the Romanovs – the Grand Duke Alexander himself.
And in this volume in the Royal Library at Serendip, another passage endears the liberal-minded Alexander, to that Baratynskyan chitatel’ v potomstve, that future reader whose attention and intelligence he surely counted on. He is telling stories of his youth, and of how, as a young man, he went around the world on the ship Rynda, entrusted to the care of officers of the Russian Navy. The ship makes a long stop in Hong Kong. This Hong Kong is not today’s industrial-strength city, where grasping operatives of Morgan, Stanley and Goldman Sachs compete for business in China the local taipans compete skyscraping jostle one another here below, and deals are made that will reverberate in Shanghai, and Beijing, and as far west as distant Xinjiang, as far north as Manchuria and Siberia beyond. This is not even the Hong Kong of the movies, of British rulers in white well-bowling at the Kowloon Cricket Club in King’s Park, just off Coxs Road, and mysterious bankers named Kadoorie, and plump Chinese shop-owners, suitably inscrutable in their Buddha-like expressions and embonpoint, toting up sums for antique vases on a swan pan, and in the back of the bar -- not open to just anyone, in order to be let in you have to know the owner -- you enter through a beaded door into the den of opium-pipes and glassy-eyed men glimpsed through the haze and the honky-tonk sound of a piano. It is what gets put in the Hollywood hopper, for Shanghai Lil’, circa 1930.
No, now we are with the future Grand Duke Alexander and it is a half-century before, in the late 1880s, when the naval officers who have him in their charge begin to trade stories about women in every port, and then begin to wonder aloud if the young Alexander does not need, if not a lesson in love, at least a talk about women and, recognizing that the future Grand Duke needs a lesson in love, at least a lesson in lovemaking. And he is sent to the right address:
“A week more in Singapore would have made me desperately ill. I blessed my stars when a cable from the Minister of the Navy ordered our immediate departure for Hongkong. My twenty-first birthday falling on April 1, the ward-room seized gladly upon this occasion to stage a celebration. As a rule we did not drink much aboard the ship, but this time the officers felt duty bound to propose numerous toasts to me and my relatives. The conversation, as invariably happens in the company of healthy young men, gradually drifted toward women. My ‘guardian’ Eberling spoke at great length of his new conquests in Rio and Singapore; the second lieutenant praised the rustic charms of the South African Dutch’ the eight sub-lieutenants modestly admitted having been treated quite well so far in all parts of the globe. Then everybody turned toward me. The fact of my innocence worried our wardroom considerably. They had dwelt upon it since the moment we left Russia, but now that I was twenty-one, it just did not seem possible! They found it both unnatural and extremely dangerous for my health. I had never been a hypocrite or a prude; I simply could not get accustomed to their manner of discussing such intimate subjects. This attitude of mine increased their determination, and all during our crossing from Singapore to Hongkong they talked of nothing else except the beautiful women of that city.
Eberling said he felt sorry for me:
‘If you only knew what you are missing! What good is life without women? Now listen, I want to give you some sound advice, and I wish you would take it. After all, I am so much older than you are. You must meet women in Hongkong. I understand, you resented Singapore, and I appreciate that there were other interfering circumstances in Rio, but Hongkong! The women of Hongkong! The American girls!” He kissed his fingers with gusto. ‘The best in the world! Nothing like it! Why, I wouldn’t exchange on American girl that lives in Hongkong for a thousand Parisian hussies. Please, do be reasonable and listen to me. I know a place in Hongkong where there are three of the nicest American girls. You understand, I would not think of taking you to one of those cheap five-a-day places. The one I have in mind is a very homelike apartment. Now, let me see, there was Betty. Yes, her name must have been Betty unless I am mixing her with a girl I knew in Shanghai. In ay event, it’s a tall, blue-eyed blonde. Exquisite!
Then there was Joan, dark hair and green eyes. You’d be crazy about Joan,but wait, don’t get crazy as yet, the best is only coming. Patsy! A girl of about five-feet-five, with a skin like…Well, what shall I compare her skin with? It’s not exactly white, it’s rather ivory. And the figure…The figure! Have you ever seen in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg the statue of that, what do you call her?…”
Whichever statue Eberling meant—his knowledge of the Hermitage sculpture proved to be frightfully vague—my peace of mind was completely shattered. No boy of my age could have withstood the concentrated attack of the wardroom tempters. On the eve of our landing in Hongkong I gave in and consented to join in a “real party”!
On entering the apartment, where I was escorted by two of our officers, I was pleasantly surprised by the absence of the vulgarity one expects to encounter in such places. The rooms were furnished with a great deal of taste; the three hostesses were pretty and wore clothes of subdued elegance. The French would have called them ‘demi-mondaines,’ which is rather a far cry from the plain representatives of the oldest profession in the world, and which suggests a certain Du-Barryism of manner and policies. The after-armistice onrush of the crude gold-diggers dealt them a deadly blow but the late eighties saw them at their best.
Champagne was served and we began to chat. All three spoke in well-modulated voices. They discussed the current topics freely and amusingly; possessing a natural wit, they did not need the aid of profanity. The purpose of our call being perfectly obvious, a moment arrived when I was left alone with the prettiest of the three. She suggested she would show me her room. The inevitable happened.
Beginning with that evening we became friends. I felt no hesitation in taking her out to the restaurants and for long drives up the Pique from where we viewed the panorama of Hongkong. She behaved beautifully, a great deal better than the majority of the so-called ‘society ladies’ belonging to the smart European set in China. Gradually she told me her story. She accused nobody. She did not complain. The spirit of adventure brought her from her native San Francisco to the Far East; the irresistible desire to possess ‘nice things’ took care of the rest. It was life: one won or one lost, but one had to get hold of some chips to enter the game. She spoke of men without bitterness. Sober brutes, drunken angels, plain cads, big-hearted blackguards. It all depended on luck. She admired the passing show of the world, although she knew she had been run over by its bandwagon. Nothing at all could have been done to change her position.
It is impossible to enumerate all the nuances of love; no doubt, quite a few of them are fostered by pity. I felt considerable pangs of grief when I had to leave for Japan, and we kept up a correspondence for a year or so. Each time the Rynda returned to Hongkong, I hurried the rickshaw to the familiar house. When I revisited the Far East in 1890, her friends told me she had died of tuberculosis.”
That is how the Grand Duke comments, nearly a half-century later, on his youthful love affair with an American prostitute in Hongkong. One can compare the delicacy and tact of what he writes, his moral pitch, with that of literary clichés about the prostitute with a heart of gold (in Dostoyevsky, for example), or what lessons can be drawn from the fate of fallen women. Alexander Mikhailovich chose to remember her, and to endow her with a tender specificity, when he might easily have omitted the story altogether, and no doubt, in 1931, there would be those either shocked or, still worse, who would pretend to be shocked, by his unexpected stance. Imagine the Babbitts of today. Imagine how the flim-flam man Bill Clinton would pass over or ruefully distance himself from “that woman” Monica Lewinsky, or how upright George Bush would overlook Ms. Fitzgerald, or how Eisenhower, in his own memoir, forgot to mention Kate Summersby. And we all know how the members of Congress do, or would if they could, retouch their official biographical photographs, unless caught in the Gary-Hart manner, in which case things have to be otherwise explained away, “help sought,” twelve-step-programs in something or other be enrolled in, and so on and so conveniently and transparently forth.
Grand Duke Alexander cannot be taken to represent the Romanovs, Russia, or anyone or anything -- except himself. Piercingly critical, even scathing, about so many things that he had to endure – Rasputin, the courtiers, the succession of self-serving prime ministers, whether reactionary or liberal, the foibles of ‘Nicky,’ the members of the Russian press and intelligentsia who in the Grand Duke’s view, through inadvertence eased the way for the Bolshevist takeover. He was keen on the subject of that dangerous pathological condition, antisemitism. Toward the American fallen woman, as she might have been seen, he showed understanding, unsentimental pity, and tenderness.
His book lay among other neglected and forlorn items, on the last day of a library sale, when everything good has already been taken. I bought it to rescue it from the trash dump. It rescued me – from tedium vitae, for a few hours. The book had a long finish. Suppose I hadn’t read it, hadn’t brought it to your attention. At a certain point, books cease to exist. Sounds of one hand clapping, things like that. It takes two to tangle: the author and the reader. No readers, and the author might just as well never have written. I hope, and suspect, that someone reading this little report will order that book on-line, or seek it out in one of the last remaining used book stores in the neighborhood or city. If no one were any longer to read such a book, or if, having read it, were never to tell others, that book would no longer exist. That is why excerpts are offered here. Someone, reading those excerpts, is going to order “Once A Grand Duke” or its successor, “Always a Grand Duke,” and will read one of them, or both, and not regret it. That is the point.
There is one other point. Not a big point. But a point. Hidden and unbidden, princes of Serendip perform their secret ministry. They even leap into Lethe and bring many not-waving-but-drowning books to the safety of the strand. They could use help. Let’s start by putting that metaphor back on dry land:
Books fall by the wayside. Pick them up.
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