Mrs. Breckinridge, Mr. Romanoff

Invitation, Diplomatic Corp to meet Emperor, January 1, 1895
(Container 851, Breckinridge Family Papers, Library of Congress)

In her previous letter to a mysterious correspondent (Letter to ?/Missing page 1, January 19, 1895), KCB said “we have also been presented to the Emperor and Empress, whom we like very much.” But it wasn’t until her letter to her niece (Letter from Loving Aunt KCB to Pet, January 22, 1895) that KCB gets into the details of their official presentation at court.

This is one of all-time favorite letters. I loved it so much that I named a chapter of my thesis after it.

In Chapter 4 of my thesis entitled “Mrs. Breckinridge, Mr. Romanoff,” here is what I wrote

In late January 1895, the Tsar and Tsarina received the Diplomatic Corps for their first formal presentation.  Members of the Corps arrived at Gatchina, the Imperial Palace southeast of Saint Petersburg and the primary residence of Alexander III.  Once inside the Palace, the Imperial staff separated the men from their wives, which Breckinridge explained was a common custom in the Imperial court.  The Imperial “Master of Ceremonies” arranged the men and women in separate lines by rank, another custom of the Imperial court.  After the Tsar and Tsarina entered the room and bowed formally to the dignitaries, the Tsar moved down the line of gentlemen and spoke to each diplomat briefly.  At the same time, the Tsarina moved down the line of ladies.  The Master of Ceremonies accompanied the Tsar and formally introduced each gentleman, while Countess Montebello, the wife of the French Ambassador, accompanied the Tsarina.  The royal couple shook hands with each person and engaged each in a short conversation.

Breckinridge recalled the Tsarina’s manner and the nervousness the Tsar and Tsarina conveyed.  She wrote,

when each one was introduced she made a very low courtesy and shook hands.  And of course we had to wait for her to speak.  It must have been awfully hard for her to start a conversation with so many people, but I suppose she could say the same to each.  But she looked very much ambaressed (sic) and the Emperor also seemed nervous.  They both spoke in very low voices.

Breckinridge wrote her niece that the Tsarina spoke English to her and asked how long the Breckinridges had been in Russia.  The Tsarina then asked Breckinridge if she liked Russia and Breckinridge responded she was “greatly interested” and thought she would enjoy her stay.  Alexandra asked Breckinridge, “you are a long way from home.  Don’t you get lonely?”  Breckinridge told Alexandra, “I felt the great distance between me and my friends and missed them but I hoped to have friends here also.”

After the Tsarina finished her introductions with the ladies and the Tsar finished his introductions with the gentlemen, the royal couple switched and began the process again.  The Master of Ceremonies did not accompany the Tsar as he went down the line of ladies and Breckinridge commented, “he got on all right till he got to me.”  Breckinridge explained

. . . he evidently could not place me.  He looked at me an instant and then looked around for somebody to introduce him and there wasn’t anybody and he looked at me again, and I wanted very much to say “Mrs. Breckinridge, Mr. Romanoff,” but I didn’t dare, then a brilliant idea struck him and he marched back to the head of the room and got the G. M. of C. [Grand Master of Ceremonies] and I was properly presented.

In this letter, Breckinridge illustrated the difference between the world of the Imperial Court and the world of the American democracy.  In the United States, Katherine Breckinridge would simply introduce herself to the President and extend her hand to shake his because of the Breckinridges’ personal relationship with President Cleveland and his wife, Frances.  In Imperial Russia, an act of informality such as the one Breckinridge described running through her mind would have been an affront to the Tsar and the Imperial Court.

After the formal introduction, the Tsar spoke to Breckinridge in French and she responded, “unfortunately I speak very little French.”  The Master of Ceremonies informed Nicholas that Breckinridge was from the United States.  The Tsar spoke to her in English and asked Breckinridge many of the same questions the Tsarina had asked.  He stated that he hoped she would enjoy her stay in Russia and Breckinridge responded, “I expected to enjoy it very much, and that I hoped to stay some time, and that I thought it a pity our government changed its representatives to foreign nations so often.”  He agreed with Breckinridge and politely moved down the line.  After both the Tsar and Tsarina finished speaking to each diplomat, they went to the head of the room, bowed, and left.  The Diplomatic Corps returned to their residences.

I had limited space in my thesis but looking at this section 15 years later, I got the gist of the letter right. The Breckinridges were presented to the Imperial Court along with the rest of the Diplomatic Corps on Sunday, January 1, 1895. On my research trip in January 2020, I found the official invitation in CRB’s papers. In my thesis I thought the palace KCB was referring to in this letter was Gatchina Palace outside of Saint Petersburg. But now that I have the official invitation, I realize the palace was actually Anichkov Palace in Saint Petersburg.

KCB explains to her niece that the presentation was “not to the big Palace where the wedding was, but to a smaller one, which is also very beautiful & where the late Emperor & his family always lived.” Gatchina is a good educated guess. Alexander III prefered Gatchina partly because after his father Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, it was recommended that the Imperial family would be safer at Gatchina than at the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. It has been well documented that Nicholas and Alexandra prefered a quiet home life and didn’t enjoy the dinners, balls, and parties of court life in Saint Petersburg.

But in fact the “smaller [Palace]” was Anichkov Palace in Saint Petersburg. It too was the prefered palace of Alexander III and his family while they were in Saint Petersburg.

KCB likes to point out the things she sees as odd or different in Russian culture versus American culture. In previous letters she mentioned staircases, carpeting and flooring. In this letter she commented that broad marble stairway in the palace was carpeted in green and wondered “I don’t know why they always carpet the stairs because the floors are always bare.”

The presentation was held in a “exquisite small salon opening into a large conservatory.” She points out that “there were men going about spraying the rooms with perfumery.” She notes that there were very few ladies but “a good many gentlemen. And as they were all in full uniform, it was quite a splendid gathering.” At first I thought she was referring to the ladies of the Diplomatic Corps but reading it now, I think she is referring to the court officials. Which makes more sense.

KCB states in the letter to her niece that the presentation to the Emperor & Empress was supposed to be a “very informal occasion” because the court was still in deep mourning. She explains that only the Diplomatic Corps and the Grand Master of Ceremonies and few court officials and Grand Mistress of the Court and one lady in waiting would be in attendance. Although that seems like a lot of people for a “very informal occasion,” a formal court function would have had 100s (if not 1000s) of people in addition to the list above. The invitation specifies the dress as “Grande Uniforme (sans deuil.)” which translates as “official uniform without mourning.” The instructions from the Ceremonies called for white wool dresses, open neck “but not low neck” and without bonnets or trains. KCB explains how she complied with the instructions by telling her niece

…so I took my white dress that I have been wearing to various church ceremonies and had it cut square neck. I suppose in a few days I will have to have it made high neck again for some other occasion.

But the Russian ladies at the palace were “dressed in white cloth, high neck, with small white Marie Stuart bonnets and long white crepe veils.” (For details about Mary Stuart bonnets in the 19th century, check out If I Had My Own Blue Box). Empress Alexandra was “dressed very simple, in white cloth, with crepe sleeves, high neck. The Marie Stuart cap with long veil. All white. Her veil was divided in two all the way up. She wore a pearl pin & solitaire pearl earrings.” Nicholas was “dressed as he was when he was married.”

According to KCB, Alexandra curtsied to ladies of the Diplomatic Corps and gave her hand to heads of Embassies for them to kiss and bowed to others. When Alexandra reached KCB in the line, KCB couldn’t hear what Alexandra said to her at first so KCB “fancied she asked how long I had been here. At any rate I replied to her just as if she had asked that.”

One of the reasons this is one of my favorite letters is because KCB’s thoughts about the experience show a lot about KCB’s personality. For instance, she wonders why the Master of Ceremonies didn’t follow the Emperor down the line of ladies like he had with the gentlemen.

I don’t know whether he thought he knew all the ladies or whether it was an oversight that the Grand Master of Ceremonies did not go with him to introduce him.

KCB told her niece that Nicholas spoke French to all the other ladies so KCB reported “[I] made up my mind to do the best I could in that language but when he spoke I did not catch a single word & I didn’t not like to ask him to repeat, so I said in French unfortunately I speak very little French.” The Master of Ceremonies told the Emperor “Madame is from the United States.” And Nicholas responded “ah, then you speak English.”

Nicholas or Alexandra (KCB wasn’t clear) said “that they had had many telegrams from America lately.” And KCB responded “America always had a most friendly feeling for Russia.” Then the Emperor moved on to the next lady in line.

Usually there is a breakfast for the Diplomatic Corps on New Years Day “but owning to the deep mourning of the court there were no refreshments…” KCB was glad there was no food because it was Sunday and she was “anxious to get home.”

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