Advice from those in the know

If you were moving to a foreign country… in the time before the internet… you might want recommendations and suggestions from folks who have lived in that country.

Last spring I did a talk for the Old State House Museum and while getting ready for that talk, I looked at some scans and photographs I hadn’t gotten around to yet. That’s one of the problems with my research method – my scoop and run way of doing research. I have to make the time after leaving the archive to really examine what I’ve found. And with 1500+ documents, that’s a lot of time.

I discovered a handful of letters from Andrew White (CRB’s predecessor) and Henry Allen, Attache Militaire under White. These men wrote to CRB in July, August, and September of 1894 with information, tidbits, and advise on all things Russian. The importance of the right staff at the Legation, the right location for the Legation, a bigger American flag for the Legation were all topics. White also has information about CRB bringing his family with him because White had his family with him in St Petersburg one winter and in Germany one winter. I don’t know if he ever shared this information with CRB but he mentioned he was going share it in the letter.

If there is a capital in Europe where our Embassy or Legation more than another requires the addition of a Military Attaché, that capital is certainly St. Petersburg.

Letter to CRB from Henry Allen, August 28, 1894

Both men lobbied hard for Allen staying in St. Petersburg and the need for a 2nd secretary in the Imperial city. Allen tells CRB in his letter dated August 10, 1894 that the United States should “have a larger establishment to put us on an approximate footing with others.” Allen bemoans the lack of funds and personnel and says without an increase in either “it is my opinion that a Legation is more befitting us than an Embassy.”

… only one of the four great Legation or Embassies which has no 2nd secretary and to my knowledge one is needed here quite as much as in Berlin.

Letter to CRB from Andrew White, August 21, 1894

Henry Allen is being recalled from Saint Petersburg and White and Allen encourage CRB to talk with the President, Secretary of State and anyone else who might prevent this from happening. White describes the recall as a potential “calamity to [CRB] as well as the Legation” and “[t]he Legation will be placed at a very great disadvantage as regards its legitimate position.”

A man of the highest character of fine manners, pleasant address acquainted with everybody, liked by everybody whose (good opinion) acquaintance is worth having the circles in which the Legation has to do – speaking easily French, German, and Russian, and having moreover, good sound sense and perfect – loyalty to the interests of the United States here … The Legation will be placed at a very great disadvantage as regards its legitimate position and work should Mr. Allen be removed.

Letter to CRB from Andrew White, August 27, 1894

Allen is being replaced by Peirce as Military Attaché. The job of military attaché includes interpreting and translating as well as assembling statistics and reporting upon trade for the Labor Department. From White’s letter dated August 27, 1894, it seems Peirce is already in Saint Petersburg and arrived later than expected “on account of his very severe illness.” White says he is “doing thoroughly well” but that [Peirce] “will require at least six months to obtain a proper degree of fluency in French.” White is also concerned that people are out of town for the summer and White will be gone from Saint Petersburg before he can introduce Peirce to the “official and society people.”

White writes to CRB that St Petersburg doesn’t have as many military cases as Berlin (his previous post) but that “the cases we do have are much more complicated and in absence of a proper treaty between the United States and Russia, much more difficult to deal with.” (When did we get a treaty with Russia? After World War I?)

Again and again CRB’s lack of multiple languages other than English is mentioned by White and alluded to by Allen. White states that a “considerable number of foremost men, with whom you as Minister will have to deal” speak no English and “if your French is rusty,” CRB will need an interpreter. White explains that upon CRB’s arrival to Russia, he will be interviewed by Minister of Foreign Affairs Nikolay de Girs and de Girs speaks no English. In addition de Girs, White also mentions Chichkine (who works in the Foreign Ministry and speaks English fairly well), Count Kapnist (Russian diplomat and ambassador), Count Sergei Witte (Minister of Finance), General de Wahl (Prefect of St Petersbrug), Konstantin Pobedonostsev (jurist, statesman, and advisor to Tsars), and Vyacheslave von Plehve (Secretary of the Council of the Empire). Kapnist, Witte, Wahl, Pobedonostsev, and Plehve = No English. Baron Osten-Sacken (diplomat and entomologist and the Russian consul general in NYC during American Civil War) was the only one that White mentions who speaks English. Without a Russian and French speaker, CRB would be at a serious disadvantage.

Now it is as an interpreter in ordinary matters that Mr. Allen is alone valuable. His acquaintance with the Russian language is such that in an emergency such as once every few days – the arrival of a document in Russian, or of some person who speaks only Russian – he is of the greatest use.

Letter to CRB from Andrew White, August 27, 1894

White further explains that in Germany (his previous post) there was little need for a copyist or translator (comparatively speaking) because people are acquainted with the German language. By people I assume he is referring to Americans or Americans working at Legations/Embassies.

This is not the case with the Russian language, and as a result is that a great deal of information which comes in the Russian papers reaches us in an imperfect form some days later in the official paper.

Letter to CRB from Andrew White, August 21, 1894

White suggests the “appropriation of 1000$ to 1500$” for a translator whose job it would be to go through “principal Russian papers” every morning and note items of interest and translate them. He stresses that without a translator, the Legation would “rely entirely on the kindness of outsiders.”

White thinks the return of the unpaid attachéship could be helpful. In 1853-1855 White and his friend and college buddy Danil Gilman served as unpaid attaché to the Russian Legation.

In those days every minister had one or two young men whom he had personally selected and attached to the Legation, young men of such means and aspiration that Diplomatic life for a time suited them.

Letter to CRB from Andrew White, August 21, 1894

(These unpaid attachéships were abolished by law in 1868.)

Then there’s the issue of the flag. In the 21st century it seems odd that an American diplomatic post would need a bigger flag. Living in the Southern United States like I do, I think of all the car dealerships around town that have gigantic American flag flying over their vast acres of cars, trucks and SUVs.

The Legation has no decent flag at present and uses one of mine, which I had in my Berlin days as I found it more trouble to send over and wait for a flag than to buy it outright. The flag has to be displayed here quite often at various public festivals.

Letter to CRB from Andrew White, August 21, 1894

White thought he would leave Russia September 1, 1894 but probably won’t because of a cholera outbreak. In his letter from August 21, 1894 to CRB, White says “… the cholera will certainly prevail for sometime longer both here and in the towns through which my family must pass” and he decides to wait “until the frosts of September” put an end to the epidemic.

White suggests that he meet CRB somewhere in western Europe to discuss Legation things. He is going to travel to Munich for the month of October before going to Italy. He suggests meeting in Frankfurt-am-Main (“I could run up there easily from Munich, and you could take the way very conveniently on your route from Paris to Berlin.”) He tells CRB that Frankfurt is one day from Paris and one day/one night from Berlin. Apparently the road from Cologne to Berlin is considered the high road and took about 11 hours. Was this by train? I don’t of trains on roads. Surely not in a carriage. He also suggests that they take the steamer from Frankfurt to Cologne to have “full time for conference.” (KCB mentions this idea in her letter to her Brother from Berlin on October 23, 1894 but that the boat trip was too expensive.)

White also suggests shopping for clothing, linen, etc in London and Paris during the journey over. Proprietors were recommended to White by George W. Wurts, former Chargé d’Affaire in Saint Petersburg. Wurt told White to go to Pulford’s in St James Street, London to find things at excellent price and comparable to the American standard, very reasonable. Also recommends purchasing furniture at Maple’s on Tottenham Court Road, London and having purchases shipped “by the Wilson Line via Hull” from America or England. White recommends getting official cards for the Legation from B. F. Stevens Esq in London. This matches what KCB writes in a letter to Fanny on November 29, 1894 from St Petersburg. White suggests KCB talk to Mrs. White about dressmakers.

The ladies find the Paris dressmakers far better and cheaper than those of St. Petersburg…

Letter to CRB from Andrew White, August 21, 1894

For furs White says the “best [are] obtained” in St Petersburg. And “you will absolutely required them from the first days of November until April.” And men’s shoes – best purchased in Saint Petersburg – “made … more satisfactorily than in any other part of the world that I have known.”

Photograph from Henry Allen showing location of apartment he is recommending.
Detail of writing on photograph (top to bottom): Palace of Grand Duke Vladimir, Reserve House of Grand Duke Vladimir, Residences and offices of Court Officials, Hermitage, Winter Palace, Apartment of Let (arrow)

One of the nagging questions I’ve always had was “how’d they find their apartment?” And after reading these letters, I’m beginning to think that the Legation and their apartment are one in the same. I had always thought of them as separate locations.

… to find such an apartment here in November or December at a reasonable price would be next to impossible. For a Minister to live at a hotel is not at all advisable, indeed it is not a correct thing to do.”

Letter to CRB from Henry Allen, August 10, 1894

White’s apartment was located at 28 Quai de la Cour.

I have just learned that the large, very handsome and comfortable apartment in the building accompanying the entire first floor on three sides of a court is to be rented furnished at what seems to me an exceedingly moderate rate [in the] very best part of town, adjourning the palace of the Grand Duke Vladimir, who owns the building […] directly over the Quay and the Neva to the Fortress of St. Peter and Paul…

Letter to CRB from Andrew White, August 28, 1894

Grand Duke Vladimir is most likely GD Vladimir Alexandrovich – 3rd son of Alexander II, brother of Alexander III and uncle to Nicholas II. White stresses that this apartment is in the “best, cleanest, and healthiest part of the city” and “best modern construction with large windows made of simple sheets of plate glass.” The price for this apartment is 6000 roubles to 7000 roubles (3200$ to 3750$) a year and White declares this “very cheap.” For comparison White explains he rented a furnished apartment for 12000 roubles and it wasn’t better than what they are recommending for the Breckinridges.

…another advantage in that our Legation had become identified with his building – which is of some considerable importance in view of its past migratory character and its frequent change of personal.

Letter to CRB from Henry Allen, August 10, 1894

Allen tells CRB that it is difficult to find furnished apartments “suitable for a Minister” and he knows because he has knowledge of the search for furnished apartments for six Ministers before CRB including the two immediate predecessors.

I know the apartment and the conditions of living in that house very well, inasmuch as my apartment, where I have lived during my stay here, is immediately above.

Letter to CRB from Henry Allen, August 10, 1894

So this apartment in Grand Duke Vlad’s building breaks down as

  • Rent = 6000 roubles
  • Electric light = 400 roubles (optional)
  • Furniture = 2000 roubles
  • Total = 8400 roubles or 4200$

Not a bad deal, right? But wait there’s more! The apartment includes stables, washhouse, and heating of the entire apartment. These things weren’t included in the apartment White rented but were available at an additional cost. Allen states that Embassies have whole houses while “but two Missions have other than apartments most of which are not equal to this one.”

Should you be made an Ambassador it might be very desirable to take down one or two partitions in the front rooms to give you a single great room large enough for an Ambassadorial reception.

Letter to CRB from Andrew White, August 28, 1894

White mentions this “moderate rate” furnished apartment in this letter to CRB on August 28 but a month earlier Henry Allen had already suggested this property.

[living above] is the Duke of Leuchtenburg and Marquis Abazzi, below you would be member of the diplomatic corps – in a word its not a house where impossible people are permitted.

Letter to CRB from Henry Allen, August 10, 1894

Allen recommends making changes to the apartment to make it more usable for a Minister and he believes those changes “could be done very easily and doubtless at the expense of the owner.” He also states that “a Minister is not expected to entertain much the first year.”

In late July Henry Allen write to CRB with information about the Legation staff and lodging for the Breckinridges. It seems that Allen included a letter from L. I. Poliakoff on letterhead with place name of Tsarskoe Selo. Poliakoff has a furnished apartment to let. I can’t tell if it is the same apartment that White is referring to in his letters. The apartment White refers to is owned by Grand Duke Vladimir. So maybe not… Or is Poliakoff trying to sublet? By August 28, 1894, Allen writes to CRB “I regret that you do not see fit to take that apartment which in so many way is admirable adapted to Legation purposes.”

In the final letter I have from Henry Allen to CRB (dated August 28, 1894), Allen states he has received a letter from Adjutant General that he will not be replaced as military attaché. He is disappointed about this because he wants to stay in Russia one more year and finish his history of the Crimean War. Plus his lease is not up until July 1895.

… whatever maybe said or thought to the contrary by certain persons at home, I am fully persuaded that diplomatic influence owes much of its success to prestige – social and otherwise.

Letter to CRB from Henry Allen, August 28, 1894

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