For more than thirty years I’ve been interviewing people who have had interesting lives and interesting stories to tell. These shared stories are in themselves casual snapshots of a world that no longer exists. Listening to them has almost always been a pleasure.
Some of these conversations were with individuals I’d met when I was traveling around the country as Editor and Publisher of the Social Register, and a few of the transcripts from those meetings were adapted and eventually appeared in the Social Register Observer when I launched that magazine. More recently, I’ve been editing my own notes and some of that material has already appeared in earlier editions of this website. Now seems to be a good time to share more of it. This is the first of what I plan to be several articles.
Let’s begin with royalty.
Prince Alexis Scherbatow, a direct descendant of Rurik, the ninth-century Varangian prince who established himself in Novgorod and was founder of the first dynasty of Russia, was born on November 14, 1910. I met him in New York toward the end of his life. He had been living in the city since 1937 and we chatted several times in his Yorkville apartment.
“I was born in St. Petersburg, four blocks from the Hermitage. My father was Prince Paul Scherbatow. He was a career army officer and all that. Rich, but not too rich. Moderately rich. His father had a very big estate in Ukraine. It was beautiful—a big place, about 30,000 hectares.
“My mother was Princess Bariatinsky. The origin of my mother’s family and my father’s family is the same. It’s all House of Rurik. Mother was a lady-in-waiting to two empresses—the old empress and the new one, the wife of Nicholas II. I had two brothers, Kyril and Vladimir, and five sisters, Nadia, Elena, Anna, Olga, and Genya.
“I remember the other estate we had in the present-day Latvia. It was also a big estate. My father had bought it. No, actually my mother bought it. It was on the biggest lake in Latvia. We went down there for the summers. We were there in the summer of 1914. I was three years old. It is my first recollection.
“We always had pets. A dog I especially loved was an English Bulldog. I used to play with him—putting my head in his mouth, pretending it was scary. His name was Bulka. I love those English Bulldogs very much. If I was rich and I had space, I’d have one now.
“In Russia, Christmas is important, but Easter is much more important. At Easter I used to go to the palace to hunt for eggs. The emperor used to hide the eggs. They were little gold enameled eggs, hidden in the chairs. If you found one, you could keep it. I have one left.
“I had an English governess, Miss Goffe. She was from a very nice English family. She was young—eighteen or twenty years old—and had come from England as a governess for Emperor Alexander’s second family. He had had an illegitimate family for several years—two daughters and a son—and then his first wife died and he married the mother of these children. His second marriage. That happened about 1902, in Biarritz. My grandfather refused to go to the wedding.
“Of course my family should have left Russia earlier. But my father was very patriotic and people believed we were going to win.
“The February revolution was the first. The apex was the abdication. Nicholas II had the stupidity to abdicate.
“To understand Russia, for the masses, the czar represented something immaterial. Propaganda is possible and it can destroy quite a bit, but it didn’t succeed by itself. When Nicholas II abdicated and was replaced by the government, that was the big mistake. As Dostoyevsky says in The Possessed, ‘If God doesn’t exist, everything is allowed.’ (In Britain the monarchy is slowly deteriorating. And England without the monarchy will really diminish substantially. If England just becomes the Republic of England, all the glamour is gone.)
“In 1917 we went from St. Petersburg to the Crimea, to my grandmother’s, Princess Bariatinsky’s. She had a beautiful place down there in Yalta. That last Easter celebrated in Yalta we had a certain amount of money, but things were very tough as far as food was concerned. We sat at a very big table and all that—with livery and everything—but we ate macaroni and cheese. Maybe there was meat in the sauce. And the grownups had red wine. There were good vineyards in the Crimea. I used to try and sneak some red wine.
“Later, on my tenth birthday in 1920, Miss Goffe woke me. ‘Alexis,’ she said, ‘You’re a big boy now. You’re ten years old. You must go say goodbye to your grandmother. Governor Wrangel has given orders for evacuation. So we’re going to leave the country for some time.’
“We were being forced to flee again—to take the boat to Constantinople. We went there so that my mother could be as near her family as possible. We rented a house not far from St. Sophia—across from the tomb of the three sultans. In December of that year, walking from the Russian church, we saw the headline on the French-language newspaper: ‘Princess Bariatinsky Executed in Yalta by Trotsky.’
“It was later called ‘The Red Bath.’
“We went to lunch and everyone was very depressed. My mother said, ‘Now it is my duty to save the children.’ These were the three children of her sister who were still there and alive. And there were deals available. You could buy your children back. So my mother was obliged to sell some jewelry and the children were sent by motorboat from Crimea to Bulgaria.
“Much later, about 1935, I remember going to a party in Cannes. It was a party given by Grand Duke Dmitri of Russia. It was half a political event and half a party. The Prince of Wales was there (incognito as the Earl of Chester). Mrs. Simpson. Mr. Simpson. A number of Bourbon Parmes. The Duchess of Luxembourg. Princess Mafalda of Savoy, a daughter of King Victor Emmanuel III. She fell in love with a prince of Hesse. A 100% Nazi. After Italy withdrew from the war, he put her in a concentration camp. She died there.”
Prince Scherbatow moved to the United States in the late thirties and served in the US Army as a military translator from 1943 to 1946. Later he acquired advanced academic degrees and taught history and political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University for more than twenty years.
When I asked him what he thought of the modern world his answer was not optimistic.
“The day they introduced the bordello into the family, everything deteriorated. After World War I standards were broken down. In a way, the family itself had become a bordello, a whorehouse, during that war. A bordello meaning divorce, easy love affairs, too much drinking, dope.”
Prince Scherbatow died in June of 2003. I have no doubt how he’d feel about the changes in the world even since then. But when I asked him for advice for future generations his suggestion is certainly worth noting.
“Advice?” he repeated. “Think. And keep your mouth shut. Otherwise you can get into trouble.”Photos courtesy of the Russian Nobility Association in America, Inc.