Magazine article The Spectator

Grande Horizontale et Verticale

Magazine article The Spectator

Grande Horizontale et Verticale

Article excerpt

Grande horizontale et verticale IMPERIAL DANCER: MATHILDE KSCHESSINSKA AND THE ROMANOVS by Coryne Hall Sutton, £20, pp. 326, ISBN 075093557X £18 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

One of those little footnotes to history that has always intrigued me is that the Bolsheviks planned and carried out the October Revolution in the palace of the Tsar's mistress. The idea of Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky and the rest of them strutting about the marble-clad halls and damask-swathed boudoirs of the great courtesan's mansion in their cloth caps, smoking and plotting bloody mayhem, is grotesque but also somehow fitting when one considers the moral squalor and the shoddy grandeur of their political enterprise. I longed to know more about this Bolshevik Bethlehem.

This book has done more than satisfy my curiosity. The story it tells is an extraordinary one in every way. Born in 1872 into a family of Polish dancers who had moved to St Petersburg, the heroine quickly came to prominence as a ballerina of genius. At the age of 17, after performing before the imperial family for the first time, she set her cap at the young Tsarevich, the future Nicholas II. She was no less successful in that endeavour than in her professional career, and by the mid-1890s she was the mistress of the heir to the throne as well as the prima ballerina assoluta of the imperial theatres. When Nicholas withdrew in order to marry the dreary Alexandra, she moved on to other members of his family, bedding at least four and possibly five Romanovs, at one stage living in a ménage-à-trois with two grand dukes, by one of whom she had a son.

Her career went from strength to strength, and she amassed fabulous wealth as well as legendary renown, not to mention notoriety. The Revolution came as all the more of a shock. She was obliged to leave St Petersburg and then to flee Russia, via the Caucasus and the Crimea, Istanbul and Italy, coming to rest in the villa her imperial lover had given her on the French Riviera. Released from constitutional restraints, the incumbent Grand-Duke Andrei Vladimirovich married her in 1921 and the couple settled down to a life of reduced gentility, supported by the piecemeal sale of jewellery she had managed to bring out of Russia. But the gaming tables of Monte Carlo swallowed up the lion's share. …

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