The Élite's Russia
RUSSIA had many facets for those who served Britain in that country. It was not only a political system and a collection of personalities, but also a place to live and a stage in their careers. As a posting, Russia was clearly important. One of the eight--nine, after Japan was accorded such status--ambassadorial posts before 1914, St Petersburg was avidly coveted. While Paris was the plum, in the twenty years before 1914, St Petersburg and Berlin undoubtedly ranked as the secondmost prestigious embassies and vied with each other as being the most important politically. A look at the appointments to St Petersburg underlines the significance of Russia. This is especially obvious when it is remembered that consecutive ambassadors to Russia--Hardinge and Nicolson--were successively PUS. Hardinge, indeed, was the clearly the brightest star of the diplomatic service. The long tenure of Hardinge and Nicolson as PUS (and it is significant that Hardinge became PUS again in 1916) meant that Russia was always to the fore in discussions of British foreign policy.
Russia itself was an alien, exotic place to British diplomats. On entering Russia, one diplomat noted in his memoirs, 'one has the sensation of leaving Europe and being in quite another world'.1 From the symbolic uncoupling of the railway coaches in Warsaw in order to change to the wider Russian gauge to the 'famous Russian smell', Russia presented new experiences for those steeped in Europe. For one thing, the scale was different. The very size of the country came as a shock to British diplomats, and society offered such unusual activities as going bear hunting on the vast estates of the Russian nobility.2 ' St. Petersburg itself', one diplomat recalled, 'was grandiose, everything was on a big scale: the principal streets, the palaces and the churches.'3 Society life was equally unusual. The highlights of the season were the three great court balls held in January and February. Their____________________