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|About the Change|
1872 - 1971
Adapted by Jeffery Taylor from
'Imperial Dancer: Mathilde Kschessinska and the Romanovs'
by Coryne Hall.
Sutton Publishing, £8.99
© Jeffery Taylor
Former dancer, Critic and an Arts feature writer for the
The labour was agonising and protracted. Crisis followed crisis when the sacrifice of either mother or child was urgently debated. Finally between 1 and 2 o’clock in the morning of 18 June 1902 a healthy son was finally delivered. But the condition of the mother, Mathilde Felixovna Kschessinska, Prima Ballerina Assoluta of St Petersburg’s Imperial (Kirov) Ballet remained so critical she was confined to bed for intensive care. Thus began one of the most bizarre strands of a life careering between unbelievable glamour and grinding poverty, Imperial adoration and bitter rejection.
Always surrounded by scandal, the ballerina adored roulette, diamonds, caviar and men, particularly when named Romanov. The full story of Mathilde Kschessinska has never been told before but new access to Soviet and Imperial Family archives sheds fresh light on her fascinating tale of love, wealth, power, and above all, survival vividly recounted in a new paperback, Imperial Dancer, Mathilde Kschessinska and the Romanovs.
The first baffling problem facing the famous dancer was naming the father of her newborn son. Thanks to his mother’s notorious sexual generosity his conception gave no clues. Nine months before his birth, Mathilde maintained a ménage a trois with two Imperial Grand Dukes. In 1894 her lover, Nicholas, the Heir to the Throne, became Tsar Nicholas II, and obliged to attend to dynastic matters, asked his cousin, the fabulously wealthy Sergei, to take responsibility for Mathilde. Sergei happily obliged. Mathilde jumped at the idea but never lost her lust for Nicholas with whom she always kept in touch. Six years later another besotted Grand Duke, Andrei at 20 eight years Mathilde’s junior, moved into her country house. Enslaved by love Sergei remained in situ but generously vacated her bedroom and paid their bills when asked. The arrangement still stood when Mathilde fell pregnant.
Then there was Andrei’s father, Grand Duke Vladimir, with a lifelong devotion to Mathilde and to whom the newborn bore an uncanny likeness. Finally, and most intriguingly, the baby’s mother’s first choice of name was Nicholas but permission was refused by the Imperial Household. Nevertheless many veteran soldiers at first sight of the boy swore he was the Tsar’s child. Eventually he was named Vladimir, Vova for short.
At the time of her son’s birth, Mathilde, 30, was the unrivalled Tsarina of the Imperial Ballet, at the height of her powers as a dancer, adored by the most powerful men in the land and immensely wealthy. Known as Magnificent Matilda and the Black-Eyed She-Devil of the
Ballet, Mathilde tyrannised the Imperial Theatres. Now in Vova, she had her own Tsar, her Nikki, as the real future Tsar had always signed his letters to her. Immediately the ambiguity of his birth became the cornerstone of their life. Untrammelled by affairs of state, Mathilde was determined her pet little Emperor would also never forget which woman shone at the centre of his universe - his mother.
Mathilde first laid eyes on, and planned her future with her Imperial heartthrob when still a teenage dance student.
“Where is Kschessinska?” the giant Tsar Alexander III had bellowed when, accompanied by his tiny wife, Empress Marie Feodorovna, and their eldest son, Tsarevich Nicholas, when he attended the 1890 graduation performance of the St Petersburg Imperial Ballet School. As seventeen-year-old Mathilde Kschessinska, a small, vivacious girl with dark, laughing eyes made her curtsey, the Tsar held out his hand and said: “Be the glory and the adornment of our ballet!” The story may be apocryphal but Mathilde fulfilled Alexander’s command in a far more spectacular way than he could ever have imagined.
Mathilde was born on 19 August 1872 in Ligovo, 9 miles west of St Petersburg, the thirteenth child of Julia and Felix Kschessinsky, both of Polish origin and dancers of the Imperial Ballet. Her family nickname was Mala or Malechka, diminutives that became familiar in the highest circles in the land. In 1890 Mathilde followed siblings Julie and Joseph and entered the Imperial Ballet School. She graduated ten years later, and writing in her diary after her first meeting with the Imperial Family and sitting next to the 21-year-old Tsarevich at dinner that night, she said, “When we finally parted we saw each other in a new light. In both our hearts an attraction had been born impelling us irresistibly towards each other.” Nicholas was more laconic, “Went to a performance at the theatrical institute….We had a fine supper with the pupils.”
It was usual for the Grand Dukes (close relatives of the Tsar) to take a ballerina for a mistress as the dancers’ health was closely monitored, thus reducing the risk of sexually transmitted diseases in aristocratic circles. With her single minded obsession with the Romanovs, and Nicholas in particular, Mathilde also wrote in her diary at that time, “He will be mine.” And he was.
Grand Dukes and Princes would gather in Mathilde’s mansion, built for her by Tsar Nicholas with a suspected secret tunnel to the Winter Palace, usually in her luxuriously colossal bathroom drinking and smoking in the vast sunken bath. Friends remember her wearing massive dog collars of diamonds with ropes of pearls and precious stones hanging in glittering chains below her knees. After the Revolution the Bolsheviks requisitioned her St Petersburg home and ironically turned the sunken bath into a giant ash tray while Lenin made speeches from her balcony as the Red flag flew overhead.
In 1911 as Russia tottered towards anarchy and the Imperial Family to extinction, Mathilde, 38, celebrated 20 years dancing on the Maryinsky stage. Her benefit on Sunday 13 February reaped a harvest of spectacular gifts especially from the three leading men in her life, led by the Tsar. His offering was a diamond eagle with outspread wings on a platinum chain clutching a large rose sapphire in a diamond setting. From her juvenile lead Andre came a diamond tiara set with six cabochon sapphires and from her principal sponsor Sergei a gold mounted chest containing a multitude of rare yellow diamonds. Other gifts included Faberge ornaments, watches and powder cases. When forced into exile in 1920 she desperately gambled away her fabulous jewels, worth millions of dollars, for a pittance on the Monte Carlo gaming tables.
Later in 1911 the Tsar, in a secret ukaze (order) created Vladimir Sergeievitch Krasinsky (Vova), 7, a hereditary Russian nobleman. Though still maintaining the romantic fog of ambiguity around her son’s parentage, Mathilde had adopted Sergei’s patronymic as a gesture of appreciation to her faithful supporter. So revered were the Imperial Family that Sergei would consider it an honour that a possible Pretender to the Throne, with however tenuous a claim, carried his name. Meanwhile his mother continued to cocoon the boy in her own fantasies by building what in our terms would be called a Wendy House in the grounds of her dacha (country house) in Strelna, complete with drawing room, dining room, and two bedrooms and completely furnished down to china, linen and silver.
Rumours also circulated that year that Vova might not be the only child of Nicholas and Mathilde. She had spent a solitary summer the previous year at her dacha while the Tsar also holidayed alone at a nearby palace. Mathilde then disappeared to a friend’s estate in the Spring of 1911 to be joined by her brother, Joseph and his wife Celina. The couple reappeared in St Petersburg in November with a baby girl also named Celina. The suspicion that the daughter was of Imperial stock was compounded by Mathilde’s excessive fondness of her new “niece” whom she treated exactly the same as Vova, and her later talent as a dancer.
By 1916 with Russia locked into a savage and debilitating war, her dancing career was ending. Nearly 44 years old, in February Mathilde celebrated a quarter of a century dancing at the Maryinski. She performed Giselle for the first and last time and a year later gave what turned out to be her final performance on the Maryinski stage. Her extravagant life style proved too much for the freezing St Petersburg citizens as they angrily watched a van load of coal unloaded into her mansion when the disastrous war conditions denied them the basics of life. As mob rule took over the city, Mathilde decided it was time to go. The ever loving Sergei offered her marriage and the cushion of his position in an uncertain future in St Petersburg. Wisely she refused and with Vova in one hand and her jewel case in the other she joined Andrei already exiled in the Caucasus.
The State appropriation of banks and property made paupers of Mathilde, Vova and Andrei overnight and following the assassination of the Imperial Family in 1918, and reports of Sergei’s murder, the couple decided to leave Russia forever on board a small steamer bound for Venice. On 3 March 1920 the Semiramisa cast anchor from the Black Sea port of Novorossisk moving slowly through the boats in the harbour and out into the open sea. Mathilde wrote later, “Of all the trials we endured…this was without doubt the bitterest and most painful.”
The trio finally arrived at the villa Andrei had purchased for Mathilde at Cap d’Ail in the South of France with approximately £4,000 cash, between them. Both impresario Serge Diaghilev and the Paris Opera invited the prima ballerina to dance but at forty seven, though fit, she felt too old and declined both invitations. Grand Duke Dmitri, Andrei’s cousin lived nearby and after a six year gap, recorded in his diary how much he disliked Vova, whom he found to be “dissolute, spoilt and impudent.” Lack of cash forced them into the Monte Carlo casino where Mathilde earned the soubriquet, Madame 17, as she squandered her jewellery away for a pittance. Andrei’s dead mother’s rubies followed. Clinging to the hierarchy that still obtained among the aristocratic Russian refugees fleeing the Soviets in the South of France, Andre decided to regularise Mathilde’s position, still regarded as a mistress and therefore beyond the social pale. They married quietly in Cannes in 1921. Mathilde was overjoyed, she was now officially a member of the Romanov family. Andre also legitimised Vova by adopting him.
By 1929 their cash flow ran terminally dry and they sold their Cap d’Ail villa and bought a property in Paris where Mathilde opened a ballet school. Andre drove a taxi and Vova lived on their miniscule joint profits. The misery of the ensuing years, the poverty and the drudgery, were compounded by worry at Vova’s involvement in the Young Russian movement, a political group hoping to restore the Russian throne. The Soviet KGB (secret police) was known to be active in Paris after 2 prominent White Russian generals were assassinated. Nevertheless and in spite of his adoption by Andre, Vova played on the mystery of his parentage for all it was worth. When asked who should be the next Russian Tsar he replied, “…there are people in whose veins flows the blood of the last Emperor.”
At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the family again joined an exodus of refugees fleeing a capital city. Six years later back in Paris, though their home had miraculously avoided war damage, they were once again penniless and starting from scratch. Mathilde summed up her melancholy when she wrote in her diary, “I love the nights, I see such wonderful dreams of my past life.”
Andre died of a heart attack in October 1956. He was 77, Mathilde 84. She now faced life without a Romanov Grand Duke at her side for the first time in 66 years. Finally in December 1971, a few months before her 100th birthday Mathilde, now Princess Romanovsky-Krasinsky, passed away in her sleep. A few years before she had written her own poignantantly brave obituary with the simple words, “My life was beautiful.” She was laid to rest next to her beloved Andre in the Russian Church in Paris. Mathilde Kschessinska, Prima Ballerina Assoluta of the Imperial Ballet had taken her final curtain.