​34. The declaration of war on Germany in August (1914)

Ambassador's Memoirs, 1914-19/7 by Maurice Paleolog-ue.

(Maurice Georges Paleologue (1854-1944) was a French diplomat and writer, who was appointed Deputy Director of the French Foreign Office in 1909. In 1914 he was sent to Russia as French Ambassador, and he remained there, consolidating the Franco-Russian alliance, until 1917. later he became Secretary General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and was elected to the French Academy in 1928.)

Tuesday 18 August 1514 When I arrived at Moscow this morning I went with Buchanan about half-past ten to the great Kremlin Palace. We were ushered into the St George's hall, where the high dignitaries of the empire, the ministers, delegates of the nobility, middle classes, merchant community, charitable organizations, etc., were already assembled in a dense and silent throng.

On the stroke of eleven o'clock the Tsar, the Tsaritsa and the imperial family made their ceremonial entry. The grand dukes had all gone to the front and besides the sovereigns there were only the four young grand duchesses, the Tsar's daughters, the Tsarevitch Alexis, who hurt his leg yesterday and had to be carried in the arms of a Cossack, and the Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, the Tsaritsa's sister, abbess of the Convent of Martha-and-Mary of Pity.*

The imperial party stopped in the centre of the hall. In a full, firm voice the Tsar addressed the nobility and people of Moscow. He proclaimed that, as the traditions of his ancestors decreed, he had come to seek the moral support he needed in prayer at the relics in the Kremlin. He declared that a heroic national impulse was sweeping over all Russia, without distinction of race or nationality, and concluded:

`From this place, the very heart of Russia, I send my soul's greeting to my valiant troops and my noble allies. God is with us!'

A continuous burst of cheering was his answer.

As the imperial group moved on the Grand Master of the Ceremonies invited Buchanan and myself to follow the royal family, immediately after the grand duchesses.

Through the St Vladimir room and the Sacred Gallery we reached the Red Staircase, the lower flight of which leads by a bridge with a purple awning to the Ouspensky Sobor, the Cathedral of the Assumption.

The moment the Tsar appeared a storm of cheering broke out from the whole Kremlin where an enormous crowd, bareheaded and struggling, thronged the pavements. At the same time all the bells of the Ivan Veliky chimed in chorus, and the Great Bell of the Ascension, cast from the metal saved from the ruins in 1812, sent a thunderous boom above the din. Around us Holy Moscow, with her sky-blue domes, copper spires and gilded bulbs, sparkled in the sun like a fantastic mirage.

The hurricane of popular enthusiasm almost dominated the din of the bells.

Count Benckendorff, Grand Marshal of the Court, came up to me and said:

Here's the revolution Berlin promised us!'

In so saying he was probably interpreting everyone's thoughts. The Tsar's face was radiant. In the Tsaritsa's was joyous ecstasy. Buchanan whispered:

`This is a sublime moment to have lived to see! ...Think of all the historic future being made here and now!'

Tes, and I'm thinking, too, of the historic past which is seeing its fulfilment here. It was from this very spot on which we now stand that Napoleon surveyed Moscow in flames. It was by that very road down there that the Grand Army began its immortal retreat!' We were now at the steps of the cathedral. The Metropolitan of Moscow, surrounded by his clergy, presented to their Majesties the cross of Tsar Michael Feodorovitch, the first of the Romanovs, and the holy water.

We entered the Ouspensky Sobor. This edifice is square, surmounted by a gigantic dome supported by four massive pillars, and all its walls are covered with frescoes on a gilded background. The iconostasis, a lofty screen, is one mass of precious stones. The dim light falling from the cupola and the flickering glow of the candles kept the nave in a ruddy semi-darkness.

The Tsar and Tsaritsa stood in front of the right ambo at the foot of the column against which the throne of the Patriarchs is set

In the left ambo the court choir, in "With century silver and light blue costume, chanted the beautiful anthems of the orthodox rite, perhaps the finest anthems in sacred music.

At the end of the nave opposite the iconastasis the three Metropolitans of Russia and twelve archbishops stood in line. In the aisles on their left was a group of one hundred and ten bishops, archimandrites and abbots. A fabulous. indescribable wealth of diamonds; sapphires, rubies and amethysts sparkled on the brocade of their mitres and chasubles. At times the church glowed with a supernatural light.

Buchanan and I were on the Tsar's left, in front of the court.

Towards the end of the long service the Metropolitan brought their Majesties a crucifix containing a portion of the true cross which they reverently kissed. Then through a cloud of incense the imperial family walked round the cathedral to kneel at the world-famed relics and the tombs of the patriarchs.

During this procession I was admiring the bearing and attitudes of the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, particularly when she bowed or knelt. Although she is approaching fifty she has kept her slim figure and all her old grace. Under her loose white woollen hood she was as elegant and attractive as in the old days before her widowhood, when she still inspired profane passions. To kiss the figure of the Virgin of Vladimir which is set in the iconostasis she had to place her knee on a rather high marble seat. The Tsaritsa and the young grand duchesses who preceded her had had to make two attempts — and clumsy attempts — before reaching the celebrated ikon. She managed it in one supple, easy and queenly movement.

The service was now over. The procession was reformed and the clergy took their place at its head. One last chant, soaring in triumph, filled the nave. The door opened.

All the glories of Moscow suddenly came into view in a blaze of sunshine. As the procession passed out I reflected that the court of Byzantium, at the time of Constantine Porphyrogenetes, Nicephorus Phocas or Andronicus Paleologue, can alone have seen so amazing a display of sacerdotal pomp.

At the end of the covered-in passage the imperial carriages were waiting. Before entering them the royal family stood for a time facing the frantic cheers of the crowd. The Tsar said to Buchanan and myself:

`Come nearer to me, Messieurs les Arnbassadeurs. These cheers are as much for you as for me.'

Amid the torrent of acclamations we three discussed the war which had just begun. The Tsar congratulated me on the wonderful ardour of the French troops and reiterated the assurance of his absolute faith in final victory. The Tsaritsa tried to give me a few kind words. I helped her out:

`What a comforting sight for your Majesty! How splendid it is to see all these people swept by patriotic exaltation and fervour for their rulers!'

Her answer was almost inaudible but her strained smile and the strange spell of her wrapt gaze, magnetic and inspired, revealed her inward intoxication.

The Grand Duchess Elizabeth joined in our conversation. Her face in the frame of her long white woollen veil was alive with spirituality. Her delicate features and white skin, the deep, far-away look in her eyes. the low. soft tone of her voice and the luminous glow round her brows all betrayed a being in dose and constant contact with the ineffable and the divine.

As Their Majesties returned to the palace Buchanan and I left the Kremlin amidst an ovation which accompanied us to our hotel ...

I spent the afternoon seeing Moscow, lingering particularly over the places hallowed by memories of 1812. They stood out in sharp relief by contrast with the present moment.

At the Kremlin the ghost of Napoleon seems to rise up at every step. From the Red Staircase the Emperor watched the progress of the fire during the baneful night of 16 September. It was there that he took counsel of Murat, Eugene, Berthier and Ney in the midst of the leaping flames and under a blinding shower of cinders. It was there that he had that clear and pitiless vision of his pending ruin: 'All this,' he said repeatedly, 'is the herald of great disasters!' It was by this road that he hastily went down to the Moskowa accompanied by a few officers and men of his guard. It was there that he entered the winding streets of the burning city. We walked,' says Segur, 'upon an earth of fire, under a sky of fire, between two walls of fire.' Alas! does not the present war promise us a second edition of this Dantesque scene? And how many copies to the edition?

North of the Kremlin and between the Church of St Basil and the Iberian Gate lies the Red Square, of glorious and tragic memory. If I had to give a list of those spots in which the visions and sentiments of the past have most vividly passed before my eyes I should include the Roman Campagna, the Acropolis at Athens, the Eyub cemetery at Stambul, the Alhambra in Granada, the Tartar city of Pekin, the Hradschin in Prague and the Kremlin of Moscow. This curious conglomeration of palaces, towers, churches, monasteries, chapels, barracks, arsenals and bastions, this incoherent jumble of sacred and secular buildings, this complex of functions as fortress, sanctuary, seraglio, harem, necropolis and prison, this blend of advanced civilization and archaic barbarism, this violent contrast of the crudest materialism and the most lofty spirituality — are they not the whole history of Russia, the whole epic of the Russian nation, the whole inward drama of the Russian soul?