Copyright © 1999 Maria Fairweather.
All rights reserved.
Childhood: Her Father's Daughter
`Happy the family that called him father.'
PRINCESS ZINAIDA VOLKONSKY
In a quiet corner of the garden of the Villa Volkonsky in Rome, half hidden by fern and acanthus, stands the most important memorial in Princess Zinaida Volkonsky's Allée des Mémoires. Among the memorial tablets and urns one stands out. The simple inscription in Russian, `To my father, friend and teacher', gives the measure of her loss. Then in French is written:
Under his roof, I have seen the unfortunate consoled, poets and scholars celebrated and cherished, strangers welcomed like brothers, servants cared for and happy. His speech was eloquent, his acts generous and pure. Happy the family that called him father.
The choice of Russian for the simple statement of what her father had meant to her, and of French for the more formal and conventional funerary inscription, is telling, for Zinaida Volkonsky, in spite of a French upbringing and a life spent largely in western Europe, remained very much a Russian: spontaneous, generous, soulful, but inclined to excess and mysticism.
Zinaida, the second of three daughters (a first-born son, Hippolite, had died in infancy), was born to Prince Alexander Mikhailovich Beloselsky and his wife Varvara Yakovlevna, née Tatishchev, in Dresden on 3 December 1789. Zinaida did not remember her mother, who died on 25 November 1792, little more than eighteen months after the birth of her third daughter Natalia (born in March 1791), when Zinaida was only three. Writing about her in an autobiographical sketch, Zinaida recalled that her mother had died in Turin.
I knew nothing of the details of her death, nor about her religious views. It was impossible to talk of her with my father. He loved and mourned her so deeply that he hadn't even the strength to unwrap the paper in which there was a lock of her hair. His hands would tremble, as once again he put away the precious relic.
At the time of Zinaida's birth, her father had for nine years been the Empress Catherine's ambassador to the Saxon court, a post to which he succeeded on the death of his much older half-brother Andrei Mikhailovich. A decade earlier, the twenty-six-year-old Alexander had described his travels in a letter to a friend, which by chance fell into the Empress Catherine's hands. She was impressed:
Voila une lettre parfaitement bien écrite et encore mieux pensée où trouveroit-on des gens si celui la n'étoit pas employé? J'ai ordoné de m'aporter la liste des vacances, et je le placerai en Cour étrangère.' [sic] Ekaterina.
Soon after the Empress's ukase, in May 1780, Alexander Beloselsky found himself posted to Dresden.
Zinaida's father was a member of a distinguished noble family with roots stretching back to the troubled times of the Tartar invasions in the mid-thirteenth century. The youngest of four children and the only son of his father's second marriage to Countess Natalia Grigorievna Tchernishev, he was born in 1752. His father, Vice-Admiral Mikhail Andreevich (1702-55), who had had a distinguished naval career under Peter the Great, died when Alexander was three. Alexander had a liberal education mostly in Germany where his tutor, Dieudonné Thiébault, a former Jesuit, a member of the Berlin Academy of Sciences and secretary to King Frederick of Prussia, was an important influence and remained a lifelong friend. His first taste of diplomatic life had been as a boy of sixteen, when he served as Cavalier de l'Ambassade to the Russian Embassy in London where his uncle, Admiral of the Fleet Count Ivan Grigorevich Tchernishev, was briefly ambassador. Alexander, encouraged by his tutor, early showed great love for all the arts, in particular for music. His health was delicate from childhood. This, together with an impetuous nature and a tendency always to speak his mind, caused his tutor some worry. When Alexander was still only twenty and a lieutenant in the Guards in St Petersburg, Thiébault wrote to him affectionately, warning him to guard against his high spirits and directness, and to look after his health:
You have a weak chest, be careful my dear Prince if you wish to live! You are by nature extremely attached to your freedom ... and you are a little proud, you will have to take care, since you cannot bear to be a slave! ... You will always be very dear to me, and whatever concerns you will always be of the most lively interest to me.
In common with many young noblemen of his time, the Prince travelled extensively in Europe. Unlike most, he impressed both Voltaire and Rousseau. A letter survives from Voltaire to the twenty-three-year-old Alexander, dated 27 February 1775: `Sir, An old man of eighty-one was afforded some measure of relief from his cruel ills by the charming letter in prose and poetry, with which you did him honour, in a language which is not your own, and in which you write better than all our young courtiers.' To this, Voltaire added some verses of his own in which he praised the Prince, flatteringly tracing his descent from Ovid and Orpheus, ending his letter `with respect from the old man of Ferney'.
A letter from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, dated 27 May 1775, in reply to one from the Prince, reflects the bitterness and isolation of Rousseau's last years. Persecuted after the publication of Emile in 1862, Rousseau left his native Geneva for France. Mourning the loss of his native land, `now he lives only to suffer', he tells the Prince, asking him not to write again, for he wouldn't have the strength to answer him, but to come and see him when the Prince is in Paris. Rousseau begs that his letter be burnt in case it is misinterpreted.
Alexander's serious interest in the arts was matched by a great capacity for pleasure and fun. A visit to Italy, when he was still only twenty-four, produced a learned book on Italian music, De la Musique en Italie published in 1788, as a result of which he was made a foreign member of the Institute of Bologna. The book created quite a stir in France and Italy. In Italy too, he began to keep a journal his Vademecum, in which he gives a lively account of his travels and of contemporary society.
Diplomacy provided an ideal opportunity for Alexander Beloselsky to combine service with a growing passion for collecting and gave him leisure for writing. He was no mere dilettante, however. From the outset he showed great ability as a diplomat. A broad and liberal education, an understanding of human nature, considerable analytical abilities and boundless energy and curiosity, together with a wide range of contacts, made his diplomatic reports as interesting as they were personal. He was never able to fully reconcile one of the classic diplomatic dilemmas: the wish to report the truth as he saw it and the need to please his political masters. His relations with his superiors were always troubled. Almost as soon as he arrived in Dresden in 1780, he was having to eat humble pie for ignoring the advice of the Foreign Minister, Count Osterman, to tone down his lively despatches: `Sire, I accept with profound submission Your Excellency's reproaches regarding my conduct. I am conscious of having done wrong, and will do all in my power to be wiser and more prudent in future.' Prudence, alas, was not in his nature. He would always go his own way, a trait he passed on to his daughter Zinaida.
In Dresden, happily married and enjoying his first diplomatic post in a country he knew well, the Prince quickly made his embassy a centre for people of wit and culture. Letters and diaries by contemporaries bear witness to his charm, his abilities as a raconteur, his sudden and catching laugh, and his exceptional talent for acting. The much-travelled Count Komarovsky noted that, as a comic actor particularly, Beloselsky had no equal in Russia or Europe.
Although he enjoyed his first embassy, the Prince was aware that Dresden was a relative backwater. He sent back enthusiastic reports about the Dresden Academy of Art and wrote to the Empress personally, on matters of art, collecting works on her behalf, but as early as September 1780 he also wrote to her for guidance: the letter shows that, for all his independent spirit, when it came to the Empress the Prince understood the imperatives of dealing with an absolute Monarch, addressing her in terms which today seem grovelling:
I take the liberty of throwing myself at the sacred feet of your Imperial Majesty to ask for a favour, which in her goodness she might perhaps grant. I have had the honour of serving your Majesty in a place where I am unfortunately unable not only to justify your attention, but even to interest it, as I believe.
Meanwhile he enjoyed his own literary and intellectual pursuits. In 1784, with the help of Marmontel, the Prince published a collection of his poems, the three `Epistles' to the English, to the French and to the citizens of the Republic of San Marino in which he reflects on their national characteristics. He also wrote the preface to Circe, a cantata by Seidlemann. A letter from Mozart to his wife, dated 16 April 1789, speaks of his having been to dinner at the Russian ambassador's where he (Mozart) had played a great deal. Among his other friends and correspondents were Condorcet and Joseph De Maistre. In 1790 he published a philosophical tract on man's cognitive faculties, his Dianologie, ou Tableau Philosophique de L'Entendement, which he sent to Kant. Kant's reply it seems, showed that the Prince had impressed him.
In October 1789, shortly before Zinaida's birth, Alexander begged the Empress for a new posting. France was in revolution and émigrés were flooding to his house. He longed to be closer to the action. Perhaps to his surprise, the request was granted. In January he was appointed ambassador to the court of Victor Amadeus III of Savoy, in Turin.
The Prince did not immediately take up his new post, however. Ill health, as well as the birth of his third daughter Natalia in March 1791, must have been partly responsible for the delay. A letter to Count Osterman from Vienna, where the Prince spent some time, shows that relations between them were still far from easy. Osterman must have been aware of the future problems of sending this obstinate young man to the very borders of revolutionary France, and the effects which his reports would have on an increasingly terrified Empress. Alexander did not hide his indignation:
I must admit to your Excellency, that in presenting true and fair observations of the present situation, which are perhaps new, and based on the characters of men of influence, I had expected approval rather than reproach. As for the delay in my return, your Excellency's reproaches would surely be well founded if I had not taken the precaution of informing your Excellency on several occasions, that I had been ill with a fever which laid me low for more than two months, and from which I have only just recovered, and that my wife having suffered from an extremely dangerous miscarriage, I had begged your Excellency to intercede on my behalf with her Imperial Majesty.
He signs himself off with the formal `your humble and obedient servant', but the tone is unmistakably unrepentant.
At last he was on his way. His natural curiosity and impulsiveness ensured that his travels were always adventurous, providing ample opportunities for dining out on his adventures, as his close friend Prince Viazemsky later recalled in his notebooks:
No one was more famed at the end of the last century and the begining of this one, for the liveliness of his talk and his abilities as a raconteur, than Prince Beloselsky. Here is his account of an adventure he had on his way to Turin. Having stopped in Lyons for the night, he set off for a walk that evening and got lost. He had, of course, forgotten the name of his hotel. After several hours of walking around the dark and empty streets he suddenly chanced upon a brightly lit house, from whence came the sound of music. Deciding to go in, he explained his situation to the host whereupon the Prince was very kindly received and invited to stay for the party. He accepted with pleasure, and spent a very agreeable evening dining, dancing and drinking toasts with his new friends, though he was a little surprised by a certain sombreness and reserve among the men and also by the fact that they were almost all unusually tall and heavily built. Towards the end of the evening the Prince's innkeeper appeared. Worried about the long absence of his distinguished guest he had searched the town, finding him only by chance. They must leave at once, he whispered anxiously to Alexander, who, greatly enjoying himself, was most unwilling to leave such a hospitable household. In a frightened whisper, the innkeeper informed the Prince that they were in the house of the chief executioner of Lyons, who was celebrating the marriage of his daughter to one of his colleagues. He pointed out several other `Executioners of the Law', as he repectfully called them, among the burly guests, who had come from all the neighbouring towns.
In April 1792 the Prince was at last installed in his embassy in Piedmont. In one of Turin's handsomest arcaded squares, the Piazza San Carlo, the embassy was housed in the splendid, seventeenth-century Palazzo del Borgo, which had been partly rebuilt some forty years earlier. Shortly after Alexander Beloselsky had arrived in Turin, Count Zappata de Ponchey, the Court Chamberlain, had this to say of the new Russian ambassador, in his report to King Victor Amadeus:
A short man, thirty-five years old. My information is that he is of mild disposition, with a love of the arts and sciences, and is the author of a short work on music. He is quite rich in his own right, married to a Tatishchev, who accompanies him on his missions, and who is heiress to 3000 serfs, which means an income of approximately 15 thousand roubles. He is of good family, since I hear that he is a nephew of both the Saltikovs and the Stroganovs, but he can be a little caustic. This is the portrait which I have the honour to present to you as it has come to me. One might add that there is no Russian with so little of the savage about him.
Alexander Beloselsky was indeed far from the then traditional image of Russians as barbarians from the East. An outstanding example of the enlightened Russian nobleman, a man of deep culture, he was the personification of the values of eighteenth-century France, values which were about to undergo violent and radical change.
From Turin, Alexander sent out his almost daily despatches. He had his wish. His embassy was on the very borders of France, and the Revolution was about to spill over into the whole of Europe. In France, the Girondins (radical revolutionary deputies mainly from the Gironde, the country around Bordeaux) had just gained the upper hand in the Assembly. King Louis XVI and his Queen, Marie Antoinette, discredited after their unsuccessful flight the previous year, were rightly suspected of negotiating their rescue with the Queen's brother, the Emperor of Austria. As demands for war grew more insistent, Louis XVI was forced to give in. France declared war on Austria on 20 April 1792 and on Prussia in June of the same year. It was at this dramatic moment that Beloselsky began to send his daily and sometimes twice daily despatches over the next year giving a precise, lively and balanced account of events.
As the Revolution gathered strength, the Prince's despatches (of 19-30 June), made no attempt to hide the gravity of events in France. Emigré friends pouring into his house in Savoy and his correspondents in Paris made it clear to him that the Jacobins were growing in strength by the day:
Regicide is being plotted under the very windows of the palace and if circumstances do not change in favour of Their Majesties, one has every reason to fear acts of extreme fanaticism against the King and especially against the Queen [he predicts accurately]. The Jacobins around the King having been replaced by moderates, in their rage tried every trick to deprive the monarchists of this temporary victory. I say temporary, because Jacobin ideas have grown deep roots all over France. This is the inevitable consequence of the Constitution, that is to say, of political equality, of the People's sovereignty, of the wiping out of Royalty in the person of the King, who is now a simple functionary. I would further add that even if, as a result of measures taken by the Court at Vienna, the Jacobins were to be chased out of Paris and all France, their ideas, already rooted in the country, would create more believers. As long as the cause exists, they will continue to be active. On the 21st of this month (June) the lowest rabble, armed with pikes, hatchets and pitchforks, broke down three doors to enter the King's apartments by force.
Beloselsky goes on to describe in detail how Louis was forced to put on the revolutionary red bonnet, and the terror of the Dauphin and the royal ladies as they huddled together, ending: `It was in this terrible and ridiculous position that the deputies found the Royal Family.' While Beloselsky is clearly outraged himself, the effects of this kind of news on the nervous Empress and on the Russian court can only be imagined.
In July, as diplomatic relations between Russia and France were broken off with the expulsion from St Petersburg of the French chargé Edmond Genet, Beloselsky betrays slight concern. Are his despatches on France welcome or should he confine himself to events in Savoy? He was aware that the Empress did not welcome bad news, and that this might mean trouble for the messenger. But his lively intelligence, curiosity and sense of duty always made it impossible for him to take the line of least resistance and tone down his reports.
The Revolution had given the Prince more personal reasons for concern. In September 1792 he was still anxiously awaiting the arrival of his wife, who because of revolutionary activity had been stuck for several months in Switzerland, unable to cross into Savoy. His letter to her in Geneva, in his rapid hand and idiosyncratic spelling, is full of love, concern for her safety and contradictory advice:
I cannot imagine my dearest friend why you have failed to write to me this time. It is too bad of you. Has it [the letter] been returned? Is it forgetfulness? Is it indifference? In any event you are at fault. That this should happen when I am trembling about your journey! The roads in Savoy are no longer safe. There are fears of a French insurrection. In the name of God do not set out lightly. It might be best to go through Vaud and come into Italy by way of the Tyrol? It would be longer but safer. If you are already in Geneva Monsieur Saugis will give you good directions. I consign this letter to chance. I don't know whether it will find you. Come as soon as possible I beg you. We are all well here including little Mimi. Farewell my good and beautiful one, until the happiness of being able to embrace you tenderly. We shall come to meet you at Suza together with the Abbé and Zinaida. But you must let me know the day and time you intend to cross the Mont Cenis pass.
Insurrections apart, the Prince was well justified in fearing the journey. Before Napoleon built the carriage road over the Mont Cenis pass, there was only a steep and narrow road overhanging many a sheer drop. Travel by carriage, at about six miles an hour, was slow and tiring. Even in the best-sprung coaches the passengers were horribly jolted. To cross the Alpine passes carriages were unloaded, the contents loaded on to pack mules, and the passengers carried in sedan chairs. If there was enough snow, the descent was by sledge, which would first be dragged by mules, the driver walking between the animal and the sledge and kicking snow into the passengers' faces. The sledge was then unhitched and down they would go.
The Princess, whose health was fragile, was finally able to join her husband but their happiness was short-lived. She died in Turin in November 1792, probably of consumption, and was buried there. She was only twenty-eight.
Alexander was devastated. He commissioned a chapel of white marble for his wife by the banks of the Po on land given to him by the King of Sardinia. With characteristic generosity, he also wished it to be a burial place for any of his fellow countrymen who might die in Piedmont. Several years later when Turin was occupied by the French the Prince, worried about the fate of his first wife's resting place, sent a request to Talleyrand via the French ambassador in St Petersburg, Hédouville, with a request to the First Consul, Bonaparte, that he recognise the Prince's ownership of the monument. Napoleon, keen to promote his friendship with the Tsar, conveyed some high-minded phrases through his minister to the effect that respect for the dead was, for the living, a foretaste of a happy reunion in eternal life, and that when such sentiments were illuminated by religious feeling there could be nothing more worthy of the respect of foreign governments. In short, the Prince got his agreement. His own family tragedy was followed in the New Year by news which horrified all the courts of Europe. Louis XVI was executed on 21 January 1793 and his wife, Marie Antoinette, later that year on 16 October. As soon as the news reached her, in February, the Empress Catherine annulled the Franco-Russian commercial treaty of 1787, recalled all Russian citizens from France and expelled all French citizens who were not willing to swear an oath of allegiance to the French monarchy.
At the end of that year, recalled for his `ideological despatches' on the French Revolution, the Prince returned to Russia with his children. The execution of the King and Queen had been the last straw for the Empress, who by then had had a bust of Voltaire removed from her presence, had closed Russian ports to French ships and had welcomed many émigrés to Russia. There was no way back for the Prince, who suffered the fate of many a herald of unwelcome news. With his diplomatic career at an end, he remained out of favour until Catherine's death in 1796.
Zinaida, just too young at the time of her mother's death to remember her, was five when the family left Turin, and had already been profoundly affected by her earliest memories of their house. Many years later, when returning to Italy in 1829, she visited the Russian Embassy, her old home in Turin. The visit brought back a flood of memories. This was the house which she associated with her earliest years and with her beloved father, before he had married again. It was here that her eyes were first opened to the wonders of art, and to the beauties of Italy. In a letter to her friend, the Egyptologist and Academician I. A. Gulianov, she described what the visit had meant to her:
I've been reading your letter, my dear Gulianov can you guess where? In my father's house, under our familiar roof, where I grew up illuminated by Greek, Egyptian and Italian art, where my young eyes grew used to their ideal forms. Pictures, ancient bronzes, marbles are all dear to me. They are like brothers we were all a part of my father's family.
On his return to Russia the Prince at first found solace in his writing and in the company of his three daughters, especially of his favourite, Zinaida. The Prince was an uncommonly warm and paternal man and the three motherless girls were lovingly cared for. Their mother's own wet-nurse, Sophia, looked after them until they were old enough to be put in the care of their French governess, Madame Bellay. Years later when Zinaida arranged her Alleé des Mémoires, these two friends of her childhood were lovingly remembered. Her nanny's inscription reads: `I sat on her lap and stroked her white hair, but had not known the one [her mother] whom she had fed with her own milk,' while her governess's plaque states simply: `To my old friend from her grateful pupils.' In another plaque `To my father's three faithful servants, Peter, Kolmar and Parmen' Zinaida remembered other family retainers who had meant much to her. The three sisters grew up close to their maternal grandparents, Jacov Afanasievich and Maria Dimitrievna Tatishchev, who, as she inscribed on another plaque to their memory, `transferred the tenderness they had felt for their beloved daughter to us.'
In 1795 the young widower, handsome, rich and universally loved, who was sought by the highest families in the land as an exceptional matrimonial prize, married again. His bride, Anna Grigorievna Kozitsky, though not of Alexander's social rank, was one of the greatest heiresses of her time. Her father, Empress Catherine's Secretary of State and professor of philosophy and rhetoric at the University of St Petersburg, had been rewarded with a fortune in land and mineral wealth in the Urals when he married the daughter of one of Russia's earliest pioneers. The new Princess Beloselsky brought the Prince the beautiful Kozitsky Palace on Moscow's Tversky Boulevard as part of her dowry, in addition to several estates, mines and 10,000 souls, as serfs were often referred to in Russia. The Prince enlarged this palace to house part of his vast art collection as well as a fine library. His daughter Zinaida would one day reign there, as `Queen of the Muses and of Beauty' as she was called by Pushkin, in the most famous literary and musical salon of her time. She was to be a true successor to her father, who, as a great patron of the arts, was affectionately known as the Moscow Apollo, his houses ever full of artists and writers, among them the poet Zhukovsky and the historian Karamzin.
The Prince continued to write, translating into French some of Russia's best-known writers, such as Lomonsov and Derzhavin. In 1796 he composed a comic opera, Olinka or First Love, causing a scandal at its first performance in Moscow. Performed by serf actors in Prince Stolypin's private theatre before an audience of all Moscow's grandees, the light-hearted opera with its frivolous language and feminist message so shocked the audience as to cause them to walk out, first the fathers, followed by the mammas, indignantly sweeping out their daughters. The play was about nothing more shocking than two young ladies who, deceived in love decide to do without men.
Farewell, men, you will not forget us, for we will have nothing more to do with you. As for you, you can make as many promises and tell as many lies as you like and fall in love with the whole world, for all we care,
ran the refrain which had caused the furore. Reports of this soon reached the Emperor Paul, who demanded to see the manuscript at once. Amused and alarmed, Prince Alexander appealed to his friend Karamzin for help: `Please do me the great favour of correcting all suspect passages. Clean up the play as best you can!' Karamzin must have done well. The play not only passed the Tsar's censorship but he even recommended it to the St Petersburg theatre, where it enjoyed some success during the next few years.
One of Alexander's chief interests in the early years of his marriage was the supervision of the rebuilding of their palace in St Petersburg. Designed in classical style by his friend, the architect Thom de Thomon, the new palace stood on the Nevsky Prospect, on the corner of the Fontanka canal, near the Anichkov bridge. It was described as the finest house in St Petersburg, even boasting a private church. Here the Prince displayed the magnificent collection of paintings, sculpture and books which he had brought back to Russia.
While St Petersburg society could easily forgive the Prince his good fortune, it was less kind to the new Princess. Jealous tongues spread rumours about the love of luxury, the ambition and the ignorance of the parvenue. It was said that when in Rome at a papal audience, the Princess had congratulated the Pope on his splendid palace, asking him for the name of his architect, so that she could bring him back to Russia. Another story had it that the Princess insisted on traveling to England by land, whatever the cost, apparently unaware that Britain was an island. But nothing marred the Princess's happiness. She adored her husband unreservedly: `He has pierced my soul with light,' she wrote in her diary. `He is a God to whom I bow and the light of my life.' Indeed, the Prince was loved by all her family. His brother-in-law Prince Laval described him as `a wizard who warms whatever is frozen, restores the dead to life, enlivens the boring and makes the sad happy.'
The Prince too seems to have been happy in his marriage. He was very much a family man and, although sometimes bitter about his ruined career, he was grateful for domestic happiness, and glad to have found a new mother for his children. In a poem, `Épître à ma Femme', he tenderly thanked his wife for the love with which she had embellished his life.
Vivons pour nous, ma tendre amie,
La fortune avec ses brillants
Ne vaut pas un des sentiments
Dont vous embellissez ma vie.
After a worrying few years of childlessness, three children were born of this marriage. His son Esper's birth in 1802 was noted in the Prince's journal: `After two miscarriages, my friend Esper was born on 27 December at five o'clock in the afternoon.' Esper the unusual name was a tribute to hopes fulfilled was followed by two girls, Ekaterina and Elizaveta, Zinaida's much-loved sisters Kety and Betsy.
Zinaida may well have found it difficult to share her beloved Papa with his new wife, but she was only six at the time of his remarriage, and if her relationship with her stepmother lacked the warmth and closeness of that with her father, it was due to difference of temperament. Whatever her intellectual shortcomings, Zinaida's stepmother obviously had the ability to create a close and loving family circle. All the children seem to have been exceptionally close, and remained so all their lives. Zinaida grew up in this lively family, openly worshipping her father, whose firm favourite she always remained. She was a charming and beautiful child, her large blue eyes looking out inquisitively at the world, golden curls framing a delicate face. Intelligent and, like her father, richly gifted, she was a willing and able pupil, sharing all his tastes, composing verse in French from an early age and showing a special aptitude for music. She became an excellent musician, playing both the piano and the harp, while her clear and lovely voice was to develop a rich, velvety quality which some described as mezzo-soprano and others as contralto, and which was to enchant all Europe. She studied music with François Boieldieu, the French composer and conductor of the Imperial Opera in St Petersburg. Again like her father, she soon showed a great talent for acting, often performing in private theatricals in their own theatre and in those of their friends. Here she was helped and encouraged by her governess, Madame Bellay, who had, in her time, been an intimate of the renowned French actors Clairon and Dumesnil. Zinaida was especially close to her elder sister Maria. Madeleine, as she was always called, had neither Zinaida's beauty nor her talent. Unlike her volatile and gifted sibling, she had a calm and equable temperament and infinite kindness. Zinaida relied on her from the start, while Madeleine, devoid of jealousy, worshipped her brilliant younger sister.
The Prince took personal charge of his children's education, particularly Zinaida's, teaching her Latin and Greek in addition to French, English and Italian which he knew particularly well. Father and daughter knew long passages from the plays of Corneille and Racine by heart, declaiming them with great feeling. They also enjoyed reciting Dante and Petrarch. French was, of course, Zinaida's dominant language, as it was for all patrician Russians. Like her father, she never properly mastered Russian although later she made a determined effort to do so.
The young Princess grew up in great wealth, in her parents' splendid palaces filled with works of art and surrounded by her father's many distinguished Russian and foreign friends. Sharing his love of beauty, she would be the first to admire any new addition to his collections. The art and architecture, the landscape and climate of Italy profoundly affected the sensitive young girl. Her exotic name, Zinaida, that of a Byzantine princess, was prophetic. She always stood out among her more traditionally named sisters, and throughout her life she was irresistibly drawn to the South. Perhaps there were already signs of the depressive illness which dogged her all her life. The signs of it were always there in a restlessness and a highly strung reaction to art and beauty. While her beloved father was alive, however, all was well with her world.
* * *
In 1803 the Prince bought the Krestosky Ostrov. This densely forested island was dissected by two roads in the shape of a cross, giving the island its name (krest, cross, ostrov, island). Lying to the north-west of St Petersburg and only about three miles from the Winter Palace, the island had originally been given by Peter the Great to his sister. The painter Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun, who spent several years in Russia and had even been courted by Alexander Beloselsky, recalled: `The far end of this island seemed to merge into the sea, large boats sailed past, and the whole aspect was one of calm and beauty.'
An existing stone house was now much enlarged by the Prince. Built around a seven-door rotunda, the house was star-shaped, light and spacious, containing a rare collection of prints and a splendid library. It was here, close to the sea and surrounded by the northern forests, that the family spent their summers. Despite being so close to the capital, the island with its forests, stables and beautiful gardens had the atmosphere of a country estate. Soon, more houses and streets were added, the streets being named after members of the family. Canton-Joli, as the estate was called, was where the Beloselsky children and their large tribe of cousins spent their early years. Gradually, the island estate was embellished with beautiful gardens full of rare plants and trees. Around the gardens was untamed Russian forest, while along the shore the Beloselskys, their friends and members of the royal family were often to be seen fishing peacefully.
Zinaida particularly loved the long rides through the forest with her father. An accomplished horseman with a large stable of thoroughbreds, the Prince taught all his children to ride himself. It was while they picked their way through the forest paths that Alexander would talk to them about his travels and teach them about Russia's history, particularly Peter the Great, whom the Prince greatly admired. Those early history lessons had a profound effect on the imaginative young girl. Later she took great pains to study her country's past, especially the early history of the Slavs. As she grew up Zinaida was obviously as much admired by her younger siblings as by her father, as was later vividly recalled by one of Zinaida's step-cousins, Catherine Laval, always known as Katasha, who was the same age as Zinaida's younger half-brother and sisters. Katasha remembered the huge gatherings of family and friends. The Beloselskys were extremely hospitable even by Russian standards, and lavish entertainments followed one another, interspersed with a constant round of simple family gatherings. On Saturday evenings throughout the summer there were children's parties. Katasha recalled the merry-go-rounds when the children, mounted on wooden horses and armed with lances, would attempt to thread as many hoops as they could on to them as they went round and round. On Sundays the Lavals would join the Beloselskys for Sunday Mass in the family church which would be followed by lunch. Often, as more and more people arrived, there would be hurried consultations with the cook whom her aunt, Zinaida's step mother Anna Grigorievna, would beg to make the soup stretch just a little further. Zinaida and Katasha's paths were to cross again later, when Katasha, her future husband, Prince Troubetskoy and Zinaida's future brother-in-law, Sergei Volkonsky would be exiled to Siberia for their part in the Decembrist revolt. Katasha's letters from Siberia always sent love to Zinaida. She was never to forget her childhood admiration for her beautiful older cousin, nor of how thrilled they had always been as children to be allowed to stay up to hear Zinaida sing, and how much they had longed to please her.
While she loved summers at Canton-Joli, Zinaida never liked St Petersburg, with its long, freezing winters, when the lamps would be permanently lit against the endless, bitter, northern night. Her depressive nature yearned for and needed the sun. `Dans le sein des frimats s'écoula mon enfance' (`My childhood passed amidst the hoar frost'), she wrote in a poem to Madame de Staël, some years later. Despite the rigours of the climate, the life of the aristocracy in Russia was so splendid that every traveller of the time remarked on it. Lavish entertainments, so beloved of the Russians, punctuated the year, beginning with the New Year celebrations when both the Winter Palace and the Hermitage were thrown open to all ranks of society. In the Salle du Concert of the Winter Palace, under the most magnificent chandeliers ever seen, weekly balls were held throughout the winter. Every night there was a ball at one of the great houses. All visitors, however grand, were astonished at the richness of court dress. At Peterhof, the Emperor and Empress and the entire court would attend chapel in gold and silver dresses embroidered with diamonds. One of the Grand Duchesses wore a dress trimmed all round with four rows of diamonds. To Madame de Staël, the Russians were really southerners condemned to live in the North, who did all in their power to fight a climate so ill-suited to their nature. The conservatories and orangeries of the palaces along the Neva were luxuriant with exotic fruit and flowers, while their reception rooms were full of treasures, opulent with colour and exuberant with rich gilding and the light of a thousand candles.
Madame de Staël thought St Petersburg one of the most beautiful cities in the world, `as if', she wrote some years later, `with a wave of his wand a magician had conjured up all the marvels of Europe and of Asia out of the desert.' Pushkin too loved this city, a love incomparably expressed in the introduction to his poem The Bronze Horseman. He loved the winters, with the sleighs whizzing along the broad Neva, the girls' faces, `brighter than roses', the brilliance, and the sparkling conversation at the balls and the bachelors' gatherings with foaming glasses and the blue-flamed punch.
Then still only a hundred years old, the marble city grew out of the surrounding swamps around the River Neva, its clear waters flowing between granite quays. The river was the centre of life, but also an ever-present danger to the city, as prevailing westerly winds, together with a high tide, frequently threatened to flood Peter's city. In January, at the feast of the Epiphany, the Tsar and the Imperial family followed by the entire court would descend the Jordan staircase of the Winter Palace, to watch the blessing of the waters. Men in dress uniform and bejewelled ladies swathed in their winter furs, escorted by the assembled ranks of the horse guards and surrounded by the townspeople, would all gather at the water's edge. Finally, magnificent in his vestments, followed by acolytes swinging sensors, the Metropolitan would lower the cross into the icy, black waters of the Neva through a hole cut in the ice, by then three feet thick. After the blessing, the Emperor would be presented with the first glass of water drawn from the river, which he would solemnly drink. Only then could the townspeople come to draw some of the blessed water.
Winter would drag on into May. As the days began to lengthen and the air to warm up, a sudden drop in the temperature would signal the breaking up of the ice fields on Lake Lagoda. Alexander Pushkin described the sense of euphoria at the end of winter `when having broken her dark blue ice, the Neva sweeps it to the sea, and scenting the days of spring, exults.'
The whole city would turn out to watch the enormous ice floes, often dotted with black seals, as they rumbled down the Neva to the sea, making a terrible noise as they piled up on each other and ground against the ice breakers under the bridges. Suddenly the winter would give way to the short spring, the trees unfurling their leaves almost visibly, white blossom of bird cherry foaming over the countryside, wild flowers carpeting the meadows. Then the long, lilac-scented summer days would set in; the sun ever-present on the horizon, the light pearly against the clear waters lapping the reeds. Then the Neva, flowing full, smooth and clear, was
enlivened by the gayest ten or twelve-oared boats half-covered with a canopy fringed with gold for the company, the rowers moving in perfect unison pausing gracefully after every stroke on the water and often singing hauntingly lovely songs.
Pushkin recalled the transparent twilights and moonless brilliance of summer nights when he could read all night without a lamp, and when dawn followed dusk leaving but a half-hour for night. The end of August would signal a short autumn when the forests would flash with the yellow of birch leaves and the earth would be carpeted in amber and gold before the first snows reclaimed this northern land.