Saturday, February 27, 2010

More about my mystery

I stood for a long time watching the young guard playing the balalaika. He didn't see me. I don't often have that opportunity for anyone outside my family, because wherever we go people are looking out for us, lining up to see us, or making sure we're all right and have everything we need. When we enter a room—even me—everyone looks up, stands, and curtsies or bows. It's a novel feeling to see someone else so close by and not have him turn all his attention to me.

I thought I might just steal away without letting him know I was there, but something about him made me want to get to know him. Why was he there? How did he dare enter the tsar's garden alone, and to play the balalaika at that! He was either very brave or very foolish. And his face—it is handsome, but young. On the edge of being a man, but there is sorrow in it too.

So, I slowly crept forward. I didn't want him to see me too soon. The closer I got, the more I liked the way he looked. I tried to be very quiet, but the toe of my shoe caught a stone. He looked up. His eyes were so blue! The moment was over. I was no longer seeing him without him seeing me. But it wasn't the end. I decided right then to make sure.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Something incredible has happened

I've been so busy with the Jubilee that I've hardly had a minute to think. I decided to run away for a little while and disappear in the garden at Peterhof—probably the only place I can do that, since the gardens are so big and full of little nooks and corners. It was just before lesson time, and I knew I wouldn't get away with it for long, but I was just tired of all the parties and visits to hospitals and schools. I know I should count myself lucky, but it just gets to be too much sometimes.

Anyway, I found a place alone: no gardeners, no guards that I could see (the Okhrana, our secret police, watch everything we do—very annoying!) and I just sat down by myself on the grass.

Then I heard a balalaika being played, very prettily, an old Russian song that I love. Some of the servants play, but none would dare to do it in the garden, so I thought perhaps it was someone just outside the gate.

I went to explore, but the wind kept tricking my ear and I'd think I'd found it and then the sound would come from somewhere else.

Finally, I turned a corner that led into the deepest, farthest part of the garden, and I saw the person playing the balalaika. He was young. And handsome! and a member of the guards.

I don't have time to write more, but I promise I will soon!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Olga has changed

I know I've talked about my sisters before, but it seems as if lately they are becoming almost strangers. As if wearing long skirts and putting their hair up has made them into different people. Mashka and I try to get them to play or get into mischief, but instead they sit by themselves, whispering.

I suppose it started with all this business about Prince Carol of Rumania. Mama really hoped that Olga would like him so that they could be married. Frankly, I thought he was very handsome and I couldn't understand why Olga treated him as if he was a fly on her sleeve. I suspected that she was in love with someone else, but afraid to tell Mama. What she said at the time was that she didn't want to marry a foreign prince, because she would have to leave Russia.

Now she looks far away sometimes, almost sad. I don't know what she has to be sad about. Perhaps she knows things we don't. Papa talks to her more than the rest of us. Sometimes she is even allowed to go and sit with him in his study. Papa spends a lot of time there. He has books, a billiard table, and places to sit. I've only been in it a few times. Alexei goes there.

But really, I think Olga can see the future sometimes, she looks so much as if she is elsewhere. When I ask her what she's thinking, she just smiles. Then I see her love for me and I just want to hold onto her forever, even if I don't understand her.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


If there's one cure for the strange tension I feel all around me now, it's activity and exercise. Even though the Jubilee activities involve many hours of sitting and greeting people, or walking in processions, we always find time to play.

Things we like to do: play tennis, swim, ride bicycles. Not much else really. But we have a lot of opportunities to play outside unless we're at the Winter Palace. When we're at Livadia, we swim every day. But our swimming costumes are heavy and annoying. Alexei is allowed to swim without a shirt on, which is much easier. This is when he was younger, with some cousins I don't even remember.

At Livadia we also play tennis. Papa loves tennis, and we always have a fierce competition. I like to win, and my sisters get mad at me because sometimes I cheat just so I'll make the point. It's all in fun though.

Bicycling is something we can do just about anywhere. There are always bicycles to ride at Peterhof, the Alexander Palace and in Livadia. We still have to wear skirts, but we have some that are split in the middle like big trousers that make it easier to ride. Again, Alexei's lucky he doesn't have to wear such cumbersome clothes, but his nurse is always with him so he won't fall on his bicycle. And that's not as much fun for him.

Here's Olga on a bicycle with me walking next to her. We're not allowed to ride really fast, like Papa does sometimes, especially when he's angry or wants to think. Sometimes I wish I could ride and ride my bicycle out across Russia, all by myself. But I'd miss my sisters and brother, mama and papa, so it's not so much a wish as a fantasy.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Mashka's soldier

Mashka cried herself to sleep last night. Nothing I could say would comfort her. She is in love with a soldier. Even though she's only14, she is very passionate in her likes and loves. She once had a cat who died, and she cried for a whole week. Even when Mama got her a new kitten.

This soldier who has made her so unhappy is the one she made a shirt for, hand-sewn so carefully, with embroidered cuffs and embroidered initials on the collar. He is going away. He won't say where, he's not allowed.

I tried to cheer her up. Usually if I make jokes or funny faces she'll laugh, but not this time.

"I know it's because there will be a war," she said. Her face was pale, and her eyes red from weeping.

"Hush, Marie, my Mashka darling. I only overheard something and that isn't certain. Count Witte said Papa would favor peace."

"Then why," she asked, "are all the guards being transferred, and only the old ones coming here? They are training them, I'm certain. He will be killed! I'll never see him again!"

After that nothing I could say would soothe her. I listened to her sobbing until she finally fell asleep.

Then I was thinking about my own frinds, the soldiers I knew. Most of them not very well. They treat me like a little sister. All except for one, and I can't talk about him to anyone. If there is war, will he go too? Will he have to fight, even though he is so young? I hadn't thought about it until Mashka raised the possibility with what she said.

Now I can't sleep.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Threats of War

Something is happening. Papa and Mama seem tense, on edge. They think we don’t notice it, but we do. They hush each other when we walk into the room. They say things in front of us that don’t make sense in themselves, but obviously refer to some private conversation they were having before.
And Papa’s ministers have been coming to talk to him. Not just the ministers, but the generals. Count Witte is one of his chief advisors. He is a very old man, and extremely wise. He has known Papa since he was a child, and still calls Mama and Papa mes enfants. I overheard him talking in the hallway before he could go in to see Papa. He spoke with Count Benckendorff, another of Papa’s aides de camp.

“I think the tsar is inclined to favor peace.”

“But we are bound by treaty to guard Belgium’s neutrality,” Count Benckendorff answered.

There was a pause, then Count Witte said, “You know that Nikki cannot risk another debacle like the Japanese war.”

“True. Perhaps, nonetheless, he will see this as a way to set the record aright.”

War! With whom? I didn’t have anyone to ask. If it was such a big secret, I could hardly talk to Nastinka, or Isa, or Anya about it.

Before we went to bed, my sisters and I had a secret conference. I told them what I heard. Olga smoked a cigarette while she thought about it. She’s the only one who might be able to find anything out from Papa.

“I think it’s all just alarmist nonsense,” Tatiana said, but something told me that she knew more than she was saying.

Mashka looked pale. I’m sure she was thinking of her guard, the one she has such a crush on. If there is a war, the young men will go off to fight, and have a chance to be wounded or killed. Mashka has such a tender heart. She has already let her imagination lead her to the most dire possible consequences.

I’ll tell her a funny story before we go to sleep. That will take her mind off things.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The maids of honor

Wherever we are, lots and lots of people take care of us and work for us. It's a difficult job, being tsar and tsaritsa. But sometimes it feels as if we are never alone. I think that is partly why Mama and Papa take us everywhere with them. They want us to be just a family, but it's impossible. I see it, and it's partly why I try so hard to make everyone laugh.

The maids of honor, though, are our special friends. Even though they are employed by the court with salaries, and don't live in the palace but come to do their jobs when they are on duty, like anyone with a job, they are as much like family as our tutors and Alexei's nurses and doctors. I'd like to tell you a little about them. There were so many over the years and I don't remember them all, so I'll just concentrate on the ones we have now.

Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden 
We all call Sophie Isa, I'm not certain why, except that we're terribly fond of her and people we're fond of always get nicknames. She is a calm, capable person, and often the one to accompany the four of us when we have official duties to perform on our own. Opening a school, visiting a hospital, touring a factory. She's a very trustworthy person. Her father was Danish, hence her name. She is not married, although she is still young, so who knows? Perhaps one day soon. Olga and Tatiana sometimes tease her about officers she has danced with, or nobles she knew as a young girl. I'm glad she's not thinking of marrying soon because that means she's certain to stay with us.

Lili Dehn
Lili is married to one of our favorite officers on the Standart, Karl Dehn, whose family is from Sweden. Because he is often busy with his military duties, it suits her very well to be a maid of honor, and we're all glad about that. Mama considers her a dear friend, and she is always around to help when Mama does not feel well. We have very few pictures of Lili, but you can see how pretty she is in this one.

Countess Anastasia Hendrikova
I've saved her for last, our dearest Nastinka! It is Nastinka we talk to when we cannot talk to Mama, when Alexei is ill especially. She keeps us up to date with what is happening, what the doctors have said. If we need anything, all we have to do is tell Nastinka, and she will see that we get it. And Olga and Tatiana said that it was Nastinka who helped them when they began to get the curse, and they lacked the necessary supplies. We could tell her anything, and she would keep our secrets. Often she is the one to come upstairs and bid us good night when Mama and Papa are busy. This is Nastinka with Isa, Nastinka on the left, Isa on the right.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Standart

Every year we take a journey on Papa's yacht, the Standart, around the beautiful coast of Finland. My sisters and I share a cabin. It's like camping, I think, and it's fun to be all together like that. Alexei has his own cabin which Nagorny shares with him—Nagorny is a sailor who is Alexei's nurse. He carries him when necessary and protects him from harm. There's another nurse, Derevenko, who helps him, but Nagorny is the most devoted.

Here is Alyosha and Papa on the yacht:

Mama and Papa each have their own staterooms, and even my grandmama has her own room too. Sometimes she comes with us. But lately she and Papa haven't been getting along well. When they are alone I hear her voice raised, scolding Papa. She tells him he is not strong enough, that he is making the wrong decisions, and blames Mama for a lot of it. I don't understand what they're talking about, but I wish I did. I'll ask Tatiana, or Olga.

This is what the Standart looks like. Beautiful, isn't she?

Life on the Standart is fun. The sailors play with us and indulge us in everything—not just letting us rollerskate, but skating with us. I think it's like a holiday for them as well.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Some disorganized thoughts

I've been so confused lately. I love my sisters, and poor Alexei needs us, although he is not as bad as he sometimes can be, not writhing in pain, just uncomfortable and weak. Mama is exhausted from the traveling we've been doing. Dr. Botkin has ordered her to rest. Anya, Nastinka and Isa are—Mama's best friend and her two principal maids of honor—have been taking on more and more of Mama's duties for her, going to visit hospitals and distributing alms to the poor.

I have a vague feeling of disquiet. I'm not sure where it's coming from. Oh, no one in my family knows. I still play the impish rogue, getting them all to laugh whenever I can. Sometimes I even convince myself something is funny.

Perhaps my feeling will dissipate when we go to Livadia, or when we board the Standart for our annual cruise around the beautiful coastline of Finland. I should be happy. I have this wonderful secret that I can dream about before I go to sleep, and think of when I awake. But I cannot shake a feeling that storm clouds are gathering above us.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Contest starts today!

So, here's how it works: I'll ask a question about my family. You answer it by email to Susanne Dunlap. On March 2nd, the person with the most correct answers wins, and if there's a tie, it's resolved by a drawing. So, here it is, question #1:

What is the name of Alexei's dog?

Good luck! Remember, the prize is a signed copy of Anastasia's Secret.