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Project 1917 is a series of events that took place a hundred years ago as described by those involved. It is composed only of diaries, letters, memoirs, newspapers and other documents

It was one in the morning before I arrived home. I rang the bell, and after some delay the door was opened by my maid… who nearly fainted when she saw me...

I couldn’t speak. My thoughts were concentrated on Titi… I ran past her upstairs to his room... It was empty! What had happened — could he be dead? I hurried across the landing to my bedroom… A light was burning… Someone was in bed… Thank God, I recognised the beloved dark head of my boy — he was safe. I fell on my knees beside him.

With a little start, and a smile, which was like balm to my yearning heart, Titi awoke…

“Mother, mother…” He flung his arms around me. I covered his face with kisses. “Where have you come from?” he enquired.

“From prison.”

The child began to cry. I realized the tactlessness of my reply.

“If they ever take you away again I’ll go too,” he sobbed.

“But Where’s ‘Aunt Baby’? What has happened to her? And where is Papa? They say he’s been killed.”

“Darling, darling, I can tell you nothing about Papa.”

Hearing the sound of voices, my father now came into the room. He was greatly relieved to know that I was safe, as all sorts of stories were current respecting my fate and that of Anna Virouboff. But my one thought was for my child: he was much better, but the room struck cold, and I asked my father how it was that there was no fire. He shrugged his shoulders.

“Ma chere” he replied, “the answer is quite simple — we have no wood! The servants manage to steal a little to burn during the day, but at night c’est bien autre chose”

I undressed as quickly as possible, and got into bed. I held Titi close. I kissed him passionately. I trembled with mingled joy and fear!... No one should separate us.

I knew nothing as to our ultimate fate, but I had made up my mind, during these first hours of freedom, to escape as soon as possible to my estates in South Russia, and, if the Imperial Family were removed from Tsarkoe, to join them.

It was a strange home-coming. The whole house was disorganised. The servants were still devoted to my interests, but food and fuel were difficult to obtain. I spent the morning of the next day lying on a couch in my dressing-room. I was really ill; the long strain had told, and Nature was now exacting her toll in the shape of occasional heart attacks. See more

The long days passed in their monotonous progress. I no longer seemed to belong to the outside world. I heard nothing, nobody came near me — I was as one dead. But, if my days were monotonous, my nights were full of horror. When darkness fell, and the authorities relaxed their incessant watchfulness, the soldiers became brutish… when I say that I dared not fall asleep, some idea may be gathered of my dread! I had never met the eyes of lust until now… but it was impossible not to understand the glances of many of the soldiers. And I was not under any false illusions about the morality of freedom, it might surely be called the Freedom of Immorality! I thought of my husband far away in England, of my child lying ill within a short distance of my prison, and of that dear family for whose sakes I would gladly suffer untold misery. Memory opened her book, and I saw within its pages people and scenes which stirred many bitter-sweet recollections in my heart. Once again I walked under the linden trees at Revovka, and listened to the nightingales. I saw the forgotten grave with the wild rose weeping her petal-tears over la morte amoureuse; once again I stood in the Winter Garden waiting to see the Empress, sometimes I played with Titi and the Grand Duchesses and heard the Empress's kind voice. The pale face and hypnotic eyes of Rasputin recalled my pilgrimage… The church towers and houses of Tobolsk rose against the evening sky, the dark and sinister river flowed past me… Memory turned back more pages of her wonderful book, and I saw the Tsarkoe Selo of yesterday, the sick children, their fragile mother, and the Emperor, to whom Destiny had proved so cruel.

I endeavoured to preserve a calm mental outlook, it was useless... I wondered whether escape might be possible, but my room was situated on the fourth floor, I dared not risk the descent from the window. One idea obsessed me. I must see Kerensky, and this idea grew more intense when I heard that I was shortly to be removed to another prison.

“They are making enquiries about you,” said the A.D.C.

“Well, I want you to do something, and inform the Minister Kerensky that I would like to see him.”

The A.D.C. was evidently startled by my request.

“Hm… I’ll do my best, but—” his gesture was significant of the hopelessness of such a request. Upon his return, the A.D.C. said tersely:

“I’ve seen about your affair, but Kerensky sleeps; he has just dined.”

“Will you ask him to see me when he awakes?”

“Yes…” Again the significant gesture.

I waited impatiently. I felt that this interview with Kerensky would prove the critical point in my present desperate situation. I paced up and down the room, and my nervous agitation aroused the pity of one of the soldiers, who remarked kindly:

“Poor young lady! You do seem worried!”

Three hours passed… They seemed like centuries, and then the A.D.C. entered.

“The Minister will receive you,” he said.

I hastily arranged my sadly crumpled Red Cross uniform, and two soldiers with fixed bayonets stationed themselves on either side of me. The A.D.C. led the way down endless stairs and lengthy corridors. At last we halted before a half-open door, and, as I stood there, I smelt the delicate fragrance of roses. Surely no roses grew in this terrible prison soil? But the perfume was unmistakable, and I was not left long to wonder from whence it proceeded. I was ushered into a large, well-furnished reception room, formerly occupied by some Minister under the Empire, and on a table stood an enormous basket of blood-red roses. On another table was a basket of scarlet carnations, the warm air was heavy with the mingled odours of roses and clove pinks. So the Ministers of the Revolution were able to indulge their taste for roses in March, whilst the Sons of Freedom clamoured in the snow for bread!

The door at the extreme end of the room was ajar; presently it opened, and Kerensky came in. He glanced at me, walked to the writing-table, where he seated himself, and indicated a place for me.

Kerensky: “Well, what do you want. You asked to see me?”

Myself: “I want to ask you why I am under arrest. I have never meddled in politics, they are the last things that interest me. I can’t regard myself as a political prisoner.”

Kerensky (taking a roll of paper off the desk, and perusing it):”’Listen… Firstly, you are accused of staying voluntarily with Their Majesties when you had no official position at Court. Can you deny this?”

Myself: “Certainly not, I have no wish to do so. I stayed with Their Majesties, as I could not possibly desert them at such a moment. I love the Imperial Family as individuals. Surely this cannot constitute a crime in your eyes.”

Kerensky: “Well... let it pass… What is this close friendship between you and the Empress?”

Myself: “I am honoured with the friendship of the Empress. She knows my husband, she has been so good to us that we cannot be devoted enough to her.”

Kerensky (impatiently): “Enough of the Empress. What do you want?”

Myself: “What I ask is not freedom, but imprisonment in my own house. My child is ill. I want to be with him.”

Kerensky (laughing satirically): “You didn’t consider your child when you left him alone in Petrograd in order to remain with your beloved Empress.”

Myself (angrily): “I know best why I left him. You call yourself a patriot... I suppose you put the love of your country before family ties? I love the Imperial Family, they come before my family ties. You’ve taken me away from them—I haven’t gone willingly. Why deprive me of my child?”

Kerensky (with sinister emphasis): “Listen, Madame Dehn, you know too much. You have been constantly with the Empress since the beginning of the Revolution. You can, if you choose, throw quite another light on certain happenings which we have represented in a different aspect. You’re dangerous.”

A long silence.

Kerensky: “Can you explain why all orders from the Empress passed through you? You had no official position… it’s a most suspicious occurrence.”

Myself: “We were practically isolated in the private apartments through fear of contagion. Besides, what orders could the Empress give without their being known to you?”

Kerensky: “The servants are witnesses that all orders came through you. Enquiries will reveal the truth... if you are honest… well and good. If not… that’s another matter.”

I looked at him. Kerensky seemed absolutely implacable, but I decided to make one last appeal. He apparently loved flowers; this proved that, as his senses could be appealed to, why not his heart?

If you had a child of your own, you’d understand my feelings,” I said.

Kerensky surveyed me with that now familiar appraising scrutiny.

“I don’t think much of you as a mother,” he replied, smiling coldly, “but — how old is your child?”

“He is seven.”

“Well, Madame, it so happens that I have a child, and he, too, is seven. I can decide nothing, but I am now going to a Council at which Prince Lvoff will be present. He must decide.”

I looked him straight in the eyes. This time he met my gaze fully and squarely.

“I’m perfectly certain that you can do anything you like, without consulting anyone,” I said.

This tribute to his vanity appealed at once to Kerensky. With most men vanity is the most powerful factor. Wound a man’s vanity and he will never forgive you; pander to it, and he is your friend for life. Kerensky was no exception : I had discovered the heel of this Russian Achilles.

“You are quite right. Of course I can do what I like. Go back to your room—I’ll send you my answer later in the evening.”

He pressed an electric bell on his table. The A.D.C. entered.

“Has Madame Dehn a bed in her room?” asked Kerensky. “If not, see that one is placed there.”

“Oh, I don’t want a bed,” I interrupted. “Please let me go to my child.”

“I’ve already told you,” said Kerensky, “that I’ll let you know later. But… if I allow you to go home, you must give me your written promise not to act in any way against us.”

The A.D.C. made a sign to the soldiers, Kerensky took no further notice of me, and I was hurried out of the warm flower-scented apartment into the icy corridor.

Black despair overcame me when I regained my room. Kerensky had been non-committal ; but I had hopes that my allusion to him as omnipotent might have some favourable effect ; so I sat in the corner nearest the door, straining my ears to catch the sound of approaching footsteps. See more

I spent the morning with the Empress, and I lunched with Anna, in the apparently forlorn hope of dissuading her from attempting to see Marie. After luncheon we discussed the burning question of Kotzebue’s disappearance. Suddenly we were startled by hearing a noise in the corridor…  Anna instantly rang the bell. A servant answered it.

“Who is outside?” demanded Anna.

“I don’t know” replied the man, who was evidently much disturbed; “the soldiers are here.” At this moment a skorohod entered, and handed me a tiny folded note. I opened it… Written in pencil, in the Empress’s handwriting, were these ominous words:

“Kerensky passe par toutes nos chambres, pas avoir peur—Dieu est Ia, Vous embrasse toutes les deux!”

Heavy footsteps sounded in the corridor. I had barely time to slip the precious note inside my bodice when the door was flung open, and a man, followed by two others, came in. I stood up at once and looked at our visitor—it was Kerensky himself! I saw a slight man with a pale face, thin lips, shifty eyes, seen under lowered lids, and a nondescript nose. Kerensky gave one the impression of being mal soigne... He was not tall, but slight in figure, and his head drooped in a curious manner: he wore the blue jacket of an ordinary workman. Kerensky slowly considered us.

“Are you Madame Anna Virouboff?” he said, addressing Anna.

“Yes,” replied Anna, faintly.

“Well, put on your clothes immediately and be ready to follow me.” Anna made no answer.

“Why the devil are you in bed?” he demanded, staring at Anna’s invalid deshahillee.

“Because I’m ill,” whimpered Anna, looking more childish than ever.

“Well”... said Kerensky, turning to an officer, “perhaps we had better not move her. I’ll have a chat with the doctors. In the meantime, isolate Madame Virouboff. Place sentinels before the door—she’s to hold no communication with anyone. Nobody is to come into this bedroom or to leave it until I give the order.”

He went out of the room, followed by the officers. Anna and I looked at each other, speechless with dismay. My first collected thought was for the Empress. I would not be separated from her.

“I must try and see Their Majesties,” I said wildly.

“Yes, Lili, do. For God’s sake see them,” sobbed Anna. I opened the bedroom door very softly: the sentinels had not yet arrived. I caught a glimpse of Kerensky entering the room occupied by the doctors; then, impelled by some desperate courage, I ran down the corridors, and arrived breathless in the Grand Duchesses’ apartments. I found the Empress with Olga. I told her, in a few words, what had happened. Then distant footsteps warned us of Kerensky’s approach.

“Run… Lili— hide in Marie’s room—it’s dark there,” whispered the Empress.

I had barely time to crouch down behind a screen in Marie’s room when Kerensky came in. He took no notice of the sick girl, but went in search of the Empress, who, with the Emperor, had now gone into the schoolroom. From where I was hiding I could hear Kerensky shouting. In a few moments the Empress entered; she was trembling visibly… The Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana (now convalescent) rushed forward.

“Mamma, Mamma, what is the matter?”

“Kerensky has insisted upon my leaving him alone with the Emperor,” answered the Empress… “They’ll most probably arrest me.”

The two girls clung to their mother, and slowly made their way back to Marie. I had now emerged from behind the screen, and I went into the schoolroom, where I determined to remain until I saw the Emperor. After what seemed a very long time the Emperor came out— alone.

“Your Majesty,” I cried, “tell me, I implore you, if there is anything dreadful in store for Her Majesty?”

The Emperor was painfully nervous.

“No, no, Lili, and if Kerensky had uttered one word against Her Majesty, you would have heard me strike the table—thus—’ ’and he struck the writing table with his fist. “But I hear they’ve arrested Anna. Poor unfortunate woman, what will become of her?”

At the sound of her husband’s voice the Empress came out of Marie’s bedroom. The Emperor told her that Kerensky had arrested Anna because he suspected that she was implicated in political plots.

“If it’s true, it’s an awful thing,” said Kerensky, “but I suppose everything will now be disclosed.”

Their Majesties then related the particulars of their interview with Kerensky.

“His first words,” said the Empress, were,

“I am Kerensky. You probably know my name.”

We made no answer.

“But you must have heard of me?” he persisted.  Still no reply. “Well,” said Kerensky, “I’m sure I don’t know why we are standing. Let’s sit down— it’s far more comfortable!”

“He seated himself,” continued the Empress. “The Emperor and I slowly followed his example, and, finding that I still declined to speak, Kerensky insisted upon being left alone with the Emperor.”

Shortly afterwards, to our great relief, we were informed that Kerensky had left the Palace and gone to the Town Hall. The new commandant. Colonel Korovichenko, was then presented to the Empress, who begged him to allow her to say good-bye to Anna. Korovichenko consented, and the Empress went, unaccompanied, to Anna’s room. She sat very silent when she returned: she felt the parting keenly, as both the friends knew that, in all probability, it might be for ever! The Emperor, the Grand Duchesses and myself now took up our position in “Orchie’s room,’’ from which the windows commanded a view of the entrance to Anna’s apartments. I was sitting by the Empress near the window… All at once she took my hand, and said in a voice choked with emotion:

“At least, God will allow you to remain, and…”  Her sentence remained unfinished… At this moment someone knocked at the door; it was Count Benckendorff, who had hurried along to tell the Empress that he still hoped better things for Anna.

This was only a temporary respite. A little later we heard the sound of an automobile in the courtyard. I looked down, and saw two automobiles drawn up in front of the Imperial entrance to the Palace. Another knock ! This time it was a servant who announced:

“The new Commandant wishes to speak to Madame Dehn.”

I went out; Korovitchenko, a fair-haired, common-looking man with a hard mouth, was standing at the end of the corridor.

“Madame Dehn?” he enquired brusquely.

“Yes... I am Madame Dehn.”

“ Well… get ready. Take as little as possible with you; you are going with Kerensky to Petrograd.”

I nearly fainted, but I managed to run back to “Orchie’s room.” In a few hurried words I acquainted the Empress with Korovitchenko’s orders… I could not look at any of them. I tried to be calm, but at the sound of Tatiana’s uncontrollable sobbing I broke down and wept in the arms of the Empress.

“Eh bien… ” she said, releasing me gently from her embrace, “il n’y rien de faire.”

“Is Madame Dehn ready?” shouted someone outside.

The Empress called Zanoty (one of her dressers) and told her to put some things together in a suitcase. She did not speak to me — or I to her — our hearts were too full. It was like some terrible nightmare. At length I managed to go into Anastasie’s room… She was in bed. I kissed her many times, and told her that I would never forsake them. Poor Marie lay asleep in her darkened room... I kissed her flushed cheek, blessed her, and went out quietly. There was no time to say good-bye to the Tsarevitch. Zanoty had packed my suit-case, and the Empress now sent her to fetch a sacred medal, which she hung round my neck, blessing me as she did so. At the last moment Tatiana ran out of the room, and returned with a Httle leather case containing portraits of the Emperor and the Empress, which had stood on her especial tabic ever since she was a tiny child.

“Lili ...” she cried, “if Kerensky is going to take you away from us, you shall at least have Papa and Mamma to console you.”

Another imperative summons told us that the moment of parting was at hand. I put on my hat, and we left “Orchie’s room”; the Emperor and the Empress walked on either side of me, and the Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana followed us. I had never imagined in the “happy” days that it would ever be my lot to traverse this corridor with a breaking heart, or under such conditions. For ten years I had received nothing but affection from the Imperial Family — I had watched the children grow up, I had been their playmate and their friend—now I had to leave them in hostile and menacing surroundings. Russia had already deprived them of their Imperial state, their possessions and their liberty: surely she might not have deprived them of their friends! We walked slowly towards the head of the great staircase… the moment for saying farewell had arrived... I tried to be brave… the silence was unbroken save by Tatiana’s stifled sobbing. Olga and the Empress were quite calm, but Tatiana, who has been described by most contemporary historians as proud and reserved, made no secret of her grief. Two soldiers were waiting on the staircase… the little group of the Imperial Family stopped, and surrounded me… then all pretence of self-control vanished. We clung together, but our unavailing tears made no impression on hearts harder than the marble staircase on which we stood.

“Come… Madame...” said one of the soldiers, seizing me by the arm.

I turned to the Empress. With a tremendous effort of will, she forced herself to smile reassuringly; then, in a voice whose every accent bespoke intense love and deep religious conviction, she said:

“Lili, by suffering we are purified for Heaven. This good-bye matters little—we shall meet in another world.”

The soldiers hurried me down the staircase, but I stopped half-way, and looked back. The Imperial Family was still where I had left them; with a rough gesture, my guards motioned me to descend. I could see my beloved Empress no longer. I walked to the door of the second entrance where some officers and soldiers stood, laughing and talking. Two automobiles were waiting outside. It was bitterly cold, and a bleak wind howled round the Palace, and drove the snow in stinging dust against my face as I sat in the open automobile waiting for Anna. At last she appeared; she looked ghastly, and her eyes were swollen with crying. Two officers sat facing us, and a third took his place beside the chauffeur. In this manner we saw the last of Tsarkoe Selo… but I had left my heart behind.

We proceeded rapidly towards the private station, where the automobile stopped. I walked quickly inside. I held myself erect... I would not let our enemies think that I knew the meaning of the word Fear. As I passed, some of the soldiers sneered… “See how haughty she is,’’ they remarked; but I took no notice.

The Imperial train was waiting, and the thought flashed across my mind that the Revolutionaries were surely most inconsistent people, since Kerensky & Co. did not scruple to avail themselves of the luxuries appertaining to Imperial state. Anna and I made our way to the drawing-room compartment, where we seated ourselves— I say “ourselves,” but, in reality, Anna was lying half fainting on a chair. I could just see the Palace through the window of the saloon, and I looked at nothing else until the train moved out of the station, and, even then, my straining eyes sought the familiar building which held so much that was dear to me.

Suddenly I became aware that someone was shouting, and thumping on the floor with a stick. I withdrew from the window to see what was the matter, and I encountered the angry gaze of Kerensky.

“Look here… you’d better listen when I’m talking to you,” he raged.

I simply looked at him. Nobody had ever addressed me in such a manner! I am a tall woman; perhaps my height (I towered above him) and my unspoken contempt made him think better of continuing in this strain.

“I merely wanted to tell you that I am taking you to the prison of the Palais de Justice,” said Kerensky.

“From there you will be transferred (with deep meaning) somewhere else, and that will be the actual place of your imprisonment.”

I still looked through him, and he beat a retreat into his own compartment. Ten minutes later we were at Petrograd!

The A.D.C.’s made Anna go first; I followed and as we walked down the train we passed through the saloon where Kerensky and another man were stretched out comfortably in the Emperor’s easy chairs! When Kerensky saw me he sat up, and looked me up and down with a kind of half-fierce curiosity. I returned his appraising glance with one of disdain… the next moment Anna and I were told to get into a closed carriage (another relic of Imperialism), and we drove away in the company of the A.D.C.’s— mere boys — who were evidently keenly interested in us both.

I was horrified at the change which the Revolution had wrought in Petrograd. It’s quiet, well-bred look had completely disappeared, it wore the aspect of a person just recovering from a drunken bout. Red flags were everywhere, and crowds of unrestful people were waiting in long queues outside the bakers’ shops. This sight roused Anna from her lethargy of grief, and, childish as ever, she remarked, quite happily,

“Well, Lili, it’s no better after the Revolution than it was before.”

I silenced her further criticisms with a glance at the A.D.C.’s, and I felt quite relieved when our carriage sank first in one, and then in another of the dirty heaps of snow which cumbered the streets, and which had not been removed by the road sweepers. No policemen were visible; law and order had ceased to exist, but groups of odd-looking people hung about at the corners of the streets. These loungers were unmistakably Jews… The Ghetto-like appearance of Petrograd was amply accounted for.

The carriage stopped outside the Palais de Justice, and we were conducted down seemingly endless corridors to a room on the fourth floor. This room was empty, save for two easy chairs, a small chair and a table on which stood a carafe of cold water. The aides-de-camp told us to ask the sentinels for anything we wanted, and they were about to leave us alone when I said to one of them:

“Will you try and let my servants know that I’m here?”

“Impossible,” he answered, “but in your next prison you’ll be allowed to see your friends once a week.”

The young men then went away, and Anna at once began to cry. I tried to console her, but I was completely worn out — my powers of endurance had snapped, since there was no one to be brave for!

The room was bitterly cold, and we huddled together, wondering what next would happen. Suddenly shots rang out in the corridor… were they harbingers of death? The firing was followed by coarse laughter, and a soldier ran into our room.

“Ah... ha!... ha!!...” he mocked, “were you afraid… did you think you were going to be killed?”

As I sat in the cheerless room, thinking over many things, I suddenly remembered that Anna had a great predilection for carrying letters and photographs about with her—my heart sank — supposing that she had done so now?

“Anna,” I said, trying to speak lightly, “what papers have you brought away with you?”

“Oh, lots, Lili,” answered Anna. “I’ve some letters of the Empress, some letters from Gregory, and two photographs of him.”

I suppose my expression must have betrayed me. Anna began to whimper…

“Oh, Lili, why do you look so grave? Surely they won’t treat us badly? What shall we do?”

“You must give me every paper in your possession!”

She demurred.

“But why, Lili?”

“Because it’s dangerous to retain anything connected either with Her Majesty or with Rasputin. The worst construction is likely to be placed on the most innocent expressions… you cannot surely wish to injure the Empress!”

Anna instantly handed over the letters, but the difficulty arose as to how best to destroy them. To burn them was impossible, as we had no stove; I therefore decided to tear the letters up in minute pieces, and throw them down the lavatory which we were permitted to use. In this way, I destroyed what might have been considered “compromising” documents!

After what seemed an interminable time, steps sounded in the corridor, the door was flung open, and Kerensky entered. He deliberately turned his back on Anna, but he surveyed me with the same appraising yet hostile scrutiny. We looked at each other without speaking… At last, he shrugged his shoulders, and remarked to an officer:

“This place is damnably cold. Have the stove seen to immediately.”

He left us without another word, and we heard him speaking at some length outside. The sentinels were then changed, and the soldier who was on duty in our room began to talk to me.

“Well, Mademoiselle,” he said, “it’s ten thousand pities to see you here… you do look sad. Whatever have you done?”


“It’s horrible… they’ve no right to arrest young ladies like you.”

“Perhaps the new regulations are responsible for our arrest.”

“The new regulations!”

The man laughed loudly.

“That’s a good idea... I don’t think they’ll bring much luck. How can we get on without an Emperor? Don’t imagine that we wanted this. Do you think we joined willingly? Why, they had to use force to get us... we were unarmed, it was no good attempting to resist them.”

This kindly soul came from South Russia, and, when I told him who I was and where my estates were situated, he was ready to do anything for me.

“I’m on duty again to-morrow,” he said, “so try and write a letter, and I’ll see that it’s delivered.”

Age: 31


in Petrograd
in Moscow