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Part Two: YOUNG MANHOOD - VII. In Czarist Russia

In Czarist Russia

THE YEARS 1910 to 1914 were eventful, busy and active. Joy and sorrow, work and travel, disappointment and fulfillment, sport and friendship -- I had my ample share of them all during these years. My wife lived largely in France. In 1909 my first son was born to her, to whom I gave the name Mehdi. His brief little life ended in February, 1911, and my second son, Aly, was born in the following June. His birth was a profound solace and joy to my wife and me, but for her the happiness of his babyhood was tinged with a solemn sense of responsibility. Long years had passed since there had been a son in our family. The grief we felt at the loss of our first-born gave an especial sharpness and watchfulness to the care which we exercised over his brother's upbringing. When he was quite little he was pronounced to be delicate; one of the leading child specialists of the time had a great belief in the healthgiving and health-maintaining properties of the Normandy coast in summertime, especially the sea air and bathing. From the time that he was two or three, therefore, my wife took him each summer to Deauville, and their winters they spent in the south of France. For some years my wife lived in Monte Carlo and then she moved to Cimiez.

In May, 1910, my great and good friend, King Edward VII, died in London. As loyal duty and friendship bade, I hastened to attend his funeral; and I had an audience with his successor, King George V.

The King was buried in St. George's Chapel at Windsor; myplace in the procession and my seat in the chapel were near the Royal Family and the Royal guests from foreign countries. In the procession the German Emperor walked beside King George V. This placing provoked a minor but significant diplomatic incident. When a number of sovereigns are assembled together in one place, the protocol is that they take precedence, not according to the size or importance of their countries nor alphabetically (as do delegates at an international conference), but according to seniority of accession to the throne. Thus if the King of Bulgaria (in the days when there was a reigning King of Bulgaria) had been longest on the throne, he would take the head of any procession, and if the sovereign of the United Kingdom or the Emperor of Japan had only just acceded, he would go last. But on this occasion the German Emperor was put next to King George V, the principal mourner, and all the other monarchs followed him. The storm arose indirectly because the King of Greece, who was senior in the matter of accession, walked ahead of the King of Spain. Now the King of Spain had acceded to his throne in babyhood, before the German Emperor had come into his inheritance; and King Alfonso considered himself every whit as good as the Kaiser, if not his superior. As soon as the various sovereigns had taken leave and were on their way home, the Spanish Ambassador made a formal protest on behalf of his Royal Master and his Government against the affront offered by the placing of the German Emperor ahead of His Most Catholic Majesty, and added that since the King of Greece had been put ahead of the King of Spain on the grounds of seniority of accession, then both the King of Greece and the King of Spain should have preceded the German Emperor if protocol were to be properly observed. This put the Foreign Office and the Court in a quandary. An apology would have been worse than useless because high officials of Court and State are not expected to make mistakes of this sort. Finally the problem reached the King. He solved it diplomatically and ingeniously: the Kaiser, he said, was King Edward's nephew and his own first cousin, and for these reasons alone he had been given precedence, not as a reigning sovereign, but as a family mourner. This rather pitiable little complication aside, the whole ceremony was deeply affecting.

Later there was trouble too about the precedence accorded to the former President of the United States, Mr. Theodore Roosevelt, who was his country's official representative. Since he was not a Royal personage, his place in the funeral procession and at other solemn functions was a lowly one. The United States and France both protested at this procedure which, although it was in full accord with international custom in those days, seemed even then both undignified and anachronistic. From that time on, the representatives of republics were deemed to rank with royalty and a new and more fitting order of precedence was established.

There were many wet eyes that day -- mine, I am not ashamed to admit, among them. Shortly afterward King George V issued instructions to the India Office that I was to be invited to the Coronation as a special and honored guest of his own, and the invitation was to cover not merely the ceremony but all the functions, banquets, state receptions and so forth. I sat in his box at the special gala performances at the Royal Opera House.

The Coronation of King George V was held in June, 1911. It was one of great pomp and splendor, a stately showing forth of all Britain's grandeur, wealth and power. The year 1911, however, was a year of increasing international tension; and the internal political conflict in Britain over Mr. Lloyd George's budgetary measures, over Ireland and over the constitutional position of the House of Lords had become extremely embittered. Against the dark clouds of the approaching storm, the Coronation Season shone with a special brightness of its own. I have two vivid recollections of this time. The first is of the ballet that was given at the gala performance at Covent Garden; it was Pavilion d'Armide -- surely the most appropriate ballet possible for such an occasion -- and the principal dancers included Nijinsky and Karsavina. It was of unforgettable beauty and grace; it stands out in my memory as one of the most exquisite theatrical experiences that I have ever seen.

My other lasting impression is of the presence of the Crown Prince of Germany, of the attention that was paid to him, of the real and sincere effort made by everyone, from the King and Queen down, to convince him of Britain's good will and peaceful intentions toward his country. I recall that at Covent Garden he sat on Queen Mary's right, and I saw that she engaged him in earnest conversation and that her courtesy to him was not formal or chilly.

A few months later the King and Queen set out on their journey to India -- the first and only reigning Sovereign and his Consort to visit India during the period of British rule. Early in 1912 the magnificent Coronation Durbar was held in Delhi; it was announced that the capital and seat of government were to be transferred to Delhi from Calcutta, and a new city built commensurate with the dignity, authority and (as it seemed then) permanence of the Indian Empire. The partition of Bengal was annulled, and -as a climax and crown to my work in past years, and the work of those who had co-operated with me zealously and so steadfastly -Aligarh was given the status of a university. The King-Emperor personally bestowed on me the highest decoration which it was possible for any Indian subject of the Crown to receive, a Knight Grand Commander of the Star of India.

Splendid as were the Durbar ceremonies, they were marred by two curious contretemps. At the great state banquet, to which most of the notables of India had been invited, some disaster occurred in the kitchen, and the food that emerged was just enough to give the King and a handful of people sitting near him a full meal. For almost all of the guests it was the only chance in their lives that they would ever have of dining in the King's company, but most of them had no dinner.

The other had far more alarming implications. The investiture, at which I received my decoration of the G.C.S.I., was held at night in an enormous and brilliantly lighted tent. It was a full state ceremony: the King-Emperor and his Consort sat enthroned; the Viceroy, the Provincial Governors, the Commander in Chief and the senior military commanders, a superb assemblage of Ruling Princes, all the leading officials, Indian and British, from every corner of India, were gathered in honor of a stately and memorable occasion. Suddenly one of the electric light bulbs, high up near the canvas canopy of the roof, began to play pranks. All eyes went to its flickerings. Suppose it were to explode -- in that instant the same silent, horrifying thought occurred to almost everyone present. Whistles were blowing, we could hear fire engines clanking up; behind their Majesties' thrones officers had already drawn their swords and were hacking at the hangings and the canvas to make a way out for the King and Queen. But the rest of us were trapped. Had the tent caught fire it would have blazed up like a celluloid pingpong ball put near the hearth, and scarcely one of us inside would have survived. The humanitarian aspect of the disaster which we contemplated was appalling enough. Even more fearful to most of us was the thought of the political, administrative and social chaos all over India that would have followed. The country would have been left without a single leading figure. Next day both the King and the Viceroy told me that instant orders had gone forth that no ceremony of this sort was ever to be held again by night in a tent.

A great military parade was a central feature of the Durbar celebrations. Many of us, Indian and British alike, were becoming more acutely aware of the importance of the Indian Army in Britain's world-wide imperial strategy, with her vast commitments and the growing sense of international tension. Britain's own Regular Army, a considerable portion of which was habitually stationed in India, was -- though well trained and of admirable morale -- small in comparison with those of any of her possible challengers. Haldane, as Secretary of State for War, had thoroughly reorganized the military machine and had brought into being the volunteer and part-time Territorial Army; but Britain had refused to heed the urgent pleas of the veteran Field Marshal, Lord Roberts, for a Continental system of universal national service. I was able to link the developing recognition of Britain's military needs and of India's position in relation to those needs with my own passion for Indian education.

In an article which I contributed to Leo Maxse's National Review in July, 1911 (it was not a journal whose imperialist politics I shared, but it was widely read by people whom I was eager to reach with my views), I put my arguments as forcefully as I could.

Educate, educate, educate. Look for a passing moment at the question of manpower. India could put troops into South Africa as quickly as they could be sent from England; she could land soldiers in Australia long before England could so do; and forces from India could reach western Canada almost as soon as from England. If by education the myriads of India can be taught that they are guardians and supporters of the Crown, just as are the white citizens of the Empire, then the realization that India and the self-governing dominions stand and fall together, bound by a community of interests and a common cause to maintain, will have come. It is imperative to give Indians the education to fit them for their future role in the British Empire.

In two world wars, one of which was to break out only three years after these words were written, my arguments were justified to the hilt.

The autumn of 1912 found me on my travels again -- this time to Russia. The Czar Nicholas II, in appearance almost the double of his cousin, King George V, had visited India when he was Czarevitch; however, that was a good many years earlier, and I had never met him since. Many of his relatives habitually visited the south of France -- the Grand Dukes Boris and Nicholas among them, and the Czar's own brother, the Grand Duke Michael -- and with several I was on terms of warm friendship; they had often asked me to visit them at home.

Patrician and aristocratic life in England and in many other European countries had its own magnificence and stateliness; but they were as nothing compared with the luxury and opulence of the elaborate and gilded existence that was led by the Russian aristocracy in Saint Petersburg, as I saw it that winter.

More than thirty years have passed since the Revolution shattered their world; many were murdered, many went into exile, in towns like Harbin and Shanghai, in Constantinople, in Berlin, Paris and the south of France. Among those who had to refashion life from its foundations was a distinguished soldier, formerly Military Attache in London, General Polovtsoff, who for many years has been a well-known and much-liked figure in Monte Carlo. Like many of his companions in exile, he has borne his vicissitudes with courage, dignity and a fine, high spirit. It happened that in 1912 I was the guest of General Polovtsoff and his brother in the house -- the palace -- which they had inherited from their father who had been a minister of the Czar.

The splendor of that house was beyond description. The banquet hall, in which my hosts gave a luncheon party in my honor, was, I am sure, fully three times the size of the great salon of any eighteenth-century Italian palazzo. Its walls were hung with magnificent pictures and tapestry; there were great, many-colored, strongly scented banks of hothouse flowers, and the luncheon itself was on a prodigious scale. And this was only one of many similar functions at which I was entertained in similar houses of almost fairy tale magnificence that I visited.

Life was adjusted to a curious and, at first, somewhat unsettling timetable, for which -- accustomed as I was to social life in London and Paris -- I was not immediately prepared. The first of my many invitations to supper showed me what I had to learn. I had been asked to what I knew was to be a big supper party at a famous general's house, to be attended by several of the grand dukes and a number of leading ladies of the theater. With my notions of this kind of entertainment in London or in Paris, I arrived at the house a little after midnight. To my surprise there was no one else there; even the servants looked as if they had just awakened, as they scurried around turning on the lights. For an hour or thereabouts I waited in some embarrassment until at last my host and hostess came downstairs. Between half past one and two the other guests began to arrive and the vast salon began to look a little less empty. It was well after two o'clock when we went in to supper. After supper there was some music, and it was nearing half past four when the party broke up and we went home. This, I quickly learned, was the normal convention.

Saint Petersburg was a winter capital. Its season was a winter season. I arrived there near its beginning, in late November. The cold was already intense. The days were dark and short, the nights long and bitter, and the city itself snowbound. Here are -- to me -- the reasons for the unusual tempo and rhythm of life there. The day ordinarily began about noon; shops, banks and offices remained open until late in the evening. Work was done and business transacted from midday on; and the nights were given up to the varied and elegant pursuits and distractions of a gay, cultivated and sophisticated society. The theaters were excellent, so were the opera and the ballet. There were innumerable parties; there were moonlight drives in troikas across the icebound Neva to some of the islands that were not too far distant from the capital. In the few hours of daylight there were often shooting parties in the surrounding countryside; enthusiastic sportsmen hunted not only game birds and deer but also bears.

All the houses were, to my way of thinking, grossly overheated and thoroughly underventilated. In cities like London and Paris I had grown accustomed to houses in which, even in cold weather, the windows and the doors were constantly open, and I was shocked and not a little disgusted by Russian habits in this matter. All houses were built with double glass windows. Some time in early November, when winter was setting in, workmen would nail down all these windows so that they could not be opened again until the end of April. One small pane was left free at the top of each window; every morning this would be opened for an hour or so and then shut again. This was all the fresh air that any room got. On my very first night at the British Embassy I said to my hostess, the Ambassador's wife, Lady Buchanan, that I thought this a most unhygienic and most unpleasant custom. She answered me that when she and her husband first went to Saint Petersburg, they tried to live as they would in England with the windows hardly ever fully shut, either by day or by night. However, the whole family fell ill. They had had to adopt the custom of the country, and since then there had been no illness. She told me too that in all the big houses, at which parties were given and large numbers of people gathered together, the rooms were scented and the air specially sweetened and purified.

The corollary of this permanent overheating of the houses was that Russians of all classes had comparatively light indoor clothing. But when they went out of doors everyone piled on heavy furs. The well-to-do would be thickly wrapped in sables, the poorer classes in sheepskin. Everyone had sheepskin caps, thick warm gloves and snow boots. I had been accustomed to being told that one ought not to go suddenly from warm rooms into bitter cold outside, and at first I thought the whole Russian way of life -- similar to some extent, I suppose, to that in Canada in the winter and in many of the northerly states of the United States -- "unhealthy"; but a few weeks in Saint Petersburg and Moscow rid me of this prejudice.

I soon came to the conclusion that the Hermitage Museum was the finest I had ever seen, far superior to the Louvre, the National Gallery or New York's Metropolitan Museum. Its superiority lay in its rigid selectivity. There was nothing indifferent or third-rate on view; everything shown was of supreme merit. There was no need, as in every other big museum or art gallery that I have ever been to, to trudge mile after mile past inferior works, questionable attributions, copies and studies by the pupils of great masters. At the Hermitage, under the direction of Count Tolstoy, a relative of the great novelist, all this had been sternly relegated to the vaults. He had instituted, so I was given to understand, a regime whereby everything was taken off the walls which, whether by a great artist or merely alleged to be by him, did not possess its own intrinsic beauty and merit. The effect therefore was of a small, pure collection of masterpieces, and it was extraordinarily refreshing.

One of the treasures of the Hermitage was a wonderful collection of old English silver of the period of Charles II, when the art of the silversmith in England was at its height. The collection, so I believe, was made by Peter the Great, who visited England as a young man and worked in the shipyards at Deptford. Half savage, half genius, he had a strong and genuine aesthetic streak in him, excellent taste -- witness the pictures which he chose while he was in Holland -- and sure, clear judgment.

I remember being transported with delight by the choral singing in the Cathedral of St. Isaac in Saint Petersburg. I have often listened to fine singing in both Catholic and Anglican cathedrals in Western Europe, but never have I heard a choir whose singing was as pure and as majestic as that. Boys were recruited, I was told, from all over Russia, trained from an early age and given sound professional or technical schooling at the same time.

Despite the full social life that I led with the Czar's brother, the Grand Duke Michael, his cousins, and the officers of his crack regiments, I never met or had an audience with the Czar. He lived a strangely secluded existence; and in the last years of his sad and troubled reign his seclusion deepened and his circle narrowed. He was of a nervous, shy and naturally melancholy disposition; his Empress was superstitiously pious, courageous and dignified but utterly out of touch with reality; his son and heir was delicate and ailing. All the circumstances of his life combined to encourage him in a somber remoteness. I was told that if I wanted to see him, an official approach and a request for an audience would have to be made through diplomatic channels and that it would have to have the character of an official visit. I did not, therefore, even make the attempt. One of the Czar's few sociable characteristics, so I was informed, was his love and enjoyment of the theater, especially ballet and the opera. He had a habit of coming into a theater after the performance had started, accompanied only by one or two officer friends, and would slip unobserved into a small stage box. The only indication of his presence would be the loud and enthusiastic applause, the hurrahs and bravos, which were heard behind the curtain of his box. Perhaps only there, a few feet from the make-believe world beyond the footlights, could this shy, sad, solitary man forget his sorrows and shed his inhibitions.

From Saint Petersburg I went on to Moscow. Moscow's prosperity in those days was founded on commerce and industry. The court and the aristocracy made Saint Petersburg their headquarters; rich industrialists were the chief citizens of Moscow. Their wealth was derived from various sources: sugar, the rapidly developing oil industry of the Caspian Sea region, and piece goods from the cotton factories of Moscow. They bore a considerable similarity to the same powerful capitalist class in the United States. They lived in magnificent style; their houses were virtually palaces and museums, for, like the nobles of Saint Petersburg, many of these merchant princes were connoisseurs of the arts. I noticed, incidentally, that Moscow's tastes seemed more catholic than Saint Petersburg's; my favorite French impressionists had to some extent taken their fancy, whereas in Saint Petersburg all the paintings that I saw were of the classical schools.

The gulf between rich and poor was truly appalling. I took some trouble to study labor conditions in the mills and textile factories; they resembled in many ways Bombay's cotton mills, but conditions in them were infinitely worse. I have no hesitation in saying that, poor, miserable and ill-fed as were the Bombay mill hands of those days, they looked happier and livelier than the Moscow workers of the same sort. In Bombay you could at least see smiles; every Moscow mill hand looked drawn, haggard and tired to death. Yet I doubt if either in the matter of wages or diet the Moscow worker was worse off than his Bombay counterpart. The reason for the difference lay, I think in one simple fact -- the climate. In his hours off work, for at least eight months of the year, the Bombay mill hand, however poor and downtrodden, could walk in the fresh air, could see the sun and the moon and the stars. For eight months of the year life for the Moscow worker, on the other hand, was only possible indoors -- in the hot, steamy atmosphere of the mill or in an overheated, overcrowded little room in one of the great, grim barracklike buildings that served so many of them as homes.

An odd custom prevailed in those days in the public baths of Russia's great cities -- I visited one in Moscow, so I am not talking from hearsay -- in the administration of what were known as Russian steam baths, really very like our Turkish baths. The attendants who looked after you, who gave you your soap and your towels, massaged you, looked after all your wants, were women -- but elderly and of so plain and sour a visage that it would have been utterly impossible to imagine even the slightest misbehavior with them. Nor, I was assured, did misbehavior occur. This was simply regarded as useful employment for women past middle age; and no one -- except the raw foreign visitor like myself -- thought it in the slightest degree unusual.

While I was still in Russia the first match was set to the conflagration that soon was to engulf the whole world. The Balkan Wars -first the attack by a combination of small Balkan countries on the Ottoman Empire, and then their ferocious quarrels with each other -- were not then merely localized conflicts, which many tried to convince themselves that they were; in fact they were unmistakable indications of what was to come. Turkey, whose internal difficulties and troubles had accumulated and deepened in recent years, reeled under successive blows from her enemies. Day after day news of fresh disasters reached the outside world. By the time I returned to Paris and before I left for India the extent of Turkey's plight was obvious; it seemed to be only a matter of time before her foes had her completely at their mercy. The feelings of Muslim India, indeed of the whole Islamic world, were deeply stirred. I made as much haste as I could to get back to Bombay. My closest political friends and associates were active on behalf of the Turks. An organization had been set up, representing all branches of Muslim opinion in India and including many of those most closely concerned with Aligarh, the purpose of which was to render all possible assistance to Turkey and to bring maximum pressure to bear on the British Government in order that Britain's influence should be exerted in the Concert of Europe to make defeat tolerable and honorable for the Turks. A practical gesture of help had been made in the equipment and dispatch to the war area of a Red Crescent medical mission, led by Dr. Ansari -- one of India's outstanding medical practitioners. This was the kind of worthwhile, humane work which I was happy to support. I contributed too to Turkey's war loans; but I found myself involved in a distressing difference of opinion with the majority of my Muslim brethren in India over our attitude toward this conflict -- a difference of opinion which, I am sorry to say, disrupted for some time the hitherto close and intimate associations, in thought and action, which had subsisted between myself and other Muslim leaders in India.

We were giving as much aid as we could to Turkey, but how much, in fact, did it amount to? The honest answer was -- very little. We were not, of course, our own masters; and our real influence on British policy toward the whole Turco-Balkan issue was negligible. The Government lent a courteous if distant ear to our earnest supplications, but they could well afford to pay no practical attention to us. British opinion in general about the Ottoman Empire -- "the Sick Man of Europe," as portrayed by the political cartoonists of Punch and other papers -- was at best lukewarm. The European political situation was tense and precarious. Britain's friends in the Concert of Europe -- France, Russia and to a lesser extent Italy -- were anything but pro-Turkish, and the main concern of all of them was to avoid an open breach with Germany and Austria. A delicate but chilly policy of nonintervention was the furthest that Britain was willing to go. But the general run of Muslim opinion in India was far more fiery; the honor and integrity of Islam were at stake; and we should urge the Turks to hold on, to face every risk and accept every sacrifice and to carry the war on to the utmost end.

Fine sentiments, but I demurred from them. I pointed out that it was not really in our power to help the Turks; great and generous as our emotions doubtless were, we were quite incapable at that time of turning our feelings into action. To call on the Turks to stand, fight and die for the cause of Islam, to the last piastre and the last Turk, while we survived was unfair and unjust to the Turks. Far from helping them, it was actually worsening their plight.

I did not mince my words. I gave an interview along these lines to The Times of India, the most widely read and most responsible newspaper in the subcontinent. I observed that it was all very well to send heartening telegrams to the Turks: GO ON, FIGHT ON! DO NOT ACCEPT DEFEAT, WHATEVER THE SACRIFICE! But we who had sent the telegram could then go home and sleep soundly in our peaceful beds. These were not popular comments, and they evoked a storm of protest from Muslims all over India. However, as such storms will, it passed, and soon enough this controversy was forgotten in the whirlwind of perils and problems of the First World War.

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