France: The Second Home of the Romanovs
An Interview with Author & Historian Cyrille Boulay
by Yuri Kovalenko. Edited & Updated by Paul Gilbert

Emperor Nicholas II leaving the Saint-Alexandre-Nevsky Cathedral in Paris, 1896

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In honour of the historic relationship between France and Russia this year, the Parisian publishing house Perrin marked the occasion with the release of a new book La France des Romanovs: de la villégiature à l'exil [Translated: France of the Romanovs: Resort to Exile . Izvestia News correspondent Yuri Kovalenko interviewed author and historian Cyrille Boulay.

Emperor Nicholas II & Empress Alexandra Feodorovna
in Paris, during an official visit to France, October 1896

Kovalenko: For two centuries, members of the Romanov dynasty showed great interest in France. What member of the imperial dynasty first "discovered" your country?

Boulay: Peter the Great, the first of the Romanovs visited France in 1717. Later, it was Catherine II who established a privileged relationship between the Russian Imperial Court, and the French philosophers and thinkers.

Kovalenko: When did members of the Romanov dynasty begin to spend extended periods of time in France and, in particular, the Côte d'Azur?

Boulay: After the death of Nicholas I, the Dowager Empress Alexandra Feodorovna came to the French Riviera in October 1856. She was there for an extended period of time. After that, members of the Russian nobility began to make the south of France a second home away from Russia. In 1864, immediately after the railway reached Nice, Tsar Alexander II visited by train and was attracted by the pleasant climate. A Russian Orthodox Cathedral was established at Nice to serve the large Russian community that had settled in Nice by the end of the 19th century, as well as devote visitors from the Imperial Court. Tsar Nicholas II funded the construction of the Cathedral, which was inaugurated in December 1912.

Kovalenko: However, the popularity of France among the Romanovs was due not so much by the beauty and climate of the Côte d'Azur, but also for political reasons?

Boulay: Cordial relations between France and Russia improved, thanks to Alexander III, who stood at the helm of the Franco-Russian alliance. In 1892, when the French fleet arrived at Kronstadt, he was given a rapturous reception. Russian ships were in turn, warmly welcomed by the French when they arrived in Toulon. Relations between the two countries improved further when Nicholas II made an official visit to Paris in October 1896. It was on this occasion in which he laid the first stone for the Pont Alexandre III, widely regarded as the most ornate, extravagant bridge in Paris. In addition, many French felt nostalgia for the monarchy, admired Russia and marveled at the luxury of the Imperial Court. At that time France was a powerful and prosperous power, which helped to finance Russia.

Kovalenko: Many French were filled with bitterness and resentment, due to some Russian loans, which ultimately ruined many families ...

Boulay: Indeed, such bitterness was based on the grounds that the acquisition of these bonds forced many holders into debt. But this episode has been almost forgotten. It should be noted that a significant portion of these loans was later repaid.

Kovalenko: But, it was not all so rosy ... I'm not even talking about the Patriotic War of 1812 and the Crimean War. In Paris, Alexander II, nearly fell into the hands of terrorists, lead by the son of a Polish nobleman, Antoni Berezovsky.

Boulay: In June 1867 the Emperor, accompanied by his sons, Alexander and Vladimir arrived in Paris to attend the World's Fair. During a walk in the Bois de Boulogne, Berezovsky fired a shot at him. Alexander II was furious - because of the fact that France was on the most friendly terms with Poland. After the assassination attempt, he decided to return immediately to Russia, but it was the French Empress Eugenie who convinced him to stay. Together, they attended a musical soiree at the Russian embassy.

Kovalenko: It must be assumed that members of the Imperial family often traveled to France, but not just for political purposes?

Boulay: The Romanovs, who spoke excellent French, liked to take leave of the Russian Court, where life could be very restrictive for them, and travel to France, where they felt much more relaxed. The French have always been recognized for their freedom of manners. Nothing of the kind existed in St. Petersburg. In Paris, the Romanovs enjoyed full freedom - and could freely go to restaurants, night clubs and cabarets, including the legendary Moulin Rouge with its can-can dancers. Since then, the French use the expression of "la tournee des grands ducs" - "Tour of the Grand Dukes." This means a reckless spree of fun from one entertainment establishment to another, then - onto a third, and so on to that which closes the last. Besides the grand dukes - as well as members of the nobility - Russians were well known for their exceptional generosity, always leaving a huge tip. Finally, many of the grand dukes received invites from members of the French aristocracy to hunt on their palatial estates found on the outskirts of Paris. And, let us not forget about French cuisine ...

Kovalenko: If I'm not mistaken, the Romanovs were gourmets?

Boulay: There is a famous story that took place on 7 June 1867 at the Tour d'Argent Restaurant in which Alexander II had dinner together with the German Emperor Wilhelm I and the French Emperor Napoleon III. The steady stream of dishes were delicious and plentiful. However, at the end of the dinner, the Russian emperor called the maitre d'hotel and said: "I'm very disappointed because I did not taste the foie gras." The maitre d'hotel replied: "Your Majesty, June is not the season for foie gras. But if you can wait until October, you will not regret it!" And it was in the fall that he invented the now famous "Three Emperors Foie Gras.

Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich at Biarritz, with his
son Théodore (left), and grand-son, Michel (right)

Kovalenko: The Grand Dukes were frequent visitors at the casinos, were they big gamblers?

Boulay: Not really. Though it is true, that the Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich and Matilda Kshesinskaya put down a lot of money at the casino in Cannes.

Kovalenko: Did the Romanovs replenish their collections when they visited Paris?

Boulay: The famous Sèvres porcelain factory was saved, thanks to the Empress Catherine II, who placed a large order during her reign. And the Russian nobility bought up works of art, paintings, and jewellery in such famous jewellers such as "Cartier" and "Boucheron".

Kovalenko: The Grand Dukes came to France not only in the pursuit of pleasure, but also for intellectual communication.

Boulay: This is true. The liberal-thinking Grand Duke Nikolai Mikhailovich, carried out an extensive correspondence with the famous French historian Frederic Masson for many years. In his letters he wrote with the utmost frankness, often speaking out against the government of Nicholas II.

Kovalenko: After the revolution, how many of the grand dukes and grand duchesses fled to France?

Boulay: Almost all who managed to flee Russia, came to France - if for no other reason that they spoke good French. In addition, some had apartments in Paris, villas on the Cote d'coast and the Atlantic - in Biarritz. The two sisters of Nicholas II - Xenia and Olga - both lived for a time in Paris, and then left - Xenia to England, and Olga - to Denmark and then Canada. Many were confident that they would soon return to Russia. Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich did not even unpack his suitcases, thinking that he would soon go home ...

Kovalenko: How were the Romanov exiles received in France?

Boulay: With open arms, but they did not receive any significant aid or charity. France gave them refuge, allowing them to live in the country - as well as other immigrants from other countries. However, let us remember that King George V of Great Britain refused to provide exile to his cousin Nicholas II and his family. The Romanovs adopted France as a second home.

Kovalenko: Once in exile, did the grand dukes still enjoy life as before?

Boulay: Not at all - the mood was very different. They were engaged in charity work. In particular, Prince Felix Yusupov, who was fabulously wealthy before the revolution, spent his remaining fortune assisting Russian emigres, and even funded a refuge for the elderly in Sainte-Genevieve-des-Bois.

Kovalenko: Then came the Russian hour of French fashion...

Boulay: The female members of the Russian Imperial family, along with members of the Russian nobility had great taste in fashion, many of the female members were taught sewing as young girls at Court. In Paris from 1922 to 1935, 27 Russian fashion houses or studios were opened. Sadly, many of them quickly shut down - running a business was not a strong point for many of them. Incidentally, when Coco Chanel was introduced to the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, she drew attention to his worn-out shoes ...

Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich and Coco Chanel

Kovalenko: Did Dmitri Pavlovich have an affair with Chanel, before he met and fell in love with Audrey Emery, a rich American, whom he later married?

Boulay: All the grand dukes enjoyed great success with women. Alexei Alexandrovich - the brother of Alexander III - broke many a feminine heart while in Paris. The Grand Dukes were tall, handsome, refinded and rich. That was enough to turn the head of the fair sex.

Natalie Paley became a famous French model and actress

Kovalenko: Some of the Romanovs enjoyed a successful life. Natalie Paley became a fashion model, and then a famous actress - before leaving for the United States with her husband Lucien Lelong.

Boulay: She was an exceptional beauty, and a muse of Jean Cocteau, and Serge Lifar. Natalie Paley acted in films opposite such names as Maurice Chevalier, Cary Grant, and Katherine Hepburn. But whether her success brought her happiness is another story. Like Prince Felix Yusupov, she was a character from another era. I was told that when Irina and Felix Yusupov entered into a room, that their mere presence was accompanied by their extraordinary aura. It was felt by all who came into contact with them.

Kovalenko: Where the members of the Romanovs in exile under surveillance by the KGB?

Boulay: Yes, they were definately followed and under constant surveillance. Not so long ago, evidence was made public of the fact that Moscow knew of all of their day to day activities.

Kovalenko: Who was sympathetic to the Romanovs during the Second World War?

Boulay: The collaborators were not among them. Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich, who had declared himself the heir of the Russian throne lived with his family lived at the Villa Victoria, in Saint-Briac in Brittany. When the Russian prisoners were recovering at a local hospital, the grand ducal family sent them letters and parcels. Hitler sent his emissaries to meet with the grand duke and proposed to divide Russia and Ukraine, and appointing him monarch. Vladimir refused, saying that Russia could not be divided. After that, the Nazis arrested him and even threatened to hand Vladimir Kirillovich over to the Soviets as an act of vengeance for his refusing the Fuhrer's demands. Fortuneately, by this time the Americans had entered the war, altering the outcome of the war in favour of the Allies.

Kovalenko: You are not only a historian but also an expert on Russian art?

Boulay: Today, there is a very great interest in art, jewels, objets d'art, photographs and documents related to the Romanovs. And now our firm Olivier Coutau-Begarie conducts four or five auctions per year in Paris. It is important for me to show every thing in a historical context, and describe the circumstances under which Russia was left.

Kovalenko: Where are the main jewels of the Romanov dynasty?

Boulay: The most famous and valuable have remained in Russia.

Kovalenko: The European auctions are constantly offerng jewellery and other personal items that belonged to the Romanovs. Prices are steadily rising.

Boulay: Yes, and now, Russian oligarchs are willing to pay a lot of money for these items, further increasing their value and importance. Once I found a seal of Nicholas II. Up until now, the French have preserved a valuable Russian collection, of which nobody knows. There is still much to be discovered.

Kovalenko: When will your next auction take place?

Boulay: The next auction will take place in Paris on March 1, 2011. The auction will feature a large collection of Russian paintings and prints, as well as letters of the Empress Maria Feodorovna. They belong to a French collector who has Russian roots.

Interview by Yuri Kovalenko. Edited & Updated by Paul Gilbert Source: Izvestia
17 December, 2010

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