Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Downton Abbey - Russian Style: World War One (Part Two)

An interview with one of the last living Russian countesses before her death in 1991.

By Robert Hudson Westover

Part Two of a Series

August 2014 marked one hundred years since the start of World War I, the “war to end all wars” or more to the point the war to launch a century of bloodshed, upheaval, more wars of horrific proportions and the greatest rewrite of national territories since the fall of the Roman Empire in the 4th Century. 

Perhaps the most catastrophic collapse of these latter day empires was that of Russia. For more than three hundred years the Romanov dynasty had held their empire together with a supreme autocratic rule that mirrored the nation’s cultural inheritance from the Byzantine Empire. It was no accident of history that the throne the tsarina’s sat upon during the coronation of a new tsar in the Kremlin’s Annunciation Cathedral was claimed to be the very throne of the Byzantine empresses that once rested on a green marble slab on the first tier of the cavernous and magnificent “greatest church in Christendom” the 5th Century Hagia Sophia in ancient Constantinople.

As with so many of us, the cataclysms of life changing events are often unexpected and we look back to our time before the incineration of what we once knew with a strange melancholy or sentimental fascination.

Robert H. Westover and Olga C. Morgan in Olga's garden,
Laguna Beach, CA (April 1991)
Photo Credit: Lawrence R. Westover
In the following interview Olga Morgan, born Countess Olga de Chrapovitsky, looks back to her vanished world of imperial Russia from the perspective of nearly 70 years. 

Olga was destined to be connected by either blood or marriage to two of the most prominent and tragic families of the Twentieth Century, the Romanovs and the Kennedys. Part Two and Three of these interviews with Olga are something of an amazement in that any one person would be an intimate witness, per se, of both the bloody and murderous fall of the House of Romanov and the tragic event Jackie Kennedy, her niece via marriage, experienced on the on that horrible day in Dallas when her husband, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in front of the entire world.

Olga C. Morgan's nephew,
Hugh D. "Yusha" Auchincloss III
(left next to JFK) is pictured here
at JFK's and Jackie Kennedy's
wedding reception held at
Hammersmith Farm, Newport, RI.
It’s a wonderment to me that anyone, seeing what Olga had observed from the front lines of several of humanities' most wrenching and barbarous hours, could still hold out hope for the betterment of the species. 

But she did. 

And her joyous and hopeful attitude, laced with her noble spirit inspired me in my darkest times and I hope will inspire the reader as well.

Note: All photographs are either the property of the author, used by permission or thought to be in the public domain. 

World War I for a Russian Countess

A Compilation of Two Interviews with Olga C. Morgan

Location: Mrs. Morgan’s villa overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Laguna Beach, California. 1983 (Dr. Richard Pierce*)/1991 (Robert H. Westover)

Richard Pierce (RP): And then the war? [World War I]

Morgan: We were still studying when the war broke out in August 1914. I still had a year, but we refused to study German after that; we thought it was unpatriotic.

RP: Was this suggested?

Morgan: No, no, we refused, and mother was furious with us.

RP: When the war broke out, we were in the country; I remember it very well. We were more or less expecting it, because there was that murder in Sarajevo, and the whole thing which led up to it, but we knew a lot of the military men. My step-father having been commander of a division, all the men who were stationed in the country, in Gatchina, for instance, had to come and call on us and leave their visiting cards, and then some of them were invited to the house; mother knew their family or something; she wanted us to have some kind of rapport with other people. We used to drive to the station to see all the regiments off, and wave goodbye to them, and it was all very heart-rending, that they were all leaving.

Countess Olga de Chrapovisky with departing
troops at her home in Gatchina, Russia (1914)
Robert Westover (RW): How did people look at the war?

Morgan: Well, we were all very patriotic, but honestly I really don't know others outside my family felt. I was still a teenager and certainly not very interested in a war that seemed so remote. My great enthusiasm was riding on horseback, and of course when the war came on, then it was a little harder, because the men were all called along with many horses and other animals to supply the front lines so I wasn't able to ride much, which made me a little bit sad. 

RP: And then the casualties began to mount?

Morgan: Yes, and then we were called on to help in the hospitals. We were very young; I was 17, but we were asked. All the young girls in town who were well bred were asked. It was not a military hospital, but they had nobody else. I think there was one doctor for the whole hospital, because the nurses had all gone to the front. Everything was depleted.

RP: So although technically a nurse's aid you were taking the role of a nurse?

Morgan: I don't even know what role we took, because we had nothing to do with the bed making, or cleaning up or anything of that nature. They had peasant women who did all the work, but what we had to do was bandage, help the doctor when he was seeing patients, and sometimes stay late and wait at the door for people who would come in.

I remember one evening I was asked to stay later, and this man came in and he said "I got off the train. I was going to the front but I got off the train because I feel very ill." There was nobody in the hospital except me, that is, of the staff; it was full of patients, but they were mostly peasants. So I took him up to a room which was free, and I took his temperature which was very, very high. "I'll leave a note for the doctor when he comes in the morning," I said.

In the morning the doctor called me, and he said, "Did you touch that man?"

"Yes," I said, "I took his temperature."

And he said "You'll have to go into quarantine because he has spotted typhus."

I had noticed when I was taking his temperature that his chest was all covered with spots, so I was in quarantine for two or three weeks. It was very boring obviously; I couldn't work in the hospital; I couldn't see anyone; I just had to stay in my room.

RP: Your room at the hospital?

Morgan: No, no, at home. So I could have given it to everybody at home, if I had had it. I think spotted typhus was carried by lice. I don't think it came from touching a person. Well, anyway, they didn't have a chance in my case, because I never got it, but it was very annoying. I was completely quarantined; I couldn't go and see any friends.

RP: So you were in this capacity throughout the war?

Morgan: Throughout the war, yes. Then, towards the end of the war a lot of wounded began to come in, and then mother decided to open a little hospital. We had a building, it was not very big, but I think it had about thirty beds in it, and it was fixed up, more or less. I don't know who took care of it or anything.

I know that we spent all our days there, but we didn't really do anything very much except bandage. Sometimes the bandage would fall off immediately because we didn't know how to do this thing, but I suppose it was a morale builder, and they were not really people who were very ill, but they were somebody, for instance, who came with a broken leg and had to wait until the leg mended. You know, things like that; it took a little time. They were not ordinary citizens; they were military men who were convalescing, and then they'd have to go back to the front again.

So different doctors used to come in every day and check everybody, and it was a little bit better taken care of than the one we had worked in first, and mother was paying for it.

In our moments away from the hospital we used to go to a little tennis club, and that's where we had our fun. We all played tennis, and all these officers would come and be playing tennis too.

Then, during the sport, we didn't seem to have a governess with us all the time.

RP: A governess was around, then, even while you were working in the hospital?

Morgan: Oh yes! Sometimes they used to come and pick us up at the hospital and walk us home; very rarely did they let us walk in the evening alone. But at the tennis club we were free, and we met some very attractive young men there, and flirtations started.

RP: The family must have had very good means.

Morgan: Oh, mother was very wealthy. But unfortunately she took all her fortune out of the United States and took it over to Russia about 1910 so it went down the drain with the revolution, completely.

RW: Did you like working in the hospital? And did it become more horrific as the casualties mounted?

Morgan: No, I didn't like it, working in the hospital, but my sister [Maya] and I were very patriotic. We had to do it. There was no question whether the war was for the right or for the wrong; we hated the Germans and we wanted to do everything we could for the war. 

Yes, things did become more difficult as the war continued. Now I assisted in operations. In the first operation I assisted in I had until that point never even seen a naked man in my life. I ran out of the room and vomited! 

In another operation, I was attempting to distract my thoughts, trying not to watch what they were doing. We had no anesthetics, so they had to give the injured solider liquor as they removed his leg! Imagine no anesthetics at all! There was a terrible shortage. And the poor man was screaming his head off. I just stood there trying in vain not to concentrate on what was going on and then suddenly I looked down and I had this unattached leg in my arms! I fainted. But, eventually, in other operations I became less squeamish. What choice did I have? It couldn't be helped!  Things were far worse in St. Petersburg, I mean Petrograd...

Countess Olga de Chrapovitsky served
as a nurse during Word War One
RW: That's right, St. Petersburg was renamed Petrograd as the Tsar felt it was more patriotic.

Morgan: Yes, but of course we had one thing that was very difficult. My mother, first of all, her name was der Felden [Derfelden], which was a German name, and secondly she had a terrible accent; she spoke very poor Russian, so many people thought that she was German. She would go into a shop and give her name and the salesperson would look at her and say "Oh, Nemetskii, German!" So she had a very difficult time.

RP: This takes you, then, through 1916, when things were getting increasingly difficult. Was the assassination of Rasputin looked upon as a patriotic act, or as an aberration?

Morgan: Oh, it was considered very patriotic, very much so. Because everybody hated Rasputin; they felt that he had a terrible influence on the Empress, and through her on the Emperor.

RP: But a great deal of this was exaggerated, was it not? Evidently, though, he did have a hypnotic power.

Morgan: Because he was able to cure the young Tsarevich. And now I have read some books about the medicines in Siberia. And there are really some very interesting herbs and things that people still use.

Or he might have been just lucky. Or he might have been just lucky. He was really a horrid man; everybody who knew him thought that he was a terrible creature.

RP: Except for those in his own circle.

Morgan: Yes, his own circle. Madame Vyrubova, who introduced him to the Empress, thinking that he might help the boy, and he did help him, there is no denying it, but it really was one of the reasons that there were less and less people willing to take the side of the Tsar.

But we were very far away from all that, because you see my stepfather had already died, thank God, and we were living in the country; we had moved out of St. Petersburg, so we had very little contact with people there. Before that, mother had lots of friends who lived in St. Petersburg, and she was seeing them all the time, but when we moved out into the country we had very few people. There was the Grand Duke Michael, who used to come to see us all the time, who never talked of politics, obviously. And a few of the grand dukes who lived in Gatchina at that time. And the Dowager Empress used to come and live in Gatchina at that time. We used to see them quite a lot. And I used to play with Prince Vasilii Romanov and the children in the palace; they had slides, indoor slides, and used to enjoy that very much. But otherwise I think mother was very much out of touch with the world, so when the revolution came it was quite a shock.

This picture of the Dowager Empress
Marie was give to Olga C. Morgan's
mother, Baroness Derfelden
RP: What do you recall of February 1917? Was the Revolution quite evident?

Morgan: No, not too evident at first except that the servants got a little bit disagreeable and mother put red [Soviet] armbands on our arms, so that nobody would stop us on the street.

Things got to be sticky, but we didn't realize it too much until finally one night we were all awakened, and soldiers came to the door and said "We want to see what you have in the house!"

We had a great marvelous collection of antiques and different kinds of firearms which my father and then my stepfather both had collected, and they took every one of them.

RP: When did that occur?

Morgan: At the beginning of the revolution. I can't give you the date because I don't know, but it was very, very frightening. First the knocking on the door, and then they came in. Soon they came knocking on the door again, another night; they wanted something else, and then suddenly mother said, "This is going to end very badly, because everybody knows that we have a great cellar of wines!"

So then she had a file of servants stand, and take the bottles out of the cellar and pass from one to another. Then at a deep ditch by the street the neck of each bottle was knocked off and the street was running with wine for miles. After that they lost interest in coming.

She was afraid they would come to the house, get drunk, and rape the girls. I thought that was a very clever move. Everybody said "She's crazy; that foreign woman is crazy, what she did, she poured all the wine on the street, all the good wine!"

I think we saved two bottles of Napoleon brandy, which we buried. It was very hard to do, so it must have still been February or March, the ground was not thawed yet, because we had a very difficult time burying those two bottles. I know where they are, but I don't think I'll ever be able to find them!

RP: So this was probably at the outset, in February or March?

Morgan: Yes. The Americans had already congratulated the Russians on how clever they were to depose the Tsar and start a new democratic life. We were absolutely infuriated by that. It was some time after that. Before that they couldn't come knocking at your door and coming in at night. Then there were police, but later you were on your own.

We didn't feel it in the country that much, but then the governess was sent to St. Petersburg to feel things out, and see what it was like, and she used to come back with lurid tales about what was going on, so we felt we had to get out. Our name, der Felden, was a German name, and mother spoke Russian with a very bad accent, so that everybody took her for a German, and then all the grand dukes had visited us all the time, so we were definitely in danger.

RW: You were in grave danger. Your mother must have been quite concerned.

Morgan: Absolutely. We were very frightened by this point. So mother went to the American embassy and asked them to help her get us all out of the country. They did so even though she had given up her citizenship. They restored her citizenship and we were safe to leave. That is if we departed soon. The situation was deteriorating fast.

So we got on the train and went across Siberia. We left just before the Provisional Government was ousted and the Soviets took over on November 7, 1917. We left just before that, and not a moment too late.

It was the last train before the line was cut, Elihu Root, the last scheduled trains to cross Siberia!

The journey took two weeks. The train was full of soldiers, who were all running away from the front, who didn't want to fight anymore. The whole country was in disarray! We were just very lucky to get out.