A Position of Interest and Importance - A Daring Comparison - The Window upon Europe - Winter in St. Petersburg - The Reception of a new Ambassador - Social Life in St. Petersburg - The Blessing of the Waters - The Duties of the Ambassadress - Some former Ambassadresses
The post of Ambassadress in St. Peters-burg is one of the most interesting in the diplomatic service. Russian Court life has a cachet all its own; its setting is one of unique luxury, and the romance of ancient traditions hovers over the stately pageant of its existence.
The fact that the Tsarina is a grand-daughter of Queen Victoria lends an added prestige to the British Embassy, whose Ambassadress is honoured by many evidences of Imperial graciousness. Affectionate reference has been made in previous pages to the happy days spent in England by the Empress during her early youth, before the Peterhof Palace enfolded her in its grim embrace.
The Russian grande dame has a supreme instinct of elegance, is highly educated, speaks several European languages, is absolutely cosmopolitan, and is endowed with all the gifts of the perfect hostess.
The name of the present (1911) British representative, Sir George Buchanan, is well known in St. Petersburg, for in 1868 his father and mother, Sir Andrew and Lady Buchanan reigned in the beautiful Soltikoff Palace, at the corner of the Quai de la Cour and the Champs de Mars. This was in the days of the famous and witty if superficial statesman, Prince Gortchakoff, who, though amenable to flattery, inspired diplomacy to the exercise of its most subtle arts.
It was a member of his Chancery, a certain Vsevolovsky, who dared to caricature Sir Andrew and Lady Buchanan as the supporters of the Royal arms. Sir Andrew, who had abundant white locks, was depicted as the lion, and Lady Buchanan, with long, old-fashioned ringlets, as "that curious, high-bred-looking creature the unicorn."
The joke was taken by the victims in very good part, and Sir Andrew is still cited among the elder members of Russian society as the type of an English diplomat, with his old-world courtesy, simple, cordial ways, and a sort of conciliatory despotism. His wife, nee Miss Stuart, is remembered as a grande dame par excellence. "The ease and dignity of her manner, and her caustic power of repartee, gave her the best of positions at Court, while the quickness with which she met and quelled anything like an impertinence was well known and dreaded. Lady Buchanan, who was married in 1885, is a daughter of the sixth Earl of Bathurst.
The Russian capital, which was reclaimed from the vast Ingrian swamp, is built with an indifference to considerations of space typical of the colossal proportions of the vast empire. Peter the Great designated St. Petersburg the " Window upon Europe," the vantage point from which he could watch the weaving of political threads.
Winter is the best time for a stranger first to visit St. Petersburg. The Russian season is in full swing between Christmas and Easter. The Newski Prospect, the fashionable promenade, is then shrouded in an immaculate white mantle of snow, the beautiful buildings on either side of the spacious quay stand out in softened outline, and the huge silhouette of the Winter Palace, facing the sombre pile of the fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul on the opposite side of the ice-bound Neva, is imposing in the extreme. Behind the palace, the spire of the Admiralty and the gilded dome of St. Isaac glitter in the sun, while rows of luxurious sleighs, filled with the votaries of wealth and pleasure, glide up and down the snow-covered quays, the laughter and conversation of their occupants being almost the only sounds heard, for sleigh bells are hardly used at all now in St. Petersburg.
The houses are all kept, with the most scientific calculation, at a uniform temperature of about 65° Fahr. Windows are hermetically sealed for the winter, only one or two squares being left free for ventilation, the occupants thus living in a hothouse atmosphere, which is often most ener-vating. Anaemia, that incipient enemy of the indolent Russian grande dame, is counteracted only by energetic outdoor exercise. Skating is a popular form of amusement, and fur-clad figures of either sex perform the most wonderful feats on their fine blades of steel.
At the beginning of the season Courts are held in the Winter Palace, previous to which the Emperor and Empress hold a "cercle," at which the corps diplomatique draw up in line, and when presentations are made. Full Court dress is worn; the Russian ladies don their national costume, which they retain also at foreign Courts. It consists of a heavily embroidered train, usually of velvet, worn over full evening dress, with a head-gear of halo-like appearance of the same texture as the train, and further embellished by precious stones. The Tsarina's maids of honour wear the miniature of their august mistress set in brilliants on a blue ribbon on the left shoulder, together with her initials in diamonds. They are called les demoiselles a portrait, and the position is a very coveted one among the jeunesse doree.
The arrival of a new Ambassador is an event attended with great ceremonial. He is driven to the palace in a gala carriage, with full escort, and ushered into the presence of the Tsar, everyone present being in full uniform. The Ambassador presents his credentials under the sign manual of his sovereign, and after the interview the Ambassadress is received in private audience by the Tsarina. Subsequently, an official reception is held at the Embassy, at which the corps diplomatique and all the prominent members of society are present.