I have met only one White Russian princess. At least, I might have. Anna was in her mid-70s when I walked into her all-night bar in Ostend at the close of a hitchhiking holiday to Switzerland in, I think, 1965. She made an arresting sight. I remember a startlingly pale complexion, the pallor exaggerated by vivid lipstick, dark eyeliner and a navy blue scarf. Her pink-dyed hair was as fine and unruly as candyfloss. There was about her a Miss Havisham air of defiant, dotty decay.
Since the only other customer was an apparently mute blind man, Anna passed the time by recalling for my benefit her turbulent life. Claiming the title of princess, she told of a privileged existence shattered by the 1917 Revolution, flight into exile, the chaos of war and, afterwards, the struggle to build a new life now drawing to its close in reduced circumstances. I was captivated. But was she telling the truth? Maybe not. However, her history was not wildly improbable. Almost any Russian émigré of that age at that time would probably have had an extraordinary tale to tell. As for being a Russian princess, Wikipedia lists over 300 Russian princely families. I like to think she was genuine.
The Russian Revolution spawned a stream of old régime memoirs, many detailing the now familiar but still horrific story of the fall of the Imperial family. Few accounts, however, can be as diverting and candid as that by Prince Felix Youssoupoff. Born into a family richer than the Romanovs, this perfumed peacock lived amidst all the trappings of stupendous wealth. It all ended, of course, in 1917. But Felix, who fled Russia with jewels and two Rembrandts in his luggage, was unapologetically determined to memorialize his gilded past. He also had a parallel story to tell, one by which he was subsequently defined. He murdered Rasputin: or so he said.
The result was Lost Splendour, first published in French in 1952 as Avant l’Exil, 1887–1919. It is a wonderfully self
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