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Book Review April 5, 2004
Salnikov Saves Russia
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 2 of 3
When Youssoupoff alludes to his father's "whims," he's indulging in one of his rare understatements. Like most of the family, Youssoupoff Senior was insane -- cheerfully, unashamedly mad, as were most of the members of Russia's social elite. As epicted in these memoirs, pre-Revolutionary Russia's aristocratic and Royal society was one huge well-dressed lunatic asylum. Youssoupoff describes the rampant lunacy of family and friends with the same nostalgic savor he brings to his youthful sadism. His grandmother's assorted manias included "...breeding silkworms. The worms overran the house; they crawled all over the armchairs, and our guests would squash them when they sat down, and of course ruined their clothes."

Prince Felix's obsession with clothes fills  the book. He attributes a diplomatic break between England and Russia to the fact that "King Edward, who had neglected to try on the Russian uniform in which he was to meet the Czar, discovered it was so tight he could not button the King went to a state of semi-suffoca tion and in a very bad temper."

The Prince's interest in dressing up soon becomes a passion for cross-dressing. An ordinary middle-class child might settle for prancing before the mirror in his mother's dresses. Felix has bigger plans; at the age of twelve, he and a cousin, "made up, adorned with jewelry and muffled in fur-lined velvet pelisses," troll the nightclubs of Petersburg, attracting the lustful glances of half the officer corps.

Soon the game has become a way of life: "by day I was a schoolboy and by night an elegant woman." This leads the Prince to spike the rumors which have always surrounded him: "I have often been accused of disliking women. Nothing could be further from the truth." His disavowal is somewhat less than convincing: "But I must admit that I have met very few among them who answered to my ideal of womanhood. Generally speaking, I have found among men the loyalty and disinterestedness which I think most women lack."

At this point in his development, Prince Felix hardly seems like a future assassin. He does all the things expected of a decadent young man with unlimited funds and status: tours the Continent, smokes opium in a Parisian den, enrolls at Oxford and generally whoops it up, in drag or mufti.

He betrays no interest in or knowledge of Russian politics or ideological disputes. When he mentions these topics at all, the results are painful, as when he tells us that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was first uncovered in the library of "one of our near neighbors, Countess Kleinmichel" -- implying, apparently, that anything discovered on the premises of so distinguished a lady must be authentic.

When Felix attempts to describe the opening of the Duma in 1906, his obsession with sartorial and ignorance of ideological issues yields a description which is pure Salnikov -- if Salnikov had been transported back a century: "It was the first time that [the Winter Palace] had ever seen such a mixed crowd of queerly dressed people." Yes, that's the problem with democracy: it's far, far too demokratichnii. In hindsight, it's clear what caused all the horrors of the Russian Revolution: lack of adequate Feis Kontrol at that first session of the Duma.

At times Felix sounds exactly like one of Saki's coyly witty aesthetes, as when he orders a black carpet, which "set a fashion in London -- it even became the cause of a divorce. An Englishwoman ordered one against her husband's wish. He considered it funereal: 'Either me or the carpet,' he said, which was rash, because she chose the carpet."

To the extent that the young Felix has any abstract interests, they lean toward the occult. While riding back to the estate one night, he and his brother see a phantom railway train; in London he sees a hazy cloud around those who are fated to die soon; and so on, at tedious length. These anecdotes are worthwhile only because they show how deeply Russia's elite was steeped in puerile superstition long before Rasputin showed up to exploit the market. The mystical nonsense which ended Nicolas and Alexandra's reign marked its beginning as well; Youssoupoff says that the Tsarina's disastrous influence was foretold when, at her coronation, " of her women pricked her finger on the clasp of the Imperial cloak, and that a drop of blood fell on the ermine." Before Petersburg had ever heard of Rasputin, ladies of the Royal family worshipped another charlatan, the French mystic Philippe. Youssoupoff, who has the typical aristocratic facility with family anecdote, describes how his father, encountering a Grand Duchess riding with Philippe, bowed, only to be ignored: "Meeting her by chance a few days later, he asked her why she had cut him. 'You couldn't have seen me,' said the Grand Duchess, 'for I was with Dr. Philippe, and when he wears a hat he is invisible and so are those who are with him.'" With Russia's future in the hands of this intellectual elite, one can hardly wonder that the twentieth century turned out so well for it.

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