Russian Court Secrets by the Czarina’s Lady-in Waiting.
The Countess Vera Branitzkaya, Formerly of the Imperial Court, Tells About the Grewsome “Ghosts” That Haunt the Czar’s Palaces and Torment the Credulous Autocrat and His Consort.
The Countess Branitzkaya is a former Lady of Honor to the Czarina of Russia, who once enjoyed Her Majesty’s confidence, but was forced to leave Russia as the result of a court intrigue. The Countess’s outspoken honesty was largely responsible for her dismissal.
To-day the Countess tells about some of the supposed “ghosts’ which haunt the imperial palaces and in which the Czar believes devoutly. In her next article she will describe the intrigues of the mystical charlatans who surround the Czar and are perhaps responsible for the “ghosts.”
The news has recently gone forth to all the world that a so-called “holy man and mystic,” of peasant origin, named Gregory Rasputin, has obtained an amazing influence over the Czar and Czarina. So scandalous has this man’s power become that the Duma has called upon the Prime Minister to intervene.
The Rasputin case is a new illustration of the way in which the superstitions and weak-minded Czar has permitted himself to be swayed by a cabal of magicians, seers, soothsayers and mystical charlatans.
In this place I shall relate an extraordinary episode which occurred while I was Lady of Honor to the Czarina in the Imperial Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. The Czar, like many others of the Russians, believes that most of the many imperial palaces are haunted. The stories current to this effect are really very startling and blood curdling, but the incident I am about to tell you will prove that some of the ghosts may have a very earthly and businesslike origin.
I was very curious to know what the Czar himself had to say upon this subject. I had an opportunity to meet him one evening accidentally while passing the library of the palace, where he was reading a book. Having seen me he greeted me in a friendly way. I approached him and began to talk of the belief among court circles that the palace was haunted.
“I was going to tell you,” said the Czar, “that two nights ago one of the palace sentinels next to my study committed suicide by shooting himself.”
“Why?” I inquired with impatient curiosity.
“Because he saw the ghost of my late father in the room where he was standing,” said the Czar.
The Czar became silent and stared blankly at the floor. On this occasion I asked him directly if he believed in ghosts.
“I know that you take such matters sceptically,” he replied. “But please take a seat and I will tell you something. I believe in ghosts because I have seen them. They exist in spite of all the denials of scientists and men who think they can measure everything in a physical way. But I have watched them and I have come to the conclusion that they don’t know anything. They cannot measure a human idea, a feeling, an inspiration, the human soul.”
The Czar lighted a cigarette, reflected a while and continued: “I was reading late in the evening documents in my study when unexpectedly I heard a muffled voice and noise like heavy breathing in the adjoining room. During the day the room was occupied by my secretary and page, but at night a sentinel was stationed there. I jumped up and opened the door hastily. What I beheld almost froze my blood with horror. In the centre of the dimly lighted room stood an open coffin and in it lay my late father, just as I had seen him for the last time in the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul.
“On the coffin and on the floor beside it lay heavy wreaths, and near the head stood a high candlestick in which a wax candle was lighted. But the corpse was in a half sitting position with its blue, stiff face and closed eyes turned to the heaps of wreaths. A strong, horrible smell as of a graveyard filled the room. I stared, as if paralyzed at the terrible scene before my eyes, and saw distinctly the corpse swaying up and down, while a hollow voice came from some one behind me. I looked around and saw the sentinel with the rifle in his hands, frightened to death. All that he could do was to groan. I stood still and did not know what to do. Then I beheld the corpse in the coffin moving as if it wanted to rise and get out of it.
“’Stab it at once!’ I commanded hoarsely.
The sentinel obeyed. But before his bayonet could touch the corpse it vanished with the coffin, the wreaths, the odor and the candlestick as if it had been a will-o’-the-wisp. The sentinel staggered back and fell on the floor, dead. I could hardly walk back to my study, where I fell exhausted on a chair. Only after several minutes was I able to ring for my attendants. The surgeon declared that the sentinel had died of fright, but what the phenomenon meant no one was able to explain. Now is not such an experience sufficient to make the greatest sceptics believe in the supernatural and in ghosts?”
I said that it was truly mysterious, and we conversed half an hour longer on the subject. I had no doubt that the Czar and the sentinel had seen the occurrence really as His Majesty had described it. But was it conceivable that a vision could be seen by two people at one and the same time? I visited the court surgeon, who had made the post mortem examination of the sentinel and who inspected the room soon after the tragedy had taken place. He shrugged his shoulders and said: “Countess, I am not a believer in ghosts, and I believed them to be nothing but hallucinations, but the recent case has caused me to change my explanation and study the matter carefully. I’ve head the phonographic record of the palace ghosts and I have examined the dead sentinel. Those are both objective phenomena. I believe them to be tricks of the spiritualists who are always swarming about the palace. There are many secret passages beneath the palace and through the walls that could be used effectively by these spiritualistic guests of His Majesty to produce ghostly apparitions and sounds.”
I thanked the candid surgeon for his suggestions and believed that I had found the clew to the palace ghosts.
The Czar firmly believes he saw one night the life-size picture of his great-grandfather, Nicholas I, walk out from its frame. He called the sentinel and commanded him to stab the walking painting, which the soldier did. A bayonet hole is to be seen in the old historic painting.
The apartment of the Czar Alexander II, at the Winter Palace, is believed to be so haunted that the present Czar never dares to enter it. The guards have told me that one hears often in the apartment moans, sobs and groaning voices. Others say they have seen dreadful phantoms glide through the air, and grinning faces appear on the walls.
I was apparently the only sceptical person at the Russian court, the only one who did not take the ghost stores seriously. The Czarina, who gave at first but little credit to these stories, became more and more superstitious. One day she began to tell me how the Czar had heard a smothered moan, followed by sobbing, in the walls of his bathroom. The Czar ran out frightened and was sick for two days. I replied that I thought ghosts were nothing but shadows of our sub-conscious mind.
“I thought so once,” said the Czarina. “But the many experiences of His Majesty have convinced me that there is truth in them. As soon as the Czar had heard the voices he rushed to me and asked me to listen to them, as I had always taken his talk of ghosts as a joke. I and my maid followed the Czar to the bathroom. At first everything was silent as the grave. We listened for ten minutes. Little by little I began to hear a dismal voice, sometimes emanating from the walls, sometimes from the floor.
“We all three heard it clearly. It was so haunting and horrible that I shivered, staggered to the wall. We investigated every corner, but we could find nothing unusual in the construction of the walls. Not a sound was heard in the adjoining rooms. And the voice was just as real as yours.”
The Czar was for a long time under the influence of a strange French occultist named Philippe Landard. This man professed to be able to see the beings who haunted the Winter Palace and to have control over them. He made an astounding picture for the Czar of one of the beings, a fantastic demon, or “elemental,” as he called it. For his services in combating the “elementals” he obtained from the Czar 200,000 roubles.
The Czarina, who is a clever sketch artist, made a copy of the occultist’s picture, which she kindly gave to me. Her Majesty gave me a large number of sketches on this occasion, including a very remarkable one which she made from the Czar’s description of the apparition of his father in his coffin.
“I should very much like to hear these voices that have been heard in the palace, Your Majesty, but I supposed the spirits do not like to be ordered,” I remarked. The Czarina shrugged her shoulders and seemed confused or offended.
“I know your sceptical attitude in spiritual matters, but I will prove to you this time that there is a mystery behind it. The Czar has kept a scientist ready to make records for the gramophone of those sounds. He had recently an excellent opportunity in the gallery of the Czar Alexander I. The record is made and you shall hear it,” said the Czarina, ringing the bell.
An imperial page entered and the Czarina gave the order to bring at once the gramophone with the record of the ghost. In a few minutes the palace guard entered with the gramophone and arranged it. To my greatest surprise a weird voice, filled with grief and sorrow, emanated from the instrument. Sometimes it sounded like a moaning beast, sometimes like a groaning human being. Once it was only a low tapping, as if on an empty chest, but then it ended like the howl of a bloodhound.
When the gramophone stopped I was puzzled and kept silent. The Czarina glanced at me reprovingly and said: ‘You heard the record of our palace ghost. Now what do you say to it?”
“It is extraordinary, Your Majesty, and I am deeply impressed by it,” I stammered. I then thanked her, assuring her that this experience had made me believe that ghosts were phenomena which I would like to study more.
It was really very extraordinary, but the explanation the surgeon had given me was more acceptable to my reason than the credulous views of the Czar and Czarina.
Lima [OH] Daily News 7 April 1912: p. 12
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: While this seems a lurid and sensational account from an authoress known to have tampered with the truth in her other newspaper pieces, there are many other stories of the rank superstition of the Russian Court. One could scarcely stir without stumbling over a cluster of religious icons, a ghost, a spiritualist, or a holy man. Mrs Daffodil is vexed at not being able to locate Countess Vera Antonovna Branitzkaya’s “recent memoirs,” which is in all likelihood the fault of the Russians’ outlandish variation in the spelling of their names. Mrs Daffodil suggests that they adopt a decent British system of nomenclature, eliminating all those tedious “ovas,” “ovnas” and “ovitches.” If Russian citizens insist on having surnames containing an “o,” they should move to Ireland.
Rasputin is so well-known as to need no introduction. However, Philippe Landard, also called “Philippe the Healer,” and “the Czar’s Sorcerer,” is not so familiar. He was born in Lyon, into a poor family, but studied medicine when he was not working as a butcher’s assistant. His colleagues, disconcerted by how many of his patients got well, refused to certify him as a doctor. He wandered here and there, working as a healer, ending up in Russia where he gained the confidence of the Czar. He allegedly predicted the birth of the Czarevich. Apparently his talents did not extend to healing the poor child’s haemophilia.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.