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Archive for April, 2017

by Dr Helen Szamuely

Alexander_Konstantinovich_Benckendorff225Ten men are buried in the Crypt of Westminster Cathedral, which can be visited by special permission: nine cardinals and one “civilian” the last Imperial Russian Ambassador, Count Alexander Konstantinovich Benckendorff (1849 – 1917), who had taken up his ambassadorial position in 1902 and held it to his death. As it happens he was the great nephew of the Countess, later Princess Lieven, wife of the nineteenth century Russian ambassador, whose own diplomatic activity is generally better known than her husband’s. Count Alexander was, unusually for a Russian official even of Baltic background, a Roman Catholic, having been brought up by his German mother Princess Louise de Croy. Through his own and his wife’s eminent Russian family the Shuvalovs, he was related to most of the Russian and a good part of European aristocracy. On the one hand this made life and career relatively smooth, on the other hand, it became a tragedy as public opinion hardened just before the First World War and during it. To take one example, the German ambassador to London in the summer of 1914, Prince Lichnowsky, the son of Countess Marie de Croy, was Benckendorff’s first cousin. The drive towards the war and Lichnowsky’s enforced departure (as a matter of fact, he opposed German policy) was a personal tragedy for these two men.

Benckendorff remains a divisive figure in Russian historiography, just as he was a divisive figure in his lifetime. He has been accused on not knowing any Russian, which is not true, and of being more anxious to promote the British point of view in Russia than the Russian in Britain, which has some basis in truth. His first languages were French and German but he did speak Russian and wrote to his children in that language. Diplomatic correspondence across the Russian corps was, in any case, conducted in French.

Having grown up in Europe, he was anxious to become a Russian landowner and acquired an estate in Sosnovka, spending every summer there with his family until 1914. His sons were sent to Russia to finish their education. The younger, Petr, joined the army fought in the Russo-Japanese war, re-enlisted in 1914 and was killed in 1915. The older, Constantine, went into the navy and survived not only the First World War but the Revolution, civil war and a stint in the Red Navy. In 1922 he married the harpist Maria Korchinska and in 1923 they came to England. As he said in his memoirs, Half a Life, they could not have known that they would never see their homeland again. Their sister, married Jasper Nicholas Ridley. Both marriages produced fairly eminent offspring.

Count Benckendorff was obsessed with the need for an Anglo-Russian Agreement and pursued this policy (backed by the French ambassador to London, Paul Cambon, often beyond his instructions from the Imperisal government. His friendship with the Empress Maria Fyodorovna gave him a special entrée to the British court and allowed him to communicate directly with King Edward VII, something that the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs found frustrating as they felt that Benckendorff was ready to accept any British policy whether it was directly good for Russia or not.

The need for that agreement, in his view, was based on three main reasons: he feared Russia falling under German domination, he thought that only an Anglo-Russian agreement would stabilize the situation and keep peace between the two countries in Asia and Europe and, he hoped that it would promote liberal, Western ideas in Russia. One can argue whether the Anglo-Russian Accord of 1907, Count Benckendorff’s cherished plan for which he worked so hard contributed to the move towards the First World War or not but that is where Europe ended up much to his discontent. Not only were his hopes dashed but, to a great extent, the war was a personal tragedy for him, his family, his entire circle.

By the end of 1916 the news coming out of Russia disturbed Count Benckendorff even more. The war was becoming vrey unpopular, there were disturbances, revolutionary activity, shortages. Would Russia be able to continue fighting? Would she collapse under pressure? These questions clouded his last weeks. An early victim of the Spanish influenza that was to devastate Europe and the world, Count Alexander Benckendorff died in early 1917 and caused a diplomatic furore after his death. He had worshipped in Westminster Cathedral and had requested that he should be buried there. His reuqest was reinforced by the Tsar, Nicholas II, but rejected by the Cathedral, who pointed out that only cardinals are buried in the Cathedral’s crypt. The Count’s Requiem in the Cathedral was attended by member of both Royal families but the question of the burial was finally solved by Kind Edward Vii intervening with Cardinal Bourne. He pointed out that Russia, Britain’s staunch ally was having many difficulties and needed support. An agreement to bury Count Benckendorff in the Cathedral crypt would be such support; permission was granted.

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Final resting place: the crypt beneath Westminster Cathedral.

Nathalie Ridley, the Count’s daughter, commissioned Eric Gill to carve a memorial slab,which was installed in 1939 and can still be seen. In simple elegant writing it says in English and Latin, the latter provided by Mgr Ronald Knox:

 

Count Alexander Philip Constantine Ludovic Benckendorff,
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotenitary
from the Emperor of Russia to the Court of St James.
August 1 1849 – January 11 1917.
May he rest in peace.

The new Russian government has an ambivalent attitude to the country’s history, both Imperial and Soviet. Nevertheless, the Russian Embassy now holds a Diplomats’ Day on February 10 and wreaths are laid on the graves of all ambassadors and chargés d’affaires who happen to be buried in Britain. A ceremony in Westminster Cathedral crypt ends with red, white and blue flowers decorating the gravestone of Count Alexander Konstantinovich Benckendorff, last Imperial Russian Amanssador and the only non-cardinal buried in the crypt of Westminster Cathedral.


This article was published in London Historians Members’ newsletter April 2017, less than two days before the author passed away in Charing Cross Hospital on 5 April. We shall publish other articles by Dr Szamuely about London-based Russians during the coming weeks. 

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hs240We were extremely saddened earlier this week to lose a Founder Member and great supporter of London Historians, Helen Szamuely.  Following a year or so of a serious medical condition which she kept mostly to herself, Helen died peacefully early on Wednesday morning, aged 66, which is no age at all.

We had less that two days previously just published an excellent article by Helen in our Members’ newsletter for April. It was about Count Alexander Benckendorff, a Russian diplomat, who a hundred years ago became the first and only layman to be buried in the crypt of Westminster Cathedral.

Helen was born in Moscow to Hungarian and Russian parents during the Soviet period. She spent some of her early years in Hungary where her parents’ flat in Budapest was something of a magnet for intellectual dissidents. They witnessed directly the brutal suppression of the 1956 uprising. Arriving in England aged 14, she spent the rest of her life in Britain standing up for liberty, self-determination and related causes.

Helen achieved a First in History and Russian at University of Leeds, going on to obtain her DPhil at Oxford.

Dr Samuely was a writer for many magazines, blogs, newsletters, mainly on topics of history, politics and literature. Among the lucky publications of her output are included the New Statesman, History Today and, of course, ourselves – London Historians.

Helen was brave, funny, clever, argumentative, incisive, wonderful company and a true friend. Fiercely independent, she possessed a razor-sharp intellect which some found daunting while others – like me – found exhilarating. When you engaged with her – particularly in matters of politics and history – it was best to bring your A game.

Helen enjoyed cooking, loved cats and for some reason represented herself on social media as a machine-gun toting squirrel which somehow seemed wholly appropriate. She was a keen consumer of detective fiction. Unsurprisingly, Helen was an avid scholar of Russian literature, particularly poetry, much of which she translated into English. She was an active supporter of Pushkin House in London.

I recommend you look up Helen on Facebook and read the entries from the past five days more fully to appreciate the great esteem in which she was held.

Helen supported London Historians frequently with her presence at our events, unannounced if not unexpected. She wrote some wonderful articles for our Members’ newsletter, mainly about Russians in London – exiles, diplomats, artists and Tsars. We shall republish these in the coming weeks for a wider audience to enjoy.

Helen is a great loss to not only to us at London Historians, but all her friends in many, many walks of life. Most of all, though, to daughter Katharine to whom we extend our deepest condolences.

Dr Helen Szamuely. Born 25.06.1950, Moscow. Died 05.04.2017, London.

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Review: Death Diary: A Year of London Murder, Execution, Terrorism and Treason, by Gary Powell.

death diaryThis less-than-cheerful and macabre title actually belies the light reading which exists between its covers. I say this, because there are 365 stories of between half to a page each. So the reading is easy and can be done in any order without losing any narrative thread. You may be on the train, bus stop, about to switch off the bedside lamp. Whatever: light reading. I love books like this.

The content, as described in the title, comprises one death-related story (mostly murders) for every single day of the year going way back in London’s history.

There are the high profile cases, as you would expect. The execution of Charles I at the Banqueting House; the shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher at the Libyan Embassy; the murder by a down-on-his-luck rival of actor William Terriss outside the Adelphi Theatre; the Krays.

But for me it’s the more mundane, everyday tragedies which resonate. The landlady strangled and stabbed by her lodger; the heartbreaking story of a man who killed his own toddlers because he literally could not afford to feed his family – in a book where hangings abound, at least this tortured soul went to an asylum.

A great deal of these accounts fall between the mid 19th and mid 20th centuries. It is noticeable that the motive is so often tied to money – or the lack of it. Grinding poverty, money worries – they existed on a level that we would find difficult to comprehend today. The ultimate state sanction was not sufficient deterrent, clearly. The gallows at Wandsworth, Pentonville and elsewhere were kept rather busy, even to relatively recent times.

There are many stories of a man killing his wife or lover in a domestic, or very occasionally the other way around. As I say, on the face of it, mundane. So the danger is these accounts becoming a bit samey. In Death Diary, author Gary Powell – a retired Met officer of decades standing – skillfully avoids this with matter-of-fact narratives which are never boring and yet neither are they ever sensationalised. It’s a difficult one to explain, perhaps the policeman’s knack of succinctly delivering detail.

An excellent third London book from this author. It includes a short bibliography and “index of offenders” at the end and there’s a generous section of illustrations and photos in the middle. Recommended.


Death Diary: A Year of London Murder, Execution, Terrorism and Treason (288pp) by Gary Powell is published in paperback by Amberley with a cover price of £14.99. An author-signed copy was featured as London Historians monthly book prize for February 2017.

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