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This post, first published in London Historians Members’ Newsletter of July 2014, was written by the late Helen Szamuely.


Not far from St John’s Wood underground station there is a street of fine houses, called Woronzow Road with a big plaque at one end of it. Under the portrait of a refined looking eighteenth century gentleman we find the following:

The road was named after Count Simon Woronzow Russian Ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1784 to 1806.

He lived in Marylebone and on his death in 1832 left a bequest to the poor of the parish. The money was used to build the St Marylebone Almshouses at the south-west corner of this road.

Though the road was named after the ambassador in 1843 the Russians took longer to erect a memorial to him:

Plaque unveiled 26 November 2002 by H. E. Grigori Karasin [Russian Ambassador to the UK] and the Mayor of Camden, Councillor Judy Pattison.

Gift of Peter the Great Company of St Petersburg to the citizens of Camden.

One can only hope that the citizens of Camden appreciated the gift and took some trouble to find out the story behind the brief summary.

Count Semyon Vorontsov came from a distinguished Russian family who had been involved in Russian politics and government for at least a couple of generations. His brother, Alexander, was ambassador in London from 1762 to 1764 and lived in Clifford Street, as at that time there was no permanent ambassadorial residence. He was merely 21 at the time of his appointment, which he owed partly to his uncle, Mikhail Vorontsov, the Grand Chancellor and partly to the fact that his sister, Elizabeth, was Peter III’s mistress. On his return to Russia he was created a senator and the President of the Board of Trade but he lost Catherine II’s favour and was retired, to return to state office in 1802 when Alexander I appointed him Imperial Chancellor. The Vorontsovs were supporters of Russian alliance with Britain and fervent opponents of Napoleon.

Their other sister, Ekaterina, whose married name was Dashkova, was a close friend of Catherine II’s and is sometimes referred to as Catherine the Little. Dashkova was by her friend’s side throughout the day of her coup in 1762 though her actual role has been disputed both by Catherine and by her various favourites, the Orlovs and, especially, Prince Potemkin whose enmity towards the Vorontsovs prevented the family’s advancement. Dashkova, though consistently loyal to the Empress, found it prudent to go on an extended European journey in 1768. Unlike many educated Russians she had a strong partiality for Britain over France and spent time in various parts of it, including two years in Edinburgh, where her son was educated. Some sort of reconciliation between her and Potemkin was arranged when her son became the prince’s adjutant and Dashkova herself returned to St Petersburg to become the Director of the Imperial Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1782 and the first President of the Russian Academy in 1784 where she initiated the 6-volume dictionary of the Russian language and even wrote part of it. Her subsequent relationship with the Empress remained stormy though not unfriendly but she was much hated (as were all Catherine’s favourites) by the Emperor Paul.

Semyon himself resigned from the elite guards regiment in 1773 because of his dislike of Potemkin, by now a Lieutenant-General, who then ensured his “exile” to London, where he became ambassador in 1784 and remained in the post with brief interruption till 1806, staying in London even after his retirement.

By this time the Russian ambassador had a permanent residence in 36 Harley Street, acquired by the Russian Treasury in 1779 for £6,000 and, it seems, a separate embassy was also functioning at 32 Welbeck Street, which also had a Russian chapel. The staff of the embassy consisted of 6 people, one Counsellor, 2 Titular Counsellors, 1 translator and two students or actuaries, which makes one wonder whether the concept of interns had not been started by the Russian diplomatic service. There were constant arguments about payment. Under Peter, Secretaries had been paid 300 roubles and this was increased under Elizabeth to 400 – 600 roubles, with Catherine keeping to that rate till 1790s when it was increased to 2,500 roubles for Secretary and 1,000 roubles for other employees. (In 1773 the exchange was 4.5 roubles to £1.)

The ambassador also had a country house, though this was rented, in Richmond and various Russian visitors to London, such as the great Russian historian Nikolai Karamzin, described staying there as well as visiting the Harley Street residence. Another man who stayed at the Richmond house was Vasily Malinovsky (1765 – 1814) who had been appointed to the embassy, astonishingly enough, because of his good knowledge of English and who imbibed many English political ideas while here. In the Richmond house he wrote the first part of his book, Thoughts on War and Peace, eventually published in Russia in 1802.

Vorontsov managed to build up a large network of political and social friends and allies. He cultivated journalists and his social skills came in very useful in 1791 when he was instrumental in preventing Pitt from arming a naval squadron to compel Russia to return the Ochakov fortress to Turkey. Vorontsov was close to Fox and the Whigs and, with the help of his Chargé d’Affaires and interpreter, Vasili Lizakevich, rallied support in the City, as ever, not much in favour of a war with Russia. Realizing that even his own people were divided on the subject, Pitt backed down in the House of Commons and Vorontsov could proudly explain that:

“Ink and paper proved mightier than Prussian steel and British gunpowder.”

To be fair, the fact that the navy was not in favour of the proposed expedition helped.

In April of that year Pitt despatched William Fawkener as a secret emissary to St Petersburg but both he and the envoy, Charles Whitworth, had a difficult time with the Empress who preferred to deal with Robert Adair, Fox’s secret emissary who had been recommended by Vorontsov but whose mission could well be interpreted as being near-treasonous.

As countries changed sides during the prolonged war, Vorontsov signed a trading convention between Russia and Britain as well as an alliance against revolutionary France despite which Russia and Britain found themselves at war some years and as allies in others in the space of two decades. In 1800, for example only the priest of the Russian Embassy Church, Jakov Smirnov, was in residence as a chargé d’affaires, as the two countries were nominally at war.

Vorontsov remained ambassador for some of Paul’s reign, was dismissed when Paul drew closer to France, had his estates confiscated as he refused to return and was reappointed by Alexander I. In 1806 he retired but remained in England till his death in 1832. Letters from him in the Lilly Library Manuscript Collection are addressed from Harley Street, Welbeck Street, Berners Street as well as Richmond and Southampton.

Both Vorontsov’s children were brought up in England and his son, Mikhail (1782 – 1856), who went back to Russia to a glittering military and political career, becoming Viceroy of New Russia and the Caucasus, a prince and a field-marshal, was usually described as “a dry phlegmatic milord”. Curiously enough, he married Elisabeth (Lise) Branicka, the daughter of Potemkin’s favourite niece and reported mistress, Sashenka Branicka. Mikhail Vorontsov was also one of the many important men in Russia to be cuckolded by the great poet and ladies’ man, Alexander Pushkin, quite possibly the real father of one of the Vorontsov daughters.

Semyon’s daughter, Catherine (1784 – 1856), stayed in England and became the second wife of George Herbert, 11th Earl of Pembroke, with whom she had six children, including a son, Sidney, who became the Secretary at War during the Crimean War. His mother and uncle died in 1856 but there is no record of their feelings on such a curious turn of affairs.

Vorontsov died in Mansfield Street, leaving in his will £500 to the poor of St Marylebone parish, which was used to build the Almshouses in St John’s Wood Terrace in 1836 (they were rebuilt at the same address in 1965 and are still used for sheltered housing). He was buried in the Pembroke vault in the crypt of St Marylebone Church. The entrance to the crypt was bricked up in 1853 but in 1980 a decision was taken to reuse it. In 1983 all the bodies were removed to Brookwood cemetery as the crypt was turned into a healing centre. The memorial in the cemetery records the date of the removal but not the individual names, which are listed in the parish office of St Marylebone. The Russian topographical historian, Sergei Romanyuk, waxes indignant in his book Russian London about the Pembroke family not removing Vorontsov’s remains before the removal to Brookwood. The likelihood is that they did not know this was going to happen. Others have not forgotten. The road named after him is still there and now there is a memorial presented by the Peter the Great Company to the citizens of Camden and erected jointly by the Russian Ambassador and the Mayor of Camden.


Helen Szamuely, who passed away in April 2017, was a Founder Member of London Historians.

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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.

DSC07809_500

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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