- Historic Sites
The Yankee And The Czar
Amid the intrigue of the Russian court, John Quincy Adams took walks with Alexander I, spoke up for America, and scored a diplomatic triumph.
February 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 2
This was followed by a dinner given by Count Einsiedel, the minister of Saxony, at which Adams shone by discussing German literature with his host, Homer with the Spanish minister, and the new constitution of Holland with the Dutch envoy. Next came a gala affair at the French ambassador’s, at which forty sat down to dinner and then heard Mlle Bourgoin, an actress imported from Paris, declaim scenes from Racine’s Phèdre. Afterward dancing began with a polonaise, while a French jester performed sleight-of-hand tricks in Caulaincourt’s private theater. From this, Adams got home at 2 A.M.
He met the grand dukes and grand duchesses at stiff palace receptions where conversation also centered on the weather (“How does Mrs. Adams support the climate of the country?” Alexander’s empress asked him), but he was more intrigued by the phenomenal Princess Woldemar Galitzin, who was “venerable by the length and thickness of her beard.” Adams had understood that beards were known among women “of Slavonian breed,” but the Princess, he thought, “of all the females I have ever seen [is] the one who most resembles a Grecian philosopher.”
Mrs. Adams, being pregnant, was often unable to accompany her husband on his evening rounds, which reached their midwinter height at a gay torchlight party given by Caulaincourt at his country retreat. To this the Ambassador had invited some fifty friends to enjoy sliding down his “ice-hills” with their ladies. Most of them came “specially equipped for the purpose,” Adams recorded in his diary, the men in heavy pantaloons, the ladies in fur-lined riding habits. Together, after a magnificent dinner at 4 P.M., they coasted on their posteriors while servants with lamps and torches lighted the way.
Adams’ custom had always been to rise early—never later than six—and begin the day with an hour’s reading of the Bible. Yet here “we rise seldom before nine in the morning—often not before ten. … The night parties seldom break up until four or five in the morning. It is a life of such irregularity and dissipation as I cannot and will not continue to lead.”
But he did, regarding it as his duty to meet everyone and miss nothing. On the empress mother’s birthday, festivities began with a formal court at noon, followed by a cercle that lasted until three. Then, after dinner, back to the palace for an opera at the adjoining Hermitage, followed by still another reception and the viewing of fireworks on the river. Easter Eve brought a late night in another vein. At midnight, as cannons heralded the coming of Easter, the imperial family and the whole court entered the palace chapel, each person carrying a lighted taper, while the choir in red-laced robes chanted a processional. After the ceremony of kissing sacred relics, the Czar embraced a whole line of priests, his mother then doing the same. Then the Czar embraced his mother, and all the grand dukes in turn embraced him and her. Thereupon the Chancellor, the grand chamberlains, and the officers of court also kissed the relics and the Czar’s hand, the chanting going on continually for an hour. Finally, as Adams stood astonished, the massed noblemen “turned to one another, and such a scene of kissing and embracing ensued as I never saw before. As they passed from one to the other it was a continual motion, like a beehive. It reminded me of a description in Ariosto of a Sultan and his Court falling suddenly into a fit of involuntary dancing.” After that, High Mass. Home at 3 A.M.
The minister of Austria, elderly Count St. Julien, then gave a dinner in a style designed to rival that of the French ambassador. Footmen lined the antechambers and stood behind each place at table. Rare delicacies such as pineapple were served. During dinner a band played so loudly upon horns, drums, and cymbals as to make conversation almost impossible. Count St. Julien was, unfortunately, half-deaf: he couldn’t hear how loud his band was. Adams: “I observed the rule of temperance better than usual, to which I believe the stunning noise of the music in some contributed. For by preventing all conversation it left my mind unoccupied by anything which could lead me to forget my resolution.”
No one, actually, could hope to vie with the brilliant Caulaincourt. A favorite of Napoleon ever since his own mistress had become lady in waiting to Empress Josephine, he lived in St. Petersburg at an annual outlay of about one million rubles (well over $300,000 at that time, and the equivalent of perhaps $1,500,000 now) and was served by over sixty retainers and a comparable number of horses. Adams wrote his mother, Abigail, in Boston what a dinner at the Frenchman’s was like. At the door you were greeted by a gold-laced porter, then ushered upstairs by some twenty footmen, saluted by a pair of chasseurs in green and silver, escorted through antechambers by a line of higher servants, then welcomed by a succession of secretaries before being received by the Ambassador himself.