While in St Petersburg I was at the small museum dedicated to Matilda Kshesinska, the notorious Russian ballerina who attained the highest rank, that of prima ballerina assoluta. She was a mistress of the future Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, and later the wife of his cousin Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich of Russia. While at the museum I had the joy to discover among her papers, a receipt from Faberge, the famous Russian jewelry house. So I read about her and learned that she was an avid jewelry collector and when forced to emigrate to Paris after the revolution, she wasn't able to take anything with her, but a pair of Faberge cufflinks that she gave to the captain of the boat, so he will allow her and her son to flee bolshevik's Russia. Her gorgeous mansion that she build in 1906 in Art Nouveau style and decorated with finest furniture and chandeliers was luted. According to the legend, her close friend Grand Duke Sergey Mikhailovich, had hidden all her vast jewelry and objects d'art collection until she will return to Russia. She never did and her treasure was never found and still many people are looking for it.
Matilda was an avid and extraordinary jewelry collector. She like many representatives of St. Petersburg elite, kept their jewelry in Faberge’s house. It is reported that she did not take her jewelry when going to a tour abroad: Faberge’s company insured them and transported them abroad by their personal representative. Arriving abroad, Kshessinskaya would simply mentioned a secret code by telephone and the agent detective brought the needed jewels to the hotel or theater, while remaining close to it all evening!
A TIMELINE OF MATILDA'S EXTRAORDINARY LIFE:
Childhood and education
Kshesinskaya was born to an artistic family. Her grandfather was a famous violin player, singer and actor and both her parents were ballet dancers although her mother abandoned the stage after marriage, dedicating herself to her family. At the age of eight, Matilda enrolled in the Imperial Theatre School, where her brother and sister already studied.
Her life and artistic career were closely linked to the Czar’s family. She would always remember the day of her graduation exam, which became a turning point in her life. The exam was traditionally attended by Czar Alexander III, the Empress and the successor to the Russian throne, the future Emperor Nicholas II. After the show, the Emperor told her: “Be the fame and decoration of our ballet!” Later in her memoirs she recalled how excited and impressed she was with these words: “I said to myself that I must live up to these hopes!”
Love affair with Nicholas II
But it was the meeting with 21-year-old heir to the throne Nikolay Aleksandrovich, future Czar Nicholas II , that changed her life. After the exam, she sat next to Nicholas at the reception. She recalled later that “at the end of the evening they looked at each other not like they did jut several hours ago.” That’s how their romance began. Their dates were no secret to Alexander III but for some time he preferred to turn a blind eye. However, when the time came for the heir to the throne to tie the knot, the romance could no longer be permitted.
Marrying into the Royal family
But Matilda was not left alone. The Czar’s cousin, Grand Duke Sergey Mikhailovich, favoured Matilda and took charge of her, becoming her patron. But it was another member of the royal family, Grand Duke Andrey Vladimirovich, with whom she ultimately found true happiness and built a family.
However, it was not all thanks to her highest patrons that Kshesinskaya got the first parts on the Imperial stage. From her childhood her greatest passion was dancing. She amazed her colleagues by her fantastic obsession with work, spending hours at the bar. She was the first Russian dancer to perform 32 fouettés, a quick whipping movement of the raised leg usually accompanying a pirouette.
On stage she was irresistibly charming and feminine. Her dancing was a combination of the technically irreproachable Italian style and the lyricism of the Russian school. From her father, Kshesinskaya inherited a talent for pantomime and dramatic interpretation. Her repertoire included among others, Fairy Dragee in The Nutcracker, Odette-Odile in Swan Lake, Pakhita, Esmeralda, and Princess Aspicia in The Pharaoh's Daughter. Matilda Kshesinskaya was convinced that a dancer with academic training is capable of any style. She proved this by participating in experiments by Mikhail Fokin (Butterflies, 1912; Eros 1915).
“Kschessinska’s life is a powerful metaphor for Russian culture and evokes the best of Russian arts,” said Paul Schrader, author of the biopic of the notorious Russian Ballerina.. “She was a first native prima ballerina in the country that saw the highest achievement in that art form. She was not only a witness to the critical period of Russian history, she was a player in that history, only to be thrown aside.”
As the Russian Empire was falling apart, a tiny ballerina caused scandal, heartbreak, and intrigue among the royal family. Kschessinska played mistress to at least four aristocratic men who controlled the crumbling Romanov dynasty, including Russia’s last Tsar, Nicholas II. Rising from poverty, through her extraordinary gift for ballet, Kschessinska lived a life of mind-boggling luxury during a time of monumental despair and chaos. Despite her relentless ambition and charismatic power, she never got what she really wanted. Although her son certainly had Romanov blood, his paternity remained in dispute—and her dream to become mother of the Tsar would never be realized—due to revolution, murder, and unrequited love.
Emigration after the Bolshevik revolution
After the October Revolution she fled Russia together with Grand Duke Andrey Vladimirovich and went on to bring up a generation of internationally famous dancers. Thanks to Matilda Kshesinskaya, the world learnt the names of Margaret (Margo) Fonteyn and Pamela May.
In 1936, at age of 64, she performed the famous “Russian Dance” in London’s Covent Garden.
Kshesinskaya outlived her celebrated friends: impresario Sergey Diagilev and the legendary dancers Anna Pavlova, Vazlav Nizhinsky all passed away before her. She died at the age of 99 in 1971. She is buried at the Parisian cemetery Ste-Geneviève-des-Bois.Matilda F. Kshesinskaya is not only a synonym of Russian ballet at the turn of the 20th century, but also was a significant personality in the life of high society and culture of St. Petersburg in the last decades of the Russian Empire. Today, she is interest to us as a one-of-a-kind phenomenon encompassing many significant events in the cultural and political history of Russia.
Her mystique is still intriguing today, so much so that a movie is being made on her life and loves, this will be something to see!