Archives Imperial Russia

Foreigners, revisited

It’s not really a surprise that the Russia of Nicholas II was as interested in keeping lists of foreigners as the Russia of Alexander I had been back at the time of the Napoleonic wars. At least, it’s not much of a surprise. It was a time of “extraordinary” security measures and revolutionary movements, after all. Of course, that’s usually thought of as aimed at internal enemies, not necessarily at foreign nationals, at least until the onset of the First World War. But concern about foreigners started much earlier. As early as January 1896, the police chief of Gatchina was sending regular reports to the town administration listing the foreigners living in the town. The practice continued up through the start of the First World War. They’re collected, interfiled with a lot of other reports on a lot of other subjects, in an archival folder labeled “confidential correspondence on various questions.” So not only was concern with foreigners real, it was also secret.

Glancing through the file, two things seems clear—first that there was a great diversity of people and of lengths of stay in Russia, and second (perhaps as a result) that it was really hard to make accurate lists of people. The first report, from January 12, 1896, listed twelve foreigners living in Gatchina: two French, three English, one Austrian, two Germans, and then a set of other German speakers, from Mecklenburg, Bavaria, and Prussia. Another list from the same month lists 37 people, not 12. (The German regions also persist here even well after the consolidation of Germany.)

Here’s the list of foreigners drawn up on June 15, 1912, almost exactly 100 years after the list from 1812.

For whatever reason, only one (or perhaps two) of these figures shows up much in the larger archival record (or at least, only shows up much in the archival records that I’ve looked at), and that’s the Briton Joseph Bennett. He worked at the palace stables—he’s listed here as a jockey, and that’s probably part of why he was there. But he also had a side business as a dog breeder, something he ran out of the palace stables. He shows up in police notices a couple times, once because one of his dogs badly bit another worker at the stables, and another time because one of his dogs was put down due to rabies.

He also shows up in records of some of the Romanovs themselves. Gatchina sat mostly empty for much of its existence, but that was very much not true in the period after 1881. That’s when Alexander III moved his family there, and from that point on, either the entire imperial family or some subset of it was often in residence. After Alexander III’s death, Gatchina remained the primary country residence of the widowed Maria Fedorovna, and of Nicholas II’s two unmarried younger siblings, Mikhail (b. 1878) and Olga (b. 1882).

Alexander III and his family in 1888. Mikhail is the youngest son, Olga the younger daughter. From Царские дети в Гатчине.

Mikhail mentions Bennett in a letter to Olga in January 1900; he was living at the palace while his mother and sister were living in St. Petersburg at Anichkov Palace (this was a normal thing—they often spent Christmas in Gatchina and then went to St. Petersburg for the next couple of months). His letters were most of all about hunting and riding, but those occupations of course brought him to the stables. And there, he notes, “I saw Bennett’s two sons, with whom I chatted in Russian, and then in English.” One of those sons was probably Charles, who would at that point have been a teenager.

Bennett also shows up in one of Olga’s letters to her mother. In the spring of 1895, she and Mikhail (Misha) were living in the palace while her mother was visiting her family in Denmark. The then twelve-year-old Olga wrote, in part:

Misha’s new dog is laying at my feet he is very loving and Misha adores him. I hope I will soon have a dog, please do give me a dog I will be 13 and Misha had a dog at 13, I would like Benet’s fox terrier, he wanted to give it me last year, and now again he asked if I might not have, he is called Bobby and I like him as much as you like the princess Mira please let me have him, I dremt last night that I was walking with you and you asked me what I would like, and I said: Bobby, and you said: We’ll see, and you gave him to me, and when I woke up I was so sorry it was nothing but a nice dream! And then I saw the Queen of England eating her lunch you were looking at her, and just when she was going to speak I woke up and it finished.

In case you’re wondering about my translation and some of its oddities, I should throw this in—it isn’t a translation. Olga’s first language was basically English. She was always more comfortable in, kept her diary in it, wrote to her family in it. Russian words and phrases are sprinkled throughout, but for the most part, she was first and foremost an anglophone. In any event, Olga’s plea was successful. In her diaries she notes that her mother sent a telegram from Copenhagen saying she could have the dog, and from that point Bobby/Bob/Bobtail or “my darling doggy” becomes a regular feature of her life in Gatchina.

I have to admit, this is not where I thought I was going with this blog post when I began it, because the file of confidential correspondence goes on to include the war years, and something shows up that is one of the most upsetting things I’ve read in the archives. But I think that this week I am not in the mood to end on upsetting things. So for the time being, I’ll end instead with Olga’s darling doggy, who went on to chase ducks and fall in the lake and bark with excitement every time she returned to the palace.

The main file on confidential correspondence: RGIA f. 491, op. 3, d. 279. Files with police reports about Bennett’s dogs: d. 515, ll. 319-391ob (1897) and d. 560, ll. 176-176ob (1899). Mikhail’s letter: GARF f. 643, op. 1, d. 48, ll. 43-46ob; Olga’s letter: GARF f. 642, op. 1, d. 2414, ll. 57-58ob; diary mentions come from GARF f. 643, op. 1, d. 3, l. 78 (1895).

By Alison Smith

Professor, University of Toronto, Department of History;

Author of For the Common Good and Their Own Well-Being: Social Estates in Imperial Russia (Oxford University Press, 2014)

One reply on “Foreigners, revisited”

The benefits of history – this blog provides fascinating insights which inform operation of an international residential compound in contemporary Riyadh, which reflects Gatchina in so many ways, from CV-19 access policy (petitions) to road rage – yes, cycling conflicts. Thank you for this blog and your work.

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