What I loved about this book was its subject matter, both Mathilde herself, and the world that she lived in. The biography brings it all to life. This book gives a fresh perspective on the often re-told story of the reign of Nikolai II and the 1917 revolution, and also the aftermath for those who managed to escape.
Mathilde Kschessinska was a witness and participant in a few historic events. She is close to Nikolai II as he passes from Tsarevich to Tsar. She is close to the Grand Dukes, probably the lover of at least two of them just when the Grand Dukes are being their most Grand Ducal. She is a key figure in the history of ballet, in some sense the apotheosis of the classical form of Russian ballet, just as performers like Anna Pavlova and Isidora Duncan were to change and modernise ballet, along with Diaghilev and Fokine. She was one of the targets for the hatred of the Bolsheviks, with her palace in St Petersburg the most damaged and attacked, more than those of the Romanovs who had paid for her palace. She escaped to the Caucasus where she makes it out with various second-tier Romanovs, in itself a great story. Then finally, she establishes herself and just about ekes out a fifth act in Paris, as an emigre Grand Duchess, and the founder of a ballet school.
I have just been able to rattle off these themes or events, which is a testament to the book’s ability to draw out these themes. The book doesn’t analyse them in great depth, but to be fair to the author it doesn’t set out to do this. This is probably a a conscious decision by the author, who chose to focus on the life of her subject rather than sidetrack into bigger history. So it’s not really a flaw of the book that it doesn’t go into these subjects in great depth, it’s simply not in the author’s brief. That I feel its absence says more about me than about the author.
That’s the summary, and I shall be returning to some of these themes, because they’re all fascinating. I’m particularly interested that Mathilde must have known Nikolai better than almost anyone else, or at least some aspects of him. But the other thing that I took away, and that I will leave you with, is the attractiveness of Mathilde as a heroine in her own right. She has an ambition and force of character that will be all too familiar to anyone who has spent a lot of time around Russian women, an ability to take arms against a society that wanted to reduce her to much less than she wanted to be. The fact that this echoes through the centuries that divide us from her glory days is a tribute to the quality of this biography.