By Tamar Anolic
When Prince Konstantin Konstantinovich entered his father’s study in the Imperial palace of Pavlovsk, he found his father standing at the window, staring out. It was April, 1914, and spring was just starting to find its way into St. Petersburg. The sunlight that flowed through the window was a pale light, but it was not as pasty as the Grand Duke Konstantin’s countenance. Prince Konstantin sucked in a breath when he saw how ill his father looked.
The Grand Duke heard his son gasp and turned from the window. “Ah, Kostya,” he said. He gestured for his son to sit. Konstantin settled into one of the comfortable chairs facing his father’s desk, inhaling the smell of his father’s cigars as he sat. “Are you still corresponding with Pilar of Bavaria?” the Grand Duke asked.
Sometimes, Konstantin wished his father didn’t have such a good memory. “Yes, I am.”
“And still no talk of marriage?” the Grand Duke pressed. “I thought you were interested.”
“I am interested,” Konstantin admitted. “And I told her as much.”
“But I’ve heard the same talk of war as you have. Some say Russia could mobilize her armies as early as next month.”
The Grand Duke sighed. For a moment, he stared out the window again. Then he looked back at his son. “I don’t think the mobilization will come that early, and yet my fear of war hangs over my head like an anvil. You realize that if Russia’s armies moved across Europe, they would be marching against Germany? You and Pilar would be on opposite sides of the conflict.”
The thought chilled Konstantin. “But if I brought her here as my wife, would that guarantee her safety?” he asked. “Or would it just leave her a very young widow?”
The Grand Duke did not have the time to answer before both he and Konstantin heard footsteps at the door of the study. A second later, Konstantin was glad to see his brothers Oleg, Igor, and Gavril come into the room. They took seats next to Konstantin, and the room was quiet as the four young men eyed their father, who continued to stand at the window, staring out.
Then Ioann, the family’s oldest brother, slipped into the study, holding his four-month-old son, Vsevolod. The baby stared around with big blue eyes. A tuft of black hair stood straight up on his head. Finally, the Grand Duke turned from the window and smiled at the sight of his only grandchild. Ioann smiled back and hugged Vsevolod to his chest. The Grand Duke watched them for a minute before he held out his arms for the baby.
Ioann handed Vsevolod to his father and sat in the one remaining chair in the room. The Grand Duke sat at his desk and rested Vsevolod in his lap. Then he looked at his five sons and sighed. His pain was obvious. Konstantin felt himself tense up and saw his feelings mirrored in the anxious expressions on each of his brothers’ faces.
“By now, you all have heard that Europe seems to be moving towards war,” the Grand Duke said. “If it comes to that, I doubt Russia could avoid fighting.”
Konstantin and all of his brothers nodded.
“But Nicholas himself doesn’t want to go to war,” Gavril said of the Tsar. “He thinks Russia has a long way to go before its railroads and other industries can support a war.”
“I agree with him,” the Grand Duke replied. “But the passions of our countrymen, and of our fellow Slavs, are running high. I’m not sure Nicky could keep Russia out of war, even if he were opposed to it.”
“What about the Duma?” Ioann asked, naming the nationally elected congress. “The Duma has the final say over whether we enter the war. If both it and Nicky are opposed, perhaps Russia will remain neutral.”
The Grand Duke shook his head, his disdain obvious. “The Duma consists of nothing but politicians that bend at the slightest wind,” he said. “If people are clamoring for war, the Duma will make sure it happens, regardless of whether it’s good for Russia.” The Grand Duke shook his head. “The country needs strong men that stick to their principles, like Peter the Great.”
“Nicky is no Peter the Great,” Konstantin heard himself saying. “Peter could have kept us out of war. Nicky won’t be able to.” Everyone in the room looked at him.
Gavril in particular glared at his younger brother. “Are you disloyal to the Tsar?” he asked.
“I’m just saying what I see,” Konstantin mumbled. Then he looked Gavril in the eye and spoke more clearly. “I am as loyal to Nicky as you are.”
The room became silent, and Konstantin fancied he could see the tension in the air mingling with the sunlight that was still coming through the window. Then Vsevolod began to fuss, and Ioann stood up to take his son from his father. The Grand Duke did not object, but an intractable sadness filled his eyes. The expression remained there as Ioann took Vsevolod into the hall and handed him to his wife, Princess Elena.
From inside the study, Konstantin watched as Elena took her crying son and disappeared down the Palace’s long hallway. “I’m sorry, Papa,” he said as Ioann returned to the room and took his seat. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“It’s not you that’s upsetting me, Kostya,” the Grand Duke replied. “It’s the prospect having all five of you march off to war.”
“And yet if my country calls, I can only reply,” Oleg said, and Konstantin was grateful for his words.
The Grand Duke’s eyes welled up with tears as he looked at Oleg. “You are the most talented, artistic and poetic of my eight children,” he said. “Your loss in this war would be the greatest.”
“Relax, Papa,” Ioann said. “War hasn’t even been declared yet.”
“And yet I feel its rumble in my bones,” the Grand Duke replied, standing and going back to the window. “We are headed down that path. All of Europe is.”
Konstantin, Ioann, Gavril, Oleg and Igor looked at each other uneasily. Then Konstantin rose and joined his father at the window. “It will be alright, Papa,” he said, putting a hand on his father’s shoulder. “Truly it will be.”
But Konstantin’s reassurances were of little use. He watched his father’s jaw clench and unclench. Then, despite the Grand Duke’s efforts to the contrary, tears ran down his face. “Five of my sons marching off to war,” he said. “I should never have lived to see this day.”
Tamar Anolic has been fascinated by the history of Imperial Russia for over fifteen years.