Monday, July 20, 1914.
I [Maurice Paléologue, French Ambassador to Russia] left St. Petersburg at ten o’clock this morning on the Admiralty yacht and went to Peterhof. Sazonov, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Isvolsky, the Russian Ambassador to France, and General de Laguiche, my military attaché, accompanied me. All four of us had been invited by the Tsar to lunch on the imperial yacht before going to meet the President of the Republic [Raymond Poincaré had left France for a state visit to Russia on July 15] at Cronstadt. The staff of my Embassy, the Russian ministers and Court functionaries will go by rail direct to Peterhof.
The weather was cloudy. Our vessel steamed at high speed between low banks towards the Gulf of Finland. Suddenly a fresh breeze from the open sea brought us a heavy shower, but as suddenly the sun burst forth in his splendour. A few pearl-grey clouds, through which the sun s rays darted, hung here and there in the sky like sashes shot with gold. As far as the eye could reach, in a limpid flood of light the estuary of the Neva spread the immense sheet of its greenish, viscous, changing waters which always remind me of Venice.
At half-past eleven we stopped in the little harbour of Peterhof where the Alexandria, the Tsar’s favourite yacht, was lying under steam.
Nicholas II, in the uniform of an admiral, arrived at the quay almost at once. We transferred to the Alexandria. Luncheon was served immediately. We had at least an hour and three-quarters before us until the arrival of the France. But the Tsar likes to linger over his meals. There are always long intervals between the courses in which he chats and smokes cigarettes.
I was on his right, Sazonov on his left and Count Fredericks, Minister of the Court, was opposite us.
After a few commonplaces the Tsar told me of his pleasure at receiving the President of the Republic.
"We shall have weighty matters to discuss," he said.
"I’m sure we shall agree on all points . . . But there’s one question which is very much in my mind – our understanding with England. We must get her to come into our alliance. It would be such a guarantee of peace!"
"Yes, Sire, the Triple Entente cannot be too strong if it is to keep the peace."
"I’ve been told that you yourself are uneasy about Germany’s intentions."
"Uneasy? Yes, Sire, I am uneasy although at the moment I have no particular reason to anticipate a war in the immediate future. But the Emperor William and his Government have let Germany get into a state of mind such that if some dispute arose, in Morocco, the East – anywhere – they could neither give way nor compromise. A success is essential at any price and to obtain it they’ll risk some adventure."
The Tsar reflected a moment:
"I can’t believe the Emperor wants war . . . If you knew him as I do! If you knew how much theatricality there is in his posing! …
"Perhaps I am doing the Emperor William too much honour in thinking him capable of willing, or simply accepting the consequences of his acts. But if war threatened would he, and could he prevent it? No, Sire, I don’t think so, honestly I don’t."
The Tsar sat silent and puffed at his cigarette. Then he said in a resolute voice:
"It’s all the more important for us to be able to count on England in an emergency. Unless she has gone out of her mind altogether Germany will never attack Russia, France and England combined."
Coffee had just arrived when the French squadron was signalled. The Tsar made me go up on the bridge with him.
It was a magnificent spectacle. In a quivering, silvery light the France slowly surged forward over the turquoise and emerald waves, leaving a long white furrow behind her. Then she stopped majestically. The mighty warship which has brought the head of the French State is well worthy of her name. She was indeed France coming to Russia. I felt my heart beating.
For a few minutes there was a prodigious din in the harbour; the guns of the ships and the shore batteries firing, the crews cheering, the Marseillaise answering the Russian national anthem, the cheers of thousands of spectators who had come from St. Petersburg on pleasure boats and so forth.
At length the President of the Republic stepped on board the Alexandria. The Tsar received him at the gangway.
As soon as the presentations were over the imperial yacht steered for Peterhof. Seated in the stern the Tsar and the President immediately entered into conversation, I should perhaps say a discussion, for it was obvious that they were talking business, firing questions at each other and arguing. As was proper it was Poincaré who had the initiative. Before long he was doing all the talking, The Tsar simply nodded acquiescence, but his whole appearance showed his sincere approval. It radiated confidence and sympathy.
Before long we were at Peterhof. Through its magnificent trees and sparkling fountains, Catherine II’s favourite residence appeared above a long terrace from which a foaming cascade poured its majestic waters.
At a sharp trot our carriages ascended the drive leading to the palace entrance. At every bend we had a fleeting glimpse of some fresh vista, a line of statues, fountains or terraces. Though the detail is somewhat meretricious one scents something of the keen and delicious atmosphere of Versailles in the balmy, sunlit air.
At half-past seven there was a banquet in the Empress Elizabeth room.
Thanks to the brilliance of the uniforms, superb toilettes, elaborate liveries, magnificent furnishings and fittings, in short the whole panoply of pomp and power, the spectacle was such as no court in the world can rival. I shall long remember the dazzling display of jewels on the women’s shoulders. It was simply a fantastic shower of diamonds, pearls, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, topaz, beryls – a blaze of fire and flame.
In this fairy milieu Poincaré’s black coat was a drab touch. But the wide, sky-blue ribbon of St. Andrew across his breast increased his importance in the eyes of the Russians. And then it was soon seen that the Tzar was listening to him with the closest and most sympathetic attention.
During dinner I kept an eye on the Tsaritza Alexandra Feodorovna opposite whom I was sitting. Although long ceremonies are a very great trial to her she was anxious to be present this evening to do honour to the President of the allied Republic. She was a beautiful sight with her low brocade gown and a diamond tiara on her head. Her forty-two years have left her face and figure still pleasant to look upon. After the first course she entered into conversation with Poincaré who was on her right. Before long however her smile became set and the veins stood out in her cheeks. She bit her lips every minute. Her laboured breathing made the network of diamonds sparkle on her bosom. Until the end of dinner, which was very long, the poor woman was obviously struggling with hysteria. Her features suddenly relaxed when the Tsar rose to propose his toast.
The imperial speech was received in a composed silence, for it was the reply which was most eagerly awaited. Poincaré spoke without notes instead of reading his speech as the Tsar had done. Never had his diction been more clear, lucid and pointed. What he said was only the stale and formal official verbiage but in his mouth the words acquired a remarkable wealth of meaning and authority. The effect was quite marked on that audience, brought up as it was in the traditions of despotism and the discipline of courts. I’m sure that of those decorated functionaries more than one thought: "That’s how an autocrat should talk."
After dinner the Tsar held a levee. The general eagerness to be presented to Poincaré showed he had been a success. Even the German clique, the ultra-reactionary group, sought the honour of an introduction to the President.
At eleven o’clock a procession was formed. The Tsar conducted the President of the Republic to his room.
There Poincaré kept me in conversation a few minutes. We exchanged impressions, and very good they were.
When I returned to St. Petersburg by rail at a quarter to one in the morning, I heard that this afternoon the principal factories went on strike – for no reason and on a signal from no one knows where. There have been collisions with the police at several points. My informant knows the working-class quarters well and tells me that the movement has been instigated by German agents.
Maurice Paléologue, An Ambassador’s Memoirs