Mathilde Kschessinska was one of the great ballerinas of the early twentieth century,yet today she is known, if at all, only as the former mistress of Tsar Nicholas II. This biography illuminates Kschessinska's unjustly neglected professional life as well as her sensational private affairs.
To be fair to the public, Kschessinska was such a flamboyant adventuress that it obscured her obvious gifts as a dancer. From a family of actors and dancers, she quickly became one of the stars of the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg. An occupational hazard of that line of work was the tendency to attract the attention of the men of the Romanov Dynasty. Fantastically wealthy and with little or no moral compass, the Grand Dukes were accustomed to seeing ballerinas as little more than a collection of potential mistresses and dalliances. For the ballerinas, attention from a Grand Duke or a Tsarevich was the path to wealth, glamour, and career advancement.
Kschessinska understood this all too well, and she aimed very high indeed, setting out to attract and entrance the Tsarevich Nicholas in the early 1890s. After the Tsarevich became Tsar and married Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt, Kschessinka moved on to become the paramour of Grand Dukes Andrei and Serge. She was able to build a magnificent palace in the smartest section of St. Petersburg and gained an impressive collection of jewelry. She also gained a son, Vladimir, who was never sure which Grand Duke was his father. (Mathilde herself either didn't know or chose never to divulge the secret).
The first section of the book tends to drag a bit, as we read of Kschessinska's climb to personal and romantic heights. The book really becomes interesting when it reaches the Revolution and its aftermath. Kschessinska's palace was taken over by the Bolsheviks in March, 1917 and she herself barely escaped with her life. She showed true courage and heroism over the next couple of years as she fled from revolutionaries and endured real hardship for the first time. After escaping to the West, Kschessinska demonstrated keen business abilities, setting up and running a successful ballet school in Paris and managing to live in an approximation of her pre-revolutionary style (with help from admirers) until her death at age 99 in 1971.
This is an interesting and well written work which does a good job depicting the life of a woman who deserves to be better remembered.