Title: 42 Years in the Realm of the Czar and the Soviets
Author: Theodora Krarup - Translation by Carl Aastrup and John Harris
Publisher: Repository Press
ISBN: 978 0 920104 38 5
This history, from a personal perspective, is the fascinating story of how a determined Danish artist was able to work as an official portrait painter both for the Czar, his family and officials and for 20 years after the Bolshevik Revolution, for Soviet officials.
Having fine-tuned her skills as a portrait painter in Paris, Theodora Krarup yearned to move to Russia and work there. Through the Danish Culture Ministry in Copenhagen, she got a reference to the Danish embassy in Saint Petersburg. She travelled by train there from Helsinki in 1896. In Saint Petersburg she built on her contacts to get more and more portrait orders while writing as a correspondent for Scandinavian papers. Her journalistic work led to introductions that brought the opportunities for other portraits. They might have been what enticed Rasputin to sit for her.
When Stalin in 1938 ordered foreigners resident in Russia to apply for Soviet citizenship or leave, Krarup did not want to give up her Danish nationality and took the train out of the country, travelling through Helsinki and Stockholm on the way back to Denmark.
Krarup found the Russian people helpful and friendly, and respectful of her talent as a painter. On the other hand, she observed expressions of bad attitudes towards the poor. Many poor rural visitors were still slavish and subservient after the experience of serfdom. Another social problem she saw was widespread gambling to all hours, leading to corruption and the despair of many.
Krarup had the opportunity to visit and interview numerous prominent personalities working in literature and other arts. For example, she travelled to Moscow to interview the great Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy, about his writing, Russia and the Nordic countries. He told Krarup his forefathers were Danish. However, she noted that Tolstoy, like most Russians, thought of Scandinavia as one single, unified region with a common literature.
She also writes about the visits of Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse and Isadora Duncan. “Duse and Sarah Bernhardt must also be included in the gallery of famous European guests to Petersburg,” she recalls. “The former gave me a signed photograph and the latter some cigarettes with her name on them – unfortunately left behind among my many things. Krarup attended court festivals and elaborate dinner parties with nobility and the Czar and his family, and provides memorable descriptions of these events.
Krarup had the opportunity to paint a number of portraits of Gregorij Rasputin, farmer, mystic and advisor to Czar Nicholas II and Alexandra. Rasputin was often the subject of assassination plots, one of which was outlined by two foreign officers in her studio. Krarup claims that the characterization of Rasputin as a dissolute, womanizing lunatic was fabricated by his enemies. In fact, she says, “I have never, not even at parties, seen Rasputin intoxicated. He was not a teetotaler, but did not drink more than any other healthy and vigorous person …. He was a thoughtful Christian socialist, and in no way anti-Semitic.”
Krarup records how quickly conditions deteriorated early in the First World War. “The great miseries of Russia were felt seriously when war broke out in 1914, followed by one dramatic and violent occurrence after another,” she remembers. “And starvation and famine were a scourge on the land.” Cold and weak people would walk miles in response to rumours of availability of bread. Firewood too, was extremely scarce.
“That the country under conditions such as these sooner or later had to break down some way or other was natural,” she concludes. In 1917 the February Revolution led by moderate socialists was followed by the Bolshevik Revolution in November.
“Old Petersburg travellers surely will remember this city’s splendor and greatness,” she says. “It was so much more surprising that a city with over a million people could be destroyed in a few months.”
Publishing houses were dissolved, bookstores were closed and privately owned newspapers were shut down. Yet some consumer goods were plentiful. There was more security for citizens—security about living quarters, about work and about wages, Krarup says. Yet people fearing arrest would hide out in public toilets. She herself was arrested and jailed by the Tscheka for a short time and a second time for three weeks under disturbing conditions. She also notes the eventual rise under Stalin of Stakhanovitism, a state-sponsored effort to push people to work more and more free overtime.
In 1934, Sergei Kirov, governor for the Leningrad district, was murdered. Fifty people were arrested and executed, including some of Krarup’s friends. Krarup experienced shock, followed by a stroke.
On being required to leave the Soviet Union in 1938, Krarup had to get rid of most of her writings and paintings, the manuscripts she had received from Rasputin, and the souvenirs she had retained from the Czarist period. She burned them all in her furnace because the secret police would inspect a vacated apartment for any evidence that might indicate ties to, or sympathy with, the Czarist regime. “It happened several times that people who had gotten their passport, and had everything in order, now only needed to take their place on the train and travel over the border. At the last minute, unpleasant things happened to them.”
Krarup took with her only a small portrait of a child and other minor items of no political significance. She was forced to give up all her Soviet money when crossing into Finland. Fortunately, on the advice of the Danish ambassador in Helsinki, she was provided with food and accommodations during her journey, and similar help was forthcoming in Sweden.
One unpleasant fact of returning to the West was the shock of ageism. She overheard a porter in Stockholm tell another, “Will you help the old lady with her luggage?”
“I had not heard the word ‘old’ applied to me in Russia from any person, not even during the last years,” she remembers. “You spoke there of what people accomplished, of what they were, but not of their age. It was hard for me to get used to the term ‘old lady,’ after my homecoming, after 42 years abroad.”
In the book Krarup may have toned down the depth of terror under Stalin because during the time she put her book together in early 1941, Denmark was under German occupation, and had been since April 1940. Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were still officially friendly to each other under the terms of the Stalin-Hitler Pact of Aug. 24, 1939. Krarup was likely concerned about the safety of sources back in the Soviet Union if she gave too much detail about some of the events she observed or heard about. Too detailed criticism could lead to reprisals there, and, also, Krarup would have had to keep in mind that Stalin’s agents operated freely in German-occupied Europe when the two powers were still on friendly terms.
45 Years in the Realm of the Czar and the Soviets is an absorbing book that gives the reader an idea of everyday life in Russia under the Czars, during the First World War, through the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917 and under Communism for two decades afterwards.
Paul Strickland — in his 28 years as a full-time journalist and 6.5 years as a free lance journalist, Paul has worked for newspapers in Nevada, Medicine Hat and Prince George. Besides being an investigative reporter, he is a poet, a short story writer and an essayist. He presently resides in Prince George.