If you’ve seen any of the movies about the last days of the Russian tsar Nicholas II and his family, you probably saw them portrayed as if they were all alone in exile in Siberia, with maybe a nurse for Alexei and a couple of friends. Well, that wasn’t exactly the case. In fact, when they left their home near St. Petersburg to go to their first place of exile, the Governor’s House in Tobolsk, they brought what they considered the minimum of attendants and servants.
With them in Tobolsk were:
A few personal servants:
The tsar: 3 valets and a barber.
The tsaritsa: 4 maids and a groom of the chambers.
The grand duchesses: a maid, a groom of the chambers and their own footman.
Alexei: his personal sailor-nurse, his own doctor and a nurse as well as a footman.
Then there were the general servants, who waited on everyone:
1 kitchen boy
1 wine steward
We mustn’t forget the professionals who accompanied the family:
1 family doctor
And then the higher-level servants, tutors and maids of honor and adjutants all had their own servants, numbering about 8 or 9 more.
Altogether, there were nearly 8 times as many servants and attendants in exile as there were imperial family members.
No wonder they thought the Governor’s House—a mansion by any standard today—was small!
But what did all those people do? It’s hard for us today, in a society of “servantless Americans”, to quote Julia Child, to imagine being surrounded by people who had specific jobs—from laying out the tsar’s clothes, to bringing in the tea, to answering the telephone.
Actually, that’s one of the biggest challenges in researching the past: finding out about the little people. It’s more difficult to discover what the life of a scullery maid was like than that of a king. In the memoirs of the time, the people who also lived with servants on a daily basis usually took their presence—and their functions—for granted and didn’t elaborate about them.
As near as I can tell, here’s how the hierarchy went:
Maid of Honor or Adjutant: These were paid court appointments, usually occupied by nobility. They were more like personal secretaries or assistants, helping with organizing schedules and acting in the place of their employers in certain ways. They’d screen people who came to talk to the tsar or tsaritsa for instance.
Groom of the chamber: A pretty high rank, not usually occupied by someone wealthy, but perhaps a person from an impoverished good family. Often the grooms of the chamber would deal with finances, control the purse of the employer for personal expenditures.
Valet: The traditional “gentleman’s gentleman,” someone who would see to the personal needs of his employer with style and grace. Think Jeeves.
Footman: A very broad set of duties was performed by footmen. They were traditionally status symbols, called footmen because at one time their main task was to run along beside or in front of a carriage and help them avoid road hazards, or announce the arrival of the important personage. Their main job requirement was to be tall and handsome. By the time of the Anastasia, they were more just general helpers.
Lady’s Maid: The female equivalent of a valet.
Notice so far none of the servants mentioned actually did any heavy cleaning. They might have responsibility for the wardrobes, or the bedchambers, but the grand duchesses made their own beds and tidied their rooms. It’s my guess that in Tobolsk, local daily help did any floor scrubbing, or the cook’s helpers did the dishes and cleaning up in the kitchen.
One tidbit of information about Alexandra: She had such fine underthings, all silk and lace and made by nuns in a convent, that almost the first time her clothes were sent to be laundered in Tobolsk they came back utterly ruined. Her friends in St. Petersburg got together and sent her new underwear that would stand up to the abuse of a rural laundry.
None of this takes into account the elaborate religious observances of the family. They had a makeshift chapel erected in the Governor’s House, and a priest would come to conduct services there. They had to go out for communion though, since their temporary chapel wasn’t consecrated. They were a very devout family, becoming more so as their fate closed in on them, in Yekaterinburg, when they really were almost alone. The servants who remained with them there made the ultimate sacrifice, sharing their employers’ fates.
Wow, who knew servants could be so diverse? And to think the family was in exile, hm. Anyways, I'm super excited to find out what Anastasia's secret is, and a huge thank you to Susanne for stopping by!