If ever there was a society that deserved Dickens’ description, it was the Russian court under the tsars. Those at the top held lands larger than some countries, had serfs who produced fortunes in goods, and had the entire world at their fingertips. Those at the bottom had little more than the clothes on their backs and the hovels they lived in. And in the middle, there was a class that survived on the leavings from the topmost class. Bureaucrats holding on for advancement to a minor nobility, students hoping for a bureaucratic appointment, and artists hoping for notice from wealthy patrons.
In the Imperial Ballet, study and performance were subject to the whims of the court. When the Tsar was in the royal box, audiences were tame; without him there, factions favoring one dancer over another competed in their verbal support and abuse of the dancers. Above all, the dancers competed to gain patronage. With it, rubles and jewels would pour into their hands; without it, the best you could hope for were background parts and perhaps attentions from Imperial officers with a little ready cash.
It is against this background that Adrienne Sharp sets her novel, which is based on the true story of prima ballerina Mathilde Kschessinkaya. Daughter of an already famous Imperial danseur, Mathilde is schooled from childhood in both dance and backstage politics. That includes the unspoken knowledge that the Ballet was often a meeting place for beautiful women and unattached wealthy young men. Tsar Alexander III personally introduces her to his son Nicholas, and Mathilde understands that her future is assured through the hormonal lottery. Installed in a palace, given the best of Russia’s jewels and the protection of the Tsarevitch, “Little K” becomes one of the cultural lights of the Russian capital.
But such a position is always vulnerable, and in the busy few months following the death of Tsar Alexander and Nicholas’s marriage and elevation to the throne, Kschessinskaya is forced to retreat from the social spotlight. Always resilient, Kschessinskaya becomes the mistress of one of Nicholas’s royal relatives, a relationship that survives years and brings her much wealth and property. However, when Alexandra proves unable to bear anything but girls, Little K welcomes Nicholas back to her bed for a brief idyll, during which she becomes pregnant. Their child’s life becomes the material from which Sharp creates a plausible yet tragic ending to their love.
Little K is largely shielded from the political and social upheavals of Nicholas’s reign, though she faithfully reports on them—the 1905 Revolution, Alexandra’s increasing alienation from the Russian people and finally the Great War that overthrew the Romanov dynasty. She even becomes a first-hand witness to Tsarevich Alexei’s hemophilia, which was concealed from nearly everyone, including the Tsar’s closest family.
In the chaos surrounding the 1917 Revolution, Kschessinskaya herself is apportioned some of the blame for Russia’s precipitous downfall. Her home is ransacked, then confiscated as the headquarters for the Bolsheviks; her jewels and money scattered to the winds; her influence dissipated; her patrons arrested and threatened with execution.
And yet, Little K proves that her theatre background wasn’t entirely useless offstage, as she escapes the Revolution and takes up a new life. The struggle between Kschessinskaya’s conservative standards and the artistic revolution of Diaghilev and Pavlova mirrors Nicholas II’s failed reign. Unable to quash their new styles, she is still more flexible than the monarchy, and her influence on a later generation of ballet dancers is unquestionable.
Adrienne Sharp owes a great deal to Robert K. Massie’s masterful history Nicholas and Alexandra, but her feel for dance and the drama of the artistic world is all her own. It is that unique angle, and Sharp’s ability to blend it seamlessly into the larger narrative, that makes this a wonderful read.
Check the WRL catalog for The True Memoirs of Little K