The beauty, the journalist, and the Titanic

Anastasia Romanovna Krandievskaya Image copyright Tatyana Tolstaya

In 1905, British journalist William Stead went to Russia to try to reconcile conservatives and revolutionaries. While there he was entranced by a Russian beauty. Her great-granddaughter, Tatyana Tolstaya, tells the story of a relationship cut off before it began, Stead's death on the Titanic - and a war that was not averted.

My great-grandmother Anastasia Romanovna Krandievskaya was a beautiful woman. She was tall with a slim waist, masses of hair and a pink and white complexion. People turned to look at her, they asked who she was. In her time she was well known as a writer, she considered herself a progressive woman with advanced views, and was proud of the part she played in the revolutionary struggle. In the first Russian revolution in January 1905 she opened a field hospital in her grand Moscow townhouse for those injured in the street fighting. I don't suppose she bound them up herself or prepared the food for them - after all that was what servants were for.

Great-grandmother may not have washed their wounds but she supported their fight against the government with all her heart. She was arrested because of her hospital and spent three whole days in jail - there was something to be proud of! And how proud she was! And how fetching she looked in her white lacy dress and a hat the size of a gateau. She would attend various meetings of philosophical and literary societies, and was admired both by the philosophers and the literati.

In the autumn of 1905 the English journalist William Stead came to Russia. The purpose of his visit was to reconcile progressive Russian society (progressive to the point of frenzied hatred and terrorism) with the intractable monarchist and authoritarian Russian government. He spoke at public meetings in Moscow, and St Petersburg and he went on a lecture tour to the cities of the Volga. Stead rejected violence and hatred, he said, they never came to any good. Listen to each other, he urged, find points of agreement.

Anastasia Romanovna went to one of his lectures and listened very attentively to his conclusions. Although her beauty was brilliant, she was almost completely deaf, and she had to strain and concentrate very hard to hear his words.

Stead noticed the beautiful woman whose eyes were devouring him. Nobody had ever listened to him or looked at him in that way before. After the lecture he intercepted her by the door and seized her by the hands. "Who are you? I want a portrait of you. I want you to write to me, even a few lines. Tell me your address. I want to read your books." "I will send them to you," answered Anastasia, flattered.

Image copyright Beowulf Sheehan
Image caption Novelist Tatyana Tolstaya is the daughter of Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy, a writer of science fiction and historical novels from the family of Leo Tolstoy, author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina

The next day he sent her a large bouquet of white flowers: lilies, tuberoses, hyacinths and orchids. "My dear and unexpected friend," he wrote in an accompanying letter. "We met and parted like ships in the dark night and on the measureless ocean, but I will never forget the reflection of your wonderful soul in your eyes. I feel as if I am standing at the foot of the altar to the Russian divine feminine. May the Lord protect you and make me worthy to preserve this memory.

"You too have been in prison. We both belong to that great brotherhood of prisoners. But I know, I believe, that we are linked by more than that. Allow me please to send you these flowers, given to me yesterday by a loving friend. They come to you with a doubled weight of affection."

Anastasia Romanovna was touched and confused by the letter and the flowers, but later that morning, over coffee, she opened the progressive paper in which Stead was vilified: he had sold himself to a bloody regime, he was a provocateur, he had been paid for his troubles and was the tyrants' lackey. How shameful. And Anastasia Romanovna was ashamed of her moment's weakness and she went to the window and threw the flowers with their doubled weight of affection into the street.

A month passed and Mr Stead returned from his tour of Russian towns where he had attempted without success to reconcile the intelligentsia and the government. He was weary and sad, and he came to visit Anastasia Romanovna at home. "Tell me," he said with the help of a translator, "why did you promise to send me your books, and then you never sent them?" "Because I am printed in the progressive press, and you are printed in the conservative newspapers," the deaf beauty answered coldly. "We met quite by chance and we go our separate ways."

William Thomas Stead 1849-1912

Image copyright Getty Images
  • British journalist, editor, and publisher who founded the noted periodical Review of Reviews (1890)
  • Became editor of the Northern Echo in 1871
  • Became editor of the Pall Mall Gazette in 1883
  • Known for his crusades for causes such as British-Russian friendship, ending child prostitution, the reform of England's criminal codes, and the maintenance of international peace

Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica

"Madam Krandievskaya! A single hair on your head is dearer to me than all the progressive and conservative newspapers," Stead cried out in despair and ran from the room. She never saw him again.

Seven years passed and in April 1912 Anastasia Romanovna, who was by then a little less brilliant, having lived through a great deal, opened the papers, as she did every day. On that day there were reports of the sinking of the Titanic. Her eyes ran down the list of passengers who had perished with the ship. Not that of course she would know any of them. But there, horror of horrors, was the name William Stead. Stead had set off to attend a peace conference in America, to discuss the means of stopping all the wars, for surely any reasonable person could see that war was an anachronism, that war would no longer happen, if only things were properly discussed…. She remembered his words "we met and parted like ships in the dark night and on the measureless ocean" and she wept. Why had she rebuffed this good man?

All he had wanted was peace, love and understanding. She sat down and wrote a short piece about their meeting for the newspaper. Her conscience troubled her.

World War One began two years later. In Russia it developed into a revolution. A February revolution, first of all, which overthrew the bloody Tsarist regime, as it was called, and then an October revolution, which brought in a new regime, far far bloodier. The coup of 1917 developed into a civil war which lasted several years. It meant, for our family, flight from Moscow, firstly to the south and then abroad. My father, two years old at the time, was taken into emigration on the last sailing out of Odessa. Anastasia Romanovna said goodbye to her little grandson and remained in Moscow. There was nothing to eat, no way of keeping warm. People slept in their clothes and burned whatever they could for fuel.

Strangers moved into the flat as part of the drive to "rationalise" living space. Anastasia Romanovna might have turned her home into a field hospital for revolutionaries, but when she was forced to accept their moving in she didn't much like it. At one point she only just managed in time to seize the paper with her article about Stead out of someone's hand: a revolutionary, who had rummaged through her archive and wanted to use the paper to light the stove. "In the dark night and on the measureless ocean," the once-beautiful woman thought, and wept again.

The Russian Revolution, 1917

Image copyright Getty Images
  • Food riots, demonstrations and a mutiny at the Petrograd Garrison in February 1917 forced Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate
  • A Provisional Government led by liberals and moderate socialists was proclaimed
  • But real power lay with the socialist leaders of the Petrograd (later All-Russian) Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies
  • The "October" revolution placed the Bolsheviks in power, who promised "Peace, Bread and Land" to the Russian people

More from BBC History

Those were her last tears for 10 years. Her townhouse was long gone and strangers themselves at home in the kitchen in her flat. She sold her hat and her dresses for kopecks and used the money to buy flour from the chef at the restaurant where once she had shone in that same hat. The philosophers and writers amongst whom she had shone had been sent to Siberia, and the lucky ones had been exiled abroad, and the only white flowers in her life were the ones she placed on her husband's grave.

The Russian poet Alexander Blok responded to the sinking of the Titanic with a strange and almost approving phrase. "The ocean is still alive," he wrote gloatingly in his notebook. For Blok contemporary civilization was false, stifling and permeated with lies, and he wished for its end, brought about by forces of nature. The ocean, dark and unpredictable, with its hideous depths, symbolized those elemental forces to him. The poet, along with many of his contemporaries, saw revolution as a purifying and liberating beginning, an ancient, wild and animal force, which would loose its bounds. The complacently "unsinkable" Titanic, full of well-fed passengers, strolling in the glow of electric light on soft carpets over the abyss - this was the image of "civilization".

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Image copyright ALAMY

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It was just as European civilization reached its apotheosis as it must have seemed, when progress, steam engines, telephones, electricity - goodness, even aeroplanes! - promised unprecedented growth and the final victory of man over nature, that everything crumbled, whole nations were prey to mindless bestiality, the Great War began, chaos swallowed everything, and the world order collapsed; the world was never the same again.

A few people, the most sensitive felt this. The sinking of the Titanic was an emblem, a marker of the end of the world as it was known to them.

A small oversight… a strange coincidence… a tiny hole under the water's surface, barely more than a scratch… A shot in Sarajevo - hardly the first time a discontented nationalist has taken a potshot at a ruler… You might think it could have been averted - after all, the important thing is the belief in the rational and the desire to do good. William Stead, for example, who was not just going anywhere, he was going to America, to a conference dedicated to the complete and total cessation of war, all wars, everywhere. And Anastasia Romanovna helping the revolutionaries, who wanted happiness and goodness for all humanity.

The conservative wanted happiness for the conserved state, the revolutionary for the revolutionary state. But the ocean came, chaos broke loose and swallowed them all.

This Essay will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday 30 December at 22:45 GMT. It was recorded in St Petersburg as part of a global year-long partnership between the British Council, BBC World Service and BBC Radio 3 called The War That Changed the World.

After the broadcast, you can listen again on the BBC iPlayer.

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