The Countess in the Chinese Embassy

Countess Mariia Eduardovna Kleinmichel. Source.

For Shots Across the Amur’s tenth post, I thought it might be a good idea to write about something perhaps a bit less weighty. In the midst of Liu Jingren’s reports to the Foreign Ministry lies an interesting interlude, dating to March 1917, when the Chinese embassy became the refuge of two aristocratic women. An excerpt from one of his longer letters contains the following episode, the translated text of which has been re-paragraphed.




P.S. Princess Kantacuzine and Countess Kleinmicher [sic] have long been acquainted with the Chinese embassy. At the time of the popular and military uprisings in the Russian capital, they came to the embassy seeking protection. Based on the international precedent that protection should be granted to all officials and gentry of a host country who flee to foreign embassies in times of trouble, I allowed them to stay temporarily, with female relatives looking after all their needs.

Unexpectedly, on the night of the 14th, more than ten rowdy soldiers came. Since the Countess’ forebears were native Germans, they falsely accused her of being a German spy and searched her house. Upon learning that she was in the Chinese embassy, they barged in, seeking her out with guns in hand, in a state of great agitation. The embassy staff saw that these soldiers were mostly stone drunk and knew that it would be hard to reason with them; there was no choice but to allow them to take the Countess away. At the same time, the Duma was telephoned and questioned as to how such an illegal action could take place. Subsequently, a member of the Duma replied saying that they had no knowledge of this, and it was the doing of unruly soldiers. He apologised deeply and asked the embassy to set this out in a letter for further investigation. Right then, the rowdy soldiers returned demanding a search. The Duma member was telephoned and informed of this. He immediately admonished them over the phone, telling them not to invade the embassy. Only then did the soldiers insolently leave.

The next day, the embassy immediately wrote to the chairman of the Duma to report everything in detail, also saying that this violated international law and the embassy must lodge a serious protest. It was then discovered that the Countess had been escorted to her home by Duma members. On the 16th, the chairman replied, saying in effect:

‘From your embassy’s letter, the chairman learnt that hooligans carried out unlawful acts in your embassy, for which he would like to express his deep and sincere apologies towards Your Excellency. However, the chairman believes that Your Excellency must be aware that such unlawful activities were not the responsibility of the Provisional Government, since it was hooligans who were taking advantage of our country’s moment of reform to behave recklessly. Above all, the Provisional Government expresses its apologies and regret regarding these matters. This Government is striving to restore order and do its duty, in order to uphold international law and guarantee the laws and precedents of diplomatic representatives.’

Today, the embassy replied to the chairman, saying that at the time, the soldiers had taken the Countess to the Duma. Hence, it would not be hard to recognise them and they should be punished according to the law. Now the new mayor of the Russian capital has also come to give his apologies and has despatched seven soldiers to guard the embassy in turn. The new government’s handling of this matter was considered appropriate by the diplomatic corps, and it is not necessary to demand more. This matter of the troops barging into the embassy and the negotiations arising from it is presented for your reference. Once again, best wishes.

Letter from Liu Jingren, 5 April 1917 (sent 17 March). Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), pp. 74-75.

One of the two aristocratic women in question was a Princess Kantakuzen (also spelled Cantacuzene), whose identity is not entirely clear. It is unlikely that she was of the Cantacuzene-Speranskii line. Perhaps their most well-known representative, Julia Dent Cantacuzene Grant – granddaughter of Ulysses S. Grant and author of two memoirs of revolutionary Russia – was not in Petrograd in March 1917 (Revolutionary Days: Recollections of Romanoffs and Bolsheviki 1914-1917, pp. 120, 175). No mention of the incident appears in Julia’s memoirs, so this Princess Kantakuzen was probably not in her immediate family circle. Liu’s report mentions that the woman was a Kantakuzen daughter and not someone who married into the family. She may have been one of the granddaughters of Ekaterina Chislova – mistress of Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich – whose eldest child married a Kantakuzen.

The other woman, society hostess and Bakst patron Countess Mariia Eduardovna Kleinmichel nee Keller (spelled Kleinmicher in the original document), then 72 years of age, had Prussian roots on her paternal side. According to Kleinmichel’s memoirs, Memories of a Shipwrecked World, the decision to flee to the Chinese embassy had come from Princess Kantakuzen, who said she knew Ambassador Liu well. It also helped that the embassy was not far from where both women had been hiding.

Not included in Liu’s account but present in Kleinmichel’s is a telephone call to the English ambassador informing him of the trouble the two women were in (Memories, p. 227). Thus, the Beijing Foreign Ministry came to know of Kleinmichel’s arrest independently via London, and a 19 March telegram to Liu enquiring about the affair crossed with Liu’s own letter.

“Oriental” costume ball hosted by Countess Kleinmichel, 1914. Source.

Kleinmichel’s story of her sojourn in the embassy also revealed far more emotion and heroism than Liu’s terse letter, and presents a picture of domesticity absent from official documents:

The Minister [Ambassador Liu – ed.] received us very kindly; his wife and little children lavished a thousand caresses on me. My gratitude to these generous people will cease only with my life.

As I was without underwear or clothes, each Chinese servant in turn slipped into my house, spoke to my maid, and little by little brought all that was necessary. They also reported what was happening there…

The third evening after my flight, Princess Cantacuzene and I were sitting at dinner with the personnel of the Legation, when about fifteen soldiers, led by a young volunteer, broke open the doors… The Minister and his first Secretary attempted to explain to these men that they had no right to violate a Legation, but although they spoke in excellent Russian, they might as well have talked Chinese for all the effect their words produced…

The Chinese Minister refused to hand me over to my enemies, and was ready to defend me by force, but seeing how things stood, and fearing that the wrath of these savage soldiers would vent itself upon these heroic Chinese and delightful little children, I said I was ready to follow them wherever they please. Princess Cantacuzene did the same, but she was younger and more nimble than I; as soon as we were in the street she slipped into another group of people and vanished from sight (Memories, pp. 226-227).

Countess Kleinmichel returned to a residence that had been looted. Other soldiers were using it as a billet, turning part of her house into a shooting range. Nevertheless, she survived the revolutions, leaving Russia in 1919 and settling eventually in France, where she died in 1931.

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