The grey cotton of the borrowed maid’s dress stretched tight across Anna’s back when she bent to pour black jasmine tea into Prince Sergei Trubetskoy’s tea cup. As the conversation swirled in French about Russian reforms, she poured tea and arranged biscuits. Her father was right; she was completely overlooked. She could’ve been a deaf mute noticed only when their appetite exceeded their desire to talk.
One of the men, short with bright black eyes, must’ve forgotten himself and thanked her in French, and she’d replied in kind. If possible, his eyes grew brighter. “You speak French?”
Too late she realized her mistake. Servants didn’t speak the language of the nobility.
Gavril, who’d not been too far away, slid to the man’s side. “A bit of an oddity here, Monsieur Ryleev,” he said. “Her mother served the Dowager Empress, and acquired a smattering of French. She passed it on to her daughter who has retained enough to do your bidding.”
Mr. Ryleev gazed at Anna in wonder. “There. The makings of another educated serf.” He withdrew a thick sheaf of folded papers from inside his jacket. “This is a petition seeking the emancipation of a single serf. An absolutely brilliant man, can speak French and Russian, and read as well as any man in this room. Yet, he remains in the thrall of a master who governs more than three hundred thousand souls and yet refuses to grant one man—one man, I say!—his freedom.
An excerpt from my novel, The Tsar's Little Angel
Gavril’s reply to the historical figure, Kondraty Ryleev, is sympathetic, while easing Anna away from a situation that could blow her cover. She is there to unobtrusively gather intel about the workings of the Northern Society, a gentleman’s club with the grandiose mission of replacing the imperial regime with a constitutional monarchy through peaceful means. Ironically, their discussions were conducted in French, since the majority of the members hardly knew a lick of their country’s language.
French was the language of the nobility since the time of Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century, more than a hundred years before my story begins. Peter the Great dragged his culturally backwards people into the enlightened age by their beards, instituting massive reforms to education and social structures. The gentry took to the enforced reforms and also introduced French, the main language of European society at the time, into their homes and perforce, into their theatre, academies, literature, government, everywhere their elite fingers touched.
Alexander I, the featured tsar in my story, learned to speak French first, English and German next, with Russian, the language of the peasants and serfs, a distant and neglected fourth.
This national immersion in French changed after Russia’s war with Napoleon. Anti-French sentiment flared. Learning Russian among the children of the nobility became de rigeur. In a neat reversal, Alexander III, the tsar responsible for abolishing serfdom in 1861, obliged the imperial court to abandon French and learn Russian.
My story is written in English but contains conversations in English, French and Russian. A mishmash of nineteenth-century Russian proportions.
Troyat, Henri. Alexander of Russia.
Riasanovsky and Steinberg, A History of Russia.