Revolutions are as old as humanity itself and, alas, it’s always nature’s Tatler readers who get it in the neck. Exactly 100 years ago, one of the largest empires in history, which spanned three continents, collapsed in a matter of months.
One moment, the Tsar was in charge, and his super-rich aristocrats were dining
on stuffed peacocks and caviar, waited upon by vast numbers of servants, and attending balls. By the following year, they had been classified as ‘former people’ by the Bolsheviks who had seized power and were forced to clean public loos in return for a minuscule bread ration and having to speed-read Karl Marx in order to work out what the hell had happened.
When the Tsar and his family were shot dead in 1918, any aristo with a shred of sense nabbed the clothes off an obliging peasant, sewed their jewels into children’s toys, stuffed as much foreign currency as they could into a furled umbrella and made their escape. Those who stayed tried to hide their origins and integrate into the new regime. But their accents and mannerisms gave them away and most ended up being declared ‘enemies of the people’ and were deported to the gulag.
There, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn recalled, they braved death while maintaining a stiff upper lip. ‘Because of their upbringing, their traditions, they were too proud to show depression or fear, to whine and complain about their fate,’ wrote the Nobel Prize winner. Even as they were being marched off to be shot, he said, they acted as if the Revolution was all ‘simply a minor misunderstanding at a picnic’.
But those who escaped had a tough time too. When money ran out in exile, it could be hard to maintain standards. Headlines such as ‘Princess as Cow-Keeper: How Ruined Russians Earn a Living’ were published worldwide, describing a Russian nobility struggling to adapt to new lives as penniless refugees. The owners of vast estates were reduced to the status of ice-cream makers; aristocratic writers worked as cab drivers, window cleaners and house painters. Those who had been at the top of society were scraping a living at the very bottom, washing dishes in restaurants where they once would have dined, cleaning floors at railway stations where they would have travelled first class. In Cannes, one ex-colonel, reduced to working as a dustman, bought Tatler so he could keep track of his long-lost acquaintances.
And, once again, Tatler is offering its services to aristocrats who might, perhaps, find themselves at the wrong end of a social uprising sometime soon…
Tatler’s damage-control tips in the event of upheaval
Do not cower in your stately home and hope for the best. Imitate Charles I’s sensible son, the Duke of Rothesay (later Charles II), who – after his father was decapitated for basically being an arsehole – escaped to France, having chopped off his ringlets, dressed up in greasy old clothes, stained his face with walnut juice and hidden whenever he saw the Roundheads looking for him. At one point he even shimmied up a tree – and stayed there for an entire day.
- Be humble – but fun – in exile
Learn how to be the perfect guest: neat, not too imposing, full of jolly anecdotes at dinner and, importantly, aware of when it is time to move on… Hopefully, the common folk will eventually start to miss you and your lively posho ways, as was the case in the 17th century. As soon as Oliver Cromwell died, the English decided they were fed up with the new regime cutting down all their maypoles and banning the theatre and begged Charles to come back, crowning him Charles II.
- Acquire some useful skills
For when the portable and valuable goods that you have taken with you run out and you still need to eat/buy new clothes, etc. Hairdressing is a good one – people will always need hairdressers, and scissors are easy to carry.
- Do as you would be done by
If the world turns upside down, you’ll end up cleaning for your cleaner. So always remember your manners.
- And finally… don’t mope
Because however shabby things might seem, it is possible, through luck, persistence and a little guile, to claw back your inheritance and position. Take this tale for inspiration: in 1922, there was a military coup in Greece. The royal family was banished. Even its tiny, 18-month-old prince was shipped out of the country in a crib made of an old orange box. For the whole of his young life this ex-prince was shunted between various European homes and through the English public-school system. Until the day when – like a fairytale in reverse – a princess fell in love with him and restored him to the rank he’d had at birth. His name? Prince Philip.