This post, published in 2014 is by far the most popular on my blog. It has been viewed thousands of times and gets a hit virtually every day. I have no idea why.
Soon it will be a full hundred years since that fateful July 1914 when Imperial Russia mobilized its armies to confront the Central Powers in what would become World War I. It was the beginning of the end of the Romanov dynasty and the court of the last Tsar.
The Romanov court required a staggering number of servants. At the Winter Palace alone over 1,000 were in constant attendance; when the Tsar and the Empress were in actual residence as many as 6,000 were needed.
Now being “in service” to the royal family wasn’t too bad a gig for the time. Most of those employed at Court came to service through family connections as descendants of earlier employees. Most male servants were taken from the military, their unquestioning allegiance making them fit for service. There was some glamour to the job no matter how menial. There were hundreds of coachmen, chauffeurs, footmen, maids, court runners, stable boys, kennel boys, veterinarians, mechanics, artisans, cooks, pastry chefs, wine stewards. Many servants enjoyed a close proximity to the Imperial family.
Wages were minimal, but uniforms, housing and meals were usually included. In addition, service jobs at Court meant an education for your children, regular gifts at Easter and Christmas and a pension in your old age.
Servants were usually invisible – with one exception – The Abyssinian Guards.
The Abyssinian Guards were black men who worked in pairs, standing at attention in front of the doors to the Tsar’s private apartments, waiting to admit the Imperial couple. The guards were one of the most famous fixtures at the Court.
They were not soldiers – “they had no other function except to open and close doors and to signal by a sudden noiseless entrance into the room that one of their Imperial Majesties was about to appear.”
The Guards formed a part of the Court since Peter the Great. The Russian Consul to Ethiopia recruited the Guards or they were given as “human gifts” by the Ethiopian Emperor. The only requirement was that they be Christian and that they stand immensely tall.
But not all of these men were from Ethiopia. Two of them were American.
One of these men was “Sam” and had come from the Riggs Plantation in Georgia. Little is known of Sam or how he got to Russia.
The more well known guard was Jim Hercules (pronounced “Her-ka-lis”), born to former slaves somewhere in the South in 1867. Taking advantage of freedom, Jim moved to New York and became a boxer. After touring Europe fighting in the ring he settled in London and took British citizenship. There he was seen by Empress Marie Feodorovna and invited to Russia where Alexander III offered him a job as an Abyssinian Guard. He stayed on under Nicholas II.
It is said that every couple of years Jim would return to America to visit family and return to Russia with gifts of homemade guava jellies for the imperial children.
The guards stood out from the rest of the servants not only for being black and imposingly tall but also for their unique attire. They wore coats of black wool embroidered with double headed eagles in gold thread over short white jackets, waistcoats of crimson velvet with wide woolen trousers. A red turban or velvet fez with gold tassel completed the ensemble.
Prince Christopher of Greece wrote “Tall, splendidly built in their wide trousers and scarlet turbans, they stood immobile as though they had been cast in bronze.”
No one knows what happen to Jim and Sam after the Revolution – they no longer had jobs after abdication. It has been reported that Jim stayed with the Tsar right up until his abdication.
A few years later on, in the early twenties, an American visitor to Russia was stunned to see a tall black man walking through the streets, dressed poorly but with a tattered imperial uniform coat. This visitor was told that the man, along with other “lost souls” of the Imperial period were common enough sights in the city and that the authorities treated them as harmless eccentrics.
Does he have any relatives or family still living? Who knows. Good basis for a novel.
Much of the historical background here is from “The Court of the Last Tsar”
by Greg King
A sumptuous book for those into this sort of thing
“Memories of the Russian court”
by Anna Bubovna.