Norfolk Historical Society Page Header

Norfolk Highlights 1584 - 1881
By George Holbert Tucker

Chapter 58

The Russian Invasion

Norfolk society went into its dizziest tailspin in January of 1877, when the Russian Imperial Grand Dukes Alexis and Constantine and their suites paid the city a surprise visit.

Nothing like it had happened since Lady Dunmore showed the Norfolk provincials the latest minuet steps in 1774. By comparison, the much touted International Azalea Festivals of later years are like so many country church covered-dish suppers.

The noble globetrotters arrived in Norfolk aboard the Imperial Russian frigate Swetlana on January 13, 1877, and from then until the dukes departed for New York, Norfolk society had palpitations of the heart on a twenty-four-hour basis.

The bon ton of that period was so unused to imperial visitations that it even overlooked a slur aimed in its direction by the Grand Duke Alexis immediately after his arrival.

It was only twelve years after Appomattox, and the haute monde was still trying to recoup the family fortunes that had been considerably reduced during "The Late Unpleasantness."

When the Grand Duke Alexis learned that two of the top leaders of Norfolk society were in the grocery and auction business, he is reported to have raised his imperial eyebrows and remarked, "Really! Am I to be presented to Norfolk society by a grocer and forced to dance with the wife of the town crier?"

But this jibe was forgotten temporarily in the whirlwind of pleasure kicked up by the imperial visit.

Theater parties at the Church Street Opera House, a Grand Complimentary German in the Old Masonic Temple on Freemason Street, a Grand Naval Ball held in the flag-bedecked, flower-banked sail loft of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, all climaxed by a Grand Matinee Dansante aboard the Swetlana, kept the Norfolk-area social scene in a tizzy for over a month.

In reporting the German, a Baltimore paper added this titillating note: "A young lady of Norfolk was so agitated while dancing with the Grand Duke that she fainted in his arms. The scion of nobility merely passed her over to one of the old ladies with the remark, "Too-damn-thin-o-vich!" and secured another partner.

Despite the frosting on the social cake, however, all was not well aboard the Swetlana, and most of the time while the Grand Dukes and the top Russian naval officers were cavorting ashore, the petty officers of the ship were having a time keeping the sailors from open mutiny.

The Norfolk police also had their hands full keeping the Russian sailors in line when they were on shore leave. Saloon keepers continued serving the drunken sailors on their way back to the ship, and in some instances these establishments even kept their rear doors open for the Russians when the saloons were supposed to be closed, all of which brought a severe rebuke from the civil authorities.

Many stories have come down from the time of the imperial visit, but the following is indicative of what the high-born Russian visitors were doing when they were not tripping the light fantastic.

On one occasion, when the Grand Duke Alexis was scheduled to attend a fashionable affair in Portsmouth, he was not to be found. Finally a search party composed of a number of leading citizens tracked him down behind a high board fence on the farm of John Edwards, an eccentric bachelor. They discovered His Imperial Highness perched on top of a barrel watching a cockfight!

Chapter 59
African-Americans in Norfolk

Norfolk Highlights 1584 - 1881

Norfolk Highlights 1584 - 1881

See the "Table of Contents" for links to every chapter in Norfolk Highlights 1584 - 1881 by George Holbert Tucker.