Tattered Banners: A Life in Imperial Russia

  • By Paul Rodzianko
  • Paul Dry Books
  • 194 pp.

In the first American edition of this 1939 classic, a high-ranking Russian horseman recounts the gruesome tribulations of war and waxes nostalgic for the aristocratic order.

Tattered Banners: A Life in Imperial Russia

Although the Great War of 1914-18 signaled the twilight of horse cavalry, nations continued to maintain viable cavalry arms entre deux guerres. Elite officers, often cultured scholars as well as expert horsemen, not only dominated international equestrian competition, but also, in some cases, wrote very good books.  

Their oeuvres varied. M.F. McTaggart and Vladimir Littauer, for example, produced over a dozen titles each, but Piero Santini and Harry Chamberlin only a seminal handful between them. Colonel Paul Rodzianko (1880-1965), Russian aristocrat and cavalryman, published an eclectic trio: a manual, Modern Horsemanship (1936); Tattered Banners (1939); and a biography, Mannerheim (1940).

Though Tattered Banners is often categorized as an autobiography, it is a memoir: Rather than chronicle Rodzianko’s life, it recalls and reviews, probes and assesses the milieux of his life. It may not fix a bifocal gaze, like the most sophisticated memoirs, on both recollected experience and the experience of recollecting, but it is capacious, powerful, and subtle — a forgotten work with real claims to historic interest and aesthetic value.

Rodzianko, in essence, adapts and torques the template for Great War memoirs: Here, the cataclysm of the war — its unprecedented slaughter and perfidy powerfully witnessed — figures largely as enabler of Rodzianko’s bête noire, the Russian Revolution. Neither a cautionary fable of “lost horizons,” nor an ironic telling of “the remains of the day,” Tattered Banners is a bitter cri de coeur of order defeated by chaos, civility trampled by barbarism, and the gracious devoured by the vicious.

Born into the highest ranks of tsarist Russia, Rodzianko came of age among the nobility, thinkers and artists, and military elite of Petrograd — raised and educated to be at once deeply Russian and broadly cosmopolitan.

“The Russian aristocracy,” he observes, “was the most cosmopolitan in the world. We thought in Russian, spoke French and English between ourselves and used German for technical discussions.” (The English of Tattered Banners is Rodzianko’s, not a translator’s.)

A gifted gymnast, fencer, and, especially, equestrian, Rodzianko was appointed as a youth to the prestigious Corps des Pages and later, following his father’s footsteps, to the elite Chevalier Guards.

Once he “took up equitation seriously,” he studied at the fiercely competitive Russian and Italian Cavalry schools with the two greatest turn-of-the-century equestrians: James Fillis, the erudite dressage master, and Federico Caprilli, the revolutionary cross-country genius.

Readers who come to Tattered Banners via Modern Horsemanship, however, may leave disappointed. Horses and horsemanship are central to this memoir, to be sure — Rodzianko’s teachers, his most accomplished horses (Macgillycuddy and Jenga in particular), his Olympic fame and show-jumping mastery, his cavalry exploits, and, in the book’s final chapters, his postwar career as riding master and director of the Irish Free State Cavalry School — but they are not its true focus.

The focus is on humans and their capacity to do things for — but also to — one another. Rodzianko disdains masses — they are cowardly, gullible, and “cattle-like” — and he starkly contraposes his principal actors: Bolshevists and their lackeys massacre and murder, gang-rape and torture, with no semblance of decency or shame, while noble families exemplify dignity, courage, and grace under pressure, with a deep sense of duty and honor. “Kings,” Rodzianko writes, “know how to die.”

In this book, not all the sinners are saints. Women, in particular, are one or the other: Parisian cocottes — “exotically clad ladies as remarkable for their beauty as for their lack of virtue” — or the empress, grand duchesses, and Rodzianko’s wife, sister, and mother — arrested, brutally interrogated, and sentenced to be shot, “gave away nothing.” Men, however, can be too saintly: the emperor should have been “a little less kind, a little more brutal,” and Admiral Kolchak “more ruthless” and “less of an idealistic soldier.”

Applicable not only to individuals, those antipodes are also universal: The anguished misanthropy of Tattered Banners is palpable and pervasive. War teaches nothing: “The last war did not really lead to any new discoveries about the beastliness of fighting.”

War may cleanse — “War destroys the pettiness in human nature. All the depths of unselfishness and cruelty are revealed” — but it will not cleanse original sin: “The spirit of personal revenge is so deep in human nature that even military discipline cannot curb it.”

Although slighter in stature than a great novel, Tattered Banners has the gravity and tonal swings of one. It opens as a charming and witty stroll through Eden; offers a stirring account of the Fall; plunges into Hell with a grisly and graphic reconstruction of the torture and murder of the imperial family; and resurfaces with a dispassionate denouement. It is Paradise Lost as told by Dostoevsky.

Tattered Banners makes a strange but salutary read. Reflecting a widely shared fear and dread in 1939 that Fascism, Nazism, and Communism would lead to apocalypse redux, it responds with nostalgia for empire, aristocracy, and chivalric codes of honor. It joins literary potboilers, Hollywood adventures, and sublime elegies of the period in proffering the honorable cavalryman as antithesis to the bellicose bullyboy. In this, it is not anomalous, but illustrative.

Charles Caramello is professor of English at the University of Maryland and John H. Daniels Fellow at the National Sporting Library and Museum in Middleburg, VA.

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