Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Russians Are Coming!

New York City

In the 1966 comedy The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, a Soviet submarine accidentally runs aground near a small New England town during the Cold War, sparking fear and chaos throughout the community. However, when the Russian navy actually arrived in force a hundred years earlier, it was greeted with open arms. That naval visit, presumably an act of friendship during the American Civil War, was orchestrated by the Russian government. In reality it was a ploy, feigning an alliance with the Northern states to discourage the European powers from intervening in the Polish Rebellion which the Russians were brutally crushing. Still, Russia’s ulterior motives were of little interest to those caught up in the struggle to preserve the Union. Indeed, President Lincoln  appreciated getting at least this measure of international support, given that Great Britain and France were still toying with the idea of supporting the Confederacy.

In late September 1863, the Russian naval squadrons suddenly began arriving on the East and West coasts.1 The friendship visit was well timed. Even though the Union won a decisive victory at Gettysburg two months earlier, spirits in the North had already begun to wane.2 Ill in bed, and with the never-ending crisis of the war keeping him in Washington, the president sent Mrs. Lincoln along with other dignitaries to New York to greet the first ship when it arrived. Performing her diplomatic duties with aplomb, the First Lady boarded the 33-gun frigate Osliabia, and offered a toast to “The Health of the Emperor of Russia,” to which the ship’s captain replied toasting, “The President of the United States.”

Russian Fleet in New York Harbor (1863)

A few days later, after the other ships of the Atlantic Squadron arrived, another committee went out into the harbor to welcome the fleet. As this party passed each of the Russian vessels, the band on the U.S.S. North Carolina played “God Save the Czar!,” the imperial national anthem, which was loudly cheered by the Russian seamen who climbed the rigging to watch the proceedings. In response, the band of the flagship Alexander Nevsky struck up “Yankee Doodle,” doing their part to get the visit off to a good start. Over the next ten weeks, Rear Admiral S. S. Lessofsky and his officers were fêted in grand style, most notably at two banquets at the Astor House, and a ball given in their honor at the Academy of Music. The scale and lavishness of these entertainments reflected the deep level of American gratitude for Russia’s moral support during the war.

Crew of the frigate Osliabia (1863)

Taken on face value as a goodwill gesture by Czar Alexander II, the naval visit generated a lot of excitement in New York. People lined Broadway, cheering the Russians as they paraded by in carriages, the streets festooned with the flags of both nations; Tiffany’s went so far as to decorate their entire building with a huge banner. On October 12th, the first banquet for Admiral Lessofsky was held at the Astor House, hosted by five hundred “citizens” of New York. The menu shown below is printed on yellow silk and features the great seals of both nations.

A week later, there was another banquet at the Astor House for Admiral Lessofsky and his officers. Hosted by the City of New York, this dinner for two hundred gentlemen featured a particularly large number of ornamental centerpieces, the purely decorative sculptures made of confectionery. The menu shown below, surprisingly similar in appearance to the one from a week earlier, is printed on ribbed satin with a tighter weave, making it easier to read.

As was customary, these dinners were followed by a series of toasts and speeches, as shown by the program printed in gold lettering from this banquet. Although the orators repeatedly toasted each other with flattering and appreciative rhetoric, the new friendship was based on political necessity, driven by insurrections that both countries were grappling with at home. Indeed, many Russian aristocrats strongly disliked the idea of democracy and Americans found the Russian structure of government equally distasteful. Once, while exasperated about the anti-immigrant politics of his day, Lincoln quipped, “When it comes to this, I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy hypocrisy.” Needless to say, any such feelings about despotism, or the situation in Poland, were not voiced during the visit, even in humor.

Three days later, having barely digested the second banquet at the Astor House, the Russian officers (numbering over a hundred), left the city on a sightseeing trip to Niagara Falls, provided courtesy of the Hudson River Steamboat Company and the New-York Central and Erie Railroads. By then, the unrestrained flow of American hospitality, which included many private dinner parties, was beginning to take its toll on Admiral Lessofsky who accepted the invitation only on the condition that there not be any parades, speeches, or banquets during their five-day excursion.

Admiral Lessofsky and his Captains by Mathew Brady (1863)
On November 5th, the much-anticipated ball for the Russians began at 9:00 in the evening, when the first carriages pulled up to the Academy of Music. Two thousand tickets were sold for the Soirée Russe, as this dance was called; the crowd of onlookers standing outside was estimated to be even larger, making the whole affair something of a mob scene. The Russians were astonished to learn that the theater had been converted to a ballroom in less than twenty four hours, the work beginning only after the opera closed at midnight the night before. “None but Americans could accomplish such a feat!,” they exclaimed when they saw the glittering scene.

The Great Russian Ball by Winslow Homer (1863)

The dining room was set up next door at Irving Hall, connected to the academy by a covered passage. The late-night supper was catered by Delmonico’s, also situated on Fourteenth Street, just three blocks west at Fifth Avenue, on the other side of Union Square. The white satin menus featured two flags on the back—an American flag and the blue Naval Ensign, or St. Andrew’s Cross, representing Russia. In fact, they were hung like flags on small cedar sticks as part of the table decorations. Having not yet found one of these menus, the bill of fare reproduced below comes from chef Charles Ranhofer’s cookbook The Epicurean, published thirty years later. Reflecting the theme, there are special dishes like “snit-mitch” à la Russe (possibly small sandwiches), biscuits Moscovites, and charlotte Siberienne.3, 4 (One Russian-inspired dessert that had not yet been added to Delmonico’s repertoire was baked Alaska, created by chef Ranhofer to celebrate of the U.S. purchase of the territory in 1867.)

The numerous ornamental sculptures, called pièces montées on this French menu, included George Washington and Czar Peter I (named here as Pierre la Grand), the creator of the Imperial Russian Navy. Although the histories of the two nations had no similarities, the sitting American president and reigning Russian monarch, both sculpted on “pedestals of variegated sugar” for this occasion, recently accomplished something comparable regarding their own “peculiar institutions”— President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation at the beginning of 1863, freeing the slaves in the ten states in rebellion, and Czar Alexander II signed the Emancipation Manifesto two years earlier, freeing all of the serfs in Russia.

Extremes Meet Punch, London (1863)

In early December, the Russian fleet sailed down to Washington, anchoring in the Potomac near Alexandria. Members of the cabinet and other government officials toured the ships and were entertained at a banquet on the frigate Olisiaba. Returning the courtesy, William H. Steward, the Secretary of State who would later negotiate the acquisition of Alaska during the Andrew Johnson administration, hosted a dinner in their honor. Shortly before the Russian fleet set sail for winter ports in the Western Hemisphere, needing to cut and run before the river iced up, President Lincoln held a reception for the naval officers at the White House on December 19th, exactly one month after he delivered his two-minute address at Gettysburg where he redefined the struggle to preserve the Union as “a new birth of freedom.”

When it became clear that Great Britain and France would not initiate a war in support of Poland, Russia recalled its fleet. The Atlantic squadron rendezvoused in New York in April 1864. However, before leaving U.S. shores that summer, the Russians stopped at Boston where they were entertained at one last grand banquet.

There were at least two priests with the fleet serving as naval chaplains, perhaps the first Orthodox clergy to set foot in the eastern United States. A few days after Mrs. Lincoln’s visit to the frigate Olisiaba, its chaplain, a former monk named Nestor, baptized four Greek children in New York. “The service was of a most impressive character, and created great interest,” the Times reported. “The service was read in the Russian dialect, and its forms are peculiar, but very appropriate to such a ceremony. The officers of the Russian frigate were present, and enjoyed at the residence of Mrs. Negroponti, on Nineteenth Street, a most magnificent dejeune. (Toasts to) the Emperor of Russia and the new King of Greece were given in conjunction with our own magnates, and received with appropriate ovations.”5

Bishop Nestor
When the fleet stopped in Athens on its way back home the following year, the chaplains informed church leaders that there were Orthodox in America without a priest. As a result, the colorful Ukrainian-born priest Agapius Honcharenko, previously assigned to the Russian Embassy church in Athens, was sent to New York later that year. In 1878, chaplain Nestor returned to the territory of the United States as the newly-consecrated Bishop of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska.

1. The Atlantic squadron, commanded by Real Admiral S. S. Lessofsky, comprised the frigates Aleksandr Nevsky, Peresvet, Osliabia, the corvettes Variag and Vitiaz and the clipper Almaz. Arriving in San Francisco from the Russian ports in the Far East, the smaller Pacific squadron, commanded by Rear Admiral A. A. Popov, included the corvettes Bogatyr, Kalevala, Rynda, Novik and the clippers Abrek and Gaidamak. At the time, most of the ships in the Imperial Russian Navy were made of wood and primarily relied on sail. Since the Russian fleet was weak, a direct confrontation with the superior British navy was not advisable. In the final analysis, Russia’s goodwill mission to the United States proved to be a major triumph of naval diplomacy.
2. Four days after the flagship Aleksandr Nevsky arrived in September 1863, Confederate forces won the battle at Chickamauga, leaving the Union Army trapped in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
3. “English cooks are bad enough in their corruptions, but the French ones beat them hollow, and then the English ones, to show off their learning, take up the absurd French names and flourish them as titles of nobility. The sandwich has gone over to France, and has been transformed into a Snit mich…” Enaeas Sweetland Dallas, Kettner’s Book of the Table: A Manual of Cookery, London, 1877, p.179.
4. Charlotte Siberienne may be the same dish as Charlotte Russe (No. 3145), The Epicurean, 1893.
5. “A Greek Christening,” New York Times, 23 September 1863.


Deana Sidney said...

Henry, what an amazing post. First that you HAVE these cloth menus is a miracle, 2nd your scholarship is monumental. I didn't know most of this. The menus look amazing... they were putting on the dog weren't they? Also, the Winslow Homer engraving is a delight. YOu honestly feel the movement of the dance in full swing... very cool.

Thanks for a great post!

Anonymous said...

I have two flags from the Soiree Russe, one American and one Russian, with the menu printed inside. Pics are posted on