Columbia Library columns (v.42(1992Nov-1993May))

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  v.42,no.3(1993:May): Page 15  

Generations of Service to the Tsars
The Benckendorffs


After seventy years gathering dust in an English attic, the
papers of Russia's illustrious Benckendorff family have
made their way to Columbia's Bakhmeteff archive. With
the long process of cataloging near completion, this large collection
will soon be open to the public—an event eagerly awaited by
scholars of Russian history and diplomacy throughout the world.

The papers belonged to Alexander Constantinovich Bencken¬
dorff the last tsarist ambassador to the Coun of St. James's; all of
his personal and professional correspondence located in the
embassy at the time of his death is included. And by fortunate hap¬
penstance, Benckendorff also had with him the archive of his father,
Constantin Constantinovich Benckendorff, a soldier and diplomat
who died in 1858. Thus the collection as a whole covers a broad
timespan from the 1790s to the 1920s, allowing the historian to
observe how the ideal of service to the tsars was expressed over the
course of five generations.

Although the Benckendorffs devoted their lives to serving the
Russian state, they, as their name suggests, were not Russian. The
family was part of the Baltic German nobility, descendants of the
teutonic knights who swept into the area in the Middle Ages only to
be halted by Alexander Nevsky and his stalwart Novgorodians on
the ice of Lake Chud. By the time Peter the Great took over Latvia
and Lithuania from the Swedes in the aftermath of the Great
Northern War, a Benckendorff was ensconced as mayor of Riga.
The family quickly reached an understanding with the new rulers
of the Baltic, thus beginning a tradition of service that would con¬
tinue undiminished straight up to 1917.

The Benckendorffs' Germanic roots were a critical factor in
determining their identity. Despite their prominent position, they
never fully assimilated the Russian culture. Apart from the last gen¬
eration before the revolution, the Benckendorffs preferred not to

  v.42,no.3(1993:May): Page 15