Amazing how sharp a pair of youthful eyes can be!
Recently, when going through the photographs in the Nicolas de Basily papers at Hoover for a project, I came across a small photo depicting a nondescript three-story brick building.
I did a double take because I had just read an article by de Basily’s widow, Lascelle Meserve de Basily, on the 1920 Allied Powers conference in Spa. The Russian White government in Southern Russia of General Vrangel’ (whose collection we also have at Hoover) had sent a delegation to Spa in hopes of securing official recognition from France and Great Britain. De Basily, a Russian diplomat who had drafted the abdication statement of Tsar Nicolas II (all five drafts of which are in his collection), was part of that delegation, which was headed by Petr Struve, foreign affairs minister of the Vrangel’ government, yet another major figure of that period in Russian history whose papers are housed at Hoover. As we know, no recognition came forth and the Bolsheviks ultimately prevailed throughout Russia.
So where do the eyes come in? In her article, Mrs. de Basily (who accompanied her husband on the mission) explains that, due to their late arrival in Spa, there were no hotel rooms to be had, so they were forced to find lodgings on the outskirts—in “a tiny apartment on the first floor of a modest house… . On the ground floor was a humble grocery shop.”
Could the brick building I was staring at be that modest house? Why else would such an innocuous-looking photo be in the collection? Plus, there were indeed some stores on the ground floor, though I couldn’t decipher the signs above them. I grabbed a magnifying glass but still couldn’t read the tiny letters. So I asked one of our young staff members, handing her the magnifying glass, if she could figure something out. Squinting, she said, “Well, let’s see. In one of the signs, I think it’s E… P… I...” I stopped her in her tracks and said, excitedly, “EPICERIE, French for grocery store!”
That was it, that was the épicerie diplomatique (as Struve and Basily called their quarters) where Basily, on Saturday, July 17, 1920, after the mission ended in failure, said to his wife, “This is the definite end of Imperial Russia—in a grocery shop.”
Nikolaĭ Aleksandrovich Bazili papers, Photo File, Envelope A, Hoover Institution Archives