In the euphemistic language of the early twentieth century, Hekkeren might have been described as ‘a confirmed bachelor’. In the nineteenth century the idea that a government could not safely entrust its representation abroad to a man of homosexual leanings -provided that he was reasonably discreet – was not one to which much attention was paid. And up to 1834 Hekkeren was discreet with one exception: he grossly abused the privilege of the diplomatic bag. He used this to import – duty-free – goods of all kinds in quantities far exceeding the requirements of personal use and therefore intended for the market. Hekkeren was by no means the first head of mission to err in this way, either in his century or in our own. In avoiding trouble with the officials both of the Russian customs and of the ministry of foreign affairs, he doubtless relied on his friendship with Nesselrode and on the value set in St. Petersburg on his own ultramonarchist convictions. Once the future of Belgium had been internationally agreed, at the London Conference in 1831 (under the Vienna settlement, Belgium had formed part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands), Hekkeren cannot have had much of importance to do in St. Petersburg; his leaves of absence were of extreme length even by the standards of those days. But for what happened in 1836-7, he might have been remembered only as a malicious, though harmless, busybody, a familiar type in the diplomatic services of all ages.
From the turn of the year 1833-4 an extraordinary change, triggered by Hekkeren’s meeting with d’Anthes in Prussia, came about. Hekkeren had given d’Anthes a lift in his carriage, so that the two men left the inn together and arrived in Russia together on 8 September 1833. In the course of the following year Hekkeren travelled to Alsace in order to meet Georges d’Anthes’ family. By February 1836 Georges’ father, who was not well off, wrote to Hekkeren authorizing him to adopt his son; and on 22 May the Russian foreign minister received from the Netherlands minister formal notification of the fact that, by decision of the King of the Netherlands, Georges d’Anthes was entitled to bear his name, his title and his coat of arms. Hekkeren had had some legal difficulty in his own country in bringing this remarkable operation to a successful conclusion. He was obliged to overcome the fact that the French code civil, which was still in force in the Netherlands, did not allow an adoption of this kind. This obstacle was circumvented by means of a royal decree which did not mention the word adoption, but did lay down that both d’Anthes and his descendants were authorized to bear the name of Hekkeren.10 From then on Russian documents tend to refer to the elder Hekkeren and the younger Hekkeren, but since this is confusing to a present-day reader, the use of the name d’Anthes is retained throughout the rest of this book, except in quotations.
Was Hekkeren’s affection for – not to say, obsession with – this handsome blond man, half his age, platonic and was d’Anthes actively bisexual? Both are questions to which no definitive answers can be given. At the time, the general reaction in St. Petersburg was one of astonishment, but the candid expression of this astonishment seldom went outside the privacy of confidential correspondence. Long afterwards, however, two pieces of evidence came to light, both of which point in the same direction. In his account of the events of 1836-7, one of d’Anthes’ brother officers in St. Petersburg, Prince Alexander Trubetskoi, wrote that there was one exception to d’Anthes’ :
youthful mischief. . . about which we learned much later. I do not know whether to say that he lived with Hekkeren or that Hekkeren lived with him. At that time buggery was widespread in high society…
It must be assumed that, in his relations with Hekkeren, he [d’Anthes] played only the passive role.
Like all memoirs, this account, which was written fifty years after d’Anthes had left Russia, cannot be relied upon. On the other hand, there is only one reasonable explanation of the fact that when writing (in French) to Hekkeren from St. Petersburg, d’Anthes used the second person singular throughout. No Frenchman who was born a member of the noblesse – or, for that matter, the upper bourgeoisie -would have addressed his father as anything but ‘vous’ in the nineteenth century – and indeed well into the twentieth.
Pushkin’s first reference to d’Anthes is an entry in his diary of 26 January 1834, where he remarks that the guards are not happy with the decision to accept two French emigres, one of them Baron d’Anthes, ‘as officers straight away’. In February of that year d’Anthes, without knowing a word of Russian (a language that he never troubled to learn during his three and a half years in St. Petersburg), was indeed gazetted cornet in the household cavalry; and two years later he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant. He retained his French citizenship, however. He seems to have got on well enough with his brother officers. He also enjoyed the financially important patronage of the Empress Alexandra (Nicholas I’s Prussian wife), who was his regiment’s colonel-in-chief; and it was not long before he became a familiar figure in St. Petersburg society.