A new book by Justin C. Vovk explores the lives of four exceptional royal women: Augusta Victoria of Germany, Mary of Great Britain, Alexandra of Russia, and Zita of Austria-Hungary.
In Imperial Requiem, Justin C. Vovk narrates the epic story of four women who were married to the reigning monarchs of Europe's last empires during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. More than 600 pages!
Many of the videos are in Russian, however, do not allow that to deter you from watching them as each one is filled with beautiful film footage (both historical and contemporary) of the Romanovs and their legacy.
How Russians Celebrated New Year Before Revolution Topic: Imperial Russia
The population of St. Petersburg, the capital of the Russian Empire, consisted of social strata nested within themselves like Indian castes. It was only a few times each year that the tempos of their lives – be they high society, factory workers, servants, students, Germans or paupers – converged.
Because four-fifths of the city’s population were Orthodox believers, and because Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox holidays were very close together on the calendar, New Year’s and Christmas – the second most important Orthodox holiday after Easter – were celebrated by almost all of St. Petersburg's populace. The advent of Christmas marked the beginning of Christmastide – a season that lasted until Baptism (from Dec. 25 to Jab. 6, according to the old style).
Christmas was a family holiday, mostly for children. On Christmas Eve, every self-respecting newspaper carried Christmas stories and verses in which the hero is miraculously saved from danger on Christmas Day.
Toy shops displayed dolls, drawing-room and sports games, children’s pistols, doll houses, furniture, clothes, carriages, live models of steam and water mills, railways and automobiles. A novel feature in the 1913 season was an English wireless telegraph for children – the latest technology.
Petty officials and clerks snapped up practical jokes, in order to play pranks on their friends, cousins and mothers-in-law: for example, a “bottle of perfume” would turn out to contain plain water that spilled all over the recipient of the gift; matches that lit themselves; little imps jumping out of candy boxes…
Christmas dinner included an ostrich sitting on eggs: its body made from a coconut, its neck from a banana, its head fashioned out of a small apple with holes for eyes and its beak made from an almond… A guidebook wrote that “few inhabitants of the capital celebrate Christmas without a partridge or a traditional goose.”
Until Christmas Day, people practiced religious abstinence (although, in St. Petersburg, very few people followed the full rules of fasting).
Every self-respecting family also put up a Christmas tree. The custom was borrowed from the Germans and became popular in St. Petersburg in the 1830s, before spreading across Russia. The Christmas tree decorations were brought from Germany in huge quantities, ahead of Christmas.
The decorations piled at the foot of the tree were given to all the invited children, and the sweets, tin soldiers, fruits and nuts hanging on the tree were handed out as prizes to winners of trivia, anagrams and countless other games.
Families attended the festive mass and returned to a lavishly spread table. Numerous toys were recovered from under the Christmas tree.
From morning, children from poor neighbourhoods visited the flats of the well-off. They congratulated the owners, gave praise to Christ and accepted gifts – typically small change, a few kopecks per person. Among those who came with Christmas greetings were local constables, chimney sweeps, church-bell ringers, garbage collectors, and attendants from Turkish baths. They were treated with vodka and given some money.
Christmas in the Emperor’s family was very much the same, except for the number of Christmas trees (one per each family member) and the fact that gifts were presented not only by adults to children but also by children to their elders. And, of course, the value of their gifts was different (jewelery, arms, paintings, china).
The New Year
For a long time, the New Year was not a holiday but an ordinary workday. However, rural folk celebrated St. Basil’s Day on Jan. 1. That saint, the Bishop of Caesarea, was the patron of pigs – so, on New Year’s, people all over Russia ate sucking pig.
By the beginning of the 20th century a New Year’s ritual was established in the capital. Jan. 1 was regarded as a time for looking back on the previous year.
On the other hand, the night of New Year's was the time when unmarried young people in the city let their hair down. It was very pleasant to enter a restaurant or an inn, to escape St. Petersburg's dank weather. Fancy dress balls were staged at the Noble Assembly and the Suvorin Theatre.
The winter holidays lasted two weeks. During this time, Christmas tree parties were held in all the public spaces for the pupils attending the city’s schools. During the day, they lit up a huge electric fir-tree and children under the age of 10 received free gifts.
After the New Year came time for fortunetelling for young maids. Of course, the rituals were all aimed at attracting bridegrooms: they gave barley grains to roosters, melted wax, dropped slips of paper with the names of potential bridegrooms in a bowl of water and made use of mirrors.
Christmastide ended with religious celebrations for Epiphany Sunday. On Jan. 6, Orthodox believers went in their masses to “Jordan” (places on rivers, canals and lakes where they were baptized in the water). Processions carrying a cross started out from many churches and ended at the water’s edge: holes were cut in the ice for the ritual and chapels were built near these spots. Thus, Christmastide would come to a close.
Note: Russian New Year is on Jan. 1, but Russia has always dated Christmas as Jan. 7, in common with the rest of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Moscow Icon House Marks 400th Anniversary of Romanov Dynasty Topic: 400th Anniversary
A unique exhibition dedicated to the 400th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty has been opened in the Icon House in Moscow.
The exhibition, The Romanovs. Fall of Dynasty presents personal belongings, works of art, and archival documents of the members of the imperial family.
The life of the Romanovs is recreated at the exhibition by means of unique exhibits: the throne and cane of Tsarevich Alexey Nikolaevich; portraits of Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, painted by court artist Alexander Makovsky, and the like. Up until the end of 2011 these portraits were kept in Sweden, in the house of the maid of honor of Grand Duchess Olga.
Visitors of the exhibition can also see toys of the children of Tsar Nicholas II, and jewelry that one of the court ladies took out from the Winter Palace in a pillowcase of Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna. In a show-window under glass there is Grigory Rasputin's letter.
Another exhibition opened also in the icon House is The Russian Modernist Style recreating the epoch in which the family of Nicholas II used to live. The exposition has included art works by M. Vrubel, M. Nesterov, V. Vasnetsov, V. Kotarbinsky, I.Bilibin, P. Corin and other great masters of the era of the Russian art nouveau.
Besides, the exposition has included works of iconography, jewelry art, sculpture, interior decorations, suits, archival documents, works by suppliers of the imperial court and glorified masters of gold and silver business K.Konov, D. Smirnov, S. Zharov and others.
For the unique exposition The Icon House has completely reconstructed its showrooms, i.e. nearly 1 000 square meters. The exhibitions will take place in the museum halls till December, 2013.
Kremlin: August 1 to be Russia's WWI Remembrance Day Topic: Russian History
Tsar Nicholas II blessing his troops during World War I
August 1 will be the date on which, each year, Russia remembers its soldiers who fell during the First World War, the Kremlin Press Service announced on Monday.
“The following changes are introduced to the Federal Law on Days of Military Glory and Remembrance Days in Russia, adding the date of August 1 as a Day of Remembrance for the Russian soldiers who fell in the First World War of 1914-1918,” the press release says.
President Putin suggested creating a memorial to the Russian soldiers who fought in World War I (WWI) during his state of the nation address of December 12.
Allied to Britain and France in WWI, Russia is thought to have lost about 1.5 million soldiers at the front, with about 5 million wounded – according to the history site firstworldwar.com, although some historians question these figures.
Russia’s participation in WWI was downplayed in the Soviet Union, largely due to the Bolshevik view of it as an “imperialist war” that paved the way for revolution.
Speaking with young Russians at the Seliger youth camp in July 2013, President Putin raised the issue of Russia's role in WWI, and blamed the Bolsheviks for how Russia left the war. "It is also known that the Bolsheviks wished for the defeat of their own nation in World War I. And overall, I must say that their input in Russia’s defeat was commensurate."
The Treaty of Brest Litovsk, signed between Bolshevik Russia, the German Empire, Austria Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire on March 3, 1918, officially terminated Russia's involvement in WWI.
"This was an astonishing situation, wherein Germany surrendered to the Allies, but Russia lost to the defeated nation, Germany, and with such grave consequences – losing enormous territories and suffering other truly severeramifications. This is truly a unique large-scale example of national treachery!" Putin said.
The Mysterious Disappearance of the Russian Crown Jewels Topic: Jewels
After the 1917 revolution, Russia's new rulers debated what to do with the crown jewels. This 1925 photo shows the collection. However, a 1922 album at the USGS includes photos of four items that are missing from the 1925 photo.
The story of the missing Russian crown jewels begins, as so many great adventures do, in a library.
In this case, it was the U.S. Geological Survey Library in Reston, Va.
Richard Huffine, the director, was looking through the library's rare-book collection when he came upon an oversized volume.
"And there's no markings on the outside, there's no spine label or anything like that," he says. "This one caught our eye, and we pulled it aside to take a further look at it."
Researcher Jenna Nolt was one of those who took a look.
"The title page is completely hand drawn, and it's got this beautiful, elaborate design on it, and it has the date 1922," Nolt says. "When we translated the title, we found out that it was The Russian Diamond Fund."
The Diamond Fund is the name given to the imperial regalia of the Romanov family, the czars of Russia for more than 300 years, from 1613 to 1917.
Huffine knew they were on to something.
"Several of the pictures at the very front of the album are the iconic, known products that you would think of for the Russian Crown Jewels, including the Orlov Diamond in the scepter, and the grand crown, which has the huge stone at the top," he says.
The Orlov Diamond is a 189-carat stone that was famously stolen from the eye of a statue of a Hindu deity in southern India — and that's only one of the stories behind the collection.
These are jewels of almost magical significance, symbols of unbridled power and wealth.
Calling In An Expert
The U.S. Geological Survey librarians called Kristen Regina, the archivist and head of the research collection at the Hillwood Museum in Washington, D.C.
The Hillwood boasts the largest collection of Russian imperial art outside of Russia.
"The crown jewels play an important part in the coronation story," Regina says, "because the czar crowns himself in the coronation, and that is the moment when he takes full power."
The Romanov dynasty came to an end in 1917, amid the chaos of a world war, a revolution and a civil war.
Regina says the fate of the crown jewels raised a furious debate among the Bolshevik leadership, which was badly in need of money.
Some of the revolutionaries saw the jewels as symbols of centuries of exploitation — gems that ought to be sold to benefit the workers.
Historian Igor Zimin says much of the collection was preserved by curators at the Kremlin in Moscow, who were able to convince the leaders that the gems had enormous historical significance.
Zimin, the head of the history department at the St. Petersburg State Medical University, says there are records of auctions of some of the lesser pieces from the collection dating from around 1927. There are even memoranda about Soviet agents being caught while traveling with diamonds in their luggage.
Zimin is skeptical, by the way, about the newly rediscovered book, because it's dated 1922, and an official photographic inventory of the crown jewels wasn't published until 1925.
Differences Between The Two Books
The USGS has a copy of that book, too, and researcher Jenna Nolt has compared the two.
She found that the 1922 volume shows four pieces of jewelry that don't appear in the later official book.
Nolt says the researchers learned the fate of one of the pieces, a sapphire brooch.
She says it was sold at auction in London in 1927, "but the three other pieces, the necklace, the diadem and the bracelet, we have no idea what happened to them."
One person who might have known is the man who acquired the 1922 volume in the first place.
He was an American mineralogist and gem expert who worked at various times for the jeweler Tiffany & Co. and the USGS.
His name was George Frederick Kunz, and his adventures took him to Russia in those dangerous years after the revolution and the civil war.
"If you ever have a chance to read his writings," Nolt says, "he's got this wonderful attitude, and he's traveling in carriages in rural Russia to meet 'the peasant queen of amethysts,' and he's talking about how he's traveling with a pistol over his knees because he doesn't trust the driver of the carriage, so I think — an Indiana Jones figure, definitely."
On View At The Kremlin
The jewels of the Russian Diamond Fund are on display in the Kremlin in Moscow — or most of them, anyway.
The officials in charge of the exhibition declined to comment for this story.
The researchers who've uncovered the story thus far say the rest of the mystery is free for anyone — amateur or professional — to try to solve.
Who knows, it might be time to take a look in great-grandma's jewel case.
400 Years Since Coronation of First Romanov Topic: 400th Anniversary
The coronation of Tsar Mikhail Feodorovich in 1613
In 2013, 400 years will turn since the first representative of the Romanov dynasty of Russian emperors, Mikhail, ascended the Russian throne on June 11, 1613.
The election of Mikhail Romanov as Russia’s tsar (he was elected from several other candidates by a group of Russian noblemen) put an end to a period of political instability in Russia. Within the following 3 centuries, the Romanov dynasty did much to make Russia the world’s largest country, strong, united and influential in the world politics.
In 1598, the Rurik dynasty, that had ruled Russia for more than 700 years, interrupted. The next 15 years came into history as a period of political instability. Within this rather short period, many rulers have changed on the Russian throne. Finally, in 1613, Mikhail Romanov ascended it.
In fact, few people had expected Mikhail to become the tsar. The main pretenders for the Russian throne were representatives of two noble families, the Godunovs and the Shuyskys. Neither of them looked upon Mikhail Romanov, a 16-year-old son of the head of the Russian Church Patriarch Philaret, as upon a serious rival. However, at a council of noblemen, the majority voted for him.
Russian historian Evgeny Pchyolov says:
“It is, to a large extent, representatives of the Romanov dynasty that made the Russian Empire one of the word’s largest and strongest countries – Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Alexander I, Nicholas I and others. The time when the Romanov dynasty ruled Russia was the golden age for the Russian civilization.”
Many representatives of the Romanov dynasty were married to members of other European royal families, which also strengthened the position of Russia in the world.
Historian Faina Grimberg narrates:
“Initially, representatives of the Romanov dynasty tried to conclude marriages with members of Scandinavian royal families. Since the time of Emperor Peter the Great, a grandson of Mikhail Romanov and an energetic pro-western reformer, who ruled Russia from 1682 to 1725, marriages between Romanovs and members of European royal families became a common thing. Mainly, these were marriages with representatives of noble families of German origin – in particular, with dukes and duchesses of the German region of Hessen-Darmstadt. In the late 19th century, the last Russian Emperor Nickolas II married a granddaughter of the British Queen Victoria, and Nicholas’s uncle, Grand Duke Sergey Alexandrovich, married Victoria’s other granddaughter. This strengthened ties between Russia and Great Britain.”
But probably the most close kinship ties the Romanovs had with the German Holstein-Gottorp dynasty. A daughter of Peter the Great, Anna, was married to Duke Charles Frederick of Holstein-Gottorp. Their son, Peter III, ruled Russia for less than a year in 1762. He was the husband of Russian Empress Catherine the Great (ruled 1762-1796) and the father of Emperor Paul I (ruled 1796-1801). In Europe, the Romanov dynasty was even often referred to as the Romanov- Holstein-Gottorp dynasty.
Other members of the Russian royal family were married to representatives of ducal families of the German territories of Wurttemberg and Baden. Russian Emperor Nicholas I (ruled 1825-1855) was married to Princess Charlotte Hohenzollern of Prussia. The Romanovs were also related to the Nassau ducal family of the Netherlands, the Hanover royal family of Britain, and the Danish and Greek royal families.
Of course, it was not only ties of kinship, but also the farsighted foreign policy of the Romanov emperors, that made Russia be respected by the entire Europe. Historian Evgeny Pchyolov says:
“After the 1917 revolution, the Communist regime tried to distance Russia from the “bourgeois” Western Europe. In the Soviet time, Russia maintained more ties with Eastern Europe, Asia and other regions than with Western Europe. Now, Russia’s authorities are realizing that their country should be a full-fledged member of the European family of countries. Here, the experience of Russian emperors, who always tried to maintain close ties with European countries, may be very helpful for us.”
Meanwhile, for many Westerners, the Romanov dynasty is associated with the well-known jeweler Karl Faberge, who lived in Russia and is reknown for the magnificent Easter eggs he crafted for for the last two Russian Emperors: Alexander III and Nicholas II.