Historian and author Douglas Smith is the author of a highly recommended new book, Former People: The Last Days of the Russian Aristocracy.
The story of how a centuries'-old elite, famous for its glittering wealth, its service to the empire, its promotion of the arts and culture, was dispossessed and destroyed along with the rest of tsarist Russia.
A fascinating and well-researched book, it is truly the last great untold story of the Russian Revolution and the lost world of Imperial Russia.
Watch the video for more information on this title or visit our online bookshop;
The Alexander Column, St. Petersburg Topic: St. Petersburg
St.Petersburg has a record that few are aware of. It’s the Alexander Column on Palace Square – the tallest construction of this kind in the world. Standing at 47.7 metres, it is higher than Vendome Column in Paris, Rome’s Trajan’s Column, Pompey’s Pillar in Alexandria. Few know that the Bolsheviks, upon seizing power, wanted to decorate it with a statue of… Lenin wearing a peaked cap!
The Alexander Column was erected in august 1834 in line with a project drafted by architect August Monferran and on orders from Emperor Nicholas I to commemorate the victory of his elder brother, Emperor Alexander I, over Napoleon in the war of 1812. The column is crowned with a sculpture depicting a gilt angel with the face of Emperor Alexander I. In its left hand the angel holds a cross, while the right is raised towards the heavens. The monument took four years to build, with 1250 piles in the foundation, while a huge chunk of pink granite was brought over by barge. Two thousand soldiers and 400 workers were required to raise the column with the help of ropes. The operation itself continued 100 hours in the presence of a crowd of onlookers. As the gigantic monolith was elevated to the pedestal, a hush set in – everyone feared the tightly-drawn hemp ropes might snap under the weight. However, when the critical moment passed, the delighted Emperor quietly told the pale with worry architect: “Monferran, you have immortalized your name!”
The Alexander Column is one of the most unique constructions in the world, since its huge granite monolith weighing 600 tons is not secured in any way, and not even dug into the ground. It is held in place on the pedestal by means of its own weight, thanks to precise engineering design. Even though the Petersburg residents were well aware of that, nonetheless, some showed little faith in the architect’s daring calculations, and preferred not to walk too close to the column. In a bid to dispel these fears, when walking his dog in the morning, Monferran, would leisurely stroll around the base of the column. Moreover, he was committed to this daily routine to the day he died.
In Soviet time, when the Bolsheviks unleashed a campaign to demolish churches and monuments, there was talk of removing this “symbol of Czarism”, as they branded it, and replacing it with a “monument to comrade Lenin”.
The instigator of the absurd idea was Grigory Zinoviyev, who was heading the Petrograd council at the time. Failing to garner support for his idea of burying Lenin in Petrograd, speedily renamed into Leningrad also at his insistence, Zinoviyev launched a campaign to “immortalize the Soviet leader’s memory”. At his instructions in 1924 a special committee was established to oversee “modification of the so-called Alexander Column”. It was planned to grace the construction with a bronze figure of Lenin in jacket and peaked cap, to replace the angel holding a cross. However, soon the committee members, some of whom were acclaimed sculptors and painters, began to realize the absurdity of the concept. That is when a different, no less odd suggestion was put forward – to replace the angel on top with a figure of a worker or soldier dressed in empire style vestments. Luckily, a majority acknowledged this would look extremely ridiculous. Besides, when they calculated the costs of such a project, it amounted to an exorbitant sum, so it was decided to postpone it.
Other revolutionary hot heads of the time suggested the column be torn down entirely. However, experts issued warnings that when the huge granite monolith collapsed to the ground, the impact would be such that nearby buildings, including the Winter Palace, would most certainly sustain a certain degree of destruction.
In 1952 Leningrad’s leading architect received a “top secret” directive from Moscow: in the course of a month to replace the angel and cross with a bust of Comrade Stalin. Architects put their heads together, puzzling over how to achieve this – back in those days it would have been highly self-destructive to procrastinate with the execution of such an order. However, they succeeded in finding a way of dodging the project altogether, arguing the extreme difficulty of its execution.
To the 300th anniversary of St.Petersburg around the column pedestal they reconstructed a beautiful cast-iron railing, removed by the Bolsheviks because its ornament contained double headed eagles with crowns.
The Library of Nicholas II in the Winter Palace Topic: Winter Palace
The Library of Emperor Nicholas II in the Winter Palace, designed by the architect Alexander Krasovsky in the late 19th century, once constituted a part of private apartments of the last Russian Emperor Nicholas II. English Gothic motifs were widely used in the décor of this interior. The walnut coffers of the ceiling are adorned with four-petal rosettes. The main decorative elements of the library are bookcases arranged along the walls of the room and of the gallery reached by a staircase. This peculiar interior with its panels of stamped gilt leather, massive mantelpiece and high windows with openwork sashes evokes a romantic atmosphere of the Middle Ages. Displayed on the table is a sculptural portrait of Nicholas II (lower right) made after Leopold Bernstamm's model at the Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory in 1897. The library has survived to this day and is on permanent display at the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.
Tsar Nicholas II and his family in 1913 (left) Colonel Eugene Kobylinsky (right)
A recent article appeared in Russia Beyond the Headlines, in which the author, Daria Gonzales explores the 12 most highly sought-after treasure-troves in Russia. Of particular interest to readers will be the Romanov heirlooms:
Tsar Nicholas II may have relinquished the throne, but he remained the richest man of his time. When he was exiled to Tobolsk, the Romanov ruler was allowed to take some of the family treasures with him. However, upon reaching Tobolsk and sensing the tragic fate that was to befall him, the tsar divided the treasure three ways and entrusted it to his loyal servants. The valuables were then taken out of the Tobolsk governor’s house where the tsar and his family were being held and hidden in a safe place.
Later on, KGB servicemen discovered part of the Romanov treasure and confiscated two stashes. These collections contained 197 items that held a combined value of three million rubles ($96,000). The Soviets later used these valuables to buy supplies for Russia.
The third stash has yet to be found. It was rumored that the tsar's security guard, Colonel Eugene Kobylinsky (1875-1927), gave some of the treasures (including the family’s gold swords, the emperor’s daggers, and the empress’s ornament cabinet) to Omsk resident Konstantin Pechakos. The secret police also got wind of this account. Konstantin Pechakos and his wife were found and tortured, but their lips were sealed. Pechakos never denied that he had hidden the treasure. However, since he had given his word to the emperor – and therefore to God – Pechakos would not reveal the location of the Romanov valuables. The authorities searched every inch of Pechakos's house, but nothing was ever found.
At the end of 1918 Kobylinsky joined the White Army, where he served as an officer under Admiral Kolchak. He later served as a witness into the murders of Tsar Nicholas II and his family by the White Guard investigator, Nikolai Sokolov. In December 1919, Kobylinsky was captured by the Bolsheviks near Krasnoyarsk, and sent to a concentration camp. He was released in September 1920, whereupon he joined the Red Army, eventually becoming its treasurer. In the summer of 1921 he married Claudia Bitner--a former tutor to the children of Tsar Nicholas II at Tsarskoye Selo. In 1926 he was accused of being in possession of jewellery that once belonged to the Imperial family. An investigation was conducted between June and September 1927. The alleged jewellery was never found, however, it was revealed that he had connections with the Yugoslav White Army. He was subsequently fired from his job, charged with "monarchical conspiracy" against the Soviet state, and was sentenced to death by a firing squad at Moscow in December 1927.
The Tsar's Cabinet Exhibition, Edmonton Topic: Exhibitions
A new exhibit at the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton, Canada provides a glimpse into the lost opulence of Imperial Russia.
The Russian court under the Romanovs was famous for its excess. Beginning with Michael I and ending with the tragic loss of Nicholas II, who was executed during the Russian Revolution, the Romanovs spent lavishly to demonstrate their authority and enlightenment. Each successive generation of Tsars surpassed the other in an effort to show the world that their court was the best and brightest, and was a European power to be admired and feared.
The dazzling porcelains and superb decorative arts in this exhibition are a reflection of the private and public splendour of the life of the Romanovs.
The Tsars' Cabinet is developed from the Kathleen Durdin Collection and is organized by the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia, in collaboration with International Arts & Artists, Washington, D.C.
White Tower at Tsarskoye Selo Opens Topic: Tsarskoye Selo
Guests arrive for the opening of the White Tower. Photo Credit: Pushkin.ru
A ceremony marking the official opening of the White Tower too place at Tsarskoye Selo today. Situated near the Alexander Palace, it is the first pavilion in the Alexander Park to be restored.
Emperor Nicholas I ordered the construction of the White Tower between 1827-31 by the architect Adam Menalas. The emperor's sons used the tower to engage in military and gymnastic exercises.
The building was badly damaged during World War II, and fell into a terrible state of neglect and disrepair during the Soviet years, however, a decision was made to restore the tower in 1980. A further revival of the building was carried out in the 1990s in which retored many of the original elements of the facade, which included the balconies and terraces, decorative elements such as the sculptures of knights and lions. The original spiral staircase was replaced by a wooden staircase. The reconstruction of the White Tower was based on historic photographs in the archives of the Tsarskoye Selo Palace Museum.
The White Rower was a favourite spot for the children of the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II to play, particularly during the long winter months. It was here that the children were seen sliding down the hills on tobaggons, often joined by their devoted father. These photographs have been preserved.
Visitors can now view the restored interiors of the tower and climb the steps to an observation deck. The White Tower is the tallest pavilion in the park at nearly 38 meters (nearly 125 feet) in height, and offers commanding views of the Alexander and Catherine Parks, the nearby Feodorovsky Cathedral and the city of Pushkin (Tsarskoye Selo).
For more information on the history and the restoration of the White Tower at Tsarskoye Selo, please refer to the following articles (including vintage photographs) @ Royal Russia;
Russian Historical Society Reborn as Registration Procedures Conclude Topic: Russian History
Sergei Naryshkin, Chairman of the Russian Historical Society
Chairman of Russia’s State Duma and Chairman of the Russian Historical Society /RHS/ Sergei Naryshkin said the Society’s registration procedures are over and meeting is due before the yearend, ITAR-TASS reports. “We have just finalized the registration procedures,” he said. “The Russian Historical Society is restored both de-facto and de-jure.”
The agenda of the society is to establish an archive and a library. “I believe that an archive and a library should be important attributes of the society,” Naryshkin said.
He told reporters that the Russian Historical Society initiated and organised transfer to the museum of the Patriotic War of 1812 of two unique documents – Napoleon’s letters addressed to France’s military minister and dated 1812, where one of the letters was written on the day of the battle near Russia’s Smolensk city on August 5, 1812. The letters were given by Larisa Anisimova, who lives in Italy. The letter, Naryshkin said, would be the first items in the society’s archive.
Besides, the Society will form commissions and councils of RHS. They “will attract most interested professionals,” Naryshkin said. The Society receives suggestions on cooperation from companies, organisations and from individuals.
The Russian Historical Society is open for cooperation, and the question of new members would be considered by the Society’s meeting, which is “due before the yearend.”
Naryshkin noted that the year 2012 is full of historical dates and jubilees. “2012 is not over yet. The Russian Historical Society will participate in preparations and organization of a forum, a conference devoted to the Patriotic War of 1812,” he said. “2013 will also have many historical events and jubilees – they are the 1150th anniversary of Slavic alphabet – the holiday which unites all Slavic peoples; the 400th anniversary of the first Romanov tsar, and besides this date is connected with overcoming the civil revolt of the early 17th century. Besides, it is the 70th anniversary of the Kursk battle and the 20th birthday of the Russian Constitution and new parliament. The Russian Historical Society pays much attention to these events.”
Naryshkin said that following the registration, the Society will follow its main objective – to unite efforts of the society, the power, the civil community, and fans of history to form Russia’s new historical culture. “It may be done only on the basis of objective studies and promotion of the history, on keeping the national memories and the truth about our history.”
Alexander II Monument Abandoned Near Sofia? Topic: Alexander II
The monument to Tsar Alexander II, considerd a symbolic landmark of the Bulgarian capital now sits abandoned in a village yard
The Monument of Russian Tsar Alexander II, one of Bulgarian capital Sofia's main landmarks, has been abandoned in a village backyard, an oppositional party has alarmed.
Sculptor Velislav Minekov and art expert Lyudmil Veselinov, members of the newly formed Bulgaria for Citizens party, have revealed that the monument is currently located in a backyard in the village of Trebich near Sofia, with no restoration work being performed on it.
The monument that has been sitting in front of the Parliament in downtown Sofia was dismantled in September to undergo restoration.
According to Minekov, the monument has been completely abandoned and is now surrounded by "a complete mess."
"This is insulting and humiliating for the monument," he has declared, as cited by dnevnik.bg.
Minekov has argued that the monument could have been restored for two and a half days and for much less than for much less that the BGN 1.2 M announced by authorities, adding that he suspects a corruption deal.
According to the sculptor, the recent dismantlement of the monument has been triggered by investors who want to construct a parking lot beneath it.
Known as the Monument to the Tsar Liberator, it was designed by Italian sculptor Arnoldo Zocchi, and unveiled in 1907, since when it has been a landmark in Sofia.
It celebrates Alexander II, the Russian Tsar who led the 1877-78 war against the Ottoman Empire, which resulted in the liberation of Bulgaria.
A panorama view of the Katalnaya Gorka pavilion and sliding hill at Oranienbaum
The estate of Oranienbaum consists of a series of beautiful palaces and pleasure pavilions. Visitors to St. Petersburg today often overlook this magnificent palace complex opting instead for its more grand and opulent neighbour at Peterhof.
One particular folly which has captured the imaginations of historians and visitors is the switchback or roller coaster of Emperor Catherine II at Katalnaya Gorka (Sliding Hill).
Created soley for the purpose as a setting for a day's amusement, the pleasure pavilion and adjoining sliding hill was a highly sophisticated version of the most popular of Russian sports, the 'Russian mountains', as they were called throughout Europe, with the name of 'ice hills' for the winter version.
The beautiful pavilion built by Rinaldi which resembles a wedding cake has survived
Archdeacon Coxe, writing in 1784, brings us right to Katalnaya Gorka:
"In the gardens of Oranienbaum is a very extraordinary building, denominated the Mountain for Sledges . . . It stands in the middle of an olbong area, enclosed by an open colonnade with a flat roof, which is railed for the convenience of holding spectators. The circumference of this colonnade is at least half a mile. In the middle of the area stands the flying mountain, stretching nearly from one end to the other. It is a wooden building, supported upon high brick walls, representing . . . a mountain composed of three principal ascents, gradually diminishing its height, with an intermediate space to resemble vallies: from top to bottom is a floored way, in which three parallel grooves are formed. It is thus used: a small carriage containing one person, being placed in the center groove upon the highest point, goes with great rapidity down one hill; the velocity which it acquires in its descent carries it up a second; and it continues to move in a similar manner until it arrives at the bottom of the area, where it rolls for a considerable way . . . It is then placed in one of the side grooves, and drawn up by means of a cord fixed to a windass . . . At the top of the mountain are several handsome apartments for the accommodation of the court and principal nobility; and there is also room for many thousand spectators within the colonnade and upon its roof."
So, summer and winter, the court of the Empress Catherine II would amuse themselves for a few hours, return to the pavilion, take their refreshment and rest in its lovely rooms, and watch their friends from the terraces and balconies. But when the court no longer went to Oranienbaum, the 'flying mountain' fell into disrepair, was pronounced dangerous, and dismantled in the mid-19th century. The meadows that once housed the toboggan runs were cleared and planted with fir trees.
The only reminder of the sliding hill or switchback is this scale model, now housed in the Katalnaya Gorka Pavilion
Today, visitors to Oranienbaum can still see the field where the empress's immense folly II once stood. The pavilion at the end of the meadow has survived and undergone a splendid restoration. Inside, a scale model of the sliding hill is the only reminder of Catherine the Great's roller coaster.