Lost and Found: the Discovery of a Romanov Photo Album in Siberia

PHOTO: photo album belonging to Nicholas II in the Museum of Local Lore in Zlatoust

One of the most unique exhibits of the Museum of Local Lore in Zlatoust (270 kilometers (168 mi) south of Ekaterinburg) is a photo album containing photographs of Emperor Nicholas II and his family. How this album ended up in the museum remains a mystery. There are no embossed crowns, monograms or emblems on the album’s cover. There are also no inscriptions accompanying any of the photographs either. Only on the reverse of the photos of the tsar’s daughters was it possible to find inscriptions scribbled in pencil: “The Grand Duchess Olga (Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia).”

When the emperor and his family were sent into exile on 1st August 1917, to the Siberian city of Tobolsk, they took with them their entire personal photo archive. The archive included many albums, many of which are today stored in various Russian archives. Museum staff believe that it was there, in Tobolsk, that the last photographs were pasted into this particular album.

It is a well known fact that all the members of the Imperial family took an avid interest in photography, and each of them had their own camera and collections of photographs. According to museum staff, this album, judging by its content, belonged to the emperor himself. One of the photographs clearly shows his shadow with a camera in his hands. In the diaries of the emperor, he repeatedly noted that he personally organized his photo albums:

“On 4th September 1914, I got up early and took a longer walk. Between the reports I received a deputation of Czechs living in Russia. Walked with Alix and the children, and then went for a ride with Alexei to Gatchina. After tea I read. In the evening I pasted photographs of Crimea into an album”.

“On 27th March 1915, I took a walk in the morning. It started raining in the afternoon. I spent 2 hours chopping the ice with a crowbar using two hands, which is why my hand is trembling. I read before lunch, and in the evening with Olga’s help I pasted photos into an album.”

PHOTO: In 2013, the Zlatoust photo album was exhibited at the Museum of the
Holy Royal Family, located in the Patriarchal Compound in Ekaterinburg. 

“On 24th May, 1915 Alix came in the morning. Then we drove to mass. After breakfast, I received 18 professors of Russian history and Russian law with an address. I took a walk with my daughters and rode to Gatchina in the rain. I worked until 8 o’clock. Dined in my reception, like in the good old days. In the evening, with the help of Maria, I pasted photos of our last trip in the album.”

The Zlatoust photo album contains 210 photographs taken between 1914-1917. The photographs are not placed in any chronological order – on the first pages there are a series of photographs related to the beginning of the First World War in 1914, while pre-war photos are mixed with those taken in later years. On the last pages are photos from 1914, 1916, and 1917. Most of these photos were taken during the Emperor’s visit to the Supreme Command Headquarters in Mogilev and the review of the troops. Others are purely family-oriented, taken in Tsarskoye Selo, in Livadia, on the Imperial Yacht Standart and other places. It is interesting to note that there are very few photographs of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna in this album.

The fact that the photo album survived the revolution, civil war can itself be considered nothing short of a miracle. It is no less a miracle that the exhibit, registered under the number F-52, as the album “Nicholas II and His Family”, survived in the funds of the Zlatoust Museum of Local Lore during the Stalin era, when many documents and photographs which depicted the last tsar were seized and destroyed, as they were deemed as “ideologically harmful”.

“How the album ended up in Zlatoust is a mystery,” says Nadezhda Prikhodko, director of the Museum of Local Lore in Zlatoust. – “Everyone knows that the Imperial family spent their last days in Ekaterinburg. There are two theories with regard to this mystery: The first is that the album was brought from Ekaterinburg by the director of the Museum of the Revolution, Comrade Chevardin. The museum was located in the Ipatiev House. In 1933, Chevardin was transferred to Zlatoust, taking the album with him to save it from destruction. According to the second, the album was transported by the revolutionary Dmitry Mikhailovich Chudinov – one of the guards who escorted the Imperial family from Tobolsk to Ekaterinburg. He lived in Zlatoust, and after the murder of the Romanovs, he stole some of their personal belongings, including the photo album”.

In 1980, the album was found in the funds of the Zlatoust Museum of Local Lore. Russia was still under the yoke of communism, so the album remained hidden for another 9 years before the first announcement of the album’s existence was made public. In subsequent years, a small number of the photographs appeared in the pages of magazines, books and presented at museum exhibitions. The staff at the Zlatoust Museum carried out a lot of painstaking work to identify the more than 200 photographs. Research carried out with the help of the emperor’s diaries and other publications, made it possible to establish, in most cases, when and where the photographs were taken, as well as which members of the Imperial family appear in the photos.

PHOTO: interactive copies of the album can now be seen in Zlatoust and Ganina Yama

In April 2013, the Russian online media outlet Komsomolskaya Pravda published a number of the photographs from the Zlatoust album, which generated tremendous interest in Russia and abroad. Sadly, a number of the captions were incorrect, mostly the misidentification of the grand duchesses, etc.

The following month, the Zlatoust photo album was exhibited at the Museum of the Holy Royal Family, located in the Patriarchal Compound in Ekaterinburg. Among those who had an opportunity to view the album were the Head of the Russian Imperial House HIH Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna, His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, and Mrs. Olga Kulikovsky (wife of Tikhon Kulikovsky, the eldest son of Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna) – see 2nd photo.

In recent year, the Zlatoust photo album was digitalized. “Natural light is harmful to the pages and black and white photographs – they turn yellow,” said Anastasia Malakhova, Deputy Director for Research at the Zlatoust Museum of Local Lore. – “They cannot be on permanent display, so we created an electronic copy. The expensive multimedia equipment for the interactive album was donated by the Museum and Exhibition Center in Ekaterinburg”.

In total, 88 photographs were digitized – mostly from the war period. There were no photo captions in this album. The interactive album in the Zlatoust Museum of Local Lore is available to visitors any day.

A copy of the interactive album was also presented to the Museum and Exhibition Center of the Monastery of the Holy Royal Martyrs in Ganina Yama, which I had an opportunity to see firsthand, during my visit to Ekaterinburg in 2018 – PG..

Click HERE to read my articles Nicholas II: the amateur photographer, published on 15th July 2020; and The Romanov Family Photo Albums at Yale University, published on 19th August 2020

© Paul Gilbert. 25 October 2020

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