Nicholas II’s canine companions

PHOTO: Nicholas II walking his dogs in the Alexander Park. 1908

According to Romanov historian Igor Zimin, Nicholas II maintained a kennel of nearly a dozen English collies – his favourite breed – to accompany him on his daily walks through the Alexander Park at Tsarskoye Selo.

His two favourite dogs were Raven / Ворон [Voron] and Иман [Iman]. Raven was presented to Nicholas when he was 17 years old, the canine becoming the Tsesarevich’s constant companion during his long daily walks.

Less than a year later, Tsesarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich embarked on a journey to Egypt, India and the Far East (1890-1891), during which Raven was left behind, in the care of his parents. His father Emperor Alexander III regularly reported in letters to his son about Raven, with whom he walked in the garden of the Anitchkov Palace in St. Petersburg.

On 24th October 1890, Empress Maria Feodorovna wrote to her son: “Ella was waiting for us to go for a walk and poor Raven came to; he now spends a lot of time with me and seems to like my room, for he lies quietly at my feet and we try to console each other”.

In January 1891, Alexander III wrote to Nicholas: “Raven is getting fat, because stupid people continue to feed him all day so that he is no longer a dog, but a barrel of some kind!” Naturally, the overly pampered dog became ill.

After the death of his father on 1st November [O.S. 20th October] 1894, Nicholas ascended the throne. Less than a year later, his beloved Raven died on 27th September 1895.

Following the tradition of his predecessors who buried their faithful canine companions, Nicholas II created a small cemetery for his dogs on the Children’s Island, situated near the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo. A granite obelisk was erected over Raven’s grave, upon which the dates of his birth and death were engraved.

On 28th September 1895, Nicholas wrote his mother: “I have only just received your telegram in reply to mine about poor Voron’s [Raven] death, which made me so sad. I buried him on the Detski [Children’s] Island and placed a tombstone over his grave. Now it is so lonely and sad whenever I take my walks, especially when Alix does not come along . . .”.

Maria Feodorovna replied: “the death of good old Voron [Raven] is very painful – I did not know he had been ill for so long. You will miss him very much, and so shall I, my poor Nicky. It is so sad to lose such a good and faithful old dog, a real friend in life”.

On 1st October 1895, Nicholas again remembered his first dog: “I took a long walk alone, it is terribly sad to walk without poor Raven.”

PHOTO: Nicholas II with his collies in the Alexander Park, Tsarskoye Selo

The emperor’s personal mourning for Raven lasted about two months. On 6th December 1895, Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna presented Nicholas with a collie puppy. Nicholas II immediately wrote in his diary: “Ella gave me a wonderful collie, similar to Raven.”

The following day, 7th December 1895, the tsar was already walking with his new canine companion: “In the morning I took a walk with my new dog, whom I will name Iman.” The tsar liked the dog immensely, and made numerous references to him in his diaries and letters. The young dog was in good shape and was able to accompany Nicholas II on his bicycle rides: “After reading, I had a good bike ride with Iman.”

Since Nicholas II was physically a very strong man and tolerated the cold Russian winters well, he walked with Iman in all kinds of weather. On 9th December he noted: “The temperature is 16°. Nevertheless, I took a walk with Iman. He amuses me very much on walks, he is remarkably agile, jumps a lot and chases crows.” From time to time they had their own adventures. On 28th December 1895, the tsar wrote, “the fool Iman fell through a hole in the pond, but he immediately got out and looked like a large icicle, since his fur froze immediately. It was 12° with the sun.” On 16th February 1896, he wrote in his diary: “We played at the rink. My Iman cut his paw quite badly.” The skating rink had been arranged for the 28-year-old Tsar in the garden of the Anitchkov Palace.

Iman died from heart disease in October 1902. On 20th October 1902, the grieving Emperor wrote to his mother: “I have just suffered a very heavy grief – the loss of dear old Iman – it happened right at the beginning of October, almost on the same day as with poor Raven. He had been ailing since the summer and on arriving here I had the veterinary to attend to him. He was isolated and lived in the basement. The sores on his body were healing rapidly, but one day his strength began to fail and he died last night. I must confess the whole day after it happened I never stopped crying – I shall miss him dreadfully when I go for walks. He was such an intelligent, kind and loyal dog!”.

In the spring and autumn Nicholas and his family lived in the Alexander Palace of Tsarskoye Selo, and spent the summer in Peterhof with its large parks. During the long winter months, the Imperial Family resided in the Winter Palace, which from 1896 to 1904 served as the imperial residence in the capital.

Dogs traditionally accompanied their master on all his journeys. But in the Winter Palace, walking opportunities were very limited. The dogs were apparently kept in the basement. To organize safe walks for the tsar, a private garden was set up on the north-western projection of the Winter Palace. Nicholas II walked his dogs almost every day in the garden, which was surrounded by a two-meter granite wall with a lattice. On 11th November 1896, he wrote: “Today, we [Empress Alexandra Feodorovna] walked together with all the dogs.”

In February 1898, a boy passing by the garden of the Winter Palace looked through a crack of the fence and watched the tsar playing with two dogs in the garden; the tsar running threw a stick, which the dogs caught.

PHOTOS: Nicholas II with his collies in the garden of the Winter Palace. Winter 1902

On 6th November 1896, Nicholas II wrote in his diary: “We walked together with a new dog – also a collie”. It is noteworthy that Nicholas referred to the new dog as simpy “dog.” Nicholas II had other dogs, again without names. In his diary, he simply referred to them as “dogs”. One can only speculate as to why, perhaps he had so many of the same breed, that he simply could not tell one from the other?!

These dogs continued to accompany the Imperial Family during their seasonal travels to their suburban palaces. In January 1904, the Imperial Family stayed in Tsarskoe Selo, and Nicholas II noted in his diary: “I took a long walk without the dogs, since they had already been transported to the city.” And in March 1904 he wrote: “During the day I walked with the dogs for a long time.” In the summer of 1904, the family, as usual, moved to Peterhof and again noted in his diary: “I was playing with the dogs by the sea.”

In 1905, the Imperial Family moved permanently from the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg to the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoye Selo. This palace was surrounded by a beautiful, well-groomed park, where excellent conditions were created for the dogs. The personal dogs of the Imperial Family were traditionally kept at the expense of the Ministry of the Imperial Court. Since there were a lot of dogs, the so-called “Dog’s Kitchen” was arranged for them directly in the basement of the Alexander Palace. They were fed on a diet of oatmeal, milk and meat, and all products had to be fresh. Nicholas II himself was always accompanied by his collies on his walks through the vast Alexander Park. According to the memoirs of Anna Vyrubova, there were eleven of them. A special “Dog House” was built for them, next to the Alexander Palace. They were strictly forbidden to go inside the palace itself. As the maid of honour Sophia Buxhoeveden observed: “After drinking a glass of tea, smoking a cigarette, he [the Tsar] went out into the park for a short walk with his favourite purebred dogs”.

There were other dogs associated with the Imperial Family. In 1906, by order of the palace commandant D.F. Trepov, who was responsible for the security and safety of the Imperial Family, a kennel for guard dogs was set up near the Alexander Palace, in the village of Alexandrovka. Later, a similar kennel was organized in Peterhof. These kennel dogs were bred and trained to guard the perimeter of the Alexander Park in Tsarskoye Selo and other suburban imperial residences.

PHOTO: From left to right are the graves of four dogs: Shilka, Iman, Raven and Era [Shilka and Era were Empress Alexandra’s dogs].

The pet cemetery on the Children’s Island, which is situated a near the Alexander Palace, has miraculously survived to the present day. A small path leads from the Children’s House to four graves marked by small pyramids, which are hidden from view on the western side of the island.

The names and dates of each of the family dogs are still clearly visible:

Шилка [Shilka]
1894-1910

Иман [Iman]
6 December 1895 – 2 October 1902

Ворон [Voron / Raven]
December 1889 – September 1895

Эра [Era]
1894-1906

NOTE: the Children’s Island has not yet been restored, so it is not open to the public. It is only accessible on foot during the winter months when one can walk across the frozen pond, however, one does so at one’s own risk. This author has done so on two separate occasions, and taken many photos of the Children’s Island and House, as well as the pet cemetery.

© Paul Gilbert. 22 May 2021

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