Imperial Yacht Standart: Nicholas II’s Palace on the Seas

Elegant style yachts were once the norm among many of the world’s most important rulers. The British, the Royal Houses of Europe, and even the Americans have all at one time or another provided their leaders with beautifully appointed yachts that served for both recreational as well as official purposes. But few of these highly specialized ships can compare with the Imperial Yacht Standart, reserved exclusively for the use of Russia’s last emperor Nicholas II.

This handsome “ship of state” was a graceful seagoing vessel and was considered the most perfect ship of her type in the world. She was named after the famous frigate of Peter the Great, launched in 1703. Built to the Tsar’s own specifications, she was constructed in Copenhagen in 1895 by the Danish firm Burmeister-Wain. The shipyard still maintains a thriving existence but the plans no longer exist for the Standart due to the destruction of the shipyard brought on by two world wars.

Across the North Sea, however, a copy of the plans for the former Imperial Yacht are held in the archives of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England. After a visit to Cowes, the future King Edward VII asked for the plans of the Standart. The plans had been preserved in 1895 by the Admiralty Office when plans for a new British royal yacht were under construction.

PHOTO: plans for the Imperial Yacht Standart

The Standart was a superb, black-hulled 5557-ton yacht measuring 401 feet in length and 50 feet wide, making it the largest private ship in the world. She was much larger and faster than that of the other Imperial Yacht’s, the Alexandria and the Polar Star reaching speeds of up to 21.18 knots. Anchored in a Baltic cove or tied up at Yalta, the Standart was as big as a small cruiser. She had been designed with the graceful majesty of a great sailing ship. She combined elegance and comfort and met all the requirements of a floating palace. A large gilded bowsprit in the shape of a double-headed eagle, lunged forward from her bow and three tall masts towered above her two white funnels. White canvas awnings stretched over smooth decks shielding the passengers from the sun, while informal wicker furniture on the main deck invited relaxation. Also on the main deck was a large dining saloon that could seat up to seventy-two guests at one long table for luncheon or dinner.

PHOTO: the Imperial Yacht Standart at Yalta (above), and Sebastopol (below)

Below deck was found a formal reception salon and drawing rooms panelled in mahogany, polished floors, brass and elegantly hung crystal chandeliers and velvet drapes. The Imperial Yacht even had its own chapel for the private use of the Imperial Family.

The Tsar’s Private Study was furnished in dark leather and simple wooden furniture. The Tsarina’s drawing room and boudoir were done in her favourite English chintz. On the walls could be found the indispensible icons or “windows to heaven” along with many photographs of her relatives and family.

Today there are hundreds of photographs in existence of the Standart taken by the Tsar and his family, their relatives and aides, whom at the time were making the most of the latest craze of Russia’s upper classes–photography.

PHOTO: a large bowsprit, covered with gold leaf, lunged forward from her bow

PHOTO: view of the deck of the Imperial Yacht Standart

Many of these photographs were family photos and never meant for public viewing. They were stuck neatly in old family albums and memory books. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, hundreds of these “windows on the past” have been published in handsome coffee-table books. To date, the most luxurious of these books has to be Русские императорские яхты каталог 17-20 век (Russian Imperial Yachts: 17th-20th Century) containing nearly 400 photographs [published in 1997, this Russian language book is now out of print].

Among these “pioneer” photographers was General Count Alexander Grabbe, who was often asked to accompany the Imperial Family when they sailed on the Standart to the Crimea and the islands of the Finnish archipelago. A selection of his photographs of the Imperial Yacht were published in 1984 by his son Paul Grabbe in The Private World of the Last Tsar: The Photographs and Notes of General Count Alexander Grabbe. A keen photographer, Grabbe’s photographs show the Tsar and his family onboard the Standart as a happy and carefree family, relaxing, playing games, dining with royalty, roller-skating and dancing.

Just before sailing and prior to the arrival of the Imperial Family, the ship was polished and cleaned from top to bottom. Sailors busied themselves above and below deck, checking the lifeboats and adjusting the awnings on the main deck. Officers and crew assembled on deck, all of whom saluted the Tsar as he came on board.

PHOTO: Nicholas II’s study (above) and chapel (below)

On the Standart, Tsar Nicholas II followed a daily routine. Early each morning he came on deck to check the weather. He also liked to make the rounds of the ship’s company as well as greet the Imperial Yacht’s warrant officers. It was not uncommon to see the young Tsesarevich Alexis, wearing a sailor’s uniform, accompany his father during these rounds. The Tsar was interested in navigation and he liked to discuss this subject with his Flag Captain, Admiral Nikov or as well as checking the yacht’s course with Captain Zelenetsky. The Tsar worked for two days each week while at sea, receiving and sending dispatches by the courier boats that arrived daily from the mainland.

When the Standart sailed, she was a glorious and spirited vessel and she attracted attention wherever she went. When the Tsar and his family were on board, a large household staff of footmen, stewards, butlers and cooks attended to their every need, in total she carried a crew of 275. The yacht was manned by a crew from the Russian Imperial Navy. Also on board was a platoon of marines as well as a brass band and a balalaika orchestra. In order to communicate with the mainland and other ships of the Russian Imperal Navy, the Standart was also equipped with radio, a novelty in 1912.

“This relationship of the Imperial Family to its entourage was very friendly and informal,” Count Grabbe recalls. “They were especially cordial with the officers of the Standart. These young men were exemplary–charming, modest, possessed of a great deal of dignity and tact, and incapable of intrigue.”

PHOTO: Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna relaxing on the deck of the ‘Standart

PHOTO: the Imperial Family in the dining room of the Imperial Yacht ‘Standart

The yacht was commanded by Rear-Admiral Lomen, who was responsible for the safety of the Tsar from the moment Nicholas II set foot on board any vessel, whether a yacht, a dreadnought or a launch. “The whole of the naval administration stood in mortal fear of the Admiral,” recalls A.A. Mossolov. “It is true that he asked a great deal, and if he was annoyed he could be extremely rude. He claimed that onboard the yacht the Tsar himself was under his orders! Off duty he was pleasant and sociable.”

The actual Commanding Officer of the Standart was Captain Tchaguin, and the second in command, Commander Nikolai Sablin. Both had the satisfaction of being thought of very highly by Their Majesties. In the letters which she wrote to the Tsar when he was at General Headquarters, the Tsarina frequently mentions Sablin.

Life at sea seemed to bring the best out in all the members of the Imperial Family. A.A. Mossolov recalls in his memoirs, “The Empress herself grew gay and communicative onboard the Standart. She joined in the children’s games, and had long talks with the officers.”

PHOTO: Empress Alexandra with her four daughters on the deck of the ‘Standart

PHOTO: Minister of the Imperial Court (1897-1917) Count Vladimir Frederiks with
Tsesarevich Alexei Nikolaevich, on the deck of the Imperial Yacht ‘Standart’. 1911

The officers were certainly in an exceptional situation. Almost daily, the Tsar invited these officers to dinner and after the meal liked to play billiards with them or enjoy a game of dominoes. In return the Imperial Family accepted invitations to tea in the mess. On such occasions the Empress usually sat nearby, sewing, the Tsesarevich ran about with his playmates, while the Grand Duchesses, surrounded by all the young men, scattered throughout the yacht. “We form a united family,” the Empress used to remark on these memorable and happy voyages.”

The family vacations to the Crimea and their cruises on the Standart were a welcome change for the children in particular.

When the Imperial Family went onboard the Standart, each of the five children was assigned a diadka, a sailor charged to watch over the the child’s personal safety. The children played with these diadkas, played tricks on the them and teased them. Gradually the young officers of the Standart joined in the children’s games. As the Grand Duchesses grew older, the games changed into a series of flirtations, all very innocent of course. “I do not, of course, use the word ‘flirtation’ quite in the ordinary sense of the term,” remarks Mossolov, “the young officers could better be compared with the pages or squires of dames of the Middle Ages. Many a time the whole of the young people dashed past me, but I never heard the slightest word suggestive of the modern flirtation.” Moreover, the whole of these officers were polished to perfection by one of their superiors, who was regarded as the Empress’s squire of dames. As for the Grand Duchesses, even when the two eldest had grown up into real women, one might hear them taking like little girls of ten and twelve.

PHOTO: Nicholas II relaxing on the deck of the Imperial Yacht ‘Standart

“The girls loved the sea,” Count Grabbe comments, “and I well remember their joyful anticipation of these cruises on the Standart, which opened broader horizons for them, brought them new contacts, and permitted an intimacy that was other wise impossible. To be at sea with their father–that was what constituted their happiness.”

The Tsesarevich Alexis also loved the excursions on the Standart as well. He enjoyed accompanying the Tsar while he carried out his duties on board the Imperial Yacht. He loved to play games such as shuffleboard. On sunny afternoons it was not uncommon to find an exhausted Alexis stretched out and fast asleep under one of the many lifeboats on the main deck. At times, his haemophilia restricted his movements severely and photographs show the young Tsesarevich walking with the aid of a cane. Due to his illness, a favourite sailor was assigned to watch over Alexis. At first it was the sailor Andrei Derevenko who for some time was patient and conscientious in watching over his Imperial charge; his behaviour toward Alexis, however, became excessively mean after the Revolution. Fortunately, the Tsesarevich also had another sailor-attendant–the loyal Klimenty Nagorny. This sailor was later killed by the revolutionary army that overran Russia after World War I.

PHOTO: view of the Imperial Yacht Standart

PHOTO: the Imperial Yacht Standart on the Neva, St. Petersburg

So it was, that when the warm months of the summer rolled around that the Tsar and his family set sail on the Standart for their vacation off the coast of southern Finland. For the Tsar, there was no greater relaxation than these restful, seaborne excursions on his beloved Standart. Here his family and found a secluded bay surrounded by small islands where they could relax and enjoy their time together away from the palaces and rigid rules that governed the Russian court. This charming spot was such a favourite of Nicholas II and his family, that they returned to it every year and the children even nicknamed it the “Bay of Standart.”

While anchored in the bay, the Imperial Family lived on board the Standart but every day they would get into small launches and head for their chosen island. The island was uninhabited, which offered them complete freedom to picnic, relax, and enjoy the out-of-doors without fear of being observed by prying eyes. It was also on this little island that a tennis court was built for the Imperial Family, tennis being a favourite of the entire Imperial household.

PHOTO: “the wreck of the Standart“, 1907

In 1907, an unfortunate incident took place that was later known as “the wreck of the Standart.” The incident occurred on a fine day in the Finnish fjords when all of a sudden the Imperial yacht was shaken by a jolt at a moment when there was not the slightest reason for expecting anything of the sort. Immediately afterwards the yacht was heeled over. It was impossible to tell what might be coming next. The Empress rushed over to her children. She found them all expect the Tsesarevich, who was nowhere to be seen. The anguish of the two parents may only be imagined; they were both beside themselves. It proved impossible to move the yacht. Motor-boats started off towards her from every direction.

The Emperor hurried up and down the yacht, and gave the order for everybody to go in search of the Tsesarevich. It was only after some time that he was discovered safe and sound. At the first alarm his diadka, Derevenko, took him in his arms and very sensibly rushed to the “hawse-pipes,” since they offered the best chance of saving the boy if the vessel should be a total loss.

The panic subsided, and all onboard descended into the boats. An inquiry followed. The whole responsibility fell on the pilot, an old Finnish sea-dog, who was in charge of the navigation of the vessel at the moment of the disaster. Charts were hurriedly consulted and showed beyond any possible question that the rock on which the yacht had grounded was entirely uncharted.

There remained His Majesty’s Flag Captain, who was responsible in principle for the safety of the Imperial Family. At the time of the accident the post was held by Admiral Nilov, the only master, under God, of the fate of the yacht.

He was in such a state of mind after the accident that the Tsar felt bound to go to him in his cabin. Entering without knocking, the Tsar saw the Admiral bending over a chart, with a revolver in his hand. The Emperor tried to calm him. He reminded the Admiral that under naval regulations he would have to go before a court of inquiry, but, the Tsar added, there could be not a shadow of doubt that he would be acquitted, for the accident was entirely unforeseeable. The Tsar carried away the Admiral’s revolver.

“There was an immediate conspiracy of silence at Court about the wreck of the Standart, recalls Mossolov. “Everybody knew that the slightest criticism of the officers of the yacht would have brought down punishment on the head of anyone who ventured to utter it.”

“The officers were chosen for special gifts; their task was to create an atmosphere of a fairytale, a charming idyll. It may be that in technical knowledge they were not absolutely up-to-date.”

Many a royal personage was made welcome on board the Standart, including Queen Alexandra, sister of the Dowager Empress Marie, accompanied by her husband, King Edward VII, King Gustav of Sweden and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany.

Despite the relaxed atmosphere of the excursions on the Standart, the safety and protection of the Imperial Family was still a top priority. The Tsar was so fearful of assassination that he had several cruisers accompany the yachts at all times. A warning, published in a Finnish newspaper in 1911, reads as follows;

“Notice to all mariners concerning seafaring regulations when the Russian Imperial Yacht is in Finnish waters: Fire will be opened on all commercial shipping and all yachts–whether motor, sail or steam-that approach the line of guard ships. All ships wishing to put to sea must seek permission not less than six hours in advance. Between sundown and sunrise, all ships underway may expect to be fired upon.”

Early in June 1914, as usual at this time of the year, the Tsar and his family went on a voyage to the Finnish fjords. The weather was hot, and stifling heat was interspersed with pouring rain. This year, Tsar Nicholas II was not to enjoy the picturesque landscape and relax with the serene joys of family life; since the end of June one piece of bad news had followed another. The assassination of the Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand–whom Nicholas and Alexandra had known very well–and the attempt on the life of Rasputin, disrupted the mental equilibrium of the Imperial couple. Within weeks, war was declared and the Standart, by order of the Tsar was placed in dry-dock, and he never again returned to the tranquility of the Finnish or Crimean coastline’s.

After the Revolution, the former Imperial Yacht was destined to be stripped of all its former elegance. In 1917, the Standart was renamed Vosemnadtsate Martza. In 1932, she was renamed Marti. Between then and December 1936, she was refitted as a drab, grey minelayer at the Marti Yard in Leningrad for service in the Soviet Navy. The heavy gun armament was fitted, as were mine rails. There were 4 rails on the mine deck, and 2 more on the upper deck. The mine deck could carry 580 mines, and 200 could be accommodated on the upper deck.

With the German invasion of Russia, the Marti laid some 3159 mines, and bombarded shore positions near Leningrad. On 23rd September 1941, Marti was damaged in an air attack at Kronstadt, but was quickly repaired to resume action on the 26th of the same month. In autumn 1941, some of her guns were used ashore at Leningrad.

After the war, Marti was refitted and converted to a training ship, renamed Oka. During the refit, the steam engines were replaced by diesels. She was scrapped at Tallinn in Estonia in 1963.

PHOTO: Nicholas II looking out to sea from the deck of the Imperial Yacht ‘Standart

FURTHER READING + additional photos and videos:

The Soviet Navy’s use of the Imperial Yacht “Standart” during WWII

The Fates of the Russian Imperial Yachts ‘Standart’ and ‘Polar Star’

125th anniversary of the first voyage of the Imperial Yacht “Standart”

© Paul Gilbert. 28 February 2023