Why did Nicholas II’s favourite motorcar sport a swastika?

PHOTO: Emperor Nicholas II’s favourite Delaunay-Belleville motorcar, sporting a left-facing swastika (counter clockwise) on the hood. Tsarskoye Selo 1913

The swastika symbol is an ancient religious symbol in various Eurasian cultures, now also widely recognized for its appropriation by the Nazi Party and by neo-Nazis. It continues to be used as a symbol of divinity and spirituality in Indian religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. It generally takes the form of a cross, the arms of which are of equal length and perpendicular to the adjacent arms, each bent midway at a right angle.

In the 1930s the German Nazi Party adopted a right-facing (clockwise) form and used it as an emblem of the Aryan race. As a result of World War II and the Holocaust, in the West it continues to be strongly associated with Nazism, anti-Semitism, white supremacism, or simply evil.

In 19th century Russia, however, the swastika had a completely different meaning. The left-facing swastika (counter clockwise) swastika, best described as a “sacred solar cross”, was adopted as a symbol of the Russian Empire. In the years before the Russian Revolution, it was used on the facades of houses, depicted on icons, clothes and dinner plates, as well as Emperor Nicholas II’s favourite motorcar.

PHOTO: the last diary [1917] of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, was embroidered with a left-facing swastika (counter clockwise)

In addition, the left-facing swastika (counter clockwise) was a favourite symbol of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. She wore a talisman in the form of a swastika, wearing it everywhere for happiness, including on her letters from Tobolsk and Ekaterinburg. In a letter dated 16 December 1917 to Anna Vyrubova, she wrote: “Always to be recognized by my sign 卐.”

According to Vladimir Kozlov & Vladimir Krustalev, in her 1917 diary, Alexandra noted the anniversary of a person’s death with a swastika. In Sanskrit, svastika means “well-being”. When her daughter, Grand Duchess Tatiana Nikolaevna gave her mother the little notebook in which the diary was kept, she embroidered a swastika on the cloth cover [depicted in the photo above] she made for it.[1]

In settling in her room in the Ipatiev House at Ekaterinburg, Alexandra inscribed a swastika on a window frame, followed by the date 17 [N.S. 30] April 1917, and another swastika on the wall over her bed.

In addition, investigator Nikolai Sokolov , who investigated the murder of the Imperial family, suggested that persons from the Emperor’s entourage were part of a secret organization. According to him, in their correspondence, among other things, they used the swastika.


[1] Ed. Vladimir Kozlov & Vladimir Krustalev. The Last Diary of Tsarista Alexandra. Yale University Press, 1997

© Paul Gilbert. 2 June 2022

NEW 4-volume set of books celebrates Emperor Nicholas II’s motorcar collection

PHOTO: Царский выезд [Tsar’s Departure] will be published in 4-volumes

On 18th February, Russian writer and auto enthusiast Ivan Barantsev, published the first volume of Царский выезд [Tsar’s Departure] – a unique 4-volume set of books dedicated to Emperor Nicholas II’s motorcar collection and His Imperial Majesty’s Own Garage.

The release of the first volume, is timed to the opening of the Tsar’s Departure Exhibition, which opened in Moscow on 19th February 2022.

The albums offer many new photographs, most of which have never been published and only recently discovered by the author in various Russian archives. The author has also made corrections to errors found in previously published photographs. Some photos have been identified on the very day the photo was taken, and complemented with notes from Nicholas II’s diaries.

Barantsev claims: “there are so many photos, that they couldn’t fit under one cover, so the project will be published in four volumes”.

PHOTO: Volume 1 features 240 pages + more than 100 photos

Volume 1, is dedicated to the period 1895-1911. Large hard cover format 32 x 24 cm, with 240 pages, and more than 100 black and white photos with detailed descriptions.

*Volume 2, will be dedicated to the period 1911-1914; *Volume 3, to 1914-1915; and *Volume 4, to 1915-1917. *Not yet published!

The first volume is currently only available for purchase at the Tsar’s Departure Exhibition, which runs from 19th February to 17th April 2022, in the Special Purpose Garage [Pavilion No. 53] at the All-Russian Exhibition Center (VDNKh) in Moscow.

Please note that this set of books is ONLY available in Russian. No publication dates for the remaining three volumes have been announced. I have no doubt, that once all 4-volumes are published, that sets will be available to purchase from Russian booksellers online.

PHOTO © Ivan Barantsev

PHOTO © Ivan Barantsev

PHOTO © Ivan Barantsev

PHOTO © Ivan Barantsev

© Paul Gilbert. 22 February 2022

Exhibition dedicated to the 115th anniversary of His Imperial Majesty’s Own Garage opens in Moscow

On 19th February, a unique exhibition Tsar’s Departure, dedicated to the 115th anniversary of His Imperial Majesty’s Own Garage, will open in the Special Purpose Garage Museum in Moscow.

His Imperial Majesty’s Own Garage existed for only 10 years, but during that time managed to collect an impressive collection of 56 automobiles which served the last Russian emperor Nicholas II, his family and retinue. None of the European monarchs could boast of such an impressive fleet of vehicles.

Unique motorcars from the reign of Nicholas II will be presented as part of an exposition which tells about the auto-craze that swept Russia in the early twentieth century, among the key events of which were races for the Imperial Prize, the first Russian automobile salons, Nicholas II’s trips by motorcar around the country, the work of the assembly shops of the Russian-Baltic Plant, front-line everyday life of an automobile company and many others.

PHOTO: poster promoting the Museum of Emperor Nicholas II in Moscow

The exhibits have been collected from museum and private collections in Russia and Europe, including the little-known Museum of Emperor Nicholas II in Moscow.

Among the retro legendson display are a Serpollet steam car; a two-seater racing Benz; a cannon that defended the headquarters of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief in Mogilev; the workhorse of World War I, the White TAD; the domestic automobile brand “Russo-Balt”; the magnificent Hispano-Suiza; a high-speed Berliet; an elegant Studebaker; a luxurious Rolls-Royce; a De Dion-Bouton, popular at the beginning of the 20th century; a sophisticated Renault; among others.

In addition are large-scale full-colour photo panels, luxurious Imperial motorcars, rare vintage newsreels, authentic items of palace life, historical costumes and previously unpublished documents bring to life, the atmosphere of a bygone era.

The exhibition Tsar’s Departure runs from 19th February to 17th April 2022, in the Special Purpose Garage [Pavilion No. 53] at the All-Russian Exhibition Center (VDNKh) in Moscow.

PHOTO: early 20th century view of His Imperial Majesty’s Own Garage, Moscow

Facts about His Imperial Majesty’s Own Garage

* Emperor Nicholas II’s collection of more than 50 vehicles, were housed in 4 Imperial Garages: Moscow, the Winter Palace (St. Petersburg), Tsarskoye Selo and Livadia.

The “founding fathers” of His Imperial Majesty’s Own Garage were the Minister of the Imperial Court, Count Vladimir Fredericks (1838-1927), and the Adjutant Wing Prince Vladimir Orlov (1868-1927). The first automobile appeared in Tsarskoye Selo at the beginning of 1906: the French Delaunay-Belleville with a triple phaeton body, and soon complemented with four Mercedes.

* In mid-1906, the Imperial Driver School was opened at the garage. In fact, it was the first driving school in Russia. Empress Alexandra Feodorovna herself attached great importance to the uniforms worn by drivers and mechanics. She created sketches with her own hand, designing uniforms based on a footman’s livery adorned with gold cords.

* Drivers, mechanics and “soapmen” (car washers) did not appreciate being treated like lackeys and servants, but were forced to wear their uniforms. Their struggle continued, and in the end, the drivers won. In 1910, their new uniform – approved by the Emperor – resembled the uniforms of military officials: khaki colours, lace-up leather boots, leggings.

* Court chauffeurs in fur hats could easily be mistaken for senior officers and they were paid well. The senior driver received 2,600 rubles a year (for comparison: the annual salary of a university professor was 3,000 rubles), a third-class driver – 780 rubles a year.

* On March 2, 1917, Emperor Nicholas II signed his abdication. This ended the story of His Imperial Majesty’s Own Garage. All property of the imperial family passed into the disposal of the Provisional Government, including the garage. In addition to a change in management, the garage managed to avoid significant personnel changes.

* As a result of the October Revolution of 1917, the Autobase of the Provisional Government was nationalized and transferred to the disposal of the Bolsheviks. Lenin himself wasted little time in taking first pick from the Tsar’s collection of fine automobiles. His first trip in a Turcat-Méry automobile took place on 27th October 1917. Many employees of the Imperial Garage and the Autobase of the Provisional Government continued to work for the Bolsheviks.

PHOTO: Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna riding in the Tsar’s favourite motorcar, a Delaunay Belleville

Russia’s automotive industry began to develop during the reign of Nicholas II

In the early 20th century, automobiles soon became part of the everyday life of the Tsar and his family. This is thanks to the initiative of Prince Vladimir Nikolayevich Orlov (1868-1927), who in 1904 arrived at the Alexander Palace for the first time in his Delaunay-Belleville

He invited the Emperor on several motor trips, driven by Orlov himself. After his first trip around the square in front of the palace, the Emperor invited Empress Alexandra to join them.

From that time on, Prince Orlov and Adolfe Kegresse (1879-1943) became the Emperor’s personal chauffeurs.

PHOTO: Emperor Nicholas II at the opening of the 4th International Automobile Exhibition at the Mikhailovsky Manege. St. Petersburg, 1913

On 19th May 1907, the 1st International Automobile Exhibition opened at the Mikhailovsky Manege in St. Petersburg.

The aim of the exhibition was to showcase the growing popularity of the Russian and foreign automotive industry, and the development of the domestic automotive market.

The exhibition attracted major automotive manufacturers from all over Europe and America. The French automotive industry was represented by 30 enterprises, and Germany by 13 firms. Manufacturers from the USA, England, Austria-Hungary, Denmark, Belgium, Switzerland, and Italy also took part.

The Russian automotive industry was represented by no less than 37 enterprises, companies and firms.

The success and sales of automobiles in Russia was no doubt fueled by Emperor Nicholas II, who had an impressive collection of more than 50 automobiles, housed in 4 Imperial Garages: Moscow, the Winter Palace (St. Petersburg), Tsarskoye Selo and Livadia.

© Paul Gilbert. 18 February 2022

The fate of Nicholas II’s favourite motorcar

PHOTO: Tsesarevich Alexei Nikolaevich posing at the wheel of the Delaunay Belleville 40CV

Russia’s last emperor and tsar Nicholas II was the first (and, alas, the last) Russian monarch to have appreciated and enjoyed the use of the motorcar. The first motorcar in the Imperial Family, however, belonged to his mother – Empress Maria Feodorovna (1847-1928) – a phaeton with an electric motor of the American company Columbia – a gift from her sister – Queen Alexandra of Great Britain.

Thanks to his aide-de-camp, Prince Vladimir Nikolayevich Orlov (1868-1927), it was he who introduced the Emperor to this new mode of transport which was sweeping across Britain and Europe. An avid motorist himself, Orlov often drove the Tsar in his personal Delaunay Belleville. Nicholas II, impressed by the capabilities of this new technology, decided to exchange the horse and carriage for a motorcar.

In the fall of 1905, he ordered Orlov to buy him “two or three cars,” leaving the choice of models to the discretion of his trusted aide-de-camp. Orlov, without hesitation, ordered the Tsar a Delaunay Belleville:  a 40CV, six-seater phaeton with a convertible top was purchased for 13,416 rubles (about 20 million rubles in today’s money).

PHOTO: Emperor Nicholas II seated on horseback at at the side of his first “motor” – the Delaunay Belleville 40CV triple phaeton. In the back seat are the Montenegrin princesses Milica and Stana, in front of the car is Prince V.N. Orlov (in white) and chauffeur Adolphe Kégresse. Krasnoe Selo, Summer 1908

Today the name Delaunay Belleville is known only to auto enthusiasts. But at the beginning of the 20th century, it was a well-known name among those who could afford luxury. Initially, the French company produced ship steam boilers. Having become rich on orders from the British Admiralty, the owner of the company, Louis Belleville, decided to try his hand in the automotive business.

In 1903, he enlisted the services of the designer Maurice Barbara. He was only 28 years old, and already had experience in the Benz & Cie and Lorraine-Dietrich automobile companies. Maurice’s talent and diligence, coupled with solid start-up capital, quickly paid off.

The Delaunay Belleville debuted at the Paris Motor Show in December 1904 and became an instant sensation. Solid, well-built motorcars featured with a number of new innovations – for example, lubrication of camshafts under pressure and liquid-cooling brakes!

Almost instantly the steam boiler manufactory acquired a solid clientele, with Prince Orlov among the first buyers.

PHOTO: the arrival of Emperor Nicholas II in his Delaunay Belleville 70CV, at the Fourth
International Automobile Exhibition, held at the Mikhailovsky Manege. St. Petersburg, 1913

After the four-cylinder 40CV, Orlov ordered the more powerful six-cylinder Delaunay Belleville-70CV for His Imperial Majesty’s Own Garage. This motorcar, which is often called the SMT – Sa Majeste le Tsar, meaning “His Majesty the Tsar”, was ordered in 1909.

The Delaunay Belleville-70CV was one of the most sophisticated motorcars of its time. The level of its equipment was impressive. For example, the optional system for starting the engine was from the driver’s seat – without the driver having to make use of the handle of the curve starter. For this, an electric starter was not used, but a cunning pneumatic system. Starting off did not require ignition – the pistons and, accordingly, the crankshaft rotated under the action of compressed air, which was supplied directly to the engine. Once the motorcar had picked up speed, it was necessary to turn off the pneumatics, and activate the ignition and fuel supply. The Delaunay was now running on gasoline like that of a traditional internal combustion engine.

The pneumatic device – a clear reference to the steam past of the company – also provided remote pumping of the wheels, the operation of the pneumatic jack, as well as the engine braking function when decelerating. A miracle of technology!

The interior decoration of the Delaunay Belleville-70CV was a merit of Cologner & Sons. The French body shop craftsmen decorated the salon with rosewood, provided a locker for a travel kit, installed a glass roof and a double floor that completely eliminated vibrations from the exhaust system. The roof was so high that Nicholas II could stand inside at full height. Fortunately, he was not tall – according to various sources, he stood 170 cm (5′ 6″) to 174 cm (5′ 7″) in height.

While the Emperor’s first Delaunay Belleville 40CV cost a relatively modest 13.5 thousand rubles, the  Delaunay Belleville 70CV cost over 20 thousand rubles(more than 30 million rubles today). And this is not counting the modifications which were made during operation: dual tires were installed on the rear wheels, acetylene headlights were replaced with brighter electric ones from Bosch-Licht.

PHOTO: In addition to his Delaunay Belleville 40CV, the Emperor also had a Delaunay Belleville 70CV (SMT) with a Landaulet body. This photo was taken in Krasnoe Selo in 1909. Driving is Prince V.N. Orlov, next to him – Adolphe Kégresse (1879-1943).

The Tsar was very pleased with his Delaunay Belleville. Although he never felt the urge to master the intricacies of driving – with nine pedals, the motorcar was too difficult to handle – therefore, Nicholas II preferred to ride as a passenger, always occuping the rear left seat.

According to some reports, the Delaunay Belleville 70CV (SMT), could accelerate to 120 km / h. In the event of an emergency, such as a threat to the Tsar’s life, the motorcar would thus prove to be an effective getaway car.

There were other motorcars in His Imperial Majesty’s Own Garage. Among the French models were German brands, such as the Mercedes-Simplex and the Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft. The garage also housed a Russo-Balt C 24/40 (seen below), a unique all-terrain vehicle, designed by Adolphe Kégresse, while working for Nicholas II between 1906 and 1916. He applied it to several cars in the imperial garage at Tsarskoye Selo, including Rolls-Royce cars and Packard trucks. 

PHOTO: Emperor Nicholas II (in the back seat), riding in a semi-tracked vehicle
Russo-Balt C 24/40. Adolphe Kégresse – the inventor, is the driver. 1915

After the February Revolution of 1917, the Tsar’s motorcars were seized, and transferred to the garage of the Provisional Government. After the tragic events of July 1918, and the murder of the Emperor and his family, Nicholas II’s motorcars ended up on the balance sheet of the “Automobile base of the workers ‘and peasants’ government.”

The structurally complex Delaunay Belleville’s required regular professional maintenance and high-quality spare parts, something which the Soviet government could ill afford at the time. In the early 1920s, the luxurious French motorcars which once transported the Tsar and his family around the Imperial capital sat idle, becoming a burden for the “government” garage. In 1928, the decision was made to scrap “His Majesty the Tsar SMT” favourite motorcar.

The fate of the Delaunay Belleville firm is also unfortunate. After a meteoric rise at the turn of the 20th century, the company faced an equally rapid decline after World War I. By the mid-1920s, only memories of Delaunay’s status as one of the most prestigious brands in the world remained. Based in Saint-Denis, France, the firm switched to the production of trucks and military equipment.

© Paul Gilbert. 3 February 2021