Filming the Coronation of Emperor Nicholas II in 1896

PHOTO: still from the Lumiere Bros. film documenting the 1896 Coronation.
Emperor Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra Feodorova and their retinue
are seen slowly descending the Red Staircase of the Moscow Kremlin

The Russian State Archive of Film and Photo Documents RGAKFD is the world’s largest and oldest public repository of audiovisual documents. In 2019, the archive celebrated its 100th anniversary.

To date, it holds more than 45,000 titles of film documents, more than one and a half million original photographic documents from 1850 to the present: these include daguerreotypes, ferrotypes, and albums, including those belonging to the Imperial Family, and negatives on glass and film, and modern digital photographic images.

The existing collection of film documents of pre-revolutionary Russia, stored in the RGAKFD, was formed from newsreel-documentary materials requisitioned by the Soviet authorities during the nationalization of the film industry from the warehouses of film factories and film companies.

In total, the archive currently contains about 960 pre-revolutionary newsreels, including the first full-length documentary-film made in Russia – the Coronation of Emperor Nicholas II in 1896.

PHOTO: Lumiere Brothers: Auguste (1862-1954) and Louis (1864-1948)

In May 1896, French cameramen from the Lumiere Brothers (Paris) company arrived in Moscow, to film the coronation ceremony of Emperor Nicholas II. On 5th May 1896, the Moscow newspaper Новости дня [News of the Day] wrote: “among the correspondents who have arrived in the city is Camille Cerf for the coronation of Nicholas II. Sent to Moscow on behalf of Louis Lumière, he is armed with a very interesting device – a cinematograph … He will film the entire solemn procession of the route on a special moving belt, on which the pictures will, however, be so microscopic that only after enlarging them can they can be seen. But, in any case, all parts of the tuple and all of its moments will be reproduced in this way with documentary accuracy.” The coronation celebrations in the Kremlin were captured in great detail.

PHOTO: cinematographers Charles Moisson and Francis Dublier

The “Lumiere Brothers Cinematography” catalogue, released in France for the 100th anniversary of cinema, names four cameramen who filmed “The Coronation of Emperor Nicholas II” – Francis Dubliet, Camille Cerf, Charles Moisson and Alexandre Promio.

PHOTO: Belgian cinematographer Camille Cerf (1862-1936)

A copy of the film of the coronation celebrations was presented by Lumiere to Emperor Nicholas II and, apparently, met with his approval. In any case, it laid the foundation for a special kind of pre-revolutionary Russian newsreel, the so-called “Tsarist Chronicle”, which was filmed in Russia systematically from 1896 to 1917, mainly by Russian cameramen, for distribution to the growing commercial cinema network across the Russian Empire.

The Lumiere Bros. film The Coronation of Emperor Nicholas II was filmed in 35 mm, duration 1 hour 33 min. The video below shows only 1 minute and 40 seconds of it. More than a decade ago, a Ukrainian historian announced plans to restore the entire film. Sadly, he was unable to acquire funding for this important historical project.

The following is a list of the highlights of the video:

1. NDP 1.4m “Coronation of Sovereign Emperor Nicholas II Alexandrovich” May 14, 1896

2. Common. 10.1 m On the streets of Moscow, ceremonial gilded carriages, accompanied by their retinue, pass. In the first carriage sits Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, (removed from the building of the Historical Museum). Cinematographer Francis DOUBLIER . CL No. 1329.

3. Common. 4.8m Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, accompanied by the courtiers, walk up the stairs of the Red Porch, down to Ivanovskaya Square to the Assumption Cathedral, (filmed from the side of the Annunciation Cathedral from the height of the roof of the temporary stands).
Operator Charles MOISSON . CL No. 1330.

4. Common. 7.8 m Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna leave the Archangel Cathedral, join the solemn procession and under a canopy, accompanied by the courtiers, walk towards the porch of the Annunciation Cathedral. Cinematographer Francis DOUBLIER . CL No. 1331.

5. Wed 9.2 m The solemn procession goes towards the Annunciation Cathedral.
Cinematographer Francis DOUBLIER . CL No. 1331.

6. Common. 6.6m Representatives of various nationalities are passing by.
Operator Charles MOISSON . CL No. 1328.

7. Common. 5.1 m A carriage drives up to the porch of the house, dignitaries sit in it.
Operator Charles MOISSON . CL No. 1325.

8. Common. 2.9m The dignitaries sit in the carriage.
Operator Charles MOISSON . CL No. 1326.

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PHOTO: Ernest Louis, Grand Duke of Hesse (seated center) with members
of the Hessian delegation, who attended Nicholas II’s Coronation in May 1896

The Empress’s brother, Ernest Louis, Grand Duke of Hesse (1868-1937), who was present at the coronation ceremony, provides a vivid description of the event:

“The coronation in Moscow on May 26, 1896 was the most splendid ceremony I have ever seen. It was almost eastern in style and lasted 10 days. In Moscow, the cathedral was full of images of saints on a gold background, and all the priests were wore golden vestments, decorated with embroidery and precious stones. In all the ceremonies, there was a deep mystical meaning and Byzantine traditions. The Anointed Emperor and Empress became God’s Anointed ones. The emperor, like a priest, receives communion at the altar. After that, in front of the throne, he takes off the crown from his head, kneels down and prays aloud with a wonderful prayer for his people. Then they say a prayer for the emperor, and he rises, and at that moment he is the only non-kneeling person in the entire Russian Empire. The procession of people entering and leaving the cathedral passes along the elevation, which is at the level of the heads, standing around, so you can see everyone who takes part in the ceremony. The procession seems to consist only of people in full dress, everything glitters in gold and silver, the emperor and empress in gold and ermine robes stand under a huge canopy, all the grand duchesses are strewn with jewels. Everything happens as in a magical dream, because everything is illuminated by the bright radiance of the sun.”

© Paul Gilbert. 16 March 2021

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1896 Coronation uniform of Emperor Nicholas II

PHOTO: The 1896 Coronation uniform of Emperor Nicholas II 

During his coronation, which took place on 27th May (O.S. 14th) May, 1896, the last Russian emperor Nicholas II appeared before his subjects in the uniform of a colonel of the Preobrazhensky Life Guards Regiment – the first of the two oldest regiments of the Russian Imperial Guard, founded by Tsar Peter I in 1691.

Like his grandfather Alexander II (1818-1881) and great-grandfather Nicholas I (1796-1855), Nicholas II preferred the uniform of this regiment – in which he served in military service – to all others.

By the time of his accession to the throne, he served in the rank of colonel of the Preobrazhensky Regiment, and when he became emperor, he felt a special sense of pride from the fact that “he remained a simple colonel”.

His coronation uniform was made of dark green cashmere; with silk trimming, red collar with white piping and cuffs; embroidered with gilded threads with a pattern that is complex in composition and virtuoso in technique of execution, distinguishing the shape of the Preobrazhensky Regiment. The uniform is adorned with epaulettes bearing the monogram of his father Emperor Alexander III (1845-1894) and gilded aiguillettes, a flap on the chest, which the emperor himself unfastened during the coronation ceremony to perform the sacrament of Chrismation. Nordenstrem ordered the buttons for the uniform from a well-known supplier in the capital.

PHOTO: brothers Nikolai and Karl Nordenshtrem

It is known that the entire uniform for Nicholas II’s coronation was ordered from the workshop of N.I. Nordenstrem – the famous “king of Russian military tailors,” who specialized in military dress. Nikolai Ivanovich Nordenshtrem (1838-1903) was “a true artist in his field,” and the uniforms cut by him “bore the imprint of strict grace and good taste.” Nordenstrem was appointed Supplier to the Imperial Court, and for eighty years, he served four Russian emperors – Nicholas I, Alexander II, Alexander III and Nicholas II.

Nicholas II placed orders for all his military uniforms from Nordenstrem, whose shop was located at 46 Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersburg. The famous atelier also received orders from Their Imperial Highnesses the Grand Dukes Alexei, Sergei and Pavel Alexandrovich; Konstantin and Dmitry Konstavtinovich; Nikolai and Peter Nikolaevich; George and Alexander Mikhailovich; Kirill, Boris and Andrey Vladimirovich; Alexander and Konstantin Petrovich Oldenburgsky; Prince Peter Alexandrovich of Oldenburg; Duke Eugene Maximilianovich Leuchtenberg; as well as many Russian and foreign dignitaries.

PHOTO: Coronation uniform of Emperor Nicholas II and Coronation dress of Empress Alexandra, on display in the Armoury Chamber of the Moscow Kremlin

The Coronation regalia – the textiles, religious vestments and court livery – were preserved in the Moscow Armoury, they survived the upheaval of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. The Coronation uniform of Emperor Nicholas II is on permanent display in the Armoury Chamber of the Moscow Kremlin – Hall 6, Showcase 45.

© Paul Gilbert. 8 February 2021

The myth of Nicholas II’s indifference to the Khodynka tragedy

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More than a century after his death and martyrdom, a number of tragic events continue to haunt the legacy of Russia’s last tsar. It was the Khodynka tragedy, in which thousands were killed or injured during a stampede, that would haunt Nicholas II throughout his 22-year reign.

On the morning of 18th May 1896, over half a million revelers had gathered on the Khodynka Field in Moscow for ceremonies marking the Coronation of Emperor Nicholas II.

Organizers had set up 150 stalls to distribute 400 thousand free gifts to the people, a souvenir of the historic event.

The gift included a commemorative enamelled metal cup, bearing the cyphers of Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna 1896 and the Imperial Crown on one side, the Imperial coat of arms on the reverse.

The cup was distributed along with a variety of food presents, which included a 400 gram loaf of bread; 200 gram sausage stick; Vyazemsky gingerbread; a small bag full of sweets, nuts, and dried fruits.

Everything was tied in a bright calico commemorative scarf, on which the portraits of the imperial couple were printed on one side, and a view of the Kremlin on the reverse.

Sadly, the day began in tragedy. Rumours began to spread among the people that there was not enough beer or pretzels for everybody, and that the enamel cups contained a gold coin. A police force of 1,800 men failed to maintain civil order, and a catastrophic crowd crush and panic resulted in an estimated 1,389 people being trampled to death, and an additional 1300 injured, in what has become known as the Khodynka Tragedy.

Despite the tragedy, the program of festivities continued as planned elsewhere on the Khodynka field, with many people unaware of the tragedy that had taken place. The Emperor and Empress made a brief appearance in front of the crowds on the balcony of the Tsar’s Pavilion in the middle of the field around 2 p.m. By that time the traces of the incident had been cleaned up. The couple were clearly shaken by the news.

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The Emperor and Empress on the balcony of the Tsar’s Pavilion in the middle of the Khodynka Field

It was the Emperor’s attendance at a grand ball held on the evening of the tragedy, however, which planted a seed of gross misunderstanding and ridicule, one which Nicholas is criticized to this very day. I would like to take a closer look at this . . . 

The ball was hosted by the French ambassador Gustave Lannes de Montebello (1838-1907), in Moscow. The French spared no expense in the extravagant preparations for the ball. The ball in part marked the recently signed Franco-Russian alliance.

For the arrival of Their Majesties, foreign princes, princesses, members of the Imperial Family, representatives of the foreign diplomatic corps, court officials gathered in the halls of the embassy. For hours this mass paraded through the halls. The excitement was everywhere. Their Majesties were greeted by the French ambassador and his wife at the entrance and remained at the embassy until 2 am.

The tsars’ sister Grand Duchess Olga Alexandra wrote: “The French government had gone to immense expense and trouble to arrange the ball. Tapestries and plate were brought from Versailles and Fontainebleau and 100,000 roses from the south of France.

“Other guests shared their descriptions: “some of the rooms had been converted into winter gardens” . . . “in one room a fountain lit up with colourful electric lights”. 

The grand ball at the French ambassador’s party ended with a fine dinner. During the ball, the ladies were offered luxurious fans and bouquets of flowers brought from France. In general, the ball was wonderful; full of animation, luxury, extraordinary brilliance, it left an indelible impression on many.

During the ball, an orchestra played and a choir of Russian singers in luxurious Russian costumes sang. The wide hospitality of the French embassy was extended to all guests.

An open buffet, champagne, fine French wines, a magnificent dinner, flowers for guests – everything was there. The tables in the Tsar’s rooms especially stood out – among the luxurious silver there were literally mountains of fragrant flowers.

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Nicholas and Alexandra are greeted by the French ambassador and his wife

It was clear that the newly crowned Emperor and Empress did not want to attend the ball. Some historians believe that Nicholas was bullied by his uncles, urging him to attend. Because of the extravagant preparation for the ball, caused in part by France’s delight at the recently signed alliance with Russia, the failure of Nicholas and Alexandra to attend would have been a great slight.

According to the Countess Maria Eduardovna Kleinmichel (1846-1931), “in view of the terrible expense, the French ambassador begged the Imperial couple to attend, He urged the Emperor to agree to at least attending the reception, even if for a short while. The Tsar looked all haggard and pale as a white sheet. The Imperial couple walked in silence through the halls, bowing to those who had assembled. Then they went into the ambassador’s drawing-room, and shortly thereafter departed. The French were in despair, but they seem to have realized that their demands after such a tragedy, one which shook the Emperor and Empresses so deeply, were simply impossible.” 

Grand Duchess Olga Alexandra also noted: “I know for a fact that neither of them wanted to go. It was done under great pressure from his advisers . . . Nicky’s ministers insisted that he must go as a gesture of friendship to France.”

Count Sergei Witte, who served as Prime Minister under Nicholas II recalled that Nicholas “looked sick” and was “obviously depressed”.

“I know that both Nicky and Alicky spent the whole of that day in visiting one hospital after another,” wrote Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna.

Nicholas allotted some 90 thousand rubles to the victims families out of his own personal funds, and not the states. He ordered that a thousand bottles of port and Madeira were to be sent to hospitals for the wounded, and the sovereign himself visited the wounded in the hospitals and attended the funeral service for the dead. Further, all orphans received a pension until they were of age.

In their book A Life for the Tsar, co-authors Greg King and Janet Ashton wrote: “They [Nicholas and Alexandra} visited the wounded in Moscow’s hospitals, and Nicholas announced that he would compensate the victims . . . yet the visits were mechanical and the pledge of financial aid went largely unfulfilled.” What is interesting to note is that their 189-page book, contains no less than 1,349 citations, yet there is no citation for their claim that Nicholas reneged on his promise to compensate victims. This in itself suggests that such a claim is based on rumour and not fact.

The Emperor’s kindness and empathy towards the victims and their families has been widely documented by numerous historians, both Western and Russian. The claim by King and Ashton that the “pledge of financial aid went largely unfulfilled”, simply goes against the personal character and deeply pious Orthodox beliefs of Nicholas II.

When asked if Nicholas II showed indifference to the victims of the Khodynka tragedy, Professor M.V. Lomonosov, who serves as associate professor of the history faculty of Moscow State University said:

“Here it is necessary to clearly separate the two matters. On one hand we have a situation related to human relationships, issues of empathy, compassion and mercy. On the other hand, there are issues of diplomacy and diplomatic protocol. And in this situation, they overlap one another.

“There was an official reception with the French ambassador, and it was necessary to demonstrate good relations with France. It was quite obvious that if Nicholas II for any reason ignored this event, then it would have a negative impact on Russian-French relations. As you know, his attendance at the ball was purely official.

“The  reception was not an entertainment event as such. It was political. There are things which need to be done, despite the fact that a tragic event overshadowed it.

“By attending, Nicholas II fulfilled his duties and Russia received a certain European political resonance.”

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Emperor Nicholas II at the bedside of a victim injured during the Khodynka tragedy

That evening Nicholas briefly noted the event in his diary: “Up until now, thank God, everything went perfectly. The crowd spending the night on the Khodynka meadow, in anticipation in the distribution of the food and mugs, broke through the barrier and there was a terrible crush, during which it is terrible to say about 1300 people trampled!!”

His lack of emotion or empathy in this entry for the victims does not reflect his private feelings. His detractors often cite this in their negative assessment of his reign. [for more on Nicholas II’s diaries, please refer to my article Nicholas II’s Diaries 1894-1918.]

Whatever the Emperor’s private feelings, the Khodynka tragedy created a number of negative images and impressions which would colour all later views of Nicholas, his government and his reign. The first such image was that of a young monarch dancing at a fabulous ball on the evening of a day when hundreds of his subjects had lost their lives as a result of the incompetence of his own government.

“The image was unfair,” notes Russian historian Dominic Lieven. Not for the last time, however, the Emperor’s self-control exposed him in temperamental Russian eyes to accusations of heartlessness and indifference.

Sadly, Nicholas and his government never erased the image which Khodynka implanted in the public mind.

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Dear Reader: I am always pleased to present new articles based on my own research from Russian archival sources, and first English translations of new articles from Russian media sources on my Nicholas II blog and Facebook pages. It is these articles and topics which seldom (if ever) attract the attention of the Western media. I personally translate the articles, and complement them further with additional materials, photographs, videos and links.

If you found this article interesting, then please help support my research by making a donation in US or Canadian dollars to my project The Truth About Nicholas II – please note that donations can be made by GoFundMe, PayPal, credit card, personal check or money order. Thank you for your consideration – PG

© Paul Gilbert. 23 August 2020

COLOUR photos of the Coronation of Nicholas II

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On this day – 27 May (O.S. 14 May) 1896, Russia’s last emperor and tsar Nicholas II was crowned in Moscow

The following text is a short introduction of the preparations and ceremony, to prepare readers for the wonderful colour photographs of the Coronation of Russia’s last emperor which follow – PG

Preparations

On 13 January (O.S., 1 January) 1896, the manifesto “On the upcoming Holy Coronation of Their Imperial Majesties” was published, according to which the coronation ceremony was to be held in May, and inviting the Government Senate in Moscow, and other representatives of the Russian Empire, to attend. Responsibility for organizing the ceremony was assigned to the Ministry of the Imperial Court, on the basis of which the Coronation Commission and the Coronation Office were organized.

From 6 May to 26 May 1896 was the official coronation period, with 25 May being the birthday of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. On 26 May, a manifesto was published that expressed the gratitude of the monarch to the inhabitants of Moscow.

It was proposed that all persons participating in the 9 May ceremonial entrance of the imperial couple to Moscow arrive in Moscow no later than 5 May. The ceremonial entry was to be from the Petrovsky Palace on Petersburg Highway and further along Tverskaya-Yamskaya and Tverskaya streets.

Preparations for the celebrations were the responsibility of the Minister of the Imperial Court Count I. I. Vorontsov-Dashkov. The High Marshal was Count K. I. Palen; the supreme master of ceremonies was Prince A. S. Dolgorukov. The duties of the herald were performed by E. K. Pribylsky, an official of the Senate. A coronation unit was formed from 82 battalions, 36 squadrons, 9 hundreds, and 28 batteries, under the command of the Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich, under whom was a special headquarters with the rights of the General Staff led by Lieutenant General N.I. Bobrikov. Vladimir Alexandrovich arrived in Moscow and took command on 3 May 1896.

Coronation ceremony

The coronation of Emperor Nicholas II and his wife, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna was the last coronation during the Russian Empire. It took place on 26 May (O.S. 14 May) 1896, in the Assumption Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin.

On 26/14 May, the day of the Coronation, the liturgy was read and prayers of thanksgiving recited in all the churches in St. Petersburg. The metropolitan cathedrals could not accommodate all the worshippers, in view of which prayers were also recited in the squares near a number of cathedrals and some churches, as well as in the Horse Guards.

The coronation ceremony began at 10 am, with the emperor, his mother, and his wife seated on thrones on a special raised platform installed in the middle of the cathedral. The emperor sat on the throne of Tsar Mikhail Feodorovich, Empress Maria Feodorovna on the throne of Tsar Alexy Mikhailovich Tishayshy, and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna on the throne of Grand Prince Ivan III.

The ceremony was presided over by Metropolitan Palladium, of St. Petersburg, the pre-eminent member of the most Holy Synod (the Synod at the time of the coronation having been transferred to Moscow). During the liturgy, the metropolitan con-celebrated with the metropolitans of Kiev, Ioanikiy (Rudnev), and of Moscow, Sergius (Lyapidevsky). At the end of the liturgy the emperor and empress were anointed and then took communion of the Holy Mysteries at the altar. In the ministry of the liturgy, among others, John of Kronstadt also took part.

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© Paul Gilbert. 26 May 2020