OTMA and Alexei exhibition opens in St. Petersburg

On 19th May 2023, a new exhibition “OTMA and Alexei. The Children of the Last Russian Emperor” opened in the Manege of the Small Hermitage, in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

The exhibition was originally planned to be held in the Hermitage Amsterdam, however, it was cancelled due to EU sanctions against Russia.

The exhibition spans the period from 1895 to 1914 – that is to say, exploring their days of untroubled childhood and youth, unaffected as yet by the First World War and the revolution that followed.

The Emperor’s daughters, Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, born at two-year intervals, were very friendly with each other and signed their letters to their parents with the initial letter of each of their names. Hence the abbreviation OTMA. The youngest child and only boy – Alexei, Tsesarevich and heir to the throne – was the favourite of the entire family.

The exhibition showcases more than 270 items, including a unique group of personal belongings and costumes from the stocks of the Hermitage: from baby jackets to formal court dresses, as well as toys and items that the imperial family used in their everyday life. Of particular interest is the clothing of Tsesarevich Alexei Nikolayevich, who from an early age wore uniforms of the regiments of which he was the ceremonial patron. Many items on display at this exhibition are being shown for the first time after the completion of lengthy restoration that has brought these historically significant pieces back to life.

As Mikhail Borisovich Piotrovsky, General Director of the State Hermitage, stated: “The tragic end of this happy family, which everyone knows, makes each everyday object emotionally charged and the whole exhibition a dreadful omen.”

Much attention is devoted in the exhibition to telling about the children’s family upbringing and education. Artistic and documentary artefacts – personal possessions, toys, books, favourite games that shaped the individual nature of each sibling – present details of the children’s daily life. It would, however, be difficult to reveal their characters using just the “world of objects”. Archive documents and photographs serve as accompanying illustrations and include many of the items on display.

Besides exhibits from the stocks of the State Hermitage, the display also includes items on loan from the Tsarskoye Selo State Museum-Preserve and the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF) in Moscow.

The exhibition curators are Yulia Valeryevna Plotnikova, leading researcher in the State Hermitage’s Department of the History of Russian Culture, and Yulia Vadimovna Sharovskaya, head of the Fine Art Sector in that department.

The exhibition “OTMA and Alexei. The Children of the Last Russian Emperor” is included in the price of all tickets to the State Hermitage Museum. The exhibition runs until th September 2023.

The exhibition is arranged along chronological and thematic lines. The first part shows the early childhood of the Grand Duchesses, including items of infants’ and children’s clothing – baby jackets, blouses, chemises, and some pieces of knitwear made by Empress Alexandra Feodorovna herself among them. Here visitors will find little lace-trimmed cambric frocks with coloured silk underskirts that the girls wore in early childhood; white piqué overcoats with wide turn-down collars and broad-brimmed hats made of unstiffened cambric. The display also contains accessories – footwear, fans and umbrellas. The rarer articles from the wardrobe of the grown-up Grand Duchesses have marks making it possible to tell who exactly wore them, since the Empress liked to dress her daughters identically not only as young children, but at a more advanced age as well.

Items in the exhibition that seem to have come off the pages of the fashion magazines of the day give an idea of how girls were clothed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There were, however, certain articles that set the children of the imperial family apart from others of the same age belonging to even well-to-do families. These include the Grand Duchesses’ formal court dresses: from the childish ones sewn in 1904 for the baptism of the heir to the throne, to those for the teenage girls and young ladies made in Olga Bulbenkova’s famous atelier, and also Tsesarevich Alexei’s uniforms. Immediately after his birth, the heir to the throne was “enrolled in the military” and appointed ceremonial patron of several Guards regiments, having the corresponding uniforms made for him. As he grew older, Alexei took part in parades and reviews along with his father. All the Grand Duchesses were also patrons of regiments. Olga, Tatiana and Maria even had special unforms sewn for them.

Photographs and watercolours show the imperial family’s favourite places: their primary residence – the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo; the palace at Livadia in the Crimea for the spring and autumn seasons, and also their “second home” – the imperial yacht Shtandart. Voyages on that ship were a treat to which the children eagerly looked forward, bringing some variety to their heavily regulated lives. The girls were dressed in sailor costumes and the Tsesarevich in naval unform, from which only two sailor’s caps have survived. The family spent the summer months at the Lower Dacha in Peterhof, which no longer exists. The exhibition includes two pieces of furniture made at Friedrich Melzer’s factory in Saint Petersburg – one for the drawing-room of the Lower Dacha, the other for the Grand Duchesses’ schoolroom at the Alexander Palace.

Separate attention is paid in the display to Tsesarevich Alexei. The long-awaited heir to the throne was dearly loved by his parents and sisters. The children spent much time playing and doing other activities together. Despite his serious illness – haemophilia, in his rare moments of good health, the Tsesarevich strove to live a normal life, which included both schoolwork and amusements. In order to recreate the everyday world of the heir to the throne more precisely, the State Hermitage and the State Archive have provided from their collections a boy’s military uniform, toys, letters, drawings, exercise books and a timetable of lessons.

The characters of all five children can be grasped from a unique set of materials – personal diaries, family letters, schoolwork and exercise books. The two eldest siblings, Olga and Tatiana, studied well, were diligent and neat, reading extensively. Grand Duchess Maria was very fond of drawing but fell short of her elder sisters when it came to learning. The youngest, Anastasia, had the nickname Shvybzik (perhaps “little imp”) and was the most playful and lively. She disliked learning but was very good in comic roles in the family’s amateur dramatics and took a leading part in games. Tsesarevich Alexei was a very bright youngster, but his lessons were often interrupted due to the illness that affected him throughout his life.

The sisters shared their parents’ love of photography. Each of them had her own Kodak camera that was enthusiastically used to take many pictures of themselves, their family and friends, hundreds of them then being pasted into albums. Two of those albums, embellished with the Grand Duchesses’ own drawings, feature in the display.



A richly illustrated Russian language catalogue has been prepared for the exhibition (State Hermitage Publishing House, 2023), which includes an introduction by Mikhail Piotrovsky, General Director of the State Hermitage Museum. The authors of the articles are Y.V. Plotnikova, A.V. Sabenina (State Archives of the Russian Federation), M.P. Filiptseva (Tsarskoye Selo State Museum).

PHOTO: cover of the Russian language exhibition catalogue

© State Hermitage Museum. 20 May 2023

State Hermitage Museum to host OTMAA exhibition next month

A new exhibition OTMA and Alexei. The Children of the Last Russian Emperor will open next month at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

The exhibition which will open on 19th May [Nicholas II’s birthday] in the Manege of the Small Hermitage is a joint project of the State Hermitage Museum, the Tsarskoye Selo State Museum and the State Archives of the Russian Federation (GARF).

The exhibition will cover the period from the birth of Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna’s first child Olga in 1895 to August 1914, and the Imperial Family’s house arrest in the Alexander Palace and their subsequent exile to Siberia.

Among the more than 300 exhibits, are Court dresses and other accessories worn by the Grand Duchesses from the State Hermitage Museum’s Costume Collection, as well as toys and other personal items of the Imperial Children from the Tsarskoye Selo State Museum.

Of particular interest to visitors will be the military uniforms of Tsesarevich Alexei Nikolaevich, who from childhood wore the uniforms of the regiments under his patronage. Many of these uniforms will be displayed for the first time following the completion of their restoration.

A richly illustrated Russian language catalogue has been prepared for the exhibition (State Hermitage Publishing House, 2023), which includes an introduction by Mikhail Piotrovsky, General Director of the State Hermitage Museum. The authors of the articles are Y.V. Plotnikova, A.V. Sabenina (State Archives of the Russian Federation), M.P. Filiptseva (Tsarskoye Selo State Museum).

“This is a very touching exhibition”, said Mikhail Piotrovsky, general director of the museum. Piotrovsky noted that the exhibition was originally planned to premiere at the Hermitage Amsterdam (Netherlands), however, the exhibit has been cancelled, due to current EU sanctions on Russia.

OTMA was an acronym used by the four daughters – Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia – of Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, as a group nickname for themselves, built from the first letter of each girl’s name in the order of their births. It was with this acronym that they signed their letters to their parents. Alexei’s initial is an addition made in the late 20th century.

The Children of the Last Russian Emperor. OTMA and Alexei exhibition will run from 19th May 2023 to 10th September 2023 at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

Click HERE to read about other exhibitions dedicated to OTMAA

© Paul Gilbert. 28 April 2023

Toys of Nicholas II’s children transferred to museum in Sergiev Posad in 1930s

PHOTO: Overview of some of the Imperial Children’s toys from the collection of the Art and Pedagogical Toy Museum in Sergiev Posad, including a collection of porcelain dolls, once owned by the grand duchesses.

Situated 74 km [45 miles] northeast of Moscow is Sergiev Posad[1] the spiritual centre of Russia with its famous Holy Trinity St. Sergius Lavra[2], and home to over 300 monks. In 1993, the Trinity-Sergius Lavra which comprises a unique ensemble of more than 50 buildings was inscribed on the UN World Heritage List. In 2002 the monastery was recognized as a Cultural Heritage Site of the Russian Federation.

Sergiev Posad also has a long history of toy-making, the matryoshka doll known all over the world was born here. It seems only fitting that the town should claim to its fame the Art and Pedagogical Toy Museum, which is situated opposite the Trinity-Sergius Lavra. The museum is a unique repository of more than 150 thousand toys from Russia, Europe, Asia and America. The museum was founded in 1918 by Nikolai Dmitrievich Bartram (1873-1931)[3].

Bertram was a Russian illustrator, poster designer, art historian, and collector, who also studied the history of toys in Russia. From 1900 to 1903, he travelled throughout Europe; visiting toy shops and returning with suitcases of dolls, toy soldiers, and toy animals.

In 1912, he married the artist and collector, Yevdokia Ivanovna Loseva (1880-1936), who shared his interest in toys. In October 1918, as World War I was winding down, he and Yevdokia founded the Moscow Toy Museum, comprising of toys from his own private collection; although it was not opened to the general public until 1921. 

His collection was further enriched with toys from the Stroganov School in Moscow, as well as those from the noble estates, private collections and specialty shops, all of which had been nationalized by the Bolsheviks.

In the early 1930s toys that once belonged to the children of Emperor Nicholas II from the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoye Selo and the Livadia Palace in Crimea, were transferred to the museum’s collection.

The museum was first located in Bartram’s four-room apartment on Smolensky Boulevard in Moscow The one-storey mansion with a mezzanine, consisted of 250 square meters, 200 meters of which was allocated for his toy collection.

PHOTO: view of the Toy Museum (above), situated opposite the Holy Trinity St. Sergius Lavra in Sergiev Posad. The glass showcases (below) contain toys transferred from the Alexander Palace and Livadia Palace in the 1930s.

Officially founded on 17th October 1918, the museum was opened to visitors only in 1921, and three years later, in 1924, it moved to a new location – the former Khrushchev-Seleznevs mansion[4] on Kropotkinskaya Street in Moscow. It was here, that the Toy Museum was opened on 5th January 1921, expanding its exhibition space to 5 halls and 600 square meters to accommodate Bartram’s growing collection. Today the building is occupied by the Literary Museum of A. S. Pushkin.

In terms of attendance, the Museum of Toys was surpassed only by the Tretyakov Gallery. Nikolai Bartram remained at the head of the museum until his death in 1931.

In 1931, the Toy Museum was transferred from Moscow to Zagorsk[1] opposite – the Holy Trinity St. Sergius Lavra.

PHOTO: Toy Museum founder Nikolai Dmitrievich Bartram among his collection

The current Chief Curator of the Toy Museum Tamara Atyusheva explains the fate of the toys of the Tsar’s children, and how some of them came into the hands of the museum:

-“From 1918 to 1931 the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoye Selo was a museum, which included a permanent exhibition dedicated to the “Children’s Half”, which included the rooms of the Grand Duchesses and the Tsesarevich. These rooms were filled with the Imperial Children’s toys which were left after the Tsar and his family were sent into exile in August 1917.

“After 1931, the subject of everything Tsarist became a bone of contention among the Stalinists, one which did not fit into Soviet life. As a result the “Children’s Half” exhibition in the Alexander Palace was closed. Many of the toys and personal items of the Tsar’s children were distributed to orphanages and shelters. No records were kept of where the toys were distributed, and all traces of these toys have since been lost. The toys which were not lost, were transferred to our museum in in 1932. They were stored in the storerooms of the Research Institute of Toys in Zagorsk[1] located in the museum of the Lavra. They were stored without any indication that these items had any special significance. For instance, the Grand Duchesses collection of porcelain dolls were simply labeled “Nineteenth Century Dolls” and that’s it.

“It was during holidays – birthdays, name days, and Christmas – that the Imperial Children received expensive toys, many of which had been imported from Europe and Britain as gifts. In addition they received board games, which also acted as learning aids: for studying languages, geography, and royal dynasties, including one with “portraits of the Sovereigns of the Russian Land”.

“Interesting among the toys were those of Tsesarevich Alexei, who was brought up primarily as the future heir to the throne, and head of the Russian Imperial Army. He had everything a little warrior should have: a toy three-line Mosin rifle, toy sabers, a toy ship (“Battleship Sevastopol”), signal flags, a triangular red pennant with a white cross, and a collection of toy soldiers.

In addition the Heir had an electric train, which consisted of a huge steam locomotive, complete with stations and tunnels.

One of the highlights of the Imperial Children’s toys, was a collection of European made dolls of the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia in national costumes, in addition to children’s furniture, dishes, books, sporting goods and portraits.

Today the Art and Pedagogical Toy Museum welcomes more than 30,000 visitors each year. Exhibits from their collection are routinely loaned out to other museums throughout Russia, the toys of the children of Emperor Nicholas II being the most popular. In 2011, some of the toys from the museum’s collection were put on display in former Children’s Half located on the second floor of the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo.

© Paul Gilbert. 10 January 2023


[1] Sergiev Posad was founded on 22nd March 1782, by decree of Empress Catherine II. The name is associated with the name of Sergius of Radonezh (1314-1392), the founder of the Trinity-Sergius Lavra, around which the posad was formed. In 1919, Sergiev Posad was renamed Sergiev. On 6th March 1930, the city was renamed Zagorsk, in honor of the Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Mikhailovich Zagorsky, who died in 1919.

On 23rd September 1991, by the decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR, the historical name was returned to the city – Sergiev Posad. At the walls of the Lavra was erected a monument to Sergius of Radonezh, made of bronze, the work of the sculptor Valentin Chukharkin. The monument was consecrated on 18th March 2000 by Patriarch Alexy II (1929-2008).

[2] After the 1917 Russian Revolution, the Soviet government closed the Lavra in 1920. Its buildings were assigned to different civic institutions or declared museums. In 1930, monastery bells, including the Tsar-Bell of 65 tons, were destroyed. Father Pavel Florensky (1882-1937) and his followers prevented the authorities from stealing and selling the sacristy collection but overall many valuables were lost or transferred to other collections.

In 1945, following Joseph Stalin’s temporary tolerance of the church during World War II, the Lavra was returned to the Russian Orthodox Church. On 16th April 1946 divine service was renewed at the Assumption Cathedral. The Lavra continued as the seat of the Moscow Patriarchate until 1983, when the patriarch was allowed to settle at the Danilov Monastery in Moscow.

[3] Nikolai Dmitrievich Bartram died on 13th July 1931. He was buried at the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow.

[4] Today the former Khrushchev-Seleznevs mansion houses the A. S. Pushkin State Museum (not to be confused with the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts).

The Children’s Island and Pavilion at Tsarskoye Selo

PHOTO: This early 20th century photo of the Children’s Island, clearly shows the Pavilion, the granite piers and the pull-ferry

Situated just a short walk from the Western Wing of the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo, stands a tiny island in one of the lakes and ponds which dot the Alexander Park. It is dominated by a tiny dilapidated toy-like house.

The island and pond were created in 1817, by the famous Scottish architect and landscape gardener Adam Menelaws (1753-1831), it is a peaceful setting, lush and green, with tall, mature trees which offer a cool shade from the hot afternoon sun.

In the summer of 1824, the island was presented to the children of Grand Duke Nicholas Pavlovich (future Emperor Nicholas I) by his brother, Emperor Alexander I.

The tiny pavilion was constructed in the Empire Style in 1830, according to a design by the architect Alexei Gornostayev (1808-1862). The pavilion had two entrances, one of which had a white wooden awning and porch, neither of which has survived.

PHOTO: Two of the grand duchesses paddling on the pond which surrounds the island. You can clearly see the white awning and porch, neither of which have survived

The interior consisted of a drawing room, complete with two white ceramic tile fireplaces, the ceilings painted in the Empire Style, and parquet floors decorated with beautiful carpets. Four furnished smaller rooms adjoined the drawing room.

In 1904, the pavilion was wired for electricity, a telephone was installed with a direct line to the Alexander Palace.

The island was separated from the mainland, with small granite pier on each side. From the shoreline, the island could be reached by a pull-ferry, whereby sailors would pull ropes sending the ferry and its passengers over to the island and back.

For nearly a century, the island and pavilion became a summer refuge for the children of four successive emperors: Nicholas I, Alexander II, Alexander III and Nicholas II.

While the Children’s Island was off-limits to adults, it was in fact enjoyed by all generations of the Imperial family. In April 1895, Nicholas II and his young wife “got up early and sat a long time at the Children’s Island, enjoying the weather.” A few days later the young couple, took a small boat through the channels of the Alexander Park, “peaceful…drank tea together on the Children’s Island. The happiness is indescribable.” In April 1896, Nicholas II wrote in his diary: “I worked at the Children’s Island in the snow.”

PHOTO: The pet cemetery, consisting of four graves is situated on the western side of the island

In the late 19th century, the Imperial family built a cemetery on the western side of the island, where they buried their beloved canine companions. The gravestones have survived to this day.

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

Шилка ▪ Shilka
Иманъ ▪ Iman
December 6, 1895 – October 2, 1902
Воронъ ▪ Voron
December 1889 – September 1895
Эра ▪ Era
1894 – 1906

Click HERE to read my article Nicholas II’s canine companions, originally published on 22nd May 2021

PHOTO: Emperor Nicholas II, Tsesarevich Alexei, two of theGrand Duchesses, an unknown soldier, and one the family dogs a black Boston Terrier, travelling across to the island on the pull-ferry. This photo was taken during the Imperial family’s house arrest in the Alexander Palace in 1917. The family’s freedom was restricted within the Alexander Park.

PHOTO: Tsesarevich Alexei Nikolaevich, posing with a cigarette in his mouth, while leaning against the granite pier and pull-ferry, during the Imperial Family’s house arrest in 1917

Even after their father’s abdication in March 1917, and the restrictions placed on them during their house arrest at the Alexander Palace, the children still visited the Children’s Island. “Papa walks on the outer reaches of the garden where they chop and saw dry trees. Alexei plays on the Children’s Island, runs barefoot and sometimes swims,” wrote Grand Duchess Olga to her friend, Pyotr Petrov, 19th June, 1917.

PHOTO: The current state of the Children’s Island, which shows the dilapidated state of the pavilion, the doors and windows boarded up. The granite piers are overgrown with weeds, the pull-ferry long gone

The Children’s Pavilion has sat in a terrible state of decline and disrepair for decades. In the 1990s, it became a popular hangout for the homeless and drug users. They left the interiors in a horrid state. The pavilion has since been boarded up. According to Ekaterina Eparinova, a research historian at Tsarskoye Selo, the palace-museum have plans to restore the island and pavilion once they can secure funding.

PHOTO: Paul Gilbert standing on the frozen pond, between the shoreline and the island. What a marvellous experience it was for this author to explore the island, pavilion and cemetery

During my winter visits to Tsarskoye Selo, I have on two occasions walked across the ice and explored the Children’s Island and Pavilion. I took many photos of the Pavilion, as well as the pet cemetery, some of which I in ‘Royal Russia’ No. 4 (pgs. 1-10) in 2013.

© Paul Gilbert. 16 October 2022

Photos from the ‘The Children’s World of the Family of Emperor Nicholas II’ Exhibition


OTMAA: the children of Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna

The exhibition The Children’s World of the Family of Emperor Nicholas II. OTMA and Alexei opened in the Kolomenskoye Museum-Reserve in Moscow on 13th November 2019. This unique exhibit is a joint project of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF) and the Kolomenskoye State Museum Reserve in Moscow, which showcases the personal items – costumes, accessories, toys – that belonged to the children of Emperor Nicholas II. It is supplemented with exhibits from the collections of the Tsarskoye Selo State Museum Reserve, the Peterhof State Museum Reserve, and the Pereslavl Museum. The exhibition runs until 16th February 2020.

The following photos from the exhibition are courtesy of Dinara Gracheva and Православие.Ru


Exhibition catalogue (in Russian only)

Click HERE to read my article Exhibition Catalogue: ‘The Children’s World of the Family of Emperor Nicholas II. OTMA and Alexei’, published on 25th September 2019

© Paul Gilbert. 22 November 2019

Exhibition Catalogue: ‘The Children’s World of the Family of Emperor Nicholas II. OTMA and Alexei’

A richly illustrated catalogue Детский мир семьи императора Николая II. ОТМА и Алексей (The Children’s World of the Family of Emperor Nicholas II. OTMA and Alexei), has been published to coincide with forthcoming exhibition to be held in Moscow later this year.

The catalogue, prepared by the Moscow State United Museum-Reserve and the State Hermitage Museum, publishes (for the first time) photographs of the personal items – costumes, accessories, toys – that belonged to the children of Emperor Nicholas II. These items from the collection of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, will be presented at the exhibition, which will be held in the Kolomenskoye Museum-Reserve in Moscow from 13th November 2019 to 16th February 2020.


In addition, many archival documents will be displayed – including excerpts from letters, diaries, notebooks, memoirs and photographs provided by the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF), the Tsarskoye Selo State Museum Reserve, the Peterhof State Museum Reserve, and the Pereslavl Museum.

The catalogue features articles researched and written by the exhibition curators Yu. V. Plotnikova (GE) and A. V. Sabenina (MGOMZ). Based on memoirs and archival documents, their works take a look at the education and upbringing of the August children, including the personalities, the growing and development of each of the five children.


The catalogue contains 200 pages, and richly illustrated with colour and black & white photographs.  ISBN: 978-5-91353-059-2. RUSSIAN TEXT ONLY!

The price of the catalogue is 1300 rubles ($20 USD) and can be purchased in Kolomenskoye Museum-Reserve in Moscow, or through a Russian bookseller online.

© Paul Gilbert. 25 September 2019