The woman who photographed the Imperial Family in Tobolsk

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Maria Ussakovskaya, nee Petukhova with her husband Ivan Konstantinovich Ussakovsky

Few historians know about Maria Ussakovskaya the first woman photographer in Tobolsk. Through the lens of her camera, she photographed life in the provincial capital during one of the most dramatic periods of Russia’s history, leaving for posterity a noticeable mark in the biography of this Siberian city.

Incredible progress

Maria Mikhailovna Ussakovskaya, nee Petukhova, was born on 28th December 1871 (Old Style) in the family of a Tobolak native, state adviser M.M. Petukhov. She graduated from the Tobolsk girl’s school and, in 1893, married the official Ivan Konstantinovich Ussakovsky.

Ivan was also a great lover of photography – a hobby that was fashionable and modern in Russia at the time. On the basis of her husband’s home laboratory, as well as money received in a dowry from her father, Maria opened a photo salon, which quickly gained popularity among the townspeople. It should be noted that in 1897 in Tobolsk, with a population of 20 thousand people, there were no less than nine photo shops! 

Maria kept up with all the new developments in photography. She ordered expensive Bristol cardboard for passe-partout, used interchangeable backs with different scenes, offered costume shots, and even performed photo montages. This was incredible progress for Siberia at that time.

Photographs by Ussakovskaya were distinguished by their artistic taste and original composition. These were real photo portraits, which is especially significant, because photography at that time was essentially a step into eternity to become a memory for years to come.

Unlike other female owned photo salons, Ussakovskaya perfectly mastered the techniques of photography herself. Her photo salon also began to publish postcards, which were in great demand. It is known that the famous Russian chemist and inventor Dmitry Mendeleev (1834-1907), during his stay in Tobolsk in the summer of 1899, bought a collection of art postcards with views of his native city from Ussakovskaya’s salon.

Maria continued to work after the revolution, but the portraits of young ladies in silk dresses were replaced with photographing labor collectives, fur farms, bone carving masters and ordinary workers. At the same time, the house was formally confiscated by the local Soviet, leaving Maria to rent her own photo workshop from a local farm in Tobolsk. In 1929, Ussakovskaya was deprived of suffrage. The photo salon had to be closed. In 1938, the Ussakovskys left Tobolsk for Moscow for fear of reprisals. Maria Mikhailovna died in 1947 and is buried in the Don Cemetery.

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Photograph of Rasputin taken at Maria’s salon in Tobolsk

Witness of events

Maria was a witness to many historical events. Of particular interest in her biography are family traditions associated with the names of prominent people of that era and carefully preserved by subsequent generations of Ussakovsky. One of them is based on the visit by the famous strannik Grigori Rasputin.

The photograph of Grigory Rasputin made by Maria Ussakovskaya is today widely known. Moreover, the famous holy man, who was hunted by Russia’s finest photographers, presented himself at Maria’s salon. Maria’s great-grandson of Vadim Borisovich Khoziev, continues to tell the story of Rasputin’s visit to his great-grandmother’s salon in Tobolsk, as told to him by his grandmother Maria Ivanovna Ussakovskaya.

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One of Maria’s photos of the Governors House, where the Imperial Family lived under house arrest

Photographer of the Romanov family?

It is also of great interest,  that according to the Ussakovsky family, Maria repeatedly photographed the family of Tsar Nicholas II during their house arrest in the former Governor’s Mansion in Tobolsk. Sadly, however, in 1938, her daughter Nina, fearing arrest, destroyed all the photographic plates. One can only speculate, as to what these lost plates depicted? How close did Maria get to the Imperial Family? What were they doing when she photographed them? How many photographs did she take, and later destroyed? Sadly, we will never know.

Only photos of the faithful servants of the Imperial Family have been preserved to this day. The original of this photo is now in the collection of the Tsarskoye Selo State Museum in Pushkin, a copy of which can be seen in the Museum of the Family of Emperor Nicholas II (opened in June 2018) in Tobolsk. It is interesting to add that members of their suite who enjoyed freedom to go about Tobolsk, made purchases of  postcards with views of Tobolsk, on behalf of the Imperial Family from Maria’s salon.

The fact that the Imperial Family used the services of the Ussakovskaya Salon was documented. In the financial report of Colonel Kobylinsky, security chief of the Romanovs, in addition to a few mentions of invoices for purchasing postcards, information is also provided on the account “for correcting negatives”. So Maria’s photos of the Imperial Family did in fact exist!.

The Imperial Family described their stay in Tobolsk in great detail in both their respective diaries and letters, however, there is no mention of an invitation of Maria Ussakovskaya nor the photographer in general. A visit by a female photographer would hardly go unnoticed. It is also not clear why the Romanovs would need to invite a photographer: they, as well as the tutor to Tsesarevich Alexei Pierre Gilliard, had their own cameras. Many photographs of the Imperial Family have been preserved, taken in Tobolsk by the Romanovs themselves or by members of their retinue.

Pierre Gilliard notes in his diary on 17th September 1917 that the Imperial Family were forced to have “ID cards with numbers, equipped with photographs.” Empress Alexandra Feodorovna made a similar note in her diary on 30th September 1917. Their respective entries may explain the photographer from the Ussakovskaya Salon, who was most likely Maria’s husband Ivan Konstantinovich Ussakovsky, who was invited for this compulsory photography for certificates. An invoice was issued by the salon.

Several passes to the “Freedom House” with photographs have been preserved, for example, the passes with a photograph of Dr. E. S. Botkin and maid A. S. Demidova. Their copies are also on display in the Museum of the Family of Emperor Nicholas II in Tobolsk.

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Photograph of the Imperial Family’s faithful servants taken at Maria’s salon in Tobolsk

“Faithful servants”

A wonderful photograph depicting *five faithful servants of the Imperial Family has been preserved to this day. The original of this photo is now in the collection of the Tsarskoye Selo State Museum in Pushkin, a copy of which can be seen in the Museum of the Family of Emperor Nicholas II (opened in June 2018) in Tobolsk.

The faithful servants of the Imperial Family, who had not lodged in the Governor’s House, but in the Kornilov House, located on the opposite side of the street and, obviously, enjoyed greater freedom of movement, could visit the Ussakovskaya Salon, which was located nearby. The famous photograph, called “Faithful Servants”, was clearly taken in the salon. Five members of the imperial retinue pose against a backdrop with a view of Tobolsk, printed or painted on canvas, This background can be seen in other photos from the Ussakovskaya Photo Salon.

*NOTE: the photo above depicts – the gentlemen: Count Ilya Tatishchev, Pierre Gilliard, Prince Vasily Dolgorukov; the ladies, Catherine Schneider, Anastasia Hendrikova. With the exception of Pierre Gilliard, the other four faithful retainers of the Imperial Family were murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

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The home and salon of Maria Mikhailovna and Ivan Ussakovsky in Tobolsk

The home and salon of Maria Mikhailovna and Ivan Ussakovsky which was located at No. 19 Ulitsa Mira, was illegally demolished in 2006. Requests to local authorities by a group of local historians to restore the building has fallen on deaf ears in Tobolsk. 

© Paul Gilbert. 24 February 2020