Romanov archives of Charles Sydney Gibbes

It has been almost 50 years since the publication of The House of Special Purpose by John Courtenay Trewin was published in 1975 by the US publisher Stein & Day. It was also published the same year in the UK by Macmillan, but under a different title Tutor to the Tsarevich.

Trewin’s book is a collection of letters, journal entries, photographs and memorabilia diligently kept by the English tutor to the Russian Imperial Family – Charles Sydney Gibbes (1876-1963). Described as “An Intimate Portrait of The Last Days of the Russian Imperial Family compiled from the papers of their English Tutor” this carefully produced record is also an enchanting, touching glimpse into the private world of Emperor Nicholas II and his family.

Gibbes story really began on 9th June 1908, during a meeting of the Russian Imperial and British Royal families in Reval [today Tallinn, Estonia]. The historic meeting marked the first visit to Russia by a British monarch: King Edward VII. It was during this visit that the King remarked to Empress Alexandra Feodorovna that neither of her elder daughters possessed a very good English accent. This prompted the Empress to get an English tutor for the girls and shortly thereafter Charles Sydney Gibbes found himself, most unexpectedly, appointed English tutor to the Tsar’s children.

For ten years, from the autumn of 1908 until their deaths in July 1918, Charles Sydney Gibbes was a member of the household of Emperor Nicholas II and his family. During much of that period, Gibbes served as the English tutor to the Tsesarevich Alexei Nikolaevich, as well as teaching his sisters, the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia Nikolaevna..

PHOTO: John Courtenay Trewin —photograph published in The Illustrated London News (London, England) of Saturday 11th January 1958

Gibbes became an intimate friend of the family, first in the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo, and then during the family’s exile to Tobolsk from August 1917 to April 1918. He followed them to Ekaterinburg, where he was separated from them before they were brutally murdered by the Ural Soviet in the early morning hours of 17th July 1918. Their death and martyrdom would have a profound effect on him, he honoured their memory until the end of his life

During his years spent with the Imperial Family, Gibbes kept notes and diaries recording the Tsesarevich’s illness, the books which the children read and the plays which they acted during their time in exile. He collected a mass of souvenirs, exercise books, menus, letters, sketches, official permits and other documents, from all of which British journalist, writer and drama critic John Courtenay Trewin (1908-1990) has constructed a fascinating and highly personal narrative. This book was written from Gibbes’ surviving archives of letters, photos and other memorabilia relating to the last Imperial family of Russia which are now kept in Oxford.

Gibbes managed to preserve it all throughout his extraordinary subsequent career, first as an Inspector of the Chinese Maritime Customs at Harbin and latterly as a priest, and finally as an archimandrite, in the Russian Orthodox Church in Oxford, where he left his remarkable collection to his adopted son George Gibbes[1], who provided the material for this fascinating book.

Gibbe’s depositions form an important part of the official reports on the fate of the Imperial family, but none of the rest of this material has been published before, nor even been consulted by writers on the subject.

PHOTO: Charles Sydney Gibbes collection of Russian possessions were left with his adopted son, George, in Oxford. In this photo we see George Gibbs at this home surrounded by photos of the Imperial Family.

A year after the regicide, Gibbes found himself at the “House of Special Purpose” [Ipatiev House] where the tragedy took place, and he was at the Four Brothers where he assisted Nikolai Sokolov in his investigation into the deaths of the Emperor and his family. He witnessed the recovery of numerous items from the mine, which belonged to members of the Imperial Family, and assisted in getting them safely out of Russia in a sealed blue box[2].

In addition, the collection of precious Romanov artifacts that Gibbes brought back with him from Russia – including an icon from the Tsaritsa, a pair of Nicholas II’s felt boots, the Tsesarevich’s pencil case and exercise books belonging to his sisters Maria and Anastasia, and the beautiful Italian Murano glass chandelier of red and white lilies that he retrieved from the Grand Duchesses’ room of the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg were later on display at his chapel dedicated to St Nicholas the Wonderworker in Oxford.

Following his death in 1963, Gibbes’ collection of Russian possessions were left to his adopted son, George, in Oxford, and George subsequently donated them to the museum at Luton Hoo[3]. A small chapel was built there to house the collection, consecrated by Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh. The museum was later moved from Luton Hoo to the Wernher Collection in Greenwich. Sadly, the collection was sold and is now in the hands of a private collectior, including the Murano glass chandelier, which is now in the private collection of the Butters Family in England.

In 1986, George Gibbes, sold off two of the most important Romanov pieces in his father’s collection made by Fabergé: a pair of monogrammed cufflinks given to Gibbes by the tsar’s eldest daughter, Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna, and a miniature gold Easter egg pendant with a diamond in the A note, that belonged to Anastasia.  The latter was bought by film maker Steven Spielberg as a gift for his then wife, Amy Irving, when she finished filming at TV mini series in which she played the role of Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna.

PHOTO: in 2022, a blue plaque was unveiled in Rotherman, which incorrectly notes that Gibbes “identified remains of the Tsar’s family following their murder in 1918”. As Trewin records in his book, Gibbes took part in Sokolov’s investigation and helped identify relics belonging to the Imperial Family found at the Four Brothers Mine, near Ekaterinburg, in 1919

Charles Sydney Gibbes died at St Pancras Hospital, London, on 24th March 1963. His open coffin was displayed in the cellar (or crypt) of Saint Nicholas House in Oxford before his funeral. He is buried in Headington cemetery, Oxford, Oxfordshire, England.

A blue plaque, unveiled in 2022, marks Gibbes’ father John’s workplace at the former Sheffield and Rotherham bank, where he worked as the manager, from 1870 until around 1901. The plaque was organised by The Rotherham District Civic Society, and funded by the Rotherham Grammar School Old Boys Association, where Charles Sydney Gibbes was educated.

Bernard Fletcher, of the Rotherham Civic Society said that the process had taken about 18 months, and that he is “relived and glad” the plaque is up to commemorate the life of Mr Gibbes.

In his speech during the plaque unveiling, Tim Mumford, president of the Rotherham Grammar School Old Boys Association paid tribute to Gibbes: “He was born here, he went to Grammar School, we think in the late 1880s, and left there about 1895.


[1] In 1922, during his stay in Harbin, China, Charles Sydney Gibbes met a 16-year-old orphan, Georges Paveliev [born 16th June 1906], whom he adopted. In the early 1990s, I had the pleasure of corresponding with George Gibbs in whose letters he shared numerous anecdotes about his father. The regular exchange of letters came to a stop, and it was only after making enquiries that I learn of George’s death on 11th May 1993.

[2] During his investigation, Sokolov discovered a number of personal items at the Four Brothers Mine, which belonged to the Imperial Family, including a severed finger believed to be that of the Empress. Today, the box is stored in the Russian Orthodox Church of Saint Job in Uccle, Brussels.

[3] On a personal note, I am very grateful that I had an opportunity to visit Luton Hoo in the 1990s, and had an opportunity to see with my own eyes the Gibbes collection. I was delighted, yet again, to see the Murano glass chandelier on display at The Last Tsar: Blood and Revolution exhibition in September 208 at the Science Museum in London, England – PG.

© Paul Gilbert. 5 March 2023

The fate of the Kornilov House in Tobolsk

PHOTO: early 20th century view of the Governor’s House (left) where the Imperial Family were held under house arrest from August 1917 to April 1918, and the Kornilov House (right) where their servants and retainers were housed in Tobolsk

When Emperor Nicholas II and his family were sent into exile from Tsarskoye Selo on the morning of 14th August (O.S. 1st) 1917, they were not alone. They were accompanied by an enormous entourage of servants and retainers, all of whom followed the Imperial Family voluntarily into an unknown future.

The two trains[1] carrying the Imperial Family, their entourage of nearly 40 servants and retainers[2], plus trunks, suitcases and other personal belongings – all under the watchful eyes of Colonel Eugene Kobylinsky[3] and 330 soldiers – arrived four days later in Tyumen, where they boarded the steamer Rus, which transported them a further 200 miles northeast, a two day journey on the Tura and Tobol rivers arriving in the historic capital of Siberia: Tobolsk.

According to the diary of Nicholas II, after a delay of several days, the Imperial Family were moved into the former Governor’s Mansion[4] on 13th August (O.S.). The family occupied the second floor of the building, the first floor included a dining room and rooms for servants. According to Russian historian Peter Multatuli, the following servants also lived in the Governor’s Mansion: Terentiy Chemodurov, Anna Demidova, Alexandra Tegleva, Elizaveta Ersberg and Maria Tutelberg. Despite being the largest residence in Tobolsk, it was not large enough to house the Imperial Family’s entourage.

The former house of a merchant named Ivan Nikolaevich Kornilov, situated on the opposite side of the square, housed the remaining retainers of the Imperial Family, as well as some of the Guards. Each day the servants and retainers walked across the road to perform their services to the Imperial Family. No one was allowed to enter the Kornilov House without a special permit. 

Persons accompanying the Imperial Family – source: Russian historian Pyotr Multatuli:

1 – Adjutant General Count Ilya Tatishchev
2 – Marshal of the Imperial Court Prince Vasily Dolgorukov
3 – Lady in Waiting Countess Anastasia Hendrikova
4 – Court physician Dr. Evgeny Botkin
5 – French language tutor Pierre Gilliard
6 – Russian language tutor Catherine Schneider
7 – Tutor of Countess Hendrikova Victoria Nikolaeva
8 – Nursemaid Alexandra Tegleva
9 – Assistant to A. Tegleva Elizaveta Ersberg
10 – Kamer-Jungfer[5] Maria Tutelberg
11 – Lady in Waiting Anna Demidova
12 – Nicholas II’s valet Terentiy Chemodurov
13 – Chemodurov’s assistant Stepan Makarov
14 – Valet Alexei Volkov
15 – Footman of the Tsesarevich Sergey Ivanov
16 – Children’s footman Ivan Sednev
17 – Sailor-nanny of the Tsesarevich Klimenty Nagorny
18 – Valet Aloysius Troup
19 – Footman Tyutin
20 – Footman Dormidon
21 – Footman Kiselev
22 – Footman Ermolai Gusev
23 – Waiter Franz Zhuravsky
24 – Senior Cook Ivan Kharitonov
25 – Assistant cook Kokichev
26 – Assistant cook Ivan Vereshchagin
27 – Assistant cook Leonid Sednev
28 – Minister Mikhail Karpov
29 – Kitchen attendant Sergey Mikhailov
30 – Kitchen attendant Franz Purkovsky
31 – Kitchen attendant Terekhov
32 – Servant Smirnov
33 – Clerk Alexander Kirpichnikov
34 – Hairdresser Alexey Dmitriev
35 – Wardrobe Stupel
36 – Head of the Wine Cellar Rozhkov
37 – Servant of Countess Hendrikova Paulina Mezhants
38 – Servant of Catherine Schneider Ekaterina Zhivaya
39 – Servant of Catherine Schneider Maria

Later arrivals included source: Russian historian Pyotr Multatuli:

40 – English language tutor Charles Sydney Gibbs
41 – Doctor of Medicine Vladimir Derevenko
42 – Lady-in-waiting Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden
43 – Kamer-Jungfer[5] Magdalene Zanotti
44 – Room girl Anna Utkina
45 – Room girl Anna Romanova

Sophie Buxhoeveden: “Though I was allowed to stay at the Kornilov house with the other members of the Household for some weeks, I had ultimately to lodge in the town, though I could see the members of the suite every day; and while I lived in the Kornilov house, I was never once allowed to go out for a walk.”

On 26th (O.S. 13th) April 1918, Emperor Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna, Dr. Eugene Botkin were transferred from Tobolsk to Ekaterinburg. The following month, on 20th May, the four remaining children: Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana and Anastasia, along with Tsesarevich Alexei Nikolaevich joined their parents and sister in the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg.

The Imperial Family and four faithful retainers were held under house arrest in the Ipatiev House, where they were subsequently murdered by the Ural Soviet on the night of 16/17 July 1918.

PHOTO: main façade of the Kornilov House as it looks today

PHOTO: side view of the façade of the Kornilov House as it looks today

PHOTO: rear view of the façade and entrance to the courtyard of the Kornilov House as it looks today

Following the transfer of the Imperial Family to Ekaterinburg, the remaining servants and retainers in the Kornilov House were free to leave. Many of them returned to their homes or started new lives in Tobolsk or elsewhere. A number of them, however, wanted to make the journey to Ekaterinburg with the hope of reuniting with the Tsar and his family. Their captives warned them that any one who went with the four Romanov children to Ekaterinburg would remain at liberty, at worse, they would not even be permitted to live in the same house with the Imperial Family but tossed in the local jail.

Despite the warning, a few of them made the journey to the Ural capital, and, sure enough were imprisoned and later murdered by the Bolsheviks. Among them were Prince Vasily Dolgorukov, Ilya Tatishchev, Ekaterina Schneider, Anastasia Hendrikova, Klimenty Nagorny and Ivan Sednev. 

As foreign nationals, Pierre Giliard and Sydney Gibbes were both set free. So were a number of others with no explanation and amid rumours that they had abandoned the Imperial Family, sold a few secrets and begged for their lives.

Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden attributed her unexpected release by the Bolsheviks to her “foreign” surname – it was Danish by origin – however, the even more foreign name of “Catherine Schneider” did not prevent the poor woman from being shot.

During the Russian Civil War, the Kornilov House became the headquarters of Vasily Blyukher’s 51st Division. Later, the building housed the State Bank. In 1993, the Center for Russian Culture occupied the former mansion. In November 2010, the Kornilov House underwent an extensive restoration, and today houses the justices of the peace and the Museum of the History of the Judicial System of Western Siberia.

PHOTO: a portrait of Emperor Nicholas II today hangs in the History of the Judicial System of Western Siberia Museum, housed in the former Kornilov House


[1] The trains in which the Imperial Family and their entourage travelled were disguised for security purposes as a Red Cross Train and flew a Japanese flag. The train made regular stops which allowed the August prisoners to roam the woods in search of flowers and berries, always taking their two dogs with them. As the train approached stations and large towns, the curtains of their private wagon were always drawn shut.

The train were considered a “luxurious vehicle for transporting prisoners”. The first train carrying the Tsar and his family was a comfortable wagon-lits of the International Sleeping Car, and including a restaurant car stocked with wines from the Alexander Palace’s wine cellar.

[2] Some sources claim that 45 servants and retainers went into exile with the Imperial Family, however, this author could only identify 39 persons. If we include the 6 persons who later joined them after their arrival in Tobolsk, then this number is correct.

[3] Eugene Stepanovich Kobylinsky (1875-1927) was born into a noble family in Kiev. In 1909 he became a lieutenant in the St. Petersburg Imperial Guard regiment. After Nicholas II abdicated the throne in February 1917, Kobylinsky became an employee of the Provisional Government. On 14th March [O.S. 1st March] 1917, he was appointed commandant of the Alexander Palace, where the Tsar and his family were being held under house arrest at Tsarskoye Selo.

[4] The Governor’s Mansion was an extensive two-storey house built in the Empire Style facing Platzparadnaya Square. It was one of the first houses in Tobolsk to have electricity and fresh water supply installed. The last governor who lived in the house was Nikolai Alexandrovich Ordovsky (1863-1950), who held the post from November 1915 until the October 1917 Revolution. 

Not only was Ordovsky a devout Orthodox Christian, he was also a monarchist who was dedicated to Nicholas II. Following the Tsar’s abdication he refused to accept it nor the new Provisional Government. Upon leaving the city for Petrograd, he said to one of his escorts: “I will not go to any of the members of the Provisional Government, because I served the Emperor, I fulfilled his will. I will not serve any other government” 

In 1918 he was arrested and imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress. As a former officer, he was included in the “Officer’s List” of those to be executed. Despite his poor health, he managed to escape both the prison and Petrograd. How he managed his miraculous escape remains unclear.

At the end of 1918 he managed to emigrate to Europe. In 1923, in Germany, he was ordained a priest and received a parish in Hamburg; later, having disagreed on some issues with the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, he came under the jurisdiction of the Serbian Patriarchate. Already in Germany he was tonsured a monk with the name Nikon, then in Serbia he received the rank of hegumen and archimandrite. In 1945, he cared for Orthodox believers in displaced persons’ camps and was tonsured by Metropolitan Seraphim in the great schema with the name Nicodemus.

In 1948, while in Germany, he began to write voluminous memoirs about his life in pre-revolutionary Russia. Life in exile was full of wanderings, deprivations, loneliness. Nikolai Alexandrovich Ordovsky died in a hospital in Bavaria in 1950.

NOTE: The former Governor’s Mansion has survived to the present time and today houses the Museum of the Family of Emperor Nicholas II, which opened on 26th April 2018.

[5] In two cases – Nos. 10 and 43 – I have been unable to find the correct English translation of the positions of Kamer-Jungfer, therefore, I have left it in the original in italics.

© Paul Gilbert. 20 January 2023

The Imperial Family’s last Christmas in 1917

This article was written by Kate Baklitskaya, and published in the 7th January 2014 edition of The Siberian Times. I have taken the liberty of making some corrections and adjustments to her text – PG

NOTE: The Russian Orthodox Church observes Christmas Day on 7th January according to the Old Style Julian calendar, which is 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar used in the West.

During the winter of 1917-18 Emperor Nicholas II and his family were being held under house arrest in Tobolsk, in western Siberia, before being moved in the spring of 1918 to Yekaterinburg where they were murdered in July 1918. Their last Christmas – since they used the Julian calendar, took place on what most of the world now knows as 6 and 7 January 1918, but for them it was 24 and 25 December 1917 – was still full of joy and hopes for a better future, even though 1917 was the year when the Romanovs were toppled.

In exile the Emperor and his family continued to live as normal life as their situation would allow them, although they were forbidden to go into town or attend church, they were only allowed to leave the house to walk and play in the yard.

The Tsar was not afraid of simple manual work, spending his time chopping wood with his son Alexey following his example. The former Tsesarevich, then 13, took care of the poultry. 

The children continued their studies and the Emperor taught them a course of Russian history. Their mother Alexandra taught German to the children, perhaps surprisingly since World War One was still underway. As Christmas approached, the former Tsesarevich and his four sisters – the Grand Duchesses – were given a break. 

This is how Grand Duchess Olga described this period: ‘Everything is peaceful and quiet, thank God. We are all healthy and not losing hope. Today my sisters’ and brother’s vacation begun.  There is still not a lot of snow, the frost reaches -20C, and the sun shines almost all the time, it rises and sets bright and beautiful. …It’s so nice to go for walks. Mama works all day or draws and paints, keeps herself busy all the time and the time flies quickly.’

Their hope at the time was to be allowed to go into exile abroad to Britain, but this plan was vetoed in London amid fears their presence would stoke revolutionary sentiments. Ekaterina Schneider, their Russian language teacher, described Christmas Eve in her letters: ‘In the evening today we will go for overnight prayer… After we came home and had breakfast. There I was decorating a Christmas tree with candles – there were no other decorations, so tonight a small Christmas tree will be lit’. 

‘The trees here have a completely different smell, the tree smells of oranges …  Now it’s 4pm, I’ll go into the yard to help to make a snow mountain – tonight there was a lot of snow . It’s -7C degrees. By local standards it’s hot’.

The Empress started preparations for Christmas well in advance. Despite their difficult financial situation she still managed to prepare presents for all the family members, friends and retainers. Most of these presents were handmade.

Alexandra described their Siberian Christmas in her diary: ‘December 24. Sunday. Tobolsk. Christmas Eve. Preparing gifts. Breakfast downstairs. Decorated Christmas tree, laid out the gifts. Tea. Then I went to the guards from the 4th Infantry Regiment, all together 20 people’.

‘I brought them a small Christmas tree and some food, and a Bible each with a bookmark that I hand painted. Sat there with them. 7.30 pm. Had  dinner downstairs with everyone. 9pm Christmas celebration for our servants – for all our people.

‘9.30 pm. Evening service at the church: a large choir sang. The soldiers came as well.’

The Empress did her best to support her family in the difficult times and bring the Christmas spirit into the family celebration. Perhaps thanks to her effort Romanov family enjoyed their last Christmas.

In a letter to her lady in waiting Sophia Karlovna Buxhoeveden, the Empress wrote that love, hope and patience were her guides through these difficult times.

‘I gently kiss you and wish you all the best. May God send you health and peace of mind, which is the greatest gift. We should pray to God for patience, because it is so important for us in this world of suffering (and the greatest madness), for comfort, strength and happiness.

‘Perhaps the word ‘joyful Christmas’ sounds like a joke now, but after all this joy of the birth of our Lord. …. He will manifest His mercy when the time comes, and before that we have to wait patiently. We cannot change what is happening – we can only believe, believe and pray and never lose love for Him.’

© The Siberian Times. 6 January 2023

Exhibits from the Museum of the Family of Emperor Nicholas II in Tobolsk

PHOTO: recreation of the dining room in the former Governors Mansion, Tobolsk

Between August 1917 and April 1918 Emperor Nicholas II and his family were held under house arrest in the the former governor’s mansion [renamed “House of Freedom” by the Bolsheviks] in Tobolsk, Siberia.

In the beginning, the Imperial family were allowed to walk to the nearby Church of the Annunciation for worship, however, this was halted due to “concerns for their safety”. Despite this, the security regime in Tobolsk was more relaxed than in Tsarskoye Selo, allowing the family to lead a fairly calm life.

On 26th April 2018, the Museum of the Family of Emperor Nicholas II opened in the former Governor’s Mansion, following an extensive restoration. The museum is the first museum in Russia, dedicated entirely to Emperor Nicholas II and his family. Many original elements from the time that the Imperial Family lived here have been preserved. The interiors have been partially restored, each room featuring unique exhibits from their daily life. The chapel, which was set up in the ballroom of the mansion was also recreated, and consists of a folding iconostasis and an altar.

In addition, the museum features many unique personal items belonging to the Imperial family: Imperial porcelain, napkins with monograms, silver appliances, etc. One of the most precious exhibits is Empress Alexandra Feodorovna’s silk shawl. The Empress gave the shawl to the wife of the doctor in gratitude, who had treated the Tsesarevich Alexei.

Below, is a selection of five exhibits from the Museum of the Family of Emperor Nicholas II in Tobolsk:

Balalaika of Tsesarevich Alexei Nikolaevich [updated on 22 June 2022]

Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, a German by birth, enjoyed the sound of a three-stringed balalaika. She first heard the tunes of the Cossack-balalaika players when she first arrived in Russia. Initially, Alexandra Feodorovna wanted her daughters to take up playing a folk instrument, but in the end, it was her son Tsesarevich Alexei Nikolaevich who became interested in the instrument. Judging by a photograph [seen below] taken on the Imperial yacht Standart in 1907, Alexei had already picked up the balalaika at the age of three.

When the Tsesarevich grew up, he was appointed a music tutor, Alexander Alekseevich Resin (1857-1933). But Resin was dedicated to commanding the tsarist guard, so instead Alexei was offered a replacement – the Court adviser Alexander Nikolaevich Zarubin.

Zarubin played in an amateur orchestra of Russian folk instruments, which became the first such group in Russia. Zarubin conducted 12 balalaika lessons with Alexei Nikolaevich. For these lessons, the Tsesarevich bought one professional instrument for himself and presented two more to his fellow cadets – Vasily Ageev and Evgeny Makarov.

Alexei’s balalaika was made by the famous craftsman Semyon Ivanovich Nalimov (1857-1916), who from 1895 to 1917, produced more than 300 models of musical instruments. The soundboard of the instrument was decorated with inlay – a small stylized image of a house, which is assembled from separate pieces of wood of different shades. The body of the balalaika was carefully polished and varnished.

PHOTO: Tsesarevich Alexei Nikolaevich with his balalaika, 1907

Empress Alexandra Feodorovna encouraged her son’s passion. From 1917, she included mandatory balalaika lessons in his schedule of classes, which were supposed to take place twice a week. Sadly, however, these lessons never began: after the February Revolution of 1917, Nicholas II abdicated the throne, and in August of that year, the Imperial family were sent into exile to Tobolsk.

Alexei Nikolaevich took the instrument with him to Tobolsk, although there was no one to teach him in Siberia. In April 1918, when the Imperial family were transferred to Ekaterinburg, Alexei still held on to his passion for the balalaika.

Following their murders in July 1918, and the liberation of Ekaterinburg by the White Army, among the items found in the Ipatiev House, were two musical instruments, including a three-stringed balalaika. In addition, was a book Правила игры на балалайке [Rules of Playing the Balalaika], embossed with a crown and Alexei’s monogram on the cover.

Alexei’s balalaika was transferred to the collection of the Tobolsk Historical and Architectural Museum, where it remained until 2018, when the well-known St. Petersburg collector Valery Bruntsev transferred the instrument to the collection of the Museum of the Family of Emperor Nicholas II.

“Travels in the East of Nicholas II, Emperor of Russia When Tsesarevich” by Esper Ukhtomsky

On 5th November (O.S. 23rd October) 1890, Tsesarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich (future Emperor Nicholas II) embarked on a seven-month journey around the greater part of the Eurasian continent.

The total length of the journey exceeded 51,000 kilometres, including 15,000 km of railway and 22,000 km of sea routes, aboard the cruiser Pamyat Azov. The Tsesearvich’s journey took him to Greece, Egypt, India, Ceylon, Siam, Singapore, French Indochina, China, and Japan.

Nicholas Alexandrovich was accompanied on the journey by a close confidant Prince Esper Esperovich Ukhtomsky (1861-1921), a diplomat, publisher and Oriental enthusiast. He later published an account of this expedition: Travels in the East of Nicholas II, Emperor of Russia When Tsesarevich. Illustrations for the publication were made by the Russian artist Nicholas Nikolaevich Karazin (1842-1908).

The book was written in close consultation with Nicholas II, who personally approved each chapter. It took six years to complete, and was published in three volumes between 1893 and 1897 by Brockhaus, in Leipzig. Despite being expensive at 35 roubles, it still ran to four editions. Empress Alexandra Feodorovna bought several thousand copies for various government ministries and departments, and a cheaper edition was subsequently printed. The work was translated into English, French, German and Chinese, with a copy being presented to the Chinese Emperor and Empress in 1899 by the Russian envoy

Manila shawl of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna

This white natural silk shawl belonged to Empress Alexandra Fedorovna. The Empress’s wardrobe included several Manila shawls, which were popular in the early 20th century.

The name of the product was derived from the capital of the Philippines [a former Spanish colony] – Manila. In the 16th century, Spanish galleons arrived in the harbour, their holds full of china, precious stones, spices and fabrics including silk capes, from China. The shawls eventually found their way to Spain where they became a popular commodity. By the 18th century, they were already an important accessory of Spanish fashionistas and over time acquired the status of a luxury accessory. Not only were Manila shawls worn thrown over the shoulders: they were also used to decorate sofas, pianos and even walls. They became an important accessory for flamenco dancers.

The first silk shawls were decorated with hand-made embroidery with traditional Chinese motifs: dragons, bamboo, pagodas. Later, they were replaced by flowers and birds more familiar to Europeans, and brushes with special weaving appeared along the edges. The most common colours for Manila shawls were black, white, ivory and shades of red.

Perfume Coty of the Grand Duchess Tatiana Nikolaevna

In 1904, the French perfumer François Coty (1874-1934), created a perfume brand under his own name. The design of the bottle for his first fragrance was developed by the French company “Baccarat”. At first, few people were interested in the perfumes of an unknown perfumer, but once Francois Coty broke a bottle with them in a Parisian store, his luck changed. The scent filled the room and immediately attracted buyers. A few weeks later, Coty’s perfume was already on sale in department stores, boutiques and hairdressers throughout Paris.

François Coty became one of the most popular perfumers of the time. Before him, perfume was a luxury item available only to wealthy people. Coty created a line of fragrances in which the cost depended on the size and type of bottle. He said, “Give a woman the best product you can create, wrap it in simple but elegant packaging, set a reasonable price, and you have a business of a scale the world has never seen.”

The collection of the Museum of the Family of Emperor Nicholas II contains a glass bottle of perfume “Corsican Jasmine”, which was used by Grand Duchess Tatiana Nikolaevna. This fragrance was created by François Coty in 1906 and named after his homeland – the island of Corsica. The scent of “Corsican Jasmine” was also loved by the famous Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941).

Nicholas II and Chess

Emperor Nicholas II had many interests and hobbies. He traveled around Russia by train, sailed with his family on the Imperial Yacht Standart, cycled, rowed, hiked and played tennis. The monarch was also fond of hunting, cinematography and photography, he loved to drive a car and patronized the Imperial Russian Automobile Society.

Nicholas II did much to popularize chess in Russia. For example, the big tournament in memory of the famous Russian chess player Mikhail Chigorin (1850-1908) in 1909, was partially financed by the Emperor, who donated a thousand rubles. The Emperor personally attended the tournament and awarded the finalists with the title of grandmaster, the winners received vases made by the prestigious Imperial Porcelain Factory.

In 1914, the Emperor supported the creation of the All-Russian Chess Union. With his approval, chess tournaments, international congresses and chess competitions were held in Russia.

While in exile in Tobolsk, the Emperor spent his days usually engaged in physical activities, such as sawing wood, working in the garden, or shovelling snow in the winter. In the evenings, members of the Imperial Family whiled away the time books, embroidery and playing chess.

The chess set in the collection of the Museum of the Family of Emperor Nicholas II was made at the Kasli plant in the first half of the 19th century. Kasli casting was highly valued not only in Russia, but also in Europe, for its excellent quality and attention to detail.


Click on the IMAGE below to watch a VIDEO tour [in Russian] of the the Museum of the Family of Emperor Nicholas II in Tobolsk, which includes the interiors and many exhibits. Duration: 19 minutes, 32 seconds

© Paul Gilbert. 22 June 2022

The Romanov Restaurant in Tobolsk

PHOTO: entrance to the Romanov Restaurant, Hotel Slavyanskaya, Tobolsk

With the recent opening of the new airport in Tobolsk in September 2021, the popular although remote Siberian city is expecting to attract more visitors.

Founded in 1590, Tobolsk is the second-oldest Russian settlement east of the Ural Mountains in Asian Russia, and is a historic capital of the Siberia region. Tobolsk is rich in history. Aside from the beautiful Kremlin, numerous museums and other historic sights, the Museum of the Family of Emperor Nicholas II, which opened in 2018, has become a popular venue for visitors.

For any one pursuing their interest in the last Tsar and his family, the Hotel Slavyanskaya is the perfect place to stay. Opened in June 1994, the Hotel Slavyanskaya was the first European-level hotel in the region, located in the city center. It offers 177 rooms equipped with Italian handmade furniture in the style of Louis XV.

PHOTO: elegant interior of the Romanov Restaurant, Hotel Slavyanskaya, Tobolsk

The Romanov Restaurant is located on the sixth floor of the Slavyanskaya. As you exit the lift, where guests are greeted by a large equestrian portrait of Emperor Nicholas II, and elegant heraldic symbols thus creating a regal atmosphere.

PHOTO: equestrian portrait of Emperor Nicholas II, outside the entrance to the restaurant

The interior is on two-levels, a grand staircase leading to the upper tier, the railings are covered with gold leaf. The decor of the hall is designed in light golden-beige tones with attributes of a royal theme. The walls are covered with panels draped in noble fabrics. And the exquisite design of the curtains on the windows give the hall the looks of a grand palace. The interior is complemented by Corinthian columns, cornices with gilded brackets.

The stylized monogram of Nicholas II is present in many elements of decor, dishes, serving utensils, napkins, tablecloths, etc. The restaurant is also decorated with a large mirror in a carved gilded frame, and a restored ivory grand piano made by the world famous F. Muhlbach firm.

PHOTO: portrait of Nicholas II and his family by Ekaterina Masyutina

The most striking element of the Romanov Restaurant is the oval-shaped plafond with a group portrait of Emperor Nicholas II and his family, created by the Russian artist Ekaterina Masyutina.

PHOTOS: Artist Ekaterina Masyutina working on her portrait of the Imperial Family

PHOTO: detail of Emperor Nicholas II and his family

PHOTO: portrait of Emperor Nicholas II and his family, created by the Russian artist Ekaterina Masyutina, Romanov Restaurant, Hotel Slavyanskaya, Tobolsk

© Paul Gilbert. 1 January 2022

Visiting Tobolsk just got easier!

PHOTO: aerial view of the Tobolsk Kremlin

If you have a desire to visit the Museum of the Family of Emperor Nicholas II in Tobolsk, and are planning a future journey to Russia, please note that Tobolsk is now easier to reach, than ever before!

On 24th September 2021, Rеmezov Airport in Tobolsk, received its first passenger flight. The new airport, located about 10 km south of Tobolsk, will now make it so much easier for foreigners to visit this beautiful city, one which has a strong connection with the final days of Russia’s last Imperial Family.

Between August 1917 and April 1918, it was here, that Emperor Nicholas II and his family were held here under house arrest in the former governor’s mansion [renamed “House of Freedom” by the Bolsheviks]. From Tobolsk, they were sent to Ekaterinburg and subsequently murdered on 17th July 1918.

PHOTO: Museum of the Family of Emperor Nicholas II in Tobolsk

Today, the former Governor’s House is home to the Museum of the Family of Emperor Nicholas II, opened on 26th April 2018. This museum is the main draw for those who have an interest in the Imperial Family.

Tobolsk is expected to become a key tourist hotspot in Siberia. Aside from Romanov museum, the city is rich in history, including the Tobolsk Kremlin, Sophia-Uspensky Cathedral (1686) – the first stone church built in Siberia, the Tobolsk Prison Castle as well as well as Tsarist architecture dating from the late 19th to early 20th centuries. In addition, are restaurants offering original Siberian cuisine.

For years, visitors to Russia have often been put off by the accessibility of Tobolsk. The new airport, now allows travellers wishing to visit ‘Siberia’s original capital’ will be able to reach the city directly, rather than having to fly to Tyumen and take a four-hour road or railway journey to Tobolsk, as they did in the past. In addition, visitors from Europe and the United States, will no longer be forced to take a train from Ekaterinburg – a full day or overnight journey!

PHOTO: Rеmezov Airport is 10 minutes from the center of Tobolsk

Regular scheduled flights will offer direct flights to/from Moscow by Pobeda airline (part of Aeroflot Group) with plans to operate *four flights per week, on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The flights will originate at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport.

In addition, the airport will offer *two flights per week to Ekaterinburg by Red Wings airline. Additional planned routes include *twice-weekly flights to Novosibirsk by S7 airlines, and *four flights per week to Saint Petersburg by Aeroflot.

*Frequency of flights is subject to change

Rеmezov Airport is capable of receiving and servicing SSJ-100, Boeing-737 and Airbus A320/321 jets.

© Paul Gilbert. 16 December 2021

The church where Nicholas II and his family worshiped in Tobolsk


PHOTO: Church of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin, Tobolsk. 1910

During their eight month stay in Tobolsk [August 1917-April 1918], Nicholas II and his family were held under house arrest in the former Governor’s Mansion [renamed the “House of Freedom” by the Bolsheviks]. Their movements were restricted, as they had been at Tsarskoye Selo from March 1917 to the end of July 1917. Several weeks after their arrival in Tobolsk, they were permitted to worship in the nearby Church of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin up until January 1918, after which services were restricted to the confines of the “House of Freedom”.

The brick church was built between 1735-1758. A two-story quadrangle, completed with an octagon, on which five decorative domes were placed, with a two-aisled refectory and a three-tiered bell tower. The refectory included the chapels of Procopius and Ioann of Ustyug and the Great Martyr Catherine.

Pierre Gilliard recalls: “Finally, on September 21st, the festival of the Nativity of the Virgin, the prisoners were allowed for the first time to go to the church. This pleased them greatly, but the consolation was only to be repeated very rarely. On these occasions we rose very early and, when everyone had collected in the yard, went out through a little gate leading on to the public garden; which we crossed between two lines of soldiers. We always attended the first Mass of the morning, and were almost alone in the church, which was dimly lighted by a few candles; the public was rigorously excluded. While going and returning I have often seen people cross themselves or fall on their knees as Their Majesties passed. On the whole, the inhabitants of Tobolsk were still very attached to the Imperial family, and our guards had repeatedly to intervene to prevent them standing under the windows or removing their hats and crossing themselves as they passed the house.”

Empress Alexandra Feodorovna wrote in her diary: “During the services, officers, the commandant and the commissar stand beside us so that we do not dare to speak”.

On 8th September 1917, the Empress wrote in her diary: “We went to the service in the Cathedral of the Annunciation on foot, I was in my [wheel]chair, through the city garden, the soldiers were stationed all the way, the crowd stood where we had to cross the street. It is very unpleasant, but, nevertheless, I am grateful for being in a real church for [for the first time] in 6 months ”.

PHOTO: View of Tobolsk and the Church of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin

Commissar Vasily Pankratov described this event as follows: “Nicholas Alexandrovich was informed that tomorrow a Liturgy would be performed in the church, and that it was necessary to be ready by 8 o’clock in the morning. The prisoners were so pleased with this news that they got up very early and were ready by 7 o’clock. When I arrived at 7:30, they were already waiting. About 20 minutes later, the duty officer informed me that everything was ready. It turned out that Alexandra Feodorovna decided not to walk, but to ride in a chair, as her legs hurt. Her personal valet quickly wheeled the chair out to the porch. The whole family went out, accompanied by their retinue and servants, and we proceeded to the church. Nicholas II and his children, walking in the garden, looked around in all directions and talked in French about the weather, about the garden, as if they had never seen it. In fact, this garden was located just opposite their balcony, from where they could observe it every day. But it is one thing to see an object from a distance and, as it were, from behind a lattice, and another to walk through it freely. Every tree, every twig, bush, bench acquires charm … From the expressions on their faces, from their movements, one could assume that they were experiencing some special euphoria. As she was walking through the garden and not watching where she was going, Anastasia even fell. Her sisters laughed, even Nicholas himself was amused with this awkwardness of his daughter. Alexandra Feodorovna’s face remained motionless. She sat majestically in her chair and was silent. On leaving the garden, she got up from the chair, from where we crossed the street to enter the church. Outside stood a double line of soldiers, [a chain of riflemen was also placed in the garden along the entire route] and behind them stood curious onlookers. Upon entering the church, Nicholas and his family took their place on the right, their retinue closer to the middle. Alexandra Feodorovna knelt down, Nicholas and the four grand duchesses followed her example. After the service, the whole family received a prosphora [a small loaf of leavened bread used in Orthodox liturgies], which for some reason they always passed to their servants”.

The prisoners were allowed to visit the church again – on 14th September, the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. On 18th September, Grand Duchess Tatiana Nikolaevna wrote to her aunt Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna: “We were twice in church. You can imagine what a joy it was for us after 6 months, because do you remember how uncomfortable our camp church in Tsarskoye Selo was? The church here is good. One large summer room in the middle, where they serve for the parish, and two winter ones on the sides [referring to the side-chapels]. The right side-chapel is reserved for us”.

The family managed to visit the church for a third time on 1st October – on the feast of the Protection of the Most Holy Theotokos. Then again on 22nd October, the day marking the anniversary of the accession of Nicholas II to the throne and the feast of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God. The entire family received communion on this day of the Holy Mysteries of Christ. “What a spiritual consolation in the time we are going through!” – the Emperor wrote in his diary that day. In addition, the Imperial family were allowed to attend church on 26th November, 3rd and 10th December, and 19th January.

Pierre Gilliard again writes: “The next day, Christmas Day, we went to church. By the orders of the priest the deacon [Fr Vasiliev] intoned the Mnogoletie [the prayer for the long life of the Imperial family] This was an imprudence which was bound to bring reprisals. The soldiers, with threats of death, demanded that the prayer should be revoked. This incident marred the pleasant memories which this day should have left in our minds. It also brought us fresh annoyances and the supervision became still stricter.”

Following the incident involving Fr Vasiliev, the Imperial family were no longer permitted to attend church. Instead, an improvised chapel was set up in the ballroom of the mansion, which consisted of a folding iconostasis and an altar, decorated with the Empress’s bed-spread, which served as an altar cloth. The local priest was invited to perform services for the Imperial family and their retinue up until April 1918, when they were transferred to the Ipatiev House [renamed the “House of Special Purpose”] in  Ekaterinburg, where they were subsequently murdered by members of the Ural Soviet on 17th July.

The Church of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin was closed by the Soviets in 1930, the building demolished in 1956 – the same year that the author of this article was born.

© Paul Gilbert. 8 January 2021


Dear Reader

If you find my articles, news stories and translations 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 PayPal or credit card. Thank you for your consideration – PG

Video tour of the Museum of the Family of Emperor Nicholas II in Tobolsk

CLICK on the IMAGE above to watch VIDEO (in Russian ONLY). Duration: 13 minutes

The Tobolsk Historical and Architectural Museum-Reserve have created a 13-minute video tour of the Museum of the Family of Emperor Nicholas II.

NOTE: this video is in Russian only, there is no English version. If you do not speak Russian, please do not allow this to deter you from watching this video. For those of you who will never have an opportunity to visit Tobolsk, this video is the next best thing, as it affords a virtual tour of the interiors of this very important museum, one which reflects the final years of Nicholas II and his family – PG

This virtual tour of the museum is presented in Russian by historian and writer Peter Valentinovich Multatuli, who was born in Leningrad on 17 November 1969. Multatuli is considered by many as Russia’s leading authority on the life and reign of Emperor Nicholas II.

He is the great-grandson of Ivan Mikhailovich Kharitonov (1872-1918), who served as the Head Cook of the Imperial family. He followed the tsar and his family into exile, and was murdered along with them in the Ipatiev House on 17th July 1918.

Multatuli takes viewers on a virtual tour of the former Governor’s House in Tobolsk, where Nicholas II, his family and entourage of those who followed the Imperial family into exile lived under house arrest from August 1917 to April 1918. Each room features unique exhibits from their daily life complemented with Multatuli’s vast knowledge of Russia last emperor and tsar.

NOTE: the large white circle located in the upper left hand corner of the video has 4 arrows, which allow you to move the camera to view the entire room and their respective displays – PG

The Museum of the Family of Emperor Nicholas II opened on 26th April 2018, in the former Governor’s Mansion in Tobolsk

PHOTO: Peter Multatuli in the Museum of the Family of Emperor Nicholas II, Tobolsk


Emperor Nicholas II and his family arrived in Tobolsk on 19th August (O.S. 6th August) 1917.

Upon arrival the Imperial family had to live for several days on the steamer Rus, waiting for the renovation of the “House of Freedom” – the former governor’s mansion – to be completed. They moved into the house on 24th August (O.S. 11th August).

Within a few days of their moving in, part of the square in front of the house was fenced off with a tall wooden fence, allowing for the family to take in fresh air and exercise. Some of the guards and those who accompanied the Imperial family into exile from Tsarskoye Selo were settled in the Kornilov house on the opposite side of the street.

In the beginning, the Imperial family were allowed to walk to the nearby Church of the Annunciation for worship, however, this was halted due to “concerns for their safety”. Despite this, the security regime in Tobolsk was more relaxed than in Tsarskoye Selo, allowing the family to lead a fairly calm life.

The Imperial family were housed in the former governor’s house until April, 1918, when they were transferred to Ekaterinburg, and subsequently murdered by the Ural Soviet on 17th July 1918.

© Paul Gilbert. 11 November 2020

Russia, here I come . . . again!


The Church on the Blood, Ekaterinburg

I am very pleased to announce that I will be returning to Russia in September, where I will spend 10 days in Ekaterinburg and Tobolsk.

I have booked my flights on Aeroflot from Toronto-New York (JFK)-Moscow-Ekaterinburg, 19th – 29th September. This journey marks my 30th visit to Russia since 1986, my 4th visit to Ekaterinburg since 2012, and my 1st visit to Tobolsk!

The purpose of this journey is to complete research on my forthcoming book My Russia. Ekaterinburg. I began researching and writing this book in 2018, with plans to publish it prior to the centenary of the deaths of Nicholas II and his family. Instead, I delayed the publication, due to the fact that I attended the Tsars Days events held in Ekaterinburg in July 2018. In hindsight, I am happy that I made the decision to delay the books publication, as I was able to collect a lot of additional material for the book, as well as hundreds of photographs, many of which will be featured in my book.

I will spend 5 days in Ekaterinburg, revisiting the many places associated with the last days of the Imperial Family, including the Church on the Blood, the Novo-Tikhvin Convent, Ganina Yama, Porosenkov Log, as well as three museums dedicated to the Holy Royal Martyrs: Museum of the Holy Royal Family (Patriarchal Compound), Romanov Memorial Hall (Museum of History and Archaeology in the Urals); and Museum and Exhibition Center (Ganina Yama).

Once a bastion of Bolshevism, Ekaterinburg has slowly shed its status as the “capital of atheism”. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Urals has experienced a revival of faith, with Ekaterinburg at the into the center of Orthodox Russia in the Urals. Ekaterinburg has done more to honour Nicholas II and his family than any other city in Russia.

Thanks to my previous visits to Ekaterinburg in 2012, 2016 and 2018, it is a city which I have grown to admire and love.


The Museum of the Family of Emperor Nicholas II, Tobolsk

From there, I will travel by train to Tobolsk – a 10-hour journey – and spend 3 days exploring this beautiful historic city and former capital of Siberia. The city is known for its 18th-century snow-white coloured Kremlin, Orthodox churches and many buildings dating from the Tsarist period, which have thankfully been preserved to this day.

My primary interest will, of course, be the former Governors Mansion, where the Imperial Family lived under house arrest from August 1917 to April 1918. Following the October Revolution, it was renamed the ‘House of Freedom’.

Today, the former Governors Mansion houses the Museum of the Family of Emperor Nicholas II. The museum was opened in 2018, the year marking the 100th anniversary of the deaths of the Imperial family. 

Thirteen rooms have been recreated in the building, many of which have preserved many historic elements and details from the time of the Imperial Family’s stay here. The museum features more than 900 artefacts, including memorial and personal items related to Nicholas II and his family.

Not only am I looking forward to meeting up with old friends and making new acquaintances in my favourite Russian city Ekaterinburg, I am also very much looking forward to exploring Tobolsk for the very first time. An added bonus to this journey, will be the opportunity to see the Urals decked out in the beautiful colours of autumn.

Upon my return from Russia, I will publish a summary of my visit in an issue of Sovereign, and put the finishing touches on my book My Russia. Ekaterinburg, adding additional text and photographs.


My Russia. Ekaterinburg – front and back covers

The present draft of My Russia. Ekaterinburg, already contains an Introduction, plus illustrated chapters on the Churches of Ekaterinburg; a History of the Ipatiev House; the Church on the Blood; the Patriarchal Compound and the Museum of the Holy Royal Family; the Novo-Tikhvin Convent; the Romanov Memorial Hall in the Museum of History and Archaeology in the Urals; Tsar’s Days; Ganina Yama, the Monastery of the Holy Royal Martyrs and the Museum and Exhibition Center; Porosenkov Log; Alapaevsk; Tyumen; Tobolsk and the Museum of the Family of Emperor Nicholas II; helpful Visitor Information and much more.

With 250 pages, and richly illustrated with 300 black and white photos – many taken by me during my visits to the Urals – My Russia. Ekaterinburg  will be my largest publishing project to date. God willing, my book will be available before Christmas.

© Paul Gilbert. 26 February 2020

The woman who photographed the Imperial Family in Tobolsk


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.


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.


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.


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.


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