St Catherine’s Chapel: the final resting place of Nicholas II and his family

PHOTO: view of St. Catherine’s Chapel, the final resting place for Emperor Nicholas II and his family

The 18th century Chapel of the Holy Great Martyr Catherine (aka St. Catherine’s Chapel or Catherine Chapel) is situated in the southwestern part of the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg. On 17th July 1998, it became the final burial place for Emperor Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, three of their five children and four faithful retainers.

PHOTO: the iconostasis of St. Catherine’s Chapel in 1890


The Chapel of the Holy Great Martyr Catherine was arranged in the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral at the end of the 18th century. During the restoration of the cathedral after the fire of 1756, an additional wall was erected inside the church hall, separating a small space in its western part. As a result, two new rooms were formed to the right and left of the main entrance. An iconostasis was installed, and on 24th November 1779, the altar was consecrated, in honour of the Holy Great Martyr Catherine – the patron saint of Empress Catherine II (1729-1796).

The chapel has a length of 8.1 meters (27 ft.), and a width of 6.3 meters (21 ft.), with one window and two doors facing directly into the cathedral. It was here in St. Catherine Chapel, that officials of the St. Petersburg Mint were sworn in. During Great Lent soldiers and officers of the garrison of the Peter and Paul Fortress and their families went for confession and took communion. On several occasions, funeral services were held here for the deceased minor grand-ducal children. The chapel operated as a church until the closure of the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral by the Bolsheviks in 1919.

PHOTO: the eastern entrance to St. Catherine’s Chapel in 1890

The first burial in the chapel was that of Tsarina Marfa Matveevna (1664-1716), the widow of Tsar Feodor III Alekseevich (1661-1682). The funeral took place on 7th January 1716 in the presence of Tsar Peter I, the royal family, and members of the clergy. During the ceremony of transferring the body, a platform on the ice of the Neva was used for the first time. Since the funeral procession took place in the evening, torchbearers were placed on both sides of the path, adding solemnity to the mourning procession. A completely new element of the mourning ritual was the prohibition of mourners and ritual weeping, which had previously been an indispensable element in Russian funerary culture.

The burial of Marfa Matveevna was one of the first to be held in Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral. Her tomb is located at the western wall under the bell tower in the south-western part of the current St. Catherine Chapel. In 1732 the tombstone over her grave was removed and the grave was partially closed, to make room for the foundations of the furnaces which heated the Catherine Chapel.

In the 1860s a copper plaque with an epitaph was installed on the western wall above the grave, and restored in 1908. During the opening of the floor in the St. Catherine’s Chapel during the restoration in 1993, the crypt of Marfa Matveevna was discovered and examined by scientists, who confirmed that her grave had remained untouched.

PHOTO: the Head of the Russian Imperial House Prince Nicholas Romanovich (1922-2014) throws a handful of earth into the grave

Burial of the remains of Emperor Nicholas II and his family

On 17th July 1998, the remains, according to the conclusion of the state commission, belonging to Emperor Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana and Anastasia Nikolaevna were buried in St. Catherine’s Chapel. Together with them were buried the family-physician Dr. Eugene. Botkin, the footman Alouis Troup, the cook I. M. Kharitonov, and the maid Anna Demidova. These remains were not recognized by the Moscow Patriarchate.

  • Please refer to the ‘Exhumation of the remains’ section below for information on the remains of Tsesarevich Alexei Nikolaevich and Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna

Before the burial, a complete reconstruction of the chapel was carried out. In 1997, specialists from the Restorer and Olko firms carried out the work, which included painting the walls and plafond of the chapel. A two-tiered crypt (depth 1 m 66 cm, length 2 m 70 cm, width 1 m 70 cm) was built near the only window in the southern part of the chapel. The seal-tight crypt was waterproofed, thus providing ideal conditions for the preservation of the remains.

On the lower tier are the coffins of the family’s four faithful retainers, and on the upper tier are the coffins of the Emperor, Empress and their three daughters. An openwork lattice divides the crypt into two parts. The coffins were made of Caucasian oak, their surface is covered with a wax-turpentine mixture. Inside, the coffins are upholstered with copper sheet, and on top – a cover of white velour on silk white cords. On the lid of the coffin of Emperor Nicholas II there is a cypress cross (grown in the garden of the Livadia Palace in Crimea) and a model of a sword based on a 1909 model. The rest of the coffins of members of the Imperial Family have lids decorated with bronze, gilded, crosses. The coffins of the servants are decorated with silver-plated eight-point Orthodox crosses. As the valet Aloysius Trupp was a Catholic, a four-point cross decorates his coffin. The side decoration of the coffins consisted of: a brass board engraved (on which the names, title, place of birth and place of death (according to the Julian calendar) and the date of burial are embossed), as well as double-headed eagles for the seven coffins of members of the Imperial Family. Each coffin was secured with brass (non-oxidizing) screws. Lead plates were laid in the lid and in the coffin itself along the perimeter at the place of their connection, making them airtight after closing the coffin.

PHOTO: Russian president Boris Yeltsin (1931-2007) bows his head in front of the grave of the last Russian Emperor

The coffins were made in strict accordance with the historical traditions of the burial rites of Russian monarchs. After burial, the crypt was covered with reinforced concrete slabs, through the rings of which a steel chain closed on the lock was threaded. A temporary wooden tombstone was erected over the grave, and later replaced by a marble one. Memorial plaques with epitaphs were placed on the walls of the chapel. Later, the historical coating of the aisle, Mettlach tiles – was also restored.

At the present time, there are two crypts in the Catherine Chapel holding a total of 10 coffins:

  1. Tsaritsa Marfa Matveevna (buried on 7th January 1716)
  1. Emperor Nicholas II Alexandrovich (burial of remains on 17th July 1998)
  2. Empress Alexandra Feodorovna (burial of the remains on 17th July 1998)
  3. Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna (burial of the remains on 17th July 1998)
  4. Grand Duchess Tatiana Nikolaevna (burial of the remains on 17th July 1998)
  5. Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna (burial of the remains on 17th July 1998)
  6. family-physician Dr. Eugene Botkin (burial of remains on 17th July 1998)
  7. maid Anna Demidova (burial of remains on 17th July 1998)
  8. valet Aloysius Trupp (burial of remains on 17th July 1998)
  9. cook Ivan Kharitonov (burial of remains on 17th July 1998)

PHOTO: Members of the new ROC investigation inspect the Ekaterinburg remains

Exhumation of remains

In 2015 the Russian Orthodox Church announced that the investigation into the Ekaterinburg remains had been reopened. The investigation would include a new series of genetic studies, and a comprehensive review of the evidence accumulated since 1918 into the murders of the last Russian Imperial family. With the blessing of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill and at his request to the Investigative Committee a new team of experts was formed. A complex examination would be carried out for the first time – a historical, anthropological and genetic one – one in which the ROC would be involved in all aspects of the investigation.

As part of the resumption of the criminal case on the investigation of the death of the Imperial Family, the remains of Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna were exhumed on 23rd September 2015, in the Catherine Chapel at the request of the Russian Orthodox Church. About 20 people were present at the exhumation, which included representatives of the Investigative Committee, the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Russian Orthodox Church, and members of the government commission. Taking into account the position of the church, the investigative bodies allowed geneticists and anthropologists to work. After the removal of two concrete slabs from the crypt, the coffins of Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna were raised for prayer. During the procedure, samples were taken from their skulls and vertebrae. Upon completion, the remains were returned to their coffins, sealed and lowered back into the crypt.

PHOTO: arks containing the remains of Tsesarevich Alexei Nikolaevich and Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna are carried to the Lower Church of the Transfiguration Cathedral of the Novospassky Monastery in Moscow in December 2015

In February 2016, a second exhumation took place, but this time all the remains. After taking samples, the remains were returned to their coffins, sealed and lowered back into the crypt and re-covered with slabs.

According to media reports at the time, the investigation should have been completed by the summer of 2017, after which the remains of Tsesarevich Alexei Nikolaevich and Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna would be buried with the rest of their family in the Catherine Chapel.

For years, the boxes containing 44 bone fragments of Alexei and Maria remained on dusty shelves in the Russian State Archives. On 24th December 2015, their remains were transferred to the Lower Church of the Transfiguration Cathedral at the Novospassky Monastery in Moscow, where they remain to this day.

In 2021, one unconfirmed report claimed that the remains of the last Imperial Family were no longer entombed in the Catherine Chapel of the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral. According to the report when their remains were exhumed for further testing by the new ROC commission in 2016, they were never returned to the crypt, however, there is no evidence to support this claim.

PHOTO: Queen Sirikit of Thailand’s Wreath

Offerings in St. Catherine’s chapel

In 2005, an icon of the Holy Royal Passion-Bearers was presented to the Catherine Chapel, made by the nuns of the Novo-Tikhvin Monastery in Ekaterinburg. In 2007, Queen Sirikit of Thailand paid an official visit to Russia on the occasion of the 110th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Russia and Thailand. The official offering was a wreath, which can be seen today in the Catherine Chapel. On the tombstone there is also a charoite box with earth taken from the grave of Anna Vyrubova, who buried in the Orthodox cemetery in Helsinki.

© Paul Gilbert. 6 March 2023

Taking a stand against social media trolls

I can truly understand why some people get so fed up with the drama acted out by narcissistic trolls on Facebook and other social media outlets. During the past 30 years of researching and writing about the history of the Romanov dynasty and Imperial Russia, my name and work have been a regular target for their nasty comments and criticisms. As far as I was concerned, most of these criticisms were water off a duck’s back. Having said that, however, I was forced to grow a thick skin against some of the more hostile attempts to discredit my work.

While Dodinsky’s comments above are indeed true, they also beg the question: where exactly is one expected to draw the line between constructive criticism and outright libel and slander, made by toxic narcissictic social media trolls?

Last month, it came to my attention that Nick Nicholson, had accused me of “ripping off” Romanov writer Helen Azar, and even going as far as accusing me of committing “plagiarism” of all things!

Not only did Nick tell an outright lie, he also committed libel in the process. Given that many people who follow me on Facebook, also follow either Helen and/or Nick, I decided to take the matter in hand and set the record straight once and for all.

Nick was referring to my article What kind of ice cream was served to Nicholas II?, which I published on my Nicholas II blog on 2nd August 2022. It was this article, which he claims I “ripped off” from Azar. The idea for this article was in fact inspired by a short article, which I found on Russian media: Какое мороженое подавали Николаю II?, published on 20th July 2022.

Nick’s post on Helen Azar’s Romanov Facebook group generated a flurry of nasty comments by Helen Azar and Marlene Eilers-Koenig, among several others. Nick continued to fan the flames, from which a flurry of spiteful jibes ensued, many of them made by Azar herself. Nick even referred to me as “a jerk”. Trust me, when I tell you that I have been called much worse, and by better people.

Such immature and childish behaviour by this trio of toxic trolls is nothing short of pathetic! I suppose I should take some solace in knowing that by attacking and bullying me on social media, they spared some other poor soul of their toxic behaviour.

I think what was most hurtful and disappointing was to discover that several of my so-called FB “friends” took part in Nick’s attack. Needless to say, I “unfriended” them.

I am not quite sure what Helen’s problem with me is, as I have never had anything to do with this egotistical woman. I have never taken any interest in her work, never followed her on Facebook, nor have I ever purchased or promoted any of her books. Quite frankly, I find her crude and vulgar, I don’t like her, and never have.

Back in the days when I administered my popular Royal Russia Facebook group – which at its peak had more than 175,000 followers – Helen took numerous liberties by posting and promoting herself on my FB page without my permission. Perhaps my rebuff and my declining her friend requests over the years was reason enough for her to belittle me and my work?

As far as Marlene Eilers-Koenig goes, I have no idea why she decided to stick her oar in the water? This toxic woman has been around for a long time, and is well known for her acid tongue and poison pen. I, like so many others, absolutely despise her.

Getting back to Nick’s post, which he later deleted [I made a copy of the post beforehand], and then issued an apology to Azar’s Romanov group, citing that he did so because he did not think it proper to encourage an “argument” on a group page. Another lie, to spare himself further embarrassment. The post was in fact removed by Facebook, because I reported it! My action then prompted Helen Azar to block me from her Romanov Facebook page.

Nick Nicholson is well known among the tightknit “Romanov circuit” on Facebook and other socia media. From April 2020 to September 2021, he served as Curator of the Russian History Museum in Jordanville, NY. In addition, he serves on the Board of Directors of the Russian Nobility Association In America.

Nick has had an axe to grind against me ever since I terminated our friendship of many years in April 2018. I unfriended and blocked him from my Facebook page, simply because I was sick and tired of his patronizing and condenscending attitude towards others. He has now made it his mission to discredit both myself and my work at every opportunity, and to any one who will lend him an ear. Helen Azar is no better.

Nick Nicholson is NO gentleman! In addition, his slanderous attacks against me are unbecoming of the good and caring Orthodox Christian, which he so desperately tries to portray to others. Quite frankly, I am so tired of people like Nick Nicholson, running around with a mouthful of scripture and a heart full of hate. May God forgive this man for his behaviour.

So, let me conclude by saying, I believe that my record of 30+ years speaks for itself. Not every one has to agree with my articles and posts, but that does not give them any right to attack me or my work on social media. Most people would tell me to ignore them, but again, and in my own defence, just where does one draw the line?

Dear reader, if you read any further toxic posts penned by Nicholson or Azar, I respectfully ask that you first give me the benefit of the doubt, and then to look at the source of these nasty spiteful comments: if you didn’t hear it from the horse’s mouth, stop listening to the ass who told you! And always remember . . . rumours are carried by haters, spread by fools and accepted by idiots.

© Paul Gilbert. 5 September 2022

Is it still possible to visit Russia?

NOTE: The purpose of this article is to address the many queries which I have received over the past few months, with regards to whether it is (a) still possible to visit Russia, and (b) if it is safe to visit Russia during these troubled times. The answer is “YES!”, you can still visit Russia, however, making arrangements are now much more challenging.

If you are even considering visiting Russia in the near future, I urge you to read the following. It is important to take into account, that things in Russia can change overnightPaul Gilbert

This page was last updated on 22nd FEBRUARY 2023

When the Alexander Palace reopened to the public on 14th August 2021, many Romanovphiles – myself included – began making plans to return to St. Petersburg, in order to visit the reconstructed interiors of the private apartments of Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna in the Alexander Palace. Sadly, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the hopes and plans of many were dashed.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit Russia very hard. Since April 2020, more than 18 million cases and more than 372 thousand deaths have been reported. As a result, Russia closed its land borders to foreigners as a precautionary measure to try to stop the spread of coronavirus. While it was still possible to visit via air, Russia imposed very strict measures regarding vaccines, etc.

I myself, was scheduled to visit Russia in September 2020, however, Aeroflot were forced to cancel my flights to St. Petersburg and Ekaterinburg due to COVID.

On 15th July 2022, the Russian government lifted COVID-19 related entry restrictions. You may enter Russia by air, sea or land via any country, but non-Russian nationals must still produce a negative PCR test taken within 48 hours before their arrival in Russia.

On 24th February 2022, Russia began a military invasion of Ukraine. The world responded with swift sanctions, which have now made it near impossible to visit Russia. This latest move has had a very negative effect on foreign travel to Russia, impacting plans for many of us, who were hoping to return to rediscover the Romanov legacy, a subject which is so near and dear to many of us.

Prior to the outbreak of hostilities, I was already making plans to visit Russia in July 2023. My itinerary included St. Petersburg, Ekaterinburg and Tobolsk. On the agenda for this journey was the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo; the Museum of Emperor Nicholas II in Tobolsk; and the ceremonies marking the 300th anniversary of the founding of Ekaterinburg.

Warnings against visiting Russia

The governments of the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia and the European Union, have all issued warnings to nationals about visiting Russia, urging them to “avoid all travel to Russia due to the impacts of the armed conflict with Ukraine, including limited flight options and restrictions on financial transactions”.

While popular tourist destinations such as Moscow, St. Petersburg and Ekaterinburg are far removed from the current Russian-Ukranian conflict, there still remain risks, which must be taken into consideration before planning a visit. Please consult your respective government advisories for the latest updates.

Many of the countries which imposed sanctions, have restricted financial transactions and air connections with Russia. Russia has retaliated with similar measures.

The sanctions, the suspensions and the Russian retaliation may have an important impact on the availability and the provision of essential services.

The value of the Russian ruble is currently volatile and the value of holdings of rubles may fluctuate considerably.

If you decide to visit Russia despite government advisories, it is a good idea to register and update them with your contact information through your respective embassy. Please be aware that in the case of an emergency, you should not depend on your government to help you leave the country.

The U.S. Department of State has advised Americans of the potential for the singling out and harassment of U.S. citizens by local police and government security officials . . . and the possibility of violence against U.S. citizens by right-wing nationalists.

Some embassies are reporting an increased police presence and ID checks. As a result, you should keep your passport and Russian visa with you at all times. It is important to make copies of both, and keep them separate, such as a hotel safe.

In addition, please be aware that foreigners holding Russian citizenship “may be subject to call-up for mandatory military service.”

In August 2022, Ukraine began bombing of Crimea. There is no question that this region will continue to be a target of the Ukrainian armed forces therefore, this region should be avoided!

Updated travel advisory for US citizens

On 13th February 2023, the United States Embassy in Moscow informed its citizens to leave Russia immediately due to the war in Ukraine and the risk of arbitrary arrest or harassment by Russian law enforcement agencies.

“US citizens residing or traveling in Russia should depart immediately,” the US embassy in Moscow said. “Exercise increased caution due to the risk of wrongful detentions.”

“Do not travel to Russia,” the embassy said. Those who choose to stay or who have not yet determined a way to leave have essentially been advised to lay low and avoid contentious areas. 

The United States has repeatedly warned its citizens to leave Russia. The last such public warning was in September 2022 after President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial mobilization.

“Russian security services have arrested US citizens on spurious charges, singled out US citizens in Russia for detention and harassment, denied them fair and transparent treatment, and convicted them in secret trials or without presenting credible evidence,” the embassy said.

Tourism to Russia Plummets to 4% of Pre-Pandemic Levels Amid Ukraine War

Foreign tourism to Russia fell below 4% of its pre-pandemic levels in 2022 as the country faced international condemnation over its invasion of Ukraine, the Association of Tour Operators of Russia (ATOR) has said.

A mere 200,100 tourists traveled to Russia last year, according to ATOR’s breakdown of Federal Security Service (FSB) border service data.

That marks a 96.1% decrease from the 5.1 million tourists who had visited Russia in 2019, before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The reasons are clear: closed skies between Russia and the vast majority of European countries, as well as the inability to use foreign-issued Visa and Mastercard cards in Russia,” ATOR said Wednesday, referring to the airspace closures and financial sanctions passed by Ukraine’s Western allies shortly after the invasion.

So, is it still possible to visit Russia?

Despite the sanctions imposed on Russia earlier this year by the United States, Canada, UK and EU, Russia has not closed its borders to foreign visitors. For the palaces, museums, art galleries and theatres, it is still business as usual. As far as shopping and dining goes, most of the major Western-owned hotel chains, retailers and restaurants have closed their doors.

The cost of transportation and transit time have increased significantly and remain very volatile due to high demand, limited flight availability and rerouting. Contact your travel agent or tour operator to determine if the situation will disrupt travel arrangements.

In May 2022, the UK government designated Aeroflot, Rossiya Airlines, Ural Airlines and Russian Railways for the purposes of UK sanctions. This means that British nationals and others who are bound by UK sanctions are prohibited from entering into transactions which result in making funds directly or indirectly available to these companies, such as purchasing tickets from them. On 23 May 2022, the Office for Financial Sanctions Implementation issued a general licence which means that for journeys originating in, or within, Russia, British nationals may purchase tickets from these companies without breaching UK sanctions.

The Russian aviation sector has been severely impacted by Western sanctions in the wake of the war in Ukraine. Aeroflot, in particular, landed in deep water with the grounding of planes and canceling flights to many international destinations.

Western countries have stopped deliveries of commercial airliners – popular with many Russian carriers – and spare parts and have obliged their lessors to return liners already leased from Russia.

It is important to note that Russian airlines suffered a number of incidents on their domestic services that saw more than 130 incidents including 28 plane crashes in 2022. In addition, there have been at least seven accidents involving air transport in the Russian Federation since the beginning of 2023. The main reason for mass breakdowns is due to the lack of proper maintenance of aircraft due to the shortage of spare parts in the country. Major Western plane makers Boeing and Airbus halted deliveries of new foreign jets and spare parts, forcing Russian airlines to “cannibalize” grounded aircraft. 

It is still possible, however, to book flights on 3 foreign carriers – see below – to Moscow, St. Petersburg and Ekaterinburg.

Flights from North America, UK and EU

Following the outbreak of hostilities on the territory of Ukraine, Russian carriers are prohibited from flying to the EU countries, the UK, the USA, and Canada. At the same time, 11 airports in the south and central part of Russia have been closed since 24th February 2022.

For Americans and Canadians, there are currently only 2 airlines offering flights to Russia: Air Serbia (via Belgrade) from New York (Daily) and Chicago (3 x a week beginning April 2023) to Moscow and St. Petersburg; Turkish Airlines (via Istanbul) to Moscow, St. Petersburg and Ekaterinburg.

NOTE: Air Serbia is currently evaluating a third North American route to Toronto, which would cater to the large Serbian and Balkan diaspora in Canada.

Both Air Serbia and Turkish Airlines offer flights from numerous cities in the UK and EU, with convenient connections to Moscow and St. Petersburg.

For Australians, Emirates offer flights from Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth (among other cities) to Moscow, St. Petersburg and Ekaterinburg – the latter via partner Fly Dubai.

By coach and train from Helsinki and Tallinn

In addition, it is still possible to reach St. Petersburg by coach from Helsinki and Tallinn. International bus carriers Lux Express and Ecolines. Currently, Lux Express offers 4 daily buses from Helsinki St. Petersburg, while Ecolines offers 2 daily buses. Please note that seats sell out quickly, due to the high demand. 

You can also travel by coach from Tallinn (Estonia) to St. Petersburg. Ecolines also offer 2 daily buses, while Lux Empress offer 4 weekly buses on the route.

Finnish Rail has currently suspended all trains from Helsinki to St. Petersburg and Moscow. 


It is no longer possible to book accommodations in Russia using an online travel agency (ie. Expeida, Tripadvisor, etc.) or directly through Russian hotel web sites. Again, this is due to the inability to use foreign-issued credit cards in Russia. While you can still book a hotel via the respective hotel, you will be forced to pay for your stay upon arrival in cash.

Please note that the hotel can supply the necessary documents in which you will need to apply for a Russian Tourist Visa. In addition, they can also arrange transfer from the airport upon your arrival.

Russian Visas

The Russian Federation still maintain diplomatic relations with the United States, Canada, UK and EU, and have not restricted travel by nationals of these countries to Russia. Please consult the web site of the Russian Federation in your country to download and print Russian visa applications.

Currency exchange

You are entitled to import/export up to $10,000 USD in cash into Russia, but sums over $3000 should be declared at customs. This applies to all foreign currencies and to rubles, with the exact quantities varying slightly from currency to currency.

MasterCard and Visa have suspended operations in Russia. This means that MasterCard and Visa cards issued outside of Russia will not work at Russian merchants or ATMs. You should be aware that it may not be possible for you to access your funds through Russian banks or to make payments to Russian businesses with non-Russian credit/debit cards.

You can change dollars and euros to rubles at any bank or foreign currency exchange outlet.

Disclaimer: the information contained in this article is for information purposes only. It is based on information from sources believed to be reliable. Should you embark on a visit to Russia during these troubled time, I urge you to err on the side of caution. I will not be held responsible for any problems which you may encounter in the planning of your visit, or during your stay in Russia. I will endeavour to update this page as new details are made available to me – PG

© Paul Gilbert. 6 July 2022

“As if the door had just closed behind them” – Anastasia Timina on the restoration of the Alexander Palace

PHOTO: Studio 44 architect-restorer Anastasia Timina

Any museum restoration and reconstruction requires the expertise of specialists: researchers, curators, architects and designers. In particular is the restoration of the iconic Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo, which began in the autumn of 2015 and is not expected to be completed no earlier than 2022.

Anastasia Timina, an architect-restorer of the Studio 44 architectural bureau, a graduate of the Stieglitz Academy, and leading architect of the Alexander Palace restoration project.

What is the difference between an architect and an architect-restorer?

The work of an architect mainly affects modern buildings and structures, but we are dealing with history, with monuments of cultural significance which need to be preserved, reconstructed and at the same time treated with the utmost care. This involves certain restrictions and additional responsibilities.

The architects of our bureau are developing a project for the reconstruction of the Alexander Palace as a multi-museum complex for modern use, filling it with modern engineering networks and communications. The main task of the bureau’s restoration department is to reconstruct the interiors of the private rooms of Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna and to restore their historic interiors.

The restoration of the lost interiors is almost complete. At the moment, our department is engaged in the design of free-standing pieces of furniture for the restored interiors of the Alexander Palace based on historical photographs, descriptions and surviving samples. Fortunately, a table from the Mauve Boudoir and a chair from the Imperial Bedroom have survived, which have become standards for the manufacture of other items.

How long have you been working on the project to recreate the interiors of the Alexander Palace?

My participation began in 2014 from the stage of a detailed design. At that time I came to Studio 44 from the oldest design and restoration organization in St. Petersburg – Lenproektrestavratsiya.

The project for the reconstruction of eight interiors, which I was assigned to work on, included detailed drawings for wall decoration, built-in wall furniture, as well as sketches for the recreation of curtains for window and doorways.

The development of design documentation is divided into several stages: first, a draft design is created, showing the development of a general view and the main concept, followed by a detailed design – this is the most detailed documentation, including types of products, fragments, details, nodes at a scale of 1:1, specifications taking into account the volume and nature of the materials used.

In 2013, a draft design was completed, but having studied all the iconographic material in detail, I came to the conclusion that the working documentation required significant changes. I worked as part of a large team of architects-restorers, under the leadership of Oleg Arnoldovich Kuzevanov – the chief architect of the restoration project of the Alexander Palace. From 2016 to the present, I have been supervising the recreation of the interiors.

PHOTO: The eastern wing of the palace (highlighted on the left)
will become the Museum of the Russian Imperial Family

It is clear that this is a very complicated process. What is the most difficult task?

The most difficult task is to recreate an interior “from scratch”, to work on the project only on the basis of black and white historical photographs, often of poor quality. In the pictures, only part of the room can be seen, a complex angle is taken, there are no frontal views of the walls and interior details. Based on these images, it is necessary to understand how the space in the photograph is distorted, and to calculate the real dimensions and proportions of the projected objects. In such work, any genuine detail that has survived to our time helps, for example, fragments of fabrics. Having measured the size of the rapport and the details of the drawing, we can scale the photo and calculate the dimensions of the interior details surrounding the fabric.

Of course, we would be happy to have more historical photographs at our disposal, but we try to use all available interior images. For example, to a non-specialist, the image of the Empress against the background of a fragment of a chair (possibly out of focus), a table or curtains will seem useless from a restoration point of view, but we can visualize the necessary detail that is hidden in photographs of the interior. Even if a photo is blurry, of poor quality, and seems useless, it can, oddly enough, also be of invaluable design help. By the way, in our work we are also utilizing items from the Alexander Palace, which have been kept in the Pavlovsk Palace Museum-Reserve since the 1950s.

When restoring lost interiors, there is nothing more important than complete information and a large number of historical images in order to achieve maximum authenticity. Therefore, when new details (photos, inventories) and even small details appear, it is necessary to correct the project. We do this all the time.

What discoveries and interesting finds took place during the restoration work?

The most significant discovery is the original pieces of interior decoration found under the flooring of the Moorish Bathroom of Nicholas II.

This is a very complex interior full of different elements, including Metlakh tiles on the floor, a tiled fireplace and tiles covering the walls and sides of the pool. In this interior, there are more than 40 different types of tiles that do not repeat in pattern, relief, and most importantly, in colour. But neither the inventory nor the archival data gave us a detailed idea of ​​the colour scheme of the interior. All historical photographs are black and white, the only assistant was a watercolour by the architect Bezverkhny. During the construction work, when opening the floors of the first floor, genuine fragments of ceramic tiles and Metlakh tiles, marble were found in the layers of construction dust. A large bathing pool was also found with preserved tiles and two steps leading to the pool. Until this moment, we had no idea it had survived.

This discovery in September 2016 was a real miracle for us. We have revised and supplemented the project documentation, we have already restored the missing fragments of the tile pattern from historical photographs. In addition, small fragments of ceramic tiles for the fireplace facings in the Working Study of Nicholas II and the Maple Drawing Room were also found.

The second significant discovery concerns the found fragments of alfrey painting. During the clearing of the Soviet plaster layer, a historical plaster layer was discovered on the lime mortar with traces of tempera painting. A picturesque frieze ran along three sides of the Moorish Bathroom, but, unfortunately, only small, but still very valuable fragments of it have survived, as they display to us the true color scheme – both for the frieze and for the smoothly painted wall. Fragments of the murals on the walls of the lobby of the eastern wing were also found.

A very valuable find – a fragment of a historical plaster layer with a plastered “rose” molding that once adorned the walls and the archway, found during the opening of the historic opening connecting the mezzanines of the Empress’s Maple Drawing Room and the New Study of Nicholas II. This allowed us to restore the stucco decoration, and the true color of the walls.

Is the restoration of interior decoration carried out using traditional materials or with the help of modern technologies?

The problem is precisely how to achieve historical similarity using modern technologies.

Of course, when restoring interiors, traditional materials are used – precious woods (walnut, rosewood, maple, oak), lime mortar plaster, oak parquet flooring, etc. Ceramic tiles are made by hand and in ovens. In the preserved interiors (the New Study and the Reception Room of Nicholas II), restoration work is carried out in compliance with the restoration methods.

The situation is more complicated in the restored interiors. More than a hundred years have passed, technologies have greatly advance, but, unfortunately, the skill of manual labor has almost been lost, finishing materials (varnishes, enamels, glazes) have changed significantly, wooden carved parts are made on CNC machines, only slightly modified by hand.

The Alexander Palace is the favorite home of the last Russian emperor Nicholas II and his family, a place with a special energy. Do you feel a special responsibility?

The responsibility is colossal. It is quite clear that this is not a private, closed residence, but a museum, in which thousands of visitors will want to visit. I wanted to create a unique atmosphere for the presence of representatives of the Imperial family, to convey the spirit of a lost era. As if the door had just closed behind them.

The first eight interiors are now scheduled to open at the end of 2020.

© Paul Gilbert. 9 September 2020

Old Ekaterinburg through the lens of Prokudin-Gorsky


Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky, self-portrait 1912

NOTE: All of the articles pertaining to Nicholas II and his family which were originally published in my Royal Russia News blog, have been moved to this Nicholas II blog. This article was originally posted on 5 September 2018 in my Royal Russia News blog – PG

I have had the pleasure of visiting the Ural city of Ekaterinburg on three occasions over the past six years: 2012, 2016, and most recently in July 2018. Out of all the Russian cities which I have visited since 1986, Ekaterinburg has become my favourite.

It is a city rich in history, and the setting for one of the darkest pages in 20th century Russian history: the final days and murder of Russia’s last tsar Nicholas II and his family in the Ipatiev House on the night of 16/17 July 1918.

Sadly, the city is overlooked by most visitors to Russia. It is seldom included in group tours, relying mainly on foreigners travelling on the Trans-Siberian Express. Many of them stay for only one or two nights, which really is not enough time to explore and appreciate what Ekaterinburg has to offer. Having said this, however, Ekaterinburg is becoming increasingly popular with Chinese tourists, and the FIFA World Cup matches held in the city in June 2018 have helped spread the word to foreigners, that Ekaterinburg is indeed worth visiting.

As a devout book collector, I have always been on the hunt for pictorials, which offer vintage photographs of what life was like in Russia before the 1917 Revolution. During my most recent visit to Ekaterinburg, my book hunting skills produced a couple of gems to add to my personal home/office library.


Дом Ипатьева: летописная хроника в документах и фотографиях

Дом Ипатьева: летописная хроника в документах и фотографиях (Ipatiev House. Documentary and Photographic Annals. 1877-1977) by photojournalist and historian Vitaly Shytov. Published in 2013 in a hard cover edition in Chelyabinsk by the Auto-Count Publishing House, the book features more than 700 pages and more than 1,000 photographs. Only available in Russian. Shytov has dedicated 40 years of study to the tragic history of the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg. There were only 500 copies printed, and it remains the the most comprehensive study of the Ipatiev House to date. Sadly, Shytov’s research has been virtually ignored by Western historians, who have written on the last days of the Imperial family in the ‘House of Special Purpose’.


Екатеринбург: История города в фотографии

Екатеринбург: История города в фотографии. Том 1: Вторая половина XIX – начало XX веков (Ekaterinburg: History of the City in Photographs. Volume I. Second half of 19th – early 20th century) by A.V. Berkovich and O. A. Bukharkina. Second edition published in 2015 by the Ekaterinburg City Administration. Published in a hardcover edition, the book features 208 pages, and more than 200 vintage photographs. Despite the Cyrillic text on the book’s cover, the contents are in both Russian and English.

The latter presents a very different view of Ekaterinburg, in that it presents for the first time, a selection of historic photos from the most famous photographer of old Ekaterinburg Veniamin Leontiyevich Metenkov (1857-1933).


The Metenkov House and Photographic Museum is situated near the Church on the Blood in Ekaterinburg

Sadly, the Revolution destroyed the photography business which Metenkov created. He died in obscurity in 1933, his name forgotten for more than half a century. After the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the house where Metenkov lived and worked was turned into a museum named after him. Until recently Metenkov’s archive was believed to be lost, however, a persistent search for the photographers’ legacy yielded the discovery of more than 200 negatives in the funds of the Sverdlovsk Oblast State Archive.

Another noteworthy Ekaterinburg photographer was the city doctor Vladimir Alexandrovich Paduchev (1859-1919). The Paduchev family archive of more than 500 negatives focus on the private world of the city middle class, taken during the first decade of the 20th century. The collection lay hidden in an old barn for more than a century, before their discovery.

ALL colour photographs below are courtesy of the Ekaterinburg City Administration

The unique photographic view of Pre-Revolutionary Russia and Ekaterinburg, however, belong to the pioneer of colour photography Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky (1863-1944).

His photos of Russia’s nature and monuments earned him invitations to show his work to the Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich and the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna in 1908, and to Tsar Nicholas II and his family in 1909. The Tsar enjoyed the demonstration, and, with his blessing, Prokudin-Gorsky got the permission and funding to document Russia in colour. In the course of ten years, he was to make a collection of 10,000 photos.

Using a railroad-car darkroom provided by Tsar Nicholas II, Prokudin-Gorsky traveled the Russian Empire from 1905 to 1915, using his three-image colour photography to record its many aspects. He arrived in Ekaterinburg in 1909, where he gave lectures and visited Veniamin Metenkov at his home. Metenkov accompanied Prokudin-Gorsky on his trips in and around the city, suggesting interesting locations to be photographed.

Prokudin-Gorskii left Russia in 1918, after the Russian Revolution, and eventually settled in Paris, where he died in 1944. While some of his negatives were lost, Library of Congress purchased a collection of more than 2,600 images from the photographer’s sons in 1948.

All three photographers are represented in this handsome volume. Their legacies transcend a century, allowing the reader to look back to a unique and beautiful city, far removed from the ancient Russian capital of Moscow, and the glittering Imperial capital of St. Petersburg. These images document daily life in the Ural city, which has changed beyond recognition, many historic landmarks lost forever, and only the photographs preserve the flow of a lost world.

© Paul Gilbert. 4 November 2019