Nicholas II’s apartments in the Winter Palace

CLICK on the IMAGE above to watch a VIDEO about the Imperial Apartments
in the Winter Palace. Duration: 12 minutes, 53 seconds. English subtitles

Please note that this article focuses on specific interiors of Emperor Nicholas II’s private apartments in the Winter Palace, it is part of a larger publishing project I am currently working on, that will feature a more comprehenvive study of this Imperial residence during the reign of Russia’s last Tsar – PG

On his accession, Nicholas II was keen to return to the Winter Palace residence in the capital. The palace architect, Alexander Feodorovich Krasovsky (1848-1918), was entrusted with creating private rooms for the Emperor and his wife, Alexandra Feodorovna. In December 1895 they moved into the Winter Palace and lived there permanently in the winter. Following the events of Bloody Sunday [22nd January (O.S. 9th) 1905], the Imperial Family moved to the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo, visiting the Winter Palace only for formal ceremonies, banquets and receptions.

Receptions and balls became rare events. The most famous ball held in the Winter Palace during the reign of Russia’s last Tsar was the luxurious Costume Ball, held in two stages on 11th and 13th February 1903. All the visitors dressed in bejeweled 17th-century style costumes. Nicholas II wore the costume of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich (1629-1676); while the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna wore the costume of his first wife Tsarina Maria Ilyinichna Miloslavskaya (1624-1669).

It was in 1897, that Emperor Nicholas II approved the project for a new colour of the facades of the Winter Palace. A brick-red hue was chosen, to match the red sandstone colour of the new fence of Her Majesty’s Own Garden. The Emperor’s decision was carried out in 1901 after the construction of the fence of the garden was completed.

PHOTO: view of the north-western corner block of the Winter Palace and Her Majesty’s Own Garden. The door in the center is the Saltykov Entrance, which led to the personal apartments of Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna, located on the 2nd floor

The personal apartments of Nicholas II and his wife were created in the second floor of the north-western corner block, beyond the Malachite Room that was among the state rooms of the palace whose historical appearance was preserved. The rooms which Alexander Bryullov (1798-1877) had decorated for Empress Alexandra Feodorovna (1798-1860) in 1838-39, were converted for Russia’s last Emperor and Empress.

The rooms were a self-enclosed complex, a separate apartment, designed to embody the young couple’s domestic ideal, a cosy, welcoming home. The Emperor’s diaries show that they both devoted much attention to the fitting out of their new apartments. Many of the rooms belonging to Nicholas II were small, narrow, dark and awkward in design, especially the Emperor’s narrow study.

Krasovsky, showed himself to be a master with immense erudition and superb taste. The combination of brilliant historical stylization with Moderne (Art Nouveau) elements made the apartments of the last Russian Emperor’s family a unique work of art. Each room that Krasovsky created was an elegant paraphrasing of the style of a particular historical era.

The second enfilade overlooked the Admiralty, which included the Imperial Bedroom, Nicholas II’s Study, the Gothic Library, the Billiard Room, Nicholas II’s private bath, a drawing room, lavatory and a small Checkpoint at the Saltykov staircase. A private garden was created beneath the windows of the Imperial apartments on the site of a former parade ground, surrounded by a high wall topped with decorative iron-grille railings.

PHOTO: view of the Imperial Bedroom

PHOTO: the bed which Nicholas and Alexandra shared, and the icon case

The Imperial Bedroom featured an alcove highlighted by two white stucco columns. The walls were decorated with cretonne, a heavy English cotton fabric featuring red flowers and green leaves. The wall panels and furniture were made of Karelian birch.

A small living room was created in front of a large folding screen which separated it from the alcove. It featured a number of pieces of furniture, including a comfortable sofa and chairs. In addition, where wicker furniture for the children. Alexandra Feodorovna spent many hours here, relaxing on the sofa with a book or needlework, while her children played nearby.

In the alcove, separated from the rest of the room by a folding screen was a large bed – unlike most sovereigns of the day, Nicholas II and his wife shared a bedroom. A large folding icon case – covered with icons – was situated against one wall.

PHOTOS: two views of Emperor Nicholas II’s Study

Nicholas II’s Study was arranged in the English Gothic style, decorated with oak. The beauty of the wood was enhanced by the matte surface of the upper part of the walls, painted in an oak colour and the rich green and yellow silk draperies which decorated the double-windows of the interior. The wall between the two arches was decorated with a huge fireplace, the upper part decorated with coloured tiles.

All the details of the interior and the furniture were enhanced with Gothic-style carvings. An important element in in this interior was the Gothic fireplace embellished with griffons and lions, heraldic figures from the arms of the Romanov House and the Hesse-Darmstadt House, to which the Empress belonged.

The Emperor’s desk was decorated with small busts of his grandfather Emperor Alexander II and great-grandfather Nicholas I, and numeroud framed family photographs. The walls were decorated with portraits of Nicholas II’s ancestors. In another part of room stood a piano, which the Imperial couple often played four hands. In the evenings, after returning from the theater, they often had dinner in front of the fireplace.

PHOTO: Emperor Nicholas II’s bath, located next to his Study

A large marble bath was installed next to the Emperor’s Study, behind the lavatory and the Checkpoint. A small staircase connected to the Emperor’s dressing room and his Valet’s room. The pool was a rectangular recess with a marble staircase of 9 steps.

In 1898, the size of the pool was increased to a size of 387 [152 in.] x 385 cm [151 in.] and a depth of 159 cm [63 in.]. The architect, Nikolai Ivanovich Kramskoy (1865-1938), who carried out the renovation managed to preserve the original marble wall cladding and frieze design seen in the photo above.

PHOTO: Emperor Nicholas II’s Gothic Library

The Gothic library was the largest room of the suite refurbished for Nicholas II by Krasovsky, who used the same English medieaval style used in the Emperor’s Study. The two-tiered interior, which included the ceiling, the bookcases, the stairs and upper gallery were trimmed with wax-polished walnut. They were decorated with ornaments characteristic of the Gothic style. The walls between the cabinets and the upper gallery were covered with embossed leather. This magnificent decoration was made at the worskhop of Nikolai Fedorovich Svirsky (1851-1915) – supplier to His Majesty’s Imperial Court.

A huge white stone fireplace, reminiscent of a Gothic portal with a frieze dominated the interior. Nicholas and Alexandra liked to spend their evenings reading in front of the fireplace.

Furniture was made in the Gothic style, according to Nabokov’s drawings, which included several tables, the Emperor’s desk in front of the fireplace, chairs and a lectern. A unique smoking table, decorated with gold and diamonds, with a well stocked selection of cigarettes and cigars was a unique addition. In this interior, reminiscent of a medieval hall, the Emperor often received officials.

The interior of the Gothic Library has survived, click HERE to read more about this interior.

Emperor Nicholas II’s Billiard Room

Nicholas II, like many of his predecessors and relatives loved billiards. Sometimes he played a game or two with his adjutant wing on duty, whose post was in the adjoining Reception Room.

The interior of the Billiard Room was designed in the Neo-Classical style. The doors were framed in the form of portals with pilasters topped with a entablature and acroterium. The classic styled white marble fireplace was decorated with a frieze depicting cupids in chariots. Wall panels, doors and furniture were made of polished mahogany and decorated with copper inserts. Paintings and vases collected by Nicholas II during his Far Eastern journey in 1891-92, decorated the walls and shelves. The parquet floor from the Pompeian Dining Room, created by Alexander Pavlovich Bryullov (1798-1877) in 1838-39, was transferred to this interior.

PHOTO: the Small Dining Room

Formerly known as the Pompeian Dining Room, the Small Dining Room was redecorated in 1894–95, by Krasovsky. A rococo plaster-work style was chosen to frame 18th-century St Petersburg tapestries. It was in this room, that Nicholas and Alexandra and their guests gathered for meals. The crystal chandelier was made in England in the 1760s, it was electrified during Nicholas II’s reign.

The hands of the clock on the mantle [seen on the far wall in the photo above] are stopped at 2.10, the time when the ministers of the Provisional Government were arrested in this room, during the early morning hours on 26th October 1917.

The Winter Palace had been the seat of the Provisional Government since July 1917. It’s leader Alexander Kerensky (1881-1970) wasted little time in acquisitioning the Emperor’s Gothic Library for his own personal use.

Following the Government’s arrest in the Small Dining Room, an eyewitness account records a systematic destruction of the apartments by the Bolsheviks:

“The Palace was pillaged and devastated from top to bottom by the Bolshevik[s]…Priceless pictures were ripped from their frames by bayonets. Packed boxes of rare plate and china…were broken open and the contents smashed or carried off. The library….was forced open and ransacked…..the Tsaritsa’s salon, like all other rooms, was thrown into chaos. The colossal crystal lustre, with its artfully concealed music, was smashed to atoms. Desks, pictures, ornaments—everything was destroyed.”

On 30th October 1917 the Military Revolutionary Committee of the government of the Russian Republic declared the palace “a state museum on a par with the Hermitage”. The palace was given over to the administration of the museum in 1922. In 1923 a programme was initiated under the direction of the architect Alexander Vladimirovich Sivkov (1890-1968) to convert the palace ensemble into a museum complex. This programme included the reconstruction of the Winter Palace that in the post-revolutionary period became known as the Palace of the Arts.

For a brief period following the revolution, the private apartments were open to the public to display the life of the former rulers, as this was the area of the palace where entry had been gained by the revolutionaries, and as a consequence, much had been destroyed so it is hard to know how accurate the depiction of the imperial private lives could have been.

In time the state rooms of the former imperial residence came to be used for exhibitions, while the living rooms and service premises were converted into display rooms, losing their decorations. In 1926, the “Historical Rooms of Emperor Nicholas II” were closed, dismantled and given over to exhibition use.

The only historic interiors which have survived from the time of Nicholas II are the Gothic Library and the Small Dining Room. Sadly, the remaining interiors have not survived and today we only have photographs, architect’s drawings and archive documents which preserve the memory of the former private apartments of Russia’s last emperor and tsar.

© Paul Gilbert. 30 August 2022

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Nicholas II approved the Winter Palace to be painted red in 1897

PHOTO: this contemporary colourized view of the western facade of the Winter Palace, does not reflect the actual terracotta-red hue, however, it does gives an idea of the palace’s facade, as it looked in the early 20th century

During its 250+ year history, the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg has been repainted many times, in a variety of ochre colours and various densities. The colour of the facades of the Winter Palace changed radically at the beginning of the 20th century. It was in 1897, that Emperor Nicholas II approved the project for a new colour of the facades of the Winter Palace. A brick-red hue was chosen, to match the red sandstone colour of the new fence of His Majesty’s Own Garden.

The Emperor’s decision was carried out in 1901 after the construction of the fence of His Majesty’s Own Garden was completed. In April 1901, the architect Nikolai Ivanovich Kramskoy (1865-1938) presented an estimate for 15,639 rubles. “for the project of painting the Imperial Winter Palace in the colours of the new garden fence”. On the project and estimate he wrote: “Highly approved. I was ordered to start painting immediately!” The tender for repair work was awarded to Kruglov, a contractor who was paid 29,467 rubles, which included “to scrape, grind and clean off the walls of the facades, external and outward, the drum of the dome, towers and chimneys”, and then paint all the indicated areas.

Aside from the Winter Palace, all the buildings on Palace Square were painted in the same brick-red colour, including the 580 m [1,902 ft.] long bow-shaped General Staff Building and the Headquarters of the Guards Corps, which, created a complete ensemble of the historic square.

According to the architects of the time, as a result of the Emperor’s decision, the unique buildings of the Palace Square ensemble, diverse in their construction, contributed to a “unity of perception and merged into a monochrome terracotta-brick colouristic mass”.

PHOTO: Emperor Nicholas II leaves the Winter Palace (1896)

In early 20th century black and white photos, one can clearly see the dark coloured facades of the Winter Palace [see photo above]. In addition, colour postcards [see below] from the time, also provide a good example of the colour.

Not all Petersburgers liked the gloomy brick/terracotta-red façade that had been adopted under Nicholas II. The public turned to the Emperor in an effort to persuade him to change the colour scheme of the Winter Palace. However, Nicholas II rejected their proposals.

Under the last Tsar, the white stone statues were also replaced with dark ones made of copper. Before that, the palace featured yellow-ochre façades in various shades depicted in watercolours, fragments of which have been uncovered during architectural stripping operations.

PHOTOS: early 20th century postcards of the Winter Palace

PHOTO: early 20th century postcard of the western facade of the Winter Palace and His Majesty’s Own Garden. The private apartments of Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna were located in the northwestern part [to the left, but not seen in the photo above] of the palace

In June 1911, Minister of the Imperial Court Count Vladimir Frederiks (1838-1927) expressed his desire that the Imperial Winter Palace be painted in a lighter hue than that of its current colour. The minister requested that samples of the palace colouring, be presented to him in order to approve one of them.

As there were no colour photographs of the Winter Palace as it looked in 1911, we rely on one observer of the time, who provided an idea of ​​the colour of the palace: “The colour scheme differs in its composition from the approved colour scheme of 1901 in a more pinkish colour, but in terms of density of its composition it is denser than the old colour scheme”.

So, in October 1917, the Winter Palace was not “revolutionary red”, but in a somewhat dubious pinkish one. However, even with all these dubious nuances, the monochrome of the palace, was preserved in full.

PHOTO: watercolour of the Winter Palace, painted by the famous Russian artist Alexandre Benois (1870-1960) in 1939, when he was living in exile in Paris. Note that the canopied balconies; the wall and iron grid fencing surrounding His Majesty’s Own Garden have by now been removed.

The red colour facades of the Winter Palace remained through the revolution and the early Soviet period in the 1930s. Following restoration work on the palace after World War II, it was painted green (turquoise) with the ornaments depicted in white, the standard Soviet colour scheme for Baroque buildings.

In January 2022, the State Hermitage Museum announced that the restoration of the facades of the former Winter Palace is scheduled for 2023. No change of colour scheme is envisaged, but, as with previous restorations, a lighter “pastel” shade of green will be selected in keeping with St Petersburg traditions.

© Paul Gilbert. 23 January 2022

Memories of Nicholas and Alexandra’s love that have transcended time

PHOTO: aerial view of Schloss Wolfsgarten, near Darmstadt

Hidden away from the eyes of most visitors to Wolfgarten in Germany and the State Hermitage Museum in Russia, are two haunting mementoes etched into simple window panes of each of the two former royal residences. Despite revolution, two world wars and palace renovations, these glass windows with inscriptions written by Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna have miraculously survived to this day.

Wolfsgarten, Germany

Schloss Wolfsgarten is a former hunting seat of the ruling family of Hesse-Darmstadt, located in the German state of Hessen, situated 15 kilometers south of Frankfurt. The hunting lodge was established between 1722 and 1724 by Landgrave Ernst Ludwig of Hesse-Darmstadt. In 1768, Wolfsgarten was abandoned until the 1830s when the grand ducal family began to restore and expand the property. From 1879, Wolfsgarten became a favourite country retreat for Grand Dukes Ludwig IV and his son Ernst Ludwig, brother of Princess Alix, the future Empress Alexandra Feodorovna.

PHOTO: the years marking visits by Nicholas and Alexandra are etched in a window at Schloss Wolfsgarten

In November 1903 Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna visited the *divorced and not yet remarried Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig. It was on this occasion, that the couple updated the record of their visits to Wolfsgarten, by carving the year on a glass window, as they had done on prior visits in 1896 and 1899 respectively. The Imperial couple returned to Wolfsgarten in 1910.

*On 19th April 1894 Ernst Ludwig married his cousin Victoria Melita von Edinburgh, among the European royals and nobility in Coburg. Ernst and Victoria divorced on 21st November 1901. Victoria married Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich on 8th October 1905.

On 9th October 1937, Ernest Louis died after a long illness at Schloß Wolfsgarten. He received what amounted to a state funeral on 16 November 1937 and was buried next to his daughter, Elisabeth, in a new open air burial ground next to the New Mausoleum he had built in the Rosenhöhe park in Darmstadt.

PHOTO: contemporary view of the Winter Palace (State Hermitage Museum)

Winter Palace, St. Petersburg

From December 1895, Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, resided for periods during the winter in the Winter Palace. They extended and redesigned the rooms which had been prepared for Nicholas, as Tsesarevich two years earlier. The architect Alexander Krasovsky was commissioned to redecorate a suite of rooms in the northwest corner of the palace.

Following the events of Bloody Sunday in 1905, Nicholas II and his family abandoned the Winter Palace in favour of the more private Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo. From this date until the fall of the monarchy, the Winter Palace was used only for formal state occasions.

PHOTO: Alexandra records a memory from March 1902 on a window in her Study

On 25th October 1917, following the Provisional Government’s arrest in the Small Dining Room of the Winter Palace, an eyewitness account records a systematic destruction of the Imperial apartments by the Bolsheviks. The only original interior to have survived to the present is Nicholas II’s Gothic Library. The remainder of the Imperial couple’s private apartments including the bulk of their contents have been lost.

One tiny memento, however, has survived. Hidden from view by a lace curtain in the former Study of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, a memory was recorded by Alexandra. On 7th March 1902, taking her diamond ring, she etched the following in one of the windows: “Nicky 1902 looking at the Hussars. 7 March”.

In 1926 the former living quarters of the Imperial couple were handed over to the State Hermitage Museum for use as exhibition halls. The same year the décor of the Study was destroyed: the yellow damask wall covering was removed and the vault painting with flowers and garlands was painted over (it has since been restored). The viewing platform in the corner was dismantled, from which the Imperial couple liked to look at the Neva River at different times of the year from “Alix’s window” as Nicholas II used to call it in his diary.

Today, Room 185 houses the exhibition dedicated to the work of the famous St Petersburg furniture maker Heinrich Gambs. On view here are pieces of furniture and objects of decorative and applied art executed in the Classicism style.

CLICK on the VIDEO below, which shows not only the former Study of Alexandra Feodorovna, but also the view from the window, which will give you a better perspective of where the engraved window is exactly:

© Paul Gilbert. 4 May 2021

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Gothic Library of Nicholas II in the Winter Palace

PHOTO: The Gothic Library of Emperor Nicholas II in the Winter Palace, as it looks today

The Gothic Library of Emperor Nicholas II in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, remains one of the most beautiful interiors to have survived to the present day. In addition, the library is the only interior of the Emperor’s private apartments in the Winter Palace to have retained its historical appearance without undergoing any changes.

This library was created in 1894-95 by the Russian architect Alexander Fedorovich Krasovsky (1848 – 1918). Krasovsky embodied the restrained spirit of old English castles: an abundance of wood trim, a ceiling with caissons and openwork chandeliers, bookcases placed along the walls as well as a massive fireplace. For it’s decoration, the architect made extensive use of the English Gothic style.

This interior with its decorative panels of tooled and gilded leather, monumental fireplace and tall windows with tracery carry visitors back to the Middle Ages, thus creating an incredible historical ambiance. It also features a coffered walnut ceiling embellished by quatrefoils. On the desk is a porcelain sculpture portrait of Nicholas II, an identical copy of the original the biscuit porcelain bust of the Emperor completed in 1896 by the Russian sculptor Léopold Bernstamm.

The library was located in a separate wing of the private apartments of Nicholas II. To accommodate the vast library, an upper balustrade and staircase were added. The walls above the bookcases were decorated with panels of embossed gilded leather.

An important element of the interior was the Gothic fireplace decorated with images of griffins and lions – heraldic figures of the family coats of arms of the House of Romanovs and the House of Hesse-Darmstadt, to which the empress belonged.

PHOTO: Furniture for the Gothic Library of Nicholas II, designed by N. V. Nabokov, made by N. F. Svirsky

The furniture which decorates the room was designed by the architect Nikolay Vasilyevich Nabokov (1838 – after 1907), and made by Nikolai Fedorovich Svirsky, at his workshop located at 45/47 Borovaya Street in St. Petersburg. The Russian State Historical Archive [RGIA] has preserved Svirsky’s furniture design drawings to the present day. Some of his creations for the Gothic Library were displayed in a temporary exhibition held in the State Hermitage Museum in 2018.

In 1905, Nicholas II and his family moved to Tsarskoye Selo, where they took up permanent residence in the Alexander Palace. Following his abdication in February 1917, the Imperial Residences were all nationalized under the new Provisional Government. It’s leader Alexander Kerensky (1881-1970) wasted little time in acquisitioning the Gothic Library for his own personal use.

PHOTO: Kerensky seated in Nicholas II’s Gothic Library in the Winter Palace, 1917

In March 1917, a decree was issued declaring the contents of the Winter Palace as state property. Only a portion of the library’s original book collection have been *preserved. Today’s caretakers in the State Hermitage mUSEUM confirm that the Emperor read all the books that were kept, often leaving his notes in them.

*In the 1930s and early 1940s, 10,915 titles, 15,720 volumes from Nicholas II’s library in the Winter Palace, were sold to various libraries in the United States, including Harvard, NYPL, and Stanford. In addition, about 2,800 volumes were acquired by the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

I am pleased to share a link to a beautiful three-dimensional panorama of the Gothic library of Nicholas II in the Winter Palace, courtesy of the State Hermitage Museum – Click HERE to view.

© Paul Gilbert. 22 April 2021

Nicholas II at the 1903 Ball in the Winter Palace

In February, 1903, a grand party was held in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, followed two days later by a grandiose fancy dress ball, whereby guests dressed in bejeweled 17th-century style costumes. The ball, timed to coincide with the 290th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty, took place at the end of the Nativity Fast. 

Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna saw the ball as a first step towards the restoration of the rituals and costumes of the Moscow court, continuing the traditions bequeathed by the glorious ancestors of the Romanov dynasty of the distant pre-Petrine times.

Gathering in the Romanov Gallery on 24th (O.S. 11th) February, guests followed in pairs to the Nicholas Hall of the Winter Palace to give their hosts a “Russian bow”. The party’s central event was a concert in the Hermitage Theater with scenes from Modest Musorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov (key parts were performed by Feodor Chaliapin and Nina Figner), Minkus’ ballet La Bayadère and Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake directed by Marius Petipa (performed by the prima ballerina Anna Pavlova). The performance was followed by a Russian dance in the Pavilion Hall. Dinner was given in the Spanish, Italian and Flemish Rooms of the Hermitage. Thereupon Their Majesties and the guests proceeded to the Pavilion Hall where the party culminated in dancing.

PHOTO: Guests pose for a photograph in the Hermitage Theater

The second part of the ball took place two nights later, on 26th (O.S. 13th) February: all the guests dressed in 17th-century style costumes, made from designs by the artist Sergey Solomko, in collaboration with historical experts. Among the 390 guests, were 65 “dancing officers” – all dressed as 17th century archers or falconers – and personally appointed by the Empress . Members of the Imperial Family gathered in the Malachite Room, others in the adjacent areas. When ten o’clock struck, the guests went to the Concert Hall to dance. The court orchestra, wearing costumes of trumpet-players of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich performed behind a gilt grating, while 34 round tables were arranged in the Nicholas Hall for dinner. The Concert Hall and Small Dining Room accommodated bars, the Malachite Room, tables with tea and wine.

When dinner was over, the August hosts and their guests returned to the Concert Hall to dance till one in the morning. After three specially prepared dances were performed (Russian dance, round dance and plyasovaya), directed by chief ballet director Aistov and Kshesinsky, waltzes, quadrilles and mazurkas were enjoyed. Young officers of Guards Regiments, Horse-guardsmen, Life-guardsmen and Lancers, acted as male partners in the dances. Participants had received some training: at the dress rehearsal held in the Pavilion Hall on 10 February, 1903, ladies wore sarafans and kokoshniks, while men sported dresses of streletses, falconers, etc. Empress Alexandra Feodorovna and Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna acted as “judges”.

Despite all the doubts, disputes and gossip, leading up to the luxurious and memorable event, the ball went wonderfully well. Impressed by the ball, Nicholas II wrote in his diary:

“The hall, filled with ancient Russian people, looked very beautiful.”

The palace commandant, Major General Vladimir Nikolaevich Voeikov noted:

“The impression was fabulous – from the mass of old national costumes, richly decorated with rare furs, magnificent diamonds, pearls and semi-precious stones, mostly in old frames. On this day, family jewels appeared in such an abundance that exceeded all expectations.”

After the balls of 11th and 13th February, 1903, the Empress commissioned the best photographers of St. Petersburg: L. Levitsky, D.M. Asikritov, D.S. Zdobnov, Yves. Voino-Oransky, F.G. Boasson, E.L. Mrozovskaya and many others, to take individual and collective photographs of the participants in their costumes. In 1904, a limited edition album containing the photographs was released, consisting of ten large-format files (folders). 21 heliogravures and 174 phototypes. The album was sold primarily among the participants of the ball, and the proceeds from the sale went to charity.

The 1903 Bal, remains the most celebrated festivity arranged in St. Petersburg during the reign of Emperor Nicholas II (1894-1917). More than a century later, it remains an event of an enduring historical significance.

Official Portraits of Nicholas II taken in the Concert Hall of the Winter Palace

PHOTO: For the background, photographers utilized a stand imitating the walls of a 17th century chamber of the Terem Palace in the Moscow Kremlin was installed in the Concert Hall of the Winter Palace – as seen in the photo above. The throne chair, is a prop, from the storeroom of the Hermitage Theater.

PHOTO: Emperor Nicholas II wearing the costume of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich (1629-1676); the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna in the costume of his first wife Tsarina Maria Ilyinichna Miloslavskaya (1624-1669). Photo by L.S. Levitsky, 1903

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Nicholas II’s 17th Century Costume

Emperor Nicholas II was dressed in an exact copy of the 17th century clothes, worn by his beloved ancestor, Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich (1629-1676. :

The costume sketch for Nicholas II was developed by the Director of the Hermitage, Ivan Alexandrovich Vsevolozhsky (1835-1909) and the artist of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theaters, Yevgeny Petrovich Ponomarev (1852-1906). Two types of velvet and gold brocade were ordered from the Supplier of the Imperial Court – the Sapozhnikovs firm. The fancy dress for Emperor Nicholas II, called “The Small Tsar’s Attire”, was sewn by the theatrical costume designer of the Imperial Theaters Ivan Osipovich Kaffi (1860-19 ??). He was assisted by two dressmakers, whose names have not survived. The tsar’s hat was created in the hat workshop of the brothers “Bruno”, suppliers of the Imperial Court since 1872..

The 17th century-style costume worn by Emperor Nicholas II at the ball held in the 1903 Ball in the Winter Palace, has been preserved to this day in the State Armoury Museum of the Moscow Kremlin. It is on display in Room 6 of the museum, which houses a rich collection of secular and ceremonial costume. The tsar’s 1903 costume can be seen in Showcase 45 (see photo above)

His costume and shashka (hat) were made from the finest materials and design: “velvet, brocade, silk, satin, leather, sable, gilded thread braid, gold, precious stones, pearls, weaving, braiding, casting, chasing, engravings, carving and enamel.”

Opal worn by Emperor Nicholas II (left). Manufactured: Russia, 1903, cufflinks and buttons – Constantinople 2nd half of the 17th century. Materials: Damask, brocade, gold. Work: Sewing, weaving.

Kaftan worn by Emperor Nicholas II (right). Manufactured: Russia, 1903, cufflinks and buttons – Constantinople 2nd half of the 17th century. Materials: Golden velvet, silk, satin. Work: Sewing, casting, chasing.

Rod (staff) of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich. Istanbul, mid-17th century Gold, precious stones, pearls, iron; casting, chasing, carving, enamel. Collection of the the State Armoury Museum.

Zapona-pendant of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich. Istanbul, second half of the 17th century. Gold, precious stones; chasing, carving, enamel. Collection of the the State Armoury Museum.

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The Costume Ball in the Winter Palace. Luxury 2-Volume Edition

In 2003 the Russian publishing company Русский Антиквариат issued a limited luxury edition printing of The Costume Ball in the Winter Palace in a handsome 2-volume set with slipcase. The publication was a joint project of the State Hermitage Museum, the Moscow Kremlin State Museum, with the participation of researchers, genealogists and descendants of relatives of the nobility who attended the historic event.

The publishing firm offered two variations of the 2-volume set. The first featured one volume in Russian, the second volume in English, however, the firm also issued 100 copies featuring both volumes in English. In 2009, I managed to acquire a number of copies of the 2-volume English edition, and sold them through my bookshop.

Volume I featuredall the documentary and research material, including preserved costumes, unique photos and archival documents, most of which are published for the first time. 128 pages, 50 black and white illustrations, 20 tables with colour images, and introductory article by the Director of the State Hermitage Museum Mikhail Piotrovsky. The cover is made from high quality dark brown leather substitute with gold lettering.

Volume II – showcases the Ball participants. 464 sepia-colour pages, 198 photos of the Ball participants. The cover is made from high quality dark green leather substitute, with gold lettering. More than half of prints made from the original photos. Each image is accompanied by a biographical article.

Sadly, the publisher of these fine books has since gone out of business. Copies of the rare all English edition set, which are highly sought after by collectors in Britain and North America, are occasionally offered through rare book auctions.

© Paul Gilbert. 21 February 2021

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Nicholas II celebrates the Blessing of the Waters, 1904

Note: the video above features a compilation of vintage photographs, set against the ‘Troparion on the Feast of the Epiphany’ sung by the Sretensky Monastery Choir

On 19 (O.S. 6) January 1904, Emperor Nicholas II took part in the annual celebrations marking the Feast of the Epiphany in St. Petersburg.

The Emperor along with members of the Imperial Court, and senior members of the Russian Orthodox Church proceeded down the Jordan Staircase from the first floor of the Winter Palace to the bank of the Neva River for the Blessing of the Waters at Epiphany in commemoration of Christ’s Baptism in the river Jordan.

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Nicholas II descends the stairs leading down to the Neva for the Blessing of the Waters

Situated near the northern entrance to the Winter Palace, a temporary wooden pavilion was constructed on the embankment in front of steps leading down to the Neva. The Metropolitan of St. Petersburg dipped a cross in a hole made in the ice. A small cup was then dipped into the water and presented to the Emperor, who took a sip and then handed the cup back to the Metropolitan. Prayers were said for the health of the Tsar and his family.

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The above photo shows the spot on the embankment of the Neva River, where the temporary wooden pavilion was constructed for the Blessing of the Waters in the early 20th century.

© Paul Gilbert. 19 January 2020