A re-post from last Halloween
Alexander Ulyanov – executed by Tsar Alexander III in 1887
Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 by an organization known as The People’s Will. Instead of hoped for reforms his successor Alexander III imposed repression and executions,
On the sixth anniversary of the assassination, March 1, 1887 radical students attempted to kill Alexander III. They failed.
Five of the conspirators were caught and hanged. One of them was Alexander Ulyanov. He was 21 years old. His mother begged for the Tsar’s mercy. Alexander would not beg. His younger brother, 17 year old Vladimir understood his older brother,
Vladimir was being educated at the Simbirsk Gymnasium where the head master was F. I. Kerensky. Vladimir hated the Head Master’s royalist politics. His son, Alexander Kerensky would be head of the Provisional government upon the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II.
Vladimir Ulyanov would also take part in the revolution.
Under his new name. Lenin.
And he would lead the Bolsheviks to overthrow the Kerensky government and murder Tsar Nicholas and his family.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
It is early 1903 and the ball season is in full swing in St. Petersburg. Each winter a half dozen grand balls are held at the Winter Palace, hosted by the Tsar. Each one gets more exclusive and invitations more prized. This year the Empress Alexandra has decided to host a “medieval” costume ball to celebrate almost three centuries of Romanov rule. Everyone must dress in costume appropriate to the reign of Tsar Alexi, the second Romanov Tsar. It will be the last ball and most exclusive of the season.
Prince Felix Yusupov
Prince Felix Yusupov is one of the richest if not the richest man in Russia. His holdings included thousands of square miles of land, mining operations, fur and timber posts throughout Siberia. It is said that 40,000 peasants worked his land, mines, fur and timber operations.
Yusupov Palace – St. Petersburg
He owns palaces, country estates, hunting lodges all cared for year round by permanent staff. The Yusupov Palace in St. Petersburg could hold 1,000 guests for dinner – served on gold plates. The furniture in his mother’s bedroom belonged to Marie Antoinette; the rock crystal chandelier to Madame Pompadour.
Prince Felix is a handsome dilettante and dissolute living a flamboyant life style which shocks turn of the century St. Petersburg. Educated at Oxford, he spends time with gypsy bands, dresses in women’s clothing and with his friends flirts with handsome officers at the bars and cafes.
He avoids joining the military during the First World War as he is by this time married to the Tsar’s niece Irina to whom he will be married for half a century. He is exempt as the only living son in his family.
After the abdication of Tsar Nicholas he returns to his palace and taking only jewelry and two paintings off of the walls he and Irina flee Russia on a British warship sent to rescue the aristocracy. The two paintings are by Rembrandt and now hang in the National Gallery in Washington. He lives comfortably for the rest of his life on the proceeds of what he carried out of the palace, dying in Paris in 1967.
He murdered the monk Rasputin in the basement of his palace and threw his body in the river. It has always been suspected that Rasputin was his lover. He had been under house arrest but the Tsar abdicated three months after the killing. So it was time to leave.
Back to the medieval ball.
The aristocratic ladies of St. Petersburg were in a panic. They owned plenty of fine gowns from Paris or from Madame Olga’s in St. Petersburg but brightly colored caftans were not in a Duchess’s wardrobe nor a falconer’s uniform for their husbands.
And so the dressmakers were busy while the more inventive ladies raided theater companies seeking appropriate attire.
Empress Alexandra helped design costumes for herself and husband Nicholas, dressing as Tsar Alexi and his first wife Maria. Alexandra’s costume is said to have cost more than 1,000,000 rubles ($10 million in 2005); gold brocade studded with diamonds and emeralds and a cabochon sapphire of 400 carats (“bigger than a ordinary match box” quipped the Grand Duchess Marie Georgievna). Prince Felix’ parents, Count Felix and the Princess Zenaida were there, she wearing the Yusupov 41 carat Polar Star Diamond in her headgear.
Nicholas and Alexandra
Grand Duchess Maria Georgievna
The Winter Palace glowed with light on the evening of February 11 as 390 guests enter what was described as “a living dream”. Trumpeters in 17th century garb heralded the entry of their Majesties who opened the dance with a Polonaise. In the Hermitage Theater Chaliapin sang opera and Anna Pavlova danced ballet The sumptuously attired cream of the aristocracy danced medieval quadrilles while a lavish dinner was laid out – vodka, French wines, pounds of caviar. One hundred fifty tall handsome military officers, specially chosen by the Empress and given appropriate dance instruction kept all ladies busy on the dance floor. No wall flowers here.
Nicholas’ mother, the dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna had pictures taken of the guests and created a memorial album of the event. Three of the hundred plus pictures are seen above.
After the ball, Tsar Nicholas wrote laconically in his diary “The court looked rather pretty full of people in ancient Russian costume.”
Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich years later recalled the occasion as “the last spectacular ball in the history of the empire…[but] a new and hostile Russia glared through the large windows of the palace…while we danced, the workers were striking and the clouds in the Far East were hanging dangerously low.”
Witin two years the 1905 revolution had broken out and there was war with Japan; the new Duma was demanding a constitutional monarchy, free speech, free press and the right to form political parties. Two years later, the Duma was disolved, the revolution crushed by the Tsar’s troops and thousands executed. Ten years after that they would all be swept away.
Prince Yusupov would flee with his wife, his jewels and two Rembrandts. Lenin would avenge his brother, executed by the Tsar’s father and the Winter Palace would become a museum. Alexander Kerensky fled to New York and wound up teaching Russian history at Stanford.
And as we stare at their photographs of that night we wonder – how could they not hear?
Are we too so deaf to the anguish of millions?
Let us hope not.
The Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, sister to the Tsar, died in 1960 in a tiny apartment in Toronto over a hair dresser’s shop. It is not ancient history. I was 18 years old when she died.
It is what happens when so few have so much and so many have so little.
I read this last year on First Night History, and commented there. Appropriately, I am wearing a t-shirt today, emblazoned with the letters, ‘CCCP’!
Best wishes, Pete.
Hi Pete – Since everyone was wearing costume to the ball it seemed appropriate for a Halloween re-post! Besides, I’m lazy today!
We have earned the right to be lazy, Frank.