Ghosts in the Eye of the Storm – in Pictures

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  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.

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 falconers 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).

Count Felix and the Princess Zenaida were there, she wearing the Yusupov 41 carat Polar Star Diamond in her headgear.

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’s  mother, the dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna had pictures taken of the guests and created a memorial album of the event.  Below is a selection of the approximately 300 photos taken at the event.

Nicholas and Alexandra

File:1903 ball - Maria Georg..jpg

Grand Duchess Maria Georgievna

File:1903 ball - Emma Vlad. Frederix.jpg

Baroness Emma Vladimirovna Frederiks

Princess Nazdya Galizine

Princess Zenaida Yusupova

Grand Duchess Elizabeta Feodorovna

Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna

Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna

Prince Vladimir Nicolaeovitch Orloff

Prince Vasili Golgurokov

Grand Duke Constatin Constantinovitch

Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovitch

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.”

Within 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.

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 and younger sister to Xenia (shown above) , died in 1960 in a tiny apartment in Toronto over a hair dressers shop.  It is not ancient history.  I was 18 years old when she died.  She was the last Grand Duchess.

It is what happens when so few have so much and so many have so little.


The Yusupov Polar Star Diamond was last sold by Christies in 1980 for $5.1 million;  buyer unknown.  Zenaida’s son Felix Yusupov would murder the monk Rasputin in the Yusupov palace.
A copy of the memorial album of pictures created by Empress Maria Feodorovna sold at Christies in 2010 for $35,000.


About toritto

I was born during year four of the reign of Emperor Tiberius Claudius on the outskirts of the empire in Brooklyn. I married my high school sweetheart, the girl I took to the prom and we were together for forty years until her passing in 2004. We had four kids together and buried two together. I had a successful career in Corporate America (never got rich but made a living) and traveled the world. I am currently retired in the Tampa Bay metro area and live alone. One of my daughters is close by and one within a morning’s drive. They call their pops everyday. I try to write poetry (not very well), and about family. Occasionally I will try a historical piece relating to politics. :-)
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6 Responses to Ghosts in the Eye of the Storm – in Pictures

  1. Wow, what amazing costumes they all wore

    Liked by 2 people

  2. toritto says:

    Hi Justhistory – Nothing but the best for Russia’s aristocracy!

    Regards from Florida.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Lara/Trace says:

    While people starve, the emperors dance. Everywhere.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. beetleypete says:

    Small wonder that there was a revolution, and then they were all (mostly) shot.
    Nothing lasts forever…
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Jennie says:

    Wonderful and important post. Beautiful photos. Thank you!


  6. Pingback: Ghosts in the Eye of the Storm | toritto | First Night History

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