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
Grand Duchess Maria Georgievna
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.