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  • Queen Victoria and The Romanovs by Coryne Hall

    Sixty Years of Mutual Distrust

    Much to my surprise, no previous author has ever looked in depth at Queen Victoria’s ambivalent relationship with Russia and its ruling family. Armed with permission from the Royal Archives at Windsor to quote from the Queen’s Journals, I decided to put this to rights.

    Princess Juliane of Saxe-Coburg (Grand Duchess Anna Feodorovna of Russia) as a young woman. Stories about her treatment in Russia greatly influenced her niece Queen Victoria. (Private collection, Queen Victoria and The Romanovs, Amberley Publishing)

    The reasons for her dislike and distrust were both political and personal. The political centred on the historic British distrust of Russian aims since the expansion of the Russian Empire under Catherine the Great. The personal reasons centred on the bad treatment of Queen Victoria’s maternal aunt Princess Juliane of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld by her Romanov husband Grand Duke Constantine, Catherine the Great’s grandson.

    As I worked through the Queen’s Journals, I found that there were a lot more communications between Victoria and the Romanovs than I had thought. So many of them visited the Queen at Windsor, Osborne or Balmoral.

    The first to arrive was the future Tsar Alexander II in 1839. Alexander and Victoria were almost the same age. Victoria described him as tall with a fine figure, a pleasing open countenance without being handsome, fine blue eyes, a short nose, and a pretty mouth with a sweet smile.’ His impression of her was less complimentary: ‘[She] is very small, her figure is bad, her face plain, but she’s very agreeable to talk to.’ Nevertheless, when he whirled her giddily around the ballroom she was soon completely bowled over. The feeling (at the time) was mutual. Years later Victoria’s granddaughter described Alexander as ‘Grandmama’s first beau.’

    Tsarevich Alexander (later Alexander II) who completely bowled over the young Queen Victoria when he visited England in 1839. (Private collection, Queen Victoria and The Romanovs, Amberley Publishing)

    Nicholas I came to Buckingham Palace and Windsor in 1844. He refused a comfortable bed in favour of his own camp bed from St Petersburg and asked for straw to stuff the mattress. He was an autocrat to his fingertips but Victoria found that ‘his sternness is less remarkable, when one gets to know him better.’  Ten years later the Crimean War broke out and they were enemies.

    On his death in 1855 Victoria’s former ‘beau’ Alexander II came to the throne. Nevertheless, at least once during his reign Britain and Russia were brought to the brink of war.

    What Victoria did not foresee was the Romanovs marrying into her own family. Her son Alfred married Alexander II’s daughter Marie in 1874 after long and tortuous negotiations, when both the Tsar and the Queen proved reluctant to give way on any issue. When Marie arrived in England after the wedding she insisted on being treated as a Russian Grand Duchess. Not only was she autocratic but her jewels dazzled the court and made the Queen and her daughters rather jealous. Marie was soon complaining about the Queen and life in England in letters home.

    Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Windsor. To the annoyance of the tsar, Victoria married her Coburg cousin in 1840. (Private collection, Queen Victoria and The Romanovs, Amberley Publishing)

    The only Tsar who did not visit during his reign was Alexander III. His wife, Marie Feodorovna, was a sister to Princess Alexandra, wife of the Prince of Wales. Tsarevich Alexander and his wife came on a visit to her sister in 1873, when the Queen also invited them to Windsor and Osborne but, when he became Tsar after Alexander II’s assassination by terrorists in 1881, he and Victoria did not get on at all. ‘A sovereign whom she does not look upon as a gentleman’ was her comment about Alexander III.  In return, he described her as a ‘pampered, sentimental, selfish old woman.’

    The differences in language and culture, as well as the unstable political situation in Russia, explained the Queen’s horror when two of her favourite Hesse granddaughters, Ella and Alix, married into the Russian Imperial family – Ella to Alexander III’s brother Grand Duke Sergei, and Alix to Tsar Nicholas II. The Queen did her best to discourage both young women from going to what she called ‘horrid Russia’ but to no avail.

    Victoria gave an especially warm welcome to Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna when they stayed at Balmoral in 1896, but although the Queen liked Nicholas as a person, she didn’t like or trust his country. Her Empire always came before family connections.

    ‘Russia,’ the Queen Victoria once wrote, ‘is not to be trusted.’ It is fortunate that she didn’t live long enough to know that she would be proved right. Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra, their children and Ella were all killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

    Coryne Hall's book Queen Victoria and The Romanovs is available for purchase now.

  • To Free the Romanovs: Royal Kinship and Betrayal 1917-1919 by Coryne Hall

    Saving the Imperial Jewels

    When revolution came to Russia in 1917 the Romanovs not only had to save themselves. They also possessed a fortune in jewels – and the means to which they went to in order to save them were unorthodox and often surprising.

    By the summer of 1917 the Tsar’s cousin Grand Duke Boris was anxious to retrieve the jewels of his widowed mother Grand Duchess Vladimir. The Grand Duchess was living in the remote Caucasus but her priceless jewels were still in Petrograd.

    Boris and his friend The Honourable ‘Bertie’ Stopford hatched an audacious scheme to save Grand Duchess Vladimir’s jewels from her Petrograd palace on Palace Embankment.

    Stopford, a rather shadowy figure, had some high powered connections. He travelled regularly between London and the continent during the war and although he had no official status as a King’s Messenger or as a member of staff of the British Embassy or Foreign Office, on one occasion is thought to have acted as a personal messenger for Queen Mary. He also delivered personal correspondence from George V to the Tsar in 1916 and is rumoured, although it has never been proved, to have worked for the Secret Intelligence Service. There could not be a better man for the job.

    The Imperial family at the time of the Tercentenary of the dynasty, 1913. Seated: Grand Duchess Olga, Nicholas II, Grand Duchess Anastasia, Tsarevich Alexei, Grand Duchess Tatiana. Behind: Grand Duchess Maria, Empress Alexandra. (Collection of Ian Shapiro, To Free the Romanovs, Amberley Publishing)

    Stopford knew the layout of the rooms in the official part of the Vladimir Palace very well but to get to the Grand Duchess’s safe in her private apartments would not be so easy. Boris told Stopford that there was a secret passage from a side entrance which led directly to his mother’s first floor boudoir. In this Moorish-style room was a concealed door leading to several such passages. From her boudoir it would be easy to reach her dressing room and, nearby, the locked metal safe containing her jewels.

    Instrumental in helping Stopford to gain access was the palace’s loyal caretaker, who ensured that entry to the building would be possible during the night.

    Stopford disguised himself as a workman and made his way into the palace unseen, through the suite of rooms to the safe. Carefully taking the jewellery apart, he wrapped it in newspaper and stuffed it into two rather shabby old Gladstone bags, along with any money he found in the safe. Some of the tiaras, however, were left intact, including the one of linked diamond circles which is often worn by Queen Elizabeth II today.

     

    Now he had to get out of the palace and through streets teeming with soldiers and police. The risk of being stopped and searched was great and he could not implicate the Grand Duchess or her son if he was caught red handed. He could even be shot for looting or theft.   It is not known exactly what Stopford did with the jewels that night but, as his hotel room had already been searched at least once, it is more likely that he used his contacts at the British Embassy to place them temporarily in the chancellery. Then, as the Grand Duchess had been president of the Imperial Academy of Arts, they were lodged with the director before being spirited out of Russia.

    The British Armoured Car Division was withdrawing and, by a strange coincidence, one of the men was called John Stopford.  John’s route took him eastwards via Vladivostok, Japan and America to London; Bertie Stopford left in the opposite direction by ship via Sweden. One of these men took the jewels and deposited them in a London bank vault.

    Queen Olga of Greece. The magnificent jewels of the Tsar’s Russian-born aunt were spirited out of Russia by the Danish Embassy. (Collection of Mark Andersen, To Free the Romanovs, Amberley Publishing)

    The Tsar’s Aunt Queen Olga of Greece enlisted the help of her lady in waiting Madame Baltazzi. One day a Greek student called at the Marble Palace where the Queen was living bringing a package of books. The guards carefully examined the parcel and admitted him. Sometime later he left carrying a box of the same size and shape made by the resourceful lady-in-waiting. It contained Olga’s priceless emeralds and other valuable gems. The guards, having searched him when he came in, saw no need to examine his parcel again. He delivered the jewels straight to the Danish Legation, from where they were sent to Copenhagen.

    Even more ingenious was another of the Tsar’s cousins, Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna. She emptied a huge bottle of office ink and inside the empty bottle put the diamond rays of a tiara unstrung from its wire. She then poured paraffin over the diamonds and replaced the ink. A large label all round the bottle obscured its contents and it stood in plain sight on her desk. Other jewels were hidden in home-made paperweights, while used empty cocoa tins were dipped in wax and provided with a wick to simulate a candle. Sometimes these were lit in front of the icons to deceive the servants, who had no idea that priceless jewels were concealed inside. Before leaving Russia Marie sent this concealed jewellery to the Swedish Legation for safekeeping and it eventually reached her in exile.

    As for the jewels of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna and her daughters, when Olga, Tatiana and Anastasia left Tobolsk in the spring of 1918 some jewels went to Ekaterinburg with them concealed in their clothes, but at least three caches of jewels were left behind.

    One was given to a nun, who hid some in a well and concealed others in a belfry and graves in the cemetery at the Ivanovsky Convent in Tobolsk. When the convent was closed in 1923 an elderly nun was going to throw the gems into the river but was persuaded instead to give them to a local fish merchant. He hid 154 items of jewellery in the basement of his house in two glass jars placed inside a wooden case. These were discovered by Stalin’s secret police in 1933 after the nun was arrested and interrogated. Today these items would be worth over seven million pounds. Two more caches are still missing, including a suitcase given to the priest Alexei Vassiliev, which is said to contain diamonds and ‘crowns’ belonging to the empress and her daughters. The priest died in 1930 and the treasure is believed to be hidden in Tobolsk or Omsk.

    Another casket, given to the tutor Claudia Bittner by her husband Colonel Kobylinsky (to whom it had been given by the Tsar), was later given to Constantine Pechekos. When interrogated in 1934 he said it was hidden in his brother’s house at Omsk, which turned out to be untrue. He then attempted suicide and, again, the treasure was never found.

    Other jewels, and even a stash of tsarist gold, are believed to still remain hidden in the area. So maybe the future will yield up more Romanov treasure.

    Coryne Hall's new book To Free the Romanovs: Royal Kinship and Betrayal 1917-1919 is available for purchase now.

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