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  • 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.

  • Dostoyevsky and the Urban Nightmare by Judith Gunn

    Dostoyevsky’s capacity to map the streets of his beloved St Petersburg, turn by turn, with a visceral realism was what set him apart in the Russian literary landscape. It was his ability to chart his characters’ progress down darkened alleys, through seedy streets and in shabby apartments, which separated his work from the epic stories and rural landscapes described by his contemporaries in Russia, Tolstoy and Turgenev.

    Dostoyevsky 1 Fyodor Dostoyevsky antique print 1899. (Copyright Georgios Kollidas, - Dostoyevsky, Amberley Publishing)

    Throughout most of his novels, stories and journals, his reputation was forged by his brilliant social realism. It was his ability to conjure the conditions that the urban population, in an overcrowded St Petersburg, struggled with everyday that made him famous. His first novel Poor Folk, about a poverty-stricken couple, whose love is charted through letters, caught the attention of influential literary critic, Vissarion Belinsky. Belinsky was a radical socialist, keen for change. He proclaimed Dostoyevsky as the cultural representative of the socialist movement. Dostoyevsky was lauded as a great talent, but then, two weeks later, he published The Double. This story was a magical realist novel, still anchored very firmly in the streets, but this time realism was only part of the tale. The Double is about a man who is at first pestered and then defeated by his evil doppelgänger. Magical realism was not to Belinsky’s taste and Dostoyevsky was denounced.

    Dostoyevsky’s depictions of dingy streets and hidden alleyways, are not unlike the later narratives of the mid twentieth-century popular film style, film noir. His protagonists of dubious character live out their crimes and misdemeanours in the chiaroscuro streets of St Petersburg. They foreshadow the flawed protagonists of noir and neo-noir as they shift between self absorption and sheer murder, often to an irredeemable conclusion. Raskolnikov, Myshkin, Underground Man and the Ridiculous Man are the “mechtatel”, the St Petersburg dreamers, who inhabit the streets. They are the noir narrators of the Russian nineteenth century.

    Dostoyevsky 2 Dostoyevsky’s Office, House Museum of Dostoyevsky, Staraya Russia. (Copyright Konstantin Pukhov, - Dostoyevsky, Amberley Publishing)




    “Let me tell you that in these corners live strange people—dreamers. The dreamer—if you want an exact definition—is not a human being, but a creature of an intermediate sort. For the most part he settles in some inaccessible corner, as though hiding from the light of day; once he slips into his corner, he grows to it like a snail…”

    Thus the dreamer or the mechtatel is defined by the nameless narrator in Dostoyevsky’s short story White Nights. This character is a more sensitive, benign version of the dreamer. The Double presaged at a more sinister character and as Dostoyevsky’s stories progress, this figure becomes less of a dreamer and more of a nightmare.

    In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov roams St Petersburg as a disenfranchised student with murder on his mind. In The Idiot, Prince Myshkin comes to St Petersburg, an innocent abroad, but is unable to redeem the damaged characters that inhabit its streets. The Underground Man (Notes from the Underground), like Raskolnikov, is a much darker version of the early dreamer of White Nights, he is a bitter, selfish narrator who hides in his apartment.

    “I am a sick man.... I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. ”

    Dostoyevsky 3 Monument to Dostoyevsky, Tobolsk, Russia. (Courtesy of Elena Mirage - Dostoyevsky, Amberley Publishing)

    This character is an unreliable narrator. He says he is spiteful and then he claims he is not, but his behaviour is cruel. He lies all the time. He is isolated and bitter, he believes himself to be ill. He haunts the streets and inhabits his dark cellar, offering little to like in his character. The Ridiculous Man (The Dream of a Ridiculous Man), by contrast, offers his own suicide as a form of redemption, and in one of Dostoyevsky’s most mystical narratives, this character travels to another planet, a place of innocence that he corrupts. These mechtatel are the nightmare of St Petersburg’s urban landscape. Their stories are played out in dimly lit streets and darkened alleyways, half lit faces step out of the shadows for the reveal, only for a second, before they disappear to darkness.

    Dostoyevsky was never convinced that human nature was inherently good. The socialist narrative of the time proclaimed the greatness of the human spirit, convinced that if the environment was fair and just, then human nature would overcome its darker temptations, but Dostoyevsky had his doubts. Perhaps it was because he spent four years in a Siberian prison and saw humanity at its worst, or perhaps it was his Christian faith that always drove him back to the idea of original sin, the fall. Whatever the sources of his discontent with human nature, it drove him to describe dissonant characters, whose dark thoughts and terrible deeds make compelling reading.


    Judith Gunn's book Dostoyevsky is available for purchase now.

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