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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.

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