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The Golden Hours of the Romanovs
In 1920, a Russian aristocrat fled the country with hundreds of photos of the last tsar’s family. The photos have fascinated—and misled—the public for decades.

The six family photo albums that depict the life of Nicholas II, Russia’s last tsar, look very much like any family’s old photo albums. They are big, sturdy books, bound in textured leather—green, blue, and brown. The paper inside is thick and yellowing a bit. Several pages hold mementos: postcards, sketches, concert programs. A menu from July 15, 1912, includes spicy tongue of beef, a chicken noodle dish, and a fruit tart.

But the real thrill of flipping through these albums at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book Library is the photography. A strange thrill, to be sure, since these photos, by themselves, are the antithesis of thrilling. They are the vacation snapshots of a wealthy Edwardian family at the beginning of the 20th century—at the beach, picnicking in the woods, sailing on their yacht, the Standart. “Nicholas loved photography,” says Laura Engelstein, Yale’s Henry S. McNeil Professor of History and a Russia expert. “He made sure there were a lot of pictures taken during family activities.” The photos are so personal that the feeling one gets, perusing them, is primarily one of voyeurism. They are fascinating mostly because of what happened after they were taken.

Pulitzer Prize–winning author Robert K. Massie learned about the albums in 1966, when he was writing his best-selling Nicholas and Alexandra. Seeing the albums for the first time, he wrote, reminded him of the moment when Howard Carter first peered into Tutankhamen’s tomb and exclaimed, “Wonderful things!” Massie has called the collection “the most complete set of intimate photographs of the Imperial family to survive the holocaust of the revolution.”

What makes this collection the more stunning is that it survived at all. After Nicholas’s abdication in the fall of 1917, the tsar and his family were first held under house arrest outside St. Petersburg, and then sent into Siberian exile. The following summer, Nicholas, Empress Alexandra, their five children (four daughters and a son, ranging in age from 13 to 22), and four aides were killed by Bolshevik revolutionaries. In the years after the execution, Soviet agents destroyed photos like these for fear the public might someday come to see the Romanovs as normal people.

According to Massie’s introduction in The Romanov Family Album, the Beinecke photographs were actually the property of one of Empress Alexandra’s best friends, Anna Vyrubova, who lived and traveled with the family and took many of the pictures herself. In her memoirs, Vyrubova wrote that she and Alexandra pasted the photos onto the pages together. Often, the tsar himself—a notoriously fastidious man—stood over the two women, supervising them as they worked. “He could not endure the sight of the least drop of glue on the table,” wrote Vyrubova.

In 1920, Vyrubova escaped to Finland. Seventeen years later, she was visited by a Yale student, Robert D. Brewster '39, who had become interested in the Romanovs after seeing the Lionel Barrymore film Rasputin and the Empress. Brewster persuaded Vyrubova to sell him the albums, and in 1951, he donated them to his alma mater. Personal as they are, the Beinecke photos have helped to contribute to the popular view of the last Russian tsar as a man who doted on his family and neglected his duties as a leader.

The problem with this image of Nicholas is that it is only half true. Nicholas was a devoted father and loving husband who adored spending time with his children—Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia and his youngest, the crown prince, Aleksei. But the emperor did not neglect his duties, at least as he perceived them. He was a deeply religious man who believed he had been divinely appointed as the leader, even the embodiment, of a great nation and its people. (He has since been canonized in the Russian Orthodox church as a martyr.) According to Mark D. Steinberg, author of The Fall of the Romanovs, the tsar’s religious beliefs combined with his moral rectitude to produce a disastrously autocratic political philosophy.

“This is the story of a man whose head is filled with an odd, complex, and archaic sense of duty,” says Steinberg. “He was not a stupid man, but instead a man whose ideology was out of tune with his time.” Steinberg, who previously taught Russian history at Yale, is now director of the Russian and East European Center of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Nicholas, he says, “didn’t believe in the universal fundamental rights of man. One has to take seriously the degree to which he was responsible for sending people to Siberia, for denying free speech.”

From his father, Alexander III, Nicholas inherited a fierce anti-Semitism. “Never forget it was the Zhidy who crucified the Lord and spilled his blood,” Alexander III told his young son, according to historian Virginia Cowles in The Last Tsar. Under Alexander, Jews “became the target of fierce pogroms . unequalled until the days of Adolf Hitler,” writes Cowles. Nicholas, too, tolerated bloody pogroms.

Poverty was widespread in Russia during Nicholas’s rule. The average industrial worker in Russia in 1910 earned 233 rubles a year, according to Steinberg, and the average farm worker earned 143 rubles a year. To put that in perspective, a pound of beef cost 9 rubles in 1913. And yet, the tsar believed that the Russian people, especially Russian peasants, were devoted to him. Russian nationhood itself, Nicholas conceived, inhered in the bond forged by God between the common people and their tsar. “Nicholas’s embrace of this myth,” writes Steinberg, “was a major obstacle to administrative and constitutional reform in Russia.”

None of this comes across in the albums. What the photos convey are luxury, ceremony, and family intimacy. The tsar and the empress were deeply in love throughout their marriage. The morning after the wedding, Alexandra wrote to Nicholas on a page of his diary, “Never did I believe there could be such utter happiness in this world, such a feeling of unity between two people, two mortal beings. I love you, these three words have my life in them.”

The couple’s children were their joy. The four girls, known as the Big Pair (Olga and Tatiana) and the Little Pair (Maria and Anastasia) were close, and advertised their bond by using a common autograph, OTMA. Aleksei, the hemophiliac, was everyone’s favorite—a happy and cute boy who was worshiped by his sisters and coddled by his mother and father. The Romanovs took their military duties seriously, and each child was “in charge” of a military regiment. Massie writes that when Aleksei was six, a group of officers from his regiment called on him at the palace. “Now, girls,” he said to his sisters, who had been playing with him, “run away. I am busy. Someone has just called to see me on business.”

In April of 1918, the family and some of their entourage were moved from Siberia to Ekaterinburg in the Ural mountains. On July 17, after midnight, the family was woken up and led to a basement room along with four aides. Aleksei and Alexandra were given chairs. A group of armed men entered the room, and a local commander announced that, by order of the regional soviet committee, they were all to be shot.

Yakov Yurovsky, the commander, later wrote: “The others then made a few incoherent exclamations … Then the shooting started.” The tsar was killed instantly by the first bullet; Alexandra died next. The rest were shot in the following two or three minutes. Aleksei and three of his sisters were not killed instantly and “had to be shot again.” The last daughter was still not dead after the second round of bullets. “When they tried to finish off one of the girls with bayonets, the bayonet could not pierce the corset. Thanks to all this, the entire procedure … took around 20 minutes.”  the end





The Romanov family photo albums will be on display to the public this winter, starting October 23–25, when Yale marks the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg with a history symposium. The program features exhibitions and concerts, as well as speakers from the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the Library of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and the All-Russian State Library for Foreign Literature in Moscow.


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