MOSCOW – Held a virtual prisoner by the Bolsheviks months before his execution, Russia’s last czar Nicholas II pasted informal snapshots of his family into an album that has now come to light in a Russian provincial museum.
The photographs, most of which have never been seen before, show the last of the Romanov rulers of Russia without pomp and in unguarded moments. Many were taken by Nicholas himself.
Since the 1920s, the album has been held in the Urals in the local history museum of Zlatoust, a small city in western Russia dominated by foundries.
It is now on show at a museum in Yekaterinburg, formerly Sverdlovsk, where the family was brutishly murdered along with their servants in 1918 in a crime that still raises raw emotions in Russia. The exhibition marks the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Romanov dynasty.
Without any gold crests or monograms, the album has simple pages with the photographs posted thematically rather than in chronological order. On the back of the pictures are penciled names.
The exhibition has caused excitement in Russia, with national daily Komsomlskaya Pravda serializing the photos. The album has never previously been shown outside the museum where it has been held all these years.
“We don’t know for sure how the album turned up in our museum, but it has been in our holdings since the end of the 1920s. Where it came from, though, is not recorded,” said the deputy head of the history department of the Zlatoust museum, Yury Okuntsov. “Most likely before that it was in the possession of someone who had something to do with guarding or executing the czar’s family.”
Zlatoust is around 300 km from Yekaterinburg, where the czar and his family were shot in a cellar.
The album contains just one photograph taken after the czar’s abdication in 1917. The others date from 1914, 1915 and 1916, and it seems likely that the czar compiled the album to pass the time while in exile with his family in Tobolsk, in western Siberia, between 1917 and 1918.
Okuntsov said he first came across the album in the museum’s archives in the 1980s, when it would have been unthinkable to exhibit the photographs.
These are not formal, technically perfect photographs but appear to have been taken by the czar and his family, who were keen amateur photographers and who look open and relaxed in front of the camera.
In one photo, Nicholas’ son, Alexei, clad in a striped bathing suit, stands in a hole on a riverbank as Nicholas wields a spade in a shabby army uniform.
The most exotic photograph shows Nicholas and Alexei with an elephant that was taken out of the royal family’s private zoo to swim in a pond during a heat wave — an incident recorded in Nicholas’ diary.