In the steps of the Romanovs in Moscow
by Harry Seabourne

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In the last week of August last year my late wife and I spent a fascinating week in the Russian capital. We had joined a specially organised party which had as its aim to visit some of the places in the city and the surrounding area that had special associations with the imperial family. Many might say that one would find such places more likely in St Petersburg than in Moscow and certainly for the years after 1703 this might well be so. Nevertheless the first Romanov tsars and indeed Peter the great himself in his early years all lived and reigned in Moscow and until the very end of the empire every tsar returned to Moscow for his coronation in the Uspensky cathedral. Also throughout the 19th century many of the various cousins and uncles of the emperors built themselves palaces or acquired estates in or around the city.

We found ourselves frequently in places associated with two of these latter in particular and they might perhaps deserve a special mention here. The Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovitch was an uncle of the last tsar and brother in law of the last empress. Not a particularly distinguished character in himself he had become by 1905 governor general of Moscow. In that year he was blown to pieces by a Bolshevik bomb as he entered the Kremlin. His remains were buried in the crypt of the Chudov monastery that stood within the Kremlin at that time but was destroyed after the revolution. Sergei's remains then lay for almost 90 years below the Kremlin car park until in the 1990's he was reburied in the church of the Novospasky monastery which is near Ilinskoye an estate that had belonged to Sergei and his wife. We found this church packed with worshippers and visitors and it was interesting to see the great reverence being shown to the monument erected near the church to Sergei and his wife and which is supposed to be an exact replica of the one erected on the assassination spot in the Kremlin and torn down after the revolution (it is said that Lenin himself helped in the demolition!)

Sergei's wife Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fedorovna (Ela to her family) after her husband's death renounced the world and became a nun, founding the Martha and Mary convent also near Ilinskoye. There she and her fellow nuns provided devotedly the educational and medical needs of the local peasants and during the first world war nursed wounded soldiers. We visited the convent which somehow survived the years of Communism and we gave a gift of medical supplies to the mother superior for which that lady was most grateful. She made us most welcome. We were also able to visit the little church nearby where Ela had worshipped and which is now undergoing restoration. Ela met a terrible fate after the revolution. Arrested with a number of her relatives she was taken to the town of Alapaevsk in the Urals and as the white armies advanced on the town, their captors flung them down a disused mineshaft. After the town fell the mine was opened and it was found that Ela although terribly injured in the fall had in her dying moments torn up her petticoats to bandage the wounds of her companions! Ela's body now rests in the Russian cathedral in Jerusalem and she is now a saint of the Orthodox church.

Back in the city we had a very thorough tour of the Kremlin where we visited all the usual sights. I was particularly impressed with the Archangelsky cathedral where all the tsars and grand Princes of Moscow lie buried. President Putin and his escort passed us while we were there but we couldn't see him in the car (the special glass prevents you looking inside!) We visited the Tretyakov gallery where we were able to see so many of the paintings with which one is so familiar from Russian history books. We were also specially privileged to visit the Russian State Archives where I was able to handle such treasures as letters from Nicholas II and the diary kept by the young tsarevitch Alexei.

At Kolomenskaya on the banks of the Moscow river and some kilometres from the centre of the city tsar Aleksei (Peter the Great's father) built a huge palace complex in the 17th century. It was however of wood and after a century had so decayed that Catherine the Great ordered its demolition. The stone gatehouse however survives and in its small museum we saw a wonderful model of the vast original buildings.

At Archangelsoye some 14 miles west of the city we visited the great palace built in the 18th century by the Golitzins and later the home of the Yusupov family one of the richest in prerevolutionary Russia. The palace is undergoing extensive restoration but we were allowed inside and even among the trestles and scaffolding we could get an idea of the magnificence of the rooms in their heyday. Most of the tsars visited Archangelskoye at some time or another as did Pushkin whose bust stands in the grounds.

There were many other interesting places that we visited in the city including the City Hall once the office of Grand Duke Sergei and now the headquarters of Moscow's dynamic mayor, Yuri Luzhkov. Particularly impressive was the cathedral of Christ the Redeemer, blown up on Stalin's orders in 1931 but now magnificently restored.

Unfortunately space and time do not permit to relate more of our fascinating week where we encountered so many memories of the family that ruled Russia for over 300 years.

Written by Harry Seabourne

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