Images from Russia's Last Imperial Ball Digitized by Hoover Archives

Wednesday, August 11, 2010
Lady-in-waiting of their majesties
Lady-in-waiting of their majesties

One hundred years ago the office in charge of editing Russia's state papers created a unique album, depicting as it does many of the guests at a costume ball at the Winter Palace in February 1903 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of St. Petersburg. Three hundred and ninety people attended, including sixty guardsmen. It was to be the last imperial ball in Russian history.

The participants wore seventeenth-century attire from the time of Alexis of Russia, the second tsar of the Romanov dynasty. The costumes were created especially for the event, based on sketches by the artist Sergei Solomko, who consulted with experts on historical dress. The guests paid fortunes for their costumes; contemporaries noted that they were also laden with priceless, original jewels.

After the ball, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna commissioned the best photographers of St. Petersburg (Rentz & Shrader, Boissonas & Eggler, Levitzky, Reissert and Fliege, D. Assikritow, Iasvoin, and others) to make individual and collective portraits of the participants. The empress herself became editor in chief of the album. Containing twenty-one photogravures and 174 photographs of the participants, it was designed to be distributed to the guests as a gift album. Charitable donations solicited from the recipients were “to the benefit of Russian troops in Far East.”

Only a few copies of the original album, published in 1904, survive in libraries and private collections. One such, containing a full set of photogravures and photographs, is at the Hoover Institution Archives in the Graf Hilarion Woronzow-Daschkow collection. It was acquired from the family of Count Hilarion Woronzow-Daschkow (1837–1916), a cavalry general who, under Emperor Alexander III, was the head of the security guards (1881) and minister of the Imperial Court and Domains (1881–97). In 1897 Woronzow-Daschkow was appointed to the State Council; from 1905 to 1912 he was governor-general of the Caucasus.

Digital use copies of all images are now available in the Hoover Archives reading room. The photograph of Grand Duchess Xenia was featured on a Hoover Digest cover (1999, no. 3). Two images from the album were featured in the catalog of the Cleveland Museum of Art exhibit “Artistic Luxury: Faberge, Tiffany, Lalique” (2008). Some of the original ball costumes were exhibited in Russia’s State Hermitage Museum in 2003.