In 1917, the elite of Imperial Russian society fled their grand houses in St Petersburg for their country palaces in the Crimea. The country was facing a political catastrophe and revolution was once again in the air. Most believed that this could be quashed, that a solution could be found just as it had been in 1905 when Tsar Nicholas II had been forced to defer to calls for a new constitution that would set restrictions on the powers the Romanov dynasty had enjoyed for over 300 years. The constitution had promised an elected duma, a parliament by which the people could make their views known to their rulers but as the Tsar’s sister Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna later recalled “I did not understand anything about politics. I just felt everything was going wrong with the country and all of us. The October Constitution did not seem to satisfy anyone”. She travelled to the first Duma with her mother, the Dowager Empress Marie and noted “I remember the large group of deputies from among peasants and factory people. The peasants looked sullen. But the workmen were worse: they looked as though they hated us”. Certainly there was increasing discontent with Imperial system but by 1917, it wasn’t just the politically minded middle classes or the ordinary Russian peasants who were leading calls for another revolution. This time, members of the Imperial Family were openly campaigning against the Tsar and his wife. With the situation growing ever more intense, most chose to withdraw to the Crimea. Within a few months, the crisis could be averted and they could all return to St Petersburg, perhaps with a new Tsar in place who would finally give the people a constitutional monarchy and save the dynasty.
Marie wearing the Vladimir Tiara.
One figure with such hopes was the Grand Duchess Vladimir. She was born Duchess Marie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin in 1854, the daughter of the reigning Grand Duke Frederick Francis II of the German grand duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. Her mother, Princess Augusta, died when she just 8 years old and she raised by her father and a succession of step-mothers until she became engaged to Georg Albert, Prince of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt. He wasn’t particularly interesting to Marie and it didn’t take long before she found someone far more exciting and called off her engagement immediately. Her chosen beau was Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich of Russia, the third son of Tsar Alexander II but there were complications. In order to marry the Grand Duke, Marie would be required to convert to the Russian Orthodox Faith which as a strict Lutheran, she opposed. For three years, Vladimir and Marie continued their relationship and finally accepting the strong will of his future daughter in law, the Tsar overlooked the requirement for Marie’s conversion and the couple married on the 28th August 1874 in St Petersburg. Duchess Marie became the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna with a new style – Her Imperial Highness. Almost immediately, Marie (or Grand Duchess Vladimir as she was also known) began to make waves in Russian society. She was incredibly grand, her extravagance knew no bounds and in her palace in Petersburg she boasted four cabinets of jewels – one red for her rubies, one white for her diamonds, one green for her emeralds and one blue for her sapphires. Precious stones of rare and brilliant sizes were fashioned into all kinds of adornments for the Grand Duchess by Cartier or Chaumet and her collection was the envy of many a Russian courtier’s wife.
But by 1917, she had set herself apart from the Imperial Family. She loathed the Tsar’s wife, Empress Alexandra, whom she felt had plunged the Empire into chaos. It was the Grand Duchess Vladimir who met with various Russian politicians in those last days of Imperial splendour to suggest that Nicholas II might be….passed over….for her son Kyrill. It was also the Grand Duchess Vladimir who had been quoted as saying that the Empress should be “annihilated”. The Grand Duchess had formed a rival court where lavish parties and grand balls gave her the chance to network with the great and good of Russia whilst the Empress sat alone in her wheelchair in the Winter Palace, plagued by rheumatism and an increasingly dangerous religious fanaticism which had made her so dependent on Grigori Rasputin. She feared her only son, the Tsarevich, would die just as her own brother Frittie had, the two boys both cursed with hemophilia through Queen Victoria’s maternal line. With the Tsar away at the front line trying to prop up the lumbering and archaic Russian military against German advances, the Empress saw nobody, would listen to nobody and sadly, reached out to nobody. The murder of her closest ally Rasputin in December 1916 sent her into a deep depression from which nobody could rouse her. She clung to Rasputin’s prophecy that if he was killed at the hands of members of the Imperial Family, the entire dynasty would fall. Rasputin’s murderer had been none other than Prince Felix Yusupov, one of Russia’s wealthiest men and the husband of the Tsar’s niece Irina. The Empress now waited for the end.
Grand Duchess Vladimir would not be so easy to shake. She refused her son’s petitions to leave Russia and instead, sailed by fishing boat to Anapa on the Black Sea where she had a palace and could make herself comfortable. Before she left St Petersburg, she made a secret visit to the Swedish legation, returning to the harbour without a word to any of her fellow travellers. She left behind her staggeringly beautiful palace on the banks of the Neva with it’s sandstone griffins and 360 rooms decorated in every style from the Gothic Revival to the Byzantine, locking her vast assembly of jewelry away in a safe behind a painting. When the revolution had been successfully brought to a close and her son Kyrill proclaimed Tsar in Nicholas II’s place, the Grand Duchess would return as Dowager Empress of All the Russias and retrieve her collection. Shortly after the news arrived that the Tsar had abdicated, Grand Duke Kyrill rode to the Tauride Palace where the Duma was now in session. He proclaimed his loyalty to the Russian provisional government and wore a red arm band around his upper arm. Had he been successful, his reputation might well have fared better but as he was turned away, the surviving Romanovs saw him as a traitor, especially the Dowager Empress Marie who never quite accepted the loss of her son, her daughter in law and her grandchildren.
The Grand Duchess Vladimir had a key ally who now became her lifeline. His name was Albert Stopford. Little is known of Stopford except that he was a British diplomat and a close friend of Prince Felix Yusupov who introduced him to the Russian Court. Stopford dined often at the Vladimir Palace but it was his nationality and not his diplomatic skills that made him so valuable to Grand Duchess Vladimir in 1917. The British had been enormously welcoming to the Bolshevik regime. Much to his shame, George V had changed his mind at the eleventh hour and barred his cousin Nicholas from seeking exile in London. The David Lloyd-George government had made friendly overtones to the new Russian government to ensure that they remained in the war and helped to defeat Kaiser Wilhelm II and whilst this was a disaster for the Tsar, it was extremely useful to Albert Stopford. He had diplomatic immunity and could go wherever he pleased in Russia. He had taken up the case for Grand Duchess Vladimir, writing to the British government that she would never leave Russia unless deported by force. His ability to move freely throughout Russia now made him an invaluable servant to Grand Duchess Vladimir and she charged him with a special mission.
Late one night, Stopford dressed as a workman and crept into the Vladimir Palace in St Petersburg via the sewers with two large gladstone bags. He found the painting, as directed by the Grand Duchess, and opened the safe. Working quickly, he stuffed the bags with brooches, earrings, necklaces, orders and decorations and a total of 25 tiaras including some of the most expensive items of jewelry ever to be created . Giving the bags a slight shake to simulate the sound of workman’s tools, he made his way to his lodgings where he quickly changed once more and made his way to the British legation. The Grand Duchess remained in Anapa for fourteen months after the revolution began whilst Stopford returned to London. Finally taking the advice of a White Russian General who told her that the revolution had been successful and that she would no doubt be killed if she remained, Grand Duchess Vladimir left Russia. She had decided to go to Venice where she had a house but though the quickest route was through Constantinople, she declined, well aware that she would have to undergo the indignity of being searched for fleas. Waiting for her in Venice was a letter from Stopford. He had safely delivered his precious cargo to his bank in London with an inventory sent to Cartier in Paris for a valuation. The first item on the list was “A fine brilliant 16 round link tiara with 16 fine pearl drops”.
Grand Duchess Vladimir died on the 6th September 1920, exhausted and horrified by the circumstances of her exile. She was 66 years old. We have no record of Stopford after his secret mission in Russia except that he made several trips to Paris to aid in the valuation of the items. We do not know whether the family of the Grand Duchess ever showed their appreciation to him financially but his bravery ensured the survival of Grand Duchess Vladimir’s children in exile. Her daughter, the Grand Duchess Elena, was left the tiara with the round links and pearl drops. In 1902, she had married Prince Nicholas of Greece and Denmark but in 1921, the Greek Monarchy had been abolished and the family found themselves living in France in exile. With no money for food, she decided to sell her antiques and her jewels. Buyers came forward at auction but one item was sold privately – the tiara with the 16 pearl drops. The wife of King George V, Queen Mary, had a penchant for antiques and fine jewelry. Ironically, had the British supported the Tsar (her first cousin by marriage), she would never have stood a chance of owning the tiara but in 1921 she purchased it along with a suite of diamonds for £28,000 – around £984,000 today. In 1934, Queen Mary’s son George married Princess Nicholas’ daughter Marina. When Queen Mary died in 1953, she left the tiara not to Princess Marina but to her granddaughter – Queen Elizabeth II. It is now worn regularly at state banquets and has become an iconic piece of the Queen’s private jewelery collection yet without Albert Stopford, it would have remained lost in a vault in St Petersburg forever.
Queen Elizabeth II in the Vladimir Tiara.
In 2009, the Swedish archives began to process old collections. They unearthed a box containing two pillowcases. Painting on the material with black paint and written in French were the words “S.A.R Grand Duchesse Vladimir”. The pillowcases contained a stunning assortment of Faberge pieces which were sold at auction for £7m. They had been lost for nine decades, placed there by the Grand Duchess Vladimir before she fled her beloved St Petersburg. Most of the silverware, priceless paintings, antiques and ceramics collected by members of the Russian Imperial Family were sold or destroyed. The jewels of Prince Felix Yusupov’s wife were prised from their settings and auctioned off by the Bolsheviks. Some pieces were protected and made their way into museums, others were remodelled and sold at further auctions but others have simply vanished. Occasionally, an item of Faberge will take the world by storm, the constant fascination with the Romanovs fuelling vast sums of money exchanging hands for Imperial eggs or other trinkets but these are almost always sold to anonymous owners. Whenever Queen Elizabeth II attends a state function wearing her Grand Duchess Vladimir tiara, we are reminded of Albert Stopford who once secreted it in a Gladstone bag and smuggled it from under the noses of the Bolshevik regime.