The Romanovs’ Last Ball Brought to Life in Color Photographs (1903)

In 1903, the Romanovs, Russia’s last and longest-reigning royal family, held a lavish costume ball. It was to be their final blowout, and perhaps also the “last great royal ball” in Europe, writes the Vintage News. The party took place at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, 14 years before Czar Nicholas II’s abdication, on the 290th anniversary of Romanov rule. The Czar invited 390 guests and the ball ranged over two days of festivities, with elaborate 17th-century boyar costumes, including “38 original royal items of the 17th century from the armory in Moscow.”

“The first day featured feasting and dancing,” notes Russia Beyond, “and a masked ball was held on the second. Everything was captured in a photo album that continues to inspire artists to this day.” The entire Romanov family gathered for a photograph on the staircase of the Hermitage theater, the last time they would all be photographed together.

It is like seeing two different dead worlds superimposed on each other—the Romanovs’ playacting their beginning while standing on the threshold of their last days.

With the irony of hindsight, we will always look upon these poised aristocrats as doomed to violent death and exile. In a morbid turn of mind, I can’t help thinking of the baroque gothic of “The Masque of the Red Death,” Edgar Allan Poe’s story about a doomed aristocracy who seal themselves inside a costume ball while a contagion ravages the world outside: “The external world could take care of itself,” Poe’s narrator says. “In the meantime it was folly to grieve or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure…. It was a voluptuous scene, that masquerade.”

Maybe in our imagination, the Romanovs and their friends seem haunted by the weight of suffering outside their palace walls, in both their country and around Europe as the old order fell apart. Or perhaps they just look haunted the way everyone does in photographs from over 100 years ago. Does the colorizing of these photos by Russian artist Klimbim—who has done similar work with images of WW2 soldiers and portraits of Russian poets and writers—make them less ghostly?

It puts flesh on the pale monochromatic faces, and gives the lavish costuming and furniture texture and dimension. Some of the images almost look like art nouveau illustrations (and resemble those of some of the finest illustrators of Poe’s work) and the work of contemporary painters like Gustav Klimt. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that unease lingers in the eyes of some subjects—Empress Alexandra Fedorovna among them—a certain vague and troubled apprehension.

In their book A Lifelong Passion, authors Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko quote the Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovitch who remembered the event as “the last spectacular ball in the history of the empire.” The Grand Duke also recalled that “a new and hostile Russia glared through the large windows of the palace… while we danced, the workers were striking and the clouds in the Far East were hanging dangerously low.” As Russia Beyond notes, soon after this celebration, “The global economic crisis marked the beginning of the end for the Russian Empire, and the court ceased to hold balls.”

In 1904, the Russo-Japanese War began, a war Russia was to lose the following year. Then the aristocracy’s power was further weakened by the Revolution of 1905, which Lenin would later call the “Great Dress Rehearsal” for the Revolutionary takeover of 1917. While the aristocracy costumed itself in the trappings of past glory, armies amassed to force their reckoning with the 20th century.

Who knows what thoughts went through the mind of the tzar, tzarina, and their heirs during those two days, and the minds of the almost 400 noblemen and women dressed in costumes specially designed by artist Sergey Solomko, who drew from the work of several historians to make accurate 17th-century recreations, while Peter Carl Fabergé chose the jewelry, including, writes the Vintage News, the tzarina’s “pearls topped by a diamond and emerald-studded crown” and an “enormous emerald” on her brocaded dress?

If the Romanovs had any inkling their almost 300-year dynasty was coming to its end and would take all of the Russian aristocracy with it, they were, at least, determined to go out with the highest style; the family with “almost certainly… the most absolutist powers” would spare no expense to live in their past, no matter what the future held for them. See the original, black and white photos, including that last family portrait, at History Daily, and see several more colorized images at the Vintage News.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2019.

Related Content 

Watch Scenes from Czarist Moscow Vividly Restored with Artificial Intelligence (May 1896)

Dostoyevsky Got a Reprieve from the Czar’s Firing Squad and Then Saved Charles Bukowski’s Life

Tsarist Russia Comes to Life in Vivid Color Photographs Taken Circa 1905-1915



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Comments (41)
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  • Jonathan says:

    Still better off under the Tsar than under the communists.

  • Sue says:

    True if the czar would have changed the way the country was governed

  • AnneMarie says:

    If you live in America you better move,now, to either Russia, China or North Korea. You are benefitting way too much from your bourgeois lifestyle living off the honest hard working people of the U.S. If you didn’t make your own clothes, i-phone, grow your own food or heat your house with wood you chopped yourself then shut your face.

  • Melissa K says:

    Enjoy each day we have. Marvel at our gorgeous national parks (our escape from our middle class lives) hug our families and beloved animals for I fear China, North Korea and Russia are planning to just wipe America off the face of the earth. Never fear a majority of our politicians who will likely disappear into shelters. However, where will their backbone be? What will they do if they can’t run for re-election? That is, after all, their only purpose it seems. America will no longer exist. Please anyone, prove me wrong. But right or wrong, take heed from history and count your precious days.

  • Sheila says:

    Bet you live in the
    USA,amidst all the
    If you were really so
    smitten with communists
    you would be in
    Russia, better yet

  • Louis BERTHIAUME says:

    With all due respect as long as the population of this country ( the U.S.A.) is armed and aware , Russia ,China and North Korea can go u know what themselves, and who ever that was that was touting the great Soviet Union , can go do the same, right now America is divided , but give us a common enemy and u will see us come together as we did in WW2 , Go ahead and do your best , U BOLSHEVIK Dogs!

  • lLouis BERTHIAUME says:

    They want no part of Americans fighting a foreign Country on our own soil , Believe me , U Want No Part of That!

  • Vincent says:

    I love America this is the land of the freedom…
    Any ideas,any dreams Can be a reality in this country…
    This is a country where a single man Mater Luther King gather more than a million people unarmed during his Famous speech “I have a dream.
    A native son of America Ex presidentJohn F. Kennedy…” Don’t ask what the country can do for you, Instead ask what you can do for the country…
    This country is protected under the God umbrella, Let’s be in our nee and kiss this Blessed land.

    Let’s get rid of all the corruption in the government Especially all the Corrupted politicians in Washington DC.

    Donald Trump for the President 2024.
    America believed in you.

  • Suck ittz says:

    What exactly is your point you Russian planted spam bot?

  • John Karkalis says:

    The reference to Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” is apt.
    If you have a copy? Read it.
    Poe was indeed prescient and could have been speaking of our time.

  • Katarina says:

    I liked this article very much, and the project of reviving photos. The reference to Poe is also superb.

    But for the many USA citizen’s comments posted here, I must say they are very narrow minded, and I am afraid they are missing the point very much. Would they be posting the same comments if article was about the last ball of Marie Antoinette?

    The case for and against revolutions is a big philosophical question, but one thing is not: they come when people feel desperate and feel like they have nothing to loose (plus there are some arms on disposal for “the crowds”).

  • Shaja says:

    Empress Alexandra Fedorovna was thinking to herself, “I am an empress, look at my large, irregular cut emerald costing more than a kazillion rubles. How did I get stuck wearing the Christmas pudding for a crown?”

    Or maybe she was sad, realizing she could no longer hold balls.

  • Raven E. says:

    Mother Russia is still mother Russia. Give me the long tales and deep descriptors of truth by Russian long fellows than the short anticdotes of a corrupt and cruel product placement. At least they made the attempt at a governmental socialistic society.

  • Kathryn says:


  • Whoistiffy says:

    Donald Trump is the single biggest threat to our democracy that I am literally terrified about the future of this country ..
    He does not believe in anything or anyone except himself.. the man has such small duck syndrome that he will lie , cheat , rape and steal whatever it takes to feel like he’s the biggest man… he doesn’t care anything about the values of the Republican Party.. his words are meaningless… the way he talks about democrats and most everyone else .. we’l it’s not very dignified .. especially since he has refused to tell white supremacist to stand down.. this isn’t even a left and right issue as far as I’m concerned.. trump is a danger to us both.. cause he don’t give a rats a$$ about either..

  • Mayden says:

    But where, oh where, are those gorgeous pearls and gems? Were they ripped apart and shared, or stolen and hidden? The wearer’s died, but the gems, much like history, remain.

  • Ann Marshall says:

    The preoccupation, sorrow, and anxiety in the empress’s eyes may have as the source her son’s hemophilia. And, grief and the need to conceal their only son’s hemophilia was a significant contributing factor to the emperor’s inattention to the real conditions in Russia at that time.

  • Frank Grrmann says:

    You are suffering from a bad case of TDS! You need to reach out for truth, not the propaganda from the left wing news media!! God Bless

  • Mike Scheele says:

    The Progressives, with help of the main stream media, has successfully divided us. We’re all in our own little tribes just as they planned. We’ve lost any and all moral compass and values. Normalcy is passe and now anything goes. The country is broke and there is NO turning back.The dollar is no longer king and our enemies are sitting back waiting for our eventual collapse that will make the Great Depression look like a cake walk. We not only never learn from history, we rush to repeat it because after we’re smarter than God Right?

  • OC says:

    It looks like this page is getting a lot of visitors today. But we’re not sure who is sending folks here. Can anyone give us a sense?

    Open Culture

  • Kat says:

    Open your eyes after you remove your head from your ars. Sheeple like you who sit in front of your TV instead of study into what is happening are the biggest threat to the end of our Constitutional Republic. Look look and sound so idiotic at this point in time. I’m sincerely embarrassed for you all who still have not realized YOU are the frogs in the pot on the stove. I feel bad for you.

  • Melinda Jarrett says:

    Yes things are very different than20 years ago if you want to know where we are heading.
    Open the Bible read the prophet and study revelations. It’s all there. I wish I had better understanding of it I’m working on it

  • Warren thunell says:

    We have a Republic not a democracy!
    No other president gave up their salary as President!
    Donald Trump has done more for this country then you care to admit! If you think the people running things now are good honest people you are wrong!
    Unless Donald Trump gets back in office there is going to be very very hard times ahead!

  • Margaret says:

    The great thing about the US is that we don’t have to shut out face.

  • CoriMSU says:

    Your article was in my Google suggested-for-me news feed.

  • Cy says:

    Agreed 👍

  • Cy says:

    Why would he tell white supremacist to stand down? They are their own people. They listen to no one. The same goes for crips or bloods or any street organized club. Should they stand down also? These people are not toddlers. They are grown men and women who feel their voices need to be heard, their cause driven into the minds of anyone who will listen. What happens when you try to tell a screaming child to hush or stop? They throw a fit! Whether that be screaming louder or becoming destructive there will be a fight until the child feels they have been heard and their needs have been met. That is the same with white supremacist or any organized group. He won’t tell them to stand down bc he doesn’t want a bigger problem tomorrow. He liked to focus on things he could fix. I know it was a hand to my forehead when I realized that Trump really does have our best interest at heart. He maybe showy and quite possibly doesn’t have the best bed side manners however he is a natural born leader who doesn’t have a racist bone in his body. Except for maybe dumbasses. But please instead of calling him what you’ve heard him be called by the mainstream media please do your own research and look a little farther than your regular cable tv. You won’t find anything credible there. As long as we stay divided and refuse to communicate effectively and efficiently we will remain divided and in constant fear of what the future holds for us. The moment we unite and learn to stand together, no matter what, we will be a force to be reckoned with. I pray we find it in us all to overlook our differences and stop letting these corrupt people chose money over our freedom security and our lives.

  • Joyce says:

    Spot on Cy!

  • Seize d day says:

    This is what corruption one goes to Washington with a mind to help people..maybe everone of those sign toting liberal athiest need to see what socialism communism really is..and history was dropped from from schools a long time ago…liberals want to degress students as much as possible…dumb them down…theres lots of room on sidewalks and parking lots to live in a tent…Shame on all those liberal jurks…by the way..look to Claus Shwab and his Economic Forum buddies for destroying America..if they billionaires they are responsible..

  • John says:

    Our country is coming to the end of a period in which our forefathers got on a very good trend of leasing agreements lasting 99 years and the government is kind of leaning on time allowing them to slip through the cracks of law.. lots of people don’t know of or uneducated about the 99-year lease trend particularly around the South and civil war era and turn of the century.. Florida doesn’t really belong to Florida anymore it has a whole new set of things coming into play if people are aware of the contracts that were surrounded around all the purchases of railroads particularly… And when the EPA shut down OMG a lot of land is supposed to go back to its rightful owners.. I personally believe that’s why tallahassee’s government is auctioning off its s land assets..

  • Greg says:

    Trump, biggest mafioso ever…

  • Ngentotlu says:

    Anti semites cossack sluts

  • John Crowell says:

    The Constitution doesn’t need to be changed, it needs to be read. We need need to rid ourselves of the haters of freedom. I speak of the career politician, they have even created political dynastys. I speak of family’s like the Kennedy’s, the Gores, the Bushes and many more. The politicians never think about further generations their only thought is about the next election. They are a bunch of race baiters. Both party’s play good cop bad cop with the American people domestically, yet internationally they march in lock step. Presidents that commit crimes against the citizens they vow to protect should be executed. If we treated them like the criminals they are the rest would get their heads out of the public troff. Then we might start seeing some statesmen in Washington. Crooks and liers like Biden, Jimmy Carter, George Bush senior and Bill Clinton should be imprisoned for life, instead of being guarded at the American People’s expense. Only free people have guns.Instead Jimmy Carter releases the mentally ill on the streets and even imports them turns them lose on the public.

  • Missy says:

    “The Romanoff’s playacting their past while standing on their future…”or something like that. And some comparison to Edgar A. Poe?

    Huh? No author’s name? Poor sport.

    By not just telling the facts one might conclude that the author viewed this Russian Aristocratic family to have gotten their just desserts.

    What happened to all that splendor? Divided up and thrownto the wolves I would imagine. Were all those jewels sold to feed the masses?

    The fall of Rome, the French Revolution, the assassination of the Romonoff family—was the act of those with less to take all from those with more.

    A fruitless act of greed.

  • Elisabeth Ziesmer says:

    Well said! I agree wholeheartedly!

  • Cathy says:

    Blessed be the woman who chops her own wood, for she twice warmed.

  • Mauro says:

    Why so angry? Biden is turning America into another failed communist country. Look around….name one successful communist country where citizens are happy? Where people can live free, speak freely without fear of reprisal? President Trump is a true patriot. He may not have the best morals, but he’s patriotic, and NO ONE will ever say that about traitor biden.

  • Rhonda says:

    This came up in the news articles that pop up when I first open Google.

  • Nancy says:

    You are so right about Trump.

  • Lori says:

    Donald Trump is Not the only President to refuse a salary!! Do your research before you talk. JFK didn’t amoung others. I’ll let you research the others for yourself.

  • Mary S says:

    She had a heavy burden at that time that had nothing to do with that crown–at that time she had not yet produced a male heir to the Russian throne. I did some fact checking; the Tsarevich Alexei was born the following August of 1904. Then came the hemophilia, Rasputin (who had a wife and 3 kids back in Siberia), and murder.

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