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Rocky Road

The legendary Romanov jewels, like many things Russian, are more than meets the eye. Not merely pretty baubles, they’ve been used more than once to shore up the national economy. The disastrous Russo-Japanese War and 1905 Revolution so depleted the national treasury that Tsar Nicholas II, unbeknownst to all but a few officials, sold off millions of dollars’ worth of unmounted stones to ease the deficit. India was a big customer, as evidenced in the dazzling diamonds flaunted by, among other Indian families, the Nizam of Hyderabad. Gemologists are certain that many of His Exalted Highness’s rocks are Russian. After the October Revolution in 1917, the victorious Bolsheviks seized the Romanov crown jewels, which had been crated and stashed in the Kremlin Armory for...

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Speed Kills!

Russia’s emperors and empresses were forever tinkering with their homes, but few had greater consequences than Tsar Nicholas I’s decision to alter the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Nicholas was a great architectural patron, establishing the Committee for Construction and Hydraulic Works to oversee public and private building in the capital and taking an active interest in numerous projects. In 1833, he commissioned renowned architect August de Montferrand to redesign several staterooms, the Field Marshall’s Hall and the Small Throne Room in the riverside palace. In addition to the commission, the tsar gave the Frenchman an absolutely killer deadline. Four years later, on December 17, 1837, with renovation continuing at a frantic pace, soot inflammation...

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A Tale of Two Sisters

Their Grand Ducal Highnesses, Elisabeth and Alix, princesses of the minor German House of Hesse and By Rhine, were related to half the royal houses of Europe. Their grandmother was no less than Britain’s Queen Victoria whose misgivings about the sisters’ marriages to Russians proved tragically prophetic when both women met violent ends in Siberia. Their intertwined destinies are among history’s strangest. Born in 1864, Princess Elisabeth, nicknamed Ella, was one of the most beautiful, sought-after royals in Europe. Charming and vivacious, she had no shortage of celebrated suitors. In addition to the expected nobles and aristocrats, she was pursued by Wilhelm, the future German Kaiser, and Frederick II, the future Grand Duke of Baden. Queen...

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