Skip to main content

From Russia with love

Their opulent but tragic story has captivated audiences around the world. Now, the Royal Museum plays host to a rare exhibition dedicated to Russia's last imperial family. Miranda Fettes takes a tour

The Royal Museum in Edinburgh is dripping with luxury interwoven with tragedy. Opulent court costumes from another world are imbued with the palpable thread of pathos, for the museum is home to a summer exhibition that explores the captivating story of Russia's last imperial family - an episode of history rich with drama.

Loaned from the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia, with its lavish skyline of onion-domed cathedrals in marble, malachite and gold, "Nicholas and Alexandra: The Last Tsar and Tsarina" is a collection of hundreds of artefacts relating to the Romanov dynasty.

Paintings, objets d'art, garments, jewellery, furniture, photographs, trinkets and other treasures open a window on to the lives of Tsar Nicholas II, his wife the Empress Alexandra and their five children, documenting the tragic downfall of the dynasty.

"Some of the items have never been seen outside Russia," says Annette MacTavish, the learning and programmes officer for the National Museums of Scotland. "It fits in nicely with the Standard grade history curriculum - unit three: People and Power, context C.

"A lot of schools study that unit. It looks at Russia from 1914 to 1941: the nature of the tsarist government, the discontent arising under the rule of the tsar, the Bolshevik revolution and the end of the period around the reign of the tsars and the Bolshevik era.

"It looks at the people of Russia and how the power shifts, and the struggles that took place and the period when the tsars created their own government, the Duma.

"The whole exhibition's relevant, because it sets in a context the richness of the family. You start to understand how the Romanov family fitted in in Europe, the family connections, their wealth, how Russia worked as a country and then disintegrated, and it all ended with the assassination.

However, Ms MacTavish says the exhibition's educational merit is not limited to Standard grade history: "There's material from Faberge that the imperial family commissioned, so if you're studying art and design or fashion, it could be of interest too."

"It's quite a moving story," she says, for Nicholas, Alexandra, their children Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia and the haemophiliac Tsarevich Alexei, together with some of their most loyal servants, were taken into a room in Ekaterinburg in July 1918 and shot and bayoneted by the Bolsheviks before their bodies were disposed of in a nearby wood.

"For some young children, it might be upsetting, so it's maybe not something you would take them to," she says.

However, for younger children, the museum's accompanying Russian themed events programme includes painting a Russian doll, learning circus skills and writing your name in Russian, as well as the cartoon film Anastasia, which tells an enchanting story of the lost princess. Children will also be able to hear tales of princesses, forest spirits, firebirds and folklore in Russian storytelling classes during August and October.

For older children, there are screenings of David Lean's Oscar-winning epic Dr Zhivago, and Russian Ark, which culminates with the last tsarist ball in 1913, as well as Russian folk and ballroom dancing and a 75-minute Russian language class.

The museum is to hold a teachers' preview evening on August 30. "Curators will be here to talk about the exhibition and discuss resources. We'll hopefully get about 30 history teachers."

In addition to ball gowns, lavish jewellery, gifts the family received on trips abroad, icons from the Russian Orthodox church, war items and a blood-stained shirt from another assassination attempt on Nicholas, the exhibition tells the tragic tale of a family uncomfortable with the formality and extravagance of court life and reluctant to live their lives under public scrutiny.

It also documents a turbulent period in the history of a powerful nation.

"People find the story fascinating," says Ms MacTavish. "It is a one-off opportunity for them to see these objects."

'Nicholas and Alexandra: The Last Tsar and Tsarina', Royal Museum of Edinburgh, Chambers Street, until October 30. Teachers' preview (free), August 30, 4.30-6.30pm, with exhibition tour at 5pm. Booking admits two people. Free two for one voucher for a return visit to the exhibition for everyone attending.Tel: 0131 247 4041;

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you