100 years ago: The last day of the Russian Empire

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The Imperial Russian State Colour is a splendid flag symbolizing that which came to an end on 15 March 1917 when Nicholas II abdicated: More than twenty million square kilometres of empire and a thousand years of monarchy.

The State Colour of the Russian Empire was the principal and most prestigious military flag in pre-revolution Russia, treated always with full military honours. The latest version of the State Colour, from 1896, is kept in the Kremlin Armoury in Moscow. The image above shows the State Colour as depicted in Герб и Флаг России: X-XX века (1997).

On it are the full heraldic achievements of Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias: the arms of all the realms and territories that made up the Russian Empire and, at the lower edge of the flag, the combined arms of his Holstein-Gottorp-Romanov dynasty. These armorial bearings were the same as in the Greater State Arms of the Russian Empire.

The central element of the flag is the crowned, double-headed Imperial Eagle carrying the sceptre and orb of the Empire and, on its breast, the arms with Saint George slaying the dragon, surrounded by the collar of the Order of Saint Andrew, the highest Russian order. On its wings the arms corresponding to a list of the Emperor’s titles:

Tsar of Kazan (a zilant), Tsar of Astrakhan (an oriental sword), Tsar of Poland (a single-headed eagle), Tsar of Siberia (two sables), Tsar of the Tauric Chersonesus (a double-headed eagle), Tsar of Georgia (Saint George and the dragon, among others), Grand Duke of Kiev, Vladimir and Novgorod (Saint Michael, a lion, a throne and two bears, respectively) and Grand Duke of Finland (a lion and roses).

At the edges of the flag, six shields surround the Imperial Eagle with arms of principalities, provinces and territories of the Empire. On an oak branch, from top to bottom: Great Russia (present-day Central Russia), Belarus and Lithuania, and the North-East (present-day Northern Russia). On a palm branch, from top to bottom: the South-West (Ukraine), the Baltic lands (e.g. Estonia, Livonia, Karelia) and Turkestan (Central Asia).

The State Colour was made of silk and adorned with different kinds of passementarie i.e. elaborate embroidery, edgings and braids, with gold and silver cords, and applications of coloured silk and gold leaf. Fringes and tassels were black, gold and silver. These are the colours of the Russian “heraldic flag”, a black-yellow-white tricolour introduced in 1858 and still used by Russian monarchists and nationalists today.

Two silk scrolls were embroidered with four important years. 862: The founding of the first Russian state by the viking Rurik. 988: The baptism of Grand Prince Vladimir the Great and the acceptance of Christianity by Kievan Rus. 1497: The introduction of a nationwide code of law by Grand Prince Ivan III; he was also the first Russian ruler to use the title Tsar and Autocrat. 1721: The founding of the Russian Empire by Peter the Great.

The year 1917 was as important as any in Russian history. The terrible World War brought about the fall of a deeply troubled monarchy. But in no way did the February Revolution and the abdication mean the end of hardship for Russia. The October Revolution, terror and civil war, decades of Communism and another World War followed. The last Tsar was killed, the legacy of the Empire and a millennium of Rurikid and Romanov rulers survived and is stronger in Russia today than for a long time.

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Return of the Empress

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Ten years ago, Empress Maria Feodorovna found her final resting place in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg, Russia. The golden standard of the Russian Empresses covered her coffin on its journey from Denmark where she died in exile almost 78 years earlier.

Empress Maria Feodorovna died far from her beloved Russia in her villa north of Copenhagen, Denmark, on 13 October 1928, 80 years old. She was the widow of Alexander III, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias. In 1919 she was forced to leave Russia following the Communist revolution.

Maria Feodorovna first set foot on Russian soil in September 1866 at the age of 18. She arrived in Saint Petersburg on board a Danish warship as the bride-to-be of the young Tsarevich Alexander Alexandrovich who later became Emperor Alexander III. She had already converted to the Russian Orthodox Church and very early on she came to regard Russia as her home.

Following the assassination in 1881 of Emperor Alexander II, Alexander III ascended the thrown. He and Maria Feodorovna were crowned in 1883 at the Kremlin, Moscow. The couple had six children. Their happy marriage ended in 1894 when Alexander III died at the age of 49.

Maria Feodorovna became much loved in Russia and played the role of Empress Dowager to perfection. Her eldest son became Nicholas II, the last Russian Emperor.

Before marrying in Russia the Empress was known as Princess Dagmar of Denmark. She came from a large and close-knit family. King Christian IX of Denmark was her father. King George I of Greece was her brother. King Christian X of Denmark and Iceland and King Haakon VII of Norway were her nephews. Her sister Alexandra was the wife of Edward VII, King of Great Britain and Ireland, Emperor of India.

It was thanks to a British warship that Maria Feodorovna was able to get out of revolutionary Russia alive. During her stay in Crimea she had received the news of the murders of her sons, Nicholas and Michael, and of her daughter-in-law and her five grandchildren. For the rest of her life she refused to accept that they had been brutally killed by the Communists.

In 2006 after many years of planning it was finally possible to transfer the body of Empress Maria Feodorovna to Russia. She had been temporarily interred in the Cathedral of Roskilde, the main burial site for the Danish royal family. On 23 September 2006 a service there marked the beginning of the Empress’ last journey. Again, a Danish warship sailed her to Saint Petersburg.

On 28 September 2006 Maria Feodorovna was interred in the Peter and Paul Fortress on the River Neva in the former capital of the Russian Empire, next to the grave of her husband and in close proximity to the graves of Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna.

Fittingly, the Empress of Russia’s Standard covered the coffin on her last sea voyage. This flag is a swallow-tailed version of the Imperial Russian Naval Standard adopted by Emperor Peter the Great and changed very little over the years:

On a background of gold, a black double-headed eagle, crowned with three Imperial crowns, on its chest an inescutcheon, red with the mounted Saint George slaying a black dragon, surrounded by the collar of the Order of Saint Andrew. In its beaks and and claws the eagle holds four nautical charts showing the “four seas of Russia” – the Baltic Sea, the White Sea, the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.