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 (an 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), Tsar of Kiev, Vladimir and Novgorod (Saint Michael, a lion and a throne, combined) 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.

The Russian Connection

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In 1698 Tsar Peter the Great established the Order of Saint Andrew. The X-shaped cross of Russia’s patron saint became an integral part of Russian naval flag design and inspired a number of naval jacks and ensigns in countries around the world.

The naval ensign of the Russian Federation, also know in Russian as “the Andreyevsky flag”, has a blue saltire (a diagonal cross, or a Saint Andrew’s cross) on white. It was designed by Tsar Peter personally and in its present form it has been Russia’s naval ensign since the 1710s (except from the time between the Communist Revolution and the fall of the Soviet Union). It is used by the Russian Navy and on board its warships, submarines and auxiliary vessels.

The Russian naval jack and fortress flag also originated in the 1710s during the reign of Peter the Great. It is a red flag with a white narrow cross on which is superimposed a blue saltire with white edges. The jack is flown from the bow of a naval vessel when it’s moored or at anchor. The fortress flag is raised on a flagpole at coastal fortresses and naval shore installations.

The Russian Coast Guard ensign is green and also has on it the blue saltire with white edges. The flag is used by all Coast Guard vessels. The Coast Guard is part of the border force of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB).

The flag of Arkhangelsk Oblast, adopted in 2009, has the provincial coat of arms and a blue saltire on white. The oblast, or province, is the home of Russia’s largest naval shipyard. The city of Arkhangelsk lies where the Northern Dvina river meets the White Sea. It is the most important harbour on the country’s northern coastline.

The naval jack of Uruguay shares two features with the country’s national flag: “The Sun of May” is in the centre, and the colours of the national flag are arranged as a blue saltire on white.

The naval ensign of Belgium has a saltire of black-yellow-red, the three colours from the Belgien national flag, with an anchor, two crossed cannons and a crown, all in black.

The naval jack of Bulgaria has the three colours of the Bulgarian national flag, but with a different design: A white background with a red cross superimposed on a green saltire.

The naval jack of Estonia also has the colours of the national flag arranged differently: A blue cross on a black saltire, all on a white background.

The naval ensign of Georgia has a white saltire on a red cross, all on blue. This flag is the youngest naval ensign of what could be called “the Andreyevsky naval flag family”. It came into use in 2004 at the same time as the national flag of Georgia was changed to its present design.

 

 

This is part 2 in a series about Saint Andrew’s crosses in flags. Read also Saint Andrew’s Day.