Holidays and Celebrations - Romanov Picnic in the Finnish Fjords
by General Alexander Spiridovitch
June 2nd, the emperor and his family left for the fjords. The Standart and the torpedo boats once more anchored in the preferred place. That year the season in the fjords was quite gay.
The Captain of the torpedo boat was assisted by 2nd ranked Captain, Prince Trubetskoy, a very worldly officer, handsome man, and full of initiative. Trubetskoy had been presented to the Empress when, then a young princess, she had gone to Russia for the very first time. He had danced with her at a Ball given by Admiral Arsenyev, Director of the Naval Corps.
Trubetskoy had the idea to organize a picnic on the beach for the Grand Duchesses. After scouting out the terrain with Mrs. Vyrubouva, and being assured that the Empress did not object, Trubetskoy addressed the subject by official request to Her Majesty. It was a Sunday, as the result of a lunch on board the Standart. The Empress answered that she permitted the Grand Duchesses to attend the picnic, but that she did not wish to attend herself, due to the state of her health. The Emperor who was present at this discussion asked Trubetskoy: "And me, Prince, you have not invited me?" The Prince was not troubled, found an answer and the sailors were immediately sent to begin the preparations for the party.
The weather was magnificent. they chose a lawn, several versts from the beach, which they covered with carpets and there they accumulated delicacies and provisions.
On the fixed day, at 2:30 in the afternoon, the Emperor, all the Grand Duchesses, Mrs. Vyroubova, the suite and the officers of the Standart descended on the bah and were led on foot to the spot where they were to have their picnic. One could recognize the spot from afar, as the sailors had set up pavilions.
On an immense and magnificent lawn, surrounded on all sides by fir trees and in one corner was a pavilion built for this purpose, they pitched a tent where they accumulated everything one could imagine, very fertile imagination in this respect, the sailors attended to their guests: tea, milk, fruits, candies, liquors, the celebrated strawberry tarts from the Baker Ivanov. The guests were treated royally. Trubetskoy had literally out done himself.
The Emperor ate the strawberry tarts with great pleasure. He found them excellent, said that it was the first time he had eaten one and that he did not know they were a specialty of Ivanov.
They quickly began to play different games: Cossack robbers, races, Blind Man's Bluff. The older men, like Nilov, were comfortably installed on the carpets in front of the pavilion, chatting and resting.
The Emperor spent the entire time playing with the youngsters. Everybody was gay. They amused themselves for some six hours, after which time the Emperor gave the signal it was time to leave.
On the path, near the forest, the guests got into two wheeled Finnish carts. This was yet a new amusement. These carts rolled with an appalling noise, shaking the travelers, and banging one against the other resulting in gales of laughter and shouts. Thus they arrived right up at the Martin-Sari landing, from where they went in the shore boats back to the yacht.
The Emperor personally gave the Finnish coachman a gold coin. The Finn, who was a rather well to do man, owner of a farm, kissed the hand of "Caesar" (which was how the Finnish called the Emperor) and was visibly happy.
The next year, I saw this gold coin hanging on the wall of his room; it had been mounted on a board and put in a frame. It was kept as a relic. He also received, in memory of that season (as the picnic had taken place on his property) a gold watch, decorated with the Imperial Cypher.
The Tsarina expressed her appreciation to Trubetskoy, when he went to thank her again for her permission given to the children to attend the picnic. July 15, on Prince Trubetskoy's name day, Their Majesties sent their felicitations by semaphore to him.
The example set by Trubetskoy was a great success, so much so that the officers of the Standard decided that they themselves should organize a picnic in honor of the Grand Duchesses.
The party was set for July 22nd, name day of Empress Marie Feodorovna. It was Lieutenant N.N. Rodionov, who enjoyed the friendship of the entire Imperial Family, who was put in charge of organizing the event. The selected small wood with firm ground and a natural meadow next to it that were soon to undergo a profound transformation. They set up tents, slides, trapezes, and balancing bars. My men took care of the disembarkation, establishing a channel for the shore boats, cleared all around.
The 22nd, they brought baskets of provisions to the beach, drinks and treats.
The entire Imperial Family, including the Tsarevich and the Empress herself, went to participate in the picnic.
The distractions were infinitely amusing and everybody appeared extremely gay and happy. The slides were a particular success. The Tsarevich squealed with joy and would down the slide rolling along with peals of laughter, the whole length of the elastic slope. The Empress was not very comfortable with it at first, but after being assured that he would not have any accidents to be afraid of and seeing how attentively Rodionov watched over the Tsarevich, she soon began to share their joy.
The tables of sweets hastily set up and built in the woods bent under the weight of the food. The officers of the Standart had no wish to lag behind the men of the torpedo boat, and were fresh with imagination and finally had done even better than they had.
They played every known game. The one where "combatants" hit each other with sacks stuffed with straw while standing on beams off the ground was a huge success. Rodionov and Myassoidov-Ivanov rather distinguished themselves particularly. They were the strongest and nobody else could compete with them. The Grand Duchesses bursted out in laughter every time a combatant would tumble off the beam after being hit with a sack.
The day began to decline, until the time they returned to the yacht. Everybody was happy and pleased. However, the Tsarevich was the most enthusiastic of them all. The Empress's eventual good humor, who's presence early on in the day inhibited the youngsters, greatly contributed to the success of the party, and as a result it was a complete success indeed.
The following morning, Count Benckendorff, Marshal of the Court, asked me to come see him on board the Standart. He announced that Their Majesties wished to thank the officers of the Standart and those of the torpedo boat, and that it was their intention to give them their own picnic. The Count asked me to select an appropriate site, to come up with numerous interesting things for the officers, adding that I would have to take care of that part of the organizations, and that he himself would oversee the organization of the purely material part. "It will be difficult for us to compete with what they did, because they had already organized their own parties, they have the advantage of youth, but the Emperor desires that everything should be as good as possible."
The task was, in effect, rather difficult, but I had to come up with something at all costs. The site that was the most suitable was the same as the last picnic. It was the first one which we had already dried out by digging the ditches. I rented that location with the little woods for five years and immediately set about to set up every which was needed.
The woods were transformed into a small park criss crossed by handsome alleles, the length of which I had set up benches, painted green; a greased pole was set up in the middle of the meadow. Dried wood was transported to a special place where they prepared a gigantic bonfire. From Vyborg, I had white calico sent out, and during one single night a large number of my men were busy creating white balls stuffed with damp straw. They created a thousand which truly resembled snow balls, but they were actually rather more heavy than real snow balls. This was the theme of the party, a surprise which they were forbidden from revealing.
The day of the party, the Marshall of the Court had prepared the very best specialties of the Imperial Kitchen in the tents.
On the meadow two white pyramids were built out of the balls, facing each other. A flag floated on the side of each one. It seemed like two little towns.
The Marshall of the Court came out first to make certain that all was going well and he seemed pleased with all the preparations. His only fear was that the guests would be bored.
At the appointed time, the shore boats appeared. Everyone was there, except for the Empress who was ill that day. The arrived on the meadow. The two enormous white pyramids got everyone's attention. The Grand Duchesses went immediately up to them. The Emperor followed.
"What is this?" the Emperor asked. No one could answer. So, he turned to me and asked me, laughing, "What Spiridovitch?"
"Your Majesty had said during the last walk: I have a great desire to play with snow balls. Well, snow balls have been arranged."
The Emperor laughed, picked one up and threw it at an officer. Everyone immediately understood what to do. They divided up into two teams and the bombardment commenced. White balls flew in every direction. It was truly a battle. They fought until they were exhausted. One officer was hurt on his side. N.N. Rodionov had a bruised arm. My idea was complete success.
After tea they lit the huge bonfire. The tall flames, the clouds of smoke, bursts of sparks, which flew off toward the sea, gave the scene a fairtale appearance, while on the meadow it was this time the Grand Duchesses who were throwing snow balls with the young men..
At six o'clock they got back into the shore boats. The Emperor came to find me, to ask me how I was able to have all those balls made in such a short time, and he thanked me most warmly for organizing such a good picnic.
"We were well amused, I thank you; please also thank your men in my name," he told me. I equally received the thanks of Count Benckendorff, who was quite pleased, as well as those of Admiral Nilov.
General Alexander Spiridovitch was the Chief of Secret Personal Police in charge of protecting Nicholas II and his immediate family at all times outside of the Imperial Palaces. He served from 1905 until the outbreak of the First World War in late 1914.
His two volume work "Les Dernieres Annees de la Cour de Tzarskoe Selo", (Payot, Paris, 1929) is an invaluable day to day account of the Imperial Family, and important events around them during those years.
Published originally only in Russian and French, it has been a neglected source until recently. The following account of the Imperial Family picnics while on vacation in the Finnish Fjords in June 1910 is my own translation from the French undertaken in 2004.
All accompanying photographs were taken by Anna Vyroubova, Lady in Waiting to Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, who was present at the picnics and documented the events with her camera. They are with the kind permission of the Beinike Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University