I came across a Facebook post by a friend with a link to a lavish blog from Russia that was pure drooling eye candy, being a layout of photos of the costumes for a costume ball held by the court of the last Tsar of Russia in 1903. It really is worth a look-see. You can find it at: http://viola.bz/1903-the-last-ball-of-imperial-russia/ (accessed 24 Dec 2013). My only complaint is the title, which is: The Last Ball of Imperial Russia.

When I first saw the title, I was somewhat confused. Here's why: the second- and third-to-last scenes in the 2002 film The Russian Ark are touted in the literature on that amazing film as a complete reenactment of the last ball of Imperial Russia, held in 1913 in the Winter Palace of St. Petersburg.

Suffering from the disease of leaving no discongruent fact unresearched, I had to solve this conundrum, lest I spend a fretful night unable to sleep due to terminal curiousity. Here's what I turned up:

There was a ball in 1913 at the Winter Palace, so I rembered that correctly. The ball was held in honor of the Tercentenary of the Romanov Dynasty. I found a pinterest webpage of memorabilia of the Romanov Tercentenary at https://www.pinterest.com/pin/575616396094765302/ (accessed 23 Dec 2013). Translating the invitation on the pinterest page into English, I did not fail to notice that the invitation was issued on the authority of “The Grand Marshal and the Marshals of the Nobility of the Province of St. Petersburg.” In other words, the impression is that the nobility of St. Petersberg are the folks holding the ball, regardless of the venue being the official residence of the Tsar, though in reality his family didn't really live there. They much preferred to reside at a palace in the countryside less than 20 miles to the south called Tsarskoe Selo, though they did occupy the Winter Palace on those occasions when the business of the realm and court demanded they do so. The relationship between the Winter Palace and Tsarskoe Selo is somewhat analogous to Buckingham Palace and Winsor Palace today.

The 1913 Tercentenary Ball was the last imperial ball of the Romanovs, though to be absolutely fair, the claim on the Viola blog for 1903 ball and my assertion on the 1913 ball can both be considered not incorrect, depending on how you split hairs. The ball in 1903 was the last formal ball where there was an involved codified protocol manged by the court, with invitations from the Tsar which were essentially royal commands to show-up (ref: The Court of the Last Tsar,: Pomp, Power and Pageantry in the Reign of Nicholas II, by Greg King, 2008, John Wiley & Sons Inc.). After 1903, there appear to be no balls at the Winter Palace whatsoever until 1913, as far as I can tell from a day or so of searching through reliable reference materials available in English.

One could claim, on splitting hair grounds, that the 1913 ball at the Winter Palace not really an official imperial ball because it was not held by the Romanovs per se - it was held by "the nobility" in honor of the Romanovs on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Romanov dynasty, as part of a half-a-year's worth of celebrations starting in St. Petersburg and then extending across Russia. A careful reading of the text on the invitation makes it clear that the ball was not held by the Romanovs but for the Romanovs. It certainly did not follow the old codified schedule and set-up of the old formal imperial balls; however, the wording of the invitation shouldn't be taken at face value. The celebrations and ceremonies of the Romanov Tercentenary were a Romanov state production, and the subset Winter Palace ball was held in the official residence of the reigning Romanovs, a function planned by the Romanov court along with a complicit Romanov Tsar. An official painting commemorating the event was completed by the artist Dmitry Karnovsky in 1915 and hangs in the Hermitage Museum on the grounds of the Winter Palace complex today (a good online image is available from the Hermitage at http://www.hermitagemuseum.org/fcgi-bin/db2www/fullSize.mac/fullSize?selLang=English&dlViewId=ZYBN4%2B40IQM5IEZ5KW&size=big&selCateg=picture&dlCategId=WLQC42KJC6PL6%2B2302&comeFrom=quick (accessed 26 Dec 2013). A brief account of the event can be found in Baroness Sophie Buxhoveden's 1928 biobraphy of the Tsarina, The Life and Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna, which you can read online at http://www.alexanderpalace.org/2006alix/chapter_XVIII.html (accessed 23 Dec 2013). The aforementioned book on the court of Nicholas II by Greg King contains a sad, poignant and detailed account of how the Romanovs totally blew their last good opportunity presented by the Tercentenary to generate some positive PR for their failing reign, well worth the reading if you have access to this fine and deeply-researched book.

So, the 1903 was the last official formal imperial ball held by the Romanovs at the Winter Palace. The 1913 ball was the last imperial ball at the Winter Palace, held in honor of the Romanovs at their Tercentenary celebration. The distinction is a hair-splitting one since the 1913 ball certainly could not have been held without the approval, input, planning and cooperation of the Tsar and his family; and the Tsar, Tsarina and the two oldest grand duchesses attended it.

Post script

If you haven't heard of or seen the 2002 film Russian Ark, consider seeing this gem. It's the only feature length film ever shot in one continuous take, on site at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. It's a near-surreal journey through different scenes from Russian history that occurred in the Winter Palace filmed in the very rooms where they happened, narrated by an unnamed narrator and the early 19th century French diplomat Marquis de Custine. The dialog is available only as English subtitles to folks like us but it's a visual and historical feast nonetheless. The first Catherine the Great scene is funny and the second is touching and kinda sad. The Tercentenary Ball scenes will blow your mind – they look just like the Karnovsky painting and the orchestra plays the music that was played at the affair in 1913. (My source for this is off the film notes flyer that came in the DVD box of my copy of this film, plus the extra feature on the DVD on the making of the film).