The Dispersal of Romanov Valuables in Tobolsk

 

In the 1930's, the OGPU organ of the Soviet Union's secret police turned its attention to a lingering Romanov mystery of some importance: The fate of much of the wealth that the Imperial Family carried with them from Tsarskoye Selo. As we have seen elsewhere in this special issue of Atlantis, when the family left the Alexander Palace, they planned to travel - perhaps out of the country -- with literally tons of valuables in the form of paintings, tapestries, carpets, clothing, objets d'art, and "not less than a million gold rubles worth of jewels."1 Yet in the aftermath of their murders in Ekaterinburg, the officials of the Ural Regional Soviet were able to recover only a portion of what ought to have been there. This part of the Romanovs' wealth was transferred to Moscow by train, supervised by Yakov Yurovsky, and was lodged in the treasury under the custodianship of Malkov, Commandant of the Kremlin. This collection of items included the following: a platinum cigarette case, encased in lilac enamel, surmounted by a large diamond in a filigreed gold setting and inscribed "Petersburg, 29 May 1897"; numerous gold chains, brooches, pendants and gemstones; silver tea and coffee services; gold and silver forks and spoons; men's and women's watches; dresses and suits of various material - fine wool, silk, lace-trimmed linen; guards' officers uniforms of several varieties; furs - sables, ermine, mink and sealskin; and traveling overcoats, blankets and rugs.2 

The question of the missing Romanov treasure had confounded the Soviets for more than a decade. Retrieving these valuables became almost an obsession with the Soviet government; many of the objects were unique pieces of Russian art and craftsmanship, and could be considered part of the new nation's patrimony. Carefully tracing the steps of the Imperial Family in their Siberian exile, it became evident eventually that the valuables had disappeared during the time in Tobolsk. In Tobolsk, certain members of the local clergy, as well as individuals of the Household and Suite had been able to enter and leave the house almost at will, and there was no guarantee to the Soviets that security had been as tight as it was in Ekaterinburg. 

Indeed, as part of their investigation, which began in 1922, the Tobolsk GPU unearthed two versions of the same story, in which a "suitcase" of valuables was entrusted to an individual connected to the local Orthodox community. In one story, the old valet Chemodurov entrusted the suitcase to the Mother Superior of the Ivanovsky Convent, Druzhinina. There they remained until the convent was closed in 1923.3 The closing of the convent, while certainly part of the Soviet Union's crack down on religious institutions, may have had quite a lot to do with the GPU's investigation into the disappearance of the Romanov items. 

On the closing of the convent, Mother Superior Druzhinina was arrested, and died in prison under interrogation.4 It is possible to deduce the subject of her interrogation, for in that same period of time a large number of valuable items were located in and around the convent grounds, hidden in the walls, tucked into corners of the belfry, and even secreted in the graves of the community.5 

The connection between the Romanovs and the nuns of the Ivanovsky Convent is an interesting one. It seems as though the Imperial Family had entered into some negotiations with the Mother Superior, and as a result, they may have been preparing to stay in Tobolsk for some time. According to the Empress' valet, Volkov, he went several times to the local monastery to make financial arrangements to purchase a house being built on the nuns' land for the family's use.6 

The GPU was able to make inroads into the secrets of the convent by exploiting the divisions that had arisen between the older nuns and the younger ones. Many of the younger nuns willingly gave information to the GPU men, but as they were frequently new in the order, and had not been entrusted with the entirety of the story, it became necessary to arrest and interrogate two of the oldest nuns, including Druzhinina. 7 

The other elderly nun, Marfa Uzhintseva, had taken a vow of silence on the subject of the Romanov valuables. Following the search of the convent and the death of the Mother Superior, several items were still known to be missing. Now entrusted with the fate of the Romanov treasure, Uzhintseva lost her head and decided to throw it into the Irtysh River.8 

In the act of planning this disposal, she consulted a successful local fisherman, Vassili Mikhailovich Kornilov, on the matter of the best location to sink the items. He persuaded her not to jettison the valuables completely, just in case she was ever found out and ordered to retrieve them. Instead, they took the items, including a large and extremely beautiful necklace belonging to the Empress, and buried them in several containers in the basement of Kornilov's house.9 

Some time later, in 1928, Kornilov was officially dispossessed as a kulak, and left the town for a period of about ten years, during which time he rented his house, located on Dekabristov Street, to various tenants.10 In 1933, members of the OGPU engaged in the Romanov search were lodged there, and Uzhintseva became nervous. She haunted the area, eventually drawing their attention. She was arrested and interrogated over her apparently morbid interest in their house. Under the pressure of keeping the secret for so long, she broke down and told them where the valuables were buried. Hurrying down to the basement, the men unearthed the containers and carried them upstairs. More than 150 items were recovered that day: Gold and gemstone objects, rings, pendants, bracelets, chains, a pair of diadems, diamond, emerald, ruby and pearl necklaces. On the official list of recovered items are a "famous brooch belonging to Alexandra Feodorovna, a truly priceless treasure adorned with a 100 carat diamond… a royal coat-of-arms set with diamonds; a diamond crescent ornamented with five large 70-carat gemstones and sprinkled with smaller medium-sized diamonds… gorgeous panagias; crosses decorated with rare gemstones; pins set with diamonds of 44 carats each [and] 36-carat diamond hairpins."11 

In the second version of the story, a large suitcase of items, including the Tsesarevich's gold-handled saber, was given by the Empress to the priest at the Church of the Annunciation, Alexei Vassiliev. As their confessor in Tobolsk, he was frequently in the Governor's House, and frequently alone with the prisoners. Colonel Kobylinsky and the Emperor's secretary, Alexander Kirpichnikov were also complicit as accomplices in removing additional items of value from the house and taking them to the priest's residence. Until 1929, these valuables remained in their original suitcases, hidden in the priest's house. Then, the elderly priest having become ill, his wife took him to live with their son in Omsk. On the way there, at the railway station in Tara, Vassiliev died. His wife continued on her way to Omsk, and took up residence there with her son. Subsequently, they sold several items of Romanov property in order to make ends meet.12 

This then, is the basic story that the OGPU extracted from Vassiliev's son and several members of the former Imperial Household. The former maid, Paulina Kasperovna Mezhans added several details of interest. She witnessed two interactions between the Romanov family and Kirpichnikov and Kobylinsky: In the first, she saw the Grand Duchesses bedecking Kirpichnikov with ropes of peals and gold chains beneath his jacket and waistcoat. In the second, she overheard the Empress telling Kobylinsky that he must take whatever action necessary to deliver the items entrusted to him directly into the hands of the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna.13 

Vassiliev's son was certain that his father had received items from the Imperial Family themselves and from Kirpichnikov. He said, "I am sure that my father had the Romanovs' valuables. His attitude toward them and the authority he enjoyed proved it." Vassiliev's son was also certain that many items still remained in his family, admitting to having himself, "…a belt, two ashtrays with the Tsar's emblem, one table plate, one teacup and a saucer… As for personal articles, I only had a few articles: for instance, two rings, a brooch, two chains earrings and studs."14 Other items Vassiliev claimed to have sold in Torgsin Stores.15 

Kobylinsky's items proved the most difficult to trace. By 1919, Kobylinsky had decided to remain in Russia, and rather than try to get his parcel to the Dowager Empress, he entrusted it to Konstantin I. Pechekos. From there, he seems to have washed his hands of the matter. Kobylinsky married the Imperial Children's tutor, Klaudia Mikhailovna Bittner, and together they had one son, Innokennty. Colonel Kobylinsky died in 1928, without ever having retrieved the Imperial treasures from Pechekos. 

In 1934, Klaudia Bittner-Kobylinsky was arrested by the OGPU and held under interrogation. It is worth quoting her testimony virtually in full, as it shows that the network of former Household members remained interested in and aware of the presence of Romanov wealth amongst them: 

"I confirm again that my husband had indeed received the Romanovs' valuables. I heard from my husband that he had received the valuables. And he also told me about the transfer to Konstantin Ivanovich Pechekos for safekeeping. I heard about the transfer of the valuables by my husband to KI Pechekos from my husband. We had a conversation at home or at KI Pechekos' place when we visited them. I cannot say exactly where or when, but there was such a conversation. I gave him two rings with small diamonds to sell. My husband had got them from Gilliard, but I do not know where my husband received them. Besides, I sold Gilliard my own earrings. Gilliard gave my husband three rings, not just the two rings that I sold. I kept the third one but later lost it. I know also from conversations with my husband that the valuables given to Pechekos were at his house but he did not exactly tell me where. As for Viktorina Vladimirovna Nikolaieva, I can testify to the following. After the death of my husband, VV Nikolaieva wrote a letter to me and asked about the possibility of obtaining the valuables that had been given to Ye. S. Kobylinsky. When I received the letter I decided to write to KI Pechekos because I assumed that these valuables had also been given to him. But I received a negative reply. The letter was written in 1928, I myself saw the valuables that my husband gave KI Pechekos; they were in a small black box.... Gilliard, VV Nikolaieva and perhaps Olga Mikhailovna Shubenko and her daughter Kapitalina Nikolaievna Pecherskaia knew about the transfer of the valuables from my husband to KI Pechekos. Nikolaieva could also have told Paulina Kasperovna Mezhans.... Gilliard took the lead in concealing the Romanov valuables. He distributed the valuables among the participants. I know that Gilliard kept a list of valuables and to whom they had been given."16 

However, something which remains undocumented must have happened with Klaudia Kobylinsky, for there is an undated statement in her file at the archives that reads: "Kobylinskaia has been concealing diadems and crowns until now…"17 Having discovered items apparently in the her possession, her fate was sealed. Shortly thereafter, Klaudia Kobylinsky was shot by the OGPU. Directly from her testimony, the secret police traveled to Omsk where they arrested Konstantin Pechekos and his wife Anil. 

Pechekos claimed that he had buried his part of the treasure under a residence that he no longer owned. Extensive excavations were undertaken in and around the property, but nothing was discovered. The Pechekos' were accused under Article 29, p. 12, of the Criminal Code, of possessing forbidden Imperial artefacts. Despairing, the Pechekos' attempted suicide. Anil Pechekos broke up an aluminum spoon and ate the shards, dying later that same day in agony with internal bleeding. Konstantin Pechekos, swearing that he would die before revealing the whereabouts of the valuables, threw himself out of a fifth floor window in the OGPU building in Omsk. He survived the fall, and was taken to hospital, although he may not have lived, for no further record of him is made in these files.18 

Alexander Kirpichnikov was arrested in January 1934, and was held for four months under interrogation by the OGPU. His testimony is interesting, for he seems to imply that Baroness Buxhoeveden took some Imperial jewelry from him that was intended for the priest Vassiliev. When Buxhoeveden arrived in Tobolsk in "late February or March 1918," she was permitted neither to enter the Governor's House nor to lodge with the rest of the Suite in the Kornilov House. She found herself an apartment in town, which she shared with a Scotswoman, Annie Mather, and one of the Imperial maids, Anna Romanova. Kirpichnikov mentions being asked to their apartment twice, and during one of these visits, he had given Romanova (whom he initially misidentified as Nikolaieva, another maid) a long pearl necklace that belonged to Grand Duchess Olga. Romanova claimed that she had orders through Buxhoeveden from Volkov to receive it.19 Common sense would seem to dictate that Kirpichnikov check the veracity of these orders with Volkov. They lived in the same house, and would have been easy enough; however, as both were members of the Imperial Household, Kirpichnikov would have had no reason to mistrust Romanova, especially as her orders came from the Baroness, a Lady-in-Waiting to the Empress. 

Olga's pearl necklace is one item that is lost to history. When Romanova was tracked down, and found to be the wife of a prominent Bolshevik, she testified - not in prison like the others, but at her own home - that she had given the necklace to a nun named Kozlova. She had done this on the orders of Baroness Buxhoeveden. A nun of the Ivanovsky Convent by the name of NP Kozlova was traced, but she was found to have died some time before. Probably in respect of Romanova's new-found position in Soviet society, the matter of the pearls was dropped, and the Kirpichnikov family was released from custody.20 

 

Source Notes 

1 Wilton, 288 

2 Russian Federal Counter Intelligence Service, Central Archives. Collection of Romanov documents. 

3 Alexeev, Last Act of a Tragedy, 17 

4 Statement of Comrade Yurins, GPU 27 December 1931. In the Russian Federal Counter Intelligence Service, Sverdlovsk department Archives 5 ibid. 

6 Volkov 

7 Statement of Comrade Yurins 

8 Testimony of Marfa Andrievna Uzhintseva, 5 November - 29 November 1933 9 In Russian Federal Counter Intelligence Service, Sverdlovsk department, Archives, Collection of Documents "The Romanovs' Valuables," V. 2, l. 50-50ob, 51 

10 In the Russian Federal Counter Intelligence Service, Sverdlovsk Department, Archives, Collection of documents 

11 Alexeev, 18; Note from the Economics Department of the Urals PR OGPU to OGPU Deputy Chairman Comrade Yagoda about recovery of valuables, not earlier than 20 November 1933 

12 From the Urals Plenipotentiary Representative (PR) of the United State Political Department (OGPU) description of the people who kept the Tsar's valuables, labeled Top Secret 

13 Interrogation of Paulina Kasperovna Mezhans by the Operations Plenipotentiary of the 8th department of the Tobolsk PR OGPU 31 October 1933 In the Russian Federation Counter Intelligence Service, Sverdlovsk Department, Archives, Collection of Documents "The Romanovs' Valuables." 

14 Statement of Alexander Alexeievich Vassiliev, 7 July 1934 

15. ibid. 

16 Testimony of KM Kobylinskaya In The Russian Federal Counter Intelligence Service, Sverdlovsk Department Archives, Collection of Documents, "The Romanovs' Valuables," V. 2, L. 20-25 

17 From the Sverdlovsk Region PR OGPU reference to Klaudia Mikhailovna Kobylinskaia, labeled Top secret 

18 From the resolution of Shumkov, Head of the Ecomonic Department of the State security Office of the Sverdlovsk Region NKVD, 6th Department about determining preventive measures and bringing charges against Konstantin Pechekos, 29 September 1934 

19 Testimony of Alexander Petrovich Kirpichnikov, 31 January 1934 In the Russian Federal Counter Intelligence Service, Sverdlovsk Department Archives, Collection of Documents, "The Romanovs' Valuables," V. 1, L. 128-128 ob 20 Alexeev, 

20; In The Russian federal Counter Intelligence Services, Sverdlovsk Department Archives, Collection of Documents, "The Romanovs' Valuables," V. 1, L. 112-113," in Alekseyev, 204-205.