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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia, Liechtenstein Trade Keys to the Past

Russia and Liechtenstein traded pieces of history Wednesday, with Liechtenstein getting its royal family's archives in exchange for important documents about the murder of Nicholas II, the last Russian tsar.


Some of the documents -- including a sinister coded telegram confirming the murder by the Bolsheviks of the tsar, his wife, the Empress Alexandra, and their five children -- went on display at the Museum of Private Collections, part of the Pushkin Museum.


"This is the culmination and completion of the second step in an agreement between Russia and Liechtenstein on the mutual return of archives," said Vladimir Kozlov, director of Russia's Federal Archives Service, at a press conference.


In a sign of "gratitude" for Russia's return of his family's archives, Liechtenstein's Prince Hans-Adam II presented Russia with the Sokolov archive, which he bought in 1990 at a Sotheby's auction.


The 1,000-page archive is named after Nikolai Sokolov, the White Army officer who investigated the 1918 murder of the royal family by the Bolsheviks. Sokolov took his materials with him when he fled Russia in 1919.


It is a grim catalog of the bloody end of the tsar's family.


Perhaps the most interesting is Registered Telegram 2029, sent at a cost of 3 rubles, 60 kopeks, on the evening of July 17, 1918 -- the same day the tsar, his family and servants were killed by firing squad in the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg in the Urals.


The message, in numeric code, is from the chairman of the Ural Soviet, Alexander Beloborodov. It tells Nikolai Gorbunov of the Soviet of People's Commissars in Moscow to pass on to high-ranking Bolshevik Yakov Sverdlov the news that "the entire family met with the same fate as the head of the family." It adds that, "officially, the family will die during the evacuation."


Sokolov also gathered photographs of the basement where the family was killed, showing the bullet-riddled plaster; a three-page list of 172 items belonging to the imperial family drawn up by the Bolsheviks; and a July 20 telegram from chief executioner Yakov Yurovsky requesting the return of a wallet he left in the Ipatiev house.


Along with the Sokolov papers, the State Archives of the Russian Federation put on display other March 2, 1917, from Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolayevich to his nephew, begging the tsar to abdicate; Nicholas' letter of abdication, also dated March 2, 1917; the letter of abdication of Nicholas' brother Michael, dated March 3, 1917; and a grocery coupon given to Nicholas after he had been taken prisoner by the Bolsheviks, listing his occupation as "ex-emperor."


The Liechtenstein royal family archives, samples of which occupy one glass case in the exhibit, date back to the 16th century. As a result of the exchange with Russia, Hans-Adam reclaimed more than 500,000 pages of his family records, seized in Austria in November 1945. The prince thanked the Russian archives service for maintaining his family's records "in excellent condition."


Liechtenstein is a principality of 30,000 people located in the Alps between Austria and Switzerland.


"We had supposed that a part of our family archives was destroyed in the war," said Hans-Adam, speaking in German through an interpreter. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the declassification of archival material in the early '90s, it became clear that the family's archives had been preserved in the Soviet Union.


Then the prince heard that the Sokolov archives were to be auctioned at Sotheby's. The prince outbid Russian officials in 1990, paying, according to news reports, between 500,000 and 1 million Swiss francs ($350,000 and $700,000).


"When I learned that the Sokolov archive was to go on sale, I thought it would be a good gesture of gratitude to the Russian government if it ever decided to return our archives,'' the prince said.


This "good gesture" resulted in the exchange of archives after a delicate diplomatic dance involving the prince, the Russian archives service, the Russian Foreign Ministry, the Customs Committee and the State Duma.


"This is just one model for returning works of cultural value," said Kozlov, adding that, to date, it is the only exchange of its kind.


The trade highlights the ongoing dilemma of returning documents and cultural treasures seized by the Soviet army after the conclusion of World War II.


The State Duma passed a law making the return of such items all but impossible; President Boris Yeltsin has vetoed that legislation, but the Duma overrode the veto. Yeltsin says the override is invalid. The matter is currently in legal limbo.


Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, speaking at a brief ceremony in the private collections entryway, said the exchange took place because "the wisdom and patience of Your Highness enabled us to resolve this issue in the only way possible, through an exchange."


"The route to this exchange has been complicated. We had to overcome many obstacles, including legal hurdles," he said.


Items from both collections will be on display at the museum for a month.