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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Peek Into Tsarist Splendor and Tragedy

It was a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare.

The future Tsar Alexander III was head over heels for Princess Maria Meshcherskaya. The young couple got together almost every day, spending hours on strolls through palace parks, dancing at plush balls and raising toasts at numerous other high-society events.

But then Alexander Alexandrovich's older brother, the Crown Prince Nikolai Alexandrovich, died. The young Alexander was left with not only the right to succeed the throne but also his brother's intended bride, Danish Princess Dagmar.

Alexander begged his father for permission to relinquish the throne.

He dutifully recorded Tsar Alexander II's furious response in his diary.

"Do you think that I am what I am because I wanted it? Is this really the way you should be looking at your destiny? You, I see, do not comprehend what you are talking about. You have gone mad," Alexander II told his son.

Crushed, Alexander and Maria parted ways. He went on to marry Dagmar, who became Empress Maria Fyodorovna. Meshcherskaya later married an aristocrat she did not love and died two years later giving birth to a son.

Little is left of that affair — which once grabbed headlines in the European press and was excitedly whispered about in royal circles — but a dried flower that Meshcherskaya once gave the young Alexander and a small, pencil-drawn self-portrait of Meshcherskaya, on which Alexander wrote "Dushenka," or soul mate.

Those items, Alexander's diary and other memories of an age long gone were put on display Thursday at the State Archive Service Exhibition Hall. The exhibit offers an insider's view of life in the Russian royal family from the mid-19th to the early 20th century — the days of exquisite balls, secret diaries and passionate love affairs.

Not all the memorabilia comes with sad endings. Also on display are special cards with dance programs in which high-society women wrote down the names of cavaliers. The waltzes, polkas and mazurkas came in such a rapid succession that some Russian royalty complained there was just too much entertainment.

But some liked it.

Maria Fyodorovna, or Dagmar before the marriage, was keen on dancing. According to contemporaries, Alexander III even invented a trick to interrupt a cotillion when his wife got too carried away. He would order the musicians to leave the stage one by one until there were too few — or no — musicians for the dance to continue.

The balls were grand events.

"It would have been completely impossible to even guess the amount of the treats, fruit and biscuits mounted on the tables decorated with palm trees and flowers," reads a note written by a high-ranking official.

The dinner on May 14, 1896, for Nicholas II's coronation had a menu drawn and designed by famous Russian artist Vasily Vasnetsov. Another ball that year saw ballet stars such as Mathilde Kschessinska and Yekaterina Geltzer hawking champagne.

But all the pomp came with the tough rules of decorum. Access to the royal family was limited, and those who were bestowed with the honor of an introduction were put on special lists, also on display at the museum. And although limited, the lines of waiting visitors were still tiresome for the royals, as their diaries at the exhibition suggest.

There was also a very strict seating arrangement in the royal court that no one dared to upset.

In fact, the arrangements of the tsars' social events have caught the eye of Russia's current rulers.

Former Kremlin property chief Pavel Borodin once requested State Archive Service officials to provide detailed information of how receptions were organized at the Russian court in order to introduce those old rules and standards in contemporary Russia, according to

"I personally haven't heard of it, but it sounds very plausible," said Tatyana Shakirova, deputy director of the State Archive Service Exhibition Hall. "Where else if not in our own history should we look for traditions?"

"Midst the Din of the Ball …" is open Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. until Oct. 10 at 17 Bolshaya Pirogovskaya. Admission is free but visitors may be asked to provide identification since the hall is located on the grounds of the State Archive Service.