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THE ROMANOVS: From Tsarskoye Selo to Cincinnati, 17.07.2013

The Great Puzzle of the Romanoff Ilyinsky family’s Russian history

This exhibition really began in 1987 when I was asked to be the chairman of a fundraiser for the Cincinnati-Kharkov Sister City Project. I agreed to participate as Kharkov is in Ukraine, which was part of the Soviet Union as was Russia. How could I pass up the opportunity to get involved with a project so closely connected to Russia?

In preparing for the event, I was interviewed for a local newspaper. Some of the questions were about my family’s history and connection to Russia, which I really didn’t know much about. At age twenty-eight all I knew about my family’s Russian history was that my grandfather was a Grand Duke who was related to the last Tsar Nicholas II. I knew Dmitri had been exiled from Russia because of his involvement in the death of Rasputin and this had ironically spared his life.

In September of 1989 I made my first voyage to Russia and the Soviet Union. I was one of a dozen volunteers who were working in the field of alcoholism and drug addiction. We spent three days in Leningrad, seven days in Volgograd and our last three days in Moscow. This first trip to Russia was without doubt one of the most powerful experiences of my life. Over the next five years I would return to Russia, Ukraine and the Soviet Union four more times.

There was a huge box that had been stored in my parent’s garage in Florida for years. As it turned out the black box was an old Louis Vuitton trunk filled with receipts, bills, photos, letters and small personal items of my grandparents. To me at that time, it was all treasure and nothing would be discarded until I knew exactly what it was and if it was a piece of my family’s puzzle. Little did I realize how many years it would require for me to fulfill my pledge.


I organized photographs by subject matter, though most of the time I was not aware of who, what or where the photos were taken. Working with the letters would always demand much more time as I could not help but read and reread them which at times would be quite emotional. Along with the photographs came envelopes and books of photographic negatives. Some of these were from Paris, Venice, Monaco, Biarritz, New York, Palm Beach and Davos. Then there were the films. I came into possession of a box of 16mm films that belonged to my grandfather. Some of the films, still in their original boxes, were identified with dates and locations — primarily the early 1930s. Unfortunately the aged and decayed condition of every film made each of them unusable. A white crystalline formation coated most of the film and any attempt to unwind them ended quickly as the delicate, dried and decrepit celluloid would crinkle, crumble and dissolve into a pile of lost memories. Removing the majority of the film from the first reel seemed to take forever. Then the film began to come off in two-inch pieces and as I got closer to the center of the reel the condition of the film was looking healthier and healthier. Finally, with most of the film in a crumbling heap, I came to a point where the film, still fragile and frail, actually looked like film. Off to the lab it went and in a few weeks time the Great Puzzle would begin to take a new shape. No, not a new shape but perhaps one of greater depth.

Though the Great Puzzle is still not complete, it has a definite shape and tells a fascinating story. I am still finding new pieces to add while always trying to figure out where the existing pieces fit together. Just recently my friends at the Tsarskoye Selo State Museum-Preserve have informed me as to the meaning of several items that were in my father’s house my entire life. Some of those items you will see in the exhibition.

I hope you will enjoy this exhibition of “The Great Puzzle” of my grandfather’s Russian history as much as I have enjoyed the unique and wonderful opportunity to piece it together.

Michael Romanoff Ilyinsky
Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Archive of Tsar's relatives moves to Tsarskoye Selo

Russia's largest collestion of Grand Duke Dmitri's memorabilia


Over 300 items on display include previously unexhibited pictures, letters, portraits, video and other unique materials from the Romanoff Ilyinsky family archive, the Tsarskoye Selo holdings, the private collections of Dmitri Matlin and Igor Filimonov (St. Petersburg), and from the House of Delisle archives in Paris.  

Exhibition Booklet available in Russian & English.

Exhibition runs through September 30, 2013, on the First Floor of the Zubov Wing in the Catherine Palace.

Visiting information


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