The Borki train crash of 1888

The Romanovs had been frequent passengers of the Russian railways since the middle of the 19th Century. Boarding on the Imperial train at St Petersburg, they would start their journey to various locations including the Crimea, considered by many as the Russian Riviera, a beloved summer retreat of the family. After arriving at Sevastopol station, the Tsar and those accompanying him would take carriages to Livadia Palace in Yalta. There the days were quiet and peaceful as the Imperial family enjoyed the freedom of being outdoors without having to worry about protocols and safety risks, typical of the life at the Russian Court.


Tsar Alexander III and his family c. 1889.

On October of 1888, Tsar Alexander III, his wife and children were returning to Saint Petersburg after a trip to the Crimea. Everything seemed fine; the family was having breakfast at the dining car and the train was running at high speed since the Tsar liked to travel fast, even though it was not advisable. When approaching the small village of Borki, the floor began to shake out of control as the locomotive and four cars derailed, crashing into the back ones before falling down a hill near the tracks, causing a horrific accident. Twenty-one people died instantly and many were left injured.

Borki train disaster

The imperial train after the accident, 1888.

The Imperial family was miraculously spared. According to a letter sent from Nicholas to his uncle, they were thrown off their chairs with the impact and the table flew over his head. Still in shock from what had happened, the Tsarevich was relieved after realizing that his parents and siblings were well. The scene of the disaster, however, was catastrophic – the train had been destroyed beyond repair and there was blood everywhere – while some of the injured tried to climb out of the wreckage, others shouted out in pain, surrounded by those that had perished. According to official reports, Alexander III held the collapsed roof of the dining car on his shoulders, helping others to escape. The Tsar was undoubtedly a strong man, although some argued that this heroic feat did not actually happened.

Borki train crash 2

View of the crash scene.

An investigation began soon after in order to determine the cause of the accident, only to end with a conflict between the three investigators. Sergei Witte insisted that the crash had been caused by speeding, while Koni blamed the railroad officials and Kirpichev pointed out at rotten wooden ties. Nevertheless, Alexander III chose to promote Witte to Director of State Railways and let the two others go.


Imperial train wagons after the accident.

When the news of the accident broke out, many Russians saw the survival of the Romanovs as a Divine intervention. A number of icons was gifted to the Tsar and his family in celebration of the miracle. A local landowner, Alexander Kuznetsov, also had the Church of Christ’s Resurrection built in Crimea to mark the event.
Although the family seemed to have escaped unharmed, the death of Alexander III in 1894 was later linked to the blunt kidney trauma suffered during the train crash.

PERRY, John Curtis and PLESHAKOV, Constantine V. (2001) The Flight of the Romanovs – A Family Saga
MONTEFIORE, Simon Sebag (2016) The Romanovs: 1613-1918
Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia (2018) Borki Train Disaster
Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia (2018) Foros Church

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