Romanov Family In A Train Catastrophe

On 17 October 1888, the entire imperial Romanov Family – Alexander III, his wife Maria Fyodorovna, their 3 children and a dog – ran into a heavy train accident at Borki.

Borki Train Disaster. Crushed dining room and grand-ducal car. Photo by Alexei Ivanitsky (17 October 1888).

The Imperial Need for Speed

Alexander III’s family were frequent users of railway transport. Their luxurious Imperial Train served as a mobile palace with numerous court and security members. There was a rule that when Tsar’s Train was on the tracks of a particular railway company, an officer of that company was also on the same train to check that everything worked fine.

The representative of Southwestern Railroad company, young Sergey Witte, was different from all others. He had the guts to refuse to come on board unless the Tsar’s Train stop speeding. There was a high risk of accident according to his calculations. Alexander III liked his train to go faster than the normal speed and nobody was ever bold enough to say no to him.

“Nowhere else has my speed been reduced, your railroad is an impossible one because it is a Jewish road”

– Alexander III furiously to Sergey Witte

Borki Train Accident

On 17 October 1888 just a couple of weeks later the Imperial Train was coming from Crimea to Saint Petersburg. Somewhere near Borki (present-day Kharkiv in Ukraine) the train suddenly derailed and all the carriages crashed into one another at a very high speed.

It was a horrible accident. 23 people died that day and another 33 were seriously injured. Miraculously the imperial family was completely spared. At the moment of the accident, the whole family was having a peaceful dinner. As a result of the crash, the dining car’s roof was about to collapse on them and kill everyone.

The Family of Alexander III. Standing from left: Nicholas II, George, Olga, Xenia. Sitting from left: Maria Fyodorovna, Michael, Alexander III near the Small Palace of Livadia. Photo by unknown author (circa 1892).

According to the legend, Alexander III displayed extraordinary strength holding the collapsed roof on his shoulders as long as the children and the crew could escape uninjured. Only Emperor’s beloved dog Kamchatka was killed instantly.

Alexander III lifting the roof of a crashed train cart to rescue his family during the Borki Train Disaster. Illustration by Karl Kerschl and Cameron Stewart from the Assassin’s Creed: The Fall comic book (2010). Source: Ubiworkshop


After the accident, the Tsar immediately remembered Sergey Witte’s warning. He invited Witte to the site of the accident to perform an investigation. Along with him also a prominent engineer Victor Kirpichev from the Technological Institute and Anatoly Koni were summoned. As Kirpichev blamed rotten ties and Koni blamed railroad officials, Witte firmly believed that the cause of the accident had been too high speed for a 15 carriage train with 2 steam engines.

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Alexander III quietly let the other two experts go and promoted Sergey Witte to be the new Director of State Railways. From then on his career skyrocketed to Minister of Transportation to Minister of Finance to the Premiere and one of the most influential statesmen in pre-war Russia.



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