This informal photograph, taken in 1895, appears at first sight to be fairly ordinary – it has a bit of interest given its age but in the end it’s only an old snapshot of a bloke in evening dress on the deck of a ship.
In fact, this little scrap of card is a fine example of how two completely disparate historical threads can come together for the merest moment and then go their separate ways. It also demonstrates with great elegance, the randomness of things surviving and the beauty of the chance find. These are the very reasons why this blog exists in the first place. I found this image among a group of old, loose photos I bought at auction. Along with others in the collection, it has been cut out of an old album. It is still pasted down to the thick card of the album page.
As you can see, the photographer has made a note below the image. Although he or she has misspelled the name, the photo undoubtedly shows Prince Mikhail Andronikov. Sometimes known as “Misha” or “Prince Andronikov”, Mikhail Andronikov was a flamboyant social figure in St Petersburg during the turbulent reign of Nicholas II and Alexandra at the beginning of the 20th century. He began his career as no more than a minor official in the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs but even by the famously low standards of his time and place, Andronikov was hugely corrupt. He sedulously exploited his official position to accumulate wealth and advance his position. Eventually he became a major power broker in the dense and murky political world of the period, and was the prime organiser of the First Troika in 1915. Andronikov is mostly remembered by history however as a close friend of Rasputin and for some years perhaps Rasputin’s most important ally at court. Ultimately however, Andronikov and Rasputin’s mutually beneficial relationship came to an end when Andronikov’s apparent double dealing over a compromising photograph of Rasputin destroyed the latter’s trust in him. According to Radzinsky’s biography of Rasputin, Andronikov was shot by a Bolshevik firing squad in 1919.
The second interesting thing about this photo is that it was taken onboard the S.S. St Sunniva. The St Sunniva, launched in 1887 and belonging to the North Company, based in Aberdeen, is recognised as having the been the world’s first purpose built cruise ship. For some years around that time, a small number of shipping companies had been encouraging people to travel for pleasure and sight-seeing. Those voyages however were all in vessels built for other purposes.
Inspired by the success of a “cruise” it had run on one of its other vessels, the St Rognvald, in 1886, the North Company decided to gamble on building a ship designed expressly to offer paying passengers a hotel-style holiday at sea. The St Sunniva, which could carry around 100 guests in cabins and dormitories, is therefore the mother of the great liners of the 20th century and the founder of a luxury industry that still flourishes. In 1908, with better equipped ships now entering the cruise market, the St Sunniva was taken out of the the leisure business to live a more prosaic life as a mail steamer to the Shetland islands. This must incidentally, be one of the few examples of retirement from a cruise in order to go to work. In 1930, the St Sunniva ran aground in fog and was wrecked.
Both ship and passenger therefore came to quite unpleasant ends. I wonder what happened to the photographer, the third player in this little tale? I hope he died peacefully in his own bed surrounded by family and friends. He certainly left us at least one fascinating photograph to look at – although he wouldn’t have know it at the time.
I’ve looked online pretty hard and I can’t find a single image of Mikhail Andronikov. I wonder how many are extant? Maybe this is the only one? Also, although there is lots of written material on the web about the S.S. St Sunniva, and a fair number of photos of the ship itself, I also haven’t been able to find a single one taken onboard. I’m delighted therefore to be able to add this little gem of visual information to two such different areas of historical interest.