A German Governess and the Russian Tsar: The Story of a Porcelain Easter Egg

2021-07-16T15:19:10-04:00May 25th, 2021|Artifact Spotlight, History|

Nisa Topcu, Museum Intern

How did a German tutor named Agnes Bachman receive an Easter egg from Tsar Nicholas II? The story of a delicate porcelain Easter egg, donated to the Museum in 2019, gives us a glimpse into the experience of a German governess working in Tsarskoye Selo a decade before the Russian Revolution.

Agnes Bachman was born Agnes Willa Czerwinska on February 4, 1890, the daughter of a German immigrant. Her father had moved their family from Germany to Poland because Poland, then part of the Russian Empire, offered him greater opportunity to find work as builder.

Agnes Bachman in 1965.

After the sudden death of her mother, Bachman’s father remarried within ten months. The way she was treated by her stepmother caused Agnes a great deal of unhappiness, which eventually drove her from the family home. Bachman wrote in her memoirs:

After all the unhappy days at home I wanted to leave as soon as possible: meaning as soon as I could support myself.

Her first job was with a Polish family, working as a German tutor to their five children. After a year she resigned, and since she could not find a job to her liking in Poland, she returned home and established a seamstress’ shop. To escape an unwanted marriage with a man she did not like, she was forced to leave her home for good.

With the help of a friend, Bachman found a job in St. Petersburg. After working at a laundry briefly in 1907, she found employment with the family of an Orthodox priest in Tsarskoye Selo, Fr. Iakov Osipovich Cherviakovskii (1871-1934).

Palace Hospital in Tsarskoye Selo. Source: Public domain.

Fr. Iakov, a graduate of the St. Petersburg Theological Academy, was assigned to serve at the Palace Hospital in Tsarskoye Selo and St. Catherine Cathedral in the same town. The Hospital had two churches, one in honor of the “Joy of All Who Sorrow” Icon of the Mother of God, the second in honor of Sts. Constantine and Helen. St. Catherine Cathedral was constructed in 1835-40 and served as the main church of the town. It was designed by the architect Konstantin Andreevich Thon (1794-1881), who also designed the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow.

Postcard of St. Catherine Cathedral in Tsarskoye Selo. Source: Public domain.

Among the papers of Agnes Bachman, donated in 2019 to the Russian History Museum by her granddaughter, Patricia Axelrod, is a letter of inquiry addressed to Bachman from a certain “A. Cherviakovskaia,” presumably Fr. Iakov’s wife.

I am looking for a German governess for three children: 10, 9 and 6 years of age. The older two are boys, and girl, studying at grammar school.

The compensation offered for Bachman’s services is 18 rubles per month. Evidently, the offer was appealing enough for Bachman to begin working for the Cherviakovskii family.

Letter of inquiry from A. Cherviakovskaia to Agnes Bachman, offering 18 rubles per month for her services as a governess. Agnes Bachman Papers, Russian History Museum.

Bachman wrote in her memoirs:

We all lived in the administration building. At this time Czar Nicholas was in the same city. The czarina’s personal physician had his living quarters across the hall from us. The pharmacy and the Imperial Hospital were next door.

Bachman herself was treated at the hospital. Among her papers is a prescription from the Palace Hospital dated 1909 and labeled “To the priest’s governess Czerwinska.”

Prescription issued to “the priest’s governess Czerwinska” in 1909 from the pharmacy of the Palace Hospital in Tsarskoye Selo. Agnes Bachman Papers, Russian History Museum.

Another item from among Bachman’s papers is a delightful card with a poem from Bachman’s student, Vera Cherviakovskaia. The card is decorated with hand-painted flowers by Vera.

Hand-made card written to Agnes Bachman by her student, Vera Cherviakovskaia.

On Easter of 1909,  Bachman attended the church service in St. Catherine Cathedral, where the imperial family worshipped on occasion, and where the Emperor attended the Easter service that year. After the service Bachman received a porcelain egg as a gift from Emperor Nicholas II himself. She described the event in her memoir:

The Easter egg presented by Nicholas II to Agnes Bachman on Easter 1909. Russian History Museum (10.2019).

At Easter I was able to join in the festivities that take place at midnight on Easter Day to celebrate the Resurrection. It was quite an event for me. The ceremony took place in a ‘Sabor’, we would say Cathedral. Only the Imperial Court was allowed to enter. Tsar Nicholas II gave porcelain eggs as gifts for Easter. I also received one. It measured seven Zoll, has cherry blossoms painted on one side and red carnations on the other. It was a great honor for me: and to this day I cherish this gift from the Tsar.

The Egg given to Mrs. Bachman was of a type which had been favored by the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, Nicholas II’s mother.  Maria Feodorovna had commissioned thousands of porcelain eggs between 1881-1894 that showed single flowers against plain backgrounds. These eggs were more in the visual style of botanical prints and considered very modern at the time. Eggs like these were highly prized in the 1890s, and it is possible that at such a large Imperial event, eggs remaining from earlier periods were distributed.

After an illness, doctors decided that the St. Petersburg climate was detrimental to Bachman’s health, so she left her job in Tsarskoye Selo and moved to Finland to work as a governess for a German family’s children.

After some time, Bachman received a letter from her uncle, who lived in the United States and suggested that she to come to America. She quickly made up her mind, booked passage, and arrived at Ellis Island on December 16, 1909.

After moving to United States, Bachman worked for a number of clothing firms and was an active member of International Ladies Garment Workers Union. In 1932 she received a scholarship for the Bryn Mawr summer school for women workers. Agnes Bachman died in 1987, and was buried in the Sunset Memorial Park in North Olmsted, Ohio.

The fate of the Cherviakovskii family is unknown, apart from the fact that Fr. Iakov served at St. Catherine Cathedral until it was shut down in 1930. The Cathedral was demolished in 1939, and a statue of Lenin placed on its site in 1960. In 2007-2010 the Cathedral has been reconstructed.

The newly reconstructed St. Catherine Cathedral in Tsarskoye Selo. Source: Public domain.

In 2019, the delicate Easter egg that Bachman received from Nicholas II was donated to the Russian History Museum by Bachman’s granddaughter, Patricia Axelrod, along with a number of documents from her time working as a governess in St. Petersburg. We are grateful to Patricia Axelrod and her daughter, Lisa, for donating these historical artifacts to our Museum, where they can be appreciated by our visitors for generations to come.


RELATED CONTENT: Agnes Bachman’s Easter egg featured in our livestream, “Talking on Eggshells: Examining a Russian Tradition”