- On 07/11/2011
- In Treasure Hunting / Recoveries
By Lena Smirnova - The Moscow Times
It’s been nearly 100 years since a jewel case containing family and imperial jewelry crashed through the ice to the bottom of Lake Baikal.
The last hands it touched before disappearing into the watery depths were those of a Russian woman who was fleeing the country to save her life.
The year was 1917. The Bolsheviks had seized power, and White Russians were forced to move out of their homes or face execution.
Vadim and Zinaida Smit had no hope of staying in the country. Vadim was railway minister for the east-west Siberian route and a personal friend of Tsar Nicholas II, and Zinaida was the godchild of the queen mother.
With little time to think, they packed up whatever they could and fled St. Petersburg to China, from which they would catch a boat to Europe. They traveled by any means and walked when no transportation was available. They trudged through the Siberian snow and ice, losing their belongings in their haste to get to safety.
Just when they were crossing the frozen Lake Baikal, they heard the crack.
The ice had shattered beneath them, and the case that Zinaida was carrying slipped from her grip and plummeted to the bottom of the lake. It contained jewels that her husband and the imperial family had given to her. The Smits couldn’t afford to stop to search for it. They continued on, paying bribes at border checkpoints until they finally arrived at their destination in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.
The story of the jewel case was passed down through generations of the Smit family until it reached Helen Cleary, Vadim and Zinaida Smit’s great-granddaughter. Cleary, who lives in Melbourne, Australia, was in her 40s when she first heard the story from her mother.
Cleary’s grandmother and father, direct descendants of the Smits, have already died, but her 81-year-old mother still hopes to find out what happened to the sunken treasure.
“It would be amazing for it to be found,” Cleary said by telephone. “It’s astonishing that it all happened.”
The family has waited 94 years to solve the mystery of the lost treasure chest. Now some people in Russia could be getting close to the answer.