Russian Submarine Hunts Clues to Century-Old Mystery

The Czar’s Lost Gold

Legend has it that almost a century ago a series of railway wagons stuffed with gold sank into the depths of a lake in Siberia. This week, researchers, exploring the depths by submarine, may have found the Russian royals’ lost gold.

As Bair Tsyrenov slowly guided his Mir submersible up an underwater slope, a shimmer of gold was caught in the vehicle’s headlights, 400 meters (1,300 feet) below the surface of Lake Baikal. First the ship’s three-man crew discovered “steel girders that looked like railway bridges.” Then they struck upon the “bars with a particular golden radiance,” Tsyrenov, a researcher from the Lake Baikal Protection Fund, reports.

The find, made by researchers at the beginning of this week, was a spectacular one. For the last two years, the two Mir submersible research vehicles, usually at work in the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean, have been operating in Siberia’s Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater body. These are the same two mini-submarines that brought the world the first underwater images of the Titanic.

The Mir expedition to Lake Baikal was actually supposed to be finishing up around now. But the vessels are currently hot on the trail of a legend: the last czars’ hoard of gold, which has been missing for 90 years and which, according to legend, lies in the depths of the Siberian lake.

Moving Millions Worth of Gold

Russian experts and journalists believe that the recent finds might be part of the gold taken by Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak, which has been missing since the chaos of Russia’s civil war. During a major offensive in 1919, Kolchak led the “White Guards” under his command over the Ural Mountains. Kolchak and his forces drove the Bolsheviks out of Kazan, a city east of Moscow, and took control of a major part of Russia’s gold reserves.

Fearing that German troops might get their hands on it during World War I, Czar Nicholas II had had 500 tons of gold transported from St. Petersburg to Kazan. The gold, worth about 650 million rubles, reportedly filled 5,000 crates and 1,700 sacks; the “Whites” required 40 railway cars for the journey.

The victors, however, didn’t have that much luck after their victory. Although Kolchak, an officer in the czar’s navy with brisk, short hair, called on others to pursue “victory over the Bolsheviks,” he himself set up an authoritarian military dictatorship in the area under his control. After the “Reds” launched a counteroffensive, he fell into Soviet hands and was executed by a firing squad.

Gold Sank into Lake?

The “Czechoslovakian corps” which had been fighting the Bolsheviks alongside Kolchak, handed over 410 million rubles’ worth of the gold over to the government in Moscow in return for safe passage home. But what happened to the rest? The last traces of the gold have disappeared in the wide open spaces of Siberia.

According to legend, members of the “White Guards” tried to cross Lake Baikal with the railway cars while it was frozen over with winter ice. But the weight of the cars caused them to crash through the ice and the gold sank into the depths. In fact, the frozen lake is still used as a route for traffic in the winter. During the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), railway tracks were even laid across the meter-thick ice.

And now many interested observers are hoping that the sensational find is a reality. Last year one of the Mir submersibles came upon fragments of a railway car at the bottom of the lake during a dive, as well as some crates full of ammunition dating from the period of the civil war. Still, historians expressed their doubts that this was the czar’s gold. It was much more likely that the gold never sank, they guessed. Instead the “White Guards” might have smuggled it out of the country and deposited it into bank accounts in Great Britain and Japan. Another explanation: The withdrawing Czechs had taken it with them and it had brought about a period of unexpected prosperity in that country during the 1920s.

“For the time being, it is hard to say whether the gold is really Kolchak’s,” Tsyrenov told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “Unfortunately we did not succeed in recovering any of the bars,” his colleague Roman Afonin says. The bars were too stuck in the lake’s muck.

But Bair Tsyrenov and his colleagues, who are preparing to make additional dives, are now determined to solve the riddle of the czar’s gold. Whatever happens though, Afonin concludes, “the legend will live on.”


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