On October 17, 1888 (O.S.), Russia narrowly avoided a national tragedy. That morning, the Imperial train carrying Emperor Alexander III, his wife Empress Maria Feodorovna and their children derailed near Borki while returning to St Petersburg. The horrific accident, its aftermath captured in numerous photos, took the lives of twenty-one members of the Imperial retinue and injured another thirty-seven. At the time of the accident, the Imperial family, with the exception of Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, were having a meal in the richly-appointed dining car accompanied by some of their closest courtiers. For reasons which have remained the subject of some debate, the train derailed, and several cars plunged down a hill next to the track. The roof of the dining car collapsed, threatening to crush all those within. The emperor, in an extraordinary display of strength, held up the roof long enough for the family and those with them to escape to safety. Grand Duchess Olga recalled the terrible scene in her memoirs: 'I found myself at the bottom of a steep slope which the carriage had rolled down. I got up onto my feet and looked back. I saw bleeding people tumbling and falling down after me…. It was dreadful…. I thought all my loved ones had been killed' (25 Chapters of My Life,
Kinloss, 2009, pp. 22-24). Astonishingly, not a single member of the Imperial family had been hurt. Sadly, the emperor’s beloved dog Kamchatka, who had been lying at his master's feet, was killed instantly.
As newspapers throughout Russia and around the world printed the images of the mangled cars, Russians realised the very human vulnerability of the Imperial family and how easily they could have perished. In both state decrees and church sermons this event was presented as proof of God’s divine intervention; the Imperial manifesto concerning the events characterised it as God’s response 'to the fervent prayers, which thousands and thousands of sons of Russia daily make for Us wherever there stands a Holy church and Christ’s name is praised.' The emperor's own response was dramatic: 'This day will never be erased from our memories. It was too terrible and too miraculous. Christ wished to prove to all Russia that He still makes miracles and saves from imminent death those who believe in Him.' The survival of the emperor and his family was viewed as God's reward for the holiness of the Russian people.
As Russian historian Richard Wortman has argued, the emphasis on miracles brought the emperor 'closer to the simple faith of the people, reflected in their worship of miracle icons, which had become increasingly popular in the decades after Emancipation. […] After the Borki accident, miracle icons were presented as both talismans divinely bestowed upon Russia and symbols of the bond between tsar and people' (Scenarios of Power, vol. 2, 2006, pp. 290-91).
Numerous icons were presented to the emperor and other members of the family to commemorate their miraculous escape. The offered lot, presented by members of the elite Guard units, had to be suitably lavish. It was a gift from members of the Imperial retinue, some of whom had been on the train (and at least two of whom were seriously injured). Insuring the safety of the emperor, God’s anointed, was their central task, and it was undoubtedly a profound realisation that there were many forces, including modern technology, from which they could not shield him. The icon must have held great personal meaning for the emperor, as the inventory label on the reverse indicates that it hung in the chapel at Gatchina, his favourite imperial residence.
While the icon had been an important family relic prior to 1917, after the Revolution it was apparently among many of the Imperial family’s belongings that were dispersed on the European antiquarian market. In 1928 the Gatchina Palace Museum was asked to compile a list of items to be sold on the international market. Rifat Gafifullin, Curator of Archives at Pavlovsk, has found that this group of objects included 'eleven icons and two folding icons from the nineteenth century presented to Alexander III and Maria Feodorovna to mark their escape from a train wreck in Borki' (“Sales of Works from Leningrad Palace Museums, 1926-1934," Treasures into Tractors, Washington, DC, 2009, p. 146). The offered lot was probably among the icons sold by the Soviet government at that time.