THOUSANDS of previously unknown love letters written by Tsar Alexander II to his mistress are to be given to the Russian government in exchange for documents detailing the origins of the Rothschild banking dynasty.
The remarkable deal has been negotiated between the Rothschild family and the Russian government over a four-year period. About 4,500 letters chart the 14-year affair between the 19th century reformist Tsar and Princess Catherine Dolgoruky which ended in morganatic marriage.
The Rothschild Archive, housed at the Rothschild Bank in London, bought them for about £180,000 two years ago in the hope of tempting the Kremlin into making a deal. They reveal almost every detail of a passionate relationship which affected the course of Russian history, and describe the pressures on a Tsar who was absolute ruler of a vast empire at a critical stage of its development.
Last week the new Russian Interdepartmental Commission on Restitution met in Moscow, in the first case it has considered, and agreed to return the Rothschild archives. The documents date from the banking dynasty's earliest days. They include a paper recording the appointment of Mayer Amschel as Hoffactor or Crown Agent to Prince William of Hesse in 1769, described by Victor Gray, the Rothschild archivist as having an "almost totemic significance in family history".
Many of the papers had been collected by Salomon Rothschild in Vienna in the 1840s and had vanished from Austria during the Second World War. Their survival only became known to the Rothschild Archive in 1993 when Russia's archives were opened to Western researchers after the fall of communism.
They had been seized by Hitler after the occupation of Austria in 1938. He planned to use them to justify the Holocaust. At the end of the Second World War they were captured by Russia. Bettina Looram, the senior survivor of the Austrian branch of the Rothschild family, explained yesterday that the "rich French and English families" had "chipped in" to buy it.