The Home of the Last Tsar - Romanov and Russian History

Diaries and Letters - Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich

Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich, by Lisa Davidson

Mikhail Mikhail, or Michael, Romanov was a frequent visitor to the Alexander Palace. His last visit took place on July 31, 1917, when he was permitted by Provisional Government leader Alexander Kerensky a visit to his older brother, Nickolas II, before the Imperial Familyês departure to exile in Tobolsk. It was also their final meeting, and the last the former Tsar would see of his Family, apart from his wife and children.

The life and death of this third son of Alexander III served to punctuate the trials and promise of the last Tsar's reign, as well as the horror and brutality of the regimes that followed. His ancestor, Peter the Great, made history. Misha, as he was know to his family, was swept into a political tidal wave, over which he had little control.

Early Life

Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich Romanov was born in St. Petersburg on December 9, 1878, the fourth child, and third son, of the Tsarevich Alexander Alexandrovich, and his wife, the former Danish Princess Dagmar, known in Russia as Maria Feodorovna. Misha was the undisputed favorite child of his parents. His father would become Tsar in 1881, upon the assassination of his father, Alexander II.

Mikhail's childhood was spent primarily at the palace of Gatchina, located outside St. Petersburg, the former home of his great-great grandfather, Tsar Paul I. Descriptions we have of his family's life at Gatchina speak of a relaxed, countrified existence stressing modesty and simplicity. These, of course, were relative terms when oneês father was the Tsar of Russia. While Alexander III could be fierce and domineering with other members of the large Imperial Family, he could be a doting and lenient parent, especially with Misha. Nickolas II was known to be insecure and was shy as a child. In contrast, Mikhail was friendly, displaying the inner confidence of a favored offspring.

History was Misha's favorite subject, and he regarded Russian history as a "chronicle of his family." Educating their children was very important to the Imperial couple, and Mikhail exhibited the intelligence shown by his other siblings in pursuing his studies, as well as the free spirit fostered by his liberal upbringing.

Mikhail was closest to his youngest sister, Olga Alexandrovna, who called her older brother "dear, darling Floppy." The two siblings often traveled together, and Mikhail's first romance was with one of her ladies-in-waiting, a young girl named Dina. That attachment was deemed unsuitable and was thus ended by the efforts of his mother. Misha was also at his beloved father's side when Alexander succumbed in 1894.

Misha towered over his older brother, Nickolas, attaining a height of over six feet. He shared in the good looks of his family, being devastatingly handsome and charming.


Heir to the Throne

In 1899, when Mikhail was 20, his second brother, Georgi, died of tuberculosis. Since Nickolas and Aleksandra had yet to produce a son, "Floppy" was heir to the throne from then until August, 1904, when his nephew, Aleksey Nickolievich was born. While Aleksandra was pregnant with Anastasia, Nickolas came very near to death from typhus. During that time, Aleksandra learned of the law that precluded her daughters from inheriting the throne. Many trace her obsession with having a son to this time. Fortunately for all, Nicholas rallied, and Mikhail could resume his more routine duties as heir. The role of a young adult heir to the Romanovs was similar in some respects to that of a US Vice-President. He attended numerous weddings and funerals. Mikhail represented Nickolas at the funerals of both Queen Victoria in 1901 and Edward VII of England in 1909. The Tsar's reluctance to leave his young family greatly increased the traveling required of his heir, both at home and abroad.

As a result of his foreign travels, Mikhail became something of an Anglophile. Many of his tastes and preferences shaped during those years reflect those of the English aristocracy of the period. He was an accomplished equestrian, an avid automobile driver, and loved animals and country living. During these years, he made his home at his childhood home, Gatchina.

Another duty led, indirectly, to his marriage, in 1912. For many years, Mikhail was the commander of the Imperial Guard, headquartered at Gatchina. There, the Grand Duke met the wife of one of his officers, Natalia Wulfert, in 1906. The scandal caused by this liaison was the second of its type to hit the Imperial Family. Earlier, Grand Duke Paul, Misha's uncle, had married the estranged wife of Vladimir Alexandrovich's adjunct.


Marriage and Exile

As described by her contemporaries, Natalia Wulfert was a beautiful girl of eighteen years with an independent demeanor when she met Grand Duke Mikhail. Daughter of a Moscow lawyer, she first married at 16, to the music director of the Bolshoi, Mamontov. While married to Wulfert, she met Misha, and it was reported as love at first sight for both parties. They soon became lovers, and the Grand Duke wrote to his brother Nickolas, as required, requesting his permission for them to marry.

While many of us are familiar with the British royal family's disdain of divorced persons as spouses for their members, the Romanov standards are different, and more complex. Under the Pauline law, members of the Imperial Family are prohibited from entering into "unequal marriages." This standard was interpreted by reigning tsars as requiring marriage into other royal or aristocratic houses with the approval of the Tsar. Interestingly enough, most of the matrimonial "scandals" of Nickolas II's reign involved marriages of members of the Imperial Family to Russians outside the aristocracy. For example, their sister, Olga Alexandrovna, married a perfectly respectable, but unaristocratic, colonel. So, the familyês objection to Mikhailês marriage stemmed not so much from Nataliaês divorcee status, but from her lack of aristocratic ancestry.

Nickolas' refusal was made more emphatic by his reassignment of his brother to a remote command in Orel. Natalia was sent on an extended European "vacation." The lovers exchanged numerous telegrams and letters, and, finally, could no longer bear their separation. They lived together, without benefit of clergy, for several years. In 1910, Natalia gave birth to their only child, Georgi, named for Mikhail's brother. The coupleês stalemate with Nickolas was broken by two events, Aleksey's medical crisis at Spala in 1912, and World War I.

When Mikhail heard of the gravity of Aleksey's illness at the hunting lodge in Spala, Poland, in 1912, he panicked. He and Natalia had been living the life of Imperial vagabonds, traveling throughout Europe with their infant son. However, if Aleksey died, Mikhail would again become heir to the throne. He was unwilling to do so without Natalia at his side as his wife. With his nephewês frail health and the apparent end to Aleksandra's childbearing, Misha feared his bachelorhood would be sacrificed to a dynastic marriage. Thus, during the crisis, he married Natalia in Vienna in a Serbian Orthodox Church. The significance of the venue was that this marriage could not be put aside by Nickolas or Russian church authorities. Like it or not, the woman was now Natalia Romanov.

Misha's defiance of his family in matters matrimonial foreshadowed his cousin's, Edward VIII's refusal to go on without the support of the "woman that he loved." Romantics may thrill at the depth of the Grand Dukeês love for Natalia, but, for Nickolas II, the act was one of crass betrayal. It left the Tsar angry and devastated, particularly over the timing, so close to his own son's near death. The breach between the two brothers was not mended until World War I, with Mikhail's return to Russia.


World War I and the Wild Division

Nicholas did not immediately request his brother's return home when hostilities broke out in August 1914. Mikhail's best friend, General Ivan Ivanovich Vorontzov-Dashkov, interceded between the two brothers, suggesting that Misha be recalled to command the "Wild Division."

The Wild Division was an all-volunteer irregular division of the Russian Army, composed of six regiments of Muslims from the Causcasus region. Mikhail was a wildly popular choice as commander among the division's fighters, and photos exist of the tall, handsome Grand Duke attired one of their colorful uniforms.

Natalia established several hospitals around Petrograd, as St. Petersburg was now called, even turning their estate at Gatchina into a Danish Red Cross hospital. The later proved to be a fortuitous move after the Revolution. She was finally granted the title of Countess Brassova, with her son also to be called Count Brassov. She was never received by Nickolas and Aleksandra as a sister-in-law. However, by all accounts, she was quite content to be the "grand duke's woman," and bore the disdain of her Imperial in-laws with dignity. As long as Misha lived, she was content. As a hostess, she frequently entertained members of the Imperial Duma.

Mikhail proved to be a brave commander of his "Wild Division." It is interesting to note, that, while much of the Army mutinied after the Revolution, these fierce men remained a disciplined fighting force. They only disbanded in 1920 after having continued to fight in the White Army, when they were evacuated to Constantinople with General Wrangel. Some of their descendants may be the present day rebel fighters in Chechnya, as many Chechens fought in the Wild Division.

There is no evidence that Mikhail took part in the Grand Ducal plots of 1916-1917, and it is believed he remained loyal to his brother to the last. He was stunned, along with the rest of the world, by Nickolas' abdication for himself and Aleksey, in February 1917. The Romanov dynasty, which began in 1613 with Tsar Mikhail, would now end with Mikhail Alexandrovich.


Imperial Successor

Some historians consider Mikhail to be the last Tsar of Russia. What is beyond doubt is that he was named Nickolas' successor. Had things been different, he may have become Tsar. However, he inherited a situation that, by the hour, careened out of his or anyoneês control. Alexander Kerensky and other Duma leaders made it clear to him that his safety could not be guaranteed if he assumed power. He would be a tsar without a court, or a following.

Mikhail's manifesto of March 3, 1917, is noteworthy, in that it represents a fundamental change in the Romanov family's willingness to use violence to retain its power. His repudiation of force to claim, or regain, the crown, has remained to the present day, the Romanov policy regarding a restoration of the monarchy. Here is what he said:

A heavy burden had been laid upon me by the will of my brother, who in a time of unexampled strife and popular tumult has transferred to me the imperial throne of Russia. Sharing with the people the thought that the good of the country should stand before everything else, I have firmly decided that I will accept power only if that is the will of our great people, who must by universal suffrage elect their representatives to the Constituent Assembly, in order to determine the form of government and draw up new fundamental laws for Russia. Therefore, calling for the blessing of God, I ask all citizens of Russia to obey the Provisional Government, which has arisen and has been endowed with full authority on the initiative of the Imperial Duma, until such time as the Constituent Assembly, called at the earliest possible date and elected on the basis of universal, direct, equal, and secret suffrage, shall by its decision as to the form of government give expression to the will of the people.

In this document, Mikhail neither accepts nor rejects the crown. It is clearly not an abdication, as some have argued. Mikhail, instead strikes a new course, consistent with his call, before Nickolasê fall, for representative government. He would rule as a constitutional monarch, or not at all. Misha remained in contact with Alexander Kerensky until the later fled Russia, until the Bolshevik uprising in October 1917. Frequently forgotten is that the elections Mikhail calls for were held, only to have the Constituent Assembly disbanded by the armed force of the Bolsheviks. Thus, all Russian governments to this day lack the basic legitimacy urged by the Imperial successor, Mikhail Romanov.

Imprisonment and Murder

Misha assisted Kerensky with his escape from Russia after the Bolshevik coup, obtaining for the ousted leader a Danish passport through his family connections. The Danes still occupied Gatchina, and it offered Mishaês family and connections the tiny bit of safety they had left. Kerensky made his way to the West, finally settling in the United States, and died in 1964.

Georgi, Count Brassov, was also spirited out of Russia with a Danish passport. He lived in Paris until his death, at age 21, in an automobile accident. He had no children, ensuring that Misha had no direct descendants.

Natalia, Countess Brassova, was briefly imprisoned after the coup, along with Misha. Boris Savinkov, the murder who planned Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovichês assassination, was the instigator. Nickolas and Aleksandra read of their captivity during their internment at Tobolsk. All thoughts of the impropriety of Misha's morganatic marriage had vanished by this time. They were terribly afraid for their brother and sister-in-law.

Misha, ever the devoted husband, ordered his beloved wife to leave Russia by whatever means after he was ordered to the Urals in the Spring of 1918. Once released, she obeyed her husband and escaped from Russia with a Danish passport, disguised as a Red Cross nurse. She lived the good life for some years in London. Natalia's son by Misha died in 1931. In 1932, she finally found out what happened in June 1918, to her husband. Impoverished in her later years, she received no help from the Romanovs or their Royal relations. Curiously, the only financial help which materialized came from a cousin by marriage, Prince Felix Yussopov. Natalia's daughter by her first marriage also escaped, married, and had a daughter, Pauline Grey, who wrote Natalia's biography, The Grand Duke's Woman. By the time she died, alone and forgotten, in 1952, it was her favorite title.

Many of the Romanovs remaining in Russia, apart from the contingent in the Crimea, were ordered to the Urals during the Spring of 1918. All were assured by the Bolsheviks of their continued freedom and safety. As we have learned from their history, the Bolsheviks had very curious ideas about "safety." For instance, they reported that Grand Duchess Ella had disappeared while being evacuated to a "safe place." Aleksey and Aleksandra were said to be in a safe place after Nickolas' murder. All were exterminated by the Bolsheviks.

Misha enjoyed relative freedom for many weeks, and was undoubtedly relieved that Natalia and the children either had or would escape.

On the night of June 11, a band of gangster-like Bolsheviks entered Misha's hotel room and asked him to ready himself for transfer to a safe place. When he protested, and tried to call the local Bolshevik leader who kept promising his continued freedom, his phone lines were cut. He dressed, and was grabbed by the collar and put into a conveyance, along with his secretary, the Englishman, Brian Johnson.

The two men were driven outside of Perm, into a forested area. There they were shot by the band. One report indicates that Misha, after being wounded, ran toward his friend with his arms outstretched, only to be shot dead. One of the murderers would proudly wear Johnsonês watch for many years, as a souvenir.

The bodies of Mikhail Romanov and Brian Johnson have never been found. Their murders were the first in an orgy of Romanov murders that took place between June 1918 and January 1919. In all, 18 members of the Imperial Family were murdered during this time. It is impossible not to recognize the dynastic significance of these brutal acts. They began their rampage with the kind, gentle man, known to Nickolas' children as Uncle Misha, who desired to know the will of the Russian people before becoming their tsar.



This biography was written by Lisa Davidson
E-mail: j.l.davidson@worldnet.att.com

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