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History - Sergei Witte on the Succession Controversy


The Memoirs of Count Witte
translated and edited by Sidney Harcave
M.E. Sharpe, Inc.
Armonk, Newyork - London, England


The Imperial Court

The Succession Question, Changing Mores

The Emperor's Illness and the Succession Question

"From Paris I went on, by way of Petersburg, to the Crimea, where I stayed in a house belonging to the Ministry of Ways and Communications, on the road from Yalta to Livadia. (The Emperor was then in residence at Livadia) and also nearby were Count Lambsdorff, Kuropatkin, Sipiagin, Grand Duke Michael Nikolaevich, and, of course, Baron Freedericksz.

On November 1 [1900], the Emperor became ill. As was customary with members of the Imperial family, he did not want medical attention. Moreover, his personal physician, the aged Hirsch, had forgotten whatever he had ever known, if, in fact, he had ever known anything. At my suggestion, Professor Popov, of the Military-Medical Academy, was sent for: his diagnosis - typhoid fever. On November 28, the Emperor began to recover.

During the course of the illness the question of who would succeed the Emperor if he died then arose. When the Emperor's brother and Heir, Grand Duke George Aleksandrovich had died the preceding year, the next one in line of succession, Grand Duke Michael Aleksandrovich, had been proclaimed Heir. At the time I had felt such a proclamation improper since it was quite possible that the Emperor might still beget a son, who would then replace Grand Duke Michael Aleksandrovich as Heir. Well, one morning, at a time when the Emperor's condition gave cause for alarm, Sipiagin asked me by phone to come over to the Hotel Rossiia, where he was staying. There I found, in addition to Sipiagin, Count Lambsdorff, Baron Freedericksz, and Grand Duke Michael Nikolaevich. As soon as I arrived, a discussion began about how to proceed if a tragedy were to occur and the Emperor should die: what would be the procedure concerning the succession?

I was taken aback by such a question and pointed out that the law left no doubt about the succession: Grand Duke Michael Aleksandrovich would immediately succeed. My reply evoked the hint that the Empress was in an interesting condition (apparently Baron Freedericksz knew of it) and she might give birth to a boy: might it not be better if the succession would be postponed for a few months until she gave birth? I replied that the succession law did not take such a contingency into account. The law was clear: if the Emperor should die without having begotten a son, Grand Duke Michael Aleksandrovich must succeed. To act otherwise would be illegal and would lead to grave disorders. In any case, no one could predict that the Empress would bear a son. After checking the law, the others agreed with me.

Then the aged Grand Duke Michael Nikolaevich asked me what would happen if the Empress were to bear a son after Grand Duke Michael Aleksandrovich had ascended the throne. I replied that only Grand Duke Michael Aleksandrovich could answer the question definitely, but that I believed that he, being a very decent and honorable man, would give up the throne in favor of his nephew. After we had come to an agreement, we decided to inform the Empress privately about our meeting.

A few days after the meeting General Kuropatkin stopped off for lunch. (He was on his way back from giving a report to the Emperor, who, despite his illness, heard reports in special cases.) After lunch, when we were alone, he asked me about the meeting, saying that he had been invited, but had been unable to attend. I reviewed what we had said and remarked that it was unfortunate that he could not have been there. Striking a theatrical pose, he said: "I will not cause my Empress grief." Knowing him for a poseur, I did not attach any significance to this remark and asked why he assumed that he alone had the privilege of not "causing the Empress any grief."

Happily, the Emperor recovered and there was no further talk then of the succession question, but before leaving the Crimea I made it a point to advise Baron Freedericksz that it would be wise to issue new instructions, legally enacted, to avoid future ambiguities. A few years later, as I learned from Pobedonostsev and Nicholas Valerianovich Muravev, Their Majesties raised the question of whether or not their eldest daughter could succeed if they had no son; the two were instructed to look into the matter. Pobedonostsev was absolutely opposed to the notion of changing the succession, believing that the succession laws laid down by Emperor Paul had contributed to the stability of the throne. Nonetheless, Pobedonostsev and Muravev were instructed to prepare the draft of a decree providing for the succession of the eldest daughter, but the decree was not published and, in 1904, lost its validity with the fortunate birth of a son, Grand Duke Alexis Nikolaevich, to Their Majesties. I know nothing more about the episode of the decree.

A legend was to arise that, at the meeting I have just described, I showed myself less than devoted to the Emperor. I heard about it not long ago, in Biarritz, from Alexandra Nikolaevna Naryshkina, whose only claim to fame is that she is the widow of Emmanuel Dmitrievich Naryshkin, the illegitimate son of Emperor Alexander I and the well-known Naryshkina, a Pole by origin. (See the memoirs dealing with this subject published a few years ago by Grand Duke Nicholas Mikhailovich.)

Well, during our conversation she asked if I knew why the Empress was unsympathetic, if not hostile, toward me. I said that I did not know how she felt about me, for I rarely saw her and had spoken with her on but a few occasions.

Naryshkina then said: "I know that her attitude arose from the fact that when the Emperor nearly died at Livadia, you insisted that Grand Duke Michael Aleksandrovich succeed to the throne. "I said that I had not insisted on anything and had merely explained the exact meaning of the existing laws and that the others present, including Grand Duke Michael Nikolaevich, son of Emperor Nicholas I, whom none could suspect of being less than totally devoted to the Sovereign, had agreed."

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