L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Misha - Part II

Continued from yesterday's post.

Upon the outbreak of World War I, eager to rejoin the army and serve his country, Michael telegraphed the Tsar requesting permission to return to Russia - provided his wife and son could accompany him. He was granted permission, and on their return, since Natalia was not permitted to live in any of the imperial residences, Michael bought a villa for them, once more in Gatchina.

The villa in Gatchina; Michael is in the window.
A formal portrait taken on their return to Russia.  (It appears there's something on Natalia's face, but it's actually just a single spot on her veil.
Not at all unusual for the fashion of the day, but it makes me sort of crazy; I had to force myself not to Photoshop it out, dear readers!)
Two more formal portraits.

He was promoted from his previous rank of colonel to major-general, and given command of a newly formed division, the Caucasian Native Cavalry; the appointment was perceived by some as a demotion because the division was mostly formed from new Muslim recruits rather than the elite troops that Michael had previously commanded. The six regiments - which became known as the famous "Savage Division" - were each composed of a different ethnic group: Chechens, Dagestanis, Kabardin, Tatars, Circassians, and Ingush, commanded by Russian officers. The men were all volunteers as conscription did not apply in the Caucasus, and though discipline was difficult to maintain, they were a highly effective fighting force. He was a popular leader, and for his actions commanding his troops in the Carpathian mountains in January 1915, Michael earned the military's highest honor, the Cross of St. George.

At the beginning of the war, Michael had written to Nicholas asking him to legitimize his son, arguing that he wanted to be certain the child would be provided for in the possible event of Michael's death at the front. Nicholas eventually agreed and granted George the style of "Count Brasov" by decree on 26 March 1915. By that time, Michael was distraught over the conditions the army was forced to endure, lack of supplies and disorganization, and incompetent leadership at the highest levels. Throughout the summer of 1916, Michael's corps was involved in the brutal Brusilov Offensive. The Guards Army suffered heavy losses, but Michael's troops performed well and he was awarded a second gallantry medal, the Order of St. Vladimir with Swords, for his own part in actions against the enemy.

In his memoirs, General Brusilov, Michael's commander on the south-eastern front, said of the Grand Duke that he was "an absolutely honourable and upright man, taking no sides and lending himself to no intrigues... he shunned every kind of gossip, whether connected with the services or with family matters. As a soldier he was an excellent leader and an unassuming and conscientious worker." He was also made an adjutant-general at this time, but the poor progress of the war, and the almost constant separation from his wife and child was a great strain. Worse, Michael was suffering greatly from his stomach ulcers, and in October 1916 he was ordered to take leave in the Crimea. In January of the next year, Michael returned to the front to hand over command of his corps. He was then made Inspector-General of Cavalry stationed at Gatchina.

With his mother, his sister Xenia, and her sons Feodor and Nikita.
With Natalia, visiting a hospital.
With his officers.
Being visited by Natalia at the front.

On the night of 27–28 February 1917, Michael attempted to return to Gatchina from Petrograd - as St. Petersburg had been renamed during the war - but was unable to do so; the Revolution had actually begun several days before. There was sporadic gunfire and revolutionaries patrolled the streets rounding up individuals connected to the Tsarist régime. Michael was able to reach the Winter Palace where he ordered the guards to withdraw to the Admiralty, for the greater safety of all concerned, and then sought refuge in the apartment of a friend, Princess Putyatina, on nearby Millionnaya street. Two days later, his train stopped by revolutionary forces, and under pressure from his generals and representatives of the Duma (the senate), Tsar Nicholas II abdicated in favor of his son and, later that night, fearing for his son's health and that Alexei would be separated from his family, abdicated for the child as well:

"We have judged it right to abdicate the Throne of the Russian State and to lay down the Supreme Power. Not wishing to be parted from Our Beloved Son, We hand over Our Succession to Our Brother the Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich and Bless Him on his accession to the Throne."

Michael awoke the next morning with the unexpected news that his brother had abdicated in his favor and that a delegation from the Duma would soon arrive. There were now several questions to be resolved: the newly formed Provisional Government had not agreed to Michael's succession, and there was the question as to whether his brother had had the right to remove his son from the succession and, therefore, whether Michael was actually legally Tsar. The legitimacy of the present government was also in question. After hours of discussion, lawyers were called to the apartment to draft a manifesto that Michael would sign. It read:

"Inspired, in common with the whole people, by the belief that the welfare of our country must be set above everything else, I have taken the firm decision to assume the supreme power only if and when our great people, having elected by universal suffrage a Constituent Assembly to determine the form of government and lay down the fundamental law of the new Russian State, invest me with such power. Calling upon them the blessing of God, I therefore request all the citizens of the Russian Empire to submit to the Provisional Government, established and invested with full authority by the Duma, until such time as the Constituent Assembly, elected within the shortest possible time by universal, direct, equal and secret suffrage, shall manifest the will of the people by deciding upon the new form of government."

Though most observers considered his actions patriotic and the only sensible response to the circumstances, his brother, when informed, was appalled. The hope of monarchists, that Michael might assume the throne as a constitutional monarch once a democratic government was established, was quickly overtaken by events. Though his renunciation of the throne had been conditional, and hoped temporary, his manifesto marked the end of Tsarist rule in Russia.

Michael returned to Gatchina. He was discharged from the military and his movements were restricted to the vicinity of Petrograd. In July, the current Prime Minister, Alexander Kerensky, ordered the ex-Tsar and his family moved away from the capital to the relative quiet of Tobolsk in the Urals. On the eve of their departure Michael was allowed a few moments to visit with his brother; with Kerensky present, the two brothers could do little but make awkward pleasantries. It would be the last time they would ever see each other.

The next month, Kerensky placed Michael and Natalia under house arrest, along with Nicholas Johnson who had been Michael's personal secretary for the last five years. (A Russian despite his name, Johnson was by this time also a close friend; the two had bonded over their shared love of music, and in better times often played duets together.) A week later they were moved to an apartment in the capital, but his stomach problems worsened and he was allowed to return to Gatchina. On the first day of September 1917, Russia was declared a republic, settling any question of a Romanov accession, and two weeks later Michael's house arrest was lifted. At first Michael and Natalia - along with his brother Nicholas and his family - had thought they might be allowed to move to England, but the British government and its king - Michael and Nicholas' first cousin, George V - were afraid that letting members of the Romanov family into Britain would result in a strongly negative public reaction, and so refused them refuge. Concerned over their increasingly uncertain situation, Michael was able to obtain a travel permit, and planned to move his family to the greater safety of Finland. They packed and prepared to move, but their preparations were observed and they were once more placed under house arrest. The Kerensky government had fallen with the October Revolution, and the Bolsheviks were now in power.

In March of the following year, Michael and Johnson were sent under arrest to Perm, a thousand miles to the east. The journey, in a windowless, unheated freight car, took eight days. At first taken to a hotel on arrival in Perm, two days later he was jailed by the local Soviet. After frantic lobbying by Natalia back in Petrograd, he was given his freedom but not allowed to travel. He moved into a hotel with Johnson and two manservants, his valet and former chauffeur. At the same time, back in Gatchina, Natalia, fearing for her son's safety, with the help of Danish diplomats arranged for the seven-year-old boy to be smuggled out of Russia by his nanny. Two months later she was granted permission to join Michael in Perm. They spent only about a week together before the extremely volatile political and military situation in the vicinity made it unsafe for her to remain. For the next month, while waiting and hoping for some improvement in his circumstances, Michael was again very ill with his stomach ulcers.

Michael and Nicholas Johnson at Perm.

At a quarter to midnight on the twelfth of June 1918, four armed men, at the instigation of the leader of the local secret police, used a forged order to gain admittance to Michael's hotel; they demanded he leave with them. At first he refused, asking to be allowed to speak to a higher authority, and then citing his illness. His protests were ignored, and he was made to dress. Johnson insisted on accompanying him, and the four men and their two prisoners got into two small horse-drawn carriages. They drove out of town and into the forest; when Michael asked their destination, he was told they were headed for a remote railway crossing where they would catch a train. In the early hours of the thirteenth of June, the carriages came to a stop in the middle of the wood. Immediately upon alighting, Michael and Johnson were fired upon. Loaded with home-made bullets, the assassin's guns jammed, and it isn't known if Michael was hit in the first volley. But as he ran with arms outstretched to the wounded Johnson, he was shot at point-blank range in the head. Johnson was then shot dead. The bodies were stripped and buried, any valuables stolen. The Ural Regional Soviet approved the execution, either beforehand or retrospectively, as did Lenin. But at the time, the authorities claimed that he'd been abducted and then disappeared; it would be several years before his loved ones came to accept that he was dead.  Michael was the first of the Romanovs to be murdered by the Bolsheviks. Neither Michael's nor Johnson's remains have ever been found.


Natalia, circa 1919.

Natalia was imprisoned for several months but eventually, with forged papers and in disguise, she and her daughter were able to escape Russia. They made their way to London, where George and his nanny joined them from Copenhagen a few months later. From this point, their finances would be a constant concern, and in 1927 they would move to Paris where it was much less expensive to live.

George.  All who had known his father said that
George was remarkably like him.

In the summer of 1931, shortly before his twenty-first birthday, George had just finished his final examinations at the Sorbonne and was driving with a friend to Cannes for a holiday. Near Sens, while his friend was driving, the car skidded and crashed into a tree; the driver was killed and George was rushed to the hospital with two broken legs and severe internal injuries. His mother rushed to his bedside, but he never regained consciousness and died the next morning.


Natalia struggled on, continuing her desperate attempts at recovery of any of Michael's few assets outside of Russia, but with very little success. And after the end of World War II, having sold all her belongings, she was living in an attic storeroom, in extreme poverty.  On 23 January 1952, Natalia, by now completely penniless, died of cancer is a Paris charity hospital. She was laid to rest beside her son in the Passy Cemetery. The inscription on their tomb reads:

Fils et Épouse de S.A.I Grand Duc Michel de Russie


  1. Another fascinating glimpse into a world of which very little is commonly known---brilliantly done as are all of
    your essays. And Misha was-- if this remark doesn't sound frightfully superficial after reading of his sad end-- superbly

    1. Thank you so much. And - yes - he decidedly was! : )

  2. I love these posts of yours, Mister. You are an amazement.

  3. I could hardly wait for Pt. II and it was worth my anticipation. Made me realize how little I know about anyone but a few main players in this drama. Thanks for the education. (And I totally agree about Bette and Ava.)

  4. A tragedy,reminds me of Eugenie and the Prince imperial