Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich Supreme Commander of the Russian Army

Oh, joy! A truly scholarly book that is a masterpiece, a keeper.  Paul Robinson's Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich (Northern University Press: $44.95) is less about the Russian Imperial family and more about a Grand Duke, whose was one of the most important military figures of the early 20th century.
He served as Supreme Commander of the Russian Army from 1914 to 1915, and again, in 1917.  Nikolai was hardly a hands on commander, as he

Nicholas was trusted by Nicholas II, but when Russia fell into the grip of revolution, he put Russia before his loyalty to the Tsar.

This is a true scholarly biography, as Robinson, a professor at the University of Ottawa, has made use of an amazing material, including telegrams between Grand Duke Nicholas and Nicholas II during the war and many other private papers found in Russia and elsewhere.

The Grand Duke was not the typical Romanov.  He preferred the company of commoners to making a grand marriage until he fell in love with Princess Anastasia of Montenegro, the wife of Duke Georg of Leuchtenberg.  She got a divorce, and they were able to marry after Nicholas II gave his approval, although the marriage was not popular with other members of the Imperial family, including the Dowager Empress.

Nicholas dabbled in spiritualism.  He and his wife, Stana, and her sister, Militsa, the wife of Nikolai's brother, Grand Duke Peter, were the ones to introduce Rasputin to the Empress Alexandra.  It was an introduction that Grand Duke Nicholas would later regret.

This detailed biography will appeal more to military historians rather than students of Romanov history, although this book should be included in royal collections because the book does include good information on Nikolai and the family dynamics between he and his wife and with Nicholas and Alexandra.

The focus remains on Nikolai's military career, his determination to make the Russian army successful, and on the military campaigns during the first world war before it all ended in a revolutionary heap.  But he was not a hands on commander, preferring the corporate train and good food to spending time with the recruits.  After relinquishing his position as the Supreme commander in 1917,  Nikolai, ever loyal to Russia, signed an oath of allegiance to the new Provisional government.  He also ordered his brother, his nephews, and others in his entourage to do the same.

He telegraphed Prince Lvov: "Today I took the oath of loyalty to the fatherland and to the new state order.  I will fulfill my duty to the end, as my conscience and the obligations I have accepted order."

The fall of the Provisional Government put Nikolai and other surviving Romanovs in danger, as they gathered in the Crimea.  In early 1920, Grand Duke Nikolai left Russia forever, joining the Dowager Empress and other family members on board.  As his sister-in-law was the Queen consort off Italy,  Nikolai, his brother and their wives were given permission to live in Italy.

Robinson does get one thing wrong.  Kirill had succession rights from birth.  The fundamental laws make it clear that that the empress and the wife of the heir have to be Orthodox at the time of their marriage.  Marie did not convert until the early 1900s, as it was possible that succession could eventually pass to Kirill and his descendants.  This was due to Alexis' hemophilia and Michael's intransigence in not seeking an eligible wife.  Princess Tatiana Constantinova renounced her rights to the throne when she married, and her mother remained Lutheran. 

Most will read this book for the military history, especially in view of the centenary of the first world war.  I liked gleaning the book for insight into Nikolai, his relationship with his family, especially his wife, and how he chose to deal with Nicholas II, putting his loyalty with Russia before the emperor.

The final chapters, which focus on Nikolai's life in exile, offer further details on the political machinations that went on in the émigré community after the civil war. 

Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevitch is a groundbreaking biography, and the first one about Nikolai to be published in English. 

 This is scholarly biography at its finest and deepest.

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