Saturday, September 12, 2020

Michael Romanov Brother of the Last Tsar Diaries and Letters 1916-1918


Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich of Russia was the youngest son of Alexander III and his Danish-born wife, Dagmar (Marie Feodorovna).  With two older brothers, Nicholas and George,  Michael was never expected to play a role in the succession. He was expected to marry well and have children, all of whom would have a supporting role in the Russian monarchy.

That's not how it turned out.  Nicholas succeeded his father in November 1894.  Alexander was only 49 when he succumbed to nephritis.  Three weeks after his father's death, Nicholas married Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine,   Nicholas' middle brother, Grand Duke George was the heir presumptive until his death from tuberculosis in 1899.   

Succession to the Russian throne was semi-Salic, meaning all of the eligible males preceded the females, including the Tsar's daughters.   By 1899,  Nicholas was the father of three daughters and no sons.  Following George's death, Michael became the heir presumptive until August 1904, when Empress Alexandra gave birth to the Tsarevitch, Alexis.

A healthy son would have allowed Grand Duke Michael to have his own life. However,  Alexis was hemophilic, which meant that he might not live to adulthood and Michael would succeed to the throne,

It is apparent that Michael, a dullard, was never able to step up as the spare-in-waiting.  He fell in love with his first cousin, Princess Beatrice of Edinburgh, but the marriage would not be approved by Nicholas.  He also pursued one of his sister's ladies-in-waiting and, finally, in 1912, he eloped with his mistress (and mother of his young son, George, Natalia Wulfert, to Vienna where they were married without Nicholas II's permission.  

Imperial punishment was swift.  Michael was stripped of his position as Regent-in-waiting and access to his appanage.  The family spent three years in exile, but in 1915, he begged his brother to be allowed to return to Russia to serve the county, then embroiled in the second year of the first world.  Although Natalia was never welcome at court,  young George was given the title Count Brasov.

Michael, however, was welcomed back into the imperial fold, where he divided his time with his wife and son at his country estate, Brasovo, and Gatchina.   

This is the first time that Michael's diaries have been published in English with an expert and critical translation by Helen Azar,  Nicholas Nicholson wrote the text and the supporting footnotes.

The diaries cover the period between December 1916 and June 1918, when Michael and his secretary Nicholas Johnson were executed in Perm.  

It must be acknowledged that Michael was an entitled Imperial prat. When the time came to stand up and be counted (the Grand Duke's Manifesto) he screwed up badly, thus ending any opportunity to save the throne,

The diaries open in December 1916 with Michael and his family in Livadia, where they learned of Rasputin's death.  They were back at Gatchina for the new year.  On January 7, 1917, Michael was deputized to meet Crown Prince Carol of Romania and bring him to the Winter Palace.

In the background, one can hear the inevitable time bomb clicking away, but for the protagonists in this diary were a bit oblivious to tick-tick-tick.

It must be noted that the diary entries are largely banal: weather, temperature, walking, going to the zoo, dinner guests, kids playing,  Michael doing gymnastics, Michael playing the guitar (he often played the guitar), day-to-day comings and goings.

Michael did not confide  recriminations or even concern for other family members, which means there is little insight into Michael's views on the political  This may be a calculated decision, perhaps knowing that his diaries could be read.  But it must be stressed that the Grand Duke was ill-suited for his position as heir presumptive. It was difficult to take Michael seriously as he had no real concept of duty.  

The Grand Duke did have a "talk" with his brother on February 10.  This comment is elaborated by a footnote that provides more details on this conversation.  It may not have ended well for Michael -- was he trying to convince Nicholas that the situation was serious.  Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, the Emperor's brother n law was also there, and he noted that his comments to the Empress were dismissed as she was oblivious to the forthcoming revolutionary tsunami.

He did agree to sign the Grand Duke's Manifesto along with Grand Duke Kirill and Grand Duke Paul.  The Grand Dukes wanted to save the throne for Nicholas.  Time was running out, however, as events moved with "horrifying speed."

Had the Manifesto been accepted by the Duma, and more, important, by Nicholas (and Alexandra), the monarchy might have been saved.  The political situation was rapidly snowballing but the situation quickly changed and the Manifesto could not be implemented.   Alexandra's wails were for naught. Nicholas was forced to abdicate for himself and his son.  300 years of Romanov rule was over.  

Michael had neither the power nor the authority to push the Manifesto's agenda.  A more persuasive attempt might have been made by Paul or Kirill.

As the monarchy crumbled and Nicholas and Alexandra and their family were under house arrest,  Michael stayed at Gatchina with his wife, their son, and Natasha's daughter from her earlier marriage.  During the next few months, Michael and his wife were able to go to the theatre, walk at the Zoo, meet with friends, and government officials. His secretary Nicholas Johnson was nearly always present as well.

There would be new arrests and investigations of other members of the Imperial Family.  The footnotes, which were provided by Nicholson, offer more insight into some of Michael's comments.  On June 2, Michael visited his cousin, Grand Duke Boris, who had recently been freed from house arrest, but as with other members of this family, no one would be granted an exit order to be allowed to leave the country.

In an entry dated August 1,  Michael mentions newspaper reports about Nicholas' departure.  He wrote of the departure: "but instead Tobolsk, it said Kostroma."  He did not elaborate further. Historians can only speculate on Michael's private thoughts based on who came to visit or who the Grand Duke met.  This is why the footnotes provide far more than a historical enhancement.

Michael was arrested in August 1917 for being a part of a conspiracy that did not exist. The stress of an increasing fear -- and even though Michael's entries are devoid of emotion, he certainly was under a lot of stress so it is no surprise that he developed an ulcer.  He and other Grand Dukes were released from their arrest, but this did not mean that they had true freedom of movement,

But Michael's grasp on freedom soon came to an end as the Bolsheviks took power.  By November 1917, his situation was becoming more acute "as soldiers from the Aviation School"  confiscated 80 bottles of wine and sugar.   Michael and his family were still able to travel between Gatchina and Petrograd, but returning to Brasovo was out of the question.

It was a false sense of security for Russia and for Michael.  The Bolsheviks had no intention of respecting the Constituent Assembly.  The Bolsheviks had only 24 percent of the seats but were able to take control and end Russia's hope for a democratic constitution.

Michael and his secretary Nicholas Johnson were arrested and sent to Perm, more than 1000 miles from Petrograd on March 11.  There are no diary entries from March 6 to  May 8

Natalia was desperate to have Michael released.  She made arrangements for their son to be smuggled out of Russia.  She received permission to spend Easter in Perm.  She left Perm on May 18, as noted in Michael's diary.  It was the last time they would see each other.  

In the final weeks of his life, Michael continued to have stomach problems.  Although he was not under arrest, he was not permitted to leave Perm.

The last diary entry is dated June 11, 1918.  He wrote to Natasha who had already returned to Gatchina.  In the middle of the night (June 12/13), three soldiers turned up with arrest warrants for Michael and Johnson.  They were "forcibly removed" and before sunrise on June 13, Grand Duke Michael and Nicholas Johnson were executed somewhere outside Perm.  Their bodies were never found.

This book is a welcomed addition -- a must-have, actually -- to the canon of Romanov books for serious historians.  Yes, the diary entries lack emotion or insight, yet remain important as a record of what Michael's life was like until the day before his death.

Helen Azar has done a superior job with the translation and Nicholas Nicholson, already an acknowledged art expert is now an accomplished  Russian historian. In writing the opening biographical sketch and the many footnotes, he consulted numerous original Russian language sources including Grand Duke Andrew's diaries. 

The book includes six pages of photos.  The photos are small, and it is difficult to read the captions.  Doubling the number of pages with 2 photos per page would have allowed the photos to be better presented. 


Michael Romanov Brother of the Last Tsar Diaries and Letters 1916-1918 was published in hardcover ($99.95) and paperback ($29.95) by Academic Press.


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