Thursday, February 4, 2010

Royal Profile: Grand Duke Michael of Russia

Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich Romanov was born on November 22, 1878, the youngest son of Tsar Alexander III, younger brother of the ill-fated Tsar Nicholas II. For a time, after the death of Alexander III in 1894 he was second-in-line to the Russian throne. Displaced by the birth of the Tsarevich Alexei, given the condition of the poor boy, it was still somewhat expected that Grand Duke Michael would one day be the Tsar of all the Russia’s. Some controversy exists to this day as to whether or not he may actually have been the last Russian Tsar, if only for a short time.

The three sons of Alexander III have never been very well treated in the history books and Grand Duke Michael probably has suffered the worst; often dismissed as an empty-headed dupe. On the whole, this is quite unfair. The Grand Duke does seem to have been rather naïve, his father once saying that one could tell him anything, but he was also known to be extremely kind and good natured; a man of compassionate character. Being the youngest he was often doted on but despite this was not spoiled or haughty.

His sister-in-law Alexandra (who never missed many faults) found him delightful. He did not take things too seriously, was light-hearted, kind and much adored. His primary hobby was collecting automobiles, new fangled contraptions that were not too common in Russia. He loved collecting them and he loved driving them, racing around the country at speeds that would seem quite slow by modern standards but which were quite thrilling at the time. He turned a car over while traveling with his sister, Grand Duchess Olga (his most constant companion from childhood), but neither were hurt.

In matters of the heart, Grand Duke Michael was quite unlucky. His first potential bride, Princess Beatrice of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, was dismissed by the Church for being too closely related. His second was disallowed for being a commoner and some rather harsh members had to be taken to keep them apart. The third, Natalia Wulfert, was also unacceptable for her common status but the Grand Duke had a child with her and, against the wishes of his brother, while on a visit to Vienna he married her in a local Serbian Orthodox Church. Nicholas II was outraged, stripped the Grand Duke of his military rank, froze all his assets, seized his property and exiled him from Russia. He and his wife lived afterward in Switzerland, France and Great Britain.

When war broke out in 1914 Grand Duke Michael went home to fight for Moth Russia and was promoted to the rank of major general and given command of the Caucasian Native Cavalry. He was a capable commander, very popular with his troops and was decorated with the St George Cross for his leadership. With the war perhaps putting things into perspective Nicholas II was prevailed upon to legally legitimize the Grand Duke’s son, though he was, like his mother, given only a lesser title. The Grand Duke was promoted to lieutenant general and served with distinction in the famous Brusilov offensive but he was unpopular with the chattering classes and suffered from stomach ulcers. His commander, the famous General Alexei Brusilov, said of him that he, “was an absolutely honorable 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”.

Michael was on leave with his stomach ailment when the revolution came but he rushed to the Winter Palace to support his brother. When the Tsar was finally forced to abdicate he did so on behalf of himself and his son and named Grand Duke Michael his heir. Before he knew what had happened soldiers announced the accession of Tsar Michael II. The Provisional Government quickly came calling and Michael recognized that they were in control and he was not (some arguing over whether the abdication of the Tsar was legitimate or legal) but he never abdicated his position. In due course he was arrested, released and arrested again. There was talk of him leaving the country with the Empress Dowager but Great Britain would not have them. Instead he prepared his family to go to Finland.

However, when the Bolsheviks seized power Michael was arrested again and on June 12, 1918 was shot in the back of the head by his communist captors; the first Romanov to be murdered by the Reds. However, the story of Grand Duke Michael did not end there as the local secret police concocted a story that the Grand Duke had escaped and disappeared. Especially after the mass murder of Nicholas II and his family many White Russians seized on this story as a source of hope and fought in the name of Grand Duke Michael or Tsar Michael II for several years after his death.


  1. I have always found Michael an intriguing character. The whole debate about whether he was ever technically Tsar is interesting too.

    Is it true that Nicholas abdicated and then subsequently tried to change the terms of his abdication by adding that Alexis, too, was excluded from the throne? That wouldn't seem valid, would it, since Nicholas would no longer have the authority to make renunciations on Alexis' behalf? Anyway, I've read different things about it all.

    Btw, I loved your Albert I video on Youtube. There seems to be a slight typo though- as I'm sure you know, he died in 1934, not 1939:)

  2. There are different stories but I think the most common version is that Nicholas II abdicated, making his son nominally Tsar Alexis II with Grand Duke Michael as regent, though that document never really 'went anywhere'. He talked to some others, especially the Tsarevich's doctor who stressed the seriousness of his disease and so before the government delegation arrived Nicholas prepared another document providing for his own abdication and that of his son. Was the first meant to be the real thing or was it merely a draft? Could Nicholas II abdicate for his son without being designated as regent simply because he was his father? Lots of conflicting opinions there but of course it is all rather academic and I can certainly understand the Tsar not wanting to be parted from his ailing son.

    Glad you liked the Albert vid (it will be posted here sometime down the road) and thanks for the typo tip. When I looked again I did have 34 at the top but then put 39 at the end so I guess I had a mental hiccup. Anyway, it's sorted out now so thanks for that.

  3. Is it possible that Michael did escape since no body has been found?


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