On December 12, Nicholas Nicholson, Russian History Museum’s Director of Development, presented a captivating account of the life of Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich. In “Grand Duke Michael: Brother of the Tsar” Nicholson shared new research from his recent book, co-authored with translator Helen Azar, Michael Romanov: Brother of the Last Tsar, Diaries and Letters 1916-1918. The presentation was part of the Russian History Museum’s Second Saturday lecture series.
Using primary historical sources and a faithful translation of Grand Duke Michael’s original observations as a guide, Nicholson explore the tumultuous arc of his final years amidst the fall of the Russian Empire and the Bolshevik Revolution.
Nicholson did not have time to answer all the questions from audience members during the program. So, after the lecture, he went the extra mile and wrote responses to the rest of the questions. Read Nick’s answers to the questions below.
Questions & Answers
A note from Nick:
Thank you so much for all of your positive feedback and your excellent questions. I’m sorry we couldn’t address them during the lecture, and I am grateful to have the opportunity to answer them here. I was also able to expand on answers by consulting our book and others.
I would like to make a brief correction to the recorded lecture during which I misspoke; In one of the photos, please note that Natalia Brasova, Grand Duke Mikhail, an unknown lady and Nikolai Johnson are on the “Promenade des Anglais” in Nice, and not the “Quai des Anglais.” The English Embankment is in St. Petersburg.
As promised, here are answers to your questions:
Q: The spray doesn’t look the same at all!
A: The spray our attendee refers to is a diamond element worn by Grand Duke Mikhail on his hat during the 1903 Boyar Fête. The piece, which dates from the period of Emperor Paul I, and which was rumored to have been lost at the ball (please see Vorres, I., The Last Grand Duchess, Finedawn: London, 1964. p. 102) may be seen here in a 1924 photograph. If you compare them side by side (and it is difficult to look as a slide flashes past with less than 20 seconds!), you will see that they are, indeed, the same. In 1903, the six-stranded diamond spray was wired and mounted above a separate sapphire brooch to be worn on his hat, and in the 1924 picture, it is simply laid on a cushion to be photographed. You can count the stones and make out specific cuts and shapes that match.
Take a look here, where Instagram’s popular account “Russian_Treasure” has convincingly mapped out every piece of jewelry Mikhail wore in 1903 and traced them to the 1924 Fersman catalogue illustration of the Imperial Crown Jewels.
Q: Can you amplify history’s misunderstanding of the Empress’s political influence on Nicholas?
A: This is an interesting and complex question. After the Revolution, westerners were denied access to records such as diaries, letters, and internal Imperial government documents. From 1915-1918 there was a lot of anti-Alexandra propaganda both within Russia and without, most of which was xenophobic (specifically anti-German). Relatives of the Romanovs around the world were all convinced that Alexandra was hysterical and difficult, and so when the history of the Revolution was written, there was a decidedly anti-Alexandra slant. As a result, pre-1992 historians were rarely able to get a fuller picture of the situation, and relied oftentimes on biased, inaccurate, or incomplete information about Alexandra and her political activities.
Serious historians in the post-Soviet era like Dominic Lieven (cf. Nicholas II, Emperor of all the Russias & The End of Tsarist Russia), Yoshi Hasegawa (cf. The February Revolution), and Douglas Smith (cf. Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs) all document that Empress Alexandra’s influence over Nicholas and his government was less significant than people have made it out to be over the years. She certainly had strong opinions and made them known, but more often than not, the Emperor ignored her, as did his advisors.
That said, the idea that she had influence was powerful and widespread in the period, and that Public perception was damaging to her, to the Emperor, and to the Empire.
Q: What is your personal opinion of the relationship of GD Mikhail and Natasha? Truly loving?
There is no doubt that Mikhail adored Natasha without any reservations. He risked losing everything to marry her, and his diaries and letters are full of confirmations that he was happy and deeply in love with her. Natasha had been in two unhappy previous marriages, and I like to think that she found at last what she was looking for in Mikhail. Natasha appears to have been completely devoted to Mikhail as well; she never told her story to the press or profited from it in any way. Also, she never married again which is a telling indication of her feelings for him.
Q: My stepfather, David Chavchavadze, wrote a 1990 book titled The Grand Dukes. In that book, he stressed that the last document Grand Duke Mikhail signed was forever important in two ways: 1) the wording is clear that he did not abdicate and therefore was indeed the last emperor for more than for a day, and 2) that the document underlines that Bolshevik power would forever be seen as a seizure of power by force and not by law. Do you agree?
Thank you for this important question. Yes, and no. Prince David Pavlovich (whom I very much admired, by the way) shared the opinion that was most commonly held by liberal aristocrats in the period. I will answer the second part first: The Bolsheviks received 25-27% of the vote in the elections of the 1917 Russian Constituent Assembly, but were in the majority in Petrograd and Moscow, and so in October they swiftly took control, undermined the importance of the assembly results and arrested the legal Provisional Government. So, yes, I agree – the Bolshevik power was indeed a seizure of power by force and not by law.
The first part is more complicated. Under the fundamental laws, the succession is very clear. The throne passes by right to the eldest son of the Sovereign at the moment of their death or abdication. There is a provision in the laws for the Emperor to abdicate, and the laws are very clear about what happens in that event; the heir succeeds, and in the case of an heir who is a minor at the time of their accession, (as Tsasarevich Alexis was) the heir succeeds under a regency. Further, the laws specify how the regency is to be composed. It is clear from the surviving documents that everyone expected a regency to be declared, and everyone was surprised and startled by Nicholas II’s unilateral move.
It has been compellingly argued that the 1906 constitution precluded Nicholas from legally altering the succession and removing his minor son without Duma confirmation. Neither the emperor nor the Duma were able to alter the constitution (i.e. the fundamental laws), without mutual initiative and consent. The emperor did have the right to issue decrees during the Duma’s absence (and the Duma was not in session in February-March 1917, which is why the Provisional Committee had been formed) — but these decrees were without force if not approved by the parliament within two months, indicating that Nicholas’ decree about Mikhail was in fact not official pending Duma approval.
It can also be argued that because Mikhail “deferred” and thus only made a conditional acceptance, he never legally reigned as Emperor because the extant and operative law and constitution specified that Alexis was to inherit, and there was no legal manner available to override that in March of 1917. This likely factored into the composition of the “deferral” written by Nabokov and Nolde, who saw that the bypassing of Alexis presented a legal problem they hoped to avoid by stating that Mikhail would only accept the supreme power if it were to be confirmed by a future governmental body, whose power could confirm or reject Nicholas’ act.
To summarize, Nicholas clearly intended to cede the throne to his brother and felt it was within his power to do so (he addressed Mikhail as “Majesty” in his telegram of 3 March). There is considerable doubt as to whether Mikhail ever regarded himself as reigning Emperor. His diaries and surviving letters make no mention of his “succession” at all, and never seems to have thought of himself as having any power of his own, deferring instead to the Provisional Committee.
The popular story of “Mikhail II” — that is, that Mikhail Romanov (b. 1596 – d. 1645) reigned as the first Romanov Tsar, elected by Zemskii Sobor, and that a second Mikhail became the last Emperor, nobly placing the ‘supreme power’ back in the hands of the populace from which it originally came, makes a for a naïve “schoolchild” understanding of the situation, and asserts a false narrative ignoring relevant legal and political issues. According to the fundamental laws which Nicholas II swore to uphold, on his abdication his minor son became heir, with a regency to be established. Nicholas, Alexis, and Mikhail were all dead by the 16-17 July, 1917, and the legitimate succession passed to the next dynastic male by primogeniture.
Q: What happened to his wife and children?
A: Natasha tried desperately to help Mikhail after she returned to Moscow and Petrograd from seeing him in Perm. She used friends to help get Tata Mamontova and George Brassov out of Russia, and then followed them and met them in London. These stories are told in detail in Natalia Mamontova’s memoirs Step-daughter of Imperial Russia (1940), and Pauline Grey’s The Grand Duke’s Woman (1976). George Brasov was extracted from Russia with his nanny, Miss Neame by Danish diplomats who got them to Berlin, and with Emperor Wilhelm II’s help, they went to Denmark.
George studied at Harrow, and later at the École des Roches in Normandy, but was killed in a car accident in 1931.
Natalia never wrote or spoke about her experience. She died on 23 January 1952 of cancer at the Laënnec charity hospital in Paris, completely impoverished.
Q: You mentioned Mikhail’s guitar playing three times. Was he a dilettante or did he have some particular skills on the instrument?
A: Playing guitar was clearly one of Mikhail’s great joys. He notes playing almost every day, and had multiple lessons from Domenichi every week. We can only assume that he was a very serious amateur musician.
Q: Could you tell us more about the edition of the diaries: did you transcribe the whole text or did you publish a specific selection?
A: The diaries that we chose to translate begin in 1915, and end in 1918. We originally conceived the book as a 100th anniversary publication, and so we began with December 1916 (when Rasputin’s murder occurred) and ended with his last entry. We have translated the entirety of that period and added relevant letters and public declarations. The notes include many first-time translations of primary sources. We have not decided if we will ever go back and do the previous two years.
Q: Did Empress Maria Feodorovna acknowledge Mikhail’s death? She did not acknowledge Nicholas and Alexandra’s death.
A: No. Despite all reports, the Dowager Empress never acknowledged that either of her sons were dead.
Q: I’m wondering, do you think it’s “fair” to judge Nicholas II, Maria Feodorovna, etc. for their treatment of Mikhail due to his marriage to Natalia? I know it was normal for the “standards of the time” to react harshly to the marriage, but I can’t help but feel that this treatment of the couple reflects extremely badly on them.
Today, we look at the marriage of Mikhail and Natasha from a modern standpoint. We no longer tolerate the idea that any one person is fundamentally “beneath” another, and that this point of view is, as the attendee states one of the “standards of the time.”
It is important to emphasize that our modern sensitivities are not applicable in this scenario. the Dowager Empress was not reacting from a standpoint that was personal or emotional, but from an official one. The marriage was illegal. It was prohibited by law. With the marriage, Mikhail endangered any possibility of succession for himself, and eliminated the possibility of succession for his potential children. With Tsesarevich Alexis sick, this imperiled the very line of Alexander III from holding onto the throne.
Nicholas II and the Dowager Empress had no personal duty to their brother/son – they had a duty to maintain the Crown and the Law. This issue was never about “fairness” or even compassion – it was about duty.
Q: Is there any evidence that N Brasova conspired in any way for GD Mikhail to become regent?
A: While Natalia Brasova was present at several meeting where the possibility of Mikhail’s regency was likely discussed, (cf. pages 23-47, Mikhail Romanov, Brother of the Tsar, etc.) there is no indication that she was the root cause of these plans, or that she advocated this outcome. Our perception of Natasha is that she supported Mikhail, and was “along for the ride.”
That said, the public perception of her by members of the Imperial Family and the aristocracy (as evidenced by the diary entry of Elizabeth Naryshkin read in the lecture) was that she was plotting and part of a larger bourgeois effort to destroy the monarchy.
Q: Was Grand Duke Mikhail as much of an athlete as his photographs suggest?
A: Yes. Mikhail hiked, rode, and was an avid hunter. He also did calisthenics. His military training clearly set up a lifetime of good exercise habits.
Q: Why did Natalia have such difficulty in exile? Didn’t they own a home in England?
A: No. Mikhail’s finances had been precarious since 1912 when he was cut off by Nicholas II from his appenages (income). The imperial family had recalled their capital from abroad at the start of the War, so Mikhail had no money abroad.
Mikhail and Natalia did not own Knebworth House – they rented it for 3,000 GBP from 1913-1914.
Q: Was Princess Putyatin’s husband present when the Provisional government met? Did they have any political connection to the events or was it due to a personal connection and the location of their apartment?
A: Absolutely. Prince Paul and Princess Olga Putyatin were both there. Please note that there was no “Provisional Government” until it was declared after Mikhail’s “deferral” on the 3rd. The “provisional committee” which met at the Putyatin apartment was an organ of the Imperial Government, and the “Provisional Government” was a new entity.
The Putyatin family was extremely close to Grand Duke Mikhail. The whole family cared for Grand Duke Mikhail deeply, and Mikhail’s cousin Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna the Younger was to marry a Prince Putyatin in the coming months. The family was close and loyal, and the apartment was also only a short distance from the Winter Palace.
Q: What was the fallout after the breakup of GD Mikhail and “Baby Bee” for both of them?
A: I have to say, it was more difficult for Princess Beatrice than it was for Grand Duke Mikhail. her reputation was badly damaged by Mikhail’s sudden break from her, and she appears to have been much more in love with him than he was with her. He wrote her in November of 1903 breaking up with her, and the broken-hearted Beatrice was sent on an extended trip to Egypt to get over him. She continued to write him semi-anguished letters until 1905. Ultimately, she married a member of the Spanish royal family.
Q: What are your thoughts on the theoretical historical sequelae if Mikhail had accepted the crown?
A: Oh, it never pays to speculate on such matters. It is pretty clear from the behavior of the Provisional Committee that they were deeply invested in removing the Romanovs from any further participation in Government. I very much doubt anything Mikhail might have tried could have saved the situation.
Q: Surely Rasputin was paramount in this whole tragedy!!!!
A: Well, no. The role of Rasputin and his influence was greatly exaggerated in the period, as well as over time. However, the murder of Rasputin in December of 1916 was indeed the single galvanizing event which set Nicholas and Alexandra and the greater balance of the Romanov family at odds with one another. Any actual sense of family unity was utterly destroyed at that time.
Q: Were Mikhail and Johnson executed by the new government or a renegade group?
A: According to the leader of the local secret police, Gavril Mysanikov, the orders were approved by Lenin in Moscow as well as by the local Ural Soviet. On 12 June 1918, Myasnikov, with the help of other local Bolsheviks, planned Mikhail’s murder. Myasnikov assembled a team of four men: Vasily Ivanchenko, Ivan Kolpashchikov, Andrei Markov and Nikolai Zhuzhgov. Using a forged order, the four men gained entry to Mikhail’s hotel at 11.45 p.m. Mikhail was ill, and refused to accompany the men until he spoke with the local chairman of the secret police, Pavel Malkov. Malkov urged him to comply. This was a premeditated act of the new government at the both the State and Local level.
Q: The Royal Family & their 4 servants were canonized. Who else was from this tragedy?
A: All of the murdered members of the imperial family were subsequently canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, and by the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. Only one of the murdered Romanovs was excluded from canonization, and that is Grand Duke Nikolai Mikhailovich excluded because he was known to be an active Freemason.
Q: Were Nicholas II and GD Mikhail able to communicate in 1918? Did they forgive each other?
A: The last meeting of Nicholas II and his brother was at the Alexander Palace on 31 July 1917. It was an awkward meeting held under guard, and was described by others in various ways. Mikhail said only this:
“31 July. Monday. Gatchina. […] At 10 o’cl went to Boris’s in Tsarskoe. At 12 o’cl the palace commandant Kobylinsky came for me, and we drove to Alexander Palace. Got out by the kitchens and through the cellar [tunnel] went into the palace to the fourth entrance and to Nicky’s reception room, where were: Count Benckendorf, Kerensky, Valya Dolgorukov and two young officers. From there I walked to the study, where I saw Nicky in the presence of Kerensky and the head of staff guard’s ensign. I found that Nicky looked rather well. Stayed with him around 10 minutes and went back to Boris’s, and then to Gatchina. Kerensky arranged this meeting for me and it was called for due to the fact that today, completely by accident, I found out this afternoon about Nicky’s and family’s departure to Tobolsk, which will take place tonight…”
Benckendorf recorded the meeting in his memoirs. “He [Kerensky] told me that the Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich would be arriving. The Minister had arranged this meeting so that the brothers might say good-bye. I mentioned this to the Emperor, who was touched and surprised. When the Grand Duke arrived Kerensky and his ordinary preceded him into His Majesty’s office. He [Mikhail] sat down at the desk and leafed through some albums. The ordinary officer guarded the door. The meeting lasted about 10 minutes. The brothers were wary of speaking in front of others and they found few words. The Grand Duke told me later in tears that he had not even properly looked the Emperor in the face. Kerensky then [left and] sat down in the waiting room. We spoke on different topics. Since he assured me several times that the absence of Their Majesties would not last more than a few months, I asked him when I could expect the Imperial Family to return. He again assured me that after the [meeting of the] Constituent Assembly in November, nothing would prevent the Tsar from either returning to Tsarskoye Selo or going wherever her wanted to go. (Khrustalev, p. 648, citing Segodnia, Riga, 1928; 18 February.)
I am not certain the brothers felt they needed to forgive one another for anything. There is no evidence that they ever had any direct communication again.
Q: Did the Dowager Empress ever meet Mikhail’s son?
A: Yes. The Dowager Empress first met Count George Brasov on 26 July 1919. The Dowager Empress wrote in her diary: “[…] Ksenia was to bring Misha’s wife and his little son. This prompted a storm of emotions within me, which possessed me for the past few days. The meeting, thank You, Lord, went better than I had expected. She looked very well […] she brought many photographs of Misha which I had never seen before and which she asked me to keep. I think poor Misha would be pleased if he should ever find out that I saw them.” (26 July, 1919, Dnevniki Marii Feodorovny).
She met them again on 30 April 1923 and noted “At 11.30 I received Brasova and her little son, who is now 12 years old. He has grown tremendously since I last saw him. He is such a sweet boy, but he does not at all look like my Misha. Their visit was a huge shock to my soul […] (30 April 1923, Dnevniki Marii Feodorovny).
Maria Feodorovna had met Natalia Brasova first in London in 1913, shortly after the illegal marriage, and under very different circumstances. In her own diary, Grand Duchess Ksenia Alexandrovna wrote that the Dowger Empress “told her a few home truths in front of Misha.” (cf. de Angelis, S., Maria Feodorovna – Empress of Russia: The Diaries 1919-1923, Vol. II, Bokemon: 2012. p. 83, n. 1).
Q: How old would Alexei have been at the time of the abdication?
A: Alexis was 13 at the time of the abdication. He would have seen his dynastic majority at 16.
Q: Approximately how long did Countess Brasova believe Mikhail was alive?
A: Natalia was very pragmatic and harbored no illusions about a miraculous survival. As soon as she received Mikhail’s things from Perm, she was certain that he was dead, and that she needed to leave herself as quickly as possible (she had already sent her children abroad).
Main image: Colorization by Olga Shirnina, “Klimbim.” Used by permission.