GRAND DUKE ALEXANDER OF RUSSIA (1866-1933)

 

LEGITIMIST SUPPORTER OF EMPEROR-IN-EXILE KIRILL

AND OPPONENT OF ANTI-LEGITIMIST GRAND DUKE NIKOLAI NIKOLAIEVICH

 

 

Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 1.59.21 PM.png

His Imperial Highness Grand Duke Alexander of Russia (1866-1933) was a person of enormous influence in Russia during the reign of his brother-in-law, Emperor Nicholas II.  After the Russian Revolution, living in exile, mainly in France, in the 1920s and early 1930s, he was a firm legitimist.  Among the most respected members of the Russian Imperial House to survive the Revolution, Grand Duke Alexander was one of the very first dynasts to recognize his nephew Kirill as Emperor of Russia and head of the dynasty.

After Kirill’s 1924 manifesto that he had succeeded to the throne as Emperor in exile, Grand Duke Alexander worked tirelessly to assemble recognitions of Emperor Kirill from other members of the dynasty.  Among others, he obtained recognitions from five of his six sons[1] and also from his only living brother, Grand Duke Mikhail Mikhailovich.

Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich of Russia had the title of grand duke because he was the grandson of a tsar, Emperor Nicholas I.  The grand ducal title was limited to children and grandchildren of an emperor.  Dynasts who were great-grandsons of an emperor (like his six sons) or more distant descendants of an emperor had the title of prince of the imperial blood (Prince of Russia).

Grand Duke Alexander was a first cousin of Alexander III, father of Nicholas II.  He married Nicholas II’s sister, Grand Duchess Xenia, and they had seven children.  Alexander had a long career in the Russian Navy, rising to the rank of Vice Admiral.  He is also considered the father of the Russian air force.  During World War I, when aviation was in its early stages, he was in charge of developing the Russian Imperial Air Service, of which he was Inspector General.

 

 

 Grand Duke Alexander and Grand Duchess Kenia, St. Peterburg, 1890's.

Grand Duke Alexander and Grand Duchess Kenia, St. Peterburg, 1890's.

A man of great intelligence and sophistication, Grand Duke Alexander was for many years a close advisor of his brother-in-law, Nicholas II.  In early 1917, however, they had a falling out.  The Grand Duke became convinced that the political influence of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna risked doing great harm to the empire and the monarchy.  At this time, Emperor Nicholas II was away from the capital serving as commander in chief of the Russian armies, and his consort, remaining at home, was to some extent a de facto regent.  In his compelling memoirs, Once A Grand Duke, Alexander described in great detail his final meeting with Nicholas and Alexandra, in which his plea that she cease to play any further role in governmental affairs degenerated into an angry argument.  According to his memoirs, the argument ended with his shouting at the Empress,  “Must we all suffer from your blind stubborness?  No, Alix, you have no right to drag your relatives with you down a precipice.”[2]

Grand Duke Alexander’s 1924 declaration of support of his nephew Kirill as Emperor of Russia was contrary to the wishes of his mother-in-law, Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna.  The Dowager Empress was so devastated by the loss of her sons Nicholas II and Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich and her grandson Tsesarevich Alexei that she refused to accept that they were dead.  To acknowledge Kirill, the dynast next in the line of succession after Nicholas II, Alexei and Mikhail, as emperor was to admit that her sons and grandsons had been murdered.  Shattered and frail, the elderly Maria Feodorovna retreated to a make-believe world in which they were somehow still alive in Russia. 

The assassinations of these three senior dynasts had been credibly reported years before.  On 18 July 1918, for example, the day after the Bosheviks murdered Emperor Nicholas II, his wife and his five young children, the official Bolshevik press office issued a communiqué announcing that, on orders of the Ural Soviet, the former Tsar Nicholas Romanoff had been executed.  The press release then falsely asserted that the wife and son of Tsar Nicholas had been evacuated to a safe place.  In late August 1918, the month after the assassination, King George V of Great Britain, having received British intelligence reports that the entire family had been murdered, wrote a letter to Empress Alexandra’s sister (Victoria, Marchioness of Milford Haven) informing her that, based on the source from which the information had been received, there could be “little doubt” that Alexandra and all the “innocent children” had been killed.

Nicholas II’s brother Mikhail was executed in June 1918, but the news of his fate took longer to make its way to the West.  There survives a March 1919 letter from Mikhail’s stepdaughter explaining that she had received the very bad news that Mikhail had been murdered in the Urals, news that for the moment she was keeping from her mother, who was Mikhail’s widow.[3]  On 5 July 1924, the High Court in London issued an order declaring that Grand Duke Mikhail had died on or about 12 June 1918 and giving letters of administration to his widow in respect of his property in Great Britain.[4] 

In reality, there had been little doubt since 1918 that Nicholas II, Alexei and Mikhail were no longer alive.  On 18 July 1918, the day after the execution of Nicholas II and his family, five other members of the dynasty (including a brother of Grand Duke Alexander and the sister of Empress Alexandra) were murdered by the Bolsheviks in Alapaievsk, a town in the Urals.  Soldiers of the anti-Bolshevik White Army found their bodies less than three months later, in October 1918.  On 29 January 1919, four Romanoff grand dukes (including two brothers of Grand Duke Alexander) were shot by a Bolshevik firing squad in St. Petersburg.  The Bolshevik press commission announced the executions immediately, and the Petersburg newspapers carried the story on 31 January 1919.  Common sense dictated that any dynasts who had not managed to escape from Russia had been killed.

Despite being quite sure that he had succeeded as head of the dynasty in 1918, Kirill did not make any declaration to this effect.  Several events in 1924 combined to push Kirill to issue his accession manifesto of August 1924.

In January 1924, the Soviet leader, Lenin, died, and a period of chaos ensued in Russia, as Stalin and other Bolsheviks vied to succeed him.  Monarchists believed that in this period of turbulence, which might create an opening for anti-Bolshevik leaders, it was important that the former ruling dynasty speak with one voice.   By taking the title of emperor, Kirill would be able to announce to the world not only that the dynasty still existed but that he was its head.

In early 1919, during the Russian civil war, the White headquarters of Admiral Kolchak in Omsk had appointed Judge Nikolai Sokolov, an examining magistrate, to go to Ekaterinburg to investigate the fate of Nicholas II and his family.  Sokolov, who assembled a voluminous dossier, soon concluded that the entire family had been massacred in the basement of the Ipatiev House in July 1918. Fleeing to France after the defeat of the Whites, Sokolov had been received by Grand Duke Kirill, to whom he explained his conclusions.  In 1924, Sokolov published in French his book detailing the evidence supporting his findings.  And in July 1924, as stated above, a court had declared Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich to be dead.  There was no longer any doubt that Kirill had been head of the dynasty for a full six years.

 

 Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, 1916

Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, 1916

Finally, rumors were swirling that, prompted by Lenin’s death, Kirill’s cousin Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaievich of Russia, a dynast very distant in the line of succession, was about to take advantage of the dynastic vacuum to declare himself the heir of the tsars.[5]  It is thought that Grand Duke Nikolai viewed himself as the dynast who would be the best tsar, based on his leadership qualities.  He had been commander in chief of the Russian armies early in World War I and had the support of several prominent White generals.  Although he had been an unsuccessful military commander who was eventually relieved of command by Nicholas II, Nikolai still enjoyed great prestige.  Nikolai’s manipulative Montenegrin sister-in-law Grand Duchess Militza (wife of Nikolai’s younger brother Grand Duke Peter) also wanted the childless Nikolai to be tsar, with her own husband and then her son Prince Roman of Russia as his heirs.  Because Nikolai Nikolaievich was so junior in the line of succession, this would be tantamount to founding a new dynasty.

Grand Duke Alexander had little use for his first cousin, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaievich, called “Nicholasha” in the family.  Like Grand Duke Kirill, Alexander considered that Nikolai had betrayed Nicholas II in 1917 by insisting that the latter abdicate.[6]  In his memoirs, Once A Grand Duke, Grand Duke Alexander roundly rubbished Nicholasha but referred to Grand Duke Kirill as “the legitimate successor to the throne of Russia” (p. 333).  Alexander reported that he had distrusted Nicholasha since the age of 13 (pp. 40-42).  Describing Nicholasha as a simplistic army officer of limited strategic capability, Alexander wrote, “Looking back at the twenty-three years of the reign of Nicholas II, I can find no logical explanation why, in the name of God, the Czar should have sought Nicholasha’s advice on any matters of state importance.  Like all army men accustomed to tackling clearly defined tasks, Nicholasha felt dizzy when confronted with a complicated political situation where his habit of raising his voice and threatening punishment failed to have the desired effect…Had Nicholasha advised the Czar on March 2, 1917, to remain with the army and accept the challenge of the revolution, Mr. Stalin would not have been entertaining G.B. Shaw in the Kremlin in 1931…Think of the simplicity of the man…” (pp. 144-145).  Grand Duke Alexander also recounted his visit to Nicholasha’s military headquarters in 1914, when the latter was commander in chief of the Russian armies: “I watched the grand duke perform his duties and wished I could chase away my feeling of mistrust.  Chances were, it was just another prejudice of mine, too well rooted by forty years of acquaintance to be dispelled by the Stavka’s paraphernalia.  Our mutual antipathy increased our politeness toward each other. We made desperate efforts to be friendly.” (p. 267).  While at the headquarters, Alexander listened for three hours as one of his brothers (the historian, Grand Duke Nikolai Mikhailovich) predicted disaster by early 1915 if Nicholasha did not halt his march through Galicia and pull back to a defensible position.  Alexander’s brother, who had despised Nicholasha since they were both teenagers (p. 41), proved prophetic.  By spring 1915, the Russian armies were in full retreat, having lost Galicia, Poland, and large chunks of northwest and southwest Russia (pp. 268-269).

 Emperor-in-Exile Kirill, 1920's

Emperor-in-Exile Kirill, 1920's

In the months preceding Grand Duke Kirill’s 1924 accession manifesto, Grand Duke Alexander made his position clear.  For example, in November 1923, Alexander issued a statement to the press, which was publsihed by the New York Herald, explaining that, in the event Nicholas II and the son and brother of Nicholas II had died, there was no disagreement within the dynasty that the right to the throne belonged to Grand Duke Kirill as senior dynast.  Immediately after Grand Duke Kirill’s accession manifesto, Grand Duke Alexander and Grand Duke Kirill met in Paris, where Alexander personally delivered a declaration of loyalty signed by him and his sons Andrew, Feodor, Nikita and Rostislav.  It closed with these words:  "We pray to God that he gives you the strength to accomplish the heavy burden that you have taken up in submitting yourself to the Fundamental Laws.  We submit ourselves to you and are ready to serve our beloved country as our fathers served it… P.S. Dmitry is not with us, he works in New York and we have communicated this letter to him.”  Alexander’s son, Prince Dmitry of Russia, separately recognized Kirill.  In the 1930s, he and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich worked hard on Kirill’s behalf as leaders of the Young Russia movement.  Later, Prince Dmitri asked Grand Duke Kirill to create a morganatic title for his wife, a commoner.  Grand Duke Kirill immediately acceded to this request.

On 12/25 September 1924, Grand Duke Alexander issued an appeal to all Russians to unite behind Kirill.  It was published in many émigré newspapers.  It began with these words:  “Fulfilling his conscientious duty before the Lord God and the Russian people, Grand Duke Cyril Vladimirovich, in precise keeping with the Fundamental State Laws, adopted, as senior in line, his rightful title of Emperor of All Russia.  I call upon you, the Russian people, without respect to faith, age, or social standing, to unite into one spirit with the spirit of our lawful Tsar.

Grand Duke Alexander was unable to prevent his mother-in-law’s negative reaction to Grand Duke Kirill’s accession manifesto.  The Dowager Empress sent a telegram to Nicholasha, which the latter’s staff released to the press: “…There is no definite news up to now about the fate of my beloved sons and grandson.  I therefore consider the act of Grand Duke Kirill’s proclamation as premature.  Nobody is in the position to deprive me of the last gleam of hope…”

For his part, Kirill had written to his 76 year old aunt, the Dowager Empress, that, should her sons or grandson turn out to be alive, he would immediately turn everything over to them:  “Should the miracle in which you believe occur and your beloved sons and grandson all be alive, then I will be the first to express my allegiance to my Legitimate Sovereign and will place at his feet all that I have accomplished…Don’t let me down in this difficult moment of my life such as none of our ancestors had to live through.[7]

 The Dowager Empress at Hvidore, 1924.

The Dowager Empress at Hvidore, 1924.

After the contents of her telegram to Nicholasha were published, Grand Duke Kirill wrote to the Dowager Empress a letter in which he privately attacked Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaievich in strong words, referring to him as “Nicholasha, who proved himself in the past as a traitor through and through to Nicky & who continues his destructive work up to the present.”  He went on:  “From so many talks with you & Xenia I know how entirely you shared this point of view.”

Grand Duke Alexander wrote a second volume of memoirs, Always A Grand Duke (Garden City, New York, 1933) about his life in exile.  On the question of why Kirill was using the title of emperor, Alexander gave this rationale: 

 

In fact, the explanation of the whole mystery is quite simple.  It so happens that Grand Duke Cyril is the first in the line of succession to the throne of Russia while I myself am fortunately the tenth.  Therefore, I may write books and articles, play contract and backgammon, attend cocktail parties and greyhound races, travel and have an all-around good time but he must keep the fires of the Monarchistic Idea burning.  I say ‘he must’ because we both belong to a family which has for centuries maintained that nothing, not even the fear of ridicule, should interfere with the fulfillment of our duties.  As Grand Duke Cyril sees it, his and his youthful son’s duty consists in providing an active leadership for the Russian royalists abroad and in revising the age-worn monarchistic precepts in a manner that would make them acceptable to the Russians in Russia.”[8]

 

AFTERWORD – THE ATTITUDE OF THE DOWAGER EMPRESS

 Emperor-in-Exile Kirill and Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich (far right) with Grand Duchesses Ksenia and Olga at the funeral of the Dowager Empress, 1928.

Emperor-in-Exile Kirill and Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich (far right) with Grand Duchesses Ksenia and Olga at the funeral of the Dowager Empress, 1928.

 

Emperor-in-exile Kirill attended, as head of the dynasty, the funeral in Copenhagen of his aunt, Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, in 1928.  He was accompanied by his private secretary, H.G. Graf.  After the funeral, he visited his aunt’s home, Villa Hvidore, to call on the Dowager Empress’s daughters, Grand Duchesses Xenia and Olga, who were his first cousins.  Graf gave this account in his memoirs:

At 11 a.m. Kirill Vladimirovich, accompanied by me, drove to Villa Hvidor to take leave of the Grand Duchesses Xenia and Olga Alexandrovna.  He spoke at length alone with them.  He was always pained by the fact that in a letter to Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich the Empress had written that the action of Kirill Vladimirovich, regarding the imperial title, gave her a ‘bitter aftertaste.’  His Majesty [Kirill] took this opportunity to clarify whether the Empress had, in fact, experienced bitterness when she was informed that he had assumed the title.  As has been suspected, it was not the Empress herself who composed the letter, since at the time she was very weak and largely oblivious to what was happening around her.  The letter had been written and presented to her for signature by someone in attendance with close ties to Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich. The Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna assured Kirill Vladimirovich that her mother had felt no bitterness whatsoever with regard to him.  To the contrary, Xenia Alexandrovna related how the Empress was always remembering him with warm feelings and believed that he should affirm his rights to the throne.  This clarification made Kirill Vladimirovich very happy.  He regretted that instead of coming personally to see the Empress he had merely written a letter.  In a personal conversation with her he would have been in a better position to explain his motives for assuming the title and in obtaining her opinion directly.  The feasibility of such a trip had been discussed in Coburg, but since any undue excitement would be detrimental to the Empress’ health, and since all reminders of the loss of her son and grandson were quite distressing to her, the matter was dropped.”[9]

 

FOOTNOTES

 

 

[1] Grand Duke Alexander did not ask his youngest son, Prince Vasily of Russia, to sign a  statement of loyalty to Kirill, because Vasily, born in 1907, was only a 17 year old minor when Kirill announced his succession to the throne in August 1924.  According to tradition, a member of the Imperial House had to reach his dynastic majority before having a right to participate in any decisions or actions affecting the dynasty.

[2] Alexander, Grand Duke of Russia, Once A Grand Duke (Garden City, New York, 1932), p. 284.

[3] Rosemary and Donald Crawford, Michael & Natasha (London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997), p. 384. Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich, in defiance of his brother Nicholas II, had married in 1912 his mistress, Natalia Sheremetevskaya, a commoner.  Because this was a morganatic marriage, Natalia did not have the title of grand duchess.  Nicholas II gave her the surname of Brassova, after Mikhail’s estate, Brassovo.  In 1928, Emperor-Grand Duke Kirill, as head of the dynasty, created for her the title of Princess Brassova.

[4] Id., p. 386.

[5] Rear Admiral H.G. Graf (private secretary of Grand Duke Kirill), In the Service of the Imperial House of Russia, 1917-1941 (translated from Russian by Vladimir Graf and William L. Dunn) (privately published, 1998), pp. 29-35, 78-80.

[6] See on this website the essay The Russian Succession – Simplified by Brien Purcell Horan (at footnote 7):  “On the afternoon of 2 March [1917], Maj. Gen. Vladimir Voeikov, commandant of the palace, entered the emperor's railway car to express his grief and astonishment at the emperor's abdication.  In his memoirs, Voeikov described Nicholas II's pointing to the many telegrams on his desk and stating, ‘What else could I have done when everyone has betrayed me?  And first among them Nikolasha .’  Mark Steinberg and Vladimir Khrustalev, The Fall of the Romanovs (Yale University Press, 1995), p. 63, citing V.N. Voeikov, S tsarem i bez tsaria (1936), p. 212.  In his famous diary entry of 2 March 1917, Nicholas II finished his description of the day with this sentence:  ‘All around me is treachery, cowardice and deceit.’”

[7] Graf, In the Service of the Imperial House of Russia, 1917-1941, p. 76.

[8] Grand Duke Kirill had made clear in many pronouncements that a restoration in Russia would mean a constitutional monarchy with numerous modern and democratic reforms, not a return to the absolutism of the ancien régime.

[9] Graf, In the Service of the Imperial House of Russia, 1917-1941, pp. 184-185.