GRAND DUKE GAVRIIL OF RUSSIA (1887-1955)
LEGITIMIST SUPPORTER OF EMPEROR-IN-EXILE KIRILL
His Imperial Highness Grand Duke Gavriil (Gabriel) of Russia (1887-1955) was born as His Highness Prince Gavriil of Russia (Prince of the Imperial Blood Gavriil). His elevation to grand ducal rank in exile is discussed at the end of this article.
Gavriil was the son of Grand Duke Constantine Constantinovich of Russia and Princess Elizabeth of Saxe-Altenburg, Duchess of Saxony.
In exile, the most senior branch of the dynasty were the descendants of Emperor Alexander II: Grand Duke Kirill, his son Wladimir, Kirill’s brothers Boris and Andrew, and Kirill’s first cousin Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich. The second most senior branch in exile were the descendants of Alexander II’s next brother, Grand Duke Constantine: Prince Vsevelod of Russia, Grand Duke Gavriil of Russia, and Prince George Constantinovich of Russia.
Gavriil was the second of six brothers. In normal circumstances, he and his five brothers might have been expected to produce numerous descendants. In the event, one brother, an Army officer, died during World War I from wounds received in combat. Three brothers were murdered during the Russian Revolution. Gavriil and his younger brother George were able to escape to the West. Gavriil settled in France, George in the United States, where he died at a young age. Of the six brothers, only one, Prince Ioann, had children. Ioann’s only son, Prince Vsevelod of Russia, who in turn had no descendants, died in 1973. Vsevelod was the last living male of his branch of the dynasty.
Gavriil was born at Pavlovsk, the palace of his father. He and his elder brother, Prince Ioann, were inseparable friends until Ioann’s murder in 1918. Gavriil became a cavalry cadet and was commissioned an army officer at age 19.
In 1911, when he was 24, he met and fell in love with Antonina Rafailovna Nesterovskaya, a ballerina of the Mariinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg. Gavriil was very devoted to Antonina, but he was unable to marry her due to the dynasty’s strict marriage laws. Nicholas II refused to give his permission to the marriage.
During World War I, Gavriil served as an officer of the Russian Army, rising to the rank of full colonel. A month after the fall of the monarchy, Prince Gavriil secretly married Antonina in St. Petersburg in April 1917.
Several months after the Bolshevik seizure of power, Gavriil was arrested and imprisoned with several other members of the Imperial Family. His wife Antonina tried diligently and in the end successfully to secure his release, arguing that she was an ordinary Russian citizen and he was her husband. A few weeks after his release, the four grand dukes with whom Gavriil had been imprisoned were executed outside the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg.
Gavriil and his wife made it to Paris in 1920 and settled there. Gavriil was deeply devoted to his memories of imperial Russia and to the traditions and laws of the Romanoff dynasty. When Grand Duke Kirill issued his accession manifesto in 1924, Prince Gavriil became one of Kirill’s most devoted supporters.
Prince Gavriil of Russia asked Grand Duke Kirill, as head of the dynasty, to create a morganatic title for his wife. Because she was not by birth a member of a royal house, she had no right to call herself Princess Gavriil of Russia. The Head of the Imperial House agreed to this request and in January 1932 created for Antonina the title of Princess Strelninskaya, with the predicate of Serene Highness. In 1935, Grand Duke Kirill issued a decree specifying that, when titles were created for the morganatic wives and children of members of the dynasty, the name Romanovsky would be part of the title, to denote kinship with the House of Romanoff. In the light of this decree, Antonina’s morganatic title was changed on 19 September 1935 to Princess Romanovskaya-Strelninskaya. This title died out on 7 March 1950, at the death of Antonina, Princess Romanovskaya-Strelninskaya, without descendants. Theirs was an extremely happy marriage.
Gavriil married his second wife, Princess Irina Kurakin (1903-1993), on 11 May 1951. After the marriage, Grand Duke Wladimir of Russia, as Head of the Imperial House, created her Princess Romanovskaya, with the predicate of Serene Highness. They were married for almost four years when Gavriil died on 28 February 1955.
Gavriil had no children. At his death, he was third in the line of succession to Grand Duke Wladimir, head of the dynasty. Those ahead of him were Grand Duke Andrei and Gavriil’s nephew Prince of the Imperial Blood Vsevelode.
Gavriil drafted a volume of memoirs, which were first published in Russian and French. An English translation, entitled Memories in the Marble Palace, was published by Gilbert’s Books (Ontario, Canada) in 2009. In his own fascinating memoirs, In the Service of The Imperial House of Russia, 1917-1941(privately published, 1998), Rear Admiral H.G. Graf, the very astute and observant private secretary of Grand Duke Kirill, penned this description of Gavriil (pages 589-591):
Gabriel Constantinovich was an exceptionally noble and moral person. He had received a broad education because, after graduating from the Nicholaevsky Cavalry School, he took the full courses of the Military Academy and of the Imperial Alexandrovsky Lyceum.
He was not strong willed and his health was poor. He was a dreamer who lived in the past among the traditions of the Imperial Family and the Imperial Guard. To him, the present day events and the new ways of life were incomprehensible, unpleasant and alien. He supported with all his soul the undertakings of His Majesty Kirill Vladimirovich, without trying to understand the ideology nor the underlying bases for the reestablishment of the monarchy in Russia. He unquestioningly accepted the leadership of the Head of the Dynasty.
He was popular among the former officers of the Imperial Guard with whom he had much in common. He knew the uniforms of all the regiments, the traditions and the organization to the minutest detail. His memoirs were published by the Chekhov Editions. They constitute a valuable input to the history of the Imperial Family, especially since none of the other members of the Imperial Family had written anything similar.
He was a devout man who attended all church services, confessing and receiving communion several times a year. He had his preferred spot at the “rue Daru”Church where he always stood with his wife during the services.
Gabriel Constantinovich had the typical Romanov appearance: he was handsome, tall and well built. He had no financial resources of his own and he was quite helpless in money matters. Without his intelligent and resourceful wife, Antonina Raphaelovna, he might well have lived in poverty. A boundless love and loyalty to her husband must be added to the positive traits of Antonina (called Nina at home) Raphaelovna. She was willing to give him everything and to deprive herself of everything. The Princess protected her husband from all worries and was hiding from him all the troubles, sharing them only with her sister. She took care of Gabriel Constantinovich and spoiled him as if he were a child.
Born into a modest middle class family, Nina Raphaelovna was a typical selfless and heroic Russian woman. During the Revolution she saved Gabriel Constantinovich from being shot as a member of the Imperial Family in St. Petersburg. He was arrested with several other relatives and put in prison, but she managed to tear him out of the clutches of the revolutionary authorities by pointing out to them that she, his wife, was of simple extraction, and that they had married on the eve of the Revolution. The authorities concluded that Gabriel Constantinovich had accepted the Revolution. The writer Gorky who, as a friend of Lenin, was wielding great power at the time, was of great help to her in freeing her husband.
When Gabriel Constantinovich was released from prison she hid him, fearing he might be rearrested. They moved to Moscow from St. Petersburg, where again he had to hide, following the instructions received from Gorky. Gorky arranged for an exit permit to Finland for Gabriel Constantinovich and his wife. The ordeal lasted several stressful months and took a heavy toll on Antonina Raphaelovna’s health. Gabriel Constantinovich has been repaying his wife over the years for everything she did for him, with great attachment. I was on friendly terms with Gabriel Constantinovich and his wife. The feelings were reciprocated and extended to my family.
In the closing lines of his memoirs, Grand Duke Gavriil wrote, “I have described my life from birth up to the day when my life had been spared and I was able to cross the border of my native Russia to freedom in Finland. I say my prayers and ask that God would honour me with great happiness to see my Motherland once more. But thy Will be done!”
GRAND DUKE WLADIMIR’S ELEVATION OF PRINCE GAVRIIL OF RUSSIA TO THE RANK OF GRAND DUKE
Brien Purcell Horan, whose legal analyses of the Russian succession appear on this website, wrote this to us when this biographical sketch of Grand Duke Gavriil was in preparation:
Until 1886, all male dynasts had the title of Grand Duke of Russia. In that year, Emperor Alexander III issued a decree limiting the grand ducal title to members of the Russian Imperial House who were sons and grandsons of an Emperor of Russia. He specified that great-grandsons and more distant descendants of an emperor would have the title of Prince of Russia. Gavril’s elder brother, Ioann (born on 23 June/5 July [new style] 1886), technically born a grand duke, was nine days old when the issuance of this decree on 2 July/14 July (new style) 1886 deprived him of his grand ducal title and reduced him to the rank of Prince of Russia. His brother Gavril was born the next year into what would become a family of six sons, one whom was killed in action in the early months of World War I and three of whom (including Ioann) were murdered together by the Bolsheviks in July 1918. Gavril throughout his life believed that depriving his murdered elder brother of the grand ducal title as a baby had been unfair. In 1939, when Gavril was the last of the six brothers still living, one of the 21 year old Grand Duke Wladimir’s first acts as dynastic head was to create Gavril a grand duke.
Thus, we see that Gavriil’s older brother and closest friend Ioann was born shortly before the issuance of Alexander III’s decree and thus was legally a Grand Duke of Russia during the first nine days of his life, before losing the title and becoming the dynasty’s very first Prince of the Imperial Blood. Gavriil himself was the first male dynast to be born after the decree and became the dynasty’s second Prince of the Imperial Blood.
When Alexander III’s grandfather, Nicholas I, had become emperor in 1825, the dynasty numbered only four males: Nicholas I and his son and Nicholas I’s two surviving brothers. Alexander III restricted the title of grand duke in 1886 because the dynasty had become so large, and the funds paid annually to grand dukes were enormous. Grand dukes were entitled to an annual payment of 280,000 gold rubles from the imperial treasury, whilst a prince of the imperial blood received a single lump sum of one million gold rubles.
In 1917, the last year of the monarchy, there were about 30 male dynasts, divided fairly equally between grand dukes and princes of the imperial blood. Twenty years later, in 1937, only five grand dukes were still alive. With Kirill’s death in 1938, there would be only four.
Prince Gavriil, who resented the 1886 decree, raised the issue of the dwindling number of grand dukes with the head of the dynasty. Grand Duke Kirill, as Head of the Imperial House in exile, took under consideration what should be done. His uncle Alexander III’s “intention was not to bring about the eventual extinction of the ancient title of grand duke but rather to limit the designation to the senior members of the family. He could not have foreseen that 18 dynasts, including 9 of the 17 grand dukes, would be murdered during the Revolution. Nor could he have foreseen that in the decades following the abdication of Nicholas II the surviving dynasts would contract 26 morganatic marriages but only 4 equal marriages.”
In his memoirs, Grand Duke Gavriil explained that Emperor-in-exile Kirill at first considered simply rescinding the 1886 decree, so that all princes of the imperial blood would become grand dukes. On further reflection, however, Kirill decided it would be unwise to do this while the dynasty was in exile. He was amenable, however, to elevating individual princes of the imperial blood. Gavriil was the oldest living prince of the imperial blood. Gavriil described the situation in his memoirs: “…[I]n 1937, in accordance with its article 219, he [Kirill] decided to honour Princes of the Imperial Blood with the title of Grand Duke, individually taking into consideration their age of seniority. Based on that decision, since I happened to be the eldest among the Princes of the Imperial Blood, I was re-titled as Grand Duke. That moment, however, coincided with the serious illness and subsequent death of Grand Duke Cyril Vladimirovich (Head of the dynasty). Therefore, though in principle the question was settled, its legalization was left unrealized. The new Head of the dynasty, Grand Duke Vladimir Cyrillovich upheld his father’s decree and in 1939 he honoured me with the title of Grand Duke with the qualification of ‘Imperial Highness.’“
Rear Admiral Graf, private secretary of Grand Duke Kirill, also alluded to this episode in his memoirs. He wrote that Kirill had been in favor of creating his cousin Gavriil a grand duke but that no action had been taken due to Kirill’s final illness. Kirill died in October 1938, and a month later a Family Council was proposed to advise the new Head of the Imperial House, Grand Duke Wladimir Kirillovich, who was only 21 years old and both of whose parents had recently died. The Family Council was composed of the three living grand dukes (Kirill’s two younger brothers, Grand Dukes Boris and Andrei, and Kirill’s first cousin Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich), with Grand Duke Boris, next in the line of succession after Wladimir, as chairman. It was Grand Dukes Andrei and Dmitri who were principally responsible for envisaging the idea of the Council. In 1939, Grand Duke Boris wrote to Admiral Graf asking him to inform his nephew Wladimir, who was then away in England, that it would be timely and appropriate to grant the title of Grand Duke to Gavriil. It turned out, however, that the Family Council could not agree on the idea, because Grand Duke Boris was in favor and his brother Grand Duke Andrei was opposed to elevating Gavriil to grand ducal rank. Boris therefore suggested that the Head of the Imperial House act on his own initiative to create the title, without waiting for the advice of the Family Council. In 1939, Grand Duke Wladimir did so, issuing a patent raising his uncle Prince of the Imperial Blood Gavriil Constantinovich to the name and title of Grand Duke Gavriil Constantinovich.
Grand Duke Gavriil (Gabriel) Constantinovich, Memories in the Marble Palace, translated from Russian by Nina Toulina (Gilbert’s Books, Ontario, Canada, 2009) (oiriginally published in Russian by Chekhov Editions, 1955), p. 354.
Brien Purcell Horan, The Russian Imperial Succession(1997, revised through 2014), footnote 14.
Grand Duke Gavriil (Gabriel) Constantinovich, Memories in the Marble Palace, pp. 1-2.
H.G. Graf, 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. 387-391.