Your Imperial Highness, as both a Russian who was born and raised abroad and as a descendant of the Imperial family, tell us what Russian culture means for you.
Russian culture is a priceless treasure not only for the Russian people but for all humanity. The great works of our poets, writers, composers, artists, architects, sculptors, performers and musicians strengthen the spirit of all those who see themselves as part of that cultural space we think of as Russia, and they enrich the lives of people all around the world.
We have, as you say, lived all our life abroad, and so our contacts with foreigners are quite extensive. Among them are not only those who regard our country favorably, but also those who feel free to criticize it, who see it as a rival of their own country. But no one who genuinely comes to know and experience Russian culture can ever really be an enemy of Russia. One can be, it is true, a political rival or a critic of one or another aspect of our society and politics. But not an enemy. And when there is no hate, there is always a basis for dialogue, in the course of which both sides can come to understand each other and resolve problems calmly and peacefully, in a spirit of mutual compromise.
So Russian culture is not only a spiritually edifying influence on our lives at home in Russia. It is a powerful means for engaging with the world.
You travel often to Russia, including to the “deep interior” of the country. What achievements and challenges with regard to the preservation of our national heritage come plainly into view during your travels? What architectural monuments that you have visited have made the biggest impression on you?
Our generation was fortunate to witness the rebirth of faith and the restoration of many religious and cultural monuments in our country. During my first visits to Russia in the early 1990s I saw the sad state that most of the churches and monasteries were in. I said to Patriarch Aleksei II at that time, “Your Holiness, how can you possibly restore all that has been lost, even if the government were ever to return to the Church all these properties? Sometimes there is nothing left but a pile of bricks.” The Patriarch replied, “With God’s help, we will restore everything.” And time has shown the truth of his words.
Today, many desecrated and damaged holy sites and icons have been restored and repaired, and many that had been completely destroyed have been rebuilt and remade. And this work is continuing still. It is necessary, I think, to restore everything that has survived from pre-Revolutionary times, and I think there should be no argument about that. But there is a lot of discussion right now about restoring some sites and other lost treasures that had been destroyed, about making “replicas” of them. Of course, we have to consider many factors, and we probably cannot recreate everything that was lost. And probably we don’t need to. But several especially significant monuments do, I think, need to be brought back to life. For many today, these will be merely “replicas” but future generations will see and experience them gradually as historically authentic. I have in mind here such architectural masterpieces as the Chudov Monastery and Voznesensky Convent in the Kremlin, the Church of the Dormition on Pokrovskoe, the Sukharev tower, the Strastnoi Convent, the Red Gates in Moscow, the Church of the Savior on Sennaya Square in St. Petersburg, and so on. Similar structures that are just as important as these existed once in other cities and towns across Russia, not just in the capitals. These include churches, mosques, synagogues, Buddhist temples, secular and military buildings, cemeteries, and so on. These structures helped to shape the spiritual and cultural landscape of Russia, and so remain important to us today.
Of course, it will take time to rebuild from scratch these historical monuments so that they evoke the same or similar emotions as those monuments that happened to survive the throes of Revolution. When a building evokes the spirit of an earlier age, it really is a unique and powerful experience. I am sometimes hard-pressed to say which landmark I visit inspires or impresses me more. Each holy place conjures its own emotional connection with the past; each uniquely offers a new way to appreciate beauty and immerse oneself in the atmosphere of a by-gone era.
The Romanoff family left a significant and important architectural legacy in Russia. In particular, the palace of Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich, not far from the Winter Palace, comes to mind, for example. Have you visited the former homes and estates of your ancestors? Have you ever been in contact with the current owners of these properties, or with the organizations that occupy these spaces today?
Yes, I have. From my very first visit to Russia, my itineraries have included stops at the official residences of the Imperial family, as well as private estates previously owned by them. Some today are private homes or museums, others house cultural institutions or other organizations—educational, municipal, and so on. For example, the palace in Tsarskoe Selo once occupied by my great-grandfather, Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich, is now a Palace of Weddings, and the home in St. Petersburg once owned by my grandfather, Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich, is now a kindergarten.
We are very glad that these structures are being well maintained and serve the needs of our countrymen. They are in good hands. It is of course very dispiriting to see some buildings still in disrepair or utterly ruined, as, for example, the Ropsha Palace is at present. But I’m sure that eventually the palace will also be restored.
What cultural and historical projects is the Russian Imperial House currently engaged in or spearheading? What is unique about these projects as opposed to other restoration work going on in the country?
I’ll let others decide how unique our projects are. We continue the traditions of our family, following their example in supporting educational and cultural projects, and striving to adapt the dynasty’s past experience to current circumstances and needs. We also learn from the way these kinds of issues are tackled in other countries. I think that each project, regardless of whose idea it was or who is directing it, is in its own way unique—so long as it is motivated by love and sacrifice.
I must hasten to say, however, that I think we’ve really only gotten started on this work. There is much to do. Even so, I would like to thank the people who are helping us, and perhaps here I can highlight a few of our projects.
The Foundation for the Support and Development of Education, Creativity, and Culture, working with our Chancellery and with the Imperial Society of the House of Romanoff, which was created by our Chancellery, runs a series of competitions for young people, and now also for adults, including one called “The Living Connection Across Time” [Zhivaia sviaz’ vremen], which recognizes especially distinguished essays written on historical themes, and another called “Legal Culture—The Foundation of the Harmonious Development of the Individual and Society.” The awards ceremonies for these competitions are now accompanied by conferences, concerts, and other celebratory events.
The Russian Union of Writers has instituted the “Heritage Prize,” a literary award it presents annually. In nearly every region of Russia that I visit, I have had the opportunity to meet writers and poets who participate in this competition or are preparing to do so. Preliminary rounds of the competition are held in various regional cities, such as Kostroma and Ryazan; and looking ahead, there will be even more preliminary rounds in more cities. The winners of the competition are announced in Moscow, at a ceremony held in the Central House of Writers.
My Chancellery is also working with the Andrei Rublev Museum, where the charity event “White Blossom” [Belyi tsvetok] raises money to help those in need and helps fund the restoration of cultural monuments in Russia. The Museum also hosts the regular workshop “The Living Heritage of Memory” [Zhivoe nasledie pamiati], which supports and encourages the preservation of family history and, more generally, retells the history of Russia through the prism of the history of individuals and families.
The Imperial Orders also participate in cultural and educational activities. For example, the knights of the Imperial Military Order of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker have for many years supported the restoration work of the Church of the Intercession of the Mother of God in Izmailovo. Members of this and other Imperial Orders also support the return to the Church of its holy relics and icons, the “writing” of replicas of traditional icons that had been lost or destroyed, and the transference to state, Church, and municipal museums of items that had in one way or another ended up in private hands.
A new tradition has also begun that we call “Gifts—Charity.” We’ve arranged that important holidays or other special commemorations in the life of the Russian Imperial House be marked by making donations to charitable and cultural projects in Russia of various kinds, such as the restoration or construction of churches, rather than sending gifts to me or to my son and heir.
Furthermore, members of my Chancellery write books on the history of Russia and of our House, and they publish studies of the ideas and spiritual values of Russian culture. The Chancellery takes part in a range of scholarly conferences, workshops, roundtables, and public events. We participate in and lead on-going discussions with governmental and Church institutions, and with cultural and civil organizations that are working with us to help preserve and defend the natural environment of Russia and our cultural heritage. Our Chancellery enjoys an excellent collaborative relationship with the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, the Russian Military Historical Society, the Russia Society for the Preservation of Historical Monuments and Culture, the Russian Nobility Association, the charitable foundation “Rebirth of Our Cultural Heritage,” the Union of Orthodox Women, the “Emperor” Foundation in Arkhangelsk, and many others. All these organizations—the big and the small; the old, the revived, and the newly-formed—are united by the common goal they share with our House: the preservation and continuity of Russian history and culture.
Before the 1917 Revolution, there existed the Imperial Archeological Society, the principal purpose of which was the preservation of historical monuments. Are there plans to revive this important organization?
This is a very serious and important question, which requires the support of both the archeological scholarly community and the government. Both must be involved. The Imperial House, as you well know, does not have the financial means or resources it had before the Revolution. But if such an idea should be taken up and gain steam, I and my son and heir, the Grand Duke George of Russia, would happily support such a plan in every possible way we can.
You live full time in Madrid. In your view, how does the appearance and spirit of southern European cities differ from that of Russian cities?
The appearance and layout of cities and towns is determined in large part by the habits of mind and national character of each individual nation. Even today, in this era of globalization and as uniformity in architectural styles spreads across the world, there remains more than a hint of national traditions and styles in architecture in various cities of various countries across the world. At the same time, large cities in all countries have a lot in common: the hustle and bustle of modern city life, the diluting of the distinctive local identity, a heavier and more burdensome emotional atmosphere. Small towns have better preserved the cordiality and warmth of the past, a sense of hospitality and goodwill. You can see this pattern almost anywhere you look. We see it better, perhaps, in our own Russian cities because we know them better, but it’s the same elsewhere. There was a time once when we in our family viewed Russian cities and life in Russia generally in a rather romanticized way. My parents always told me that everything was better in Russia—the forests, the fields, the rivers, the seas, the churches, the palaces. Even the watermelons grew larger there, and the cucumbers were more delicious.
When we finally had the opportunity to come to Russia again, we of course saw that some things were in some ways, indeed, much better there than elsewhere, and that some things were not. But for us, all these aspects of life in Russia—the things that compare better to conditions elsewhere and those that don’t—are all equally dear to us.
As the Head of the Imperial House and as a citizen of Russia, what measures do you think are most important for preserving the historical and architectural heritage of Russia?
Without a doubt, one must pay more attention overall to cultural questions. One must expand the legislative foundation that provides for public funding of preservation projects, and, in particular, one must expand the patronage of the arts. The government cannot resolve all these questions, but it can create the conditions under which private citizens can legally, conveniently, securely, and profitably donate funds for the restoration of damaged or destroyed historical monuments and other projects of social and cultural importance.
No less important is the need to instill in our youth from earliest days a love for the historical heritage of our country and a deep and well-rounded understanding of its history and culture. If we don’t do that, all our efforts will be for naught, and all that we build and rebuild today will be at risk of being ruined or neglected tomorrow.
And I would also ask us all to remember that in restoring the millennium-long heritage of pre-Revolutionary Russia, we must not be like the Bolsheviks, who forced their ideology and political symbols on the nation in cruel and often barbaric ways. Even the very best and just, in our view, policies should not be introduced into society through force or as a kind of act of revenge—humiliating or harming people of other views. This would only backfire, anyhow. Only that which is the product of careful and scrupulous education work, carried out in a spirit of love and respect for others and guided by rational dialogue and objectivity, will produce truly strong and enduring results.
This interview is published in issue no. 5 of Rossiia. Nasledie on November 27, 2016, under the title “Velikaia Kniaginia Mariia Romanova: Byt’ russkoi” [Grand Duchess Maria Romanoff: To be Russian]. See russianasledie.ru.