Interview of H.I.H. the Heir, Tsesarevich, and Grand Duke George of Russia with the editor of the online journal Sobaka.ru, Vitaly Kotov.
—Your Imperial Highness, we would like to ask you a few questions and we apologize in advance if they repeat in any significant way questions you may have been asked in previous interviews.
You were born and grew up in Madrid, Paris, and St.-Briac and you studied in a school with children who did not speak Russian, yet your parents strove to raise you in the language and in the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church. How did they manage to do that, given how difficult it must have been for them and for you, when all your classmates did not speak Russian and most of them never even knew who you really were?
—Being raised in the Orthodox Faith and in Russian traditions was a necessary and completely natural part of our family life. It simply could not have been any other way. The hardest thing about being raised in exile has been preserving the language. A foreigner who doesn’t know a word of Russian can, of course, be Orthodox. Nor is it really all that necessary to speak Russian to follow Russian traditions. Many descendants of Russian emigres are Orthodox, they bake bliny on Maslenitsa and kuliches on Easter, and they even sometimes observe some Russian national traditions that have been entirely forgotten in Russia; yet they sometimes don’t speak the language of their ancestors. The fact is that, in an environment dominated by another language, where one’s native language no longer has a practical use, your knowledge of that language quickly dies out. Even those who have spoken Russian from birth, but later find themselves living in a different county, still make grammatical mistakes and have acquired an accent. And these problems are only magnified among those who were born and raised in exile. In school, when among friends, when out and about, when out shopping—in all these settings you have to speak in other languages. It’s only with your family at home or among a small group of your countrymen, who are themselves also living in exile, that you can speak what you consider to be your native language. And indeed, we have lived the better part of our lives Spain, where there are very few Russians.
The fact that I speak Russian I can attribute to my own determination, and to the insistence of my mother, grandfather, and grandmother. They always believed that it was extremely important not only to know the history of Russia and to have an understanding of its spiritual and cultural foundations, but also to speak Russian. And they believed this even in those years when it seemed that there wasn’t the slightest hope of our ever returning to Russia. So we spoke to each other in Russian at home, and my family impressed upon me the need to know Russian well, even when I was, as any young child might be, a bit unenthusiastic about working with the tutors whom my parents arranged for me, in addition to my regular school work.
Of course, I know that I still need to work on my Russian. The other languages I speak more regularly have had an impact on my Russian skills. I know I still make mistakes, that I can mix up the grammatical cases, and so on. But I understand absolutely everything said to me and I can always formulate my thoughts in Russian. Speaking Russian is an enormous source of joy for me, and I’m very grateful to my family that in my life there was never a period when I did not speak Russian. Unfortunately, many members of other exiled royal dynasties do not have the advantage of having spoken their native languages at home, and so they have to learn the language from scratch later on. My mother and I never had to go through that period of adjustment when it comes to Russian because we were raised with it.
—What are some of your brightest childhood memories?
—I remember very fondly how we celebrated Easter and Christmas. How my grandfather would dress up as Grandfather Frost, and I wouldn’t know it was he. I remember very well the celebration of the 1000th anniversary of the Baptism of Rus, when I served during the liturgical services. I was blessed to wear the sticharion and to assist the bishop, the future First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, Metropolitan Laurus. And of course one of my strongest and brightest memories is of my trip to Russia in 1992. I was at that time enormously grief-stricken by the death of my grandfather, whose coffin we accompanied to Russia for burial. But together with that sadness there was also a veritable kaleidoscope of events, meetings, and new friends. And an awareness that with this trip we were restoring our connection to Russia, which I had only known through tales and stories.
—What was your relationship like with your grandfather and grandmother? At what age did you realize that you belonged to a special family? What limitations did your status place on you as you were growing up?
—My parents divorced when I was only 4 years old. Therefore the main male influence in my life came from my grandfather. He was an extraordinary man: he was very kind, he related very well with young people, he was a good teacher, and he was a magnetic personality. My grandfather could switch effortlessly from discussing serious matters to talking with me or other children, and he always found it easy to find a common language with us.
The relationship between my grandmother and grandfather was faithful and unfailing. They never fought and they provided for all those around them an example of mutual love and respect.
My grandparents and my mother have always impressed upon me that the position of being a member of the Imperial House is first and foremost one of duty and responsibility. They taught me to be modest and they explained that one must treat everyone with genuine and true respect.
I never really had any limitations placed on my friendships. Quite the contrary, my family always wanted me to learn to interact well with my peers no matter what their background.
—In 1992, you made your first trip to Russia, as it turns out, for a very somber reason—the burial of your grandfather, H.I.H. the Grand Duke Wladimir Kirillovich. What impressions did Russia make upon you at that time, a Russia that had effectively just gone through a peaceful revolution?
—Because I was so young, I was not fully able to appreciate the political, social, and economic realities of the time, but I nonetheless sensed that the country was going through something that was very difficult and painful.
—It just so happens that I was at the funeral and I remember that the ceremony was rather modest. The casket wasn’t even brought to the Church in a hearse, but came on a bus—that’s how poor and disorganized the country and the city of St. Petersburg were at that time. You’ve been to Russia and St. Petersburg many times since then. How have things changed?
—I don’t remember all the details of the protocols and ceremonies at that time, but in my heart I will forever remain grateful to my countrymen, who displayed their genuine sorrow and grief at the passing of my grandfather. St. Isaac’s Cathedral, where Patriarch Aleksei II served the funeral, was wall-to-wall with people, and all the streets leading to the cathedral were lined with those who had come to pay their respects to the Head of the House of Romanoff. Being a child at the time, I saw only a sea of people, but now I understand how great was the people’s spirit, a spirit that had been preserved despite decades of atheistic and anti-monarchist propaganda. I understand now their faith and capacity for love and compassion, and their respect for their history.
—Shortly after your first visit to St. Petersburg, it was suggested that you attend the Nakhimov Naval Academy in St. Petersburg. Did you hear about this idea directly from the Academy, and how did you and your family react to this suggestion?
—The idea was mentioned to us indirectly during our next visit to St. Petersburg. Despite the fact that some of our supporters, including some Russian generals and officers, had expressed doubts about the feasibility of this idea, my mother and grandmother were in principle in favour of it, and it seemed to me that it might happen. But for me to receive a military education in Russia, I needed the approval of the relevant military commanders. The problem wasn’t how to create for me a special exception to all the rules, but, as you yourself might understand, in order for a plan like this one to move forward we had to settle first the legal question of the status of the Imperial House. There were some around President Boris Yeltsin who preferred to keep that matter “in limbo,” and, unfortunately, time passed and it became too late for me to enroll in the Academy. I eventually finished high school in Madrid and then went off to Oxford University.
—What are you feelings about your time at Oxford University? What subjects did you study? Did you make many friends there and do you still keep in touch with them now?
—I remember very fondly my years as a university student. I had more independence than I had ever had before, more freedom in my personal life, and I was learning lots of new things. I mainly studied economics and law. The atmosphere of this medieval city, which since its founding has been a center of science, culture, and education, has left a lasting impression on my life. I studied with students from many different countries. It’s hard to maintain relationships with everyone I met there, of course, because we’ve all gone our own ways into the world. But if we happen to meet, our common Oxford connections always help to break the ice.
—You worked at the European Parliament and at the European Commission. Why did you choose that direction in your professional life and what did you learn from those experiences?
—After one completes university it’s vitally important to find employment right away, so that you don’t lose what you’ve so recently learned. Fortunately, after Oxford I was offered a position with Ignacia de Loyola de Palacio, one of my mother’s university friends, who was the vice-chair of the European Commission and the Commissioner for Energy and Transport. This was for me a new and exciting learning experience—a university education of a very different sort: I learned how economic procedures work in Europe and in the world generally, and I cultivated my first business connections with my countrymen in Russia, because a large part of my job dealt with global issues.
—For five years you were the chief representative of the company Norilsk Nickel in Europe. What did you do for the company and what did you take away from that experience?
—In 2008 I was offered a position as advisor to the General Director of Norilsk Nickel. My job was to help represent and advance the interests of the company internationally, to find ways to ease restrictions that had been placed on it as a result of unfair trade practices and regulations. Then for a while I headed a Norilsk Nickel subsidiary company based in Switzerland. In 2009, right after I began working for Norilsk Nickel, I visited the city of Norilsk and had the chance to meet workers and engineers, to learn about their working conditions and what life was like for them in this remote industrial city. Thanks to my time working at Norilsk Nickel, I had the opportunity to visit Russia very regularly and to develop new friendships and business relationships with many people in Russia. I came to understand better how the Imperial House could help its native country, not only as a repository for national traditions and as a symbol of historical continuity, but in a practical way, as well.
—What was your goal in forming the company Romanoff & Partners? What sort of business does it do? It seems worth pointing out that in the biographical notes about you on the company’s website, you are referred to as George Romanoff, without any titles. Why is that?
—I formed the company Romanoff & Partners to defend the interests of businesses in Russia and other countries that were once part of the cultural and geographical space of the former Russian Empire. We work to promote the development of international economic relationships on the basis of honest, mutually beneficial connections, transparency, and social and civic responsibility. Because these business goals do not involve or in any way depend on my being a Romanoff grand duke, I believe that using my titles would not be appropriate in this context.
—Do the current strained relations between Russia and the countries of the European Union negatively impact the work of your company or, on the contrary, do they actually provide an additional stimulus for promoting the interests of companies from Russia and Eastern Europe in the EU?
—Of course, it has been very difficult to build a company with goals like ours during a “war of sanctions.” Naturally, we have encountered many challenges that we never expected, or, at least, never expected would be this daunting. But on the other hand, the present situation requires the implementation of structures that “build bridges,” and that put the vital interests of people over abstract schemas born of politicking—structures that help restore dialogue. So I tend to be optimistic about the future.
—What do your ceremonial duties as Heir and Tsesarevich consist of, and do these duties eat up a lot of your time?
—It’s not quite the right word to use that my duties “eat up” time. They don’t “eat up” anything, but rather only add to my life, especially since they are an integral part of how I live my life. Sometimes, it is true, my duties are rather tedious, but they are no less interesting and certainly very important and useful. In our day and age, fortunately, my ceremonial roles have been greatly reduced. Even the most solemn ceremonies that I attend or perform, such as when I present prizes and awards, tend to be short and are not at all overly formal, but are more about recognizing and rewarding someone or some group that has made a very real contribution to the resolution of some problem, not about pomp.
My duties as Heir of the Imperial House are chiefly to support and help my mother, who, as Head of the Russian Imperial House, bears the main responsibility for the social, civic, and cultural work the dynasty does, including its many charitable activities. First and foremost among these activities is the Imperial Foundation for Cancer Research, which is a registered charitable entity in St. Petersburg. My responsibilities also include supporting a number of patriotic and sporting events in various cities across Russia.
—You founded the Imperial Foundation for Cancer Research, which is something that is not widely known by most people. Why did you decide to create this Foundation, and what goals and objectives do you have for it?
—We had regularly participated in charity events that support patients suffering from cancer. But I noticed that there was much less support for those who are searching for ways and means to fight this dreaded disease. The idea of creating a foundation to support specialists in the field of oncology came to me in 2009. I began to research the issue and to consult with leading experts. In 2013, when we were marking the 400th anniversary of the end of the Time of Troubles and the enthronement of our House, I registered in London a foundation to support cancer research. That same year, during a visit to St. Petersburg, my mother visited the first Children’s Hospice and got to know its founder and director, Archpriest Alexander Tkachenko, and other staff members. We all got together and discussed ideas and came to the conclusion that we needed to create an independent foundation in Russia to support our own oncologists. In 2014, the Russian Imperial Foundation for Cancer Research was registered with the Russian government and immediately got to work on a range of projects. We in the Foundation are trying to maintain the traditions of Russian oncological research from both the pre-Revolutionary and Soviet periods, so that experienced scientists and medical professionals in this branch of medicine can pass on their experience to the next generation of researchers and doctors; so that young oncologists don’t find it necessary, financially or otherwise, to leave the country or quit the profession, but have the necessary means and support to continue their work at home in Russia.
We have developed programmes for supporting and publishing scientific work, we underwrite conferences, seminars, and other events that facilitate the exchange of ideas and experiences in Russia and internationally, and we support a variety of programmes that provide continuing education for oncologists and medical specialists. In only a little more than a year, and with only modest funds at our disposal, we helped publish several books and collections of articles, we paid the travel expenses for young specialists, we held a conference for oncologists in the northwest region of Russia, we established a prize to recognize achievements in the field of oncology, and we held the first ever award ceremony, during which we recognized the work of a number of health care professionals. Right now I am preparing to participate in the next Congress of Pediatric Oncologists of Russia.
Besides the Children’s Hospice in St. Petersburg, we are working with and constantly exchanging information with the Raisa Gorbachev Research Institute for Oncology, Hematology, and Transplantation, the N. N. Blokhin Russian Cancer Research Center in Moscow, and with the non-profit pharmaceutical partnership “XXI Century.”
—In June, a Deputy of the Legislative Assembly of the Leningrad Region came out with a new draft law he called “On the Special Position of the Imperial Family,” which would create the legal conditions necessary for the return of members of the Imperial House to Russia. What do you think about that idea? In particular, what do you think of his specific proposal to have one of the palaces in St. Petersburg and one in Crimea given over to the Imperial House?
—The basic idea here of granting the Imperial House legal status seems to me to be very appropriate and useful. Almost in every country that today is a republic but was once a kingdom or empire has in one way or another legally recognized the formerly reigning dynasty as a historical institution, and the governments of these countries provide them with support for fulfilling their social and cultural missions in society, to the extent that the laws and constitutions of these countries permit.
Right now, the majority of nations in the world are secular states. But the separation of Church and State does not prevent cooperation between Church and State institutions in preserving the moral structures of society, providing social assistance, and preserving a nation’s historic heritage. Similarly, the State, though a republic, can nonetheless work together variously with the former ruling house to support national traditions, strengthen inter-confessional, international, and internal ethnic peace and harmony, promote philanthropy, advance the nation’s educational system, and so on.
We have not set any kind of preconditions and have not made any overtures of any kind in this regard. My mother and I are citizens of Russia and we try to be useful to our country in any way we can. We respect the present government of Russia and are entirely loyal to the Constitution and the present laws. It is our deep conviction that the only government that would be unworthy of our loyalty, or that of any of its citizens, would be one that attacked religion or terrorized its own people. Short of that, we feel that one must support the government. This doesn’t mean you abandon your own personal convictions and principles or that you never take an independent position on an issue. We remain committed to, and preservers of, the monarchical ideal of the State-Family model of government, and we are legally entitled to hold that view, in accordance with Article 13 of the Constitution of Russia, which guarantees freedom of thought. And we have our own views on host of other issues, such as, for example, reforming health care and education, revising the legal rules governing charities, protecting the environment, and changing the rules and restrictions on historical and cultural monuments. But we express our views on these questions not in a spirit of confrontation with this or that person or agency, but with a view to exchanging ideas and opinions so we can reach solutions to problems together. And we call upon all our countrymen to join us in that exchange of ideas.
I think the world “special” in reference to the status of the Imperial House is not really correct. There is nothing “special” about the legal status of a dynasty. The Russian government now, and for the foreseeable future, is and will be a republic, and the legal status we seek would in no way convey any political power. It would not grant us any special privileges beyond those already enjoyed by our fellow citizens. It does not contemplate any return of properties. In fact, my mother and I have many times publicly and definitively declared that we in principle are against the restitution of property because we believe that it could easily lead to resentment and civil discord in Russia.
This status—not “special” status, just formal, legal status—would include a recognition of the Imperial House as an institution that preserves the continuity of our nation’s history, and that constitutes an integral part of the historical and cultural heritage of our country. Any legal document establishing the dynasty’s status should also define its duties, defend its spiritual, cultural, intellectual legacies, and protect its many symbols and emblems from arbitrary, and perhaps even sacrilegious, cooptation and exploitation. None of this, by the way, would violate the provisions of Russia’s current laws, and in fact would actually reinforce the provisions of Article 44 of the Constitution, which guarantees the preservation of the nation’s historical and cultural heritage.
The question of where we might live after the promulgation of this legal recognition of the dynasty’s status and after our moving back to Russia permanently could all be decided later. We will never agree, however, that someone else’s rights should be stepped on for our sake, or that someone else should loose what they have so that we have something ourselves. We see two possible ways the question of the place of our residence could be resolved: either a historical building that is in poor repair now and not occupied could be restored, or an entirely new residence could be built. In either case, the funds for the project must come from private sources, either from donations or in the framework of a joint public-private project. But in no way, shape, or form should this project be financed publicly, out of the state budget.
Our idea is that our residence (and perhaps down the road, several residences) would become not only a place where we live and work, but also a center for philanthropy, culture, and education. It should be connected to social institutions that, for example, feed the poor, provide health care to the homeless, has a chapel, has playgrounds accessible to all children, a library, an exhibition hall, and so on.
—The notion of descendants of formerly reigning dynasties returning to their home countries is not so strange. One can point to the case of the return of members of the House of Savoy to Italy, for example. There have been similar suggestions here in Russia but they all came to nothing. What do you think it would take to turn this general discussion into concrete steps that could actually bring the Imperial House back to live in Russia?
—Every country is different. In Italy, which you mentioned, they didn’t execute the royal family, but up until 2002 the Constitution forbade members of the Savoy dynasty from entering Italy. In Russia, there was never any formal prohibition on entry into the country, even during Soviet times. However, in reality, all the members of our House who remained in Russia were executed between 1918 and 1920, and those who escaped could not return or even visit without risking immediate persecution from the authorities. However, when the situation in the country began to change, there were no obstacles—legal or otherwise—to our visiting our homeland. The process of our House returning to Russia began in November 1991, when my grandfather and grandmother visited the USSR, which was then still in existence. Even so, my grandfather made one precondition: he refused to travel to his own country on a visa. He was met on arrival by government authorities and granted entry, although he didn’t yet have a Russian passport. Our Russian citizenship was restored in 1992. And since that time the Russian Imperial House has been integrating itself continually, and in more and different ways, into the life of the nation.
But in order for the Imperial House to return permanently to Russia, the following things must happen first:
First, all our countrymen who believe that the Romanoff dynasty and its system of values can be of use to Russia must understand that others will also agree with us only if they see good, positive results from the work we do. Each of us must do more than espouse ideals; we must make those ideals part of our daily life and work. And we must do not only what’s good for us, but also what’s good for others, even if that is not always easy.
Second, it is important that those who take an interest in a particular issue, both those who speak out “for” and those who are “against” that issue, be honest with their opponents and with themselves, that they ground their views in reliable information and in an evenhanded analysis of the issues, and not be driven by prejudices, uninformed speculations, rumours, or even slander. Indeed, we see examples of that all the time. But falsehood and malice are a poor foundation to build upon. You can easily destroy things with them, but you can’t build anything good and useful with them.
In any case, we are open to dialogue with people of all convictions and beliefs, we consider no one our enemy, and we are fully prepared to work with all our countrymen constructively to strengthen Russia and improve the well-being of its citizens. To achieve real success in life, on must follow the motto: “Always do what’s right, come what may.”