Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich (1878-1918) was the third and favourite son of Emperor Alexander III of Russia and his Danish wife the Empress Maria Feodorovna. He was born fourth in line to the throne after his father and elder brothers Nicholas and George. The infant Grand Duke’s grandfather Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, the victim of a terrorist’s bomb that exploded at the Tsar’s feet, prompting Alexander III to move the Imperial Family to the relative seclusion of Gatchina Palace outside St Petersburg.
An autocratic ruler, Alexander III reversed his father’s march towards reform and his sons were given a strict military schooling more suited to the statuesque, athletic Michael than the diminutive and shy heir Nicholas. ‘Tall, handsome and genial, Michael was physically much more in the traditional Romanov mould than Nicky’, writes Carolly Erickson in Alexandra: The Last Tsarina (2003). ‘Michael was dashing, an able swordsman and a daring rider, a gunner in the Horse Guards artillery, much at home in society and attractive to women’.
In 1894 Alexander III died from kidney disease and Grand Duke Michael’s brother was proclaimed Tsar Nicholas II. The new Tsar considered himself ill-prepared and ill starred following a stampede on Khodyna Fields outside Moscow on the day of his coronation that killed 1400 of his subjects. The Dowager Empress made no secret of the fact that she believed Michael would be much the stronger Tsar and that she considered the Empress Alexandra disappointing.
The Tsarina produced four daughters in succession and Grand Duke George died in a motorcycle accident in 1899 seemingly leaving the path to the throne clear for Michael. He was one of the richest men in the world and the most most eligible of royal dynastic matches. ‘At foreign courts, queries were made about Michael who began to be entertained by diplomats and invited abroad’, writes Erickson. ‘Queen Victoria, shrewdly assessing the situation in Russia, invited Michael to visit her at Balmoral’. The Tsarina’s inability to bear a male heir and Grand Duke Michael’s successes in the courts of Europe sowed the seeds of mistrust between the Tsar and his brother.
In 1902 Grand Duke Michael courted Princess Beatrice ‘Baby Bee’ of Saxe-Coburg but the marriage was vetoed because they were first cousins. In 1904 the Tsarina finally bore a son, Alexei, to whom she passed the haemophilia gene; a potentially fatal bleeding disease that in all likelihood would kill the Tsarevich before he reached adulthood. Thus Grand Duke Michael’s choice of bride would also be the next Tsarina of Russia.
The news that Michael had fallen in love with Alexandra ‘Dina’ Kossikovsky, his favourite sister the Grand Duchess Olga’s lady-in-waiting, horrified his mother the Dowager Empress and the Tsar. A Romanov could not marry a commoner. Though Dina was banished from St Petersburg, Michael would not give her up and asked the Tsar’s permission for a morganatic marriage in 1906. This was denied. The Grand Duke planned to elope and marry in Naples but Dina was detained in St Petersburg by the Okhrana, the Tsar’s secret police, and banished from Russia.
The Grand Duke’s next choice of consort was even more unpalatable to the Imperial Family. In 1907 Michael met Natalia Wulfert who was married to a fellow officer and had a child from a previous marriage. It was said to be love at first sight and soon their affair became the talk of St Petersburg. Scenting danger, the Dowager Empress insisted Michael accompany her to Denmark but the resourceful young man installed Natalia in Copenhagen’s Hotel d’Angleterre and would sneak from the Amalienborg Palace into her arms.
On his return to Russia, the Tsar sent Michael to join a regiment at Oriel, 250-miles from Moscow, but Natalia promptly abandoned her second husband to live as fille du régiment and mistress. In 1910, Natalia gave birth to Michael’s son, George, before her second divorce was finalised. The Tsar allowed the child to take the surname Brasova (one of Michael’s estates) but refused to acknowledge or receive Natalia or her son. The Countess Brasova as she was now titled lived openly with the Grand Duke in Moscow and his villa on the Gatchina estate but she was socially ostracised more for fear of offending the Dowager Empress than the increasingly unpopular Tsar and Tsarina.
As the Tsar’s letters reveal, the Tsarevich Alexei was recovering from a severe bleeding attack in 1912 when Michael announced that he had married Natalia in the Serbian Orthodox church in Vienna. ‘He broke his word: his word of honour’ the Tsar wrote to the Tsarina. ‘How in the midst of the boy’s illness could they have done such a thing?’ The Dowager called the marriage ‘unspeakably awful in every way’. The Tsar banished Michael from Russia, removed his command of the Chevalier Guards, revoked his right to be co-regent and seized his property and assets. The Grand Duke and Countess Brasova were forced to live a peripatetic existence in Switzerland, on the French Riviera and in England where they rented Knebworth House.
When Russia mobilised its troops in 1914, Grand Duke Michael sought permission to return to Russia and fight for his country. He was appointed commander of the Caucasian Native Cavalry and, to the Tsar’s chagrin, proved a much more popular military leader than his elder brother. The Tsar’s decision to take supreme command of the Russian army, leaving the Tsarina in St Petersburg as Regent under the influence of the sinister mystic Rasputin, was catastrophic. Galvanized by the Dowager Empress, Grand Duke Michael wrote a desperate letter to the Tsar. ‘The public hatred for certain people who allegedly are close to you and who are forming part of the present government has, to my amazement, brought together the right, the left and the moderate; and this hatred, along with the demands for changes, are already openly expressed’.
The Grand Duke foresaw the Russian Revolution in the eyes of his troops while the Tsar and Tsarina blindly followed Rasputin. As early as 1915, he wrote to the Countess saying he was ‘ashamed to face the people…for they might think that one is also responsible for one is placed so high and yet have failed to protect one’s country from disaster’. By 1917 the Grand Duke wrote to General Aleksei Brusiolv ‘I have no influence. My brother has time and time again had warnings and entreaties of this kind from every quarter’.
On the 15th of March 1917 Nicholas II abdicated both for himself and his son Alexei. Though the Grand Duke was never proclaimed Tsar Michael II, he considered accepting the crown; writing a declaration that he would only rule by the will of the people and as a constitutional monarch. But the Petrograd Soviet had no intention of prolonging the Romanov Dynasty’s 300-year rule and events overtook good intentions. Michael was the last member of the royal family to see the Tsar, Tsarina and their children before the Soviet ruling council sent the family to the Urals where they were massacred in a cellar in Yekaterinburg in 1918.
Grand Duke Michael and Countess Brasova were kept under house arrest on the Gatchina estate and used diplomatic channels to request permission to leave Russia and live in exile on their Sussex estates. Though a mass exodus of Romanovs had the blessing of provisional government head Prince Lvov, King George V denied asylum. It was a decision that haunted the British monarch when the massacre of his Romanov relatives began in earnest. In March 1918 Lenin began his campaign to exterminate the Romanov dynasty. The Grand Duke and his secretary Mr Johnson were sent to Perm on the order of the Bolshevik ruling council. The Grand Duke was billeted in a relatively luxurious hotel in Perm for eight weeks and Natalia was allowed to visit him.
But on the 12th June four rogue members of the Ural Soviet woke Grand Duke Michael and forced he and Mr Johnson into horse drawn closed carriages at the dead of night. The carriages stopped in a dense forest on the outskirts of Perm where the Grand Duke and Mr Johnson were ordered out of the carriage and shot dead at point blank range. Grand Duke Michael was the first member of the Russian royal family to be murdered by the Bolsheviks. His body has never been found.