by Susan Flantzer
Photo Credit – Wikipedia
The first of the eighteen Romanovs executed during the Russian Revolution, Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich of Russia was born December 4, 1878, at the Anichkov Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia. Michael was the fourth of the four sons and the fifth of the six children of Alexander III, Emperor of All Russia and Dagmar of Denmark (Empress Maria Feodorovna).
Michael’s mother was the daughter of King Christian IX of Denmark and among his maternal first cousins were King Constantine I of Greece, King George V of the United Kingdom, King Christian X of Denmark and King Haakon VII of Norway.
Michael had five siblings:
- Nicholas II, Emperor of All Russia (1868 – 1918), married Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine (Alexandra Feodorovna), had five children
- Grand Duke Alexander Alexandrovich (1869 – 1870), died young of meningitis
- Grand Duke George Alexandrovich (1871 – 1899), unmarried, died of tuberculosis
- Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna (1875 – 1960), married Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich of Russia, had seven children
- Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna (1882 – 1960), married (1) Peter Friedrich Georg, Duke of Oldenburg, no children; (2) Nikolai Kulikovsky, had two children
The family of Alexander III – seated (left to right): Alexander III with Olga, George; standing (left to right): Michael, Maria Feodorovna, Nicholas, and Xenia; Photo Credit – Wikipedia
In 1881, when Michael was three years old, his paternal grandfather Alexander II, Emperor of All Russia was assassinated when a bomb was thrown at his carriage as he rode through St. Petersburg, and Michael’s father became Emperor. Concerned about the security of his family, Alexander III moved his family to Gatchina Palace located 28 miles (45 km) south of St. Petersburg. Gatchina Palace became the family’s prime residence.
Like his other siblings, Michael was raised in a relatively simple manner considering his status. He slept in a cot, woke up at 6:00 AM, took cold baths, ate simple, plain meals, and his rooms were furnished with simple furniture. The Imperial children had a large extended family and often visited the families of their British, Danish, and Greek cousins.
Emperor Alexander III, Tsarevitch Nicholas, Grand Duke Michael and dog, Empress Marie Feodorovna, Grand Duke George and Grand Duchess Xenia at the Gatchina Palace, circa 1887; Photo Credit – Wikipedia
The children’s parents believed that their children should spend their spare time in a useful manner and so they learned cooking, woodworking and how to make puppets for their puppet theater. Alexander III believed that his children should learn about the outdoors and so they were taught to ride, gardened, and kept animals that they had to look after themselves.
Because of their ten-year age gap, Michael and his eldest brother, the future Nicholas II, Emperor of All Russia, would not share much of their childhood. Michael’s younger sister Olga was his childhood companion and the two would always remain close. They were educated together and played together.
Michael and Olga; Photo Credit – Wikipedia
In 1894, Michael’s father Alexander III unexpectedly died at the age of 49 and his brother Nicholas became Emperor. Since Nicholas did not yet have children, his next brother George was declared Tsesarevich of Russia, the heir to the throne. In 1899, George died of tuberculosis. At that time, Nicholas had only daughters who could not inherit the throne and so Michael was named the heir to the Russian throne. He remained the heir until the birth of Nicholas’ hemophiliac son Alexei in 1904. Michael was named to be co-regent for Alexei, along with Alexei’s mother Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, in the event of Nicholas II’s death.
After his father’s death, Michael’s mother moved back to Anichkov Palace in St. Petersburg with Michael and Olga. In St. Petersburg, Michael completed training at a gunnery school and joined the Horse Guards Artillery. In 1901, Michael represented his brother at the funeral of Queen Victoria and in 1902, he was made a Knight of the Garter in King Edward VII’s coronation honors. In June 1902, Michael transferred to the Blue Cuirassier Regiment and moved to Gatchina, where the regiment was based.
In 1902 during a summer holiday, Michael met Princess Beatrice of Edinburgh and Saxe-Coburg. Beatrice was the daughter of Queen Victoria’s second son Prince Alfred and Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia, the only daughter of Alexander II, Emperor of Russia. Michael and Beatrice fell in love. Michael’s father and Beatrice’s mother were siblings and that made Beatrice and Michael first cousins. It was not unusual for royal first cousins to marry. Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha were first cousins and Beatrice’s sister Victoria had married a first cousin, Ernst, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine. However, the Russian Orthodox Church prohibited the marriage of first cousins and Nicholas II refused to grant permission for the marriage.
Next, Michael fell in love with a commoner, Alexandra Vladimirovna Kossikovskaya, a lady-in-waiting to his sister Olga. In 1906, Michael asked Nicholas II for permission to marry Alexandra. Nicholas and his mother Empress Maria Feodorovna were appalled as they felt that royalty should marry only royalty. According to Romanov House Law, any children from a marriage between a royal and a commoner would not be in the line of succession to the Russian throne. Nicholas threatened to revoke Michael’s army commission and exile him from Russia if he married without his permission. Empress Maria Feodorovna dismissed Alexandra as Olga’s lady-in-waiting and took Michael to Denmark for two months.
Wulfert, Natasha, and Michael; Photo Credit – Wikipedia
In 1907, Michael first met Natalia Sergeyevna Wulfert (called Natasha), the wife of Vladimir Vladimirovich Wulfert, an officer in Michael’s regiment, the Blue Cuirassier Regiment. Born Natalia Sergeyevna Sheremetyevskaya, Natasha was the daughter of a Moscow lawyer, Sergei Alexandrovich Sheremetevsky, an untitled minor Russian noble. By August 1909, Michael and Natasha were lovers and by November 1909, Natasha was living in an apartment in Moscow paid for by Michael. Nicholas II had Michael transferred to the Chernigov Hussars 250 miles from Moscow in an attempt to stop the relationship. However, Michael traveled back to Moscow several times a month to see Natasha.
On August 6, 1910, Natasha gave birth to Michael’s son named George after Michael’s deceased brother. At the time of George’s birth, Natasha was still legally married to her husband and so George was legally his son. Michael and Natasha started divorce proceedings because they feared that Natasha’s husband would try to claim custody of their son. There is speculation that Wulfert allowed the divorce because he received a bribe of 200,000 rubles. The date of the divorce was back-dated which meant that George was recognized as Natasha’s illegitimate son and would inherit her status. Nicholas II issued a decree giving the George the surname Brasov after Michael’s estate at Brasovo. In May 1911, Nicholas II granted Natasha permission to use the surname Brasova and allowed her to live with Michael at his estate Brasovo. This all indicated Nicholas II’s tacit permission for his brother’s affair.
Natasha and Michael with their son George; Photo Credit – Wikipedia
Michael was second in the line of succession after his nephew, Tsesarevich Alexei. However, since Alexei suffered from hemophilia, perhaps he would not live long enough to inherit the throne. Romanov House Law required that members of the Imperial Family obtain the permission of the Emperor before marrying. Michael knew that his brother would not grant permission to marry Natasha. In September 1912, Alexei suffered a life-threatening hemorrhage in the thigh and groin. Michael feared that Alexei would not survive and that he would become the heir which would make the possibility of his marriage to Natalia even more remote. By marrying Natasha before Alexei died, Michael would be removed from the line of succession early which would prevent him from losing Natasha. Therefore, while on holiday in Vienna, Austria, Michael and Natasha were married on October 16, 1912, in a Serbian Orthodox Church.
Natasha and Michael in 1912; Photo Credit – Wikipedia
Nicholas II and the rest of the Imperial Family were horrifyingly shocked. They saw Michael’s actions as a betrayal of duty especially since Alexei was so close to death. (Alexei did survive the incident.) Nicholas stripped Michael of his military rank, froze all his assets in Russia, seized control of his estates, removed him from becoming regent, and banished him from Russia. Until September 1913, they stayed in grand hotels throughout Europe before settling in England. While in England, they were visited by Michael’s mother Empress Maria Feodorovna, Michael’s sister Grand Duchess Xenia, and Michael’s cousin Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich.
Upon the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Michael asked his brother Nicholas II for permission to return to Russia and return to the army. He further requested that Natasha and George accompany him. Nicholas agreed with the condition that Natasha not live in any of the imperial palaces. Michael, Natasha, and George lived in a villa on Nikolaevskaya Street in St. Petersburg. Michael was given command of the Caucasian Native Cavalry which was considered a demotion as it consisted of new Muslim recruits rather than the elite troops. Nevertheless, the Caucasian Native Cavalry was very effective and Michael received the military’s highest honor, the Order of St. George.
Grand Duke Michael (in the light-colored coat) with the Caucasian Native Cavalry; Photo Credit – Wikipedia
In 1915, Michael requested that Nicholas II legitimize his son George so that in the event of his death in the war, George would be provided for, and Nicholas agreed. George was legitimized and created Count Brasov but neither he nor his descendants could be in the line of succession. At the same time, Natasha was created Countess Brasova.
The February Revolution was the first of two revolutions that took place in Russia in 1917. The February Revolution was caused by military defeats during World War I, economic issues, and scandals surrounding the monarchy. The immediate result was the abdication of Nicholas II, the end of the Romanov dynasty, and the end of the Russian Empire. Later in 1917, the October Revolution occurred, paving the way for the establishment of the Soviet Union.
On March 15, 1917, when Nicholas II signed his abdication manifesto, he decided to abdicate in favor of his son Alexei but he changed his mind after conferring with doctors who said the hemophiliac Alexei would not survive without his parents, who would surely be exiled. Nicholas then decided to abdicate in favor of Michael. However, Michael declined to accept the throne unless the people were allowed to vote for the continuation of the monarchy or for a republic. Of course, that vote never happened.
After going through several periods of house arrests, Michael was arrested on March 7, 1918, along with his British secretary Nicholas Johnson, and imprisoned at the Bolshevik headquarters in St. Petersburg. Four days later, Michael and Johnson were sent to Perm, a thousand miles to the east. In Perm, the Bolshevik orders were that “Michael Romanov and Johnson are entitled to live in freedom under the surveillance of the local Soviet authorities.” Meanwhile, Natasha obtained a travel permit so she could join Michael in Perm. However, Michael and Natasha’s reunion did not last long. Because the Bolsheviks and the White Army were fighting in the area, Michael and Natasha feared that she could become trapped in Perm in a dangerous situation and so Natasha left on May 18, 1918, for Moscow. On May 21, 1918, Michael made the first of a number of required visits to the Perm office of the Cheka, the Soviet secret police.
Grand Duke Michael and Nicholas Johnson in Perm in 1918; Photo Credit – Wikipedia
Fears that the White Army might move into Perm and an unsuccessful White Army raid in Ekaterinburg, where Michael’s brother Nicholas and his family were being held, made the Cheka leaders in Perm develop a plan to abduct and kill Michael. Gavril Ilyich Myasnikov, the leader of the Perm Cheka who had spent seven years in a Siberian labor camp after the Russian Revolution of 1905, gathered a team of four men who, like him, were all former prisoners of the Tsarist regime. The five men met on the evening of June 12, 1918. The plan was simple – Michael was to be abducted from his room, taken into the woods, and shot. To avoid complications, the official story would be that Michael attempted to escape and was therefore shot. The conspirators’ meeting ended at 9:30 PM and Michael’s abduction was set for midnight.
Gavril Ilyich Myasnikov, in the middle, with his four conspirators; Photo Credit – Wikipedia
With forged orders to evacuate Michael, the group made their way to Michael’s room. The guards there said they needed to telephone the Cheka to confirm the evacuation orders which the armed men would not allow them to do. Michael also refused to cooperate. Eventually, the armed men had enough. One of them grabbed Michael, ordered him to go outside and motioned Johnson to follow. The armed men, Michael and Johnson drove three miles in horse-drawn carriages to the execution site.
Michael had been told they were going to a railroad crossing where he would board a train. The carriages stopped and Michael was told that they would walk to the railroad crossing. After Michael and Johnson took only a few steps, two of the armed men simultaneously shot them. Johnson was wounded and the gun that was intended for Michael misfired. Michael, with his arms outstretched, ran to Johnson begging to say goodbye to him. Michael was shot and as he fell, he pulled Johnson down with him. Guns were then put to their temples and fired. It was approximately 2:00 AM on June 13, 1918. Michael was 39 and Johnson was 40. Before the bodies were buried, they were stripped of all their clothes and possessions to prove that the executions had taken place. The remains of Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich and Nicholas Johnson have never been found. In 1981, Grand Duke Michael and Nicholas Johnson were canonized as New-Martyrs of Russia by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. In 1996, a local group in Perm erected a simple wooden cross in the woods where it is presumed Michael’s remains lie.
Michael’s wife and son, Natasha and George, escaped Russia. In 1931, George died in a car accident in Sens, France shortly before his 21st birthday. In 1952, Natalia died penniless in a charity hospital in Paris, France. Natalia and George were buried next to each in Passy Cemetery in Paris.
Memorial plaque in memory of Grand Duke Michael on the building in Perrm where he was detained; Photo Credit – Автор: Аноним Инкогнитович – Собственная работа, GFDL 1.2+, https://ru.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2069431
Wikipedia: Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich of Russia
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- En.wikipedia.org. (2017). Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich of Russia. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Duke_Michael_Alexandrovich_of_Russia [Accessed 4 Nov. 2017].
- En.wikipedia.org. (2018). Natalia Brasova. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natalia_Brasova [Accessed 15 Mar. 2018].
- Perry, J. and Pleshakov, K. (2008). The Flight of the Romanovs. New York: Basic Books.
- Ru.wikipedia.org. (2018). Михаил Александрович (сын Александра III). [online] Available at: https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%9C%D0%B8%D1%85%D0%B0%D0%B8%D0%BB_%D0%90%D0%BB%D0%B5%D0%BA%D1%81%D0%B0%D0%BD%D0%B4%D1%80%D0%BE%D0%B2%D0%B8%D1%87_(%D1%81%D1%8B%D0%BD_%D0%90%D0%BB%D0%B5%D0%BA%D1%81%D0%B0%D0%BD%D0%B4%D1%80%D0%B0_III) [Accessed 15 Mar. 2018].