15 July 2018

The Last Romanov Ladies Part 3

PART 1  |  PART 2  |  PART 4

The 19th Century Russian Tsars were extremely prolific, creating a quite a large, extended Imperial Family. In this installment, we follow the collateral-line descendants of Tsar Nicholas II's grandfather, Alexander II, who is remembered to history as the Czar-Liberator, for finally "freeing" the serfs from their landlords -- too little, too late -- and whose violent assassination caused his son and heir Alexander III to turn away from his father's liberal ideals to pursue a more thorough autocracy that was ultimately inherited by Nicholas II.

Before his assassination, Alexander II fathered a large family. In addition to the deceased Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich and Tsar Alexander III, he had two daughters and four more sons by his wife Marie of Hesse. His four younger sons were all large and commanding military officers in service to their nephew Tsar Nicholas II. Although but the youngest died before the Revolution, their wives and children were greatly impacted by it.

Elizabeth, sister of Empress Alexandra
and widow of Grand Duke Sergei
By Hayman Seleg Mendelssohn via Wikimedia Commons
The next son born after Tsar Alexander III, Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich was publicly blamed for the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1905, although he was out of town. Nevertheless, it was his brother Sergei Alexandrovich who died by assassin's bomb a month later. Sergei left behind a beautiful widow, the former Princess Elizabeth of Hesse, who was an older sister of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. Sergei and Elizabeth had no children, so following his assassination, she devoted herself to religion, selling her possessions, including her wedding ring, to found the Convent of Saints Martha and Mary, a hospital, a pharmacy and an orphanage. She worked in the slums of Moscow to serve the poor. She tried to warn her sister of the dangers of associating with Rasputin, but to no avail, and the sisters never saw each other again after his death. Once Lenin came to power, he ordered the arrest of the 53-year-old Elizabeth and she was sent along with her nephews Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich and Prince Vladimir Pavlovich Paley as well as three other Romanov princes to Perm and later to the outskirts of Yekaterinburg, where the imperial family were being held. Just hours after the massacre at Ipatiev House, Elizabeth and the others were taken to an abandoned mine. They were thrown into a pit with grenades tossed after them. Only one person, Sergei's secretary, died in this first attack. Elizabeth could be heard leading the other victims in a hymn. Another grenade failed to stop the singing. So, the assassins filled the pit with wood and set it ablaze.

Unlike her sister whose body remained hidden for decades, Elizabeth was found just months later by the White Army. Many stories exist that she had survived all of the attempts to kill her, dying instead of starvation after tending the injuries of others with her. Her body was ultimately laid to rest in Jerusalem at the Church of Maria Magdalene, which she and her late husband had helped fund. She was later canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Victoria Melita with her daughters by Cyril,
Maria and Kira (center)
via Wikimedia Commons
Vladimir Alexandrovich, who died of a stroke in 1909, left behind a large family. His widow Marie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin longed to have their eldest son Cyril Vladimirovich recognized as tsar, since he was the closest male-line heir after Nicholas II's brother Michael Alexandrovich. Therefore she remained in Russia with her two youngest sons, Boris and Andrei, after everyone else had been killed or escaped, not leaving until February of 1920 and dying later that year in France. Cyril Vladimirovich, who had made an unapproved marriage to his first cousin, the divorced Princess Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg (a granddaughter of Queen Victoria), did indeed assert himself as Head of the Romanov Family. Although he had initially been stripped of his imperial status by Nicholas II after his marriage, he had been restored when his father's death in 1909 made him third in line to the throne. In the February Revolution, Cyril pledged his allegiance to the Russian Provisional Government. Later that year, he, his pregnant wife and their two daughters moved to Russian-controlled Finland, where their only son Vladimir Kirillovich was born. In 1920, they escaped to Germany. After Michael Alexadrovich was declared dead in 1924, Vladimir gave himself the title Emperor of Russia, although not everyone in the family agreed. Victoria Melita passed away in 1936. Cyril died in 1938 in France, passing his claim to his son Vladimir, who passed it to his only child Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna when he died in 1992. Cyril and Victoria Melita's second daughter, Kira Kirillovna, married the Louis Ferdinand, heir to the defunct German and Prussian thrones as the grandson of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Their oldest daughter, Maria Kirillovna, married the 6th Prince of Leinengen. Both girls produced large families.

Meanwhile Vladimir Alexandrovich and Marie's other sons, Boris and Andrei, managed to escape Russia in 1919 and 1920 respectively, and each went on to marry their respective long-term mistresses while in exile. Andrei's bride, the actress Mathilde Kschessinska, had been an early love for Tsar Nicholas II before he met his soulmate, Empress Alexandra.

Prince and Princess Nicholas of Greece with their daughters
(from left) Olga, Elizabeth and Marina before the Revolution
via Wikimedia Commons
Vladimir Alexandrovich and Marie's only daughter, Elena Vladimirovna, was safely away from Russia during the Revolution, having married Prince Nicholas, third son of King George I of Greece. However, turbulence in Greece also sent them into exile in France. The couple had three celebrated daughters, including Olga who married Prince Paul of Yugoslavia and Marina who married the British Prince George The Duke of Kent and became the matriarch of the Kent branch of the British Royal Family. Elena, also known as Helen or Princess Nicholas, returned to Greece and, like her sister-in-law Alice (Princess Andrew, mother of The Duke of Edinburgh), served the people there throughout World War II.

Alexander II's youngest imperial son, Pavel Alexandrovich, was the only one of his sons alive at the time of the Revolution but he did not survive it. Maria Pavlovna, Pavel's only surviving child by his first wife, Maria had divorced a Swedish prince and remarried to a Russian officer. She gave birth to a son just nine days before the murders at Yekaterinburg. She left the infant with her in-laws and escaped through Ukraine to her cousin Queen Marie of Romania. Her baby died from illness a year later. Meanwhile, Paul's morganatic second wife and their two teenaged daughters, Princess Irina Pavlovna Paley and Princess Natalia Pavlovna Paley, escaped via Finland to Paris. Irina later married Prince Feodor Alexandrovich Romanov and spent her life in France. Natalia had a career as an actress and model, married twice, and lived the last decades of her life in New York City. Pavel's morganatic son Prince Vladimir Pavlovich Paley, was not so lucky. Having been arrested for writing a poem about Provisional Government Head Alexander Kerensky, Vladimir was later also arrested by the Bolsheviks and was among the family members killed with Grand Duchess Elizabeth at the mine shaft in July 1918. Pavel himself was also captured by the Reds and was executed with three of his cousins in January 1919, as the last Romanov grand dukes still on Russian soil.

Alexander II with Catherine Dolgorukova and
their two oldest children, George and Olga,
before their marriage
via Wikimedia Commons
After the death of his first wife, Alexander II contracted a morganatic marriage with his long-term mistress, Catherine Dolgorukova, thereby legitimizing their children. However, the kids only had princely status, not imperial status due to their mother's low rank. She was granted the title Princess Yurievskaya, which was also used by her offspring. They had been married less than a year when his assassination left her a widow. This "second family" were never accepted or respected by the rest of Alexander II's descendants. Thus, Catherine had moved abroad long before World War I or the Revolution. However, her youngest child Princess Catherine Alexandrovna Yurievskaya was in Russia when things fell apart. She had been widowed by Russian Prince Alexander Vladimirovich Bariatinsky and left with two sons in 1910. In 1916, she married Prince Sergei Platonovich Obolensky, who fought with the White Army while Catherine suffered from dislocation and hunger, walking for miles and miles like so many other refugees. She eventually escaped back to Western Europe and her husband left her for Alice Astor, while she became a singer to support herself.

PART 1  |  PART 2  |  PART 4

13 July 2018

The Last Romanov Ladies Part 2

PART 1  |  PART 3  |  PART 4

With 2018 marking a century since the fall of the Romanov Dynasty, which had ruled Russia for 300 years, we're taking a look at the imperial ladies. Many of them did not survive beyond 1918, while all of the others found themselves as refugees abroad, sometimes in very unfamiliar territory, sometimes as unwanted guests, and often having to survive on their wits and the sale of the jewels that they managed to smuggle out of Russia. In this installment, we explore what happened to the descendants of Alexander III.

Empress Maria and Alexander III
via Wikimedia Commons
Nicholas II's father, Alexander III, had married Dagmar of Denmark, sister of the Danish King Christian IX and sister of Britain's Queen Alexandra. Previously engaged to Alexander's older brother, who died of meningitis before their wedding, she desperately missed Russia and happily accepted the new marriage proposal when it was offered. She became Maria Feodorovna, but rose to the title of Empress under tragic circumstance: her father-in-law had been assassinated by a bomb. She and Alexander had four sons and two daughters. Their second son died of meningitis as a baby and their third son died in Georgia under mysterious circumstances as a young man.

Their youngest son Michael Alexandrovich was a bit wayward. Although he had married morganatically to a commoner named Natalia Brasova, he was offered but declined the throne when his brother Nicholas II abdicated, effectively ending 300 years of Romanov rule. He and his family were placed under house arrest. When their house arrest was lifted, they planned to flee to Finland but were prevented. House arrest was reinstituted and Michael was later imprisoned by the Bolsheviks. Natalia pleaded directly with Lenin for his release. Michael was sent into internal exile in Perm, while Natalia arranged for their only child to be smuggled to Denmark. Natalia visited him in Perm but returned again to Moscow to advocate for him and was eventually arrested amidst rumors that Michael had escaped and was leading a counter revolution. Faking illness, she managed to escape from a nursing home. After a long and circuitous journey, Natalia arrived in London where Maria Feodorovna was living. Michael's whereabouts were still unknown. He was eventually declared dead in 1924. It was later revealed that his alleged escape was a cover story hiding the fact that he had been executed in 1918. Never having been accepted by her in-laws, Natalia and George moved to Paris, where he was later killed in a car accident and she died destitute in 1952.

Empress Maria Feodorovna had recognized the dangers of staying in Russia although far south in the Crimea, where other members of the family had fled after the February Revolution of 1917. However, she refused to leave, praying always for the safety of her son. Refusing to believe rumors of the Tsar's death, she was nonetheless persuaded by her sister Queen Alexandra to go to London in 1919. She later moved back to her native Denmark, where she died in 1928, still publicly denying the death of her son and grandchildren. Her daughter Olga Alexandrovna asserted that the Empress knew the truth in her heart.

Olga Alexandrovna with her niece (and goddaughter)
Anastasia Nikolaievna
from the Beinecke Library via Wikimedia Commons
At 19, Olga had married the probably gay Duke Peter of Oldenburg, which allowed her to stay in Russia. Not surprisingly, the couple had no children leaving her free to spend a lot of time with her brother Nicholas's family. She was particularly close to her nieces, especially Anastasia, who was her goddaughter. Miserable in her marriage, Olga suffered a nervous breakdown. Brother Nicholas allowed her marriage to be annulled and even approved her marriage to a mere soldier, Colonel Nicholas Kulikovsky, by home she had two sons. Her first child was born while under house arrest in Crimea. The family later moved to the Caucasus, where the White Army was making progress, and their second son was born there in 1919. The Red Army soon turned the tide, and the Kulikovskys evacuated, landing in a refugee camp near Istanbul and then moving on to Belgrade. They joined Empress Maria in Copenhagen in 1920. They remained in the country throughout its turbulent Nazi occupation in World War II but sought a safer and more stable existence in Canada after the war. Olga died in Toronto in 1960 having sold off her salvaged jewels to support herself over the years.

Xenia Alexandrovna
from Bain News Service via Wikimedia Commons
Her only sister Xenia Alexandrovna had died earlier in 1960 in London. She had married her cousin, Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, a grandson of Nicholas I, at age 19. She and Sandro, as he was known, had one daughter and six sons. Their daughter Irina married Prince Felix Yussupov, who had used Irina as a bait to lure Rasputin to his final party in 1916. Rasputin had been promised that he would meet the beautiful Irina. Instead, he was poisoned, shot, and beaten before being chased into a frozen river where he finally died.

The Yussopovs, Sandro, Xenia and their six princes (who were aged 10 to 20) were with the Empress Maria in Crimea and went with her to London after the Revolution. Strapped for cash like her sister Olga, Xenia remained in Britain, where their cousin King George V granted her a home at Frogmore Cottage in Windsor Great Park and later Wilderness House at Hampton Court Palace. Sandro died in 1933, leaving Xenia a widow for 27 years.

PART 1  |  PART 3  |  PART 4

11 July 2018

The Last Romanov Ladies Part 1

PART 2  |  PART 3  |  PART 4

2018 marks 100 years since the fall of three major imperial dynasties: the Romanovs in Russia, the Hohenzollerns in Germany and the Hapbsburgs in Austria. The dramatic fall of the Romanovs, which ended with the cold-blooded murder of the imperial children, has drawn the most attention over the last century. But, even in this case, only the most violent moment is truly remembered. When the Tsar, his wife, five children, their staff and even their dog were massacred, the event spawned a cottage industry of true historians and vigilant conspiracy theorists that has generated innumerable books and films, even including an animated movie.

However, the Romanov family was far more extensive than just its most famous martyrs. Indeed, they were not even the only martyrs in the family. Here is Part I of my overview of the imperial ladies of that time.

Empress Alexandra with her four daughters
via Wikimedia Commons
Tsar Nicholas II married for love to the Germanic Princess Alix of Hesse, who became Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. Suffering from ill health and frantic over her only sons battle with hemophilia she was not as publicly engaged as she perhaps should have been. Instead she was viewed as meddling behind the scenes in government and accused of being enthralled by the mystic healer (and immoral swindler) Rasputin. During the Great War, her ties to her enemy homeland of Germany caused even more consternation.

Before giving birth, at last to a son and heir Alexei, Alexandra had delivered four daughters at two-year intervals: Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia. Just before the war, the two older girls had reached an age when marriages would have been under consideration. In fact, there was even a family visit to their Romanian cousins to try to arrange a match between Olga and the profligate Prince (later King) Carol, but there was no romance between them and neither family pushed the issue. Had the war never happened some, perhaps even all of the Grand Duchesses might have been married by the summer of 1918 as the youngest, Anastasia, was already 17. I think we tend to think of them all as being younger -- they are frozen in time as very young girls, but Olga would have been 23 later that year had she not been murdered.

via Wikimedia Commons
During the war, like so many princesses of their generation, they were allowed to engage in nursing work, and this gave them an opportunity to see more of the "real world" than their somewhat sequestered, but very happy, family life had allowed them. At the time of their father's abdication, the girls were recovering from the measles. They later joined their parents in increasingly harsh detainment finally being imprisoned at Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg. There, they were awakened in the middle of the night on July 17 and told to prepare to be moved to yet another location as the Red Army fled the approaching White Army. Instead, the entire family was shot by a squad of revolutionary soldiers. When the bullets bounced off of the girls' bodices, where they had secreted family jewels, they were bayoneted. The bodies were taken out into the forest, burned and buried.

Nevertheless rumors persisted that Tsarevich Alexei and various sisters had miraculously survived. The most famous of these was Grand Duchess Anastasia, with one of her pretenders Anna Anderson gaining support from some people close to the family. It is her story that inspired the highly fictionalized 1956 Ingrid Bergman movie and the 1997 animated musical.

Icon of the Imperial Family as Saints and Martyrs.
via Wikimedia Commons
DNA testing later disproved Anderson's pretensions. Genetic testing and dental records also confirmed the identities of all of the family members once the bodies were discovered in the 1990s. (Alexei and one sister, however, were not recovered until 2007).

The entire family, which had been declared saints and martyrs by the Russian Orthodox Church, now rest in the St. Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg.

PART 2  |  PART 3  |  PART 4