Modern history



The slaughter of the Romanovs neither began nor ended with the tsar’s immediate family. The first Romanov to die after Lenin’s seizure of power was sixty-eight-year-old Grand Duke Nicholas Constantinovich, who, as a result of banishment to Central Asia by Tsar Alexander II, had lived most of his life in Tashkent. Here he was killed by the Bolsheviks in unknown circumstances in February 1918. The second Romanov murdered was Nicholas II’s younger brother forty-year-old Grand Duke Michael. Arrested at Gatchina, near Petrograd, Michael and his English secretary, Brian Johnson, were interned in a hotel in Perm in the Urals. For six months Michael was treated liberally, granted “all the rights of a citizen of the republic,” and allowed to stroll in the town and go to church. Then, on the night of July 13, 1918—three days before the murders in Ekaterinburg—three men burst into Michael’s hotel room, seized him and his secretary, ordered them into two small carriages, and drove them into the countryside. Turning off the road into the forest, they stopped and offered the grand duke a cigarette. As he smoked, one of the captors pulled out a revolver and shot Johnson in the temple. Michael, arms outstretched, ran toward his secretary and friend, as if to protect him. Three bullets were fired into Michael. The bodies were covered with twigs to be buried later. Andrew Markov, chief of the murderers, then went to Moscow, where, at Yakov Sverdlov’s suggestion, he was taken to tell his story to Lenin.

Less than twenty-four hours after the Imperial family was murdered in Ekaterinburg, six more Romanovs were killed 120 miles away, at Alapayevsk. They included Grand Duchess Elizabeth, age fifty-four, sister of Empress Alexandra; Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich, forty-nine; three sons of Grand Duke Constantine: Prince John, thirty-two, Prince Constantine, twenty-seven, and Prince Igor, twenty-four; and Prince Vladimir Paley, twenty-one, the son by a morganatic marriage of Nicholas II’s uncle Grand Duke Paul.

Grand Duchess Elizabeth, like her sister, had been born a German princess in Hesse-Darmstadt. A widow and a nun since the 1905 assassination of her husband, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich (Nicholas II’s uncle), she almost seemed to be seeking martyrdom. After the tsar’s abdication and even after the Bolshevik assumption of power, Elizabeth turned down all offers of security and escape. In March 1917, the Provisional Government had asked her to leave her convent and take refuge in the Kremlin. She had refused. Early in 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II, who had loved her before either he or she was married, had tried several times though diplomatic channels to bring her to safety in Germany. Again, she refused. Transferred by the Bolsheviks to Alapayevsk, east of the Urals, she spent the winter of 1917–18 in a former provincial school called the House by the Fields. The day after her sister’s death, Elizabeth and the other Romanovs interned with her were forced into peasant carts and taken into the country to the opening of an abandoned mine shaft.

Accounts differ as to how they died. Until recently, Nicholas Sokolov’s version was widely accepted: the victims were blindfolded and ordered to walk across a log placed over the top of the sixty-foot pit. All obeyed except Grand Duke Sergei, a former artilleryman, who struggled and was shot immediately. The others, unable to see as they walked out onto the log, inevitably toppled into the pit. To complete the work, hand grenades and heavy timbers were thrown down on top of them. Not all died immediately, however. A peasant, creeping to the edge of the pit after the assassins departed, reported hearing hymns being sung at the bottom of the shaft. When the Whites found the bodies—this is according to Sokolov’s story—a wound on the head of one of the young men had been bound up with the handkerchief of the grand duchess. Autopsies, Sokolov wrote, revealed that the mouths and stomachs of some of the victims were filled with dirt, indicating that some had actually died of exposure, thirst, and starvation. Now this story is contradicted by other evidence discovered by the investigating officer Vladimir Soloviev. The grand duchess, the grand duke, and the four young men, Soloviev believes, were simply taken to the mouth of the pit, shot in the head, and tumbled into the shaft.

Six months later, on January 28, 1919, four more grand dukes, including the tsar’s uncle Paul (who was the father of Prince Paley killed at Alapayevsk), were executed in Petrograd in the courtyard of the Peter and Paul Fortress. Their bodies were dumped into a mass grave in one of the fortress bastions. (So many prisoners were executed at this time in this place and the bones became so intermingled that no attempt to separate them has been—or is likely to be—attempted.) One of these murdered grand dukes was Nicholas Mikhailovich, a distinguished liberal historian. On the basis of his reputation as a scholar, the writer Maxim Gorky pleaded with Lenin that this grand duke be spared. Lenin refused. “The revolution does not need historians,” he said.

Along with Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra, the Bolsheviks massacred seventeen other Romanovs, including eight of sixteen grand dukes living at the time of the revolution, five of seventeen grand duchesses, and four young princes of the blood. After this carnage, there remained the dowager empress, eight grand dukes, and twelve grand duchesses, four of whom were foreigners who received the title on marrying Russian grand dukes.

By 1919, the largest concentration of Romanov survivors was in the Crimea, where a cluster of family summer palaces provided familiar places of refuge. The tsar’s mother, Dowager Empress Marie, was at the Imperial palace of Livadia, overlooking the Black Sea resort town of Yalta. With Marie was her daughter Grand Duchess Olga, accompanied by Olga’s new husband, Colonel Nicholas Kulikovsky, and their infant son, Tikhon. Nearby, Marie’s older daughter, Grand Duchess Xenia, her husband, Grand Duke Alexander, and six of their seven children were at the palace of Ai-Todor. Also nearby, in his own palace, was Grand Duke Nicholas Nicholaevich, commander in chief of the Russian Army at the outbreak of war. Nicholas Nicholaevich’s brother, Grand Duke Peter, was with him, along with their wives, the Montenegrin sisters, Grand Duchesses Anastasia and Militsa. Grand Duke Nicholas had no children, but Grand Duke Peter’s twenty-one-year-old son, Prince Roman, was present.

For eighteen months, while the Russian civil war swayed back and forth, the band of imperial refugees sheltered uneasily in these comfortable but insecure surroundings. Their suspense ended in April 1919, when the British battleship HMS Marlborough arrived in Yalta and offered to remove the dowager empress. Marie refused to depart unless the British agreed to embark all the Romanovs, their servants, and a number of others who wanted to go. When the large warship sailed for Malta, her broad decks were crowded with Russians, none of whom would see their country again. From the Marlborough, the refugees scattered across Europe and the world. The dowager empress returned to her native Denmark, where her nephew Christian X was king. Eventually, Grand Duchess Xenia, separated from her husband, moved to London, where she lived from 1936 to 1960 in a small mansion provided by the British Crown and named, appropriately, Wilderness House. Grand Duchess Olga and her husband remained in Denmark until after the Second World War, when they moved to Canada. After her husband died, Olga moved in with a Russian couple in an apartment over a barbershop in Toronto. She died there in November 1960, seven months after the death of her sister, Xenia.

Another family of Romanovs survived because the revolution found them at their summer estate in Kislovodsk in the Caucasus. This was Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna, the German-born widow of Nicholas II’s eldest uncle, Grand Duke Vladimir, and her two younger sons, Grand Duke Boris and Grand Duke Andrew. Each of these men was accompanied by his mistress; Boris by Zinaida Rachevsky and Andrew by Mathilde Kschessinska, the former prima ballerina who, before Nicholas II’s marriage and assumption of the throne, had been the tsar’s first and only mistress. Once out of Russia, both grand dukes married their companions and settled down in Paris and its suburbs.

Their elder brother, Grand Duke Cyril, his English-born wife, Grand Duchess Victoria, and their two young daughters were the only Romanovs who left Russia by a northern route. This was not difficult because they left in June 1917, when the moderate Provisional Government was still in power. They asked permission of Alexander Kerensky, then a leading minister, received their papers, boarded a train in Petrograd, and departed for Finland. Later that summer, while they were still in Finland, their son Vladimir was born. Grand Duke Dimitri, the twenty-six-year-old murderer of Rasputin and a first cousin of both Nicholas II and Grand Duke Cyril, left Russia by an extreme southerly route. He had been exiled to the Caucasus for his role in the assassination, and soon after the tsar abdicated he escaped over the mountains into Persia.

Over the past seventy-five years, the surviving Romanovs have subdivided into five subclans, each named, in Russian fashion, for a patriarch. They are the Mikhailovichi, the Vladimirovichi, the Pavlovichi, the Constantinovichi, and the Nicholaevichi. The Mikhailovichi, descended from Michael, a son of Tsar Nicholas I, are closest by blood to Tsar Nicholas II and also the most numerous. These were and are the children and grandchildren of Nicholas’s sister Grand Duchess Xenia and her husband, Grand Duke Alexander, a son of the aforementioned Michael. Xenia had seven children, born around the turn of this century Her eldest child was Irina, who married one of Rasputin’s assassins, Prince Yussoupov. The Yussoupovs settled in Paris, where they lived for almost fifty years until they died. They had one child, a daughter, who had a daughter, who has a daughter. It was Yussoupov’s granddaughter Xenia Sfiris who provided a blood sample to Peter Gill which helped him to identify the femur of Nicholas II.

Grand Duchess Xenia also had six sons. These boys and young men grew up in the West, living first with their mother in Denmark and London, then scattering to Paris, Biarritz, Cannes, Chicago, and San Francisco. Germany, the usual source of Romanov brides, was barren for this purpose after the First World War, so these youthful princes married young women from the aristocratic Russian families they knew—Kutuzovs, Galitzines, Sheremetyevs, Vorontsov-Dashkovs—the oldest and most glittering names of the Russian nobility. Xenia’s sons were well spoken, well mannered, well educated, and well tailored, but not ambitious or energetic. “They spoke six languages,” says Rostislav Romanov, whose father, also named Rostislav, was one of the six brothers. “But nobody ever said anything, so they were always referred to as being silent in six languages. I remember taking my father to see his brother Nikita. They said hello to each other and the conversation died. Another day one of Nikita’s sons suggested, ‘Why don’t we drive over and see Uncle Rostislav?’ Nikita said, ‘Why? I already know him.’ ” Grand Duchess Xenia’s youngest son, Prince Vassily, who was born in 1907 and left Russia at twelve, spent most of his adult life in Woodside, California, near San Francisco. He raised award-winning tomatoes and held a number of jobs, including selling (and delivering) champagne and wine. His private joke was to arrive at the back door of the estate of a friend, deliver the cases ordered, then put on his coat and tie, go around to the front door, ring the bell, present his card, which announced Prince Vassily of Russia, and ask whether madame was at home.

Prince Vassily died in 1987, and Xenia’s grandchildren now are men and women in their sixties and seventies. The men, all referred to in society and the press as Prince Romanov, have followed varied careers. Prince Andrew, who served as a Royal Navy seaman on the arctic convoy route during World War II, is a painter who lives in Inverness, California. Prince Michael, whose grandfathers both were grand dukes, has spent most of his life as a film director in France and now lives in Paris and Biarritz. Prince Nikita, a historian with a Ph.D. from Stanford, lives in New York, as does his brother Prince Alexander. The youngest and most active of these princes is Rostislav, who speaks English with a wholly American accent. This is unsurprising, as he was born and grew up in Chicago, went to an American prep school, and was graduated from Yale. In New Haven, none of his classmates cared that he was a Romanov, and he himself cared mostly about crew. Today, he is a London merchant banker commuting daily from Sussex to Waterloo Station. Although he has worked in England for fourteen years, the British Royal family—like his Yale class—has not noticed his presence. Rostislav does not mind. He is an Anglophile. He does not want to go back to Russia except to visit. “Life in this country suits me,” he says.

After Nicholas II’s sisters, nephews, and nieces, the tsar’s closest surviving relatives were the Vladimirovichi, then comprising his four first cousins, Grand Dukes Cyril, Boris, and Andrew and their sister, Grand Duchess Helen, all children of Nicholas’s eldest uncle, Grand Duke Vladimir. In normal times, the near-simultaneous deaths of a tsar, his son, and his brother, as happened in 1918, automatically would have promoted the eldest of these cousins, Cyril, who was forty-two in 1918, to the Imperial throne. In 1918, however, there was neither empire nor throne, and, consequently, nothing was automatic. Succession to the Russian throne followed the Salic law, meaning that the crown passed only to males, through males, until there were no more eligible males. When an emperor died and neither a son nor a brother was available, the eldest eligible male from the branch of the family closest to the deceased monarch would succeed. In this case, under the old laws, this was Cyril. After Cyril stood his two brothers, Boris and Andrew, and after them the only surviving male of the Pavlovich line, their first cousin Grand Duke Dimitri, the son of Nicholas II’s youngest uncle, Grand Duke Paul. Nicholas II’s six nephews, the sons of the tsar’s sister Xenia, were closer by blood than Cyril but were ineligible because the succession could not pass through a woman.

Cyril, living in France, was cautious about putting forth his claim as pretender. The Dowager Empress Marie would not believe that her son and his family were dead and refused to attend any memorial service on their behalf. A succession proclamation by Cyril would have shocked and deeply offended the old woman. Further, there was another, not very willing pretender: Grand Duke Nicholas Nicholaevich, former commander in chief of the Russian Army, was from the Nicholaevichi, a more distant branch of the Romanov tree, but, among Russians, he was far more respected and popular than Cyril. Nicholas Nicholaevich was forceful and Russia’s most famous soldier whereas Cyril was a naval captain, who, having had one ship sunk beneath him, refused to go to sea again. Nevertheless, when emigre Russians spoke to Grand Duke Nicholas about assuming the throne in exile, he refused, explaining that he did not wish to shatter the hopes of the dowager empress. Besides, Nicholas agreed with Marie that if Nicholas II, his son, and his brother really were dead, the Russian people should be free to choose as their new tsar whatever Romanov—or whatever Russian—they wished.

In 1922, six years before the death of Marie and while the old soldier Nicholas Nicholaevich still had seven years to live, Cyril decided to wait no longer. He proclaimed himself first Curator of the Throne and then, in 1924, Tsar of All the Russias—although he announced that for everyday use he still should be addressed by the lesser title Grand Duke. He established a court around his small villa in the village of Saint-Briac in Brittany, issued manifestos, and distributed titles. Although, technically, his daughters and son were princesses and a prince, he—in his new capacity as tsar—elevated them to grand duchesses and grand duke. When his cousin Grand Duke Dimitri supported his claim, Cyril responded by ennobling Dimitri’s American wife, Audrey Emery, as Princess Romanovsky-Ilyinsky; in 1929, Dimitri and Audrey passed this name and princely title to their infant son, Paul.

Cyril was sixty-two when he died in October 1938 in the American Hospital in Paris and passed his claim to his twenty-one-year-old son, Vladimir. This young man, privately tutored at home and then in a Russian lycée in Paris, spent his summers tinkering with motorcycles and zooming them down the narrow roads of Brittany At one point he spent six months working in a machine shop in England, in order “to experience the life of a working-class person.” In 1946 he moved to Madrid, and two years later, at thirty-one, he married a Georgian princess, Leonida Bagration-Moukhransky. Leonida had previously been married to an older, wealthy, expatriate American, Sumner Moore Kirby, by whom she had a daughter, Helen. In 1937, twenty-three-year-old Leonida divorced Kirby. He remained in France during the Second World War, was seized by the Gestapo, and died in a German concentration camp.

For the four and a half decades of their marriage, Vladimir and Leonida lived quietly. They occupied a villa in Madrid during the winter, moved to Saint-Briac in the summer, and maintained an apartment in Paris. Occasionally, they visited New York, where monarchist friends rented limousines, gave dinners, and listened while Vladimir addressed them in impeccable English, Russian, French, and Spanish. I met him several times on these occasions. He was a handsome, pleasant, soft-spoken man, who, in the tradition of royalty, said little that was remarkable. His real passion was for machinery: the construction and operation of cars, motorcycles, and helicopters. He was neither scholar nor historian; when his boyhood friend Alistair Forbes prodded him to investigate the Anna Anderson identity, Vladimir replied amiably, “Oh, yes, Ali, I daresay all you say is true, but I shan’t let you see the papers I have on the subject, so let’s talk of something else.” Vladimir had no occupation other than being pretender, and most people assumed that the couple was supported by Helen Kirby, who had inherited her father’s American fortune and lived with her mother and stepfather.

Grand Duke Vladimir and Leonida had only one child, Maria, born in 1953, when her mother was thirty-nine. In 1969, when it was obvious that he would never have a son, Vladimir acted to ensure that the succession would remain within his line. He issued a manifesto which proclaimed, to the chagrin of most other Romanovs, that upon his death his daughter would become Curatrix of the Throne. Maria had been brought up to fulfill a significant dynastic role. She was educated in Madrid and Paris and eventually spent several terms studying Russian history and literature at Oxford University. In 1978, she married a Hohenzollern prince, Franz Wilhelm of Prussia, a great-grandson of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Before their marriage, Franz Wilhelm converted to Orthodoxy, took the Russian name Michael Pavlovich, and was awarded the title of grand duke by his new father-in-law. In 1981 Maria and her husband produced their only child, George, whose grandfather also gave him the title of grand duke.

Vladimir never expected to return to Russia as tsar, although he frequently announced that he was ready. By the time of glasnost and perestroika, he was seventy, and when Yeltsin was elected president he had reached seventy-four. Suddenly, events accelerated. A few weeks after Yeltsin’s inauguration in July 1991, the president and the pretender exchanged letters. That autumn, the city of Leningrad voted to take back its name St. Petersburg. The mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, invited the Romanov pretender to attend the celebration. Vladimir and Leonida flew to the former Imperial capital and looked down from a balcony of the former Winter Palace (now the Hermitage Museum) on sixty thousand people filling the Palace Square. Subsequently, when Vladimir entered a room to hold a press conference, three hundred journalists, Russians and foreigners, rose to their feet. Five months later Vladimir flew to Miami to give a speech to fifteen hundred business and financial leaders. Answering questions during a press conference, he slumped in his chair and died soon afterward. Two days later Yeltsin signed a decree permitting the first funeral mass for a Romanov in Russia in three quarters of a century. On May 29, 1992, Vladimir was buried in a vault in the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul in St. Petersburg.

Vladimir’s status as pretender to the Russian throne appeared to have been endorsed by Sobchak and perhaps even by Yeltsin, but it was hotly contested by the majority of Romanovs. The schism that has divided the family—that plagued Vladimir while he was alive and today bedevils his daughter—did not begin with either of them. It began with Vladimir’s father, the first pretender, Grand Duke Cyril.

The Russian Law of Succession to the throne, established by Emperor Paul in 1797, set five criteria for succession: First, the monarch must be Orthodox. Second, the monarch must be a male as long as there are any eligible males in the Imperial house. Third, the mother and wife of a male monarch or male heir close in the line of succession must be Orthodox at the time of marriage. Fourth, the monarch or heir must make an “equal marriage” to a woman from another “ruling house”; an unequal marriage to a woman of lesser rank, even a woman from the highest level of the aristocracy, disqualified that couple and their offspring from reaching the throne. Fifth, the future monarch could marry only with the permission of the reigning tsar. (Unlike Britain, Russia did not make a woman’s previous divorce an impediment to her marrying into the Imperial family or even eventually becoming the consort of a tsar.) Grand Duke Cyril failed to meet two of these requirements: Neither his mother nor his wife was Orthodox when she married. And Cyril married without the permission of—indeed, in defiance of—Tsar Nicholas II.

Cyril’s mother, Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna, a German princess from Mecklenburg-Schwerin, had insisted on remaining Lutheran when she married Cyril’s father, Grand Duke Vladimir. She remained Lutheran for thirty-four years after her marriage. In 1908 she realized that, because of the illness of the little Tsarevich Alexis, her husband and her son Cyril were close in line of succession to the throne. In order to promote their chances, Marie Pavlovna belatedly converted to Orthodoxy. By then, however, Cyril’s affairs were wretchedly tangled on other accounts. As a young man he had fallen in love with his cousin Victoria Melita, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. But the old queen, constantly arranging marriages for her dozens of progeny, decided that Victoria Melita should marry her grandson on another side, Grand Duke Ernest of Hesse. Victoria Melita, although she was in love with Cyril, obeyed her grandmother. Her marriage to Ernest was unhappy—Ernest’s feelings about women were ambivalent—and Victoria Melita began spending weeks at a time with Cyril in Russia and Germany. From a distance, Cyril’s appeal for the Hessian grand duchess is difficult to understand; he was described by Victoria Melita’s sister, later Queen Marie of Rumania, as “the marble man … extraordinarily cold and selfish … he seems to freeze you up and has such a disdaining way of treating … people.” Nevertheless, within months of Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, Victoria Melita and Ernest were divorced, and she looked forward to marrying Cyril.

There were, however, obstacles to the marriage. Victoria Melita’s dynastic credentials were splendidly in order: she was of the House of Saxe-Coburg, which occupied the throne of England. And although the Russian Orthodox Church prohibited marriage between first cousins—as she and Cyril were—Victoria Melita did not become Orthodox until three years after her marriage. Ironically, this fact, while helping her avoid one pitfall, plunged her into another: it violated the rule of the Russian Imperial house that men in line for the throne may marry only women who were Orthodox at the time of their marriage. Most significant, however, was that the marriage lacked the permission of the reigning tsar. Here the problem was that Victoria Melita’s former husband, Ernest of Hesse, was the brother of Nicholas II’s wife. The puritanical empress was infuriated by Victoria Melita’s rejection of her brother and her open affair with Cyril. Alexandra, having the ear of the tsar, was determined to block the marriage.

One can only sympathize with Nicholas II, overwhelmed by the political problems of ruling an empire and also afflicted by marital upheavals in the extended Imperial family. Real love matches, like the tsar’s own, were rare. Some Romanovs married stolid German princesses and settled down to a lifetime of tedium; others, like Boris and Andrew, and Sergei Mikhailovich, took lively, near-permanent mistresses; still others, like the tsar’s brother Grand Duke Michael and his uncle Grand Duke Paul, married previously married Russian women beneath their rank. Michael had a son before a morganatic marriage to his lover; Paul had two children by the woman he married morganatically. Nicholas II, attempting to enforce the law, banished his brother and uncle from Russia.

Cyril and Victoria Melita, in the tsar’s view, were guilty of similar illegal conduct when, in 1905, they secretly married in Germany. When Cyril returned home, hoping to carry the day by presenting a fait accompli, he was instead stripped of his rank and command in the navy, deprived of the allowance he received as a member of the Imperial family, and ordered to leave Russia within forty-eight hours. His wife was denied the title of Grand Duchess. The couple lived in a small apartment on the avenue Henri-Martin in Paris, until, in 1909, on the death of Cyril’s father, their banishment was revoked. Nevertheless, despite official reconciliation, antagonism between the families ran deep.

During the First World War, Cyril, promoted to rear admiral for no reason other than his name, remained in St. Petersburg commanding the Garde Equipage, an elite unit of sailors which in peacetime provided crews for the Imperial yachts. At the moment of crisis, in February 1917, Nicholas II was at Army Headquarters, five hundred miles from the capital. Empress Alexandra and her five children, all but Marie confined to darkened rooms with measles, were at the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, fifteen miles from the city. A hostile crowd of mutinous soldiers from St. Petersburg was looting and drinking in the town, shouting its intention to seize “the German woman” and her son. The most reliable unit guarding the palace was a battalion of the Garde Equipage which established its campfires and soup kitchens in the palace courtyard. On the night of March 13, Alexandra, throwing a cloak over her shoulders and accompanied by her daughter Marie, went out among the sailors.

“The scene was unforgettable,” wrote Baroness Buxhoevden, who watched from a window above. “It was dark, except for a faint light thrown up from the snow and reflected on the polished barrels of the rifles. The troops were lined up in battle order … the figures of the Empress and her daughter passed from line to line, the white palace looming a ghostly mass in the background.” Walking from man to man, Alexandra told them that she trusted them completely and that the life of the heir was in their hands. Returning to the palace, she was exuberant. “They are all our friends,” she said. In relays, she brought the men into the palace to drink hot tea.

Thirty-six hours later, when the empress looked out on the morning of March 15, the courtyard was empty Grand Duke Cyril had ordered the Garde Equipage to return to St. Petersburg, leaving the tsar’s wife and children undefended. The previous day Cyril had—in the words of French ambassador Maurice Paléologue—“come out openly in favor of the revolution.” Sporting a red cockade on his naval uniform, he had placed himself at the head of his men and marched down the Nevsky Prospect to the Duma, where he had offered his services to Duma president Michael Rodzianko. Nicholas II was still on the throne, and Rodzianko was struggling to retain the monarchy in some form. Disgusted by Cyril’s breach of his oath to the tsar, he told the grand duke, “Go away. Your place is not here.” A week later Cyril compounded his betrayal. In an interview with a Petrograd newspaper, he said, “I have asked myself several times if the ex-empress were an accomplice of Wilhelm [the kaiser] but each time forced myself to recoil from the thought.” At that time Ambassador Paléologue went down Glinka Street and, he said, “saw something waving over [Grand Duke Cyril’s] palace: a red flag.” For the remainder of Cyril’s life, many Russian monarchists, even those who admitted that, despite his mother’s Lutheranism, he should be the legitimate pretender, considered that his abandonment of the empress and her children, his breach of oath to his sovereign, and his display of a red cockade and a red flag disqualified his claim to the throne.

Grand Duke Vladimir’s life was free from the shame that disgraced his father, but it was, nevertheless, filled with disputation. Vladimir’s marriage, like Cyril’s, transgressed a rule of the Imperial family. Leonida Bagration-Moukhransky was unquestionably Orthodox. Leonida certainly had the “tsar’s” permission, for the “tsar” was Vladimir himself. She had previously been married and divorced, but divorce was not objectionable to the church and had not been raised as an argument against Cyril. The sticking point in Vladimir’s marriage to Leonida was whether she was descended from a “ruling house.” The argument here is arcane, but, within the family, bitterly contested. Leonida Bagration-Moukhransky descends from a branch of the family which ruled the kingdom of Georgia for three centuries. In 1800 Tsar Paul annexed Georgia into the Russian Empire and, in the opinion of Burke’s Royal Families of the World, “the Georgian kingdom ceased to exist … the princes of the blood royal were deported to Russia [and] their descendants were assimilated into the Russian aristocracy.” The Bagrations quickly became a leading family of the Russian nobility; Marshal Peter Bagration became a hero in the war against Napoleon and died on the field of Borodino. For over a hundred years, the Bagrations—like the Galitzines, the Sheremetyevs, and others—served the tsars in the Russian Army and at the Imperial court. Vladimir and Leonida, however, insisted that the Bagrations remained “a ruling house.” Thus, they contended, she was fully qualified to become the wife of a man who claimed the throne, to carry the title Grand Duchess of Russia, and to provide children and grandchildren who could become future sovereigns.

Vladimir and Leonida, feeling the weakness of their own position, were always aggressive on questions of “equal marriage” and “ruling houses” when these applied to other Romanovs. In their view, since the revolution no Romanov male except Vladimir had made an equal marriage to a woman from a ruling house. By marrying unequally, all these others had disqualified their children not only from succession to the throne but from membership in the Imperial family, from using the title Prince, and even from calling themselves by the family name of Romanov. In Vladimir’s view, it was this dynastic horizon, barren of eligible males, that gave him the right to elevate his sixteen-year-old daughter to the succession.

This 1969 proclamation stirred opposition among the several dozen people to whom the news that they were neither princes nor Romanovs was surprising and disagreeable. The leading members of the three other extant branches—Prince Vsevolod of the Constantinovichi, Prince Roman of the Nicholaevichi, and Prince Andrew of the Mikhailovichi, all born in Russia before the revolution (as Vladimir was not)—banded together to protest in writing. In this letter, they addressed Vladimir not as Grand Duke but merely as Prince, which would have been his prerevolutionary title. They declared that Leonida, having married Vladimir unequally, had no higher status than the wives of other Romanov princes and that she was not entitled to be called Grand Duchess. They said that they did not recognize Maria as a grand duchess and declared her proclamation as future curatrix of the Russian throne and head of the Russian Imperial house illegal.

Intrafamily warfare continued in 1976, when Maria married Prince Franz Wilhelm of Prussia and Vladimir promoted his son-in-law to grand duke. It became even worse in 1981, when Maria’s son George was born and Vladimir named his new grandson a grandduke. Prince Vassily, a nephew of Nicholas II, responded that “the Romanov Family Association hereby declares that the joyful event in the Prussian royal house does not concern the Romanov Family Association since the newborn prince is not a member either of the Russian Imperial house or of the Romanov family. All questions of dynastic importance can only be concluded by the great Russian people on Russian soil.” Attempting to secure young George from the damaging (in Russia) allegation that the boy was a Hohenzollern, Vladimir legally changed his grandson’s name to Romanov and registered him with the French authorities as Grand Duke George of Russia. This infuriated George’s father, Prince Franz Wilhelm, now separated from Maria (“He came home one day and found his things in the hall,” explained a friend). In March 1994, Franz Wilhelm, who had shed his own Russian name and title of grand duke, said of his son, “I have his German passport right here”; he tapped the breast pocket of his jacket. “I always carry it with me. It says he is Prince George of Prussia.”

The family argument about who is and is not qualified to claim a nonexistent throne, who is or is not a grand duke, a prince, or a Romanov is fueled by bitterness on both sides, but the more aggressive hostility has come from Cyril, Leonida, Vladimir, and Maria. Since the revolution, there has been no claimant or line of claimants other than this branch of the family. For them, this has not been enough. They have demanded acquiescence and support for their claim, and when these are denied they have retaliated. In 1992 Grand Duchess Maria wrote to President Yeltsin on the burial of the Ekaterinburg bones. Speaking of cousins closer by blood to Nicholas II than she, the grand duchess informed Yeltsin that “members of the Romanov family, heirs of morganatic marriages, not having any connection to the Imperial house, do not have the slightest right to speak their mind and wishes on this question. They can only go and pray at the grave, as can any other Russian who so wishes.”

That summer, the seven senior Romanov princes in the Mikhailovich and Nicholaevich lines gathered in Paris to create a charitable Romanov Family Foundation, whose purpose was to provide medical and other assistance to Russia. Infiltrating a press conference announcing this foundation, partisans of Maria handed out their own press release, signed by Maria, declaring that “the other living members of the House of Romanov have lost all rights of succession as a result of the morganatic marriages of their parents.”

In 1994 four Romanov princes were invited, along with Maria, to St. Petersburg to attend a Nicholas and Alexandra exhibition at the Hermitage. Maria refused to come. And a message from Leonida’s secretary stated that Her Imperial Highness Grand Duchess Leonida of Russia was shocked by the misuse of titles and protocol involved in the invitations to the princes. Earlier, at a press conference in Ekaterinburg with Maria, Leonida, and George sitting on the dais, the master of ceremonies announced, “There are only three Romanovs in the world. They are all in this room.”*

Grand Duchess Maria, the forty-two-year-old Curatrix of the Russian Throne, lives with her son in a tree-shaded villa in the wooded hills outside Madrid. They share the house with Maria’s sister, Helen Kirby, now approaching sixty. (Maria and Helen’s mother, Leonida, lives mostly in Paris.) In the entry hall of the Madrid villa, there is a portrait of Maria’s great-great-grandfather, Tsar Alexander II, beneath which the grand duchess likes to pose with guests. In the parlor, a large portrait of Miss Kirby hangs over the fireplace.

Maria is the central figure in the household. She is short and heavy, and her round face is surmounted by dark hair coiled on top of her head. Her English is fluent and Oxford accented; her Russian is equally fluent. In interviews both in Russia and in the West, she begins with caution, her answers rehearsed, feeling her way. Occasionally, she may shed the careful phraseology in which she has been schooled and speak more openly. Many Russians abroad who did not support Vladimir’s claim to the throne nevertheless liked him as a person. The same is true of his daughter.

She answers straightforwardly that she cannot say when or whether the Russian government and people will restore the monarchy. “I don’t know. It’s difficult to tell,” she says. “Probably they say, ‘She might come back. She might not. Let’s just keep in touch and be nice to them because one never knows.’ They always treat us with kindness and respect when we go to Russia. In the summer of 1993, we made a two months’ trip along the Volga, stopping in thirty towns. The piers and riverbanks were covered with people. Many of them said, ‘When will you come back?’ and ‘Will you forgive us?’ I think in the back of their minds they have the idea of a monarchy. But I am not a prophet. Our return might be in a few months, or next year, or in ten years. So we just go there to find out about our country and to see whether we can help, with no desire—no immediate desire—to put on a crown.” Maria has no interest in going back over the past. “It is necessary to forgive, but never to forget,” she declares. As to the burial of the Ekaterinburg bones, she says that she “will be bound by the findings of the Russian government commission and the decision of the Russian government. I hope that the patriarch will canonize the family soon, along with all the martyrs of the revolution.”

Maria has a good relationship with the present patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Alexis II. “Every time we go to Russia, he receives us kindly,” she says. “I think he really thinks that we can make a nice team and work together.” She is not bothered by continuing accusations from the Orthodox Church Abroad that the church in Russia is dominated by former agents of the KGB. “Somebody had to keep our church alive during that era, and it is thanks to these churchmen who lived in Russia that there still is a church in Russia,” she says. “For a small number of priests from abroad to say to them, ‘Well, you can just walk out now and we’ll come back and take your place,’ is absurd. I think that at one time the Church Abroad had a raison d’être. It doesn’t anymore.”

When the schism in the Romanov family comes up, Maria is uncomfortable and testy. “If they want to abide by the family laws, then nobody will deny that they are Romanovs,” she says, speaking of her cousins. “That they are. Whether they have a title or not, that’s another matter. If they want to be Romanovs and carry the name with dignity, that’s fine, but one doesn’t need a title to do that. The family name is good enough. I understand that it is a very sad situation they find themselves in because their parents did not do the right thing. Their parents said that they didn’t give a damn and just went ahead and contracted these unequal marriages. Then their wives became Mrs. Romanov and their children Mr. Romanov and Miss Romanov. And that’s it. I can’t change our laws. My feeling about them is that now that something important is happening in Russia, they suddenly have awakened and said, ‘Ah ha! There might be something to gain out of this.’ ”

While we talked, Miss Kirby and Grand Duke George sat with us, quietly listening. Then George had some tea and a piece of cake and politely excused himself. From the sun parlor, I could see him riding his bicycle back and forth in the garden. I asked about his future. “He knows very well that he is the tsarevich,” his mother said. “He talks about it often to me. Right now, he is at an English school here in Madrid where his classmates are the children of diplomats and businessmen. I have asked that they treat him as a normal boy, and he is called George. Someday, I hope he will do his military service in Russia.” In a surprising revelation, however, Maria says that George may have to wait his turn to mount the Russian throne. “As you know, I am head of the family,” she says. “We shall have to see what our country wants. Right now, the one who is supposed to have the post would be me. So [before George could succeed], my country would have to say, ‘We don’t want a woman.’ ”

Prince Nicholas Romanov, recognized by everyone in his family except Maria and Leonida as head of the Imperial house, stands at the train station in Gstaad, Switzerland, on a warm early spring day, extending his hand. He is tall, robust, and smiling. “We will need a taxi to get to my house,” he says. “And here we have one: the taxi Romanov.” We get into a battered elderly red car, so small that Nicholas fills most of the two front seats, and drive to the small chalet apartment to which he and his wife have retired from Italy. In moving he discovered that this apartment was not large enough for his library, so he bought a one-room studio on the floor below, which now is submerged in piles of books. Most are works of Russian history.

If Grand Duchess Maria is not the legitimate pretender to the Russian throne, then Nicholas Romanov, now seventy-three, occupies that position. His parents married unequally; so, also, in his opinion, did Maria’s parents. Given equality on this count, Nicholas takes precedence because he is a male. The irony is that Nicholas neither wishes to be pretender nor believes that monarchy is suited to Russia’s current needs. A St. Petersburg television interviewer recently asked him what sort of a tsar he thought he would make. “My dear fellow,” Nicholas replied. “You haven’t heard? I am a republican.”

He was born in the south of France in 1922, not far from the house of his great-uncle the tall soldier Grand Duke Nicholas Nicholaevich. The grand duke had no children, and Nicholas and his brother, Dimitri, four years younger, became the only males in their generation of the Nicholaevich branch of the Romanov family. In 1936 his family moved to Rome, where his grandmother’s sister was queen of Italy. Nicholas was eighteen in 1940, when Italy entered the war, but, holding a stateless passport, he was not drafted into the army. In 1944, after the Allies entered Rome, Nicholas joined an Anglo-American psychological warfare unit. “Look here, Romanov, will you please learn English,” said his English colonel. Nicholas, who already spoke Russian, French, and Italian, did his best.

In 1946, just before the referendum that transformed Italy from a kingdom into a republic, Nicholas, his parents, and his brother left for Egypt. There Nicholas fell in love with an Egyptian woman whose language was English. “My English improved immensely,” he remembers. In 1950, on his way to Geneva to look for work with one of the new United Nations offices, he passed through Rome and met Countess Sveva della Gherardesca. Within a month he proposed marriage. She accepted, but her father told him, “First, get a job.” He began selling Austin automobiles in Rome. Three years later his father-in-law and his wife’s twin brother died at almost the same time, leaving their vineyards in Tuscany unmanaged. “Not very large but quite good wine,” says Nicholas. “So I took over and went into the fields and learned to farm. And that is what I have done most of my life.”

Along with farming Nicholas Romanov has devoted his life to reading history. In retrospect, he has great sympathy for his namesake, Nicholas II. “He was a charming, extremely considerate, very unlucky man,” Prince Nicholas says. “He had a reputation for being indecisive, for changing his mind too easily, for never keeping his word. Part of this was his character, but part was the system. Let us say you are the minister of education and you come to see the tsar. Tour Majesty,’ you say to him, ‘we must build a dozen Russian-language schools in Tajikistan; otherwise all the boys will listen only to the mullahs.’ And Nicholas would say, ‘An excellent idea. All right. Let’s do it.’ The tsar’s next audience is with the minister of finance, and Nicholas says, ‘Oh, by the way, I’ve ordered twelve new schools in Tajikistan.’ And the minister of finance says, ‘Good idea. But where are the funds?’ ‘Ah, well,’ says the tsar, ‘we can arrange that.’ ‘Not so easily, Your Majesty,’ says the minister. ‘You know, the French loans are coming due. And remember that we have decided to reequip the artillery. Frankly, we don’t have the money.’ The tsar is distressed. ‘You mean we can’t do it?’ ‘Not now,’ says the finance minister. ‘Perhaps later. It is an excellent idea.’ So when the tsar next sees the minister of education, he says, ‘Oh, by the way, an excellent idea, those schools of yours, but we can’t do it just now.’ And the minister of education goes out and writes in his diary and later in his memoirs that, once again, the tsar has gone back on his word.

“The problem,” continues the Nicholas Romanov of the 1990s, “was the system. If Nicholas II had presided over a Council of Ministers, he would have learned, at the same session, of the need for schools and of the unavailability of money. Perhaps then he would have said, ‘Let’s start with three schools and try for more later.’ But under the autocracy, Nicholas had to know everything and make every decision. Autocracy in Russia may have been logical in the time of Peter the Great, but it was unworkable in the time of Nicholas II.”

This leads Nicholas Romanov to the question of monarchy today. “The only thing I know is that whoever speaks of monarchy in Russia today doesn’t know what he’s talking about. We cannot even think of it. First of all, because it’s out of step with the times. The idea that it could be a symbolic thing which will unite all Russians—that’s nonsense. It will unite all Russians for a while, and very soon—the minute the first problems arise—all that will collapse. People will blame whoever is the head of state, and there will be no way of getting rid of him. So this is the reason I personally favor a presidential republic now in Russia. Because we need to be able to change the man at the top periodically. It has happened with Gorbachev. It will happen with Yeltsin. The important thing is that the changes are made without trauma for the country, without bloodshed.”

What about a constitutional monarchy? “No, I don’t think a constitutional monarch, who is a mere symbol of the nation’s unity, can work, because Russia does not have a constitutional tradition. We Romanovs took care of that in our time, and our Communist successors made sure after we were gone. This constitutional tradition is born now, it is struggling to grow. There are elections, there is give-and-take in Parliament. Yes, sometimes the wrong people get elected. That is democracy. Everyone gets upset because a madman named Zhirinovsky suddenly gets 25 percent of the vote and starts making frightening pronouncements. Does anybody in the West understand why his supporters voted for him? It’s very simple. Take a Russian of my age, seventy-three. As a soldier, he was twenty-two or twenty-three when he beat the greatest army in the world, the German Wehrmacht. He fought his way from Moscow to Berlin, he climbed the Reichstag and put the red flag on the summit. All his life, he has been proud of that. Today, fifty years later, where is this old soldier? Living on a pension which provides a living for only two or three days a month. Do you expect him to be happy seeing Russia begging for deutsche marks and seeing foreigners and Russian criminals racing down streets in Mercedeses and BMWs?

“What I really want,” says Nicholas Romanov, “is that my country come out of this historical period and stop dwelling on it. So I’m ready to say that I don’t give a damn whether it was Lenin, Sverdlov, Smith, or Jones who ordered the murder of my family. Somebody did. The stigma lies on the men of that era. But, for heaven’s sakes, after seventy-five years, we are living now in a new Russia. We have colossal problems to face. Let’s forget the political aspect of the past. Let’s leave that to the historians. Whether Lenin was responsible or not is extremely interesting, and I’m not in favor of bottling it up, but let’s not make that more important than what happens today and tomorrow.”

What about the burial of the Ekaterinburg bones? “I believe that they are valid, but what is more important is that we today—all the people of Russia—make a gesture of atonement for this crime and go and express that feeling of atonement at the grave of the victims. If somebody says, ‘Look, you are repenting over the wrong bones and the wrong grave,’ does that make my repenting less valid? It is the repentance which is important, not the grave. Then it will be over. Finished. Russia can go forward.”

Mention of the family schism causes Nicholas to shake his head. “Look, Vladimir married a commoner,” he says. “Leonida comes from the most exalted family of the Caucasus, a great, esteemed family of the Russian nobility, but she was not royalty. So what? Our parents married commoners. So what? We have married commoners. Again, so what? There was nobody to ask us to renounce our rights, so we married without renouncing them, and we and our children still have rights to the throne of Russia. That is our position. Cyril would not admit it; Vladimir would not admit it; Maria does not admit it. And we don’t give a damn, because we don’t want to reign in Russia. We do say, however, that Maria cannot, in her pursuit of a throne, take away who we are and what we are. She cannot put herself out in front. If, when the bones of the Imperial family are buried, Maria insists on being treated differently from us, then my advice to the rest of the family would be not to go. Because then what should be a religious service of repentance and reconciliation would become a political event.

“It is ironical, you know, our Russian law about unequal marriages. Our family in exile is more restrictive in this matter than are the royal families still on their thrones. In England, Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Denmark, when the monarch or heir marries a commoner, most people think it is politically healthy.” Ultimately, Nicholas accepts the view held by the Dowager Empress Marie and by Grand Duke Nicholas Nicholaevich that only the Russian people can decide. “It is up to them whether or not they want a monarch and, if so, who that monarch should be,” he says. “If they want a Romanov, they should choose any Romanov they like. If they want someone from another family, they should choose that person. It’s not up to us.”

Nicholas, in his own view, is Prince Nicholas Romanov, head of the family, president of the Romanov Foundation, historian and retired farmer. That he might be something more was suggested not long ago by the behavior of an expert on royal genealogy and protocol. Traditionally, the queen of England stands up only for other monarchs or heads of state. Not long ago in London, at an exhibition of jewelry by Fabergé, Nicholas Romanov approached Elizabeth II to be introduced. Seeing him coming, the queen stood.

In Russia in 1995, the symbols of the tsars have begun to reappear. The flag of Russia is the flag of Peter the Great. The double-headed eagle of the Romanovs appears on visas issued by the Russian government and on caps worn by Russian generals. In Copenhagen, the Russian ambassador, a former Soviet diplomat, threw up his hands before a Romanov prince and said, “Imagine! They killed not just the tsar and the empress but the children too! All murdered! How terrible!” At a dinner in Chicago, Anatoly Sobchak, the mayor of St. Petersburg, told his table partners that he supports the claim of Grand Duchess Maria and that it is only a matter of time before a constitutional monarchy under Grand Duke George is established in Russia.

Despite this revival of symbols and interest, however, the time of which Sobchak speaks is unlikely to be soon. Russians, for the most part, do not want a Romanov restoration. “The Romanovs are of no interest to anyone here,” said Geli Ryabov, the film director who helped find the grave of the Imperial family. “Why? People are tired. Tired! They want to live quietly, to eat, drink, dress, rest, and sleep and not have to think that tomorrow, once again, someone will be shooting at government buildings.” Pavel Ivanov, the DNA expert who helped identify the Romanov bones in England, agrees. “Knowing how life is in Russia today, I can only laugh,” he said about a restoration. “The Russian people have other cares, other problems. It is dangerous to live in Moscow now; the most profitable business in this city is selling steel doors. A life in Russia now is worth five thousand dollars; that is what it costs to arrange an assassination. Talk about royal families and thrones is ridiculous.”

Irina Pozdeeva, a professor of religious history at Moscow University, expressed the same opinion more philosophically: “Believe me, for the people in Russia today, the tsarist idea does not exist at all. The people today do not remember the Batushka Tsar[Little Father]. Three generations of people, even four, have grown up without this image. It has remained only in fairy tales and in historical memory. For the intelligentsia, for certain circles of an intellectual spirit, this idea has been preserved, it has a magnificent color, but it is very small. The return of the Romanovs? No. It would be an attempt to turn the river back in the opposite direction.”

Practically speaking, a restoration of the Russian monarchy would require that the Russian president and Parliament—two institutions which now rarely agree on anything—combine to perform the delicate operation of grafting a third institution, the monarchy, onto the top of an already enfeebled government structure. A dictator, a Russian Francisco Franco, might do it, but Franco held absolute power in Spain for forty years, and he prepared his country by announcing his intention to bring back the king many years before it happened. Russia has no Franco and does not want one; its experiment with democracy is not yet concluded. But democracy has given Russia weak and divided government, balanced so precariously that no one dares upset its fragile equilibrium. Bodies and bones remain unburied for fear that the act of burial would stir political antagonism: Lenin’s corpse, swimming in preservatives, lies untouched in the mausoleum on Red Square for fear of outraging the Communists; the bones of the Imperial family lie exposed on morgue tables in Ekaterinburg for fear of offending the Orthodox Church. A government powerless even to lay to rest these remains of the overthrow of monarchy cannot expect—or be expected—to find the strength to re-create it.

* There are, of course, many more than three Romanovs. One of them, whose existence makes some of the others uncomfortable, is Paul R. Ilyinsky, an American citizen, a former colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps, and the current mayor of Palm Beach, Florida.

Ilyinsky, sixty-seven, is the son of Grand Duke Dimitri and Cincinnati heiress Audrey Emery. He was born in England and, as a child, was given the title Prince Paul Romanovsky-Ilyinsky by the pretender, his father’s cousin Cyril. Because his parents divorced when he was nine and his father died when he was fourteen, Paul’s youthful life revolved around his American mother. He went to a Virginia prep school and the University of Virginia. Setting out on his own, he took the name Paul R. Ilyinsky, entered the Marine Corps as an enlisted man (thereby becoming an American citizen, which entailed renouncing his foreign title), was promoted to officer, served in Korea, and remained in the Reserve to the rank of colonel. He married in Palm Beach, has four children and numerous grandchildren, and worked in real estate and as a professional photographer. Building on a collection left him by his father, Ilyinsky has marshaled an enormous army of miniature lead soldiers; and in a wing attached to his waterside house in Palm Beach is one of the world’s great private collections of electric trains.

Paul Ilyinsky was friendly with his cousin Vladimir, who visited him in Palm Beach, and is equally at ease with the other Romanov princes whom he has met. He himself is not interested in the Russian throne. Nevertheless, by whatever name he calls himself, he is a Romanov. And by interpreting the old Russian laws of succession in his own favor—a practice of all other contemporary Romanovs—he could make a claim to be the pretender. He, as a male, would come before Vladimir’s daughter, Maria. Ilyinsky is the great-grandson in the male line of a tsar (Alexander II), whereas Prince Nicholas Romanov is the great-great-grandson of a tsar (Nicholas I). Ilyinsky’s father was a prerevolutionary grand duke; this is not true of any of the other living male Romanovs. The flaw in his claim is that he is the product of an unequal marriage. But so, it would seem, are all the other living Romanovs. Contemplating this, Paul Ilyinsky smiles and says, “I am an American and I already have a public office to which I was elected. I am the mayor.”

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!