Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich of Russia ( 4 December [O.S. 22 November] 1878 – 13 June 1918) was the youngest son of Emperor Alexander III of Russia.
At the time of his birth, his paternal grandfather (Alexander II of Russia) was still the reigning Emperor of All the Russias.
Michael was fourth-in-line to the throne following his father and elder brothers Nicholas and George. After the assassination of his grandfather in 1881, he became third-in-line, and in 1894 after the death of his father, second-in-line. George died in 1899, leaving Michael as heir-presumptive to the throne.
The birth of Nicholas’s son Alexei in 1904 temporarily moved Michael back to second-in-line, but Alexei inherited the blood-clotting disorder haemophilia and was not expected to live.
Michael caused a commotion at the imperial court when he took Natalia Sergeyevna Wulfert, a married woman, as a lover. Nicholas sent Michael to Orel, to avoid scandal, but this did not stop Michael, who travelled frequently to see his mistress.
After the couple’s only child, George, was born in 1910, Michael brought Natalia to St. Petersburg, where she was shunned by society. In 1912, Michael shocked Nicholas by marrying Natalia, in the hope that he would be removed from the line of succession. Michael and Natalia left Russia to exile abroad in France, Switzerland and England.
After the outbreak of World War I, Michael returned to Russia, assuming command of a cavalry regiment. When Nicholas abdicated on 15 March [O.S. 2 March] 1917, Michael was named as his successor instead of Alexei. Michael, however, deferred acceptance of the throne until ratification by an elected assembly. He was never confirmed as Emperor, and following the Russian Revolution of 1917, he was imprisoned and murdered.
Michael was born at Anichkov Palace on Nevsky Prospekt in Saint Petersburg, as the youngest son and penultimate child of Tsarevitch Alexander of Russia and his wife, Maria Feodorovna (known before her marriage as Princess Dagmar of Denmark).
His maternal grandparents were King Christian IX of Denmark and Louise of Hesse-Kassel. His paternal grandmother Empress Maria Alexandrovna (known before her marriage as Princess Marie of Hesse and by Rhine) died before his second birthday.
His paternal grandfather, Emperor Alexander II of Russia, was assassinated on 1 March 1881, and as a result Michael’s parents became Emperor and Empress of All the Russias before his third birthday. After the assassination, the new Tsar Alexander III moved his family, including Michael, to the greater safety of Gatchina Palace, which was 29 miles southwest of Saint Petersburg and surrounded by a moat.
Michael was raised in the company of his younger sister, Olga, who nicknamed him “Floppy” because he “flopped” into chairs; his elder siblings and parents called him “Misha”. Conditions in the nursery were modest, even spartan. The children slept on hard camp beds, rose at dawn, washed in cold water, and ate a simple porridge for breakfast. Michael, like his siblings, was taught by private tutors and was cared for by an English nanny, Mrs Elizabeth Franklin.
Michael and Olga frequently went on hikes in the forests around Gatchina with their father, who took the opportunity to teach both of them woodsmanship. Physical activities such as equestrianism were also taught at an early age, as was religious observance.
Though Christmas and Easter were times of celebration and extravagance, Lent was strictly observed—meat, dairy products and any form of entertainment were avoided.Family holidays were taken in the summer at Peterhof Palace and with Michael’s grandparents in Denmark.
Michael was almost 16 when his father fell fatally ill; the annual trip to Denmark was cancelled. On 1 November 1894, Alexander III died at the untimely age of 49. Michael’s eldest brother, Nicholas, became Tsar, and Michael’s childhood was effectively over.
In 1902, Michael met Princess Beatrice of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. They fell in love and began to correspond in her native English.
Michael spoke both French and English fluently. At first it seemed they would marry; however, the Orthodox Church prohibited the marriage of first cousins, and Michael’s father and Beatrice’s mother were siblings. Nicholas refused to permit the marriage, and to Michael’s and Beatrice’s mutual dismay, their romance ended.
Michael’s attention turned to Alexandra Kossikovskaya (September 1875, Orel region – 1923, Berlin), known affectionately as “Dina”, who was his sister Olga’s lady-in-waiting. Dina’s father, Vladimir Kossikovsky, was a lawyer, and Dina was a commoner. Michael rejected the notion, proposed by his friends, that he keep her as a mistress, and in July 1906 he wrote to Nicholas asking permission to marry her. Nicholas and Dowager Empress Marie were appalled.
Both felt that royalty should marry royalty, and according to Russian house law any children of a marriage between a royal and a commoner would be ineligible for the succession. Nicholas threatened to revoke Michael’s army commission and exile him from Russia if he married without his permission. Marie had Dina dismissed as Olga’s lady-in-waiting, and took Michael to Denmark until mid-September.
Shortly after his return to Russia, three British newspapers announced on 24 September 1906 that Michael was to marry Princess Patricia of Connaught, but neither he nor Patricia knew anything about it. Buckingham Palace issued a denial.
Nevertheless, two years later, in October 1908, Michael visited London, and he and Patricia were “paired” at social engagements. It seems likely that Michael’s mother was plotting to get him married to a more suitable bride, and the originator of the false report, Reuters correspondent Guy Beringer, read too much into the plans. Michael and Dina were planning to elope, but their plans were stymied as Dina was under surveillance by the Okhrana, Nicholas’s secret police, and she was prevented from travelling.
Under family pressure, and unable to see Dina, by August 1907, Michael appeared to be losing interest. Dina went to live abroad. She never married and believed herself to be Michael’s rightful fiancée, but their romance was over.
In early December 1907, Michael was introduced to Natalia Sergeyevna Wulfert, the wife of a fellow officer, and from 1908 they began a deep friendship.
Natalia was a commoner, who had a daughter from her first marriage. By August 1909, they were lovers, and by November 1909, Natalia was living apart from her second husband in an apartment in Moscow paid for by Michael. In an attempt to prevent scandal, Nicholas transferred Michael to the Chernigov Hussars at Orel, 250 miles from Moscow, but Michael travelled from there several times a month to see Natalia.
Their only child, George, named after Michael’s dead brother, was born in July 1910, before her divorce from her second husband was finalised. To ensure that the child could be recognised as his rather than as Wulfert’s, Michael had the date of the divorce back-dated. Nicholas issued a decree giving the boy the surname “Brasov”, taken from Michael’s estate at Brasovo, which was a tacit acknowledgement that Michael was the father.
In May 1911, Nicholas permitted Natalia to move from Moscow to Brasovo and granted her the surname “Brasova”. In May 1912, Michael went to Copenhagen for the funeral of his uncle King Frederick VIII of Denmark, where he fell ill with a stomach ulcer that was to trouble him for years afterwards.
After a holiday in France, where he and Natalia were trailed by the Okhrana, Michael was transferred back to Saint Petersburg to command the Chevalier Gardes. He took Natalia to the capital with him, and set her up in an apartment, but she was shunned by society, and within a few months he had moved her to a villa in Gatchina.
In September 1912, Michael and Natalia spent a holiday abroad, and as usual they were trailed by the Okhrana. In Berlin, Michael announced that he and Natalia would drive to Cannes, and instructed his staff to follow by train. The Okhrana were under instructions to follow by train rather than car, and so Michael and Natalia would be unaccompanied on their journey south. Michael’s journey was a deliberate ruse. On the way to Cannes, the couple diverted to Vienna, where they were married on 16 October 1912 by Father Misitsch at the Serbian Orthodox Church of Saint Sava.
A few days later, after travelling through Venice and Milan, they arrived at Cannes, where George and Natalia’s daughter from her first marriage joined them. Two weeks after the marriage Michael wrote to his mother and brother to inform them. They were both horrified by Michael’s action. His mother said it was “unspeakably awful in every way”, and his brother was shocked that his brother had “broken his word … that he would not marry her”.
Nicholas was particularly upset because his heir, Alexei, was gravely ill with haemophilia, which Michael cited as one of his reasons for marrying Natalia. Michael feared that he would become heir presumptive again on Alexei’s death, and would never be able to marry Natalia. By marrying her now, he would be removed from the line of succession early, and preclude the prospect of losing Natalia.
In a series of decrees over December 1912 and January 1913, Nicholas relieved Michael of his command, banished him from Russia, froze all his assets in Russia, seized control of his estates, and removed him from the Regency. Society in Russia was shocked at the severity of Nicholas’s reprisal, but there was little sympathy for Natalia. She was not entitled to be known as Grand Duchess; she instead used the style “Madame or Countess Brasova”.
For six months, they stayed in hotels in France and Switzerland, without any decrease in their standard of living. They were visited by Michael’s sister Grand Duchess Xenia and cousin Grand Duke Andrew. In July 1913, they saw Michael’s mother in London, who told Natalia “a few home truths”, according to Xenia’s diary.
After another trip to continental Europe, Michael took a one-year lease on Knebworth House, a staffed and furnished stately home 20 miles north of London. Michael’s finances were stretched as he had to rely on remittances sent from Russia at Nicholas’s command, and Nicholas still controlled all his estates and assets.
On 12 June 1918, the leader of the local secret police, Gavril Myasnikov, with the connivance of other local Bolsheviks, hatched a plan to murder Michael. Myasnikov assembled a team of four men, who all, like him, were former prisoners of the Tsarist regime: Vasily Ivanchenko, Ivan Kolpashchikov, Andrei Markov, and Nikolai Zhuzhgov.
Using a forged order, the four men gained entry to Michael’s hotel at 11.45 p.m. At first, Michael refused to accompany the men until he spoke with the local chairman of the secret police, Pavel Malkov, and then because he was ill.
His protestations were futile, and he got dressed. Johnson insisted on accompanying him, and the four men plus their two prisoners climbed into two horse-drawn three-seater traps. They drove out of the town into the forest near Motovilikha. When Michael queried their destination, he was told they were going to a remote railway crossing to catch a train.
By now it was the early hours of 13 June. They all alighted from the carriages in the middle of the wood, and both Michael and Johnson were fired upon, once each, but as the assassins were using home-made bullets, their guns jammed.
Michael, whether wounded or not is unknown, moved towards the wounded Johnson with arms outstretched, when he was shot at point-blank range in the head. Both Zhuzhgov and Markov claimed to have fired the fatal shot. Johnson was shot dead by Ivanchenko. The bodies were stripped and buried. Anything of value was stolen, and the clothes were taken back to Perm. After they were shown to Myasnikov as proof of the murders, the clothes were burned.
The Ural Regional Soviet, headed by Alexander Beloborodov, approved the execution, either retrospectively or beforehand, as did Lenin. Michael was the first of the Romanovs to be executed by the Bolsheviks, but he would not be the last. Neither Michael’s nor Johnson’s remains were ever found.
The Perm authorities distributed a concocted cover story that Michael was abducted by unidentified men and had disappeared. Chelyshev and Borunov were arrested. Shortly before his own arrest, Colonel Peter Znamerovsky, a former Imperial army officer also exiled to Perm, managed to send Natalia a brief telegram saying that Michael had disappeared. Znamerovsky, Chelyshev and Borunov were all killed by the Perm Bolsheviks.
Soviet disinformation about Michael’s disappearance led to unfounded rumours that he had escaped and was leading a successful counter-revolution.
In the ultimately forlorn hope that Michael would ally with Germany, the Germans arranged for Natalia and her daughter to escape to Kiev in German-controlled Ukraine. On the collapse of the Germans in November 1918, Natalia fled to the coast, and she and her daughter were evacuated by the British Royal Navy.
On 8 June 2009, four days short of the 91st anniversary of their murders, both Michael and Johnson were officially rehabilitated.
Russian State Prosecutors stated, “The analysis of the archive material shows that these individuals were subject to repression through arrest, exile and scrutiny … without being charged of committing concrete class and social-related crimes.”
Michael’s son George, Count Brasov, died in a car crash shortly before his 21st birthday in 1931. Natalia died penniless in a Parisian charity hospital in 1952.
His stepdaughter Natalia Mamontova married three times, and wrote a book about her life entitled Stepdaughter to Imperial Russia, published in 1940.