The head of the Romanov dynasty, Prince Nikolai Romanovich, talks about his family, emigration, relations with the Soviet authorities, Rasputin, succession to the throne, and how important it is not to stop being Russian and loving your homeland wherever you live. Parents of Prince Nikolai Romanovich, along with other members of the Russian Imperial Family, including the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, wife of Alexander III and mother of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, left Russia on board the Royal Naval battleship HMS Marlborough in 1919.
First, I should ask how to address you...
In the Russian tradition – Nikolai Romanovich.
When your parents left Russia, did they sense it was forever, that Russia was lost?
They hoped to return. The first 10 years they thought the Russian revolutionary movement would be overthrown, as had been the case with the French revolution. You see, there were no other revolutions to compare it with. I think my father, Prince Roman Petrovich, like his closest relatives, thought that, well, some general would come along in Russia and declare himself tsar or dictator, president, or whatever, but as all the French members of the former reigning royal families and the bourgeoisie, by and large, had gone back to France, it would be the same in Russia. And so all of us children were brought up with the assumption that we would return to Russia.
And at some point after 10-15 years they realised that was it, life would never be the same again?
I think it was in the 30’s. You see, in the 20’s our lives were very bizarre. We were very afraid of being abducted by the Bolsheviks. My grandfather’s brother, Prince Nikolai Nikolayevich, was recognised by the entire émigré community as the head of the dynasty, so he was a target. When my grandmother was buying a house on the French Riviera, she chose the only house without a sea view, and the only one that couldn’t be seen from the sea because she was afraid, for instance, that a Soviet submarine might get through and abduct us. It seems absurd now but that’s the way they thought then . After all, the Bolsheviks abducted General Kutepov, and others – it all really happened. So there was always a sense that we were in some kind of danger.
The Romanov family always attached great importance to education. When your father was forced to emigrate to France, was this tradition continued?
That’s true, you know, but in those days it was even more important because what other links were there still with our “Russianness”? You see, everything else had been lost – Russia, power, wealth – they had all been lost. The only thing that was impossible to take away from us was our Russian upbringing. And we were raised as Russians.
And how did your parents and close relatives react when they read about the Soviet Union?
They would say it was a godless, amoral power that did not even recognise the existence of Russia. The Soviet Union was not our country. And that’s how we thought about it. And when Stalin used to speak, it didn’t affect me at all. When Stalin’s purges took place, and people were killed, and there were those terrible show trials, it all happened “there”, and this place wasn’t thought of as Russia. When did I come to see things differently? Very late on, in ’41, when the Germans invaded Russia. That’s when everything was turned on its head. The Soviet Union? No. Russia. The enemy had invaded Russia. That’s when Russia was suddenly born again. It didn’t matter to me that the army was commanded by Stalin and in general they were all criminals. It wasn’t the Soviet Union that was in danger – it was Russia. My father and I would sadly mark the Russian retreats on a map, and then proudly mark the victories. We rejoiced when Leningrad was liberated. Only three capitals, you know, have never seen enemy troops – St Petersburg, Stockholm and London.
And when it all ended in victory in ’45, it all went back to how it was. You see, Russia had been saved, and now I could forget about Russia again. But something really did change. When we were at the funeral of the Imperial Family in St Petersburg in 1998, we went to the Piskarevskoye Cemetery with the Governor of St Petersburg where the millions who perished during the Siege of Leningrad are buried. We went there and laid flowers. There were 30 Romanovs. And when we came out of there, the press asked me, “Nikolai Romanovich, what are you trying to prove?” I replied that we were trying to prove we were Romanovs. And I would always be grateful to the heroic defenders of Leningrad who saved my St Petersburg.
And what were your feelings when you first went to Russia?
Very strange, actually. My father asked me about this as soon as I got back from Russia. What surprised me? Nothing. It was as though it was bound to happen, and did. You see, I always used to say I would return to Russia. I never said I would go there – always that I would return. And I did. Because really I had never left. You see, we always had this sense that we belonged to Russia but that Russia did not belong to us. And belonging to it is a great joy. I am very proud that I am a Romanov.
And how about your children? Your grandchildren?
You know, my three daughters criticise me now for not teaching them Russian. Russian isn’t only a language. You also need to lead a Russian life. Language is like paint. But, you see, we didn’t lead a Russian life. We lived in Italy. My wife’s Italian. I worked in Rome.
I didn’t teach them Russian, and they grew up Italians. My daughters criticise me now for not teaching them the language but had I done, I would have made them foreigners in Italy. If I’d had a son, I would probably have raised him as a Romanov, and not as an Italian. And the result would probably have been just as negative. He would probably have wanted to be like his friends, and not somehow special. So, on the whole I am grateful to God that he has given me three daughters, and not three sons (laughs).
You have alway lived with this awareness of being a Romanov, of belonging to Russia’s elite. And do you have very close family ties with all the Romanovs?
That came about thanks to my father. He felt the family was breaking up. Some were living in America, others in Uruguay, Denmark, France, England. And so he created the Association of the Romanovs, which I am now the head of. And now we all socialise. And we have to save the “Russianness” in our children’s generation. My generation is the last of the purely Russian Romanovs. And so our children and grandchildren are losing their “Russianness”.
Your grandmother, Princess Milica, and her sister, Princess Anastasia (of Montenegro) are said to have introduced Grigory Rasputin to the Tsarina...
My grandmother and her sister were two real Orthodox grand duchesses. And then Grigory Rasputin appeared on the scene. He was introduced to my grandmother by Archbishop Theophanes who was an influential figure in the Orthodox Church. He presented Rasputin as a very humble Russian peasant from the Urals. He was a very ignorant sort of person. He always spoke only the truth. He never used any “Your Highnesses” in conversations. Later, my grandmother would break off relations with Rasputin. Not with the quiet and devout Rasputin grandmother had known just after he arrived from the Urals but with the Rasputin he had became in 1914. But my grandmother was criticised all her life for introducing Rasputin.
And was Yusupov condemned? Was this discussed in the family at all?
In my family it was. We were Christians, members of the Orthodox Church – we couldn’t approve of murder. And I don’t think it was useful politically either. Indeed, I’ve read a great many times that when the news of Rasputin’s death broke, and the intelligentsia and officials were relishing it, ordinary people started saying – look, he got close to the Tsar, and got killed. And so both from a political and historical perspective it was a mistake. Ordinary people didn’t realise this. And it wasn’t Christian, so it would have been better if it hadn’t happened.
And how did your family react to the British monarch George V initially not helping the Imperial Family to leave? (Queen Victoria’s son, Edward VII was married to Alexandra, who was the sister of the Empress Maria Feodorovna, the wife of Alexander III and mother of the last Russian Tsar Nicholas II. The son of Edward VII and Alexandra, George V bore a strong physical resemblance to his cousin Nicholas II. – Ed.)
To begin with, immediately after his abdication the Tsar received an invitation from his English cousin to move to England. He was forced to turn it down because his children were ill with measles. And, in general, the Tsar had no intention of leaving Russia. He said he expected to live as a private individual with his family. He didn’t see where it was all heading. But even then it was already difficult to leave Petrograd because the workers had taken control of the railway junctions. A train carrying the Imperial Family would never have made it to Sweden.
So, in this instance it wasn’t the British monarch’s fault?
When your British colleagues ask me this question, they hope to put me on the spot. I always tell them, you know, that one thing has to be understood. Your king was never supposed to reign. (He became heir to the throne on the death of his elder brother, Albert, Duke of Clarence. – Ed.) He served in the Navy, reaching the rank of captain and commanding a small battleship. And his perception was that of a naval officer. Just imagine the commander of a small vessel battling with an enemy in a stormy sea, and all of a sudden a wave knocks 20 sailors overboard. And they start drowning. The question is: should the commander stop his ship, try to rescue them, and risk losing his ship or should he leave them to drown, save the ship, and head off? He should leave them to drown. This is what a military man would argue. And King George V decided that giving refuge to a former tsar about whom terrible things were said, not to mention the Tsarina who was called a German, even though she hated the Germans, would have produced a very bad impression, and it might have had unpleasant repercussions for British politics as a whole. King George V acted not as a king but as the commander of a small vessel. He left his sailors to drown, and went on with the battle. This is the reply I give to your British colleagues so as not give them my own opinion. I know perfectly well that until the 30’s in our family we believed that George V was unable to give his cousin refuge on account of the terrible socialist who was the British prime minister at the time. In actual fact, George V told his private secretary to tell the prime minister that he did not wish for his cousin and his family to move to England. So it wasn’t the socialist James Ramsey MacDonald, the First liberal Prime Minister, who was to blame but the king, after all. The king really acted not as a king but as a naval commander.
Even so, the HMS Marlborough carried Maria Feodorovna and most of the Romanov family to safety... (Maria Feodorovna was accompanied on the voyage by Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolayevich, the former Commander-in-Chief, sent by Nicholas II as viceroy to the Caucasus, his wife, Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolayevna, her younger brother, Grand Duke Piotr Nikolayevich, his wife, Grand Duchess Milica Nikolayevna and their children Marina, Nadezhda and Roman, and Irina, daughter of Alexander Mikhailovich and Ksenia Alexandrovna, and her husband, Felix Yusupov and daughter Irina. Felix’s fall from grace proved his salvation: he was banished to his estate by Nicholas II for Grigory Rasputin’s murder. – Ed.)
There was opposition to this decision in the British admiralty because it was a very dangerous mission sending large ships to the Black Sea. There were minefields. And in our family we believed the British government had been reluctant to take risks and save our family so as not to endanger the ship. And that the First Lord of the Admiralty had insisted, and taken personal responsibility for the decision, and then resigned. All the blame was always attached to the British government.
There is currently a feud between two clans of the Roma-novs... But right now it would be virtually impossible to restore the monarchy.
It’s an old quarrel that went on between our grandfathers. While the monarch was alive, nobody argued loudly but there was already antipathy between the branches back then. Some were drawn more to one side, others to the other, but it all happened before the Tsar abdicated. Before the Tsar’s abdication Prince Kirill Vladimirovich sided with the Provisional Government. In the long run, betrayal is all about the timing. If Kirill Vladimirovich had led his sailors to the Palace after the Tsar’s abdication, it would have been a historic decision. But leading them there before the abdication was a betrayal. Of course, after the revolution there were many people, including members of our family, who could not forgive Kirill Vladimirovich for what he had done. And so they did not recognise him as head of the dynasty.
Nonetheless, all his descendants, including Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna, believe they have a claim to the Russian throne.
If one can really talk seriously about this and not tongue in cheek, none of the Romanovs has a claim to the throne anymore, based on the laws that existed prior to Nicholas II’s abdication. Why? Because it was obligatory for grand dukes (and only a grand duke could become tsar), firstly, to take an Orthodox wife, and, secondly, the wife had to be from a royal or ruling house. Nobody meets these prerequisites nowadays. All the marriages were morganatic. All the grand dukes alive today have married and divorced. The issue concerning the royal houses did not come up because there were no grand dukes left. I want first of all to stress that, according to the Status of Succession, no member of the Romanov family today is entitled to be called a “Grand Duke” or “Grand Duchess”. Only the monarch’s son or daughter or grandson or great-grandson of the male line who are the monarch’s heirs are entitled to do so. No such people are alive today. The last Grand Duke was Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich who died in 1956, and the last Grand Duchess was Grand Duchess Olga who passed away in 1960.
Vladimir Kirillovich was granted the title of Grand Duke by his father (Kirill Vladimirovich – Nicholai II’s cousin and Alexander II’s grandson. – Ed.) Technically, he was just a prince like the rest of us.
And so none of us has any claims anymore. And if nobody has any claims, a historical law comes into force. The Romanov family is now divided into four branches descended from Nicholas I who passed away in 1855. According to the Marital Status of the Russian Empire which is based on the Salic Law of Succession, the throne passes solely in the male line, and to women only in the absence of men. Thank God, there are plenty of men in our family, and so the “HIH Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna” issue is fundamentally flawed, and doesn’t exist. And the son of Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna and Prince Franz-Wilhelm of Prussia, Prince George of Prussia, is a member of the Hohenzollern dynasty and has nothing to do with the Romanovs and cannot be the “heir to the throne of Russia”.
What I find very depressing is this rift in the family. It’s all very sad. The Romanov family is the history of Russia. We did a lot of bad things but a lot of good, too. We represent Russia’s past. But exerting oneself, scrambling to get power and privileges... Excuse me, we’re living in the 21st century, not the 18th.
When all the Romanovs were forced abroad, they naturally left without any funds. But then rumours started circulating about the Romanovs’ great riches.
Hardly anyone was able to take anything with them, except the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna (daughter of the Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin Friedrich Franz II, and the wife of Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich who was the son of Alexander II and brother of Alexander III. – Ed.) who took all her best jewellery with her.
The young British diplomat (and allegedly agent of the British Secret Service) Bertie Stopford was favourably disposed towards Maria Pavlovna. She confided in him that all her valuables were in a safe at the Vladimir Palace. This young man then did as she asked him. He got inside the Palace, opened the safe, and took the jewellery to a London bank. When he learnt that she had survived and made it to France in the 20’s, he informed her where her jewellery was. She died very soon afterwards, and her family acquired the jewellery. Her children were forced to sell it all. (The so-called Vladimir Tiara now belongs to the British monarch. – Ed.)
Modern technology these days means you can get a DNA test and easily expose fake grand dukes and duchesses. But in those days... I’ve heard you had lots of them...
You know, this question of fake Alexeis and fake daughters of the Tsar is an understandable reaction. After all, it was a terrible crime. Killing a whole family. Even to the Bolshevik mindset it was a terrible crime. And so the idea that some had survived somehow reduced the scale of the tragedy, the horror of the crime. What if this crime hadn’t really taken place? It was widely rumoured that only the Tsar had been killed and that his family had survived and been taken to Siberia. All sorts of things were invented. But still it was such a disgrace, so vile. Many of them had selfish ends. (Shortly after the execution of Nicholas II’s family, in June 1918, Mikhail Alexandrovich was executed in Perm; the imperial princes Ioann, Konstantin and Igor, the son of Grand Duke Pavel Alexandrovich – Vladimir, and Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna (Alexandra Feodorovna’s sister) and Grand Duke Nikolai Mikhailovich were all murdered in Alapayevsk, and Grand Dukes Nikolai Mikhailovich, Georgy Mikhailovich and Dmitry Konstantinovich were executed at the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg. – Ed.)
You think the Soviet authorities fabricated them?
From a Bolshevik perspective it was very important for doubts to remain. Because if it was certain the Tsar and his heirs had been killed, the question would arise regarding other potential heirs to the imperial throne. You see, even during the Bolshevik era, it was dangerous to have someone claiming to be a legitimate heir. So, to begin with, the first communiqué from Ekaterinburg stated that entire family had been executed. Then it was announced that Nikolai had been executed but his family had survived. Why? Because this way there was no legitimate authority. Potential competition. This, of course, resulted in rumours being spread that they had all survived. The Olgas appeared first. Fake Olgas appeared three times. Twice in Germany and most recently in the south of France.
The second Tatiana, who was less talked of, had been rescued by an English pilot who flew her away in an aircraft. From Vladivostok Tatiana then travelled to Japan on board the HMS Suffolk which was in the Far East after the war. The people inventing the legend discovered that all the documents of the HMS Suffolk were held in the British Admiralty’s archives except those relating to her 15 days in Vladivostok. They presented this as proof that the British had deliberately destroyed all trace of Tatiana. She arrived in Vancouver, then travelled by train to Eastern Canada, where she taken on board a German steamer during the war and later cordially welcomed by the Kaiser who presented her a large estate in East Prussia.
There were also three Marias. One lived in Rome, married and had a son who wrote me wonderful letters: “Dear Uncle, I really want to meet you.” I never replied to them.
And, finally, Anastasia. The fact that she never spoke Russian, psychologists explained away as the shock of having her entire family murdered. Supposedly, this gave her such an aversion to the Russian language that she refused to speak Russian. Traces of her blood were left on a piece of cloth when she was operated on in Germany. A DNA test was carried out, and, of course, it became clear that she wasn’t Anastasia.
In two years’ time it will be the 400th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty. What plans are there for it?
There are going to be a lot of celebrations. Everything is to be on a purely historical footing – no politics. We do not intend to turn this event into a manifesto on the need to restore the monarchy. Russia has other, more pressing, problems.