Reviewed by Linda P. Rose (Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, University of California at Los Angeles)
Published on H-Russia (February, 2000)
A Time Apart: The Lives of Some Russian Grand Dukes and GrandDuchesses
Descendants of the Romanov dynasty are part of the landscapes of Europe, Scandinavia, Australia, the United States, South America and Canada. In January 1998, the Romanov Family Association listed thirty-four living descendants of Tsar Nicholas I. While their ancestors were tsars or grand dukes or grand duchesses, most work for their living. Few are invited to the weddings or funerals of reigning European royalty. None can be called a grand duke or a grand duchess using Tsar Alexander III's definition that only the children, siblings and grandchildren through the male line of an emperor could be a grand duke or grand duchess.
In The Flight of the Romanovs, A Family Saga, John Curtis Perry and Constantine Pleshakov describe the often troubled lives of the grand dukes and grand duchesses living at the time of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. The book reflects an extensive body of research that the authors have translated into in a well-written and readable study of the lives of a small set of privileged Russians.
Perry and Pleshakov's book appears on a scene that is already crowded with books about Romanovs. They contend that their book is the first to study the grand dukes and duchesses of late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Russia. Some receive four or five pages of coverage, others ten-to-twelve pages. Yet there already are exhaustive studies or autobiographies of the Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich (brother of Nicholas II), the Grand Duchess Victoria Melita and the Grand Duke Kyril Vladimirovich, the Grand Duchess George, Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna, the Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna (sister of Nicholas II) and the Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna (Nicholas II's sister-in-law). There are numerous books about the Romanov tsars. Massie (1995) discusses the lives of the surviving Romanovs. Maylunas and Mironenko (1997) use the diaries of some the grand dukes and grand duchesses to enable their readers to understand how these Romanovs felt about the events of their day. Chavchavadze (1990) produced an earlier work about the Romanov grand dukes.
In using a large lens rather than focusing more narrowly, Perry and Pleshakov miss a fuller understanding of each of these Romanovs. They do mine some new territory: the story of Grand Duke Nicholas Alexandrovich, who robbed his mother of a diamond necklace to give to his mistress. Tsar Alexander II exiled the young guard's officer to Tashkent. They also describe the little-known life of Vladimir, the son of Kyril Alexandrovich (the pretender to the Russian throne) during World War II. The authors provide a balanced picture of the lives of the grand dukes and grand duchesses within the context of their relationships to their own nuclear family and to the reigning tsar, although a glossary of names would have greatly assisted readers.
Many of the Romanovs who took center stage in the early years of the twentieth century did little to hide the behaviors that dismayed not only their own family but the other royal families of Europe. Several of the married grand dukes were well-known for their preference for and pursuit of men. Other grand dukes ran off to be with the women of their choice or to contract morganatic marriages. The Grand Duke Kyril Vladimirovich married the ex-wife of the Tsarina Alexandra's brother. Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich, Nicholas II's brother (and sometime heir), married a twice-divorced woman. Few cared when Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, former governor of Moscow, was assassinated, so medieval had been the grand duke's behavior towards some residents of Moscow.
Pleshakov and Perry dismiss the political influence of the Romanov grand dukes. The men are portrayed as larger-than-life in their pursuit of baubles, wine, good horses and cards, women or men, and in their avoidance of work. But some of the grand dukes had lasting effects on Russia. Certainly their abilities did not match their positions of leadership. Grand Duke Alexis Alexandrovich retired as head of the imperial navy after the disastrous Russo-Japanese war in which the Russian fleet was destroyed. While Alexis benefited financially from the debacle, Russia lost much of its international prestige. The Grand Duke Nicholas Nicholaevich (Nicholasha) urged his cousin, Tsar Nicholas II to accept a constitution to end the turmoil at home during the Russo-Japanese War. Nicholas as could be expected undermined the constitution at every turn. By 1917, no one believed that Russia could be a constitutional monarchy. After Nicholas abdicated for himself and for his son, the tsar's brother (Michael Alexandrovich) immediately abdicated and bolted from the scene. Another grand duke, Kyril Vladimirovich (later Pretender to the Romanov throne) marched his soldiers to the new Provisional government to pledge his allegiance to them and to disavow his connection to his cousin, the ex-tsar.
As with the Windsors today, the tsar received little help from some of his close relatives. Nicholas II spent much of his reign vainly trying to get his relatives to do what he (and his wife and mother) believed to be proper Romanov (and Russian Orthodox) behavior. His family seldom took his advice (or orders), so convinced were they that he would change his mind. His father, (Alexander III's) robust stature and compelling voice had kept his relatives in check, but Nicholas's small stature and quick charm failed to convince anyone of his convictions. During the last year of Nicholas's reign, a cabal of grand dukes and grand duchesses hoped to induce the tsar to abdicate, exile the tsarina to a convent, and set up a regency for the tsarevich. One of the grand dukes, Dmitri Pavlovich was involved in the murder of Rasputin. None understood the forces for change that were about to erupt in Russia and would signal their deaths or emigration.
Perry and Pleshakov describe the diaspora of Romanovs to France, Germany, Yugoslavia and other European states. Many were barred from entering England, but the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna, sister of Queen Alexandra of Great Britain and Marie's daughter, Xenia Alexandrovich, one of the last tsar's sisters and her children accompanied her mother to England. Xenia lived in a "grace and favor" home provided by the Windsors. The tsar's second sister, Olga Alexandrovna, settled with her family, first in Denmark and then in Canada to the relentless work of farming. Grand Duke Kyril Alexandrovich and Grand Duchess Victoria Melita set up shop as pretenders to the Russian throne in a small seaside home in France. From there, Kyril distributed medals, promotions and titles.
Some White Russians viewed World War II as an opportunity for the Nazis to eliminate the Communists and impose a Romanov ruler on one or more parts of the former Russia. The end of the war brought the forced, illegal repatriation of many thousands of Whites to Russia. After being brought to Germany by Hitler, Vladimir, the son of Kyril and Victoria Melita, escaped to Liechtenstein at the end of the war. He settled in Switzerland, married, and had a child, Maria. Like her grandfather Kyril, Maria argues that her son's claim to the Russian throne is purer than any of the other possible Romanov claimants, including that of the son of the Grand Duke Dmitri, a son of one of Alexander III's brothers.
It is easy for the reader to lose interest in the carefully drawn portraits of Romanov grand dukes and grand duchesses. Readers are put off by most of the Romanovs' devotion to their own self-interests and pleasures. Sympathy may be felt for the grand duchesses who mobilized efforts to help soldiers during war time. Some became nurses or ran hospitals. One, Tsarina Alexandra's sister, Elizabeth Feodorovna, gave up her wealth after the assassination of her husband, the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, and founded the Convent of SS Mary and Martha, an order of working nuns. Traditional Russian nuns were cloistered, but the Grand Duchess Elizabeth and her nuns went out to help the sick and poor of Moscow. Elizabeth nursed the patients in the convent's hospital and rescued abandoned or orphaned children from Moscow's poorest, crime-ridden areas. Elizabeth, half-a-dozen grand dukes and the Tsar, Tsarina and their children were all executed by the Bolsheviks.
The book begins in 1881 with the assassination of Alexander II and ends in 1998 with the burial of the last Russian tsar, his wife, and three of his five children in the SS Peter and Paul Cathedral. Between those years, wars and revolutions destroyed much of what the Romanovs had built. The ethnic rivalries suppressed by the tsars and Communists have divided Russia into a number of countries. Other ethnic groups continue to wage war against their Russian rulers. The current grand dukes and grand duchesses of Russia are the entrepreneurs who are amassing huge amounts of money while the poor get poorer. At the end of the story, can knowledge about the lives of former Russian grand dukes and grand duchesses help Russia . . . or the world today?
. David Chavchavadze, The Grand Dukes. New York: Florida Atlantic University, 1990; Grand Duchess George, A Romanov Diary. New York: Atlantic International Publications, 1988; Grand Duke Kirill, My Life in Russia's Service - Then and Now. London: Selvyn and Blount, 1939; Grand Duchess Marie, Education of a Princess. New York: Viking Press, 1931; Grand Duchess Marie, A Princess in Exile. New York: Viking Press, 1932; Hugh Mager, Elizabeth: Grand Duchess of Russia. New York: Carol & Graff Publishers, Inc., 1998; Ian Vorres, The Last Grand Duchess. London: Hutchinson, 1964; John Van der Kiste, Princess Victoria Melita, Grand Duchess Cyril of Russia, 1876-1936. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Alan Sutton, 1991; Michael John Sullivan, A Fatal Passion: The Story of Victoria Melita, The Uncrowned Last Empress of Russia. New York: Random House, 1997; Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko. A Lifelong Passion: Nicholas and Alexandra Their Own Story. New York: Doubleday, 1997; Robert K. Massie. The Romanovs: The Final Chapter. New York: Random House, 1995.
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Linda P. Rose. Review of Perry, John Curtis; Pleshakov, Constantine, The Flight of the Romanovs. A Family Saga.
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