Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich spent his entire life trying to avoid his birthright—the cursed Russian tsardom. He tried marrying his cousins, he tried marrying commoners, he even tried to fit in with the peasants—all to no avail. He would become Emperor, whether he liked it or not—even if only for one dreadful day.
When Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich came screaming into the world, the Russian crown was a precarious thing to have on one’s head. And he was born much closer to it than he was comfortable with. But, as the fourth son of Alexander III of Russia and his wife, Maria Feodorovna Dagmar of Denmark, Michael took solace in the fact that there were enough bodies between him and the Tsardom.
Or at least, he thought there were.
Whatever hopes Michael Alexandrovich had of eschewing his royal duties came crashing down pretty quickly. Just before his third birthday, he and his whole family took one giant step closer to the dreaded Russian throne. Socialist revolutionaries managed to bring the reign of his grandfather, Alexander II of Russia, to a brutal and bloody end.
When Michael’s parents ascended to the throne, he feared a similar fate awaited him.
Concerned about the rising social tensions in Moscow, Michael and his whole family moved to Gatchina Palace, which had a moat surrounding it, for their own safety. Despite the fact that they were now the royal family, however, Michael and his siblings did not have an easy childhood. In fact, their father made sure of it.
Michael Alexandrovich may have lived in a dangerous time—but the real problem was within his own home. Michael’s father expressly told his children’s tutors, “I do not need porcelain, I want normal healthy Russian children”. And they went to extreme lengths to toughen them up. Michael and his siblings “slept on hard beds, rose at dawn, showered in cold water and ate a simple porridge for breakfast”. He would later learn to be grateful for these hardships.
Perhaps because of his “spartan” upbringing, Michael always preferred the simple things in life. As a child, he enjoyed hiking in the forest and riding on horseback. His laid back demeanor even earned him the nickname “Floppy”. But his simple, carefree childhood came to an abrupt end. And, terrifyingly, he got one step closer to the thing he never wanted.
Before his 16th birthday, Michael’s father, Emperor Alexander III, fell suddenly ill. When he passed away, Michael’s eldest brother, Nicholas II, ascended to the throne. And seeing as though one of Michael’s older brothers had passed on in infancy, he immediately became the second-in-line behind his older brother, George.
But another unexpected tragedy would bring him closer yet to the throne.
Five years after his father’s unexpected illness and untimely demise, Michael suffered another devastating tragedy. This time, the only person keeping him arm’s length from assuming the throne also met a dark end. His older brother, George, perished in a grisly motorcycle crash. And just like that, Michael became the heir apparent.
Everyone knew that Michael’s older brother, George, had been “the favorite” in the family. But, with him out of the picture, Michael had no choice but to embrace his new responsibilities. As the heir apparent to the Russian throne, Michael’s contemporaries considered him to be “unremarkable” and “quiet” but ultimately “good-natured”.
Sadly, that would not be enough to keep him alive.
Michael Alexandrovich finally caught a break when his older brother, Tsar Nicholas II, managed to produce a male heir. There was just one problem. The young Alexei was a hemophiliac and everyone feared he wouldn’t outlive his father. Nevertheless, with the line of succession more or less secure, Michael could pursue his own interests. Namely women.
With Alexei occupying the position of heir apparent, Michael Alexandrovich finally followed his heart—right into the arms of Princess Beatrice of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. It’s not entirely clear how the young couple met but by 1902, they were pen pals (with benefits). Michael affectionately gave Beatrice the nickname “Sima”. Sadly, their romance was not meant to be.
For a while, it seemed to everyone, including Beatrice, that Michael had every intention of marrying his new pen pal. But there was just one problem. The Russian Orthodox Church strictly prohibited marriages between first cousins. And Michael’s deceased father had been the brother of Beatrice’s mother. But, seeing as though he was no longer the heir, he tried to make a move anyway.
In light of the Orthodox Church’s opposition to his marriage, Michael appealed to his brother, the Emperor and the de facto head of the church. But, where previous monarchs had stretched the rules regarding first cousins before, Nicholas II was staunchly conservative and forbade Michael’s marriage to Beatrice. It would not be the last time that Nicholas II failed to take Michael seriously.
Heartbroken, Michael Alexandrovich sent a letter to Beatrice in 1903 explaining that he could not marry her. Members of the German royal family angrily blamed Michael for “callously” building up Beatrice’s hopes only to dash them later on. Despite Michael’s profuse apologies, it doesn’t look like Beatrice ever really recovered from his romantic overtures.
Michael was nothing if not a heartbreaker. After their marriage hopes fell through, Beatrice’s reaction was brutal. She had to travel all the way to Egypt just to escape the humiliation. She even sent Michael “reproachful” letters for years after the ordeal. Michael, however, had clearly moved on. And this time, he had a plan to break with his family for good.
Michael moved on from Princess Beatrice in short order. But his family was even less likely to approve of the next woman he fell in love with. And that might have been Michael’s whole point. After Beatrice, Michael downgraded his marital prospects from a princess to a lowly commoner. The lovelorn former heir fell for a woman named Alexandra Kossikovskaya.
Alexandra Kossikovskaya, or “Dina”, was Michael’s sister’s lady-in-waiting. As the daughter of a lawyer, she held no rank and had only ever set foot in a palace as a servant. So, when Michael asked his brother for his approval to marry her, he did not get the answer he was hoping for. Or, perhaps, exactly the answer he had expected.
Both Michael’s brother and his mother, the Dowager Empress Marie, expressed their strong disapproval of his marriage proposal. But Nicholas II knew his brother well and knew how willing he was to rebel against his family—so he made a devious ultimatum.
The Emperor threatened to exile Michael from Russia if he tried to marry Dina without his approval. Michael’s mother used a gentler touch to subvert her son’s romantic aspirations.
In order to break up Michael’s romance, the Dowager Empress Marie dismissed Dina from her daughter’s service. She then proceeded to take Michael away to Denmark for the rest of the summer—presumably when his flaming loins had cooled enough for him to think properly. And those were just the Dowager Empress’ opening moves.
Upon his return to Russia, Michael Alexandrovich learned that he had, apparently, found a bride. News reports gushed about the pending nuptials between him and Princess Patricia of Connaught, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. When Buckingham Palace issued a denial, Michael breathed a sigh of relief. Someone had gotten the story wrong.
Or they had just gotten the timing wrong.
It’s likely that, while they were in Denmark, the Empress Dowager Marie had been plotting behind her son’s back—and soon the whole story unraveled. She had likely planted the news reports about Michael’s alleged engagement to Patricia of Connaught in the hopes that Michael might see the light. But the reports only confirmed his love for Dina. And his brooding resentment for his family.
Once he was back in Russia, Michael and Dina tried to elope. But they were unable to get out from under the watchful gaze of the Okhrana, the Tsar’s secret spy agency. After a year of failed attempts to escape their trappings, Michael began to lose interest. Dina, however, maintained to her last breath that she was Michael’s real fiancée.
Another explanation for Michael’s sudden disinterest in Dina might have had something to do with the fact that he had found true love. Or, at least, another woman to make his family red with rage. In late 1907, he met yet another charming commoner, Natalia Sergeyevna Wulfert. She was the wife of one of Michael’s fellow officers—but that didn’t stop him.
Less than two years after they first met, Michael Alexandrovich had sparked up a romantic relationship with Natalia. And he wasn’t wasting time. Michael purchased an apartment in Moscow for Natalia and encouraged her to move out of her husband's home and settle in with him. The rather open and public affair caused a scandal amongst the Moscow elite.
Moscow’s high society refused to welcome Natalia into the fold—and the consequences were dire. The furor against her became so intense that Nicholas II had to send Michael to Orel, 250 miles away. But Michael traveled almost every weekend back to Moscow just to spend time with Natalia. And they weren’t just gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes.
Evidently, Michael and Natalia had been getting busy during their weekend trysts. Shortly after she moved into Michael’s Moscow apartment, she gave birth to his son, George, named after Michael’s dearly departed older brother. The mere existence of their love child was reason enough to turn Moscow upside down—and there was an added complication.
When Natalia gave birth to Michael’s son, she was, technically, still married to her husband—who was, technically, still Michael’s colleague. In order to avoid further scandal, Michael back-dated Natalia’s divorce and managed to convince his brother to give his illegitimate family the surname “Brasov” after Michael's estate at Brasovo.
By September 1912, Michael Alexandrovich simply couldn’t deny his heart any longer. So, he and Natalia hatched a plan to get married in secret. They just had to figure out a way to ditch his brother’s ever-watchful Okhrana. While vacationing in Berlin, Michael made a public announcement that he and Natalia intended to travel to Cannes. But it was just a ruse.
Michael Alexandrovich had instructed his staff to travel to Cannes via train while he and Natalia planned to travel by car. Just as he suspected, the Okhrana, believing that Michael would not abandon his staff, opted to travel by train as well. With the spies trapped on the tracks, Michael and Natalia managed to slip away and veer off to Vienna, where they held their secret nuptials.
Michael enjoyed two weeks of wedded bliss with Natalia before he finally decided that it was time to tell his family what he had done. Suffice to say, they were not happy. The Dowager Empress denounced Michael’s deception and marriage as “unspeakably awful in every way”. But his brother, fearful of what Michael’s marriage meant to the line of succession, was even angrier.
Even though Nicholas II had an heir—his hemophiliac son Alexei—the entire succession hung on by a thread. And that thread was Michael Alexandrovich. However, Michael’s marriage to a commoner precluded the possibility that any of his off-spring might ascend to the throne. But that had been Michael’s plan all along—an elaborate ruse to remove himself, once and for all, from the fateful Tsardom.
Up until his marriage to Natalia, Michael’s imperial family had struggled to understand his romantic choices. So he spelled it out for them. He had never wanted to be emperor and knew that by marrying a commoner his family would have no choice but to remove him from the line of succession. And his brother did just that. And more.
Nicholas II’s reprisal against his brother was severe—even by Russian aristocratic standards. In addition to removing Michael from the royal family, Nicholas II stripped him of his rank, seized or froze all of his assets and exiled him from Russia. For Michael, it was a small price to pay for his freedom. A freedom that, unbeknownst to Michael, would not last long.
Banished from his motherland, Michael Alexandrovich and Natalia hopped from European capital to European capital. Eventually, they settled in London where they received a visit from an unlikely guest. Michael’s mother, the Dowager Empress, saw the couple in London and “gently” berated Natalia with “home truths”. Pretty soon, however, the Russian Imperial family would have more dangerous enemies than each other.
At the outbreak of WWI, Michael and his family decided to bury the hatchet. He asked his brother to return to Russia to serve in the army and defend the motherland. On the condition, of course, that Natalia and his son come with him. Desperate for all of the help he could get, Nicholas II agreed. But not without getting his own form of payback.
Nicholas II permitted Michael Alexandrovich and his family to return to Russia and even legitimized Michael’s son, making him a baron. But the hatred for Natalia still ran deep and Nicholas II prohibited her from taking up residence in imperial palaces. Additionally, Nicholas II gave Michael command of the Caucasian Native Cavalry—or, what everyone liked to call the “Savage Division”.
But the joke was on Nicholas.
In no time at all, Michael whipped the undisciplined and undecorated Savage Division into tip-top fighting shape. Unlike his brother, he even distinguished himself in combat, earning the respect of his fellow troops. For his gallant fighting, he even received the highest honor in the Russian armed forces, the Order of St. George.
But the things that he saw changed him forever.
Throughout WWI, Michael’s liberal-leaning views became apparent and his popularity with the troops rose as his brother’s plummeted. He even gave voice to his shockingly progressive views, writing that he felt bitterness “towards people in general and most of all towards those who are at the top”. Of course, his own brother was the one at the tippy, tippy top.
Michael’s sympathies for the common man clashed with his own identity as a (somewhat estranged) member of the royal family. During WWI, he confided in his wife, writing that he felt “ashamed to face the people” especially “when visiting field hospitals”. Sadly, Michael’s sympathies would not matter in the end.
During WWI, it looks like Michael Alexandrovich reverted to his “spartan” upbringing. The American journalist, Stanley Washburn, called Michael “unaffected and democratic” and reported that the former heir apparent was “living so simply in a dirty village”. He elaborated that Michael only wore "a simple uniform” and indicated his rank with nothing but “shoulder straps of the same material as his uniform”.
Not everyone liked his newfound “democratic” attitudes.
Michael’s liberal views began to disturb even his commoner wife, Natalia. She upbraided him when he was the only member of the royal family not to attend Grand Duke Constantine’s funeral. She further complained about his shabby dress, as Washburn had reported it. To her credit, Natalia had a point. Michael was in a den of wolves—and he looked too much like a sheep.
Michael’s innate sense of goodness, patriotism and camaraderie were, in the eyes of some, a weakness. Natalia “watched over him constantly” to protect him from those seeking to take advantage of him. And, with the Russian aristocracy teetering on the edge and the common folk growing ever angrier, Michael had no shortage of potential enemies.
As WWI raged on and communist sympathies grew, Michael confessed that he had “always despised Petrograd high society”. As far as he was concerned, “no people are more devious than they are; with a few exceptions, they are all scum”. This had an unexpected side effect.
The people, at home and abroad, began looking to Michael as a possible “constitutional monarch”.
Despite his differences and past feuds with his family, Michael still cared about them. And, on the front lines, he could feel the winds of change. He wrote to his brother saying that he was “deeply concerned and worried” about “a shocking alteration in the mood of the most loyal people”. He even went so far as to express concern for the “fate of our family”.
And he had every reason to be concerned.
Michael repeatedly warned his brother about the hatred growing for him among the common man. But, despite his repeated warnings, Nicholas II refused to listen to his younger brother. When one of Michael’s subordinates pleaded with him to talk sense into his brother, Michael responded gravely, “I have no influence”. But he had more than he knew.
Michael’s worst fears became a reality during the February Revolution. As the Petrograd Soviet marched through the streets, taking political prisoners, Michael hid in the apartment of Princess Putyatina. For days, in the neighboring apartments, Michael watched on as the Soviets dragged members of the old regime to their doom.
He feared his family would be next.
After weeks of conflict, Michael’s brother finally relented. Nicholas II abdicated the throne and a period of political instability ensued. Finally, on the morning of March 15, Michael awoke to the most shocking news of his life. At the last minute, in a desperate attempt to save his own family, Nicholas II abdicated in Michael’s favor.
Whether he liked it or not, he was now Emperor Michael II.
The Russian people had a mixed reaction to the news that Michael had become Emperor. And so did Michael himself. More than anyone, he understood the danger that came along with the crown. He had, after all, spent a lifetime trying to avoid it. So, after a day-long negotiation with members of the Duma, Michael drafted a “conditional” abdication.
Michael’s effective abdication along with the absence of a suitable heir signaled the end of the Tsarist regime. Stripped of their power, Michael bade an “awkward” final farewell to his brother, Nicholas II. As they fidgeted nervously, it was almost as though they knew what would come next. Michael’s greatest fears still lay ahead.
As the political instability in Russia continued, Michael feared the worst possible fate for his family. Frantically, he and Natalia began packing their things to flee for the relative safety of Finland. But their days of outsmarting spies were behind them. The Bolshevik forces interrupted their escape and seized their cars.
With the Bolsheviks in power, Michael found himself helpless. The new Council of the People's Commissars feared that Michael might spark fresh calls for a constitutional monarchy. So, they separated him from his family and shipped him off to Perm where they believed that he couldn’t cause trouble. But trouble could still find him.
On 12 June 1918, Gavril Myasnikov of the local secret constabulary, along with four other men hatched a sinister plot against Michael Alexandrovich. All of the conspirators had, in the past, been prisoners of the Tsarist regime. And, on that night, they wanted to get their revenge against any Romanov they could find.
Using a forged order, the conspirators managed to gain access to Michael’s hotel just before midnight. Michael suspected that something about the situation was not right and he resisted the men's demands to leave with them. Ultimately, however, he knew that his protestations wouldn’t count for anything. So, with great hesitation, he followed the men out.
Reluctantly, Michael went with Myasnikov and the others. In the early morning hours of June 13, they drove away from Perm and into the deep, dark forests of Motovilikha. When Michael inquired about their destination, the conspirators assured him that they were headed to a secluded railway crossing. Or, for Michael, the end of the line.
When the conspirators arrived at their chosen spot in the heart of the woodlands, they disembarked from the carriages. Suddenly, they opened fire, releasing a hail of bullets on Michael and his secretary, Nicholas Johnson. Miraculously, the firestorm of bullets stopped, with Michael and Johnson receiving only minor injuries.
To carry out their terrible deed, the conspirators were using handmade bullets which caused their barrels to seize. Capitalizing on the momentary reprieve, Michael, who might have sustained only minor injuries from the initial barrage, approached the wounded Johnson with his arms extended in an act of compassion.
It was the last thing he ever did.
Tragically, as Michael leant towards his friend and secretary, he came face to face with a loaded muzzle. Later, two of the conspirators Andrei Markov and Nikolai Zhuzhgov, both claimed to be the one to pull the trigger on Michael that night. Regardless of who did it, the outcome was the same. Michael, the Emperor for a Day, perished—but his story didn’t end there.
For months after his terrible fate on that dreadful night, many believed that Michael had gone into hiding to plot a counter-revolution. In a way, he did. No one has ever found Michael’s remains deep in the woods of Motovilikha. However, history has treated him more kindly than his assailants and their revolution did.
The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia canonized the Emperor for a Day on November 1, 1981.
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