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Grand Duke George Mikhailovich of Russia (1863-1919)

Grand Duke George Mikhailovich
Spouse Princess Maria of Greece and Denmark
Issue
Princess Nina Georgievna
Princess Xenia Georgievna
House House of Holstein-Gottorp-Romanov
Father Grand Duke Michael Nikolaevich of Russia
Mother Princess Cecilie of Baden
Born (1863-08-23)23 August 1863
Bely Klyuch, Georgia
Died 28 January 1919(1919-01-28) (aged 55)
Petrograd, Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, USSR

Grand Duke George Mikhailovich of Russia (Russian: Георгий Михайлович) (23 August 1863 – 28 January 1919) was a son of Grand Duke Michael Nicolaievich of Russia and a first cousin of Emperor Alexander III. He was a General in the Russian army in World War I. During the Russian Revolution, he was imprisoned by the Bolsheviks and shot by a firing squad, along with his brother, Grand Duke Nicholas Mikhailovich, and his cousins Grand Dukes Paul Alexandrovich and Dimitri Konstantinovich.

Early life

Grand Duke George Mikhailovich was born at Bielyi-Kliutsch, near Tiflis on 23 August 1863, the third son and fourth child of the seven children of Grand Duke Michael Nicolaievich of Russia and his wife Grand Duchess Olga Feodorovna, born Princess Cecily of Baden. Known in the family as “ Gogi”, he grew up in Georgia when his father was the Governor-General of Russian provinces of Transcaucasia. He received a Spartan upbringing that included sleeping in army cots and taking cold baths and was educated at home by private tutors. His father occupied in military and governmental endeavors remained a distant figure. His mother was a strict disciplinarian and the dominating force in the family. Like his brothers, George Mikahilovich was destined for a military career. Just after his baptism, he was appointed patron of the 3rd battalion of the Life Guards cavalry and granted the rank of adjutant general. He started his career in the Caucasus and continued it in St Petersburg where his family moved when he was eighteen years old.

He was very tall, about six-foot four, had brown eyes, no beard, but a large mustache. At an early age, he became bald.[1] In his youth, he fell into the typical lifestyle of the rich noble Russian: drinking parties, gambling, and women. He also had an intellectual bend and was a painter of some ability. His interest in the Arts eventually led him to serve as curator of the Alexander III Museum, today the Russian Museum, in St Petersburg, a position he held for many years. In 1898, he was appointed chairman of the Russian genealogical society.

George Mikhailovich was quiet and withdrawn. He was good-natured and joked a lot when he did speak, often picking teasing fights with his friends. He had a voracious appetite and would often show up early for meals. He was known for his kindness of heart and his sound judgment. Yet his opinion did not carry weight in the Imperial family and he was entrusted with only ceremonial duties such as visiting troops and passing out medals. Personally, he was a stickler for protocol.[2] Once when Prince Gabriel Konstantinovich sat uninvited in the Tsar’s box at the theater with George and his brother Sergei, George felt the need to tell him ”in quiet tones” that without the Tsar’s express invitation, one did not enter the emperor’s box.[3]

Coin collection


Numismatics was his all-absorbing interest from an early age. Through the years, he accumulated the finest and largest collection of Russian coins and medals, which included practically every coin ever used in the Russian Empire.[4] He wrote ten monographs on the subject, among them: Catalogue of Imperial Russian Coins 1725–1891, a book reprinted in the USA in 1976, that even today, is an important reference on the subject. When George Mikhailovich was appointed director of the newly founded Alexander III Museum in 1895, the grand duke proceeded to devote all his knowledge and influence to increasing the museum's numismatic collection with rare pieces or entire collections, such as the post-1700 Russian section of the Count Hutten-Czapski cabinet. In 1909, he donated his own collection to the Alexander III Museum, which was used as part of a massive work by a group of noted Russian scholars sponsored, and contributed to, by the grand duke.

The upheavals of World War I caused the worried grand duke to have his collection crated and stored at the State Loan Bank in St. Petersburg for safekeeping. During the Revolution, four of the five crates were smuggled out of the country under mysterious circumstances. Part of the collection was stolen in the West, but the grand duke’s widow did receive most of it.[5] The coins eventually made their way from Yugoslavia to the National Numismatic Collection in Washington, D.C. via Rome, New York, and Berkeley. This large and unique collection has resided in the Smithsonian Institution since the 1950s. More than 10,000 Russian coins and 1,250 medals form part of the collection George Mikhailovich once owned.

Marriage

During his youth, George Mikhailovich fell in love with Princess Nina Chavchavadze, a direct descendant of the Kings of Georgia, but he could not marry her, because according with the family laws, it would have been a morganatic union.[6] George was heartbroken and remained a bachelor until he was thirty-seven. In 1892, he wanted to marry Princess Marie of Edinburgh, but her mother promptly arranged her marriage to Crown Prince Ferdinand of Romania.[7]

Eventually, George became interested in Princess Maria of Greece and Denmark, the youngest daughter of King George I of the Hellenes and Grand Duchess Olga Constantinovna of Russia.[8] Maria of Greece was neither beautiful nor interested in marrying him, but he persevered. In April 1896, he arrived in Athens and asked her hand in marriage. She would have wanted to remain in Greece but she had been forbidden to marry a commoner she had fallen in love with and ultimately decided to accept Grand Duke George proposal instead of her other suitor, Prince Aleksandar Obrenović of Serbia.[9] Their courtship took place during the Olympic Games in Athens, but she made clear she was not in love with him; it was a marriage of convenience. The wedding took place only four years later and at her insistence on Greece soil, in Corfu on 12 May 1900. The couple spent their honeymoon in Italy and after visiting Austria they settled in Russia. They spoke French to each other.

George and his wife lived for six years in apartments at the Mikhailovsky palace outside St Petersburg, the residence of his father Grand Duke Michael Nicolaievich of Russia. They had two daughters: Princess Nina in 1901 and Princess Xenia in 1903.[10] In 1905, the family moved to a newly built small palace in the Crimea. Constructed in English style, they gave the property a Greek name, Harax. For nine years the Grand Duke and his wife led a quiet life. George was a devoted father, but his marriage was a failure. Grand Duchess Maria Georgievna never liked Russia and eventually became estranged from her husband. In June 1914, Maria took her two daughters to England on the pretext of improving her daughters’ health; in reality, she wanted to be separated from her husband. When the war broke out a month after her arrival, the Grand Duchess did not rush back to Russia and later it was too dangerous to attempt a return.[11] Grand Duke George never saw his wife or daughters again.

War and revolution

In his youth, George Mikhailovich had some permanent damage to his leg, which prevented the active military career he would have wanted; nevertheless, he served in some limited capacity in Her Majesty’s Lancers. When World War I broke out, he went back into the army as a lieutenant general. In 1915, he was appointed as aide-de-camp to the commander in chief and Nicholas II employed him as supervisor of operations. In this position, he had to report to the Emperor about the general situation on the front. He found terrible disorganization in all levels, particularly at the rear of the army, he exposed a lot of corruption, making some enemies with his reports. To help with the war effort, he also organized a private hospital in his palace in St Petersburg.

In March 1915, George Mikhailovich was appointed patron of the 4th Kabansky Sentry Battalion. In the same year, he was sent in a mission to Japan, then an ally in the war against Germany. First, he visited Korea and from there, he took a ship to Japan.[12] At the beginning of 1916, he returned to Russia by Vladivostok, and on his way back inspected the situation in the Far East. Later, he was sent to visit German and Austrian prisoners of war. Early in 1917, he was sent to visit the Russian army corps in Bessarabia and Romania; on his way he visited Empress Maria Feodorovna in Kiev and in Bucharest, Queen Maria of Romania, whom he had once wanted to marry. He came back to Mogilev, the headquarters of Nicholas II. He was in St Petersburg at the start of the revolution.[13]

In 1916, convinced of the imminence of the Revolution, George tried to persuade Nicholas II of the need to grant a constitution. He was at Gatchina when Nicholas II abdicated.[14] With the fall of the monarchy he resigned from his military post on 31 March 1917. He wanted to go to England but the British government had forbidden the entrance of any Russian Grand Duke. Prince L'vov, the first post-imperial prime minister of Russia, refused George's request to let him leave the country.[15] Three months after the fall of the Romanovs, George was allowed by the provincial government to leave for Finland, whence he hoped to escape to Sweden and find his way to his family in England.

In June 1917, he managed to get permission to go to Finland and rented a villa at Retierve, a small village. In the winter of 1917, he left Retierve because the house was too cold and went to live in Helsingfors.[16] In January 1918, he was informed that Nicholas II and his family were sent as prisoners to Tobolsk. Eventually the situation took a turn for the worse in Finland. Desperate to escape and be reunited with his family after four years of separation, he made the mistake to ask for a new passport and permission to leave the country to the new Soviet government. This eventually sealed his fate. On 3 April 1918, he was arrested and brought back to Petrograd under the escort of Red Guards.[17]

Captivity

Initially he was just required not to leave the city. Because his palace had been occupied by the Red Army, he went to live in the house of his former secretary. The following month the Petrograd newspapers published a decree ordering all the Romanovs to report to the Cheka, the Soviet secret police. Grand Duke George went with his secretary and had an interview with Moisei Uritsky, one of the Bolshevik leaders of Petrograd. He was allowed to remain free, but shortly thereafter the Bolsheviks decided to send the members of the Romanov family, who had complied with the previous registration, into internal Russian exile. George was summoned again now to be sent to Vologda, a city in eastern Siberia.

When he arrived at Vologda, he was met at the station by a commercial agent in whose house he was to live. It was a tiny house and George felt in the way of his host who lived with his wife and four children. He found another house that belonged to a rich merchant and was well treated by the owner. He shared his exile with his brother Nicholas and with his cousin Dimitri Konstantinovich.[18] They could move freely around town and visited each other frequently. On the morning of 14 July, two days before the murder of Nicholas II and his family, a car with four heavily armed men arrived and collected the Grand Dukes from their lodgings; they were arrested and interned in a small, walled village prison, where they could be more easily guarded.[19] Rumors of the assassination of the tsar reached them while they were there. During these months George Mikhailovich frequently managed to smuggle letters to his wife, the last one dated 27 November 1918. His wife unsuccessfully tried to buy out his freedom and that of the other three Grand Dukes for fifty thousand pounds through the Danish minister in St Petersburg.

Grand Duke George wrote to his wife in England, “We were each given a cell, and later on were joined by Dimitri. I saw him arriving through the iron bars of my window, and was struck by his sad expression. The first twenty-four hours were hard, but after that, they luckily allowed us to have our camp beds and also our clothes. There is no one in the prison but we three”.[20] He informed that they were guarded, by soldiers from the Baltic provinces. “They treat us like comrades, and have not locked our cells after the second day, while they allow us to walk in the small garden in the courtyard. Our food is brought from outside. ” [21] While imprisoned, rumors of the tsar's assassination reached them; this seemed to indicate the worst and Grand Duke George was, of the three Grand Dukes, the more pessimistic. On 21 July, all of the exiled Grand Dukes in Vologda were again transferred back to Petrograd. In the former Imperial capital, the men were quickly imprisoned with six other detainees in a cell at Cheka Headquarters.

Upon arrival, George Mikhailovich and the other Grand Dukes were questioned at length by Moisei Uritsky, the Chairman of the Petrograd Cheka. Grand Duke George wrote “ Dimitri asked Uritsky why we were imprisoned, and his answer was that it was to save us as the people intended shooting us at Vologda, an explanation hard to believe. The prisoners were photographed, and then moved to the Kresty prison. Shortly thereafter, they were transferred to Spalernaia prison, where they would remain for most of their incarceration. Here each had his own private cell, if only seven feet long and three feet wide. Their only furniture was a hard iron bed. The Grand Dukes were permitted to exercise a half-hour to forty-five minutes twice a day, although the personal contact allowed in Vologda was denied them here at first. Their wardens, all of whom were soldiers, treated them well; they even helped George Mikhailovich to smuggle out letters. After several days, they were all allowed to gather in the courtyard and were permitted some provisions from the outside such as fresh linens and cigarettes. Their day began at 7am when they were awakened by the steps in the hall of their jailers and the clank of their keys in the door. Lunch was served at noon, which consisted of dirty hot water with a few fish bones on it and black bread. The lights were turned on in the cells at 7pm, although as the winter approached, the prisoners had to sit in darkness until that time. The meetings of the Grand Dukes during exercise gave them opportunity to exchange a few words.[22]

Some of their relatives made frantic efforts on their behalf to obtain their release through Maxim Gorky who was sympathetic and asked Lenin to set them free, but the order for the Grand Dukes release came too late.

Death

There are no eyewitness accounts of the execution. What is known is based on versions that are derived from second hand information. Whilst they vary on the details, and some have an overly dramatic air about them, they are similar in content.[23] At 11:30 pm on the night of 27/28 January, guards awoke George Mikhailovich, his brother Nicholas and his cousin Dimitri in their cells at Spalernaia prison, telling them that they were going to be moved and they had to pack their belongings.[24] They initially assumed that they were going to be transported to Moscow. Grand Duke Nicholas Mikhailovich even thought that they might be set free, but George told him, that more likely they were heading to another place to be shot. They had an ominous hint of what was going to happen to them, when at the time of departure, they were told to leave their luggage.

The Grand Dukes were loaded into a truck that already held four common criminals and six Red Guardsmen. At 1:20 am on 28 January, they left the prison.[25] They drove towards the river by the Field of Mars, where the truck stalled. While the driver was trying to restart it, one of the convicts tried to run and was shot in the back as he fled. The truck eventually began running again, and they drove to the Peter and Paul Fortress. The prisoners were roughly pushed from the truck into the Trubetskoy bastion. They were told to remove their shirts and coats, despite the fact that it was almost twenty degrees below zero. By then they had no doubt what was about to occur and the Grand Dukes embraced each other for the last time.[26]

Soldiers appeared carrying Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich on a stretcher. They were then each escorted, with a soldier on each side, towards a trench that had been dug in the courtyard. As they passed the cathedral of St Peter and St Paul where their ancestors were buried, the Grand Dukes crossed themselves. The prisoners were lined up before the ditch, in which there were already thirteen bodies, Nicholas Mikahilovich, who had been carrying his cat, handed it to a soldier, asking him to look after it. All of the Grand Dukes faced death with the greatest courage.[27] George and Dimitri prayed quietly. Grand Duke Paul, who was very sick, was shot on his stretcher. Grand Dukes Nicholas, George and Dimitri were killed by the same blast. The fusillade of shots sent them reeling into the trench, joining the other bodies in the mass grave.

Children

Grand Duke George Mikahilovich and his wife Grand Duchess Maria Georgievna had two daughters:

  • Nina (20 June 1901 – 27 February 1974) married 1922, Prince Paul Chavchavadze; had one son, Prince David Chavchavadze.
  • Xenia (22 August 1903 – 17 September 1965) married 1921, William Bateman Leeds; They divorced in 1930
    (2) married 1946, Herman Jud; Xenia’s only daughter, Nancy Leeds (1925–2006) married Edward Judson Wynkoop, Jr.

See also

Ancestry

Notes

Bibliography

  • Alexander, Grand Duke of Russia, Once a Grand Duke, Cassell, London, 1932.
  • Chavchavadze, David, The Grand Dukes, Atlantic, 1989, ISBN 0-938311-11-5
  • Cockfield, Jamie H, White Crow, Praeger, 2002, ISBN 0-275-97778-1
  • George, Grand Duchess of Russia, “A Romanov Diary”, Atlantic International Publications, 1988. ISBN 0-938311-09-3
  • King, Greg, Wilson, Penny, Gilded Prism, Eurohistory, 2006, ISBN 978-0977196142
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