The life of a Romanov grand duke had its highs and lows. Among the highs were inconceivably large allowances, ornate living quarters, a selection of stylish uniforms, access to the entire company of the Bolshoi Ballet and trips to Monte Carlo on the family expense account. In the column marked “low” are arranged marriages, nosey relatives, pushy relatives, judgmental immediate family, and being murdered by the Bolsheviks in rustic settings. In the case of Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich, add in that the Bolsheviks hid his murder and claimed Michael escaped, and that history has all but forgotten him.
Donald Crawford is most upset about that last bit and The Last Tsar is his latest attempt to set the record straight. This is his second book about Michael, the first being Michael and Nastasha, co-authored with his wife Rosemary Crawford. If you’ve already read that book be warned that there is very little new material here and, oddly, some relevant material from that book is left out. For instance, Michael’s romance with cousin Princess Beatrice of Saxe-Coburg isn’t mention here. What does get more attention is Michael’s war record. Overall, there’s no reason for the casual reader to bother with both books.
Michael’s story is interesting but Crawford doesn’t provide us with more than the bare bones of it. He references recent secondary sources, which is fine, but only to support his premise. Crawford has his opinions and his fondness for them makes this book tedious at times. Tsarina Alexandra is the villainess of the story – she’s described as “nagging,” “vindictive,” “jealous,” “hysterical” and “neurotic.” And that’s just in the first half of the book. It got on my nerves after awhile.
Crawford stubbornly presents Michael’s marriage to the twice-divorced commoner Natasha as a love story without ever giving the benefit of a hearing to Michael’s less than impressed family. It’s not a huge stretch to see that learning one’s son/brother/cousin has eloped with a woman who’s had three husbands in ten years wouldn’t inspire suggestions that “Our Love is Here to Stay” be played at the wedding reception. At a time when his nephew known to be in frail health, an uncle had recently been blown to smithereens, and it was too dangerous for his brother the Tsar to live in the capitol, I can’t blame the family for being unmoved by the power of love. Nor does Natasha come across as anything other than a beautiful woman who enjoys luxury and flattery.
Michael emerges as a someone content to “do the right thing” on a personal scale but until the war, not one to make sacrifices. Like his brother Nicholas, he is remarkable in his ordinariness. You get the impression that Michael would have made a swell house-guest but not much of a Supreme Autocrat.
In 2009 the Russian government “rehabilitated” Michael saying, in effect, that killing him was unwarranted. Whether Michael truly was the last Tsar (for a day) or not is probably best left to the experts. In my own un-expert opinion, having the Romanov dynasty begin and end with Michaels is reason enough to grant him the title it appears that he never wanted.