At the moment he found himself Tsar, Nicholas had cried out: ‘What am I going to do… I am not prepared to be a Tsar. I never wanted to become one. I know nothing of the business of ruling…’5
But help was at hand. One of those present in the death-chamber at Livadia was his 22-year-old fiancée of six months, Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt. Unable to speak a word of Russian, she had watched the bustle of the past days in silence. However, she became increasingly dismayed that her husband-to-be seemed to be ignored entirely by the crush around the dying Tsar’s bed. So she went to his study, opened his diary, and penned a note to him in English which would be the first of many such notes to come. ‘Be firm and make the doctors come to you every day and tell you how they find him… so that you are always the first to know. Don’t let others be put first and you left out…Show your own mind and don’t let others forget who you are.’6
It was the message she would still be sending him twenty-three years later as their world collapsed around them.
MICHAEL was not quite sixteen when his father died and it marked the end of his childhood as it marked the end of an era for Russia. Three months earlier his elder sister Xenia had married a second cousin, Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich — known in the family as ‘Sandro’ — and one week after his father’s funeral in November 1894 his brother Nicholas married Princess Alix, now to be styled the Empress Alexandra Fedorovna. His other brother George, two years his senior and suffering from tuberculosis, was living in the high air of the Caucasus in the hope that it would save his life. His distracted mother, now the Dowager Empress, and trying to come to terms with the loss of her husband, moved back to the Anichkov Palace, taking with her Michael and his younger sister Olga, aged twelve. The new emperor Nicholas would make his family home in the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, fifteen miles north of the capital, and reign from there not the Winter Palace, which after the assassination of Alexander II was used only for ceremonial and official purposes. With that, Gatchina palace become a place visited only occasionally until seven years later when Michael found himself back there as a soldier, and able to make it his home again.
For a young Grand Duke there were few choices when it came to a career, so Michael at eighteen followed the traditional path into the military. In the army he found himself for the first time among young men of his own age, free to make friendships of his own choosing, and to follow his own pursuits — and certainly, in sporting terms, more than able to compete with his fellow officers. Standing well over six feet tall — his brother Nicholas was barely five foot seven — he swiftly became a crack shot, a skilled swordsman, and so excellent a rider he won prizes steeplechasing.
After a spell at artillery school he first joined the Horse Guards Artillery, serving with them until June 1902 when, aged twenty-three, he was transferred to the élite Guards cavalry regiment, the Blue Cuirassiers, garrisoned in Gatchina, and of which his mother was colonel-in-chief.7 Michael, who took his soldiering seriously, was appointed a squadron commander. With that he moved back into his old apartment.
Gatchina palace, designed by the celebrated Italian architect Antonio Rinaldi, was deliberately unlike any of the other Romanov palaces in and around St Petersburg. Commissioned by Grigory Orlov, Catherine the Great’s lover, who had been given Gatchina as reward for helping her to depose and then dispose of her husband Peter III — strangled in 1762 to clear the way for her seizing his throne — it was built in mellowed limestone in what the Russians regarded as the ‘English style’. This meant it was on austere, simple lines, with walls left in natural stone colour rather than painted yellow, blue, or Venetian red as was the case with the other more classically-styled Romanov palaces. Surrounded by a drawbridged moat, it was said by its detractors to look more like a barracks than a royal palace, though that was one good reason for Alexander III going there. No terrorist would ever breach its security, though that may have been because no terrorist ever thought there was any chance of doing so.
Alexander III had housed his family not in the palace itself but in the adjoining quadrangle, known as the Arsenal, a place originally intended for staff, not their masters. Michael’s three-roomed apartment there was off the vaulted, low-ceilinged corridor on the mezzanine floor of the three-storey building. He had a bedroom with a single brass bed, a sitting room furnished with button-backed sofa and armchairs, a study with a desk and mahogany desk-chair, and a bathroom with a tin bath, albeit linked to hot-and-cold running water, and shelves filled with his shaving tackle and pomades.
The rooms were cluttered, as all rooms were in the style of the day, with the walls covered in family photographs and military prints. In the display cabinet in his sitting room there were sets of painted lead soldiers as well as his collection of crystal ornaments, and throughout the suite, on side tables and chairs, there could be found the bric-a-brac to be expected in any apartment occupied by a well-off but not overly fussy young bachelor.
What his apartment noticeably did not have was a kitchen. When he wanted something, day or night, he ordered whatever it was from the main palace, still swarming with uniformed servants, many of them in the dress of the eighteenth-century. For even though the palace no longer had a place in the official business of empire, it continued to function as before, with sailors manning boats on the lake, soldiers on guard at the doors, and important functionaries issuing orders to gardeners, footmen, cooks, maids and liveried menservants. Sometimes his mother would return for a week or so and then the palace would bustle around the business of luncheon and dinner parties and in opening shutters on rooms closed for most of the year. But otherwise the vast palace primarily served the needs of those who worked there, the kitchens cooking meals for the staff, not for its imperial master, the maids cleaning rooms which from day-to-day only they would walk through.
Thus, modest though his own private apartments were, Michael needed no more. He could entertain whenever he wished in the main palace, or under the magnificent painted ceilings of the eighteenth-century Pavilion of Venus in the great park outside.
His fellow officers were free to boat on its lakes, stroll in its gardens, take girls for winter sleigh rides, shoot in its woods, and on occasion dance in its ballroom. So although only Michael could call it home, the palace was full of life throughout the year, and a vibrant part of the social world both within the Blue Cuirassiers and the town itself.
Gatchina, founded in 1796, was a graceful place to live. There were houses painted primrose-yellow, standing in large country-style gardens, elegant apartment blocks, imposing public buildings, and two great churches, the Cathedral of St Paul and the Church of the Intercession of Our Lady, which lay at the head of the main boulevard. Although its usual population was only 18,000, in the summer that greatly expanded as the trains from St Petersburg, just an hour away, pulled into the town’s two railway stations and disgorged families, servants, dogs and the mounds of luggage which marked the annual exodus from the capital to the summer dachas in and around Gatchina. There were evening concerts in the palace park, sailing on the two great lakes around the town, and leisurely dinners in the crowded restaurants on the tree-lined boulevards. And always and everywhere the delicious murmur of scandals, real or imagined.