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The family which ranked immediately behind him was headed by her brother-in-law Vladimir, who for his own reasons had always thought that he would have proved a better Tsar than his elder brother Alexander, though no one else outside his own circle shared his conviction. He had been briefly banished by Alexander after a disgraceful scene in a St Petersburg restaurant, in which he drunkenly tried to throttle a French actor whom he thought had made a pass at his wife20, but in 1908, aged sixty-one, he was the senior Grand Duke after Michael, and stood third-in-line to the throne.

His wife Maria Pavlovna was a German princess from Mecklenberg-Schwerin who had steadfastly refused to convert to Russian Orthodoxy, notwithstanding the imperial law which made that a condition of marriage to a Romanov. Since they had married in Lutheran Germany, there was nothing the Russian church could do about that, but purists questioned whether in consequence he remained eligible for the throne — and indeed, whether therefore any of his three sons were in turn fit to succeed. A towering figure as huge as his brother Alexander, Vladimir’s answer to that was to smash his fist down and damn the rules. The Romanovs made the law, not the Church, and the priests could go hang.

It was an understandable stance, for fourth in line was his eldest son Kirill, who had broken church law by marrying his first cousin ‘Ducky’. Although it was common enough for royals to marry first cousins in Europe — Queen Victoria married her first cousin — the Russian Orthodox Church prohibited marriages of that kind. Since he had defied the law, Kirill had been banished for that in 1905, though for Empress Alexandra at Tsarskoe Selo his greater crime was that Ducky had divorced Alexandra’s brother Ernst, Grand Duke of Hesse-Darmstadt, swopping one first cousin for another. That was family rift not church law, though Ducky excused herself by saying that Ernst was a homosexuaclass="underline" ‘no boy was safe, from the stable hands to the kitchen help. He slept quite openly with them all’, she would tell a niece.21 Ducky and Alexandra hated each other ever after.

Fifth in line was Kirill’s brother Boris, a year younger than Michael; like Michael he was still unmarried, but unlike Michael he had led a notorious life, frequenting prostitutes as well as being involved in a number of scandalous affairs, including one with Ducky’s sister Marie, the future Queen of Romania. It was an open secret that the father of her daughter was not her husband but Boris — though for the sake of the Romanian crown, that was hushed up and her cuckolded husband acknowledged the baby girl Marie as his.22 It was just as well, since she ultimately became the Queen of Yugoslavia.

Boris was also involved in another scandal when he bedded a young woman in St Petersburg on the eve of her wedding. Sadly for the bride-to-be the bridegroom found out and the wedding was cancelled.23 Of all the Grand Dukes, Boris could be said to be the one more likely to be shot by a husband than by a terrorist.

Sixth in line was Andrew, Kirill’s youngest brother, who was living contentedly with the prima ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska, seven years his senior. They had an illegitimate son, Vovo — though Vovo himself was never sure whether his father was Andrew, who acknowledged him, or her previous lover Grand Duke Serge Mikhailovich.24 However, what was recognised was that Andrew would never give up Kschessinska, and never marry anyone else.

Seventh in line at the beginning of 1908 was Vladimir’s younger brother Alexis. Officially a bachelor, it was widely known that Alexis had secretly married a commoner but whom he subsequently abandoned for a French actress. Sometime in charge of the navy, he was widely blamed for the disasters of the 1904 war with Japan —‘fast women, slow ships’, was the popular comment on him. Such was public scorn that his actress mistress had been booed off stage when she appeared in St Petersburg, and had fled back to Paris; Alexis followed her. In November 1908, aged fifty-eight, he would die there in her arms.25

Eighth in line was Vladimir’s youngest brother Paul, who after the death of his first wife, Princess Alexandra of Greece, had also fled to Paris where he married a divorcée commoner, Olga Pistolkors.26 Olga’s mistake, when his mistress, had been to wear jewels given to Paul’s mother the Empress Marie at a palace ball; the Dowager Empress recognised them, and ordered her out. A crimson-faced Olga crept away and next day left the country. Paul followed her, leaving behind his two young children Dimitri and Marie by his first wife — a niece of the Dowager Empress. With Paul banished because of his marriage, the two children would be brought up firstly by the Tsar’s childless sister-in-law Ella and her husband Serge and then, after Serge’s assassination in Moscow in 1905, at Tsarskoe Selo by Nicholas and Alexandra.

Ninth in line was Paul’s only son Dimitri, and the one bright spot in the line, since he was still at seventeen too young to have blotted his own book — mercifully, no one could then foresee that one day he would be also banished abroad, in his case for murder.

Tenth in line was Nicholas Konstantinovich, a nephew of Alexander II, who had been banished after a scandalous affair with an American actress, Fanny Lear, daughter of an Ohio preacher. Then still too young to have access to his own funds, he had been caught stealing imperial jewellery to fund the affair, and banished to Tashkent. There he had married a policeman’s daughter. Calling himself ‘Nicholas Romanov’ and declaring that he was a republican, he was an unlikely successor.27

In short, there were scant grounds for reassurance when the Dowager Empress looked at those who, other than Michael, might follow him. However, whatever the misdeed, no Tsar had the power to remove any Romanov from the line of succession. What she saw was what they had.

Five years earlier, after his Uncle Paul had vanished abroad with three million roubles and his divorcée mistress, Nicholas had sent a letter to his mother which seemed depressingly prophetic: How painful and distressing it all is and how ashamed one feels for the sake of our family before the world…in the end, I fear, a whole colony of members of the Russian Imperial Family will be established in Paris with their semi-legitimate and illegitimate wives! God alone knows what times we are living in, when undisguised selfishness stifles all feelings of conscience, duty or even ordinary decency’.28

His younger sister Olga would later agree that he was absolutely right about ‘the appalling marital mess in which the last generation of my family involved themselves. That chain of domestic scandals could not but shock the nation but did any of them care for the impression they created? Never.’29

When she pronounced that hypocritical verdict on her family, she was clearly not thinking of herself and her lover Captain Kulikovsky, later her husband after she divorced her first husband, Duke Peter of Oldenburg. But certainly, she had a point. The Romanovs had an awful lot of skeletons in their cupboard

Michael was about to add another.

THE girl whom both his mother and her sister in London, Queen Alexandra, wife of King Edward VII, hoped he would marry was Her Royal Highness Princess Patricia of Connaught. Indeed that seemed to be what was to happen in September 1906 when the British Sunday newspapers announced their engagement. The London Observer was flattering about Michael. ‘Like his bride he is exceedingly fond of horses, and has taken part in a good many officers’ races. He is also adept at boxing, wrestling, riding, dancing, and swimming. He has always enjoyed the reputation of being a stronger character than the Emperor.’30