Moreover there was also the abiding memory for many monarchists of the red flag on the tower of his palace in Petrograd in March 1917 and his arrival at the Tauride Palace wearing a red bow as he marched his marines to pledge their support to the Duma, in breach of his oath of allegiance. Kirill would never admit fault then, nor fault now as he named himself Emperor, and wife ‘Ducky’ as the Empress. He also promoted his son Vladimir from prince to ‘Grand Duke’ and ‘Tsarevich’18— a move which would further cement the divisions in the Romanov family.
To be a Grand Duke under the imperial law meant that you were the son or grandson of a Tsar; Vladimir was a great-grandson of Alexander II and as such was entitled to be styled only as a prince. As for making him the Tsarevich and next-in-line to the throne — for many the door was then not only shut but slammed in his face. It has never been opened since. The division among the Romanovs which followed Kirill’s grasp for the crown persists to this day, with his grand-daughter Marie’s claim to be ‘Head of the House of Romanov’ mocked by most.
Kirill attempted to buy his place in the sun by handing out titles to those who did support him. At the same time, in hoping to placate Natasha he promoted her from ‘Countess’ — a title she had given herself since Nicholas would never have done so — to that of Princess Brasova. He also promoted son George from Count, the title which Nicholas had reluctantly conceded under pressure from Michael, to Prince Brasov.19 Natasha simply shrugged. It was all now meaningless anyway, but so be it. She would call herself Princess, if only because of the satisfaction it gave her to have the Romanovs bidding for her favour.
AS Dimitri had done, Natasha moved to Paris in 1927 ‘since life in London is three times more expensive than in France’.20 She had sent George to Harrow, one of the best-known public schools in Britain, and he completed his last year there in July of that year, just before his seventeenth birthday. In Paris, Natasha enrolled him in the exclusive, and equally expensive, École des Roches at Verneuil, fifty miles outside the capital; he would go on from there to the Sorbonne.
George brought with him to France his prized Norton motorcycle which he insisted on driving at high speed, much to the terror of Natasha. He had now grown to be as tall as his father, with the same slim figure. ‘He was uncannily like Uncle Misha’, thought Tata. He had the same look about him; his voice was similar; he even walked in much the same way.
Some émigrés within the divided Russian colony in Paris mentioned his name as the ‘true successor’ to the imperial throne in preference to the discredited and disliked Kirill but ‘George treated the claims made on his behalf with indifference, tinged with amusement’.21
It was in Paris that George, but not his mother, became the first beneficiary of the various interests which, on paper, sustained Natasha’s hopes of financial security in the future. In 1928 the Dowager Empress died three years after the death of her sister, the Dowager Queen Alexandra. Hvidore, the Danish property which they jointly owned, was sold. King George V and his sisters waived their claims; the proceeds, amounting to the equivalent of $57,000 in the values of the day — some $500,000 today — were therefore divided equally between Michael’s two sisters, Xenia and Olga, and his son George. It was a very handsome legacy and a more-than-welcome windfall. For George, with almost $20,000 in his bank, he could feel himself a rather rich young man. He put some ten per cent of it immediately into the purchase of a brand-new Sports Chrysler motor car.22 In July 1931, having finished his final examinations at the Sorbonne, he decided to celebrate with a holiday in the south of France. He and a Dutch friend planned to drive to Cannes, George promising Natasha that he would be back in two weeks, in time for his twenty-first birthday.
Having waved them goodbye, Natasha was playing bezique that afternoon with friends when the telephone rang in the hallway of her rented apartment at 5 rue Copernic, off the Place Victor Hugo. The Chrysler had skidded on the road near Sens, and crashed into a tree. The Dutch boy, who had been at the wheel, was killed; George was in hospital; both thighs were broken and he had severe internal injuries.
Distraught, Natasha took the first train southwards, arriving at the hospital in Sens just before midnight. She sat by his bedside all night, but there was no hope for him. George died without recovering consciousness at 11.30 a.m. on Tuesday, July 21, 1931. His body was brought back to Paris and buried in the fashionable cemetery at Passy, near the Trocadero. Hundreds attended the funeral, with Dimitri heading the procession behind the coffin, followed by a black-veiled Natasha.23
Natasha had bought two plots lying side by side at Passy, George was laid in one; the other she reserved for herself but not as the princess she had been styled three years earlier. On the cemetery receipt the name she gave was simply Mme De Brassow. So much for her view of Emperor Kirill.
THERE would be little left for Natasha after that. ‘Oh Misha! Oh, Georgie!’ she would weep in private. At 51 she was still beautiful though her hair was snow-white, but her life was over. The end would come 20 years later, but even that in itself spoke volumes about its emptiness. Then penniless and living alone in the tiny attic room of an apartment at 11 rue Monsieur on the Left Bank, her landlady threw her out when it was discovered that Natasha had cancer. Taken to the Laënneck, the nearby charity hospital in the rue de Sevres in the 7th arrondissement she died at 3.50 pm on January 23, 1952.24 The only clue to her identity among her pathetic effects was a faded Russian birth certificate dated 71 years earlier and naming her as plain Nathalie Sheremetevskaya — the name duly typed onto her death certificate.
However, as word spread in the dwindling band of Russian émigrés in Paris that Princess Brasova had died, they did what they could to give her burial the dignity denied her death. They took her to Passy to lie beside her beloved son George. Their grave is marked by a Russian cross of stone, above a chest-tomb of green-and-black marble, with the simple, gold-lettered inscription: Fils et Epouse de S.A.I. Grand Duc Michel de Russie.
And in far-away Perm they would not forget either. Although Michael’s grave has never been found, a chapel to his memory and honour now stands in the wood where he was murdered, and there is a plaque to him on the wall of the hotel from which he was abducted. And interest increases: in 2010, the then Senator for St Petersburg, Viktor Yevtukhov — promoted deputy Minister of Justice in February 2011 — said: ‘We should know more about this man and remember him, because this memory can give our society the ethical foundation we need’. Better late than never.
Many years ago, in 1927 when he was building a literary reputation in Riga, Vladimir Gushchik, the sometime Bolshevik commissar in Gatchina who had so admired Michael, wrote an epitaph for him in his book Taina Gatchinskogo dvortsa, and it is one which could well stand today: