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That order, and Mordvinov’s role of servant turned master, continued to enrage him. There would be repeated protests that he did not want ‘this man anywhere near me or my affairs’38 and that he was not competent to exercise powers which he ought never to have been given in the first place. As Michael said in one of his letters to his brother:

The combination of trusteeship over my estate with the guardianship over my person, without doing anything to protect my fortune, has put me in the position of an imbecile or madman and made my situation totally unbearable. As things are, even a short visit to Russia is impossible for me, for I shall be seen as a man who has been subjected to a humiliating punishment.39

Michael’s assets were very considerable. The inheritance and savings accumulated by his original trustees until he was twenty-five had provided him with a capital of several million roubles; from the imperial purse he also drew, as did all Grand Dukes, an annual allowance of 280,000 gold roubles, a huge sum in those days. In addition he had substantial earnings, rising to a further one million roubles a year, from farms and factories owned by him across Russia, including, in the Ukraine, the country’s largest sugar refinery. As one measure of the value of all that, a six-seater Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost he had bought in August 1911 had cost him £1,367 or the equivalent of just over 12,000 roubles — petty cash when set against his overall annual income (equivalent to some $20m in today’s monies).

But he was worth a great deal more than that. His other assets included a palace on the English Embankment facing the Neva in St Petersburg — though he never chose to live there — a vast country estate, which he ran at a substantial profit, at Brasovo, near Orel, as well as another in Poland, then part of the Russian Empire. To this could be added his ‘invisible’ assets — his homes in both the Gatchina and Anichkov palaces, as well as the elegant imperial yacht Zarnista, with a crew of 120 men, ten officers and a priest, and his own blue-and-gold imperial railway carriage, lavishly furnished, which would be hooked onto any express train whenever he wanted to travel by rail — all now lost to him as they would have been anyway by his leaving Russia as he did.

Nonetheless, Michael had no immediate cause for financial worry. In preparation for his runaway marriage, and the certainty of enforced exile thereafter, in the summer of 1912 he had transferred a large amount of cash to the Crédit Lyonnais on the Boulevard des Italiens in Paris — the Russian rouble was then an international currency, freely traded — ostensibly for the purpose of buying a large estate in France,40 so there was no need to be unduly concerned about cash in the short-term; nor was it in the power of the Tsar to stop payment of the imperial allowance to any Grand Duke — a figure of just over 23,000 roubles a month, the equivalent of £2,500, or almost $12,000 in the values of the day.

At the same time, his costs were considerable. He was paid as a Grand Duke, and not surprisingly he spent as a Grand Duke. He had not booked rooms at the Hotel du Parc, he had booked a whole floor to house not only himself and Natasha in a grand suite, but the children, nanny and governess, maids, chauffeurs, and a new secretary, Nikolai Johnson who, despite his surname, was a Russian. Johnson, a shortish, round-faced young man who spoke three languages — though his English was heavily-accented41 — was a more than competent pianist, his mother who also joined the household having been a court music teacher; Johnson’s keyboard talent was one reason why he and Michael got on so well, playing duets together — indeed, it was why he had been hired in the first place. In the end, it would be a post which would cost Johnson his life.


A YEAR after his runaway marriage, Michael moved Natasha and his extensive retinue to England, preferring to make his home there rather than in Paris, or anywhere else in Europe. After all, he knew the country well and spoke English as well as any Englishman. His first cousin George was its king; his beloved aunt, the Dowager Queen Alexandra — sister of his mother the Dowager Empress Marie — had her own court at Marlborough House, a stroll from Buckingham Palace. Michael had known Queen Victoria and had spent a holiday at her Scottish home, Balmoral. She had thought his father Alexander III ‘a boor’ — in turn, he had described her as ‘a nasty interfering old woman’.1 But she had liked Michael, writing afterwards that he ‘is remarkably nice & pleasing & pleasing looking.’2 Michael had represented Russia at her funeral in 1901, as he had done at the coronation of her successor, her eldest son King Edward VII, after which ‘Uncle Bertie’ had made Michael a Knight of the Garter, a member of Britain’s most illustrious order, with his own standard to hang in the chapel at Windsor Castle.

Natasha’s introduction to England came in July 1913 when she and Michael arrived at the Ritz Hotel on London’s Piccadilly. It was not a happy experience, for they had gone there in the hope of some sort of reconciliation with Michael’s mother, who was staying with her sister at Marlborough House. The meeting had been arranged by Michael’s sister Xenia — ‘she so wants to see him!’ Her husband Sandro had sent Michael a telegram ‘saying that he must come.’3

Michael went to the first meeting on his own, leaving a very nervous Natasha to pace up and down their suite at the Ritz, dreading what might happen. His mother had been ‘very agitated at the prospect of seeing him’ and had been ‘completely unable to sleep — she was so excited and upset’, Xenia wrote in her diary. At last he arrived and ‘they disappeared into the next room for a minute, but returned looking quite calm! Thank God it went all right. I was so anxious for Mama…’4

That evening Michael returned to Marlborough House, this time with Natasha, and he and his mother ‘had a good quiet talk, thank God, and he was happy to be able to speak.’5 Then it was Natasha’s turn to face the Dowager Empress and the tongue-lashing that inevitably awaited her. There was no hope of ‘a good quiet talk’ now and all Natasha could do was to keep her head up and allow the anger to wash over her. As Xenia recorded it later, the Dowager Empress ‘saw his wife and told her a few home truths in front of Misha…in general it was terribly penible (unpleasant) on all sides.’6

Afterwards the Dowager Empress wrote to Nicholas to give him her account of her meeting. I was happy to see that he has remained the same; just as nice and good and even kinder than ever. We talked everything over quite frankly and all was said so nicely and quietly without a bitter word, that for the first time after all these dreadful worries my heart felt relieved and so, I think, did his…7

She made no mention at all of Natasha. The next time they would meet it would again be at Marlborough House, but by then the world would have changed for ever and both would have more to worry about than either could have imagined in that summer of 1913.

What Michael and Natasha did imagine was that they could remake their lives in England and live there happily ever after. Notwithstanding her bruising encounter with the Dowager Empress, Natasha was excited at the prospect of actually having a home not a hotel suite as had been the case for the past year. Looking around, they found a house some 20 miles north of London, near Stevenage in Hertfordshire. It was a magnificent stately home with an oak banqueting hall, four-poster bedrooms, state drawing room, picture gallery — and a small army of servants, including footmen who at dinner wore knee-breeches and powdered hair.8 Called Knebworth House, and owned by the Earl of Lytton, it was available for a year from that September 1913 at an annual rent of £3,000 or a tenth of Michael’s annual income from the imperial purse. On the lease, Michael was described as ‘at present residing at Palace Anichkov in St Petersburg’.9 The drafting lawyers in Belgravia knew, as did everyone else, that His Imperial Highness the Grand Duke Michael Aleksandrovich, ‘hereinafter the tenant of the other part’ ought properly to be described as ‘of no fixed abode’; however that would have appeared unseemly. A palace sounded better than a hotel room.