Who was the heir of Tsa Nicholas II?

Written by Vladimir Moss



     Although, at 1.45 on March 3/16, the Tsar had addressed a telegram to “Emperor Michael Alexandrovich” (who received it late on the same morning)[1], Michael was destined to be emperor, if he really was emperor, for no more than a day. But without an autocratic tsar Russia was bound to descend into anarchy. So the fruit of February was bound to be October… 


     The February revolution had not been taking place only in Petrograd. “In Moscow on February 28th there were massive demonstrations under red flags. The garrison (also composed of reservists) passed over to the side of the rebellion on March 1. In those days a Soviet of workers’ deputies and a Committee of public organizations was formed in the Moscow Duma, as in Petrograd. Something similar took place also in Kharkov and Nizhni-Novgorod. In Tver a crowd killed Governor N.G. Byunting, who, as the crowd approached, had managed to make his confession [by telephone] to the bishop…”[2]


     In such circumstances, the Duma and the Provisional Government, which always followed rather than led public opinion, could not be for the continuation of the Monarchy. It will be remembered that the leaders of the Duma had originally wanted the preservation of the monarchy, but without Nicholas II and with a “responsible ministry”. But in the course of the revolution, and with the Soviet breathing down their necks, the Duma leaders, even the monarchists among them, changed course… 


     “In the middle of the day on [3/16] March a group of Provisional Government ministers and Duma leaders met at Mikhail’s small salon in Petrograd to discuss the idea of his becoming emperor. Guchkov and Shulgin had just arrived back from Pskov, and Rodzyanko invited them to join the gathering. Rodzyanko also asked them not to publish the news of Nicholas’s act of abdication. Politicians had to prepare for whatever might be the next stage in the emergency in Petrograd.


     “Rodzyanko, Guchkov, Milyukov, Kerensky and the liberal industrialist Alexander Konovalov were among those present, and there was a forceful exchange of opinions. It was a painful occasion for everyone. Guchkov insisted that the country needed a tsar; he was pleased with Mikhail accepting the throne from his brother with a commitment to convoking a Constituent Assembly. Milyukov too wanted the throne to pass to Mikhail, but got into a short though fiery dispute with Guchkov about the Basic Law. This boded ill for the Provisional Government’s prospects of settling the political situation in the capital. Guchkov argued that each and every action taken by ministers could be justified in the light of the wartime emergency. But whereas Guchkov and Milyukov agreed that Mikhail should become tsar, Kerensky strongly opposed the whole idea and urged Mikhail to reject the throne in recognition of the fact that the streets were full of thousands of angry workers and soldiers demonstrating against the monarchy. He warned of civil war if Mikhail tried to succeed his brother. For Kerensky this was the main practical point rather than any republican principle. He added that Mikhail would be putting his own life in danger if he complied with what Nicholas wanted.”[3]


     Rodzyanko and Lvov supported Kerensky. They “ardently tried to prove the impossibility and danger of such an act at the present time. They said openly that in that case Michael Alexandrovich could be killed, while the Imperial Family and all the officers could ‘have their throats cut’. A second historically important moment had arrived. What would the Grand Duke decide, who was then from a juridical point of view already the All-Russian Emperor?”[4]


     The Grand Duke was a fine soldier and a gentle man whom everybody liked. But before the war he had defied the Tsar in marrying a divorcée, Countess Natalia Brassova, in Switzerland, for which he was exiled for several years. Moreover, he had cooperated with the liberal revolutionaries during the February revolution. So strength of character in defence of the autocracy was not to be expected of him. He said he wanted to speak to his wife on the telephone and would appreciate time to consult his conscience. Then he returned. 


     Edvard Radzinsky describes the scene:-


     “Michael came in, tall, pale, his face very young.


     “They spoke in turn.


     “Alexander Kerensky: ‘By taking the throne you will not save Russia. I know the mood of the masses. At present everyone feels intense displeasure with the monarchy. I have no right to conceal that the dangers that taking power would subject you to personally. I could not vouch for your life.’


     “Then silence, a long silence. And Michael’s voice, his barely audible voice: ‘In these circumstances, I cannot.’


     “Michael was crying. It was his fate to end the monarchy. Three hundred years – and it all ended with him.”[5]


    According to Montefiore, “the ministers tried to intimidate Michael into abdicating. He asked if they could guarantee his safety. ‘I had to answer in the negative,’ said Rodzyanko, but Pavel Milyukov, the foreign minister, argued that this ‘frail craft’ – the Provisional Government – would sink in ‘the ocean of national disorder’ without the raft of the monarchy. Kerensky, the only one who could speak for the Soviet, disagreed, threatening chaos: ‘I can’t answer for Your Highness’s life.’


     “Princess Putiatina invited them all for lunch, sitting between the emperor and the prime minister. After a day of negotiations, Michael signed his abdication: ‘I have taken a firm decision to assume the Supreme Power only if such be the will of our great people by universal suffrage through its representatives to the Constituent Assembly.’ Next day, he sent a note to his wife Natasha: ‘Awfully busy and extremely exhausted. Will tell you many interesting things.’ Among these interesting things, he had been emperor of Russia for a day – and after 304 years the Romanovs had fallen.”[6]


     The explanation of Michael’s pusillanimity was simple: as Fr. Sergei Chechanichev writes, “he was a participant in the conspiracy. Grand Duke Michael wrote in his diary on February 27, 1917: ‘At 5 o’clock Johnson [his English secretary] and I went by train to Petrograd. In the Mariinsky palace I conferred with M.V. Rodzyanko, Nekrasov, Savich, Dmitriurkov.’ He himself confirmed that he had conferred with the enemies of his Majesty. He conducted negotiations with them, defending his brother’s right to power as the lawful Sovereign, and conducted negotiations with his Majesty in the name of the conspirators. On March 1 in a telegram he called on his Majesty: ‘Forgetting all that is past, I beseech you to proceed along the new path indicated by the people’ – that is, that of the conspirators. 


     “Even if we close our eyes to all the ‘fakery’ of the documents called ‘abdications’, then that power which his Majesty supposedly transferred to Grand Duke Michael should have been returned, in the case of Michael’s rejection, to his Majesty. Insofar as Michael did not accept the power, he could not transfer it to the Provisional Government. He simply did not have the authority to do that.


     “… In his so-called ‘abdication’ it is written in black and white: ‘I have taken the firm decision to accept the Supreme power only if that is the will of our great people.’ But if the Grand Duke did not accept the Supreme power, what right did he have to transfer it to anybody else?”[7]


     This is a powerful argument. We must conclude that Michael Alexandrovich never became tsar; as Service writes, his act was not one of abdication, but of renunciation.[8]




     So the last tsar was Nicholas II, not Michael Alexandrovich… However, Michael’s actions were significant in another, important respect. As Archpriest Lev Lebedev writes, “Michael Alexandrovich… did not decide [completely] as Kerensky and the others wanted. He did not abdicate from the Throne directly in favour of the Provisional Government. In the manifesto that he immediately wrote he suggested that the question of his power and in general of the form of power in Russia should be decided by the people itself, and in that case he would become ruling Monarch if ‘that will be the will of our Great People, to whom it belongs, by universal suffrage, through their representatives in a Constituent Assembly, to establish the form of government and the new basic laws of the Russian State’. For that reason, the manifesto goes on to say, ‘invoking the blessing of God, I beseech all the citizens of the Russian State to submit to the Provisional Government, which has arisen and been endowed with all the fullness of power at the initiative of the State Duma (that is, in a self-willed manner, not according to the will of the Tsar – Prot. Lebedev), until the Constituent Assembly, convened in the shortest possible time on the basis of a universal, direct, equal and secret ballot, should by its decision on the form of government express the will of the people. Michael.’ The manifesto has been justly criticised in many respects. But still it is not a direct transfer of power to the ‘democrats’!”[9]


     The historian Mikhail Babkin agrees with Lebedev: Just as Michael Alexandrovich never became tsar, so he never transferred power to the Duma (even assuming he had the right to do that), but said that he would agree to become tsar if the people wanted it. “The talk was not about the Great Prince’s abdication from the throne, but about the impossibility of his occupying the royal throne without the clearly expressed acceptance of this by the whole people of Russia.”[10]


     However, by effectively giving the people the final say in how they were to be ruled, Tsar Michael effectively introduced the democratic principle, making the people the final arbiter of power. Tsar Nicholas clearly saw what had happened, writing in his diary: “God knows who gave him the idea of signing such rot.”[11]


     Unlike Tsar Nicholas, who simply tried (unsuccessfully) to transfer power from himself to his brother, Michael Alexandrovich undermined the very basis of the Monarchy by acting as if the true sovereign were the people. Like King Saul in the Old Testament he listened to the voice of the people (and out of fear of the people) rather than the voice of God – with fateful consequences for himself and the people. It was he who, with plotters, finally destroyed the autocracy, albeit out of fear rather than evil intent…


     All this caused confusion and searching of consciences. Thus in a letter to the Holy Synod dated July 24, 1917 we read: “We Orthodox Christians most ardently beseech you to explain to us in the newspaper Russkoe Slovo what... the oath given to us to be faithful to the Tsar, Nicholas Alexandrovich, means. People are saying in our area that if this oath is worth nothing, then the new oath to the new Tsar [the Provisional Government?] will be worth nothing. Which oath must be more pleasing to God. The first or the second? Because the Tsar is not dead, but is alive and in prison…”[12]


     Since Michael had presented the choice of the form of State government to the Constituent Assembly, many opponents of the revolution were prepared to accept the Provisional Government on the grounds that it was just that – provisional. Moreover, they could with some reason argue that they were acting in obedience to the last manifestation of lawful, tsarist power in Russia… They were not to know that the Constituent Assembly would be forcibly dissolved by the Bolsheviks in January, 1918. So the results of the Tsar’s abdication for Russia were different from what he had hoped and believed. Instead of an orderly transfer of power from one member of the royal family to another, the whole dynasty and autocratic order collapsed. And instead of preventing civil war for the sake of victory in the world war, the abdication was followed by defeat in the world war and the bloodiest civil war in history, followed by the greatest persecution of the faith in history. Michael’s renunciation of the throne “was the beginning”, as Buxhoeveden writes, “of universal chaos. All the structures of the empire were destroyed. The natural consequences of this were a military rebellion that was supported by the civil population, which was also discontented with the actions of the cabinet. And all this, to sum up, led to a complete collapse. The supporters of the monarchy, of whom there were not a few in the rear and at the front, found themselves on their own, while the revolutionaries used the universal madness to take power into their own hands.”[13]




     What about the other Romanovs? Could not any of them have claimed the throne after the abdication of Michael? 


     Robert Massie writes: “After Nicholas II’s sisters, nephews, and nieces, the tsar’s closest surviving relatives were the Vladimirovichi, then comprising his four first cousins, Grand Dukes Kyril, Boris, and Andrew and their sister, Grand Duchess Helen, all children of Nicholas’s eldest uncle, Grand Duke Vladimir. In normal times, the near-simultaneous deaths of a tsar, his son, and his brother, as happened in 1918, automatically would have promoted the eldest of these cousins, Kyril, who was forty-two in 1918, to the Imperial throne. In 1918, however, there was neither empire nor throne, and, consequently, nothing was automatic. Succession to the Russian throne followed the Salic law, meaning that the crown passed only to males, through males, until there were no more eligible males. When an emperor died and neither a son nor a brother was available, the eldest eligible male from the branch of the family closest to the deceased monarch would succeed. In this case, under the old laws, this was Kyril. After Kyril stood his two brothers, Boris and Andrew, and after them the only surviving male of the Pavlovich line, their first cousin Grand Duke Dimitri, the son of Nicholas II’s youngest uncle, Grand Duke Paul. Nicholas II’ six nephews, the sons of the tsar’s sister Xenia, were closer by blood than Kyril but were ineligible because the succession could not pass through a woman…”[14]


     However, there were powerful objections to Kyril’s candidacy. He had married a Lutheran and his first cousin, Victoria Melita, a grand-daughter of Queen Victoria, who, moreover, had been married to and divorced from Tsaritsa Alexandra’s brother, Grand Duke Ernest of Hesse. By marrying a divorced and heterodox woman who was his cousin, he violated Basic Laws 183 and 185 as well as the Church canons. The Tsar exiled him from Russia, and then, in 1907, deprived him and his descendants of the right to inherit the throne in accordance with Basic Law 126. Although the Tsar later allowed him and his wife to return, the couple plotted against him, and on March 1, even before the abdication, Kyril withdrew his Naval Guard from guarding the Tsaritsa and her family at Tsarskoye Selo and went to the Duma to hail the revolution, sporting a red cockade. He renounced his rights to the Throne, and hoisted the red flag above his palace and his car…[15]


     In July, noting the anti-monarchist mood in Petrograd, he moved to nearby Finland, and only moved again to Switzerland in 1920, when it was clear that there was no hope of the restoration of the monarchy in the near future. 


     Kyril eventually emigrated to France, but was at first cautious about putting forward his claim to the throne. “The Dowager Empress Marie would not believe that her son and his family were dead and refused to attend any memorial service on their behalf. A succession proclamation by Kyril would have shocked and deeply offended the old woman. Further, there was another, not very willing pretender: Grand Duke Nicholas Nicholayevich, former commander-in-chief of the Russian Army, was from the Nicholayevichi, a more distant branch of the Romanov tree, but, among Russians, he was far more respected and popular than Kyril. Nicholas Nicholayevich was forceful and Russia’s most famous soldier whereas Kyril was a naval captain, who, having had one ship sunk beneath him, refused to go to sea again. Nevertheless, when émigré Russians spoke to Grand Duke Nicholas about assuming the throne in exile, he refused, explaining that he did not wish to shatter the hopes of the dowager empress. Besides, Nicholas agreed with Marie that if Nicholas II, his son, and his brother really were dead, the Russian people should be free to choose as their new tsar whatever Romanov – or whatever Russian – they wished.


     “In 1922, six years before the death of Marie and while the old soldier Nicholas Nicholayevich still had seven years to live, Kyril decided to wait no longer. He proclaimed himself first Curator of the Throne and then, in 1924, Tsar of All the Russias – although he announced that for everyday use he still should be addressed by the lesser title Grand Duke. He established a court around his small villa in the village of Saint-Briac in Brittany, issued manifestos, and distributed titles…”[16]


     His claim to be Tsar was recognized by Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky), first-hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad, but not by Metropolitan Evlogy of Paris or Metropolitan Anastasy (Gribanovsky) of Kishinev, second first-hierarch of ROCOR. 


     Evlogy was at the Council of the Russian Church in Exile in Karlovtsy, Serbia in the autumn of 1922, when “I received a telegram: ‘At the request of Grand Duke Kyril Vladimirovich, we ask you insistently to come immediately to Paris.’ I arrived… I was presented with a group of generals led by General Sakharov, and a group of dignitaries asked me to go and visit Grand Duke Cyril Vladimirovich in Saint-Brieuc so as to perform a Divine service for him and give him my blessing to assume the imperial throne. I refused…”[17]


     At the same Council, Metropolitan Anastasy, the future first-hierarch, who had arranged the coronation of Tsar Nicholas in 1896, voted for the return of the monarchy – but not necessarily the Romanov dynasty…


     Most of the Romanov family living in exile also rejected Kyril’s claim… 


     The other leading Romanovs were either killed or made their peace with the new regime. Thus the behavior of Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolayevich (“Nikolasha”) was, according to Mikhail Nazarov, “unforgiveable: he didn’t move a finger to avert the plot that he knew was being prepared…, pushed Nicholas II to abdicate, and, having again been appointed by him Commander-in-Chief of the Army, swore to the plotters: ‘The new government already exists and there can be no changes. I will not permit any reaction in any form…’


     “In those days the other members of the Dynasty also forgot about their allegiance to the Tsar and welcomed his abdication. Many signed their own rejection of their rights to the Throne…: Grand Dukes Dmitri Konstantinovich, Gabriel Konstantinovich, Igor Konstantinovich, George Mikhailovich and Nicholas Mikhailovich. The latter, following Kyril, also paid a visit of loyalty to the revolutionary Duma on March 1… In the press there appeared declarations by Grand Dukes Boris Vladimirovich, Alexander Mikhailovich, Sergius Mikhailovich and Prince Alexander Oldenburg concerning their ‘boundless support’ for the Provisional government…


     “The identical form of these rejections and declarations witness to the fact of a corresponding demand on the part of the new authorities: these were a kind of signature of loyalty to the revolution. (It is possible that this conceals one of the reasons for the monarchical apathy of these members of the Dynasty in emigration. Only ‘Kyril I’ felt not the slightest shame: neither for the plans of his mother ‘to destroy the empress’, nor for his own appeal to the soldiers to go over to the side of the revolution…)


     “It goes without saying that in rebelling against his Majesty before the revolution, such members of the Dynasty did not intend to overthrow the monarchy: they would thereby have deprived themselves of privileges and income from their Appanages. They hoped to use the plotters in their own interests, for a court coup within the Dynasty, - but were cruelly deceived. The Provisional government immediately showed that even loyal Romanovs – ‘symbols of Tsarism’ – were not needed by the new authorities: Nicholas Nikolayevich was not confirmed in the post of Commander-in-Chief, and Grand Duke Boris Vladimirovich found himself under house arrest in his own palace for ‘being slow to recognize the new order’… We have some reason to suppose that by their ‘signatures of loyalty’ and renunciations of their claims to the Throne the Grand Dukes bought freedom for themselves. Kerensky declared at the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies: ‘You have doubts about the fact that some members of the Royal Family have remained in freedom. But only those are in freedom who have protested with us against the old regime and the caprices of Tsarism.’


     “The Februarists from the beginning did not intend to give the Royal Family freedom. They were subjected to humiliating arrest in the palace of Tsarskoye Selo, and were restricted even in their relations with each other. And none of the previously active monarchists spoke out for them. True, many of them had already been arrested, the editors of their newspapers and their organizations had been repressed. But even more monarchist activists kept silent, while some even signed declarations of loyalty to the new government…”[18]


     According to the Valaam elders, whose testimony was passed on by Archbishop Theophan of Poltava, there will be a truly Orthodox tsar in Russia again. But he will not be a Romanov by blood. He will be related to the Romanovs in some other way, perhaps by marriage…


September 9/22, 2022.



[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I4orSmDAU-w

[2] Lebedev, Velikorossia, St. Petersburg, 1999, p. 489.

[3] Robert Service, The Last Tsar, London: Pan, 2017, p. 20.

[4] Lebedev, op. cit., p. 491.

[5] Radzinsky, The Last Tsar, p. 173. 

[6] Montefiore, The Romanovs, p. 623. Rodzyanko writes in his memoirs: “Great Prince Michael Alexandrovich put the question to me bluntly: could I guarantee his life if he accepted the throne, and I had to give him a negative reply, for, I repeat, he had no firm armed forced behind him” (Krushenie Imperii (Fall of the Empire), Moscow: Ikar, 2002, p. 303).

[7] Chechanichev, “Tajna Molchania Gosudaria” (The Mystery of the Tsar’s Silence), Russkaia Narodnaia Linia, May 19, 2020. Italics mine (V.M.).

[8] Service, op. cit., p. 30.

[9] Lebedev, op. cit., p. 491.

[10] Babkin, “Sviatejshij Sinod Pravoslavnoj Rossijskoj Tserkvi i Revoliutsionnie Sobytia Fevralia-Marta 1917 g.” (“The Most Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Revolutionary Events of February-March, 1917”), http://www.monarhist-spb.narod.ru/D-ST/Babkin-1, p. 3.

[11] Radzinsky, The Last Tsar, p. 172. It has been argued that Tsar Nicholas had also given a certain impulse towards the democratic anarchy when he declared in his manifesto: “We command Our Brother to conduct State affairs fully and in inviolable unity with the representatives of those men who hold legislative office, upon those principles which they shall establish, swearing an inviolable oath to that effect.” The principles established by the State Duma were, of course, democratic, not monarchical. And on September 15, 1917, Kerensky even declared, in defiance of the whole aim of the Constituent Assembly as defined by Michael Alexandrovich in his manifesto, that Russia was now a republic… But perhaps the Tsar meant, not a Constituent Assembly, but a Zemsky Sobor, of the kind that brought Tsar Michael Romanov to the throne in 1613…

[12] Groyan, op. cit., pp. 122, 123.

[13] Buxhoeveden, op. cit., p. 412.

[14] Massie, The Romanovs: The Final Chapter, London: Arrow, 1995, p.261.

[15] Massie, op. cit., pp. 267-269. 

[16] Massie, op. cit., pp. 261-262.

[17] Evlogy, Puti moej zhizni (The Paths of My Life), Paris: YMCA Press, 1947, p. 604.

[18] Nazarov, Kto Naslednik Rossijskogo Prestola? (Who is the Heir of the Russian Throne?), Moscow, 1996, p. 375.

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