On June 12, 1918, Grand Duke Mikhail Aleksandrovich (henceforth Michael) and his secretary Brian Johnson, a Brit, were randomly executed in the outskirts of the far away city of Perm in the Ural Mountains. A year ago, Russia “rehabilitated” both, along with other Romanov-related victims of Soviet repression. The decision followed a similar act about Tsar Nicholas II and his family on October 1, 2008.
However, the Russian media at large failed to single Michael out from among the other Romanovs. Didn?t Tsar Nicholas abdicate in favor of Michael, his younger brother? If so, shouldn?t he be treated as Michael II, the last of the Romanov tsars?
Yes, he should. So thinks Donald Crawford, the co-author of a 1997 book Michael and Natasha: The Life and Love of Michael II, the Last of the Romanov Tsars. Crawford is a lawyer and the publisher of “Parliamentary Briefs” in London. He is fully aware of deviations from the law in both Nicholas?s abdication and Michael?s deferring his assumption of power contingent upon the decision of the popularly elected Constituent Assembly. However, Crawford insists that those deviations were necessary in order to save the spirit of the law and Russia herself. He is right in calling Michael “the last of the Romanov tsars.” Not for the sake of anybody?s vanity, of which Michael had none. But for the sake of extraordinary legacy that Michael bequeathed to Russia. That legacy is worthy of any tsar.
Left-liberal and Soviet propaganda for years maligned and dismissed the only act Michael signed on March 16, 1917 in response to his brother?s declaring him the Emperor of Russia. They called it a yet another abdication following the one by Nicholas. In fact, it was far from it. In his Manifesto Michael declared his readiness to assume the supreme power contingent upon the decision of the Constituent Assembly on the best form of government for Russia. He stipulated the Constituent Assembly to be elected through universal, direct, equal, and secret ballot. He thus introduced to Russia the most democratic electoral law anywhere at the time, including the US. He finally empowered the Provisional Government to run the country until the Constituent Assembly was elected.
The immediate effect of Michael?s conciliatory compromise decision was that the February revolution was stopped in its track. Russia was enabled to resume her war obligations as part of the Entente alliance. The victory was clearly in sight, especially, after the United States joined the alliance next month. However, the Provisional Government proved ineffective. The Bolsheviks continued to undermine war efforts with the slogan “Turn the imperialist war into a civil war” and the promise of land to soldiers who were mostly peasants. Trying to win a popularity contest with the Bolsheviks, the left-liberal Provisional Government of Aleksandr Kerensky declared Russia republic on September 1, in direct violation of Michael?s Manifesto. Finally, the Provisional Government was overthrown in a Bolshevik coup d?etat on November 7, 1917.
Wishing to legitimize their coup, the Bolsheviks allowed the elections to take place. But as soon as they realized they suffered a crushing defeat, gaining less than a quarter of Constituent Assembly delegates, they forcibly shot down its first session on January 17. Thus they unleashed a civil war they wanted. In March Lenin?s government exiled Michael, the godfather of the Constituent Assembly, as well as his secretary Johnson, to Perm, the gateway to Siberia. During the night on June 12th both were slain, without a trial, by a Bolshevik hit squad.
It?s noteworthy that the Bolsheviks got rid of Michael before Tsar Nicholas. It was Michael, not Nicholas, who embodied the principal alternative to the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” A week after Michael?s murder, the Archbishop Andronicus of Perm was buried alive by same terror squad. Then the reprisals against Christians began on a scale not seen since the Roman Empire. The civil war got in full swing, a war that took more lives than the “imperialist” war the Bolsheviks so hypocritically decried. The rest is history: Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, the WWII and the Cold War.
Didn?t all this happen because Michael?s Manifesto and his martyrdom were forgotten? The Crawfords suggests that. They are not alone to have a very high opinion of “Tsar Michael II” and his sole official act. In fact, the Manifesto held the country together. It served as the fundamental law of the land, Russia?s constitution, as it were. For nine months the Russians waited for the power of ballot to assert itself. Michael was universally admired by his contemporaries of different political persuasions. He was unassuming, honest, clever, sincere, friendly, and humble. An heir to the throne, he was not power-hungry. He was a man of duty. In signing the Manifesto he put Russia?s well-being above his own.
A brave soldier, during WWI he commanded the Cavalry Division of Muslim volunteers from the Northern Caucasus. It was Russia?s most audacious and effective fighting unit. Some of Michael?s associates expected him to use loyal troops to suppress the mutiny and lawlessness fomented by the Bolsheviks in the capital. He refused to do so because any such action was likely to degenerate into a fratricidal war. The Bolsheviks wanted it. Michael did not. Sometimes, it takes more bravery not to fight than to fight. And it takes more wisdom to be a peace-maker rather than a Napoleon. By signing his Manifesto Michael proved both.
With the collapse of Lenin?s misbegotten Soviet Empire in 1991, a grass-root movement aimed at retrieving Michael from the black hole of Soviet amnesia started in Perm. It includes students, journalists, local history buffs, human rights advocates, people of different ethnicities and confessions, of all walks of life. They have done a number of things to honor Michael?s memory: mounted a memorial plaque on the building where he stayed last, erected a memorial cross, published a collection of archival documents and memoirs, produced documentary films, and sponsored annual conferences. At the 2008 conference Mr. Crawford called Michael “a bridge from the tsarist past to a new Russia.”
Though secular, the Perm movement accepts that Michael was a devout Christian and therefore his recognition by the church is essential. The Russian emigre church in the USA did canonize Michael in 1981, along with Nicholas. But the Moscow Patriarchy has so far canonized only Nicholas and his immediate family. Since the two hierarchies are about to reconcile, one can expect that Michael?s canonization in Moscow is a matter of time. On the secular side, having obtained Michael?s “rehabilitation” a year ago, Perm activists now strive for his recognition on a federal level.
It is unclear why Russia has been slow in recognizing Michael. It took eleven years before a Russian translation of the Crawfords? 1997 book, which had already been translated to German, French and Spanish, was published in 2008. However, the momentum for recognition is gaining. In 2008, Vladimir Khrustalev published a volume on Michael based on the documents kept in The State Archives of the Russian Federation where he works. In 2009 Natalia Chernysheva-Melnik, a Petersburg journalist, published a non-scholarly but inspired and insightful book on Michael that has become a best-seller. On the other side of the Atlantic, I do all I can to push the momentum forward. I do it both in Russian and in English. One of my articles, run by Moskovskie novosti, made its way to Wikipedia. My 2006 speech at the Russian Cultural Center in Washington, “Who Was Russia?s Last Tsar?” was published in the European Royal History Journal in California.
A major break-through for the pro-Michael movement occurred recently in St. Petersburg. On May 19, 2010, for the first time ever a memorial conference was held in the former imperial capital, from which Michael was driven to exile and death in Perm. Remarkably, it took place in the Grand Duke?s own palace on Angliiskaya Naberezhnaya 54. It means “English embankment” of the Neva River where the British sailors and merchants used to settle when the city was founded by Peter the Great. Just as remarkably, the current occupier of the palace is the All-Russian Society for the Deaf. As it turned out, Michael was one of the patrons of the deaf. After the palace was nationalized, Soviet authorities let the city?s deaf move in, and they have been in charge of the palace since 1922.
The program featured presentations from Perm, where Michael was slain; Brasovo where he had an estate; and Gatchina where he spent his childhood and later settled in a house with his wife Natalia Brasova (nee Sheremetevskaya). There was a report from an abbot of a monastery in the northern Murmansk region. The abbot, former Soviet Navy captain, told the story of how Michael?s personal icon was saved by his great grand-father when the palace was ransacked in 1918. He managed to conceal it through the yeas of terror when possession of an icon could make one liable for the GULAG. The great grand-father died during the blockade of Leningrad in WWII. When the persecutions abated, his family donated the icon to one of the few remaining churches. Speaking at the conference, the abbot identified the church whose current priest was only too happy to learn of Michael-connection to the church?s most revered treasure.
Other revelations followed. A young woman came up on stage to thank the organizers for honoring, along with Michael, her great grand-uncle Brian Johnson. Another woman displayed a newspaper dated March 5, 1917, in which both Nicholas?s Abdication and Michael?s Manifesto were printed on the first page. The woman turned out to be a Petersburg sculptor whose friend found the newspaper hidden under back cover of an icon. Apparently, the possession of an icon was not deemed as dangerous as the possession of a pre-Soviet newspaper. There was even a report from North Caucasus that the descendants of Michael?s Cavalry men fondly remember him.
There were several other fist-ever events. Not only did the conference take place in the House of the Deaf, but its proceedings were translated by sign language. Then there was a cross-bearing procession in Michael?s memory, the first ever in St. Petersburg, even though in Perm such processions have been an annual event since 2007. The procession stopped at Millionnaya Street #12, about a block from The Hermitage. It was here that Michael signed his Manifesto. We stood at the principal turning point of the bloody XX century. There is no memorial plaque there. Led by Rev. Gennady Belovolov, the vicar of the Church of John the Evangelist, the procession thrice proclaimed “Eternal Glory” to Michael.
In a recent interview, Rev. Gennady Belovolov stated that “The conference became a new mile stone in understanding his (Michael?s) life and his heroic deed. It showed that (if we continue to ignore Michael), we will not understand the Russian tragedy and the XX century catastrophe. Consequently, we shall not find a way out.”
As I am heading now to the annual Michael commemoration in Perm scheduled for June 10-12, I’m readying a report about the May 19th conference in St. Petersburg to be delivered there. I’m sure that Perm citizens will be thrilled to learn they are no longer alone in honoring Michael. As it was announced at the Petersburg conference, simultaneously with Perm, Michael’s memory will be honored, for the first time, in Brasovo.
Among several greetings read in Michael?s palace on May 19, one was from Viktor Evtukhov, a member of the Federation Council and government representative for St. Petersburg. “I sincerely share your goals and perspectives,” read the message. “We should know about this man and remember him” because this remembrance “can give our society the ethical foundation.” It is hard to disagree with the senator. If he was heard even in the House of the Deaf, there is a hope he would be heard in the rest of Russia.
As it happens, the Memorial Day for Michael Romanov, June 12, coincides with the so called Russia Independence Day. The latter was introduced in 1990 when Russian parliament declared Russian sovereignty inside the USSR. Many Russians I talked to seem to be confused as to what they are expected to celebrate: Independence from whom? Recently, the holiday was renamed to Russia Day. There is no figure in modern Russian history that can better fit the billing and serve as a bridge from Russia of the old to a new Russia than Mikhail Aleksandrovich Romanov, a patriot, defender of the fatherland, statesman, and peace-maker.