In 1812, Napoleon’s step-son Eugene de Beauharnais saved the Savvino-Storozhevssky Monastery from the pillaging of his own French troops. Stopping at the monastery for the night, Eugene had a vision of an aged monk who told him that if his monastery was protected from harm the prince would return home safe and well and his descendants would serve Russia. So runs the legend.
Eugene did return home, where he later married Princess Augusta of Bavaria and became the first Duke of Leuchtenberg.
Eugene and Augusta’s son Maximilian, 3rd Duke of Leuchtenberg, rose even higher, when in 1838 he married the Tsar’s daughter Grand Duchess Maria Nicholaievna and moved into a purpose built palace in St Petersburg. The couple had seven children and the story of how Maximilian and his descendants continued to serve Russia is the subject of Zoia Belyakova’s latest book, which takes its title from the Leuchtenberg family motto: Honour & Fidelity.
The author has found some riveting stories. Max and Maria’s eldest son, Nicolai, made a morganatic marriage for which his mother never forgave him (despite the fact that in later life she did the same thing herself); Nicolai’s niece Daria, who returned to Petrograd after the revolution, worked in the Leningrad Public Library and was executed in 1937; and Max’s daughter Princess Eugenie who, despite ill health, continued to carry out charitable works. One of the most fascinating sections is the story of her son Prince Peter of Oldenburg, who married Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna. Peter is usually dismissed as a gambling homosexual but here he comes across as sensitive, considerate and attentive to his young wife, a man who was a friend of several notable writers including Tolstoy. He himself wrote essays, including one called “Loneliness” based on events after his parting from Olga. Some of it appears in this book.
Professor Belyakova has travelled round Europe and America interviewing descendants of Duke Max and Grand Duchess Maria. Many of them have lent rare letters and photographs which are published here for the very first time. The result is a well researched, well written work about a family whose story deserves to be told.