“The Last Tsar. Emperor Michael II,” by Donald Crawford. (Murray McLellan, Edinburgh. Paperback). 346 pages, 10 illustrations in the text.
Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich, youngest brother of Nicholas II, has been rather neglected by biographers. This is a pity, because his story is equally tragic in its ending.
Born in 1878, Michael took the route of most Grand Dukes and entered the army, and while serving at Gatchina he fell in love with the wife of a fellow officer. Natasha Wulfert was already divorced and the relationship caused a scandal. When the couple married secretly in Vienna, two years after Natasha had given birth to Michael’s son, the Tsar banished them from Russia.
Michael was permitted to return when war broke out in 1914. He heroically led the Savage Division, earning an award for bravery. General Brusilov called him “an absolutely honourable and upright man… As a soldier he was an excellent leader and an unassuming and conscientious worker.” As revolution erupted Michael tried to persuade his brother to grant a government that would have the confidence of the people, to no avail. Nicholas refused to listen and when he abdicated in 1917 he bypassed Tsarevich Alexei and left Michael to pick up the pieces.
Donald Crawford argues that Michael was “proclaimed Emperor without his knowledge or consent. He had not willingly become Emperor and Nicholas had no right to pass the throne to him.” He had to act as Emperor to give legitimacy to the Provisional Government. The result, says Crawford, was “a manifesto which would make Michael Emperor without it saying that he had accepted the throne….,” his powers would be vested in the Provisional Government and he would wait for a Constituent Assembly to decide the future of Russia and the monarchy. Nowhere was the word “abdicate” mentioned.
In the end it mattered little and the “wise government” Michael wished for never materialised. In 1918 he was arrested by the Soviet and exiled to Perm with his secretary Johnson. On 13 June they were taken by force from their hotel and shot in the woods outside the town. Their bodies have never been found.
This is a riveting account of a powerful story – but it has one flaw. In 1997 Donald Crawford and his wife Rosemary published “Michael & Natasha”, which contains almost everything (and more) to be found in this present work. If you have read “Michael & Natasha” you won’t find anything new here – but if you haven’t then “The Last Tsar” is a recommended read.