The Royal Contemporary of the Revolution
by Alexander N. Zakatov © Российский Императорский Дом
The Royal Contemporary of the Revolution
by Alexander N. Zakatov © Российский Императорский Дом
HIH Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich
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This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Death, and the 95th Anniversary of the Birth, of H.I.H. Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich, the former Head of the Russian Imperial House from 1938-1992.
On the 20-th Anniversary
Twenty years have passed since the death, and 95 since the birth, of the former Head of the Russian Imperial House, Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich. The tragic history of Russia in the twentieth century is inseparable from the life story of this remarkable man, who was born during the revolutionary upheaval and spent his entire life in exile and who, in the twilight of his days, saw the first steps in the return of his homeland to its traditional path of historical development.
His father was Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich, the grandson of Alexander II the Tsar-Liberator, and the first cousin of Nicholas II. He was a famous naval officer, a hero of the Russo-Japanese War, who nearly shared the fate of Vice-Admiral S. O. Makarov, next to whom he stood on the bridge of the Dreadnought “Petropavlovsk” at the moment the ship took a direct hit on March 31, 1904; He was the commander of the Marine Guards regiment; and during the revolution, Rear Admiral Grand Duke Kirill was the third in line to the throne after the Tsesarevich Aleksei and after Nicholas II’s brother, Grand Duke Mikhail. Together with his uncle, Grand Duke Pavel Aleksandrovich, Kirill Vladimirovich in February-March, 1917, attempted to save the monarchy and to preserve the throne of his cousin. But on March 2, the emperor abdicated the throne, and already on March 8 was arrested together with his entire family on the treacherous order of the Provisional Government. On the very same day, Kirill Vladimirovich resigned his commissions; and in June, 1917, he and his pregnant wife Victoria, and daughters Maria and Kira, left for the Grand Duchy of Finland, which at that time was part of the Russian Empire. There, in the city of Borgo, on August 17, 1917 (old style), Vladimir Kirillovich was born.
Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich's parents: Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich and
Shortly afterward, the combined efforts of the German General P. von der Holtz and of the White General K. Mannerheim had smashed the resistance of the Reds in Finland. Having lived for a time in Borgo, Kirill Vladimirovich and his family moved to Western Europe: to Switzerland, to the French Riviera, to Coburg in Germany—such were the first destinations of the royal wanderers.
In 1922, while still uncertain about the deaths of those ahead of him in the order of succession to the throne, but recognizing his own responsibility to serve the dynasty, Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich, as the most senior member of the Imperial House, assumed the title of “Guardian of the Imperial Throne.” In 1924, after it had become clear that no hope remained that both sons and the grandson of Alexander III were still alive, Kirill Vladimirovich, in accordance with the Fundamental Laws of the Russian Empire, assumed the title of emperor. In so doing, he normalized the situation of the Russian Imperial House in exile and guaranteed its preservation as a historical-juridical institution existing independent of the changes in the political regime at home. The seven-year-old Vladimir Kirillovich thereby became the heir and tsesarevich.
(left) Grand Duchess Victoria Feodorovna with her new son, Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich (born at Borgo,
Outside their home at Saint-Briac, France (from left to right) Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich,
Vladimir Kirillovich articulated his understanding of his inherited duties in the following moving and noble words: “I have but one goal, one desire—to give myself over to the service of Russia, for the sake of the happiness and prosperity of the Russian people, who can find justice and freedom only under the protection of the imperial throne.”
With the death of Emperor Kirill, many of the conflicts in the émigré community faded into memory, conflicts that were at once contrived and false, but also insurmountable and firmly linked with Kirill. For the émigré organizations on the extreme right, which would have liked to unite around the dynasty but could not do it during the lifetime of Kirill Vladimirovich because of a range of political issues and because of the inertia generated by previous conflicts, his death provided an ideal opportunity to reconcile with the Imperial Family. And for those who perhaps did not want to submit to Vladimir Kirillovich, it became quite difficult to remain on the sidelines of a process that was embracing the larger part of the emigration, since that was a course that led only to isolation. One after another, the Russian General-Military Union, the Subreme Monarchist Council, the Union of the Nobility, and other leading emigration organizations recognized Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich as the undisputed center of Russian national unity in his capacity as the legitimate head of the Russian Imperial House. The First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, Metropolitan Anastasii (Gribanovskii) continued the tradition initiated by his predecessor Metropolitan Antonii (Khrapovitskii), and unreservedly subported the young sovereign. The Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad of 1939 sent greetings to Vladimir Kirillovich in a special epistle: “Only a tsar, anointed by God as the subreme head and leader of the Russian land, can satisfy the ancient expectations of the Russian Orthodox people.” Recognition and subport to the grand duke was also given by the head of the Constantinople (Paris) Russian Church Jurisdiction of Metropolitan Evlogii (Georgievskii).
HIH Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich in his study at Saint-Briac
This unification was made possible by a slight change in the direction of the Imperial House. Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich, despite his youth, was in his social-political views more conservative than his father. He distanced himself from the Mladoross Party (Young Russians Party), which stood for the time being for monarchist positions, but which went beyond the position held by the rightist emigration by bantering the shocking slogan “Tsar and Soviets.” In this matter, Vladimir Kirillovich, following the example and experiences of Emperor Kirill, did not permit his name to become attached to this would-be political movement. He asserted: “As the legitimate head of the Russian Imperial House and as the impartial advocate of the aspirations of the Russian people,” “as the successor of the rights and responsibilities of my sovereign ancestors (…) I cannot and will not be seen as the head of any sort of political group. The Lord has blessed me to serve all the Russian people, and all the interests of our great state.”
In 1929, with the goal of better understanding the lives of working people, Vladimir Kirillovich, incognito, went to Great Britain and took a job in a factory that manufactured diesel motors under the name of Peter Mikhailov, the name that Peter I the Great had taken during his incognito travels to the West. The head of the house of Romanoff received a worker’s wages, rented an apartment, and few of his co-workers ever knew that they were working next to Russian royalty. And, given the famous British sense of courtesy, anyone who figured it out never said so.
His work in the factory and his efforts to complete in England his university education were interrupted by the Second World War, which began on September 1, 1939. The grand duke was in St. Briac when the Germans occupied France. Making the most of his acquaintances with the aristocratic elements of the German officer corps (such as the German commander of the military district around St. Malo, General von Aulock, and others), many of whom, by the way, had anti-fascist leanings, Vladimir Kirillovich succeeded in easing the hardships of Soviet prisoners-of-war confined in concentration camps around St. Malo and on the Isle of Jersey. The grand duke remarked in the following way about this period:
At the very height of the war, I learned that some Russian prisoners were being held on the mainland, and some others on the British coastal islands occupied by the Germans, and that their condition was quite difficult. Other prisoners of war received aid from their countries via the Red Cross, plus letters and packages from home, but Russian prisoners received no such assistance whatsoever. As is well known, in Russia these prisoners were considered traitors or defectors, and one can imagine the dreadful conditions under which these prisoners lived. To the extent that I had some contacts among German officers, I was able to offer assistance to them. When I raised the issue, they looked into matters and, as far as I am aware, the situation of our prisoners improved little by little. For the most part, the prisoners were used on the construction of defensive works. Those on the islands I never met, but some of those working on the mainland I was able to meet several times, and when we were able to talk, they enjoyed telling me about themselves. It was not possible to do a lot for them, but even the little we did do, when they found out that at least somebody did care about them, was for them a bright moment in their otherwise sad situations. I don’t know what happened to these prisoners later. When, after the start of Perestroika had made it possible to send letters back and forth to Russia, I began to receive an unimaginable amount of letters from Russia, and I always hoped that one of these former prisoners would still be alive and would write to me; but, I’m afraid, none ever did because any that were returned home were put in concentration camps and a great many of them died there.
The grand duke’s assistance also included sending food, games, and candies for the children in the concentration camps, and organizing worship services, for which Fr. Ioann Grigor-Klochko from Paris was enjoined to serve.
No matter how the situation around him changed, one idea informed all of the grand duke’s statements and utterances during the Second World War. They were never pro-French (at the beginning of the war), or pro-German (during his years living under German occupation), or pro-Soviet (during the fall of Germany). These statements and utterances all show the same sharp distinction between Russia and the Communist regime, and they reflect his continuing faith in the Russian national strength and hope for liberation from Communism. In this tragic, conflicting situation, the head of the Imperial House could not hope for the destruction of his homeland, but nor could he link his hope for victory with the Marxist dictatorship. The grand duke was convinced that the Russian people would find in themselves the strength to defeat both its internal and external enslavers. Vladimir Kirillovich carried himself with honor during the war years, being stained neither with collaborationist nor pro-Communist sympathies.
In 1944, as a result of the German retreat from the advancing Allies, the Fascist authorities forced the grand duke to move first to Paris, then to Germany. There he took up residence in Amorbach, where his sister, Maria, princess of Leiningen, lived. This was perhaps the most dangerous period in the grand duke’s life, since, on the one hand, things were coming to a head with the Fascists, and, on the other, there was a real danger of his being repatriated to the USSR, in which case the grand duke would surely fall victim to the state’s security agencies. The Lord spared the life of the heir of the Russian tsars. After the end of the war, Vladimir Kirillovich, with the help of officers of the French Foreign Legion, fled arrest by Soviet occupation authorities in Austria and came through Switzerland to Spain, where his aunt, the Infanta Beatrice, lived.
(left) Princess Leonida as a young girl in 1920. (right) Grand Duchess Leonida Georgievna.
Grand Duchess Leonida Georgievna to a significant degree helped her husband to reestablish the activities of the dynasty after the disruptions of the war, which had destroyed the former system of Russian institutions and organizations in the emigration. The chancellery had to be established anew; trips were made across the world to establish ties with relatives from other European royal houses, with monarchs and presidents, and with representatives of society, science, and culture; charitable activities emerged; and life returned to the villa “Ker Argonid” in St. Briac. In all of this, the contribution of Leonida Georgievna is inestimable.
Letter of congratulations from H.M. Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain to Grand Duke Vladimir
All his life, Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich waited and believed that Russia would free itself from totalitarianism and from militant state-sponsored atheism and would return to its historical path. Naturally, he welcomed the fall of the Communist regime in August, 1991. Rejoicing over the emancipation of his country from the godless authorities, Vladimir Kirillovich at the same time grievingly lived through the subsequent dismemberment of the once great empire, and the sorrow, the suffering, and the devastation of millions of his countrymen. “The collapse will not bring good things to the separate parts of the empire which now seek independence,” he prophetically said even before the signing of the Belovezh Treaty. “It would be better for everyone if some sort of federal state could be devised because the territory of Russia is expansive and rich such that there would be resources enough for everyone.” By the term “territory of Russia” Vladimir Kirillovich of course meant all the territory that formally constituted the USSR. “Independence unavoidably will force the new sovereign states to request Western aid, but this aid will have strings attached to it. It is difficult to begin one’s independence with a series of debts.” All the peoples of the Russian Empire were dear to him, and he never lost hope for the reestablishment of the unity that was lost. “Our Motherland is quite rich,” Vladimir Kirillovich said immediately after the collapse of the August Putsch of 1991, “and if it is really to stand on its own two feet and regain a measure of normalacy, then all those republics that are now striving for independence will have to turn back to it because they have existed for so many centuries as one state—because it is more to their advantage, more expedient to have economic, trade, and cultural ties with Russia than with overseas countries.” Of one thing he was certain: “We must not decide things by force. Not under any circumstances. Already too much blood has been spilt. It is time for violence to stop.”
Having lived his entire life in the West and knowing personally many of the “powers of this world,” the head of the Romanoff dynasty understood better than anyone that “one should be very cautious about accepting the West’s help.” “The grand duke would not want our country to fall into economic dependence on foreign powers.”
Grand Duke Vladimir and Grand Duchess Leonida with Aleksei II, (right) Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia
Despite all this, on November 5, 1991, the first visit of the head of the Russian Imperial House to Russia since the revolution of 1917 began. Vladimir Kirillovich and his wife, Leonida Georgievna, arrived in St. Petersburg at the invitation of the city’s mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, for the celebrations of the city resuming its historic name. The grand duke and grand duchess visited the graves of their royal predecessors in Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral, the monuments to the victims of the Blockade of Leningrad at the Piskarevskii Cemetery, venerated the relics of saints, and visited many of the traditional sites of the city.
At the St. John Convent on the Karpovka rivulet, Vladimir Kirillovich and Leonida Georgievna met with His Holiness, Patriarch Aleksei II of Moscow and All Russia, with whom the grand duke had corresponded previously. In this conversation—the first between a Russian sovereign and a patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church since the death in 1700 of Patriarch Adrian—the subject was raised of the unity of all Russian Orthodox jurisdictions abroad under the Omophorion of the Moscow Patriarchate. Vladimir Kirillovich related to the patriarch his own efforts to heal the schisms abroad and his ideas about how best to bring about unity in the Church. It will be remembered that, at that time, the hierarchy of the Church Abroad had adopted a very firm posture with respect to the Moscow Patriarchate, and that unification seemed at that time very unlikely. But now we are all witnesses to the signing of the formal act of canonical unity between the two parts of the Russian Orthodox Church. That happy event, for which Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich so long worked, took place 15 years after his death, in the very year his 90-th birthday would have been celebrated.
The organizers of the visit tried to keep to a minimum all contacts between the grand duke and his countrymen. Meetings with journalists were, despite the enormous popular interest, severely limited. The majority of the people who came to show their affection and respect were prevented from getting close to him, and this was not at all, of course, the grand duke’s doing. Vladimir Kirillovich himself wanted nothing more than to interact with the common people. The fact that everyone around him was speaking Russian, something we all are completely used to, was, to him, something he had long-awaited and found utterly pleasing.
“He listened attentively, and was very distressed and, it seemed, worried. He smiled very little. He did not at all look like the gentlemen who had accompanied him, with their contented, “Western” expressions on their faces. For some reason he was quite sad,” wrote the journalist I. Stepanova. “No, he did not come to celebrate his return with us. He saw everything through the eyes of a man who’s come to his homeland for the first time, the very thought of which has been the very aspiration of his entire life.”
Grand Duke Vladimir and Grand Duchess Leonida praying at the tombs of their ancestors at the Peter and Paul
During the course of their visit, Their Imperial Highnesses visited the magnificent cathedrals, majestic palaces, theaters, and museums of the city. But when the grand duke was ever asked what during his visit made the most lasting impression on him, he said that it was the residence church [podvor’e] in St. Petersburg of the Iosifo-Volokolamsk Monastery. This half-ruined church with temporary planking for floors, which had only just begun to be restored at that time, became for Vladimir Kirillovich a kind of icon of the recovery of all of Russia from ruins. When the rector, Fr. Andronik (Trubachev) asked the grand duke to say a few words after the completion of the Divine Liturgy, the voice of Vladimir Kirillovich trembled out of sheer emotion.
Departing the Fatherland on 11 November 1991, the grand duke was already thinking about his next visit, this time to Moscow, which was planned for May of the following year. But sensing in his heart the possibility of his own death before then, he told his wife: “When I die, bury me here, in my homeland.”
(left) St. Petersburg mayor, Anatoly Sochak, Grand Duke Vladimir, Grand Duchess Leonida, and L. B. Narusova; (right) Grand Duchess Leonida, A. P. Radashkevich, Personal Secretary to H.I.H., and Grand Duke Vladimir.
Indeed, Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich would not again see his homeland. On 21 April 1992, on the eve of Great and Holy Wednesday, during a visit to the USA which he undertook to attract friendly business groups in the West to get more involved in the rebirth of the Russian economy, the grand duke unexpectedly died in Miami, Florida during a press conference. Even now, the first news reports and the photograph published in Izvestiia capturing the moment when the heart attack struck, still call to mind again the feelings of grief and sadness.
(left) Grand Duke Vladimir meets Aleksei II, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia (1990-2008);
The funeral for the Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich took place
All that can be, has already been said, written, and thought about Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich. His right to be head of the Russian Imperial House was debated. His title was by some doubted. And so on and so forth. But the death of Vladimir Kirillovich definitively ended all doubts and resolved all problems. Vladimir Kirillovich Romanoff was our countryman, a patriot of Russia, and a Christian. After a certain period of indecision, the leaders of Russia and St. Petersburg gave their permission for the burial in St. Petersburg. In this way, the natural rights of the man to be buried in his chosen location and next to his relatives were upheld. This location is the grand-ducal mausoleum of Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral. And the funeral there signifies the recognition de jure of all the rights of the grand duke. And having that funeral presided over by the patriarch of all Russia gives him as much legitimacy as if he have been anointed to the throne.
On May 29, 1992, the head of the Russian Imperial House, Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich (de jure Emperor Vladimir III) was buried in the family mausoleum of the Romanoff Dynasty in the Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg.
Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich was buried with full pomp and splendour at the Grand Ducal Mausoleum of
Vladimir Kirillovich believed that monarchy in Russia had a future. On this topic, the grand duke always said that he and his heirs were ready to answer the people’s call, but he serves and will continue to serve Russia in any case, whether or not he occupies the throne. “For me the throne is not as important as my desire to be of some use to my country,” he said.
In his first interview published in the USSR, Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich affirmed that “Monarchy is the only form of government compatible with any political system, inasmuch as the role of the monarch is to be a highest arbiter in the land.” The grand duke was convinced that monarchy had not outlived its time, but was a fully modern system that had no less a right to exist today than republics. Probably, he had not read the similar sentiment of a certain political figure: “Monarchy in general is not a one-dimensional nor immutable thing, but a very flexible and capable institution that is suited to a variety of forms of government.” One might find it odd to be able to compare these two quotations, given the authorship of the second one. The name of the political figure who made such a surprising admission about monarchy was—Vladimir Il’ich Lenin. This man who hated to his very depths the spirit of the Russian monarchy, the hereditary nobleman V. I. Ul’ianov (Lenin), who came to power when Vladimir Kirillovich was only two months old, and on whose command all Romanoffs then still in Russia were executed. In our day, we Soviet people did not study Lenin very well. Or, at least, much of what he wrote we should have understood much sooner. Perhaps then the inevitable fall of Communism would have happened sooner and with fewer harsh consequences.
The life of Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich almost entirely coincided with the Communist experiment in Russia. He was born just before the October Revolution, and he outlived the totalitarian regime by exactly eight months. In his country he was born, and in his declining years he returned to it. In all this there is something Providential. The bonds of time have not been broken. The place of the eternal rest of Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich in the family mausoleum of the Romanoff dynasty is a symbol of the triumph of Divine Justice and of respect for all the periods of our long history.
Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich (1917-1992).
© Российский Императорский Дом