The Shadow Tsarina

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The German who became the grandest of Russia’s Grand Duchesses.

Duchess Marie “Miechen” Alexandrine Elisabeth Eleonore  of Mecklenburg-Schwerin (1854-1920) let it be known early on that she was a force to be reckoned with. Her mother, who died when Miechen was eight, left her with advice she rarely followed: “You must behave so you will be forgiven for being a duchess.” Chafing at life in a picturesque but poor minor German duchy, she saw her ticket out when she met Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich of Russia, brother of Tsar Alexander III. With Vladimir equally smitten, Miechen didn’t hesitate ditching her hapless fiancé, Prince George Schwartzburg, to embark on a three-year courtship securing the first of many personal victories. She dared defy tradition by refusing to covert from Lutheranism to Russian Orthodoxy and set a precedent when her future father-in-law, Tsar Alexander II, acquiesced and later admitted to admiring her courage. Birthplace aside, Miechen was strongly anti-German and took great pride in her Slavic blood, assuming the patronym Pavlovna (“of Paul”) to honor her descent from Tsar Paul I. The public speculated that the rowdy, hard-drinking 27-year-old Vladimir had finally met his match in a fiancee seven years his junior, and welcomed her to St. Petersburg with wild cheers and a procession that included illuminations, army maneuvers and a naval review. Miechen had definitely arrived!

Miechen and Vladimir were one of St. Petersburg's power couples..

Miechen and Vladimir were Saint Petersburg’s power couple.

For the next two decades, Miechen flourished as mistress of the opulent Vladimir Palace on the Neva River, a villa at Tsarskoe Selo and of course the requisite dacha. Her marriage was a good one as Vladimir abandoned his carousing and mistresses and fathered four children. She became justifiably renowned as St. Petersburg’s foremost hostess and was dubbed the “grandest of the grand duchesses.” Her political savvy was also celebrated, but the frank and formidable Miechen was not without detractors. Her ambition and strong opinions were often criticized, as were her lavish salons for the literati and intelligentsia of the day, disdained as “foreigners and commoners” by Petersburg’s Old Guard. She was often at odds with her sister-in-law, Tsarina Marie, with whom she maintained an armed truce, but their differences dwindled with the arrival of a common adversary. In 1894, the tsarevich Nicholas II married Princess Alix of Hesse and By Rhine, and two years later the two were crowned Emperor and Empress of all the Russias. Both Marie and Miechen offered to help the newly named Tsarina Alexandra navigate the complicated Romanov protocol only to be rebuffed. Whether from shyness or coldness, Alexandra shunned society and created a chasm that steadily widened over the years. When she isolated herself in Alexander Palace to focus on her five children, especially and understandably the hemophiliac crown prince Alexei, a great social gap was left which Miechen filled with a rival court that far out-dazzled the anemic imperial court in the Winter Palace. St. Petersburg was amused; Alexandra was not.

Decked out for a costume ball.

Costumed for the legendary 1903 Medieval Ball.

This was only one act in the outspoken Miechen’s performance as a shadow empress. She dismissed Nicholas as a milquetoast monarch and called his domineering German wife a cold fish loathed by the people. (Such opinions were common, but not so publicly voiced.) Nor were her designs on the throne any secret. In 1888, while she and Vladimir were on holiday in France, a railway accident nearly killed Tsar Alexander III and his family. Had they died, Vladimir would have ascended the throne and, upon hearing of their survival, Miechen blurted, “We shall never have such a chance again.” Fate tantalized otherwise in 1900 when Tsar Nicholas was stricken with a dangerous combination of typhoid fever and pneumonia. As Governor-General of St. Petersburg (the next-in-line Grand Duke Michael, Nicholas’s brother, was conveniently out of town), Vladimir was poised to seize the regency, but Nicholas miraculously recovered. It was left to Alexandra to fatally jeopardize the crown when she fell under the sway of a Siberian peasant and ersatz holy man named Grigori Rasputin whom she believed alleviated her son’s terrible suffering. In 1917, Nicholas, incredibly, put Alexandra in charge of the largest empire on earth when he left for the Stavka in Mogilev. When she enlisted Rasputin’s help, their colossal ineptitude catapulted the already rickety government to the brink of collapse, infuriating and terrifying the Romanov family. Miechen was far from alone in condemning Alexandra and courted arrest for treason by telling Michael Rodzianko, President of the Duma, that she wanted the tsarina annihilated. She was no more outraged than the Dowager Empress Marie who famously said, “Alexandra must be banished…Otherwise she might go completely mad. Let her enter a convent or just disappear.”  Their wishes would be granted a few months later when Nicholas was forced to abdicate and the entire imperial family put under house arrest.

A tsarina in all but the title.

A splendid tsarina in all but the title.

In the inevitable chaos that ensued, Miechen and her three sons fled to the Caucasus (daughter Elena, married to Prince Nicholas of Greece, was out of harm’s way) where they were soon engulfed by civil war. When Nicholas was murdered in 1918, along with Alexandra, the five children and Grand Duke Michael, Miechen clung to hopes that son Vladimir would claim the throne, but the 300-year-old Romanov dynasty was dead. Stripped of almost everything but her title, Miechen proved a study in defiance and survival. When the Bolshevik army closed in, she climbed into a leaky trawler and fled to the Black Sea port of Anapa. By gamely praising the “wonderfully picturesque setting,” she encouraged dozens of reluctant refugees to follow and thereby saved their lives. She remained in Anapa 14 miserable months, suffering further deprivation and growing gravely ill from tainted food. She could have escaped Russia through Constantinople (Istanbul) but, a grand duchess to the end, she refused to suffer the indignity of delousing before boarding a ship. She ended up living in a filthy train car with primitive sanitation, existing primarily on soup and moldy black bread. It took no less than General Peter Wrangel of the White Army to convince her all was lost, and only then did Miechen concede defeat, and in February, 1920, she boarded an Italian liner, the Semiramisa, bound for Venice.

Fleeing for her life and fighting for survival took its toll.

Fleeing for her life and fighting for survival took a terrible toll.

Always thinking ahead, when she saw revolution on the horizon, Miechen stashed her jewels, a collection almost as fabled as that of the tsarina, in a secret safe in the palace. When she shared her secret with longtime friend Albert Stopford, the elegant Englishman masqueraded as a lowly workman, sneaked into the palace now occupied by Bolsheviks, dumped the jewels into a sack and spirited them to their grateful owner. Miechen made her way through Italy and Switzerland before taking a villa in Contrexeville, France, where she hoped to improve her health. It was not to be. Shortly before her death in September, 1920, age 66, she divided the jewels among her children, giving her daughter the diamonds and the incomparable Vladimir tiara, later bought by Britain’s Queen Mary and worn today by Queen Elizabeth II. Miechen was the last Romanov to flee Russia and the first to die in exile, but the story doesn’t end there. In 2009, her jewels were back in the headlines when a stash discovered in Sweden sold at Sotheby’s for nearly $12 million, seven times the estimate, simply because they had belonged to this most flamboyant of Romanov women.

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Miechen appears larger-than-life even in her portraits.

1 Comment

  1. Ciji Ware
    Sep 18, 2015

    I loved this Grand Duchess in Past Time, and her life certainly had adventure and dash–plus would love to know more about those jewels ! I think “The Shadow Duchess” could make a novel on her own…so think upon it, yes?

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