Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich of Russia - Retreat


By June 1915, the Russians were in retreat. When Grand Duke Constantine died that month, Michael was the only member of the imperial family absent from the funeral in Petrograd. Natalia chided him for his absence, and Michael retorted that it was simply wrong for his relatives to abandon their units to attend Constantine's funeral at such a time. The American war correspondent, Stanley Washburn, reported that Michael wore "a simple uniform with nothing to indicate his rank but shoulder straps of the same material as his uniform". Michael was "unaffected and democratic" and "living so simply in a dirty village". Natalia was appalled that Michael eschewed fancy uniforms and decorations for life at the front, but he was convinced "that at such a difficult time I must serve Russia and serve here at the front".

In July 1915, Michael caught diphtheria but recovered. The war was going badly for Russia, and the following month Nicholas appointed himself Supreme Commander of the Russian forces. The move was not welcomed. Nicholas's bad decisions included instructing Michael to authorise a payment to a friend of Rasputin's, an army engineer called Bratolyubov, who claimed to have invented a devastating flame-thrower. The claim was bogus, and Bratolyubov was arrested for fraud, but Rasputin intervened and he was released. Michael appeared gullible and naive; a friend of Natalia's said he "trusted everybody ... Had his wife not watched over him constantly, he would have been deceived at every step."

In October 1915, Michael regained control of his estates and assets from Nicholas, and in February 1916 was given command of the 2nd Cavalry Corps, which included the Savage Division, a Cossack division, and a Don Cossack division. However, the slights against him by the Tsar's retinue continued; when he was promoted to lieutenant-general in July 1916, unlike all other Grand Dukes who attained that rank he was not appointed as an aide-de-camp to the Tsar with the rank of adjutant-general. Michael admitted that he "always despised Petrograd high society ... no people are more devious than they are; with a few exceptions, they are all scum." Michael made no public political statements, but it was assumed that he was a liberal, like his wife, and British consul Bruce Lockhart thought he "would have made an excellent constitutional monarch".

Throughout the summer of 1916, Michael's corps was involved in the Brusilov Offensive. The Guards Army suffered heavy losses under the incompetent leadership of Michael's uncle, Grand Duke Paul, who was removed from command. In contrast, Michael was awarded a second gallantry medal, the Order of St. Vladimir with Swords, for his part in actions against the enemy, and was belatedly made an adjutant-general. The poor progress of the war and their almost constant separation depressed both Michael and Natalia. Michael was still suffering from stomach ulcers, and in October 1916 he was ordered to take leave in the Crimea.

Before leaving for his sister Xenia's estate at Ai-Todor, 12 miles from Yalta, he wrote a candid letter to his brother warning him that the political situation was tense:

I am deeply concerned and worried by what is happening around us. There has been a shocking alteration in the mood of the most loyal people ... which fills me with a most serious apprehension not only for you and for the fate of our family, but even for the integrity of the state order.
The public hatred for certain people who allegedly are close to you and who are forming part of the present government has, to my amazement, brought together the right, the left and the moderate; and this hatred, along with the demands for changes are already openly expressed.

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