Monday, March 30, 2020

Grand Duchess Kira of Russia





If the first world war had not swept away the thrones of Russia and Germany, the marriage between Grand Duchess Kira of Russia and Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia would have been a grand dynastic alliance.  As war clouds gathered once again over Europe, the marriage reminded many of a Europe past, when the Romanovs and the Hohenzollerns reigned supreme.   But in 1938, the Soviet Union was nearly two decades old, and the German Kaiser Wilhelm II was living in exile in the Netherlands.  In Wilhelm’s native Germany, Adolf Hitler was moving inexorably closer to establishing total hegemony over the European continent.

Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, 31,  was the second son of Crown Prince Wilhelm and Crown Princess Cecilie. As the second son, his future was largely his own to make, as the burden of inheritance was on his older brother Wilhelm’s shoulders.  This changed in 1933, when Prince Wilhelm, married Dorothea von Salviati.  As Kaiser Wilhelm II did not approve his grandson’s marriage, Wilhelm was obligated to renounce his rights to the throne, and, more important, to his position as the future head of the House of Hohenzollern.  (In 1940, Prince Wilhelm was killed in action, leaving behind his widow, and two young daughters.)

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  Until his brother’s marriage, Louis Ferdinand had few family obligations.  His grandfather had encouraged Louis Ferdinand to see the world.  He received a Ph.D in Argentina, and he had a rather public affair with the French-born film star, Lily Damita, whom he followed to Hollywood.  He learned about American productivity when he worked for Henry Ford in Detroit. Louis Ferdinand was smitten with Lily Damita and planned to run off to Mexico to marry her.   Louis Ferdinand eventually came to his senses when he realized that Damita was exploiting her relationship with him for publicity purposes.

Louis Ferdinand returned to Germany where he got a job with Lufthansa.  He was also conscripted into the Luftwaffe, although Prince Louis Ferdinand did not support National Socialism and Adolf Hitler.

Wilhelm’s renouncement emphasized Louis Ferdinand’s need to make an equal marriage.

Family connections had a lot to do with the first meetings between Prince Louis Ferdinand and Grand Duchess Kira of Russia.   Kira’s mother, Victoria Melita, and Kaiser Wilhelm II were first cousins, as both were grandchildren of Britain’s Queen Victoria.

Louis Ferdinand and Kira were third cousins through Louis Ferdinand’s maternal grandmother, Grand Duchess Anastasia Mikhailovna of Russia, whose first cousin was Kira’s paternal grandfather Grand Duke Wladimir Alexandrovitch.

Grand Duchess Kira Kirillovna of Russia was born on May 9, 1909, at the family’s apartment on the Avenue Henri Martin in Paris. She was the second daughter of Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovitch of Russia and Princess Victoria Melita of Edinburgh.  Her birth coincided with her parents’ return to Russia after their marriage was finally acknowledged by their cousin, Emperor Nicholas II.

Nicholas did not originally give permission for the marriage as Victoria Melita and Kirill were first cousins.  There was no question about Victoria Melita’s suitability as the wife of a Russian Grand Duke.  Her father was the second son of Queen Victoria, and the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in his own right until his death in 1900.  Her mother, Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna, was the daughter of Emperor Alexander II of Russia, whose brother, Wladimir, was Kirill’s father.  The Orthodox Church forbids the marriage between two first cousins (as well as second and third cousins), and, thus, Nicholas could sanction an otherwise equal marriage.  Victoria Melita was also divorced from her first husband, Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hesse and By Rhine, although none of the statutes in the Fundamental Laws refers to divorce.


Despite her royal connections, Victoria Melita’s divorce and her affair with Grand Duke Kirill made her a social pariah.   The situation was made worse for Ducky, the family nickname for the Malta-born Victoria Melita, by the fact that her former sister-in-law, Alix, was married to Nicholas II.  Alix and Ducky were also first cousins.   The Tsar was a first cousin to Kirill and to Victoria Melita.

It was a tense situation for all.  Kirill and Ducky were married by a Russian Orthodox priest in October 1905.  Shortly afterward, Kirill was stripped of his title, his military ranks, everything connected to his Imperial position. He was also cut off from his imperial appanage.  The newlyweds did not have to worry about money, as they received substantial support from Kirill’s parents and Victoria Melita’s mother.

Kirill and Ducky settled into an apartment on the Avenue Henri Martin in Paris, although winters were spent at the Chateau Fabron, which was owned by Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna.

The couple’s first child, Maria, known as Mashka, was born at the Edinburgh Palace in Coburg in January 1907.  A few weeks before Maria’s birth, Victoria Melita, baptized according to the rites of the Anglican church, and confirmed in the Lutheran church, was received into the Orthodox church.

This was a major decision for Victoria Melita, as she understood the importance of her act.  The following year, her mother-in-law, Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna, “at her own spiritual prompting,” also joined the Orthodox church.  When she married Grand Duke Vladimir in 1874, Marie Pavlovna chose to remain Lutheran.  Circumstances, however, would make the Grand Duchess change her mind. 

The Empress Alexandra’s youngest child and only son, Alexis, suffered from hemophilia, and it seemed unlikely that Alexandra, already the mother of five children, would have another child.   The next in the line of succession was Nicholas’s younger brother, Michael, who was unmarried in 1908. (His proposed marriage with Princess Beatrice of Edinburgh, Ducky’s youngest sister, came to naught as he was not permitted to marry his first cousin).  Michael was followed in the succession by his uncle, Grand Duke Vladimir, and his three sons, the eldest of whom was Kirill.



Nicholas eventually came round to accepting the marriage.  On July 15, 1907, he issued a decree that conferred the title of Grand Duchess on Victoria Melita.  She would now be known as Her Imperial Highness Grand Duchess Victoria Feodorovna of Russia.  Kirill’s privileges were also restored. 

At least for the question of succession, Kirill’s position at court was further enhanced when Grand Duke Michael married morganatically in 1911, a year after his future wife birth gave birth to a son.  Michael did not lose his right to succeed to the throne, but as his marriage was unequal, according to the Fundamental Laws, his wife and children were not considered members of the Imperial Family.   It did not seem conceivable at this time that the 300-year-old Romanov dynasty would come to an end in a cellar in Ekaterinburg only seven years later.  But Kirill’s ambitious mother, Marie Pavlovna, sensed that the throne would eventually devolve on her eldest son, Kirill, and his family.

Nicholas II Alexandra, their five children, and the servants who had remained with them were all shot to death in the early hours of July 17, 1918.   One month earlier, Nicholas’ brother, Grand Duke Michael, who had become the emperor after his brother’s abdication, was executed along with a manservant.

Michael’s son, George, was not eligible for the succession, the next in line to the vacant throne was Grand Duke Kirill, who with his wife, Victoria, and their three children, were living in Finland, in relative safety.  After Kirill had declared his allegiance to the Provisional Government, he and his family were given permission to leave Russia.  They were allowed to take only a few possessions with them.  Ducky sewed precious jewels into the family’s clothes.  Their departure had been “quietly arranged,” by Alexander Kerensky, the head of the Provisional Government.    Grand Duke Kirill and his two daughters left in one car for the train station.  Victoria, then seven months pregnant, left in a second car, taking a different route to the train station.

The exit documents were presented, and the family got into the train with little fuss.    Princess Kira, who was eight-years-old at the time, remembers that their travel passes “were respected and we were not molested on the way.”

The little girl also noticed the lack of imperial trappings in the car – “red carpets, special comforts.” 

  The family stayed for two weeks at Haiko in Borgo (now Porvoo, Finland), at the villa of friends before moving into a rented house in town, where on August 30, 1917, Ducky gave birth to a son, Wladimir.


It was not an easy exile for the family, as the situation in Finland soon disintegrated into anarchy.  By the end of the year, civil war spread throughout the country.  Even the most basic food essentials, including milk and sugar, were difficult to obtain.   The country was in a state of collapse, but Kirill and Victoria refused to leave, as they still believed that Russia would emerge victoriously, and the monarchy would be restored.    The French government and the King of Sweden made overtures to the Grand Ducal couple to assist their departure.  But the family would not leave Finland.

        In March 1918, the Bolshevik government signed the Brest-Litvosk treaty that ended the war between Russia and Germany.  Finland’s civil war also ended, and the country was now, for the time being, in German hands.  Although they were largely safe from the Bolsheviks, life in Finland continued to be difficult for Kirill and Ducky and their three children.

    Ducky was able to keep in contact with several relatives including her sister, Crown Princess Marie of Roumania, and her first cousin, Crown Princess Margaret of Sweden, who sent food and clothing parcels.

In a letter to her Aunt Marie, Kira described her family’s plight.  “ We go for long walks and hunt for mushrooms in the woods.  There are many wildflowers in bloom.  Each Friday we go to the cinema.  On Saturday we have games.”

Kira could not hide her sadness from her aunt Missy, whom she barely knew.  “I often wonder if we will ever go away from here.  We are getting so dreadfully homesick but I suppose we are better off here. When there is no more sugar I think we will miss it very much.  Our lessons keep us occupied, otherwise, we are rather bored sometimes.”

The family lived in Finland until the summer of 1919.  Kirill had received permission to stay in Finland for another year, but he and Ducky decided that it was time to move closer to family.  The couple was painfully aware that the Bolsheviks controlled Russia, and there would be no return to their previous, well-heeled life.  Most of their private fortune was gone, as the Soviet government had appropriated everything that had once belonged to the Imperial family.

         Once on German soil, the family stayed for two days with Ducky’s sister, Alexandra, the Princess of Hohenlohe-Langenburg before traveling to  Munich for a reunion with Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna, a still proud and haughty woman, although she had lost almost everything, including her home and her Romanov wealth. It was a brief reunion as Marie died in October 1920.  She left  Chateau Fabron and the Edinburgh Palace to Ducky and Kirill, where they decided to settle, despite the fact that Germany was also now a republic.
 

          Thus, Coburg became the family home.   Money was always tight, although relatives, such as Aunt Missy, were able to provide assistance.   Ducky reestablished close relationships with her sisters, especially Marie, and Beatrice, who was married to King Alfonso XIII’s cousin, Infante Alfonso of Bourbon-Orleans.   Marie and Beatrice’s children were the same age as Maria and Kira.     Marie – now the Queen of Roumania – had once described her nieces as “two splendid children, well-grown, solid, with lovely hair, and perfect skin and as superlatively groomed as English ponies.”

Until her sister married and the death of her mother in 1936, Kira played the  Balalaika in the family’s orchestra.    She was also a competent pianist, preferring Chopin, and she had a “great devotion also for Beethoven and Wagner.”

Kira also enjoyed painting, a talent she had inherited from her mother, who painted flowers and landscapes.   She had a great passion for reading, and she described herself as a “voracious reader,” who preferred Tolstoy to all other writers, although she found Dostoevsky as “unsurpassed as a writer of novels.”
She shared with her future husband a love of the outdoors and riding horses.  “The biggest compliment ever paid to me was when in America, during a tiring riding expedition, our host called me a ‘good sport’,” she said in a 1938 interview with the Associated Press.

As a great-granddaughter of a Russian emperor, Kira was born a princess of Russia with the qualification of Highness.  The circumstances of her elevation to the Grand Ducal rank and the qualification of Imperial Highness remain rooted in controversy.
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In 1922, Kira’s father, Grand Duke Kirill issued a manifesto, in which he declared himself `Curator of the Throne.’  Two years later, he assumed the title of Emperor and elevated his two daughters and son to the rank of Grand Duchesses and Grand Duke with the style of Imperial Highness.   On September 20, 1924, The New York Times was one of the first newspapers to report Kirill’s second proclamation. The paper reported a Berlin dispatch to the London Daily Mail stating that Kirill had signed a `proclamation declaring himself "Emperor of All the Russias.”'

"The Russian laws of Succession to the Throne," Kirill stated in the September manifesto, "do not permit the Imperial Throne to remain vacant after the death of the previous Emperor and His nearest Heirs has been established.  Also, in accordance with our laws the new Emperor becomes such on the strength of the Law of Succession."

Succession to the Imperial throne was described in the Fundamental Laws, also known as the Pauline laws.  Article 53 states that "on the demise of an emperor, his heir accedes to the Throne by virtue of the law of succession itself, which confers this right upon him.  The accession of an emperor to the Throne is counted from the day of the demise of his predecessor."  Thus, Kirill as the next male Romanov in line to the throne became the new Emperor of all the Russias.

Although one may question the insensitivity of the timing of his announcement -- the Dowager Empress was still alive -- Kirill was the legitimate heir to the throne, and thus entitled to make such a pronouncement.

The Fundamental State Laws of the Russian Empire on the Succession to the Throne (the Pauline laws), codified by Paul I and revised by Alexander III in 1888, included detailed rules on matters of marriage, titles, inheritance, and succession to the throne.

As Kirill was the de jure Emperor, his children were entitled to grand ducal rank. This is found in Article 146, which provided for "the title of Grand Duke, Grand Duchess (daughter) and Imperial Highness belongs to the sons, daughters, brothers, sisters and, through the male issue, to all the grandchildren of an emperor."

While most members of the exiled Romanov family supported Kirill’s decision, despite their personal feelings toward him, some cousins continued to maintain Kirill had no right to be the Tsar, even in exile.

As Grand Duke Kirill’s political activity increased, it became apparent that he and his family no longer could remain in Coburg. Germany had established relations with the Soviet Government, which made Kirill’s position a precarious one.    Although the Bavarian government refused to expel Kirill, they made it clear that he was no longer truly welcome in Coburg.    In the spring of 1926, the family moved to St. Briac in Brittany, where they purchased a small villa. The house was given a Breton name, Ker Argonid, which translates to Villa Victoria.

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Money remained a problem, and Victoria Melita was able to “keep the household going, and to pay for the education of their children,” by selling her own paintings of “exquisite watercolors from her beloved garden.”

          Kira’s elder sister, Maria did not join them in Paris.  In 1925, she had married Hereditary Prince Friedrich Karl of Leiningen, the son and heir to the Prince of Leiningen, the head of a very wealthy mediatized family.  Kirill and Ducky were disappointed in the marriage.   They did not consider Friedrich Karl, a mere serene highness to be suitable for a Russian Grand Duchess, even though Friedrich Karl’s father was a grandson of Queen Victoria’s older half-brother.  Nonetheless, Maria was happy in her marriage and was already the mother of an infant son.

   In 1927, Kira, a “raven-haired beauty,” turned eighteen-years-old.  It was time for the young Grand Duchess, who had been educated by tutors and governesses, to move into the important social circles to find a suitable husband, preferably one with a grand title ... and money.

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European papers published stories that Kira was going to marry King Boris III of Bulgaria.  The rumors were inevitable as many believed that Boris was looking for an Orthodox bride.  But he had his heart set on a Roman Catholic princess, Giovanna of Italy, although, in 1929, the marriage faces several obstacles due to the Princess’ faith.  The New York Times reported that “talk has now arisen here of a possible alliance between the King and the Grand Duchess Kira Vladimirovna, the 19-year-old daughter of Grand Duke Cyril, recently recognized as the head of the Romanoff family by a considerable section of Russian royalists.”

(King Boris and Giovanna  married in 1930. )

This is the first part of the chapter, Grand Duchess Kira, that was published in 2004 in the book The Grand Duchesses.  The book is out of print.

If you want to read more of this article 

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