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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

“Michael and Natasha: The Life and Love of Michael II, the Last of the Romanov Tsars”, by Rosemary and Donald Crawford

464 pages, Harper Perennial, ISBN-13: 978-0380731916

A beautiful divorcée creates a national scandal by marrying a dashing but ineffectual nobleman, and all of the passion, despair and war converge to ravage both their country all of Europe, thus dooming their love affair. Edward and Wallis, you say? Oh, no no no; try Natasha and Michael, as in Natasha Sergeyevna Sheremetyevskaya, Countess Brasova, and Michael Alexandrovich, Grand Duke of Russia and the last emperor of the Russian Empire (technically: as Michael II, he ruled for part of one day after his brother Nicholas II abdicated in 1917). In Michael and Natasha: The Life and Love of Michael II, the Last of the Romanov Tsars, by freelance journalists and husband-and-wife team Rosemary and Donald Crawford (she’s a former society columnist; he’s a lawyer and publisher), the doomed tale of these two is pieced together mostly through contemporary love letters and family correspondence, which show the pair to be heroically romantic and consistently neurotic, i.e. when Michael writes “It isn’t possible to love more than we love each other” Natasha responds with “I…was always content with the crumbs which you gave me of your time and splendor”. I mean…jeez. You see, the Romanov family vehemently opposed Michael’s marriage to a non-royal two-time divorcée and was bent on making life miserable for the couple, and after reading this fitfully engaging fairytale-gone-awry, one even wonders if maybe Russia’s pampered autocrats got what they deserved when revolution swept them away in 1917.

Our protagonist, the Grand Duke Michael, was the dashing younger brother of the “doomed” (one of the authors’ favorite adjectives) Czar Nicholas II. Under the prevailing system of male primogeniture, Michael was heir to the throne until the birth of Nicholas and Alexandra’s only son, the Czarevich Alexei, in 1904. During an adolescence and youth that were somewhat prolonged, Michael enjoyed the carefree playboy life of one of Europe’s richest, most eligible bachelors. Our heroine Natasha met Michael in December 1907 at the riding school of the Blue Cuirassiers, an elite cavalry regiment to which he belonged. A lawyer’s daughter, she had already been once divorced and was remarried to a cavalry officer with whom she had a 5-year-old daughter. But Michael knew none of these things when he saw her and fell in love at first sight; what he did know that Natasha was beautiful, sexy and irresistible. Needless to say, Natasha’s charms were entirely lost on Michael’s relatives, and the Romanovs watched with mounting horror as he pursued his inamorata with stubborn insistence, casting religious and social decorum to the wind. That devoted family man, Nicholas II, and his meddling wife, Alexandra, found Michael’s behavior reckless, irresponsible and appalling. But Michael and Natasha were too hooked on each other to heed familial or societal scorn (if anything, the calumny heaped on Natasha seemed only to fire the Michael’s desire, judging by their previously unpublished love letters reproduced here).

In 1910 she gave birth to their son, George, and Michael paid Natasha’s husband the enormous sum of 200,000 rubles to agree to a divorce, whereupon he married his paramour in a clandestine ceremony performed in a Serbian Orthodox church in Vienna. The outraged Russian imperial court responded by calling Michael's new wife a “malicious vamp” and removing Michael from his position as Regent for the Czarevich Alexei. For the next few years, the couple wandered around Europe as ostracized exiles, staying in the fanciest hotels in fashionable locales before leasing an estate in England before ultimately returning to Russia. When Nicholas II abdicated in March 1917, he named Michael to succeed him as Czar, since Alexei was gravely ill with hemophilia. But Michael ruled for only a matter of hours before signing a manifesto effectively turning all power over to the newly established Provisional Government. In the spring of 1918 the Bolsheviks sent Michael to Perm where he was shot in the woods nearby in June 1918 (the first of the Romanovs to die). Michael’s grave has not yet been found. Never sure of what happened to her husband, Natasha fled Russia disguised as a nun, lived in England for a spell before moving to Paris, where she died forgotten and impoverished in a garret in 1952. Her son, George, had died in a car crash in 1931. The Romanovs who had escaped from Russia finally accepted Natasha as a member of the family in 1928, long after it mattered.

The Crawford’s essentially tell two stories here: the compelling account of a private romance and enduring love, and a less focused narrative of the historical circumstances that determined the couple's fate. For whole sections Michael and Natasha reads like the society pages: a chronicle of clothes, meals, balls, cars, yachts and the beautiful people who enjoyed them, evidently the work of the chirpy and unanalytical Rosemary Crawford. With the coming of World War I and the Russian Revolution, however, the writing turns ponderous, impersonal and clogged with historical and political detail, apparently the stern tone of Donald Crawford taking over. While exhaustively researched, Michael and Natasha is also lengthy and overly detailed, and largely fails to capture the drama that abounded in the last years of this star-crossed pair. It should appeal to fans of royal romances, however.

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