The Last Tsar Was Michael, Not Nicholas

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The 90th anniversary of the massacre of the Romanovs in Yekaterinburg has been raised to a new dimension thanks to the city of Perm. Since 1991, a growing number of Perm residents have argued that the last legitimate ruler of Russia was not Nicholas II, but his younger brother Michael. Recently, their cause got a mighty boost -- from Britain, of all places.

Donald Crawford, the co-author of "Michael and Natasha: The Life and Love of Michael II, the Last of the Romanov Tsars," is adamant that "legally, albeit just for one day, the last Russian tsar was not Nicholas, but Michael." Michael's secret morganatic marriage to Nataliya in 1912, in a Serbian church in Vienna, was a scandal. The tsar forbade him to set foot in Russia, impounded his property and deprived of a chance to succeed.

As soon the war began in August 1914, Michael asked his brother for a pardon so that he could join Russia's defenders at the front line. As the commander of a legendary cavalry division, Michael became a war hero, advancing to the rank of lieutenant general.

No wonder that, when the February Revolution forced Nicholas II to abdicate, he turned to Michael. Alas, it was too late, and Michael knew it. In fact, more than once, he had urged the tsar to act sooner to pre-empt the revolution by a promise of constitutional monarchy. Fearing that his ascension to the throne might precipitate a civil war, Michael concluded that the only chance for the monarchy to survive was by the election of a Constituent Assembly. He then empowered the provisional government to conduct the election on the basis of "general, equal, secret and direct" ballot.

Michael's manifesto stopped the revolution and postponed the Bolshevik takeover by focusing Russia's energy on an idea that had been supported by all political factions, including the Bolsheviks. But the Bolsheviks seized power through a coup in St. Petersburg in November 1917. Finding themselves outnumbered in the Constituent Assembly, they forcibly dissolved it in January 1918 and got rid of its initiator on June 12.

In his talk at the Perm conference in memory of Michael, Crawford emphasized Michael's unique role in Russian history. "We shall never know for sure what was lost when Michael's life was cut short in Perm. ... If there is a person who could bridge a gap between tsarist Russia and the new Russia, it has to be Michael, the most wholesome and the least contradictory figure among the last Romanovs."

W. George Krasnow, formerly professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, is president of Russia & America Good Will Association in Washington and works with Perm residents for Michael Romanov's recognition.