A throne which ‘not for an instant might become vacant’: Law and Succession among the Romanov Descendants

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1992: Mariia Vladimirovna

Vladimir had married Princess Leonida Bagrationi-Mukhrani, of the House of Bagration, on July 31/August 13, 1948. A daughter, Mariia, was born to the couple on December 10/23, 1953. The status of both Vladimir’s bride and daughter have been hotly debated by scholars ever since.37 It’s a debate that is unlikely ever to be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

As for the bride, the debate has been over Leonida’s status as member of a “royal or ruling house,” as required by the Fundamental Laws.38 The Bagration Dynasty is an ancient house, ruling the Kingdom of George and its many tributaries since the ninth century. The absorption of the Kingdom of George into Russia in 1801, and the entry of its royal family into the highest rungs of the Russian aristocracy afterward, has raised the question among some of the royal status of the Bagrations. Did they lose their royal status when Georgia lost its independence? Did they voluntarily relinquish it when they entered the Russian nobility? If they lost their royal status, was it reacquired later—either when Georgia became independent (from 1918 to 1921, or in 1991), or when Grand Duke Vladimir himself issued a statement affirming the royal status of the House of Bagration in 1946?39 Or should the Bagrations—the ruling house of a kingdom that had been absorbed into another, larger realm—be viewed much like the mediatized houses of former German principalities after the Congress of Vienna, in which case the Bagrations, even as “princes” in the Russian Empire, would not have ever (even temporarily) lost their royal status? However one argues it, the status of Leonida as a member of a “royal or ruling house” determines the dynastic status of the daughter, Maria as a member of the Romanov dynasty and, therefore, her right of succession.

The question of morganatic marriages in the Romanov dynasty is long-standing and thorny. Morganatic marriages were rare but becoming increasingly common in the dynasty, despite the opprobrium they garnered from the emperors and other members of the dynasty. Constantine Pavlovich, Paul I’s second son, was the first to marry morganatically when he took Joanna Grudzińska as his second wife in May 1820. The marriage would lead to Constantine’s (at first secret) abdication of his right of succession, and the promulgation of an addendum by Alexander I to the Statute on the Imperial family excluding from the line of succession any and all children born of unequal marriages.40 There would be others. Alexander II married secondly to Princess Catherine Mikhailovna Dolgorukova in 1880, and Nicholas II’s brother, Mikhail Aleksandrovich, married Natal’ia Sergeevna Sheremetevskaia (her third marriage) in 1912. After the abdication of Nicholas II, the floodgates were opened. Of the thirty marriages (and remarriages) of members of the Romanov dynasty since 1917, twenty-six were morganatic.41

Was Vladimir’s and Leonida’s marriage also morganatic? Authorities can and do disagree on the answer, but one thing seems clear enough: The Bagrations have a pedigree that is more royal and ancient than the spouses of all other Romanov dynasts and their descendants. If we can debate the royal status of the Bagrations, there is no doubt whatsoever about the status of the Sheremetevs, the Vorontsovs, the Orlovs, the Golitsyns or the other families that provided wives to Romanov dynasts. From the vantage point of the longue durée of Russian history, the Bagrations belong in a different category entirely.42 By 1969, every member of the Romanov house except Vladimir had contracted an unequal marriage; and although the dynasty has dozens of descendants in both the male and female line, almost none were dynasts properly speaking because every line of descent in the dynasty, except for Vladimir’s, descended from unequal marriages.

It was in 1969 that Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich issued a Decree (Akt ob uchrezhdenii po moei konchine Bliustitel’stva Prestola) that would exacerbate the rifts in the Imperial House and shift the balance in the family against Vladimir on the question of the succession. The Decree was issued on December 23, 1969—on his daughter Mariia’s 16th birthday, the age of majority for heirs to the throne as specified in the Law of Succession (1788) and Statute on the Imperial Family (1797). The Decree begins with a nod to these dynastic laws, then spells out the dynastic consequences for all the many morganatic marriages that had taken place since the Revolution:

As Head of the Imperial House of Russia and lawful heir of the rights and duties of the Emperors of All the Russias, a position which has been given to me by the Lord God by virtue of the supreme right of primogeniture, I am obliged to maintain the State Fundamental Laws of the Russian Empire on Succession to the Throne and the Statute on the Imperial Family, which are inseparable from the aforesaid laws.

As such, I recall the essential provision contained in the law whereby children issuing from a marriage between a member of the Imperial Family and a person not of equal status do not inherit the rights belonging to members of the Imperial Family, one of which is the right of succession to the Throne.

Such is the position of the descendants of the Princes-of-the-Imperial-Blood now living, as well as the issue of morganatic (i.e., unequal) marriages contracted by members of the Imperial House now deceased.

It is hard to imagine that any of the Princes-of-the-Imperial-Blood now living could, in view of their age, enter into a new marriage with a person of equal birth, or, moreover, have descendants from these new marriages who could then possess the right of succession to the Throne.

In view of the aforesaid, and in accordance with the State Fundamental Laws of the Russian Empire, succession to the Throne, after the demise of all male members of the Imperial House, necessarily passes to the female line of our family.

In accordance with these same laws, my firstborn daughter, Her Imperial Highness Grand Duchess Mariia Vladimirovna, is at present senior in succession to the Throne in the female line and at the same time the only one capable of having issue enjoying the right to succession.

Aware of the heavy burden and duty conferred by the Will of Almighty God upon my young daughter, the first of which is to perpetuate the Imperial House and thereby ensure the uninterrupted succession to the Throne, I and my consort, Her Imperial Highness Grand Duchess Leonida Georgievna, raised Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna from her early childhood in an awareness of the responsibility resting upon her for the fate of the Romanov Dynasty and to prepare Her for future service to our Fatherland.

The irrevocable right which belongs to her and the upbringing and education which she has been given are a surety that My daughter alone, Grand Duchess Mariia Vladimirovna, can perform the necessary duty that rests upon her and successfully discharge the lofty obligations of heiress to her Imperial ancestors.

Wherefore, while in no way infringing on the order of succession to the Throne provided by the State Fundamental Laws of the Russian Empire, I declare that, in the event of my demise, my daughter Grand Duchess Mariia Vladimirovna, shall become Curatrix [Bliustitel’nitsa] of the Imperial Throne of Russia, with all the rights and functions connected with that office, for the service of Russia and for the protection of Our Dynasty from any encroachments from any quarter whatsoever.

When the right of succession to the Throne, after the demise of the last of the male representatives of the dynasty, will have inevitably passed to the female issue, then Grand Duchess Mariia Vladimirovna, Curatrix of the Throne, shall become Head of the Imperial House of Romanov.

The establishment of the Curatorship of the Throne is promulgated in accordance with, and following in the example of, and with the prerogatives accruing to, the establishment of a Regency, which is provided for in the Fundamental Laws, with a Council attached to the Curatrix, the composition of which will be announced at the proper time.

I and the Grand Duchess desire that all Russian people should know that our daughter, Grand Duchess Mariia Vladimirovna, is in full agreement with these decisions and is prepared at any time to dedicate her life and devote all her strength to the service of the Fatherland, should she be called upon so to do.

I bequeath to My Daughter’s sacred custody the spiritual treasure handed over to her by us, her parents. May she, to the end of her days, never for a moment forget her solemn duty to maintain the Orthodox Faith, to serve Russia and her peoples, and to be responsible for the present and the future of our Dynasty.43

In other words, Vladimir considered it all but impossible that his agnatic Romanov relatives (the Princes-of-the-Imperial-Blood mentioned in the Decree) would ever have children that met the criteria for membership in the Romanov dynasty, which automatically brought with it a place in the line of succession. He therefore anticipated the extinction of the male line of the dynasty (not biologically since there were many descendants of morganatic marriages, but legally, in terms of the legal requirements for membership) and the shifting of the succession to the female line, a possibility entirely contemplated by the law of succession. Article 30 of the Fundamental Laws states that “When the last male issue of the Emperor’s sons is extinct, succession remains in the same branch, but in the female line of the last reigning emperor, as being nearest to the Throne….”44 Vladimir is therefore quite right that the succession would revert to Mariia after Vladimir’s own death and after the deaths of all of Vladimir’s junior collateral relatives, provided they did not, as he (rightly) suspected they would not, have children from equal marriages. The Decree also designated Mariia “Curatrix,” a title that Vladimir interestingly links not to his own father’s use of the title back in 1922, but to the Statute on the Imperial Family’s provisions for the regency.

Vladimir’s 1929 Decree elicited the strongest possible response from his Romanov relatives. They immediately wrote him in protest, objecting to the creation of the “Curatorship” of the Throne. And they had something of a point. As it turned out, Vladimir outlived all the Princes-of-the-Imperial-Blood and so the Curatorship was in the end never invoked. But the Princes-of-the-Imperial-Blood objected squarely to the presumption that Vladimir could control the succession and, for that matter, in the content of the Fundamental Laws after his own death. If Vladimir had died in, say, 1988, the succession would have passed to his second cousin once removed, Prince Vasilii Aleksandrovich (d. 1989 at the age of 82). While Vasilii was Head of the Dynasty, he would need no “Curatrix,” and, moreover, Vasilii would have been within his rights to make modifications to the Statute on the Imperial House that would have changed the requirements for descent from equal marriages, opening the door to many male-line Romanov descendants to be added to the line of succession. Vasilii and most other Romanov Princes-of-the-Imperial-Blood considered Vladimir’s 1969 Decree an affront to the very principles of the Statute on the Imperial Family—a throwback, of sorts, to the days under Peter the Great’s law of succession that gave power to an emperor to control what happened to the throne after he was gone.45

But the Princes-of-the-Imperial-Blood did more than challenge the creation of the Curatorship. Their rage led them to challenge Vladimir’s legitimacy as Head of the Imperial House, his title of grand duke (over Princes-of-the-Imperial-Blood, like the rest of them), and the dynastic legality of Vladimir’s marriage with Leonida. These were positions few of them had ever expressed publicly before Vladimir’s 1969 Decree. The rift that settled in among Romanov descendants became gradually entrenched, especially after the creation in 1979 of the Romanov Family Association.46 That rift showed itself again at the 1998 funeral of Nicholas II, when it was the RFA’s members and their descendants who went to St. Petersburg, and Leonida, Mariia, and her son George (b. 1981), who went to Moscow, instead. The 1969 Decree came at a high price.

Vladimir died on April 21, 1992, just before he was to address a group of investors in Miami, Florida. Those who viewed Vladimir’s marriage to Leonida as equal recognized his daughter, Mariia, to be the next Head of the Russian Imperial House. Those that did not either supported Nikolai Romanovich, the president of the Romanov Family Association and the son of Prince Roman Petrovich and grandson of Grand Duke Peter Nikolaevich, both of whom had always opposed Mariia’s father or grandfather. Still others, including some Romanov descendants in the RFA, called for a new Zemskii Sobor, like the “Undecided” had decades before. Most outside of the dynasty, however, accepted Mariia’s accession to the position of Head of the Dynasty—including Patriach Aleksei II and Patriarch Kirill I, President Boris Yeltsyn, President Vladimir Putin and President Dmitrii Medvedev, and countless other officials in government and figures in the Russian public. The debates over Mariia’s succession rights continue; and the death on May 23, 2010, of Mariia’s mother, Leonida, prompted new discussions about her marriage to Vladimir and Mariia’s right to be Head of the Imperial House.47 Mariia, for her part, has made enormous efforts to heal some of the rifts among her relatives, with partial success; and her many trips to Russia since 1992 and especially in 2013—the year of the 400th anniversary of the House of Romanov—has only bolstered her position. Her charities have attracted a lot of positive attention, and in 2012 she was named Person of the Year by the Russian Biographical Institute in Moscow. When asked in an interview for The St. Petersburg Journal how she felt about the fact that so many of the relatives “from so-called morganatic marriages do not recognize you as Head of the Russian Imperial House.” She replied:

The status of the Head of the Russian Imperial House is founded on the historic law and does not depend on someone else’s recognition or lack of recognition of that status. The Law of Succession of Emperor Paul I does not allow for any “pretenders” because its provisions always identify the one person who has the rights and duties of the Head of the Dynasty. The Lord willed it that these rights and duties should fall upon me.

I have very good relations with all my relatives. I am very glad when they take part in activities that help Russia. Some I see more than others. I know that among them there are some who are unfriendly to me and my son and who reject the legal and philosophical foundations of our House, and sometimes even resort to false claims about us. I am greatly saddened by this. But I hold absolutely no negative feelings toward them. Disgruntled and disagreeable relatives are an unavoidable part of the history of any dynasty in every and all times. One must treat it with understanding and charity.48


Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich was likely right when, in his 1969 Decree, he called the Fundamental Laws a kind of “burden.” No one may feel that burden more than Mariia’s son, Georgii, who was born of her marriage in 1976 to Prince Franz Wilhelm of Prussia—an equal marriage by anyone’s reckoning. At age 32 at the time of this writing, Georgii remains unmarried, undoubtedly because of the limitations put on him by the Fundamental Laws. In an interview in 2007, Georgii commented on his circumstances:

According to the dynastic laws currently in force, there are a number of regulations on the marriages of members of the Russian Imperial House. There is the notion of equality of birth, that is, that the marriage be with a person who belongs to one or another dynasty. When a member of the dynasty contracts an unequal marriage, the dynast does not lose his own rights to the throne, but his wife and children do not receive any dynastic rights. Over the course of the last several decades, the majority of European monarchies have abandoned this requirement, but we have continued to observe it. To introduce any kind of changes would be possible only with the blessing of the Russian Orthodox Church since both my mother and I have, in accordance with provisions of the law, given an oath to observe all provisions relating to succession to the throne. Probably, the question will one day be raised as to whether the Pauline Law should be amended with regard to the marriages of dynasts. But for the moment, that question is purely hypothetical. In any case, I take the matter of my future marriage very seriously, and I am convinced that my marriage should be founded on love, and also that my wife should likewise love Russia and should support the work I do on behalf of the Fatherland. 49

Georgii’s mother, Mariia, has also been asked about her son’s marriage prospects and also replied with reference to the Fundamental Laws. She was asked in March 2013 by a journalist for The Russian Federation Today, “In recent times, marriages of heirs to the crown with commoners have become the norm, invigorating many dynasties with new life, despite the fact that such marriages were unthinkable even a century ago. Do these marriages lower the status of monarchies?” Her response indicates a practical—and flexible—approach to the problem of dynastic marriage today:

It is true that most royal houses, including those currently reigning, have abolished the requirement for equal marriage. In the House of Romanoff, however, that requirement is still in force. Perhaps this will change one day. All laws are written in a specific historical context and contexts can change. What is most important, however, is to observe a general respect for law—not to violate existing laws until they are modified in accord with the proper procedures for changing the law.

I do not see any diminution of the monarchical principle in unequal marriages. In Russia, the requirement for equal marriages for members of the Imperial House was introduced only in the nineteenth century by Emperor Alexander I. And this does not mean that Russia’s tsars before then were in some way lesser sovereigns. Many illustrious dynasties never had a prohibition against unequal marriages at all, such as, for example, in Great Britain. And all Romanoffs are descendants of Emperor Peter I the Great and Catherine I, a woman of quite common, even unknown, origins.

When Alexander I introduced this amendment to the Law of Succession and limited the dynastic rights of unequal spouses and of the descendants of unequal marriages, there were, firstly, different conditions and ideas about society than we have now. Secondly, foreign princesses, who were raised since childhood in the traditions of foreign nations, entered into marriage with members of the House of Romanoff and came to Russia, having the opportunity to adapt to their new homeland and fully embrace its national interests.

Now, when the Russian Imperial House itself, for reasons beyond its control, has had to live for decades in exile, it would be important for the new generation of the dynasty to find a life companion from a familiar setting…

But modifications to the dynastic laws can only happen according to established procedures. We are bound by our religious oath to preserve the familial regulations, so to reform the laws on marriage in the Russian Imperial House, not only would the Head of the dynasty have to agree to it, a blessing from the Church would be required.50

Whether the Fundamental Laws remain unchanged (compelling Georgii to marry someone of equal birth) or are modified (to allow succession rights to children of unequal marriages), there is little doubt that Grand Duke Georgii’s choice will be governed by the experience of a family that has chosen to live under these laws in exile for nearly a century. Whatever happens, the Fundamental Laws have been the point of reference for the remnant Romanovs since the Revolution, at times binding together and at other times tearing asunder. It has, either way, been a marker of Romanov identity: It has determined who a Romanov is (with the right to that surname); it has controlled the private lives of three generations of Russian royals; and it has, in the minds of some at least, kept alive the notion of a throne which “not for an instant might become vacant.”

1 Those laid to rest included Emperor Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, Grand Duchess Olga, Grand Duchess Tatiana, Grand Duchess Anastasia, Evgenii Sergeevich Botkin (the tsarevich’s docter), Anna Stepanovna Demidova (the empress’s maid); Ivan Mikhailovich Kharitonov (the family’s cook), and Aleksei (Aloise) Egorovich Trupp (the emperor’s valet). The bodies of Nicholas’s and Alexandra’s other two children, Grand Duchess Maria and Grand Duke Aleksei, were discovered only in 2007 and have yet to be buried. On the discovery of Maria’s and Aleksei’s remains, see Luke Harding, “Bones found by Russian builder finally solve riddle of missing Romanovs,” The Guardian, August 24, 2007.

2 See “17 July 1998: The Funeral of Tsar Nicholas II,” accessed November 12, 2013, http://romanovfamily.org/funeral.html; Michael Wines, “Last Tsar Buried: Tale of 2 Russias,” New York Times, July 18, 1998; Celestine Bohlen, “Russia’s ‘A List’ Begs Off Attending Tsar’s Funeral,” New York Times, June 18, 1998.

3 See “Manifest 31 avgusta (13 sentiabria) 1924 goda o priiatii Velikim Kniazem Kirillom Vladimirovichem, Bliustitelem Rossiiskogo Imperatorskogo Prestola, Titula Imperatora Vserossiiskogo,” Nasledovanie Rossiiskogo Imperatorskogo Prestola, 65–66.

4 See Robert K. Massie, The Romanovs: The Final Chapter (New York and Toronto: Random House, 1995), 133–39, 255–80.

5 For the Law of Succession: Polnoe sobranie zakonov Rossiiskoi imperii (hereafter, PSZ), series 1, 24:587–89, no. 17.910 (5 April 1797). For the Statute on the Imperial Family: PSZ, series 1, 24:525–69, no. 17.906 (5 April 1797). Both decrees were issued formally by Paul I on his day of coronation.

6 See Russell E. Martin, “Law, Succession, and the Eighteenth-Century Refounding of the Romanov Dynasty,” in Brian Boeck, Russell E. Martin, and Daniel Rowland, eds., Dubitando: Studies in History and Culture in Honor of Donald Ostrowski (Bloomington, Ind.: Slavica Press, 2012), 225–42; and idem, “‘For the Firm Maintenance of the Dignity and Tranquility of the Imperial Family’: Law and Familial Order in the Romanov Dynasty,” in Russell E. Martin, ed., Ad Fontes: Essays in Russian and Soviet History, Politics, and Society in Honor of Orysia Karapinka, vol. 1 (=Russian History 37.4 [2010]), 389–411.

7 Peter I’s law of succession: PSZ, series 1, 6:496-97, no. 3593 (5 February 1722).

8 On these legal concepts, and laws of succession in the eighteenth century, see: Richard S. Wortman, idem, The Development of Russian Legal Consciousness (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1976); idem, “‘The Fundamental State Laws’ of 1832 as Symbolic Act,” in F. B. Uspenskii, ed., Miscellanea Slavica: Sbornik statei k 70-letiiu Borisa Andreevicha Uspenskogo (Moscow: Indrik, 2008); idem, “Russian Monarchy and the Rule of Law: New Considerations of the Court Reform of 1864,” Kritika 6, no. 1 (Winter 2005): 145–70; Cynthia Hyla Whittaker,
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