Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich of Russia, born December 4, 1878, in St. Petersburg, was the youngest son and fifth child of Empress Maria Feodorovna.
In 1881, when Michael was three years old, his paternal grandfather Alexander II, Emperor of All Russia was assassinated when a bomb was thrown at his carriage as he rode through St. Petersburg. Michael’s father then became Emperor Alexander III. Concerned about the security of his family, Alexander moved his family to Gatchina Palace located 45 km south of St. Petersburg, thus becoming their prime residence.
Like his other siblings, Michael was raised in a relatively simple manner considering his status. He slept in a camp bed, woke up at 6:00 AM, took cold baths, ate simple plain meals, with spartan styled furniture in his rooms.
The children’s parents believed their children should spend any spare time in a useful manner, so they learned cooking, woodworking and how to make puppets for their puppet theatre. Alexander III believed that his children should learn about the outdoors and so they were taught to ride, keep a garden, and various animals that they had to look after themselves.
Typically, austere in attitude, Michael`s father chose to live in a wing of Gatchina Palace called the `Arsenal` which was spartan, monastic in style and originally designed to be living quarters for the staff. Here Alexander lived more as a squire than a tsar, however Marie, Michael`s mother, led a more metropolitan lifestyle leaning towards the flamboyant. Having been brought up in austerity in Denmark, she excelled at opportunities which embraced the style of a Tsarina.
Alexander a tall bear like figure would show off his strength at any opportunity, had no time for frivolities but never denied his vivacious wife her wishes where she had learned the art of twisting the tsar around her little finger.
Michael was known as `Mischa` but more endearingly by his favourite sister Olga as `Floppy` due to his laid-back easy style of fun and laughter. Michael was so in harmony with Olga sharing their tastes, interest and hobbies and never quarrelling. Whilst Michael loved the endearment of being called `Floppy` he would often grimace with curled toes when Olga called him `Darling Floppy` in public.
Michael had a keen interest in photography which in later life developed into a serious hobby favouring a KODAK camera using celluloid film. His style was to adopt a more casual setting where people seldom posed as in the habit of that time, and many of his photos display his open honest character where many can be seen as taken at Knebworth House (UK) where he was living in exile. His love of animals often took centre stage in his compositions. He later became Patron of St. Petersburg Photographic Society and a contemporary of a St. Petersburg photographer, inventor and chemist S. M. Prokudin-Gorsky, who has been acclaimed as the “father of color photography”.
Because of their ten-year age gap, Michael and his eldest brother, the future Nicholas II, Emperor of Russia, shared very little of their childhood. Michael’s younger sister Olga became his childhood companion and the two always remained close.
A stiff and forthright British nanny, Mrs. Elizabeth Franklin was brought into the lives of the children at an early age with appropriate Victorian attitudes in the education of the children. She found Gatchina, her master and children entirely to her liking with no evidence of spoiling or overindulgence. Indeed, she found the Emperor`s lifestyle most acceptable …..who bathed in cold water, (as did the children), wore patched clothing, ate a boiled egg for breakfast accompanied by porridge….. and where jam and bread were a treat, was to her perfect liking and enjoyed a lengthy service at the Palace. Moreover the basic main meal of the day was often mutton, peas with a baked potato, and on very special occasions there would be cake for Tea.
All this austerity extended to the children’s bedrooms where they slept on a camp bed with a thin mattress, one hard pillow and blankets to compliment the seasons in unheated rooms. One straight backed chair was in place of any recliners, sofas or armchairs with the room doubling up as a study furnished with a simple style wooden school desk.
As Housekeeper and companion to the children, Mrs. Franklin was loved respected and held in the highest esteem, always being on hand to comfort and love them as a protective mother hen would, keeping them firmly under her warm wings.
Education was centred around Maths and English taught by Mr Heath and Mme. Thormeyer for French and possibly other languages. Additional subjects were less important and not as comprehensive as we see today. Schooling was carried out in the dining room commencing from 09.00 to 15.00 hours.
Invited friends to Gatchina were a rarity and only allowed on Sundays chosen from the children of aristocrats. Innocent and long forgotten games were enjoyed such as tree climbing, hide and seek, tag, hopscotch, and quoits … before enjoying together a simple tea to end the visit. These are reminiscing’s of the beautiful normal playtime from a forgotten era. It was a carefree life within Gatchina Park grounds where the ring of troops kept ceaseless watch on the Palace occupants. Often they would catch sight of plain clothed secret police dodging in and out of bushes…keeping a watchful eye for terrorists.
Remarkably Michael and Olga would always look back at living in Gatchina Palace under those austere conditions as…… `their Golden Years`.
Gatchina Palace became Michael’s main residence for most of his life of which he would call `his home`. The Palace was unfanciful of architecture and rather stark looking from the outside, but as built, stepping inside there was a remarkable Baroque interior with many splendid wall hangings and paintings.
At the age of 16, Michael’s carefree life came to a shuddering halt. 1894, his father Alexander III unexpectedly died at the age of 49 and his brother Nicholas became Emperor. Michael was named the heir to the Russian throne. He remained the heir until the birth of Nicholas’ haemophiliac son, Alexei. Michael became co-regent for Alexei, along with Alexei’s mother Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, in the event of Nicholas II’s death. These events brought Michael from the shadows where he felt free and secure, into the full glare of the population where his past privacy and carefree life were lost to his present circumstances.
Reaching teenage years Michael completed training at a gunnery school joining the Horse Guards Artillery. In June 1902, Michael transferred to the Blue Cuirassier Regiment and returned to Gatchina, where the regiment was based providing much needed security…. being the main reason why the family moved there.
As he entered adulthood Michael was encouraged to seek a suitable bride and bring more royal blood into the dynasty. He was a great catch, being very tall on the lines of his father but without the bulk, athletic, enjoyed outdoor sports and country life. The most favourable aspect of his attraction was his lovely charm, manners, and good looks.
*The search began.*