25 January 2009

Interview with the Head of the Russian Imperial House, H.I.H. Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna in the Magazine Randevu (Kazakhstan)

Interview with the Head of the Russian Imperial House, H.I.H. Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna in the Magazine Randevu (Kazakhstan)

Your Imperial Highness, do you ever intend to return to Russia to live?

Returning to Russia to live has been our constant dream and most cherished goal. In 1992 our Russian citizenship was recognized. The process of reintegrating the dynasty into the modern-day life of the country has continuously expanded. When certain legal questions are firmly and finally resolved, as has been the case in almost all other countries [with formerly-reigning dynasties], then we will return home.

You highness, how accessible do you make yourself to your countrymen? In general, is your royal postal address only for official business?

Even before the revolution, my ancestors were more accessible to their people than many of today’s leaders of our country, who call themselves democrats, are. In the Russian Empire, any officer of or above the rank of colonel had the right to present himself to the sovereign, and no courtier could in any way prevent it. In the military, male members of the Imperial Family climbed the ranks with their fellow officers, without any special accommodations made for them. Emperor Nicholas II hiked for several miles in the newly-designed uniform of the common soldier just so he could find out if it was comfortable for them. That kind of relationship to the common people was characteristic not only in the military, but also in social life as well. Empress Catherine the Great showed no concern for being vaccinated, and to have her son vaccinated, against smallpox, as an example to those who were hesitant to get it. We now know that the inoculation is thoroughly safe. But can you image the courage it took to get it in the eighteenth century, when tens of thousands still died from smallpox—from royalty down to the common people, indiscriminately. When in Moscow a cholera epidemic was raging, Nicholas I all the same made plans to travel there. Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, fearing for her husband, attempted to dissuade him from going, even bringing their children before him to keep him from going. In response, he said to her: “Take them away. In Moscow right now, thousands of my children are suffering.” And so he went. About these and similar facts, very little is known because, after the revolution, the authorities tried to present my ancestors as the devil incarnate, and they were silent about these things. In modern times, we knowing full well the sting of exile, of want, and of loss, have striven in all things to be closer and even more accessible to all who reach out to us. And to those who, at present, are, because of misinformation, very far removed from us. To my great pleasure, I see that the majority of my countrymen, regardless of their feelings about monarchy, show no hostility toward me, but rather show feelings of understanding, sympathy, and friendship. Isolated and extremely rare cases of hostility come, more often than not, from people with obvious psychological problems. One can hardly feel offended by such people, but rather quite the opposite—one feels sorry for them, and wants very much to try to help them.

The letters I receive are often extremely touching. People often want to tell me their entire life stories. I very much appreciate this. And so, people see in me precisely that which I strive to be: a mother to my people, or an older sister to whom everyone can come for moral support. Of course, there are letters from autograph collectors and all sorts of peculiar requests, such as requests for titles of nobility and expressions of displeasure with one thing or another, and criticisms. We try to answer all these letters. After all, any son or daughter is dear to his parents, no matter how impertinent, foolish, or egotistical. So it is with the Head of the Russian Imperial House: that every one of my countrymen is in their own way dear to me, no matter how far removed they may be from my own beliefs and values.

You have maintained close ties with Russia. How to you evaluate the changes that have taken place in your homeland?

We are citizens of modern Russia who presently live abroad. But we feel perfectly at home in all the states that before the revolution formed part of the former Russian Empire. The Imperial House took no part in the Civil War and did not involve itself with or cling to any of the separate states that broke way from the unified historical territory of Russia, which had been united and thrived thanks to the efforts of its entire population. We welcomed the fall of the totalitarian, godless Communist regime, but we at the same time lament the fact that this collapse brought with it the rending of the centuries-long spiritual, governmental, and economic bonds uniting the population of Russia. It is all too clear that we cannot return to the past. One must be realistic about things and respect international law, territorial integrity, and the legal systems of the newly-independent states that have emerged from this collapse. To attempt to reestablish the former Russian Empire or the USSR is a pointless diversion. But to recognize this does not mean that one should at the same time dismiss the idea that a new form of integration, on the one hand, might be compatible with, on the other, a genuine regard for national interests and state sovereignty. We have the example of the Commonwealth of Nations, to which belong Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and other countries around the world, with various different political systems. All of them are unified around the person of the British monarch, who functions as a symbolic, and therefore universal, figure. Referenda on the form of government, initiated by advocates of a republic in Australia and elsewhere in the Commonwealth, have shown that the majority of their citizens do not want to dissolve the monarchy. They have expressed their wishes not at all principally out of a devotion to the person of the queen, Elizabeth II. Rather, people understand that their real interests are best met together than apart, and that a queen or a king is the best guarantor of unity. Our situation has it own unique factors, of course, but there is a lot for us to learn from that experience.

At present, I am pleased by all that is being done in the service of the stability of political and economic life of our people. When I am in Russia, I see how, in comparison with my first impressions from the early 1990s, when chaos ruled, the mood of the people has greatly improved and how smiles have returned again to faces. From the information presented to me, I know that in Kazakhstan as well, thank God, there are stable conditions and that much is being done to strengthen international security and to support good relations with its surrounding countries. I also see stability in Belarus, in Uzbekistan, in Armenia and Azerbaijan…. I understand that everywhere there are challenges, and there is just cause for worry on many levels; but all the same there is peace and security, which is most important. But what worries me most of all is when I see in one or another of these republics how sometimes the political leaders, in an effort to deflect attention away from their own failings, stir up their countrymen against their neighbors, fanning the flames of irrational nationalism. Confrontation on such things can be no good either for these countries or for their peoples. It brings momentary success only to the ruling party’s leaders, who think only of themselves and their own power.

Do you believe in the reestablishment of monarchy in Russia?

For the Imperial House not to believe in it would be like the Church not believing in God. I am convinced that monarchy is a thoroughly natural and fully modern system of government. The main advantage of legitimate, dynastic monarchy is that it is independent of the various parties, financial interests, and all other narrow nationalist, class-based, and similar local interests. By virtue of this independence, it maintains its status as a supreme arbiter, expressing the interests of the entire nation. Monarchy guarantees the unbroken connection between the past, the present and the future. Of course, monarchy has its shortcomings, like any human governmental system. But if one were objectively to compare monarchical government with republican forms of government, we would see that, at the very least, there are just as many, perhaps more, shortcomings in a republic. In any case, monarchy is a form of government built upon a principle, at the base of which lies the self-identity of the nation as a united family at the head of which is the father or mother. A republic rests upon the principle of an impersonal association. And here there are, to be sure, advantages, too. But I am sure that no normal person would exchange his own family, not matter how dysfunctional it may be, for an impersonal association, no matter how successful it may be. So I can see a future for legitimate and genuine democratic monarchy which, by virtue of these qualities, unites the people and which binds together the thousand-year tradition of our nation with the requirements of modern times.

Is the aim of your activities abroad to bring that about?

The Russian Imperial House abjures any sort of political involvement. Most of all, we are the preservers of the values and ideals of the thousand-year-long statehood of the Russian people. The main fields of our social activities today are participation in charities; support for various cultural initiatives; the strengthening of friendship, mutual understanding, and mutual respect among and within our people; support for the prominent role of Russia in world affairs; the defense of the rule of law and justice; respect for the individual; and the raising of an appropriate spirit of patriotism. After the revolution, we lost the means that would allow our ancestors to be active in these areas effectively. But we retained that which no one could take away from us: our good name, certitude in the rightness of our cause, respect internationally, and our historical and familial ties all over the world. I do not for one minute doubt that with time Russia will resolve the question of the official status of the Imperial House, as has been the case with the former dynasties in all other civilized countries. Then we perhaps can do much more than we can even now. But in any event we will do what we must: strive with all our energy to serve our homeland.

Your son, Tsesarevich Georgii Mikhailovich, is still unmarried. A natural question from a trendy magazine such as ours: what criteria are there in the choice for his future bride?

The most important thing is that my son’s future wife loves and respects him, that she understands his duties, and that she has his love and respect. From the outside looking in, it might seem that the life of a member of a dynasty is something out of a fairytale. But in fact, it is a heavy burden and an enormous responsibility. You no longer belong to yourself, and must do only that which is in the interest of your country, your people. And you do not ever even get the chance to go into retirement—the dynastic duty is a lifelong one. When Emperor Nicholas I learned that he would be ascending the throne, he told his wife, Alexandra Feodorovna, “My dear, our good days are now all in the past.” And these words could just as easily have been spoken by any head of any dynasty. The failure of both spouses to understand this situation can only lead to tragedy, of the sort that happened with Diana, Princess of Wales.

In addition to all this, there are also limitations of a historical and legal nature that are placed on marriages in the dynasty. According to the presently operative dynastic law, my son must marry a member of a ruling or sovereign house. This stipulation was not originally a part of Emperor Paul I’s 1797 law of succession, but was added later to the Family Statute by his son, Alexander I, who obliged all his successors solemnly to observe that new requirement. In the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, this was necessary for the maintenance of the prestige of the dynasty and, consequently, of the entire country. At present, however, when the majority of European dynasties, including those that currently reign, have already abandoned similar regulations in their dynastic laws, such restrictions have for us lost all meaning. It was not for nothing that the faithful friend and spiritual father of my grandfather and father, St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, as early as 1920, said that there would come a day when it would be necessary to return to the original law of Paul I, according to which only the permission of the Head of the Imperial House, and none of the subsequently added requirements, was necessary for a marriage to be recognized as legal. If my son’s chosen bride happens not to be from a ruling or sovereign house, the marriage will then require a change to the Family Statute, which only I can introduce and, in addition, would require also the blessing of the Orthodox Church since we are bound by a holy oath to observe the law of succession in its present form.

Your Highness, you were finally able to obtain the rehabilitation of your predecessor Nicholas II. But some would question the sense behind this since the Royal Martyrs have already been canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church. Don’t you agree with the view that canonization is superior to rehabilitation?

In the spiritual sense canonization is, without a doubt, incomparably higher than judicial rehabilitation. But in principle, these are quite different things which do not contradict, but rather complement, each other. Canonization is the glorification of one among the choir of saints, a recognition of religious virtues and spiritual feats; but rehabilitation is the recognition of the fact that citizens were illegally persecuted by the totalitarian government for religious, social, and class-based reasons. We cannot be indifferent to the fact that these royal saints continued to be considered legally enemies of the people, who lost their freedom and were executed lawfully. Moreover, none of us could ever be absolutely sure that there would not be a return to the politics of terror until such time as the decision of Ural Soviet, affirmed as it was by the supreme body of the RSFSR—the All-Russian Central Executive Committee—to execute the royal family, had been ruled illegal and the members of the royal family rehabilitated. It is not for nothing that the Russian Orthodox Church fully supported our legal actions in the courts.

You often come to Russia. You have been far and wide inside the country. During your visits, do your meetings with people necessarily follow official protocol?

For 17 years, we have visited almost every region of modern Russia, from Smolensk to Vladivostok. In 2000, my mother, Grand Duchess Leonida Georgievna visited Latvia by invitation of the Seim. We are planning other trips to other countries that formerly were part of the Russian Empire. Of course, there is always an itinerary—meetings with government officials, clergy, representatives of civic groups, charities, and cultural organizations, visits to holy places and historic sites, working meetings, and so on. But I have made it a firm point each time I come to Russia to make time to meet people on the streets, in the factories—that is, in people’s ordinary lives and daily settings. I want to know their problems; I want to have the chance to support them, even if only morally. For me, meeting with ordinary people is itself an enormously important way to help. The only protocol in these meetings is sincerity, friendship, and openness with each other.

Describe, please, the charitable programs with which you work.

I have for many years participated in the annual November charity fair “El Rastrillo” in Madrid, which is organized by the charitable fund “Nuevo Futuro,” or “New Future.” This fund began as a small operation aimed at assisting orphans, with the running of small shelters run by families. Soon it became so successful that the Spanish government noticed it and began to offer support. Now this very important organization helps children around the world. Members of the Spanish royal family, members of other European royal houses, of the aristocracy and various celebrities enthusiastically participate in its programs. I myself organize the Russian stand. The profits from the sale of various souvenirs and national arts and crafts are later distributed in proportion with the sales from each stand for the benefit of children in those respective countries. Thanks to this work, I have every year had the chance to offer a little assistance to our youngest countrymen. In Russia, there are also a number of charitable foundations that operate under our auspices. I would especially like to mention the program “Education for Poor Children,” which is an initiative of the Orthodox society “Radonezh”; and the aid program for women prisoners and their children, which is headed by Maria Kannibikh. During my visit to Australia in September of last year, I was presented with many promising projects which are now taking firm root. I hope that, with time, even more proposals for organizing charities will present themselves, especially in other countries, such as those that have historically been associated with Russia.

The daily activities even of royalty must include family life. What is family life like for you? Do you have a staff of servants? Do you have traditional meals with traditional foods?

Our family life is quite ordinary. We observe no special ceremonial in our daily lives. We have a maid from Morocco, Arkiya, who helps us at home and who has lived with us for more than 20 years and has become very much a member of the family. On occasion we require the assistance of one or two home caregivers since my mother, who in October turned 94 years old, required additional attention and nursing care. As for meals, in my view, these should be simple and nutritional. We have Russian, Spanish, Moroccan, Georgian, and French dishes, but without any special pretentions. But on holidays, of course, one can allow oneself some indulgences.

What holidays to you observe in your family?

The most treasured holidays for us are Orthodox Easter and Christmas. We celebrate New Years, our name days, and birthdays. Holidays that I have frequently celebrated in Russia include St. Nicholas Day on December 19, Victory Day on May 9, and the Feast Day of the Royal Martyrs on July 17.

Your Highness, our readers would like to know what you do in your leisure time? Who are your favorite writers?

I very much love working in my garden. When we used to live in a house with a garden attached, I would spend most of my free time tending the garden. Working in the soil and with plants truly allows one to rest mentally, to free oneself from stress. Now we live in an apartment in downtown Madrid, but we have on the roof of the building a small corner where I can grow flowers and vegetables. Some years, if the weather has been good, I can get a nice little crop of tomatoes and small, but very sweet, watermelons. Our irises are also quite beautiful.

I love to travel. Studying various and different cultures is very enriching to me. Often the problems between people or between whole nations arise out of nothing, on account of a lack of knowledge and understanding of each other. If we were to better know each other, then there would be a greater chance of preserving and strengthening love and friendship. One should never deny one’s own culture and history, but this doesn’t mean that one should fear other people and scorn those things that other people cherish.

As for writers, I especially love to read Gogol and Chekhov. They have a subtle humor and enormous power in exposing human flaws, but without malice or derision toward their country.

What have been for you the most significant events of the past 10 years?

If we were to speak of my family life, then I would say that the most significant events were the ceremony in Jerusalem in 1998 when my son swore his oath of loyalty to his Fatherland; the canonization of the royal family in 2000; my extended trip in 2003 to Ekaterinburg, Volgograd, Saratov, Samara, Simbirsk, Kazan, Cheboksary, and Nizhnyi Novgorod, and my participation in the celebrations of the 100-th year anniversary of the canonization of St. Seraphim of Sarov; the translation of the relics of Empress Maria Feodorovna from Denmark to our family crypt in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburgh in 2006, which had taken years to arrange; and finally my visit to the Russian far east and to Australia in 2007. In the international and internal political arenas, the last 10 years have witnessed a large number of events, both applaudable and lamentable, but I would like to single out the reunification of the two parts of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad with the Moscow Patriarchate. To people who aren’t especially religious, this event might seem rather insignificant, but to anyone who believes in God, and not only just to the Orthodox, they understand how difficult it was to find mutual understanding after 80 years apart, how much love, wisdom, and tact was required to overcome the religious barriers of that sort. The very fact that it took place at all is an example for everyone and a symbol that any problem can be resolved if there is good will and a genuine desire to do the right thing, rather than to satisfy one’s own desires. As a model for how to extinguish conflicts, this event has importance not only for the Orthodox, and also not only for Russia, but for the entire world.


Published: S. Nazarova, “Hello, Your Highness!”
in Randevu (Kazakhstan), 2008, no. 8 (54), pp. 32-43. (See www.randevu.kz)

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