24 October 2017

An interview with H.I.H. the Grand Duke George of Russia in Vanity Fair

Will there be any special events in Russia marking the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution?

Yes. Starting even last year, there have been a number of events marking this sad and grim anniversary. These include commemorative services, academic conferences, and other events organized by political figures and civic groups of various kinds.

My mother and I, or our representatives, are taking part only in those events that call upon our nation to look at the events of the past century objectively and comprehensively, and which serve the cause of national reconciliation.

The Imperial House is neither “Red” nor “White.” We strive to demonstrate to all our countrymen that the Revolution and Civil War were a kind of disease. And the responsibility for the spreading of that disease lies in us all. Not only the Bolsheviks are responsible for the tragedies of the 20th century, nor only the revolutionaries of other persuasions, but also the ruling classes, and our dynasty itself. We do not deny our share of the blame.

The crimes of all those involved must never be forgotten or justified, so that we may never repeat them. But we cannot undo what has been done. And those who seek revenge for what has been done—whether they be “Reds” or "Whites“—are profoundly wrong. By seeking revenge, these people, wittingly or unwittingly, are only fanning the cooled embers of the Civil War.

The Imperial House calls upon us all not only to forgive others, but to ask others to forgive us for our own sins and mistakes. Cleansed by this mutual repentence, we can work together for a better Russia today and tomorrow.

We attach particular importance to memorial services for all victims of the Civil War, where the descendants of both “Reds” and “Whites” gather together. That tradition began several years ago, and my mother, Grand Duchess Maria of Russia, and the Orthodox Church enthusiastically supported that undertaking. In his message of November 4, 2009, to the first such memorial service, in the Church of the Sign of the Mother of God on Romanov pereulok in Moscow, my mother wrote: “The main lesson of the last tragic century for us should be a clear awareness of the fact that godlessness and inhumane evil, mutual extermination, hatred or falsehood can never be justified in the pursuit of a goal, no matter how desirable that goal may seem to be. Every side in the great Troubles of the twentieth century had its own truth and its own falsehood, its own ideals and its own selfish interests, its own heroes and its own villains. But, at the end of the day, everyone suffered from the Revolution: both those who lost and those who won. Yesterday’s executioners became the tomorrow’s victims, and many of those who survived and seemed even to find themselves in positions of power and privilege, nonetheless turned out to be defective spiritually and morally. We should forget nothing about this time, so that we do not repeat these mistakes. We should strive to make right the evil that was done. But we should also have the capacity to forgive and to ask forgiveness. For the sake of future generations, we must learn first and foremost to find in the past and in the present not those things that have divided us, but those things that can unite us, each and every one of us.”

With which of your ancestors do you most identify, or, put better, who is your favorite Romanoff?

My favorites are Emperors Peter I the Great and Alexander III the Peacemaker. In Peter I, I admire most the energy and selfless dedication; in Alexander III, the confidence and dignified manner, and his ability to create an effective team of statesmen and to motivate them to achieve things for the good of the country.

Do you plan to move back to Russia at any point in the near future?

Returning to Russia to live permanently has always been and remains our deepest desire. Our Russian citizenship was restored in 1992. The process of reintegrating the Imperial House into the social life of Russia has been progressing steadily since then. We have visited almost every region of Russia and many independent states that formerly belonged to the Russian Empire. Right now, we live abroad, but we visit Russia more and more frequently and we’re certain that soon I will able to say the opposite: that we live in Russia but frequently visit other countries.

Political pundits and analysts frequently compare Putin with a tsar. What do you think about that comparison?

The comparison of a strong political leader with a tsar is made often enough for it now to be a common “figure of speech.” In France, for example, they called General Charles de Gaulle a “monarch.” If anyone thinks that such comparisons annoy or anger the members of historical ruling dynasties, they’d be very mistaken.

A monarchy, in the form that it took at its highest stage of historical development, is pointless without the notions of dynasty and legitimate succession.

And a republic is pointless without elections for its leader.

Attempting to mix these two forms of government would be a doomed experiment.

President Vladimir Putin is an experienced statesman. He was elected President of a democratic republic in a national election, and he has never even hinted at wanting to engage in any sort of Bonapartist adventures. Nor could any other sensible politician seriously think such a thing. Such ideas dwell only in the realm of demagogues and crackpots.

What was the purpose of your first visit to Russia?

The first time I came to Russia was with my mother and grandmother, and it was to attend the funeral of my grandfather, Grand Duke Wladimir Kirillovich. His funeral was officiated by Patriarch Alexis II, and afterward he was buried in our family mausoleum in the Cathedral of Ss. Peter and Paul in St. Petersburg.

The death of my grandfather was for my family an enormous sorrow. But our fellow countrymen helped us get through this moment by surrounding us with love and sympathy. I was only 11 years old then, but I already could understand and feel that, despite the decades of anti-religious and anti-monarchist propaganda, love for our history, kindness, and generosity had not died out among our people.

I learned more and more about our country in my subsequent visits to Russia, and I have striven to understand my fellow countrymen and their needs and problems ever since. I know that I now have many good and reliable friends in many corners of Russia. I communicate with some quite often, and with others only from time to time. But that atmosphere of love and mutual respect, which we encountered back in 1992, is alive and well, and only getting stronger.

The history of your family attracts a lot of interest in the press and in TV and film. The creators of the TV show Mad Men are creating a series on the Romanoffs today, and the film about the ballerina Mathilda Kshesinska has generated a lot of discussion. What do you think about all this attention that the family is getting?

I think that there isn’t an imperial or royal dynasty in history that hasn’t attracted enormous popular interest. Some ridicule those dynasties, others praise them, and some do both at the same time. But hardly anyone is entirely neutral on the subject. So the interest we are seeing in the House of Romanoff is entirely natural.

As for TV shows or movies about the modern lives of members of the Imperial House and our relatives, I can say that they are often rather trite and superficial. Their makers rarely engage in the kind of research into the historical, conceptual, or legal issues related to their subject matter, and seem only concerned with attracting viewers. Of course, it would be wrong to expect of these films a kind of scholarly treatment. But to ignore fully even the most basic information about the history and internal institutions of the dynasty would also be wrong.

Of course, there are scandalous and libelous films that employ the methods of the Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels: “the more ridiculous and monstrous the lie, the easier it will be believed.” But we are confident that this method has already been discredited, and the majority of people in our day have access to information and so are able to distinguish truth from falsehood.

The film about the relationship between Emperor Nicholas II (when he was still heir to the throne) and the ballerina Mathilda Kshesinska has still not been shown in theatres. But we know enough from the trailers and advertisements to make a reasonably fair assessment of it. It is already clear that the portrayals of Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, and other characters are utterly unhistorical and untrue, and completely out of line with all we know about these people as historical figures.

Even the fiercest enemies and sharpest critics of Emperor Nicholas II recognized that he was an exemplary husband and father, and a very calm and controlled man with a measured temperament. The trailer for the film portrays a weak and will-less man, who is confused in his feelings and in his relationships with women.

It’s not surprising that many people are shocked by this film, all the more so, of course, because Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna and their children were canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church as passion-bearers.

Still, attempts to prohibit this film, in our view, are senseless because it only creates more publicity for the film than there would otherwise be. The only effective weapon against falsehood is the truth, not prohibitions.

We are very grateful to the hierarchs of our Church—Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk and Bishop Tikhon of Yegorievsk, who, by the way, read the entire screenplay and have seen the current full version of the of the film—for their very wise and measured words on this matter. According to these representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church, it is pointless to prohibit this film, but it is quite appropriate to point out its many historical defects.

We should also note that Metropolitan Hilarion is a talented and accomplished composer, who was trained at the Moscow State Conservatory, and Bishop Tikhon, before taking Holy Orders, had graduated from the Department of Screenwriting at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography. So both hierarchs are familiar at a very high level with the questions of secular culture and history, and are both very modern and educated people. No one could accuse them of being obscurantists with narrow views on life.

Every author has the right to his own interpretation, to artistic license. But we likewise have the right to expect that this artistic license does not turn into a hurtful and insulting lie.

The Fall of the Romanoff dynasty remains, 100 years later, shrouded in mystery. What do you think really happened?

Of course, I think we need to continue to study all aspects of the events that took place 100 years ago. But I don’t see any sensational secrets here. Such things were thought up by those who wished to attract attention to themselves. Sometimes these sensational speculations embellished or distorted the tragic suffering of all our people, not just the Imperial family.

In February 1917, as a result of a conspiracy among some of Russia’s elite, Emperor Nicholas II was forced to abdicate the throne. He did this hoping to avoid a Civil War breaking out in Russia, which was already immersed in the First World War. Unfortunately, this sacrifice of his did not bring calm to the nation. The moderate revolutionaries of February quickly lost control of the situation and were replaced by the more radical revolutionaries of October—the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks established a totalitarian, terroristic regime, which persecuted the Church and other religions, and attempted to construct a fundamentally new society based on atheism and materialism. The Imperial Family remained the symbol of the nation’s old traditional values and therefore their tragic fate was a foregone conclusion. All members of the family of Emperor Nicholas II—the Empress, Tsesarevich Aleksei, and the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia, as well as their faithful servants—were shot in Ekaterinburg on July 17, 1918. Other members of our House who had not already fled Russia were also executed. The only ones to survive were those who in one way or another managed to escape.

After the execution in 1918 of the entire male line of descent from Emperor Alexander III, the legal Head of the Imperial House of Russia became my great-grandfather, Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich, the next most senior grandson of Alexander II, the Tsar-Liberator. In 1924, having become completely convinced that all of the more senior members of the dynasty had been executed, he adopted the title of Emperor-in-Exile. Through him continues the Romanoff dynasty as a historical institution, preserving continuity in Russian history and the ideal of the State-Family, which is the very essence of hereditary monarchy.

What books would you recommend to me to read to understand more deeply the history of the Romanoffs?

On the history of Russia during the first centuries of the rule of our House, I would recommend the appropriate volumes of the classic work by Sergei Soloviev, A History of Russia from Ancient Times. For a description of the separate reigns of Romanoff rulers, I would recommend the books by Nikolai Schilder. The best book on Nicholas II is probably the book by Sergei Oldenburg, Nicholas II: His Reign and His Russia.

To those who want to peer more deeply into the history of our House in all its facets and features I would recommend reading historical sources—diaries, letters, and memoirs. These are being published now in very good academic editions, often with commentary by specialists. Of course, even in primary sources like these one can still find contradictory and unreliable information. Historians need to examine all these sources, comparing and analyzing them all systematically and digging into them as best they can for the truth. But sources produced at the time of the events they describe, or at least written by those who were eyewitnesses or participants in these events, convey the spirit of the age and allow one to grasp better the times and events, even if not all the information in them is absolutely historically accurate.

You got your professional start in life working with Ana and Loyola de Palacio. What lasting lessons do you take from your time working with them? What is the typical day like for a lobbyist?

The most important lesson that I learned not only at the beginning of my career working with Ana and Loyola de Palacio, but even growing up in my family, was how to be responsible and dutiful in all the things I do. Otherwise, there is no point in doing anything in the first place.

I also learned how important it is to show respect for others, not only my bosses, so to speak, but those below me in the workplace.

And I learn one more important rule: that encouraging in others a conscientious and dutiful attitude toward work can only be achieved by example. If you want others to be and act a certain way, but you don’t act that way yourself, you’ll never achieve any good results.

What parallels do you think exist between Russia in the time of the Romanoffs and Russia today?

Russia is always Russia. Even in the Communist era, under the multiple layers of all that ideology, the party dictatorship, and the destruction of a large part of our traditional values, my homeland continued to live on the basis of its native spiritual values. Today we have become witnesses of a genuine miracle of the Transfiguration: the revival of faith in God, the restoration of our holy places and historical monuments, and the desire to strengthen the correction between our times and the pre-revolutionary past. And in all this no one is blotting out the Soviet period. It, too, had many bright and heroic moments.

The Imperial House participates in all things that contribute to the affirmation of the unity of Russian history and its continuity across the generations. We must take the best from every era of our history, even while we try to learn from our mistakes and strive to avoid repeating them.

You often like to say that you don’t want to involve yourself in politics. Why don’t you?

We do not take part in any form of political activity for reasons of principle. The idea of a monarchy is by nature beyond party politics. Monarchy should not divide the people nor set itself up in opposition to one or another part of the nation, but should unite it.

Therefore we firmly hold to our monarchist ideals and principles, but we do not force them on others. We speak openly and often about what in our view are the advantages of monarchy. This is a right guaranteed to us by Article 13 of the Constitution of Russia, which provides for freedom of speech and thought. We are open to dialogue with all our countrymen, regardless of whether they are on the political left or on the political right. But we never support any political parties and we do not allow our name to be used in political battles.

In modern times, and particularly at this moment, the main role of monarchy is to serve as an arbiter. This role requires and assumes a neutral position vis-à-vis all parties and groups, just as it requires and assumes a closeness to all the peoples of the nation and an abiding desire to meet their needs. This is true not only for monarchs who reign, but also for the Head of dynasties who don’t.

If we understand the word “politics” not as involvement in political activities, but rather as the art of governance, then that is something we are prepared to engage in, if that is the will of the people.

But we see a restoration not as some desired fruit, but as an enormous responsibility and burdensome cross. The Romanoffs never, beginning with the first tsar of our dynasty, Mikhail Feodorovich, sought power. When in 1613 an embassy from the Assembly of the Land came to my ancestor Mikhail Romanoff and announced that he had been selected to be the lawful tsar of Russia, he was filled with horror and refused. Then the members of the embassy explained that the throne was not his right but his duty. And he accepted this duty and passed it on to the next generation.

If we are again called by the people to serve, we will likewise accept duty. But we will never squander our ancient historical heritage by engaging in today’s political battles.

Our mission in the modern world is to preserve continuity, traditions, and the historical and cultural heritage of our country; to support the ethnic, religious, and civil peace inside our country; to engage and encourage philanthropy and charity; and to defend and project a positive image of Russia abroad.

What in your view is the Russian Soul, about which so many writers and intellectuals have written?

The Russian soul is the national character of our people. Many people define the term differently. Some emphasize one aspect of it, and others emphasize some other aspect. Some idealize the Russian people, and others attempt to portray them as barbarians. Both, of course, are wrong.

In general, there are no “good” or “bad” peoples in the world. Every nation is good in its ideal form—that is, in its embodiment of the best qualities that are most dear to each nation. At the same time, each nation has its saints and heroes, its ordinary folk, and its scoundrels and villains. And the Russian nation is no exception to any of this.

However, each nation is, one might say, a kind of collective personality. The totality of these and other ideals, aspirations, and habits of mind all make up the collective character of a nation. And every nation creates its own character.

I will not be saying anything new if I note that when an Englishman wants to describe his country fondly, he uses the term “Merrie Olde England.” The Frenchman will say “la Belle France.” And the Russian will say “Holy Russia.” Which is to say that, for Russians, the first place in their own image of themselves is not beauty or military might, nor even patriotism or the land, but holiness.

At the core of this holiness resides love. And I am profoundly convinced that the unique feature of the Russian soul is the capacity to love deeply, to love sincerely. Sometimes, unfortunately, this capacity for love is reborn as its exact opposite—as hate. And so the Russian man or woman can violently destroy that which he or she once created and once so intensely loved. This happened in the revolutionary era. It is not for nothing that the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin wrote, “God save us from seeingRussian revolt, senseless and merciless.”

But what is entirely out of character for a Russian is indifference. Indifference is far more horrible than any errors committed on purpose and out of conviction, for it kills without the possibility of resurrection, it corrodes life at its very core, and it turns people into living corpses. The Russian, having considered his actions and understood his sin, is capable of repenting sincerely, deeply, and of undoing the damage he has done. Therefore our country has more than once been resurrected, like a phoenix out of the ashes, after the most terrible national catastrophes. And so I believe very firmly that even now, despite all its challenges, Russia has a very great and bright future ahead of it.

This interview, in edited form, appeared in Vanity Fair, which can be accessed on line here.

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