Dynastic Succession

The Russian Imperial House: A Historical Survey

The Imperial House of Russia is the Romanoff Dynasty, which ruled until 1917 and was elevated to the throne by the Assembly of the Land (Zemskii Sobor) in 1613 because of its close kinship ties through the female line with the extinct Riurikovich Dynasty. The direct male line of the Romanoff Dynasty ended in 1730 (on the death of Emperor, Peter II, the grandson of Peter I “the Great”). After that, the Russian Throne was occupied by Peter the Great’s niece, Empress Anna Ioannovna (ruled 1730-1740), then by her grandnephew, Emperor Ivan VI Antonovich (ruled 1740-1741), and then by Peter the Great’s daughter, Empress Elizabeth Petrovna (ruled 1741-1762). In 1761, the succession to the throne, together with all the corresponding titles and the surname “Romanoff,” passed through the female line to the House of Holstein-Gottorp (to Peter the Great’s grandson, Peter III Fedorovich, the son of Peter the Great’s daughter, Tsarevna Anna Petrovna). Emperor Paul I, the son of Peter III, issued a Decree on the Imperial Succession on April 5, 1797, which determined the order of succession to the throne, as well as membership in the Russian Imperial House. This Decree was amended on March 20, 1820, by Emperor Alexander I, who issued a Manifesto stipulating that, “if any person in the Imperial Family enters into a marriage with a person of a status unequal to His, that is, not belonging to any Royal or Ruling House, in such a case the person in the Imperial Family cannot pass on to the other person the rights which belong to Members of the Imperial Family, and the children issuing from such a marriage have no right of succession to the throne.”

Russian dynastic law, which was based upon the Decree on the Imperial Succession, belongs to what is known as the Austrian system of succession, which stipulates male primogeniture. In Russia, succession passed through the female line only after the extinction of all male branches of the dynasty. Similar to the succession laws governing other monarchies, the articles pertaining to the succession to the throne (Articles 25-39 of the Fundamental Laws of the Russian Empire) are inviolable—that is, not susceptible to abolition or modification even by the Sovereign Emperor.

According to the definition in the Encyclopedic Dictionary by Brockhaus and Efron, the Russian Imperial House is “a special institution, membership in which is enjoyed by those who may be called upon to inherit the throne according to the established laws, and by those who are married to persons who have or may come to have the right to inherit the throne.”1

Before the Revolution of 1917, the Russian Imperial House of Romanoff was a unique institution: a family that had the status of a state institution, and whose members received the crown according to a prescribed order of succession. After the 1917 Revolution, the Russian Imperial House lost its political power as well as its status as a state institution, but it retained its status as a historical institution, that is—a legal entity that has enjoyed an unchallenged dynastic continuity from the moment of its ascension to the throne, and that operates then and now according to its own internal historical laws.

Just like the Church’s canon laws, the dynastic laws of the Russian Imperial House continue in force to the extent that they do not conflict with the Constitution and other laws of the Russian Federation.

Since the Revolution of 1917, the Russian Imperial House has lived in exile, but the order of succession to the position of Head of the Dynasty and membership in the dynasty have remained firmly governed by the statutes of Russian dynastic laws. Membership in the Russian Imperial House is governed specifically by the relevant articles of the Fundamental Laws of the Russian Empire.

After the abdication on March 2, 1917, of Emperor Nicholas II for Himself and for His Heir, Aleksei Nikolaevich, the succession passed to the Emperor’s brother, Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich. In His Manifesto of March 3, 1917, Grand Duke Mikhail delayed accepting the crown until the Constituent Assembly could meet and decide upon the future form of Russia’s government. On September 1, 1917, before the Constituent Assembly had been called, Alexander Kerensky, the prime minister of the Provisional Government, in violation of prior decrees, declared Russia to be a republic.

In 1918, Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich, the former Emperor Nicholas II, and the Heir and Tsesarevich Aleksei Nikolaevich, that is, the entire male line issuing from Emperor Alexander III, were executed on orders from the godless regime then in power. In accordance with Article 29 of the Law of Succession, the right to the throne passed to the line issuing from Alexander II: to the descendants of Grand Duke Wladimir Alexandrovich (1847-1908). The latter’s eldest son, Grand Duke Kirill Wladimirovich, declared himself in 1922 the curator of the Throne (since He was still not absolutely certain of the death of Emperor Nicholas II, his son, and brother); and on August 31, 1924, he assumed the title of Emperor-in-exile of All the Russias.

This Manifesto was fully consistent with the Fundamental Laws and was recognized by practically all Members of the House of Romanoff, and by foreign Royal Houses. One of the junior lines of the dynasty, composed of Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich, Grand Duke Peter Nikolaevich, and the latter’s son, Prince-of-the-Imperial-Blood Roman Petrovich, did not recognize the Manifesto of August 31, 1924—all of them believing that the question of who occupies the throne should be decided by the will of the people. The elderly Dowager Empress Maria Fedorovna, not disputing the legality of Grand Duke Kirill Wladimirovich’s action, considered his Manifesto “premature,” since she never gave up hope that one of her sons or her grandson might somehow still be alive in Russia.

At the time that Kirill Wladimirovich assumed the Imperial title, there were still 18 male Members of the Russian Imperial House living in immigration. Their order in the succession to the Throne at that time was as follows:

  1. The lines of descent from Emperor Alexander
    1. The line of Grand Duke Wladimir Alexandrovich
      1. Grand Duke Wladimir Kirillovich (son and Heir of Emperor Kirill Wladimirovich)
      2. Grand Duke Boris Wladimirovich
      3. Grand Duke Andrei Wladimirovich
    2. The line of Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich
      1. Grand Duke Dmitrii Pavlovich
  2. The lines of descent from Emperor Nicholas I:
    1. The line of Grand Duke Constantine Nikolaevich
      1. Prince Vsevolod Ioannovich (son of Prince Ioann Konstantinovich)
      2. Prince Gavriil Konstantinovich
      3. Prince Georgii Konstantinovich
    2. The line of Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich the Elder
      1. Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich the Younger
      2. Grand Duke Peter Nikolaevich
      3. Prince Roman Petrovich
    3. The line of Grand Duke Mikhail Nikolaevich
      1. Grand Duke Mikhail Mikhailovich
      2. Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich
      3. Prince Andrei Alexandrovich
      4. Prince Feodor Alexandrovich
      5. Prince Nikita Alexandrovich
      6. Prince Dmitrii Alexandrovich
      7. Prince Rostislav Alexandrovich
      8. Prince Vasilii Alexandrovich

Given the fact that they were all living in exile, the majority of these members of the Imperial House did not consider themselves to be obligated to follow strictly the requirements of the Fundamental Laws. This is exemplified by the many morganatic (unequal) marriages that occurred after 1917—that is, marriages with persons who do not belong to royal or ruling houses. Grand Dukes and Princes-of-the-Imperial-Blood who had entered into morganatic marriages did not themselves lose their rights to the throne or their membership in the Dynasty, but their descendants, by virtue of Articles 36 and 188 of the Fundamental Laws of the Russian Empire, possessed no dynastic rights whatsoever (neither the right to the throne, nor titles, nor even the dynastic surname “Romanoff”). Rather, a special status for the descendants of these morganatic unions was devised whereby they would be known as princes Romanovskii, along with a hyphenated surname of their choice, provided that the parents had beforehand requested permission to marry from the Head of the Dynasty (Decree of July 28, 1835). The rights to these titles as provided for in the Decree of July 28, 1935, were utilized by Grand Dukes Andriei Wladimirovich and Dmitrii Pavlovich, and by Princes-of-the-Imperial-Blood Vsevolod Ioannovich, Gavriil Konstantinovich, Dmitrii Aleksandrovich, and by the widow of Grand Duke Mikhail Aleksandrovich, Princess N. S. Brasova. The morganatic son of Grand Duke Nicholas Konstantinovich, A. N. Iskander, received the princely title without the addition of “Romanovskii” to his surname. Grand Duke Boris Wladimirovich, Prince Roman Petrovich, and the sons of Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich (with the exception of Prince Dmitrii Aleksandrovich) did not seek permission to marry from the Head of the Dynasty and therefore did not receive titles for their spouses or children.

Emperor Kirill Wladimirovich died on October 12, 1938. His son, Grand Duke Wladimir Kirillovich, became the Head of the Dynasty but, following the example of many other Heads of dispossessed foreign dynasties, considered it prudent not to adopt formally the title Emperor until such time as the Monarchy in Russia should be restored. The Decree of his Father had already legally secured the continuing operation of the Fundamental Laws of the Russian Empire in the realm of dynastic law. Grand Duke Wladimir Kirillovich used the official title “Head of the Russian Imperial House, His Imperial Highness, Sovereign, Grand Duke,” which implied the title of Emperor de jure.

Grand Duke Wladimir Kirillovich, was the sole male dynast of the Imperial House to enter into an equal marriage after 1917. On August 13, 1948, he married Grand Duchess Leonida Georgievna, the daughter of the Head of the Georgian Royal House, H.R.H. Prince George Alexandrovich Bagration-Mukhrani. The royal status of the House of Bagration was permanently recognized by Russia in the Treaty of Georgievsk of 1783 and was confirmed by the Decree of December 5, 1946, issued by the Head of the Russian Imperial House at the request of the Royal House of Spain and has been recognized by all the royal houses of Europe.

From this marriage was born on December 23, 1953, Grand Duchess Maria Wladimirovna. Inasmuch as all other living male dynasts of the Imperial family had entered into morganatic marriages, and because their advanced age made it unlikely that any of them would enter into new and equal marriages and, even less likely, have children—the Grand Duchess became the presumptive future Heiress to the throne by virtue of the inviolable Article 30 of the Fundamental Laws of the Russian Empire. Therefore, her father, Grand Duke Wladimir Kirillovich, proclaimed her majority to be 16 years of age (in accordance with Article 40), and, on December 23, 1969, issued a Decree proclaiming that, in the event of the Grand Duke’s death, the Grand Duchess was to be the curatrix over the proper order of succession to the title of Head of the House. This Decree drew objections from certain Princes of the Blood, but its legality cannot be challenged, because it deprived no male dynasts of the Dynasty of any of their legal rights, but merely established oversight over the correct succession.

At the time that the Decree of 1969 was issued, the male line succession after Grand Duke Wladimir Kirillovich would have been the following:

  1. Prince Vsevolod Ioannovich (1914-1973). His first marriage was to Lady Mary Lygon, a British subject, who was granted the title of Princess Romanovskii-Pavlovskii (1939). His second wife was to Emilia de Gosztonyi of Hungary, a Hungarian, who was granted the title of Princess Romanovskii (1956) by Grand Duke Wladimir Kirillovich. His third wife was Valli Knust, a Dane, to whom Grand Duke Wladimir Kirillovich granted the title of Princess Romanovskii-Knust (1961). No children issued from any of the three marriages.
  2. Prince Roman Petrovich (1869-1978). His wife was Countess Praskovia Dmitrievna Sheremetev. Children born to this marriage are morganatic: and they have no rights to any dynastic titles.
  3. Prince Andrei Aleksandrovich (1897-1981). His first wife was Elisaveta Fabrizievna Ruffo. His second wife was Nadine McDougall of Great Britain. Children born to these marriages are morganatic and they have no rights to any dynastic titles.
  4. Prince Nikita Aleksandrovich (1900-1974). His wife was Countess Maria Ilarionovna Vorontsov-Dashkov. Children born to this marriage are morganatic and have no rights to any dynastic titles. The line descended from Prince Nikita has died out.
  5. Prince Dmitrii Aleksandrovich (1901-1980). His first wife was Countess Marina Sergievna Golenishchev-Kutuzov, who was granted the title Princess Romanovskii-Kutuzov by Emperor Kirill Wladimirovich. His second wife was Sheila Chisholm of Australia. The daughter born to the first marriage was Princess Nadezhda Romanovskii-Kutuzov. The line of descent from Prince Dmitrii has died out.
  6. Prince Rostislav Aleksandrovich (1902-1977). His first wife was Princess Alexandra Pavlovna Golitsyn, his second wife was Alice Baker of the United States, and his third wife was Hedwig von Chappuis of Germany. Children born of these marriages are morganatic and have no rights to any dynastic titles.
  7. Prince Vasilii Aleksandrovich (1907-1989). His wife was Princess Natalia Alekseevna Golitsyn. The marriage produced no male issue. Their lone child, a daughter, is morganatic and has no rights to any dynastic titles.

Male dynasts of the Imperial House who died before 1969—Grand Duke Boris Wladimirovich, Grand Duke Andrei Wladimirovich, Grand Duke Dmitrii Pavlovich, Grand Duke Gavriil Konstantinovich, Grand Duke Mikhail Mikhailovich, Prince Georgii Konstantinovich (who died unmarried), and Prince Feodor Alexandrovich—similarly left no issue who are dynasts, since all of their marriages were morganatic.

With the passing in 1989 of Vasilii Alexandrovich, the last living Prince of the Imperial Blood, which occurred during the lifetime of Grand Duke Wladimir Kirillovich, Grand Duchess Maria Wladimirovna became not only the presumed future Heiress, but in fact the actual Heiress to Her Father’s title.

In 1976, Grand Duchess Maria Wladimirovna entered into an equal marriage with Prince Franz-Wilhelm of Prussia, who, after being received into the Orthodox Church, took the name Mikhail Pavlovich, and was granted the title Grand Duke by his father-in-law, Grand Duke Wladimir Kirillovich. The marriage was later dissolved by divorce; but had the marriage not ended, the position in the dynasty of Grand Duke Mikhail Pavlovich would have been determined by Article 6 of the Fundamental Laws of the Russian Empire, which provides that, if Grand Duchess Maria Wladimirovna had ascended the throne, then her husband would have the same rights of any spouse of a Russian emperor (similar to the position and rights enjoyed by Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, the husband of Queen II of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.)

On March 13, 1981, a son was born of this marriage: Grand Duke Georgii Mikhailovich. By an agreement made between Grand Duke Wladimir Kirillovich and Prince Louis Ferdinand, the respective Heads of the Russian and German Imperial Houses, Grand Duke Georgii Mikhailovich’s father became a member of the Russian Imperial House, and therefore the newborn child belonged from the time of his birth to the Romanoff Dynasty and bore a Russian title.

On April 21, 1992, the Head of the Russian Imperial House, Grand Duke Wladimir Kirillovich, died. With his death, the male line of the Romanoff Dynasty became extinct, similar to the situation that occurred in 1730. But unlike then, when the succession was determined by the will of one person or by a small group, the succession in 1992 was determined by a clear and precise Law of Succession. Article 30 of the Fundamental Laws of the Russian Empire undisputably assigned the headship of the Russian Imperial House to Grand Duchess Maria Wladimirovna.

At present, the Russian IMPERIAL House consists of two persons:

  1. The Head of the Russian Imperial House, Her Imperial Highness, Grand Duchess (de jure Empress of All the Russias) Maria Wladimirovna of Russia (born 1953).
  2. His Imperial Highness, the Heir, Tsesarevich, and Grand Duke Georgii Mikhailovich of Russia (born 1981).

All other descendants of Members of the Dynasty have no rights to the throne and do not belong to the Russian Imperial House (Articles 26 and 188 of the Fundamental Laws of the Russian Empire). The so-called “Romanoff Family Association,” which is now made up exclusively of morganatic descendants of Members of the Russian Imperial House and which is headed by Nicholas Romanovich “Romanoff,” the morganatic son of the Prince Roman Petrovich, is an entirely private organization and has no foundation whatsoever in the Fundamental Laws of the Russian Empire.

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