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Duchess Marie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin (later Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia, known as “Miechen” or “Maria Pavlovna the Elder”; May 14, 1854 – September 6, 1920) was born Marie Alexandrine Elisabeth Eleonore of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, daughter of Grand Duke Friedrich Franz II of Mecklenburg-Schwerin and Princess Augusta Reuss of Köstritz.

A prominent hostess in St Petersburg following her marriage to the Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich of Russia, she was known as the grandest of the grand duchesses and had an open rivalry with her sister-in-law the Empress Maria Feodorovna, wife of Emperor Alexander III of Russia and born Princess Dagmar of Denmark the daughter King Christian IX of Denmark and Princess Louise of Hesse-Cassel.

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On August 28, 1874 she married her second cousin, Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich of Russia (April 22, 1847 – February 17, 1909) the third son of Alexander II of Russia (and a brother of Emperor Alexander III. She had been engaged to George Albert I, Prince of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt, but broke it off as soon as she met Vladimir. It took three more years before they were permitted to marry as she had been raised a Lutheran and refused to convert to the Russian Orthodox Church.

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Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich of Russia

Emperor Alexander II finally agreed to let Vladimir marry her without insisting on her conversion to Orthodoxy. Upon her marriage she took the Russian name of Maria Pavlovna – the name she is best known by. Maria remained Lutheran throughout most of her marriage, but converted to Orthodoxy later in her marriage, some said to give her son Kirill a better chance at the throne. As a result of marrying the son of a Russian Emperor, she took on a new style Her Imperial Highness; the couple had four sons and one daughter.

Life in Russia

In Russia, she lived at the Vladimir Palace situated on the Palace Embankment on the Neva River. Socially ambitious, it was there that she established her reputation as being one of the best hostesses in the capital. An addiction to gambling, which saw her defy a prohibition by Nicholas II on the playing on roulette and baccarat in private homes, resulted in her temporarily being banned from Court. In 1909, her husband died and she succeeded him as president of the Academy of Fine Arts.

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Her Grand Ducal court, was in the later years of the reign of her nephew, Emperor Nicholas II the most cosmopolitan and popular in the capital. The Grand Duchess was personally at odds with Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra. She wasn’t the only Romanov who feared the Empress would “be the sole ruler of Russia” after Nicholas took supreme command of the Russian armies on August 23, 1915 hoping this would lift morale.

Escape from Russia

The Grand Duchess held the distinction to be the last of the Romanovs to escape Revolutionary Russia, as well as the first to die in exile. She remained in the war-torn Caucasus with her two younger sons throughout 1917 and 1918, hoping to make her eldest son Kirill Vladimirovich the Tsar. As the Bolsheviks approached, the group finally escaped aboard a fishing boat to Anapa in 1918. Maria spent fourteen months in Anapa, refusing to join her son Boris in leaving Russia.

When opportunities for escape via Constantinople presented themselves she refused to leave for fear she would be subjected to the indignity of delousing. She finally agreed to leave when the general of the White Army warned her that his side was losing the civil war. Maria, her son Andrei, Andrei’s mistress Mathilde Kschessinska, and Andrei and Mathilde’s son Vladimir, boarded an Italian ship headed to Venice on February 13, 1920.

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Nicholas II, Last Emperor of Russia

She made her way from Venice to Switzerland and then to France, where her health failed. Staying at her villa (now the Hotel La Souveraine), she died on September 6, 1920, aged 66, surrounded by her family at Contrexéville.

Her eldest surviving son, Grand Duke Cyril Vladimirovich, of Russia married, in 1905, his first cousin Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, daughter of Vladimir’s sister Grand Duchess Maria the Duchess of Edinburgh and of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, spouse of Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and reigning Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha-Gotha (second son of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom).

Other than the fact that first cousin marriages were not allowed, she was also the former wife of Ernst Ludwig, Grand Duke of Hesse of and By Rhine, the brother of the Empress Alexandra (born Alix of Hesse and by Rhine daughter of Grand Duke Ludwig IV of Hesse and By Rhine and Princess Alice of the United Kingdom (second daughter of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom).

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Alexandra, Last Emperess of Russia.

This marriage between Cyril and Victoria Melita was not approved by Nicholas II and Cyril was stripped of his imperial titles. The treatment of Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna’s son created a strife between her husband, Grand Duke Vladimir, and the Emperor. However, after several deaths in the family put Cyril third in the line of succession to the Imperial Throne, Nicholas agreed to reinstate Cyril’s Imperial titles, and the latter’s wife was acknowledged as HIH Grand Duchess Viktoria Fedorovna.