In early December 1907, Michael was introduced to Natalia Sergeyevna Wulfert, the wife of a fellow officer, and from 1908 they began a deep friendship. Natalia was a commoner who had a daughter from her first marriage. By August 1909, they were lovers, and, by November 1909, Natalia was living apart from her second husband in an apartment in Moscow paid for by Michael.
In an attempt to prevent scandal, Nicholas transferred Michael to the Chernigov Hussars at Orel, 250 miles from Moscow, but Michael travelled from there several times a month to see Natalia. Their only child, George (named after Michael’s dead brother) was born in July 1910, before her divorce from her second husband was finalised. To ensure that the child could be recognised as his, rather than Wulfert’s, Michael had the date of the divorce back-dated. Nicholas issued a decree giving the boy the surname “Brasov”, taken from Michael’s estate at Brasovo, which was a tacit acknowledgement that Michael was the father.
In May 1911, Emperor Nicholas II permitted Natalia to move from Moscow to Brasovo and granted her the surname “Brasova.” In May 1912, Michael went to Copenhagen for the funeral of his uncle King Frederik VIII of Denmark, where he fell ill with a stomach ulcer that was to trouble him for years afterwards. After a holiday in France, where he and Natalia were trailed by the Okhrana, Michael was transferred back to Saint Petersburg to command the Chevalier Gardes. He took Natalia to the capital with him and set her up in an apartment, but she was shunned by society and, within a few months, he had moved her to a villa in Gatchina.
In September 1912, Michael and Natalia spent a holiday abroad and, as usual, they were trailed by the Okhrana. In Berlin, Michael announced that he and Natalia would drive to Cannes and instructed his staff to follow by train. The Okhrana was under instructions to follow by train rather than car, so Michael and Natalia would be unaccompanied on their journey south. Michael’s journey was a deliberate ruse. On the way to Cannes, the couple diverted to Vienna, where they were married on October 16, 1912 by Father Misitsch at the Serbian Orthodox Church of Saint Sava.
Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich of Russia
A few days later, after travelling through Venice and Milan, they arrived at Cannes, where George and Natalia’s daughter from her first marriage joined them. Two weeks after the marriage, Michael wrote to his mother and brother to inform them. They were both horrified by Michael’s action. His mother said it was “unspeakably awful in every way”, and his brother was shocked that his brother had “broken his word … that he would not marry her.”
Emperor Nicholas II was particularly upset because his heir, Alexei, was gravely ill with haemophilia, which Michael cited as one of his reasons for marrying Natalia. Michael feared that he would become heir presumptive again on Alexei’s death and would never be able to marry Natalia. By marrying her beforehand, he would be removed from the line of succession early and preclude losing Natalia. In a series of decrees over December 1912 and January 1913, Nicholas relieved Michael of his command, banished him from Russia, froze all his assets in Russia, seized control of his estates and removed him from the Regency.
Society in Russia was shocked at the severity of Nicholas’s reprisal, but there was little sympathy for Natalia. She was not entitled to be known as Grand Duchess; she instead used the style “Madame or Countess Brasova”.
For six months, they stayed in hotels in France and Switzerland without any decrease in their standard of living. They were visited by Michael’s sister Grand Duchess Xenia and cousin Grand Duke Andrew.
In July 1913, they saw Michael’s mother in London, who told Natalia “a few home truths”, according to Xenia’s diary. After another trip to continental Europe, Michael took a one-year lease on Knebworth House, a staffed and furnished stately home 20 miles north of London. Michael’s finances were stretched as he had to rely on remittances sent from Russia at Nicholas’s command, and Nicholas still controlled all his estates and assets.