With Michael wiling to leave it up to the will of the people whether or not he shall become Emperor of Russia, commentators, ranging from Kerensky to French ambassador Maurice Paléologue, regarded Michael’s action as noble and patriotic, but Nicholas was appalled that Michael had “kowtowed to the Constituent Assembly.”
The hopes of the monarchists that Michael might be able to assume the throne following the election of the Constituent Assembly were overtaken by events. His renunciation of the throne, though conditional, marked the end of the Tsarist regime in Russia. The Provisional Government had little effective power; real power was held by the Petrograd Soviet. Historians debate whether Michael can be counted as the legitimate last Emperor of Russia.
Michael returned to Gatchina and was not permitted to return to his unit or to travel beyond the Petrograd area. On April 5, 1917, he was discharged from military service. By July, Prince Lvov had resigned as Prime Minister to be replaced by Alexander Kerensky, who ordered ex-Emperor Nicholas II removed from Petrograd to Tobolsk in the Urals because it was “some remote place, some quiet corner, where they would attract less attention”. On the eve of Nicholas’s departure, Kerensky gave permission for Michael to visit him. Kerensky remained present during the meeting and the brothers exchanged awkward pleasantries.
On August 21, 1917, guards surrounded the villa on Nikolaevskaya street where Michael was living with Natalia. On the orders of Kerensky, they were both under house arrest, along with Nicholas Johnson, who had been Michael’s secretary since December 1912. A week later, they were moved to an apartment in Petrograd. Michael’s stomach problems worsened and, with the intervention of British ambassador Buchanan and foreign minister Mikhail Tereshchenko, they were moved back to Gatchina in the first week of September. Tereshchenko told Buchanan that the Dowager Empress Marie would be allowed to leave the country, for England if she wished, and that Michael would follow in due course. The British, however, were not prepared to accept any Russian Grand Duke for fear it would provoke a negative public reaction in Britain, where there was little sympathy for the Romanovs.
On September 1, 1917, Kerensky declared Russia a republic. Michael wrote in his diary: “We woke up this morning to hear Russia declared a Republic. What does it matter which form the government will be as long as there is order and justice?” Two weeks later, Michael’s house arrest was lifted. Kerensky had armed the Bolsheviks after a power struggle with the commander-in-chief and in October there was a second revolution as the Bolsheviks seized power from Kerensky. With a permit to travel issued by Peter Polotsov, a former colleague of Michael from the Savage Division who was now a commander in Petrograd, Michael planned to move his family to the greater safety of Finland. They packed valuables and prepared to move, but their preparations were seen by Bolshevik sympathisers and they were placed once more under house arrest. The last of Michael’s cars were seized by the Bolsheviks.
The house arrest was lifted again in November, and the Constituent Assembly was elected and met in January 1918. Despite being the minority party, the Bolsheviks dissolved it. On March 7, 1918, Michael and his secretary Johnson were re-arrested on the orders of Moisei Uritsky, the Head of the Petrograd secret police, and imprisoned at the Bolshevik headquarters in the Smolny Institute. On March 11, 1918, Uritsky sent Michael and Johnson to Perm, a thousand miles to the east, on the order of the Council of the People’s Commissars, which included both Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin.
Alexander Kerensky, Prime Minister of Russia from July–October 1917
Natalia lobbied the Commissars in Petrograd for his release and, on April 9, 1918, he was set at liberty within Perm. He moved into the best room in the best hotel in Perm, along with Johnson and two manservants, valet Vasily Chelyshev and former chauffeur Borunov. Natalia feared for George’s safety, and in March 1918, she arranged for him to be smuggled out of Russia by his nanny with the help of Danish diplomats and the Putyatins.
In May, Natalia was granted a travel permit to join Michael. Accompanied by family friends Prince Putyatin and Margaret Abakanovich, she arrived at Perm before the Orthodox Easter and they spent about a week together. The Germans demanded that the Bolsheviks disarm the Czechs, who fought back, seized the railway, joined forces with Russians fighting against the Bolsheviks and advanced westwards toward Perm. With the approach of the Czechs, Michael and Natalia feared that she would become trapped there, possibly in a dangerous situation and so, on May 18, she left unhappily. By early June, Michael was again ill with stomach trouble.
On June 12, 1918, the leader of the local secret police, Gavril Myasnikov, with the connivance of other local Bolsheviks, hatched a plan to murder Michael. Myasnikov assembled a team of four men who, like him, were all former prisoners of the Tsarist regime: Vasily Ivanchenko, Ivan Kolpashchikov, Andrei Markov and Nikolai Zhuzhgov. Using a forged order, the four men gained entry to Michael’s hotel at 11.45 p.m.
At first, Michael refused to accompany the men until he spoke with the local chairman of the secret police, Pavel Malkov, and then because he was ill. His protestations were futile and he got dressed. Johnson insisted on accompanying him and the four men plus their two prisoners climbed into two horse-drawn three-seater traps.
They drove out of the town into the forest near Motovilikha. When Michael queried their destination, he was told they were going to a remote railway crossing to catch a train. By now it was the early hours of June, 13. They all alighted from the carriages in the middle of the wood, and both Michael and Johnson were fired upon, once each, but as the assassins were using home-made bullets, their guns jammed. Michael, whether wounded or not is unknown, moved towards the wounded Johnson with arms outstretched, when he was shot at point-blank range in the head. Both Zhuzhgov and Markov claimed to have fired the fatal shot. Johnson was shot dead by Ivanchenko.
Michael (left) in Perm April 1918
The bodies were stripped and buried. Anything of value was stolen and the clothes were taken back to Perm. After they were shown to Myasnikov as proof of the murders, the clothes were burned. The Ural Regional Soviet, headed by Alexander Beloborodov, approved the execution, either retrospectively or beforehand, as did Lenin. Michael was the first of the Romanovs to be executed by the Bolsheviks but he was not the last. Neither Michael’s nor Johnson’s remains have been found.