Countess Natalya Sergeyevna Brasova

This was originally written on 18 June and 2 July 2015, and scheduled for 16 April 2016. I opted not to use it for that year’s Blogging from A to Z because it seemed too much a repeat of my post about Grand Duke Mikhail and focused too much on Natalya’s relationships instead of her life as a whole. Regardless, I put too much work into it to keep it gathering cobwebs in my drafts folder!


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Countess Natalya Sergeyevna Brasova (née Sheremetyevskaya, formerly Mamontova and Vulfert), 27 June 1880–26 January 1952

Countess Natalya Sergeyevna Brasova was Grand Duke Mikhail’s wife. It was her third marriage, and his first and only marriage. This was a woman like Yoko Ono or Natacha Rambova, someone most people either strongly love or hate. There aren’t too many people taking a more balanced opinion. I personally lean more towards sympathy.

Natalya was the third of three daughters born to Sergey Aleksandrovich and Yuliya Vladislavovna, a bourgeois Muscovite couple. Her older sisters were Olga and Vera. Theirs was an intellectual home, full of serious conversations about world events, literature, art, music, social movements, all the things which were judged too heavy for Imperial society to discuss. All three sisters received a very good education, including a live-in French governess.

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Natalya with Grand Duke Mikhail

Natalya married pianist Sergey Mamontov in 1902, and had a daughter, also named Natalya, the next June. Her daughter was called Tata, instead of the more usual Natasha. Their life was anything but domestic bliss, though, as Natalya quickly bored of his retiring nature. She loved going to parties and the homes of people just as intelligent and educated as she was, while Sergey preferred to come right home from work and not be very social. They amicably divorced in 1905, with Sergey pretending infidelity, the only reason divorce was permitted in the Russian Empire.

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Natalya and Grand Duke Mikhail with their son Georgiy

Natalya divorced Mamontov to marry Vladimir Vladimirovich Vulfert, a Blue Cuirrassier officer of Baltic–German descent. Their life in Gatchina was happy at first, but then they met Grand Duke Mikhail at a Blue Cuirassier event, and their marriage began heading for the rocks. Mikhail was instantly smitten by Natalya, and for a long time cultivated a friendship with them as a couple so as not to give away his true intentions. However, the attraction became mutual, and Vulfert eventually discovered his wife’s emotional infidelity. Things got extremely ugly, complete with domestic abuse, spousal rape, and threats to shoot Natalya or himself.

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Natalya (centre) and Grand Duke Mikhail (far left) with friends

Natalya separated from Vulfert in 1909, and she and Mikhail finally became lovers in August of that year, when Mikhail was on holiday in Denmark with his mother, the Dowager Empress. They continued seeing one another when they returned to Russia, and set up a living arrangement in Moskva. This was no small feat, since a woman couldn’t live apart from her husband without his permission. If the husband refused, the police could apprehend the wife and compel her to come home. Such a couple could live apart only after a lengthy investigation into their relationship, to determine who was at supposed fault. A wife could get a temporary permit to live alone in the interim, but she still wasn’t free to leave permanently without official permission.

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Natalya and Grand Duke Mikhail in 1912

Natalya gave birth to a boy named Georgiy in July 1910, when she was still legally married to Vulfert. She was terrified her estranged husband would take her child from her, and quite a lot of money and legal trouble was expended to not only get a divorce, but also to get a second birth certificate. The second birth certificate listed Georgiy as the “bastard” son of an unmarried woman, but at least that was better than a birth certificate claiming him as the child of a man who wasn’t his father. Mikhail had to fight his brother long and hard to get Georgiy made “legitimate,” and in 1915, he was created Count Brasov. Natalya was also created Countess Brasova.

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Following their marriage in October 1912, Mikhail was banished from Russia, and also received many other draconian punishments from his brother. Almost everyone in the Imperial Family was furious Mikhail had married a twice-divorced commoner, and some very ugly things were said about Natalya. The little family spent the next few years living in France, Switzerland, and England. Only after the outbreak of war did they get permission to come home. Mikhail was sent to the front lines as punishment for having married morganatically, but he served very bravely and got to come home a few times.

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May 1909, the first known surviving photograph of Natalya and Grand Duke Mikhail. The believed photographer is her then-husband Vulfert

Natalya escaped the new Soviet Union with her children in 1918, after Mikhail’s murder. They started a new life in England, though money was tight. The family later moved to France. Sadly, Georgiy was killed in a car accident in 1931, and Natalya died alone, in poverty, of cancer.

IWSG—Miraculously regained momentum

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The Insecure Writer’s Support Group meets the first Wednesday of each month. Participants share struggles, triumphs, quandaries, and fears. This month’s question is:

It’s spring! Does this season inspire you to write more than others, or not?
In past years, I remember having felt more inspiration and renewal for writing as spring took bloom, though I can’t specifically recall the same experience in recent years.

Due to my shaken confidence in my usual daily wordcounts, I set my April Camp NaNo goal at only 25K. The first 5,200-odd words came from A Dream Deferred (since I had to finish that chapter before switching gears), but everything else came from my alternative history.

I reached my lowball goal on Day 14, validated as soon as Day 20 began, and ended up at just shy of 55K.

This book is written wildly out of order, which I still feel I need to do emotionally, but that strategy also makes it harder to go on a consistent, beginning-to-end emotional journey with these characters. Regularly jumping from Point A to Point D to Point R to Point Z to Point L and back again means I don’t always remember important developments or details.

I finished the last chapter in Part II, and have finished most of Part III. I also did a smidgen of work in Part I, though my primary focus during Camp NaNo was Part III. Once that’s done, I’ll spend May going through from the start, editing, rewriting, and filling in any remaining gaps.

With my rate of progress this past month, I’m confident I can power through Part IV (about 25% done), and then work on these appendices I totally forgot I’d planned.

I also realized part of the reason for my admitted emotional distance (most glaring in Part I) was because I was trying to be too close to third-person limited. That’s just not my natural voice at all, even when a book is unusually (for me) focused on just one or two characters instead of a large ensemble cast.

Thus, I developed some of the secondary characters more, even though this isn’t their story. I also finally figured out what to do with Grand Duchess Anastasiya, who had zero lines in all those words. Her reaction to the traumatic cataclysm is to shut down and barely say more than five words at a time.

Her second-cousin, Prince Roman Petrovich (who survived in real life), has a marvellous effect on her, so much so her uncle, Grand Duke Mikhail (the Regent), realizes what a good marriage match they’d be. Prior, it was just announced they’d married in early 1920.

I do think a more formal voice works for this specific book, but as it stood, it was too emotionally distant. Better to find solutions for it now, instead of going through mental gymnastics to justify it and only belatedly realizing what a snafu that was.

Near the start of April, I changed my desktop picture to feature my protagonist and his sisters. Every time I look at it, I’m held accountable for finishing the damn book already! I have an obligation to the memory of the dead.

Grand Duke Mikhail Aleksandrovich

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Grand Duke Mikhail Aleksandrovich, 22 November/4 December 1878–13 June 1918

Grand Duke Mikhail was the penultimate of the six children born to Tsar Aleksandr III and Empress Mariya Fyodorovna (Dagmar of Denmark). His younger sister Olga called him Floppy, for the way he flopped into chairs, and everyone else called him Misha. This is somewhat noteworthy, considering how a number of other Romanovs over the years either went by decidedly non-Russian nicknames (e.g., Nixa, Nicky, Sandro, Miche-Miche) or went by their full names.

Mikhail was born at Anichkov Palace, and moved with his family to Gatchina Palace when his parents became Tsar and Tsaritsa in March 1881. During summer holidays, they lived at Peterhof Palace and visited his maternal grandparents in Denmark. He and his little sister Olga were closest to their father.

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With his family at the Small Palace in Livadiya, circa 1892

Mikhail’s father passed away shortly before his 16th birthday, and he became second-in-line the throne. He, his mother, and his sister Olga returned to Anichkov. Like most other Romanov males, Mikhail also had military training, and served in the Horse Guards Artillery and Blue Cuirassiers. In August 1899, after the death of his older brother Georgiy from TB, Mikhail became heir presumptive.

After he became a legal adult, Mikhail moved back to Gatchina, and inherited Georgiy’s massive estate in Brasovo. This estate contained nine villages, including a sugar refinery, numerous farms and chemical factories, sawmills, a hospital, and schools. Mikhail also had a large automobile collection. In August 1904, he was relieved to be moved back to second-in-line when his brother finally had a son. Mikhail had never particularly liked the idea of becoming Tsar.

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Mikhail wasn’t only known for the very successful management of his millions of rubles, his estate, and his farms, but also his forbidden love affairs. He wasn’t one to strictly obey the draconian House Laws established by his great-great-grandfather, Tsar Pavel, and so had affairs with his first-cousin Princess Beatrice of Saxe–Coburg and Gotha, his sister Olga’s lady-in-waiting Dina (who was also three years his senior), and, finally, Natalya Sergeyevna Vulfert.

Mikhail had been forbidden from marrying Beatrice and Dina, because God forbid someone marry for love instead of kowtowing to laws written in 1797 and only marrying a foreign-born princess of the royal blood. However, when it came to Natalya, enough was enough. He refused to give this one up so easily, no matter how upset it made his family.

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In 1910, Natalya gave birth to their only child, Georgiy, named for Mikhail’s brother. Since Georgiy was born while Natalya was still legally married to her second husband, they had to go through quite a bit of trouble both to secure a divorce and to make sure the child wasn’t legally considered her husband’s. Finally, Mikhail and Natalya secretly married in Vienna in October 1912.

This marriage was planned months in advance, but Mikhail claimed he married at this particular time because Aleksey was hovering near Death in Spała, Poland, of a serious hemorrhage in the groin and stomach. It’s not that he didn’t love his nephew, but rather that Mikhail was terrified of having to become heir presumptive again. If he became either Tsar or heir presumptive, he’d be absolutely forbidden from marrying a commoner. Thus, his morganatic marriage removed him from the line of succession.

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Mikhail was banished from Russia, and he, Natalya, and Georgiy spent the next few years living in England, Switzerland, and France. All his assets had also been frozen, and his brother seized control of his estates. As aforementioned, these House Laws were absolutely draconian, and divorced from realistic, normal human feelings and modern developments.

Mikhail got permission to come home to serve in the Great War, and Natalya and Georgiy came with him. He served very bravely in the Caucasian Native Cavalry, as a major-general, and was quite popular among his men. Unlike his inept brother, he was a great military leader. In 1915, Georgiy was made legitimate, and he and Natalya were created Count and Countess Brasov(a).

When Nicholas II illegally abdicated, he offered the throne to Mikhail, who abdicated after all of a day. Mikhail’s family was initially under house arrest, and then in March 1918, he and his secretary, Brian Johnson, were arrested and sent to Perm. Both were murdered in June 1918. Their remains have never been found. Natalya and Georgiy escaped to England.

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In my alternative history, Mikhail is rescued, and becomes Aleksey’s Regent. He’s a wonderful guardian to his nephew and nieces, even if he has to use some tough love at the beginning. He even relaxes the House Laws, though not as radically as his nephew will. No matter what, he’s always got his nephew’s back, and helps to prepare him for coming to the throne in his own right when he feels he’s ready.

The tale of an illegal abdication

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It was absolutely astonishing to learn that not only did Nicholas II abdicate illegally, but that this illegal abdication also threw both his only son and only surviving brother under the bus. He was always a weak Tsar (though not history’s worst), but his final act in power was just the pièce de résistance in the evidence proving how naïve and out of touch he was.

I honestly can’t even compare him to someone like Herbert Hoover or George Bush, Sr., who probably would’ve been better presidents in different circumstances, without so much working against them. Nicholas, while a really good person in private life, just wasn’t cut out to rule in any era, under any circumstances.

Possibly he would’ve been a decent constitutional monarch had he been born in a place like Great Britain or The Netherlands, but he was born into an autocratic empire where the majority of those in power saw no reason to update the rules at all. It speaks volumes how just about everyone in the Imperial Family was agitating for his abdication by the end. You know a revolution is brewing when those with the most invested in the status quo are clamouring for change.

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The mere fact that Nicholas abdicated wasn’t illegal. That had been done before in Russian history, and wasn’t forbidden under the draconian House Laws. No one had ever abdicated since Tsar Pavel wrote those rules, but Grand Duke Konstantin refused the throne during the succession crisis of 1825 and got away with it. The throne just went to the much-younger Nikolay, the third of Pavel’s four sons and the ninth of his ten children.

What was illegal was the specific way in which he abdicated. I’m shocked anyone let him get away with it. Nicholas actually abdicated twice, which was ridiculous. He first abdicated properly, passing the throne to Aleksey with a Regency. Once he realized that meant they’d have to be separated, he tore up the first abdication and wrote another abdication letter removing both of them from the throne and offering it to his brother Mikhail.

Nicholas suddenly pessimistically believed Aleksey wouldn’t live very long, particularly not when separated from the parents who’d done everything to stay joined at the hip to him his entire life. After all he and Aleksandra did to not only have a son, but then keep that boy alive against the odds, through so many medical crises, he suddenly up and decides his heir isn’t long for the world after all and would be better-off staying with his family forever? Did he suddenly forget Aleksey had become so much stronger and healthier during the last few years, with more time between injuries, or that he’d always bounced back from the jaws of Death before?

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If Nicholas felt it were important to change the order of succession and designate his own successor against the legal order, he should’ve revised the House Laws. He severely punished people such as his brother Mikhail and uncle Pavel for marrying commoners, refused to grant official permission to the unequal marriages of his nephews, and only gave his sister Olga permission to divorce and remarry a commoner in 1916, after years of begging and pleading. Suddenly, after blindly kowtowing to the rules and acting like an autocrat for his entire reign, he flings the rules aside instead of adhering to them up till his final moments? An honorable captain goes down with his ship instead of trying to escape at others’ expense.

Under the House Laws, a qualified dynast cannot be removed from the line of succession or bypassed during an abdication or succession crisis. Aleksey was all of 12 years old in February 1917, and had done absolutely nothing to disqualify himself. There were no age limits on who a qualified dynast was, and certainly he was too young to marry anyone or have some scandalous affair. Given the era and how sheltered he and his sisters were, he probably didn’t even know anything about such adult matters.

Once Nicholas abdicated, that should’ve been it. He had no more legal power to change his mind and draft a do-over.

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Mikhail was quite surprised to have the throne dumped in his lap, without any sort of prior discussions. He was never expecting that turn of events at all. Some people were cheering him as the new Tsar before he even knew what had happened. He even got a lawyer involved, since he didn’t want to take away any of his nephew’s legal rights as heir. After all of 24 hours, he abdicated very peacefully and honorably, not wanting to take the throne unless a majority of the people chose him of their own free will. Mikhail would’ve made a very good constitutional monarch, and an excellent Regent for his nephew.

These three abdications shocked everyone. Even before the throne was offered to Mikhail, they’d been expecting Aleksey to come to the throne with a Regency.

1. The Russian people loved their heir and preferred him to his inept father!

2. Many contemporaries felt he would’ve been a much better Tsar than his father, since he was more sensitive to suffering, intelligent, empathetic, and had gotten appropriate experience from a young age. Ruling with sensitivity doesn’t automatically equate being a spineless pushover.

3. Who in their right mind would make war against a child?

4. There would’ve been qualified, experienced Regents, whom the people also far preferred to Nicholas. Thus, the Provisional Government would’ve remained, with no Bolshevik revolution.

5. Everyone would’ve felt compassion for an underage monarch, particularly if they’d known about his illness.

6. Being a young Tsar wouldn’t necessarily have been a disaster, particularly if he had the right people helping him instead of expecting him to rule by himself from his 16th birthday. Peter the Great also began as a very young Tsar, as did the awesome Fyodor III.

7. His hemophilia would’ve been better-managed outside of his parents’ often contradictory, facepalm-worthy attitude towards managing his disease. Evidence suggests they made it worse because they weren’t vigilant enough from the jump.

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To be continued.

 

WIPpet Wednesday—Violating the Nativity Fast

Fourteen years ago today, I finished the first draft of You Cannot Kill a Swan after 8.5 years! As much work as I did on rewrites, revisions, and edits over 4.5 years a decade later, the fact remains that I still wrote that complex saga between ages 13–21.

I’ve put my primary energies this week towards a final edit of The Twelfth Time: Lyuba and Ivan on the Rocks. I’m mostly cleaning up some surprisingly infodumpesque dialogue I’m really surprised I didn’t see that way during the previous edits. It’s not really classical “As you know, Bob” dialogue, but more like overstating established information from the first book, and not sounding like realistic, natural dialogue.

I’ve been having continued issues with my third lobe piercings, which are five months old now. I’m hoping the irritation bumps and bleeding go down now that I’ve changed out the initial peacock opal labrets for lightweight French hooks, resumed saline soaks, and iced them down. The labrets feel so much better in my first lobes, which I’ve had for 28 years. My thirds feel slightly better now that they can breathe more freely and don’t have posts rubbing against the back.

After the traumatic experience I had with my seconds and how long they took to finally heal, I take no chances with the health of any other ear piercings. It was precisely because I had such an awful experience with my seconds that it took so many years to get more ear piercings. I still want to fill up both of my ears, but given the difficulties I’ve had with my thirds, I’ve half a mind to postpone the fourth lobe piercings I’d planned for next month and just get my navel instead. I’ve wanted that for a long time, and contrary to the popular image, you don’t have to be 16 and a size 6! Depending on body shape, it can be a bit above the actual navel, to allow for better healing and less chance of rejection.

Meanwhile, my new rook piercing is doing great, and hopefully will continue healing nicely. I went pretty hardcore for my first cartilage piercing, but I love the look of it, and how it’s not yet trendy. Lots of people have helix, tragus, and even conch piercings, but not too many people have rooks.

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WIPpet Wednesday is a weekly bloghop hosted by K.L. Schwengel. Excerpts must be related to the date in some way. I’m just sharing 26 lines, for the 26th of August. This scene takes place in December 1918, during the wedding banquet for the three oldest grand duchesses. All Imperial weddings took place in the Grand Cathedral of the Winter Palace, and this reception is held in the Nikolay Hall of the Neva Enfilade.

After the three couples have been announced and joined the reception, the food is brought out, and the Dowager Empress is scandalized to see her grandson eating normal food.

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The Nikolay Hall, the largest room in the Winter Palace

Aleksey could no longer even remember the last time he’d seen such copious amounts of food in one place, or such wonderful food altogether.  Even considering this was during the Nativity Fast, there was still plenty of good food.  The new palace cooks had made tomato soup, potato soup, mushrooms stuffed with walnuts, eggless pancakes, several types of salads, fresh fruit and berries, an eggless apple cake, butternut squash soup, risotto with cashews and oranges, noodle pudding, rice-stuffed tomatoes and peppers, fried potatoes, and a sweet made mostly of some kind of crushed sugar and walnut paste.  Then another cook came over and set down a tray of roasted chicken with turnips, hard-boiled eggs, several types of cheese, and broiled salmon encrusted with pistachios.

“Here you go, Your Majesty.  Your uncle told us to make some normal food especially for you.  You’re so lucky you get to eat regularly during this fasting season.”

“What is this?” the Dowager Empress demanded after the cook had walked away. “This madness has now even extended to violating fasts?  I wish I had the authority to get you another Regent!”

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Grand Duke Mikhail and his morganatic wife, Countess Natalya Brasova

Mikhail cut into a stuffed pepper. “Believe me, I thoroughly consulted with the five new doctors about this.  Don’t you want your grandson to live long enough to become Tsar in his own right?  Eating normally year-round could be the difference between life and death for him.  It was madness how his parents didn’t modify his diet enough, and let him keep all these fasts like a normal boy.”

“But that’s not proper Orthodox behavior.  The Emperor must be Orthodox, as must his consort.  Don’t tell me you’re going to find Baby a bride from a non-Orthodox land and not even make her convert.  This Regency just gets more and more insane.”

“And that’s another thing.  You and his sisters really need to stop calling him Baby.  That’s a really embarrassing nickname for a fourteen-year-old.”

The Dowager Empress shook her head. “Perhaps captivity made you all go balmy, on top of how Baby was already coddled too much by his mother.”

“Who are you to talk about coddling when you’re still calling him Baby, like he’s two years old?” Natalya asked. “That’s a very big disconnect in thought and behavior.”