Prince Nicholas Romanov wants to know how important I am and how lavish is my expense account. I reply evasively, but this scion of the imperial Russian family has been round long enough to get the measure of people like me.
Thus, two minutes later, we find ourselves in Richi’s Pub, an eatery in Gstaad, Switzerland, where the tables are decorated with artificial flowers, chunky glass ashtrays and laminated placemats. Background noise consists of muttering in German (from nearby tourists) and mainstream American rock (through the speakers). The magnificent view turns out to be an old photograph stuck to the wall – a trompe-l’oeil made all the more effective by hanging around it a pair of cheap curtains.
Next week, in the more magnificent setting of the ballroom at Claridge’s in London, the prince will host a party to launch the latest edition of the Almanach de Gotha, a directory of European royalty and nobility. He possesses an extensive collection, going back to the 1790s. “It’s considered to be the snob’s bible,” he says, “which of course it is. But it’s also extremely useful: you go to some concert and you run into someone, so you go home and you look them up and say, ‘Oh, his grandfather was something or other in the first world war.’”
Not just anybody gets in the book, of course. “Southern Italy is full of dukes,” says the prince in his not-quite-perfect English. “Very nice families, but there are millions of them.” In a conspiratorial tone, he adds: “And the Almanach has always been very careful with Portuguese dukes.”
We study the menu, which offers steaks in three sizes: “ladies’”, “gentlemen’s” and the largest, which for some reason is called “Sitting Bull’s”. “I usually have only one thing,” says the prince. “No starter.” He orders a small steak and a beer.
I ask for exactly the same. Shortly after, for reasons that never become clear, a large salad appears, which we share.
From now until the end of our lunch, Prince Nicholas – aged 81 but tall and impressively vigorous – responds to my questions only if they lead where he was going anyway. He still manages to speak cheerfully for three-and-a-half hours, providing a fascinating insight into the twilit world of royalty in exile.
The prince was born in 1922 in Cap d’Antibes, five years after his family fled the Crimea on a British warship. His grandmother, a grand duchess who was among them, had been widely blamed for introducing the last tsarina to Rasputin; she went on to play a key role in Nicholas’s life until she died in 1952.
For instance, she decided where the family would settle: Italy. “Grandmother was the sister of the queen,” he explains. When the Nazis invaded, this connection ceased to be advantageous but with help from a German officer with royalist sympathies they took refuge at the Vatican. (A pleasant surprise, this, because as the prince puts it, without lowering his voice, “We hated Germans, even before the war.”) After the war cousin Umberto, the Italian king, advised them to leave.
They went to Egypt. “I should have gone to university, started all over again what had been stopped by the war. But I can’t complain. I enjoyed a very carefree life: the women in Egypt were beautiful and some of them were available. Nothing to be proud of, but I did enjoy myself.”
Returning to Italy a few years later he met his wife, a direct descendant of the Count Ugolino who was consigned to Hell by Dante. And he struggled to make ends meet as a farmer.
Over time, he came to feel increasingly Russian, a feeling that has become stronger than ever since he started visiting his parents’ homeland. (He’s particularly impressed by Russian youth but even the most unappealing of the entrepreneurial older generation has his respect.) For years he had thought of the Soviet Union as “there”, not as Russia. But he started to feel an affinity when the Nazis attacked and that developed into pride when the Russians successfully fought back. In the mid 1980s, he sat next to a diplomat from the USSR at a dinner in Geneva. “My friends asked me what it was like, and I said, ‘Oh, by the way, I met our ambassador.’” That one word, “our”, was revealing, he admits.
Was it awful to be stateless? With his connections, it doesn’t seem to have been much of a problem. Fifteen years ago, the prince took Italian citizenship: “I happened to meet the president on the day he had signed my application.” Before that, he used to carry instead of a passport a letter from the King of Greece. “It said, in effect, ‘Nicholas Romanov is a good chap, please let him through.’”
These days, by way of hobby, he writes “episodic biographies” of notable forebears which he posts on the internet for historians to access at a small charge. (Today he cashed a cheque for $109 from an American genealogist.) “I share much of the interest in history of Grand Duke Nicholas Mikhailovich. He was the most intelligent of his generation. He wrote an extremely interesting paper on Russian butterflies of the Caucasus.” (Of his own generation, Prince Nicholas most esteems the intelligence of his cousin Simeon II of Bulgaria, the king who came back from exile to become prime minister.).
One Romanov commemorated on the website is Grand Duke Cyril, a first cousin of the last tsar who survived a trip on a battleship that sank and after bobbing to the surface picked up the unkind nickname “The Cork”. Prince Nicholas explains: “Grand Duke Cyril is the grandfather of my obese cousin, Maria, who calls herself ‘grand duchess’.” (The title rightly belongs only to a tsar’s siblings, children and grandchildren.).
This sudden vitriol does not surprise me. I brought to Gstaad an issue of Vanity Fair devoted to European monarchy. Skipping past many gorgeous shots of princes and princesses I find a portrait of Maria’s son, captioned “Grand Duke George of Russia”. Prince Nicholas is fascinated: “It’s Georgy! I haven’t seen his picture for a while. He’s still a little pudgy, but good looking. A bit arrogant, perhaps… But he’s not a ‘grand duke’. Oh, look!” The caption reveals that George’s claim is disputed by the head of the Romanov Family Association. “That’s me!”
In the mid 1970s, Nicholas’s father, the late Prince Roman, came up with the idea of a family association. Back then, nobody knew for certain what had happened to the last tsar’s family, and over the years many imposters sprang up. “Father thought we must protect the family from interlopers.”
One important family member refused to join the association: “Prince Vladimir [son of Cyril the Cork and father of Maria] did not want people to know there were a number of Romanovs.” Indeed, Vladimir told Nicholas that he recognised only those Romanovs who had married with his (Vladimir’s) consent. “I said, ‘No way! I was born a Romanov.”
Does it matter? Only as much as family history matters to anyone; which is to say, quite a lot. Thousands, perhaps millions, make this a hobby – as the prince, with his website, and the publishers of the Almanach know well.
For himself, the prince has no interest in reclaiming the throne. Nor does he think Russia needs a monarchy. “It’s all over. That would be another upheaval for Russia and we” – note that we – “have barely learned to deal with democracy.”