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GRAND DUCHESS LEONIDA OF RUSSIA
Grand Duchess Leonida Georgievna of Russia, who has died aged 95, was the last surviving member of the Romanov family to have been born before the Russian Revolution; as widow of Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich, Tsarist pretender to the throne of Russia, she styled herself Her Imperial Highness.
Despite the magnificence of her title, her life was overshadowed by arcane questions concerning the status of her marriage, her husband’s claims to the throne, and private feuds among latter day Romanovs.
Her own ancestry was impeccable. She was born at Tiflis (now Tbilisi) on October 6 (Old Style September 23) 1914, as Princess Leonida Bagration, daughter of Prince George Bagration-Mukhransky and his wife Elena Zlotnicka (descendant of the Counts Zlotnicki-Nowino), and as such was descended from a family which had ruled over the Kingdom of Georgia for three centuries. In 1801, however, Tsar Paul had annexed Georgia into the Russian Empire, following which the Bagrations became a leading family of the Russian nobility, serving in the Tsar’s army and at court in St Petersburg.
Leonida’s grandfather, Prince Alexander Bagration, was in Russia when the Bolshevik Revolution erupted there, and, following the assassination of Tsar Nicholas II and his family at Yekaterinburg in July 1918, attempted to flee back to his native Georgia. But three months later he was captured by Red Guards at Pyatigorsk, just north of the Georgian border, and executed.
The rest of the family, including Leonida, remained safe in Tiflis until three years later, when the local Menshevik government was overthrown by Bolshevik forces. Fearing the same fate as Prince Alexander, Leonida’s father whisked his family abroad, returning to live in their ancestral home only two years later, in 1923. Quickly, however, the political situation became untenable, with harassment and arrests. In 1931 the writer Maxim Gorky, who had been encouraged by the Bagrations in his early life, helped Leonida, then 17, and the rest of her family to escape to Spain.
Three years after settling in Western Europe, Leonida married a Jewish-American businessman, Sumner Moore Kirby, in a civil ceremony in Nice. He was a business partner of one of the FW Woolworth heirs and had been married twice before. They had one daughter, Helene, born in 1935, before they were divorced in 1937. Kirby died in hospital in Leau in 1945, having been deported by the Vichy government to Buchenwald concentration camp in 1944, leaving Helene to inherit considerable wealth.
During the war, Leonida, who had returned to Spain after her divorce, met Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich while he was visiting the southern resort town of Sanlucar de Barrameda.
Grand Duke Vladimir claimed to be Head of the Imperial House of Russia, but his position was complicated. He was the only son of Grand Duke Kirill, himself a controversial claimant. Kirill was the son of Grand Duke Vladimir, younger brother of Tsar Alexander III. Thus, after the assassination of Tsar Nicholas and his family , Kirill became the senior genealogical heir. But Kirill (married to Victoria Melita of Coburg and Edinburgh – a granddaughter of Queen Victoria) had broken from Tsar Nicholas in 1917, hoisting a red flag on the roof of his palace in Petrograd and pledging allegiance to the provisional government by wearing a red bow as he marched his Marines to support the Revolution.
Though the Supreme Monarchist Council had decreed that Kirill and his brothers were barred from the succession, Kirill declared himself the “senior member of the Tsarist House and sole legal Heir of the Russian Imperial Throne”, insisting on the title “Emperor of All the Russias, which without possible doubt is mine”. Many Romanovs denounced him. But Kirill remain undeterred to the last, declaring in March 1938, six months before his death: “The hour of our national triumph is nearing. Under the Imperial Sceptre Russia will again live in quiet and peace.”
When Kirill died, in France, Vladimir was quick to proclaim himself Head of the Imperial House, using the title Grand Duke but not failing to mention that many hailed him as Emperor. Towards the end of the Second World War he was deported from France to Germany and transferred to Austria. It was falsely rumoured that Hitler wished to place him as a puppet Emperor in Russia. Vladimir retreated to Madrid, his home for the rest of his life.
He married Leonida at a civil service in Lausanne on August 12 1948, with a religious ceremony the following day. Leonida insisted that as the descendant of a royal line, she was the equal of her new husband, a crucial factor if their children were to be entitled to lead the Imperial House of Russia.
Many other Romanovs did not accept this, however, denouncing her as of lesser status and thus the marriage as morganatic. Such a union of “unequals” would remove the couple’s children from claims to the succession. But both Vladimir and Leonida pressed their case tenaciously, insisting that theirs was the only marriage of equals in the Romanov family . Despite objections, Leonida styled herself Her Imperial Highness Grand Duchess Leonida of Russia.
During the marriage, Leonida’s unmarried daughter from her first marriage (who had inherited her Woolworth wealth) provided the couple with considerable financial support, being rewarded by Vladimir (who was able to indulge his expertise with cars and helicopters) with the title of Countess Dvinskaya. He and Leonida lived quietly, spending the winters in their villa in Madrid, their summers at St Briac, and retaining a flat in Paris.
Leonida gave birth to their daughter, Maria, the present Russian claimant, in Madrid on December 23 1953. In 1969, aware that they had no male heir, Vladimir issued a manifesto proclaiming his daughter as Curatrix of the Throne, causing further chagrin to the other Romanov claimants. In 1976 Maria married Prince Franz Wilhelm of Prussia, a descendant of Emperor Friedrich III and Princess Victoria, Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter. They in turn had a son, George, born in 1981 (who was named a Grand Duke of Russia by his grandfather), but soon afterwards divorced.
After years in relative obscurity, Vladimir and Leonida were suddenly propelled into the public eye in the early 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union. When Boris Yeltsin became Russian president, he and Vladimir exchanged letters and then Anatoly Sobchak, the Mayor, invited the imperial couple to celebrations when Leningrad was renamed St Petersburg in 1991. In November that year, Vladimir and Leonida stood on a balcony of the Hermitage (the former Winter Palace) and were hailed by a
crowd of 60,000.
On April 21 1992 the Grand Duke addressed 1,500 business leaders in Miami. At a press conference following the talk he slumped over in his chair, dying soon afterwards.
Yeltsin signed a decree permitting the first Romanov funeral in St Petersburg for 75 years. On May 29 Vladimir was buried in a vault of the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul.
In widowhood Leonida, by then an impressive and large lady, lived mainly in Paris. She paid over 30 visits to Russia and in 1994 was present at the reinterment of her parents in the Burial Chamber of the Kings of Georgia at Mskhetu, and in 1995 arranged for Vladimir’s parents to be reinterred in St Petersburg. Her main occupation in later life was charity work, particularly concerning orphans, invalids and elderly people, and the promotion of the arts.
Grand Duchess Leonida Romanov died in Madrid on May 23. She is survived by her two daughters and her grandson and will be buried alongside her husband next month.