Few years in recent Russian history have been as turbulent as 1999. In five months, from May till October, the country has seen three different prime ministers, an Islamic fundamentalist invasion in Dagestan and five terrorist assaults against Russian cities that cost the lives of 300 civilians. In the shadow of these developments, few noticed an event that in a calmer year would have made big news: the death of the last remaining Romanov in Russia.
The Romanovs, once omnipotent rulers of one-sixth of the Earth, were dethroned in 1917, and after that either died at the hands of communists, like Czar Nicholas II and his family, or fled the country, seeking safe haven in Europe and North America. For seven decades it had been maintained that no Romanov survived the Red Terror and that descendants of the czars were to be found only in Paris, London or New York.
But the collapse of communism created a sensation for people interested in history’s attic: There was a Romanov survivor in Russia, a great-great-granddaughter of Emperor Nicholas I, Princess Natalia Iskander. She lived all alone in a slum district of Moscow — having finished her career in a circus as a professional motorcyclist 30 years earlier — surrounded by the Romanov memorabilia and books of poetry signed by the leading Russian authors of her day. For the next decade she was popular with journalists and TV crews, but the stormy events of last summer made her death July 25 pass almost unnoticed. Everybody who used to know her will agree that such an end was unfair.
Hers was a life connecting all the major episodes of 20th-century Russian history. Born in February 1917, weeks before the revolution swept away her cousin Czar Nicholas II, she lived to be 82. Her survival in the years of the Red Terror looks unbelievably miraculous, but she was a very special Romanov.
Back in the 1870s, her grandfather, Grand Duke Nicholas Constantinovich, had been exiled by the czar to Central Asia for a most spectacular theft: He took his mother’s priceless diamond necklace to give to his American mistress. Extravagant, if not insane, as other Romanovs insisted, the exiled grand duke spent the next 40 years of his life in the deserts of Asia. There he married and sired two sons. The czar granted the boys a title and also a discreet, cryptic surname: not Romanov, but Iskander. With the outbreak of civil war, in 1918, the grand duke died a mysterious death in Tashkent, most probably killed by the local commissars. His sons departed for the battlefields to avenge the death of their father; one perished, another ended up in Paris — never to see Russia again. But the emigre’s daughter, Natalia, survived in the Romanovs’ homeland.
Brought by her mother to Moscow, which provided the sheltering anonymity of a big city, the girl was given a new surname — Androsova and prospects of living a happy, low-profile life. But the rebellious genes of her adventurous grandfather kept working: She grew up proud of her royal ancestry and sought a challenging life. The combination of the two things — her astonishing beauty and her very unusual profession, motorcycling — proved fatal: She became conspicuous.
In 1939, she was reported to Josef Stalin’s secret police. Having brought her to the secret police headquarters, the terrifying Lubianka in downtown Moscow, Stalin’s butchers couldn’t help being impressed by her royal demeanor and striking beauty. She was a valuable asset, they decided, and to kill her then and there would have been a terrible waste. The descendant of the czars was proposed a cruel choice: Be shot or become a secret police agent. Obviously, she chose the latter.
Every person who ever met Natalia, will agree that she was a courageous, noble and kind-hearted woman. Her former association with the secret police, which she hastily brought to an end as soon as the loathsome dictator, Stalin, died in 1953, kept torturing her throughout the 1990s. She never mentioned the KGB connection in her numerous published interviews and very few people knew about it. Now, when she is dead, just like when she was alive, I believe that she is almost without blame.
Natalia’s sunset brought not only emotional remorse, but also a lot of physical deprivation. In the last years of her life Natalia was virtually penniless, her pension of a retired motorcyclist being the equivalent of $16 a month. Also, if she was not in her wheelchair, she was on her crutches: Numerous riding accidents had left her legs almost motionless.
Natalia’s looks bore a strong resemblance to her great-great-grandfather, Czar Nicholas I, who was known as Europe’s most handsome monarch. Deprived of the Romanovs’ wealth and living in total poverty, she remained a typical Romanov spender and would often use her last money to buy food for a guest. She loved visitors and hated solitude, but to many interviewers she looked “forbidding” and even “icy.” Indeed, she possessed a genuine royal quality of intimidating unpleasant people with dignified coldness and refined detachment. That must have been in her blood, for she grew up in slums, not in a palace. If royal dignity would not work with some particularly thick-skinned individuals, she would easily switch to her “motorcyclist self.” Invited by the Russian government to the state funeral of the remains of her cousin Nicholas II in St. Petersburg in July 1998, and finding herself next to a notorious bully, Gen. Alexander Lebed, she told him: “Watch your elbows, general!” Lebed frowned but, puzzled, obeyed.
The last years of her life brought a lot of physical pain, but also some emotional relief. Finally, she was recognized as a Romanov. Of course, her foreign royal relatives would feel too embarrassed to meet a poor relation from the slums and never visited her, though for Prince Philip, for instance, she used to be the closest relative among all the Romanovs (they shared a common great-grandfather). But what made her very angry, was that people were likely to see her as a miraculously saved princess from a fairy tale, kind of a real Anastasia from the Disney movie, completely forgetting that the main common quality in her life was suffering. Once, a well-intentioned TV crew spent two hours in her shabby apartment, asking questions like “What does it mean to be happy?” and “What is life about?” Natalia withdrew into her best royal icy mood and, having angrily shut the front door after the disappointed visitors left, said: “Imagine asking me what happiness is and what life is about! Let me tell you what, life is about nothing and as for happiness, I have spent my whole life in sh*t.”
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