Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich of Russia (1856–1929)

This article is about the World War I general. For his father of similar name, see Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich of Russia (1831–1891).
Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich
Commander in Chief of the Russian Armies

Grand Duke Nicholas in 1914
Born (1856-11-06)6 November 1856
St. Petersburg, Russian Empire
Died 5 January 1929(1929-01-05) (aged 72)
Antibes, France
Burial St. Michael the Archangel Church, Cannes, France 1929–2015[1]
Chapel of the Transfiguration of Our Lord in the Bratsky military cemetery in Moscow since 2015 [2]
Spouse Princess Anastasia of Montenegro
(m. 1907–; 29; his death)
Full name
Nicholas Nikolaevich Romanov
House House of Holstein-Gottorp-Romanov
Father Grand Duke Nicholas Nicolaievich
Mother Alexandra Petrovna
(Alexandra of Oldenburg)

Grand Duke Nikolay Nikolayevich Romanov of Russia (Russian: Николай Николаевич Романов (младший – the younger); 18 November 1856 – 5 January 1929) was a Russian general in World War I. A grandson of Nicholas I of Russia, he was commander in chief of the Russian armies on the main front in the first year of the war, and was later a successful commander-in-chief in the Caucasus.



Nicholas, named after his paternal grandfather the emperor, was born as the eldest son to Grand Duke Nicholas Nicolaevich of Russia (1831–1891) and Alexandra Petrovna of Oldenburg (1838–1900) on 18 November 1856.[3] His father was the sixth child and third son born to Nicholas I of Russia and his Empress consort Alexandra Fedorovna of Prussia (1798–1860). Alexandra Fedorovna was a daughter of Frederick William III of Prussia and Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.[4]

Nicholas' mother, his father's first cousin's daughter, was a daughter of Duke Konstantin Peter of Oldenburg (1812–1881) and Princess Therese of Nassau (1815–1871). His maternal grandfather was a son of Duke George of Oldenburg and Grand Duchess Catherine Pavlovna of Russia, daughter of Paul I of Russia and Maria Fedorovna of Württemberg. (Catherine was later remarried to William I of Württemberg.) His maternal grandmother was a daughter of Wilhelm, Duke of Nassau (1792–1839) and Princess Luise of Saxe-Hildburghausen. The Duke of Nassau was a son of Friedrich Wilhelm, Duke of Nassau (1768–1816) and Burgravine Louise Isabelle of Kirchberg. His paternal grandparents were Duke Karl Christian of Nassau-Weilburg (1735–1788) and Carolina of Orange-Nassau. Carolina was a daughter of William IV of Orange and Anne, Princess Royal and Princess of Orange. Anne was the eldest daughter of George II of Great Britain and Caroline of Ansbach.

Grand Duke Nicholas was the first cousin once removed of Tsar Nicholas II. To distinguish between them, the Grand Duke was often known within the Imperial family as "Nikolasha".

Early military career

Grand Duke Nicholas in 1870

Grand Duke Nicholas was educated at the school of military engineers and received his commission in 1873.[3] During the Russo-Turkish War, 1877-78, he was on the staff of his father who was commander in chief.[3] He distinguished himself on two occasions in this war. He worked his way up through all the ranks until he was appointed commander of the Guard Hussar Regiment in 1884.

He had a reputation as a tough commander, yet one respected by his troops. His experience was more as a trainer of soldiers than a leader in battle. Nicholas was a very religious man, praying in the morning and at night as well as before and after meals. He was happiest in the country, hunting or caring for his estates.

By 1895, he was inspector-general of the cavalry, a post he held for 10 years.[3] His tenure has been judged a success with reforms in training, cavalry schools, cavalry reserves and the remount services. He was not given an active command during the Russo-Japanese War, perhaps because the Tsar did not wish to hazard the prestige of the Romanovs and because he wanted a loyal general in command at home in case of domestic disturbances. Thus, Nicholas did not have the opportunity to gain experience in battlefield command.

Grand Duke Nicholas played a crucial role during the Revolution of 1905. With anarchy spreading and the future of the dynasty at stake, the Tsar had a choice of instituting the reforms suggested by Count Sergei Witte or imposing a military dictatorship. The only man with the prestige to keep the allegiance of the army in such a coup was the Grand Duke. The Tsar asked him to assume the role of a military dictator. In an emotional scene at the palace, Nicholas refused, drew his pistol and threatened to shoot himself on the spot if the Tsar did not endorse Witte's plan. This act was decisive in forcing Nicholas II to agree to the reforms.

From 1905 to the outbreak of World War I, he was commander-in-chief of the St. Petersburg Military District. He had the reputation there of appointing men of humble origins to positions of authority. The lessons of the Russo-Japanese War were drilled into his men.


Anastasia of Montenegro

On 29 April 1907, Nicholas married Princess Anastasia of Montenegro (1869–1935), the daughter of King Nicholas I, and sister of Princess Milica, who had married Nicholas's brother, Grand Duke Peter. They had no children. She had previously been married to George Maximilianovich, 6th Duke of Leuchtenberg, by whom she had two children, until their divorce in 1906. Since the Montenegrins were a fiercely Slavic, anti-Turkish people from the Balkans, Anastasia reinforced the Pan-Slavic tendencies of Nicholas.


Nicholas was a hunter. Ownership of borzoi hounds was restricted to members of the highest nobility, and Nicholas's packs were well-known. As the Russian dogs perished in the Revolution of 1917–18, the borzoi of today are descended from gifts he made to European friends before World War I. In his lifetime, Nicholas and his dogs caught hundreds of wolves. A pair of borzoi were used, which caught the wolf, one on each side, while Nicholas dismounted and cut the wolf's throat with a knife. Hunting was his major recreation, and he traveled in his private train across Russia with his horses and dogs, hunting while on his rounds of inspection.[5]

World War I

German/Austro-Hungarian Front

Grand Duke Nicholas in 1915.

The Grand Duke had no part in the planning and preparations for World War I, that being the responsibility of General Vladimir Sukhomlinov and the general staff. On the eve of the outbreak of World War I, his first cousin once removed, the Emperor Nicholas II of Russia, yielded to the entreaties of his ministers and appointed Grand Duke Nicholas to the supreme command.[3] He was 57 years old and had never commanded armies in the field before, although he had spent almost all of his life on active service. His appointment was popular in the army. He was given responsibility for the largest army ever put into the field up to that date. He recalled that "... on receipt of the Imperial order, he spent much of his time crying because he did not know how to approach his new duties."[6]

On 14 August 1914, he published the Manifesto to the Polish Nation.[7]

Grand Duke Nicholas was responsible for all Russian forces fighting against Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey. He decided that their major effort must be in Poland, which thrust toward Germany like a salient, flanked by German East Prussia in the north, and Austro-Hungarian Galicia in the south. He planned to attend first to the flanks and when they were secure to invade German Silesia.[8] In the north poor coordination of the two invading armies resulted in the disaster of Tannenberg. In the south they conquered much of Galicia. Their subsequent move toward Silesia was blocked by the Battle of the Vistula River and Battle of Łódź. The Grand Duke picked and chose from the various plans offered by his generals. The Grand Duke begged for the artillery and ammunition they desperately lacked, so he could not embark on a coherent plan for victory. On a personal level he was well liked by both officers and men. The Germans thought him a formidable opponent.[9]

On the other hand, some regard Nicholas as more a bureaucrat than a military leader, lacking the broad strategic sense and the ruthless drive to command all the Russian armies. His headquarters had a curiously calm atmosphere, despite the many defeats and the millions of casualties. On 22 March 1915 he reсeived the Order of St. George 2nd degree for the successful Siege of Przemyśl.

After the great retreat of the Russian army, the Tsar replaced the Grand Duke as commander of the Russian armed forces on 21 August 1915.[10][3]

The Caucasus

Upon his dismissal, the Grand Duke was immediately appointed commander-in-chief and viceroy in the Caucasus (replacing Count Illarion Vorontsov-Dashkov). While the Grand Duke was officially in command, General Yudenich was the driving figure in the Russian Caucasus army, so the Grand Duke focused on the civil administration.[11] Their opponent was the Ottoman Empire. While the Grand Duke was in command, the Russian army sent an expeditionary force through to Persia (now Iran) to link up with British troops. Also in 1916, the Russian army captured the Fortress of Erzerum, the port of Trebizond (now Trabzon) and the town of Erzincan. The Turks responded with an offensive of their own. Fighting around Lake Van swung back and forth, but ultimately proved inconclusive.

It is reported that, while visiting the garrison of Kostroma he met Said Nursi, a famous Muslim cleric who was a prisoner of war. Because of Nursi's disrespectful attitude, Grand Duke gave an order to execute him. But after seeing Nursi's submission and faith about the sake of science, he changed his mind.[12][13] Nothing in the Grand Duke's record suggests that he would have even considered such a war crime. At the time he was urging the Tsar to set up colleges for training Muslim clerics so they would not have to study abroad.[14]

Nicholas tried to have a railway built from Russian Georgia to the conquered territories with a view to bringing up more supplies for a new offensive in 1917. But, in March 1917, the Tsar was overthrown and the Russian army began slowly to fall apart.


The February Revolution found Nicholas in the Caucasus. He was appointed by the Emperor, in his last official act, as the supreme commander in chief, and was wildly received as he journeyed to headquarters in Mogilev; however, within 24 hours of his arrival, the new premier, Prince Georgy Lvov, cancelled his appointment. Nicholas spent the next two years in the Crimean Peninsula, sometimes under house arrest, taking little part in politics. There appears to have been some sentiment to have him head the White Russian forces active in southern Russia at the time, but the leaders in charge, especially General Anton Denikin, were afraid that a strong monarchist figurehead would alienate the more left leaning constituents of the movement. He and his wife escaped just ahead of the Red Army in April 1919, aboard the British Battleship HMS Marlborough.

On 8 August 1922, Nicholas was proclaimed as the emperor of all Russia by the Zemsky Sobor of the Priamursk region by general Mikhail Diterikhs. The former was already living abroad and consequently was not present. Two months later the Priamursk region fell to the Bolsheviks.

In exile

After a stay in Genoa as a guest of his brother-in-law, Victor Emmanuel III, King of Italy, Nicholas and his wife took up residence in a small castle at Choigny, 20 miles outside of Paris. He was under the protection of the French secret police as well as by a small number of faithful Cossack retainers. He became the center of an anti-Soviet monarchist resistance group, and headed the Russian All Military Union alongside general Pyotr Wrangel. The monarchists made plans to send agents into Russia. Conversely a top priority of the Soviet secret police was to penetrate this monarchist organization and to kidnap Nicholas. They were successful in the former, infiltrating the group with spies. (OGPU later lured the anti-Bolshevik British master spy Sidney Reilly back to the Soviet Union (1925) where he was killed.) They did not succeed however, in kidnapping Nicholas. As late as June 1927, the monarchists were able to set off a bomb at the Lubyanka Prison in Moscow.

Grand Duke Nicholas died on 5 January 1929 of natural causes on the French Riviera, where he had gone to escape the rigors of winter. He was originally buried in the church of St. Archangel Michael in Cannes, France. In 2014 Nicholas Romanov, Prince of Russia (1922–2014) and Prince Dimitri Romanov requested the transfer of his remains. The bodies of Nicholas Nikolaevich and his wife were re-buried in Moscow at the military cemetery in Bratsky in May 2015.[2]

Honours and awards

The Grand Duke received several Russian and foreign decorations:



Grand Duke Nicholas was portrayed in the 1971 film Nicholas and Alexandra by Harry Andrews, and in the 1974 television drama Fall of Eagles by John Phillips .


  1. Reburial of the Remains of Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich and His Wife. 1 May 2015
  2. 1 2 Features / The official website of the Mayor and the Government of Moscow. (30 April 2015). Retrieved on 2015-09-16.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Dowling 2014, p. 588.
  4. Robinson, Paul (2014). Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich. Supreme commander of the Russian Army. De Kalb, IL: NIU Press.
  5. Robinson 2014, pp. 29–35
  6. Strachan, Hew (2001). The First World War. Oxford. p. 313. ISBN 0-19-820877-4.
  7. Robinson 2014, p. 140
  8. Robinson 1914, pp. 135–141.
  9. Ludendorff, Erich (1919). Ludendorff's Own Story. New York: Harper and Brothers. p. vol. I,102.
  10. Robinson 2014, pp. 230–260
  11. Robinson 2014, pp. 261–291
  12. Nursi, Said: Tarihçe-i Hayat, Envar Neşriyat, Istanbul 1995, pp. 114–115 (in Turkish)
  13. Tarihçe-i Hayat, Sayfa 103. Retrieved on 16 September 2015.
  14. Robinson 2014, p. 286
  15. "Latest intelligence - Italy and Russia". The Times (36823). London. 18 July 1902. p. 3.


  • Dowling, Timothy C. (2014). Russia at War: From the Mongol Conquest to Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Beyond [2 volumes]. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-1-59884-948-6. 
  • Robinson, Paul. "A Study of Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich as Supreme Commander of the Russian Army, 1914–1915," Historian (Fall 2013) 75#3 pp 475–498 online
  • Fromkin, David. A Peace To End All Peace Avon Books, New York, 1990
  • John Curtis Perry and Constantine Pleshakov. The Flight of the Romanovs, A Family Saga Basic Books, New York, 1999
  • "Encyclopaedia Britannica", Vol. 16, pp. 420–421, Chicago, 1958
  • Figes, Orlando. A People's Tragedy, The Russian Revolution 1891–1924, Pilmico, London, 1997
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