Russian royal exiles return to St Petersburg

Nicholas Romanov is passionate about Russian history

As the head of the family that ruled Russia for centuries, Nicholas Romanov will be one of the honoured guests at this week's celebrations marking the 300th anniversary of St Petersburg.

This content was published on May 27, 2003

Shortly before he departed, Romanov talked to swissinfo at his home in the Swiss alpine resort of Rougemont about the importance of the anniversary and his life in exile.

The octogenarian sits back on a sofa in his chalet and speaks of St Petersburg as if he has spent his whole life in the city.

"Petersburg along with London and Stockholm is the only capital city of Europe which has never seen a foreign soldier within its walls," he says.

"And that is an exclusive privilege we are very proud of - we'll always be proud of the heroic defenders of Leningrad who, as I often say, saved our Petersburg."

First visit in 1992

Romanov did not actually make his first visit to the city until 1992 at the age of 70.

He has made a few short visits since, and is looking forward to returning to take part in the anniversary celebrations as head of the exiled Romanov dynasty.

"The celebration of St Petersburg's 300 years is very important. First of all it's a sign of unity for the country," he explains.

"Moscow is the seat of government and Petersburg is no longer what Peter the Great thought it was, 'a window on Europe'. It's exactly the opposite. It's the window on Russia for foreigners.

"You are much better off if you get your first contact with Russia through Petersburg because Petersburg is today what it has always been - a great city of northern Europe."

South of France

Romanov was born in 1922 in the south of France. It was five years after the revolution, and four years after the last Russian emperor was assassinated along with his immediate family.

The surviving Romanovs fled the country, including Romanov's parents and grandparents - distant relations of the ruling family. Most found refuge in Europe.

"They knew very well that while there was a certainty that they would come back to Russia, they were also quite certain that it would never be as it was before.

"They would not have the privileges they had before, that things would have changed colossally but that we would return to Russia, that was a certainty."

Romanov was brought up in France and Italy, and lived for a while in Egypt before moving back to Italy and finally retiring in Switzerland.

Education in Russian

As a boy, Romanov's parents prepared him for an eventual return to the homeland by educating him in Russian and French - the languages of the Russian imperial court.

And their home in France could not have been more Russian. It was full of Russian officers and servants, and a Russian Orthodox priest also lived with them.

The family even lived according to the old Julian calendar and the first words that Romanov learned to write were "Russia" and "God" in Cyrillic. The piece of paper with the two words hangs today on his bedroom door.

But neither Romanov's grandparents or parents lived to set foot on Russian soil again, and he only made his first trip to Russia in 1992 as a tour guide.

"I went with a group of businessmen as a second guide," he remembers.

Personal detail

"I would tell them small details about things. People like to personalise history so I would say 'well you see, in this place Tsar Alexander II was murdered. Well of course before getting killed he stopped to have tea with my aunt'.

"So when you put these personal remarks in a general frame of history which is explained quite well by the official guide, I added the personal touch and that made all the difference."

His chalet is decorated with paintings and pictures of his royal ancestors.

Hanging in his bedroom are portraits of his great grandfather and the wife of Nicholas I as well as a painting of St Petersburg by an English artist.


Military books from imperial Russia fill the bookshelves. He spends his days writing biographies of the Romanovs, but he says, he has no intention of ever moving to Russia.

"Were I 30 years younger, I would have certainly tried to settle in Russia and do something there.

"But at my age, it's too late. I'm too used to western European habits and too old to start something new.

"What I can do is speak about the past and show how important the past is to today's Russians, to tie up their history, which was torn asunder under the communist regime."

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel

Key facts

Tsar Nicholas II was assassinated along with his immediate family in 1918, one year after the Russian revolution.
The surviving members of the Romanov dynasty went into exile, mostly in Europe.
The current head of the Romanov family, Prince Nicholas Romanov, was born in Antibes, in the south of France, in 1922.

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In brief

In 1919, one year after the assassination of Tsar Nicholas II, Romanov's parents were whisked out of Russia on British battleships.

They settled in the south of France, before eventually moving to Rome.

The family lived under the threat of deportation during Nazi Germany's occupation of Italy.

After the war, Romanov worked for the USIS - the United States Information Service in Rome.

He moved to Egypt and became a successful businessman trading tobacco. He returned to Italy where he married the daughter of a count and eventually took over the management of her family's property.

He and his wife retired to Rougemont, Switzerland in 1982 where they have lived ever since.

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