Biographies Russian Rulers Romanov Family of Nicholas I Children Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich the Elder

Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich the Elder

Born: 1831, Tsarskoe Selo
Died: 1891, Alupka (Tauride Province)

Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich the Elder was the sixth child and third son of Nicholas I and Alexandra Fyodorovna. Known as Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich the Elder, to distinguish him from his son, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich the Younger. He was born in Tsarskoe Selo (1831). He studied at the First Military Academy. Served in the Russian army, though not noted for his abilities as a commander. Joined the Horse Life Guards Regiment (1851). Inspector general of the engineers (1856–91) and cavalry (1864–91). Commanded the Danube army in the Russo-Turkish War (1877–78). Field-marshal (1878). Suffered from oral cancer (1880). Declared insane (1890) and died at Alupka in the Crimea (1891).

On 6 February 1856, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich married his second cousin, Princess Alexandra Friederike Wilhelmine of Oldenburg, who converted to Orthodoxy as Grand Duchess Alexandra Petrovna. They had two sons – Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich the Younger and Grand Duke Pyotr Nikolaevich.

Grand Duke Nikolai’s extramarital affairs scandalised Russian society and the other members of the imperial household. Countess Tolstoy wrote: “As warm-hearted as he was soft-brained, Nikolai Nikolaevich did not even attempt to make a secret of the scandal, which shocked society at that time.”

The news of the affair was reported to Alexander II by Count Pyotr Shuvalov, head of the police and popularly known as “Peter IV.” The tsar “was white with anger and astonishment. What! Extramarital affairs and illegitimate children in our family? But we have never had anything more serious than a drawing-room intrigue!” The two brothers had a heated exchange.

Known in the family as Uncle Nizi, Grand Duke Nikolai was famed for his passionate nature and love of ballet. In 1865, he started a relationship with a dancer called Ekaterina Chislova, who lived in the first floor of a house on Galernaya Street, which looked onto his own palace on Annunciation Square. Ekaterina used to signal that she was at home by lighting two candles in the window of her house. The grand duke’s servants would then inform their master that a “fire” had broken out in the city.

The frequency of these conflagrations led Grand Duchess Alexandra Petrovna to complain to Alexander II about her husband’s behaviour. The emperor dismissed the complaint with a conceived lack of tact: “Look, your husband is still vigorous. He needs an attractive woman. Just take a look at the way you are dressed!”

The grand duke registered his illegitimate children as his own, christened them at the nearby Church of the Annunciation and wrote Chislova an ever-growing number of cheques. The daughter of a cook, Ekaterina was given a title and the surname of Chislova-Nikolaev. Their children’s official surnames were Nikolaev. Although the dancer was exiled from St Petersburg, it was not long before the story started all over again.

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