George and his new wife Victoria would like you to know that they think their lives are pretty normal. They enjoy going to the cinema, scuba diving, discovering new restaurants, and walking their dog in the parks of Moscow, where they moved three years ago.
For work, George heads a company based in Brussels advising businesses how to work within EU regulations, while Victoria, with her background in international law, oversees the work of a food bank founded by the couple. When not working, she writes and publishes books, “purely for pleasure.”
Their lives are undoubtedly privileged, and they enjoy what might loosely be called a “society” lifestyle. They are keen to impress that they are otherwise down to earth, speak informally, and cut the convincing figures of two newlyweds living fulfilling lives. But there is more to their story.
Grand Duke George Mikhailovich Romanov and Victoria Romanovna Bettarini leave the Saint Isaac's Cathedral as Russian honour guards salute them during their wedding ceremony in Saint Petersburg.
“My mother-in-law, the Duchess, will talk quite casually about how Tsar Nicholas liked his tea,” says Victoria, wife of the heir to Russia’s dormant royal dynasty, the ancient House of Romanov. George’s great-grandfather was Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich, first-cousin to Russia’s last monarch Nicholas II. He is a direct descendant of Nicholas’s predecessor, the ruthless anti-liberal reformer Alexander III. In another timeline where members of the Russian aristocracy were not wiped out in the 20th century, George would be the Tsar.
“The family talks about these people in a personal way,” Victoria, who married into the Romanov dynasty at a lavish ceremony in Saint Petersburg in October, tells VICE World News over the phone. “They don’t talk about it like it’s history. Indeed, it is only by luck that this branch of the family is alive at all,” she says, claiming that a sympathetic Bolshevik in St. Petersburg helped them to escape the country.
Grand Duke George Romanov and Victoria Romanovna Bettarini, to give them their full names, have lived lives pretty far removed from their Russian heritage. George was born and baptised in Madrid, moved to France as an infant, then returned to Spain for his schooling at a private British college in the capital. He received his degree from the University of Oxford before moving to Brussels to work in the European Parliament, in order to, in the words of his official biography on the Romanov dynasty website, “learn about the processes determining the future course of Europe.”
Victoria, born Rebecca Virginia Bettarini in Rome, is the daughter of an Italian diplomat. She was raised in Iraq and Venezuela before attending school in Belgium and later becoming head of the Russian Imperial Foundation, the formal organisation that represents and publicises the activities of what’s left of the Romanov family.
It’s as though history has frantically scrambled together a role for its no-longer-royal royals to play in the present; made redundant by waves of history from their duties as Europe’s sovereigns, they have been re-nosed and re-calibrated for life in the 21st century, still dragging behind them centuries worth of history.
“These stories are full of human spirit,” says Victoria. “Nobody ever thinks about the private aspects of the people that have made history. They were people too.”
“Today all our activities are apolitical, and focus on charity, historical and cultural projects,” adds George. “The Romanov household is intrinsic to the history of not just Russia but the world. We serve as guardians of historical values and traditions.”
Yet at some point in the 20th century, the Romanovs and families like them dropped out of history. They were replaced by new forms of government that reshaped the political map of Europe.
The empires over which the families had reigned had covered most of the continent – vast, multinational super-states that attempted to tie national and ethnic groups together. The Italians had been unified in the 1860s under the royal house of Savoy; Germany had achieved the same, at around the same time, under the house of Hohenzollern. The World Wars brought down the two dynasties, as they did with the other great imperial monarchies; the rule of the Ottoman sultans in Turkey and its Middle Eastern possessions was effectively ended in 1919, while the Russian Revolutions of 1917 brought down the house of Romanov and cut loose the empire’s border peoples to make their own futures. The Habsburgs too, the centuries-old rulers of Austria-Hungary and the subjugated national groups of central and southern Europe, ceded their rule. By 1946, the dethroning of mainland Europe was, save for the lingering monarchies of Scandinavia and the Iberian peninsula, virtually complete.
But after the handing over of power from the anointed to the elected, the bloodlines carried on, reduced from sovereigns to civilians. At first, they lived dangerous lives. Once their sovereignty had been ended by war or revolution, these families became cyphers to the new governments, symbols of the old world which needed to be swept away in their entirety. Most were banished into exile. Those that got out were made unwelcome to return, left to seek asylum abroad.
Now, with the great seismic upheavals of the 20th century decades behind them, they are seeking out ways to re-forge relationships with their ancestral homes.
“In the past, in the 90s, when my mother-in-law and my husband came here for the first time after the implosion of the Soviet Union was very tricky,” says Victoria.
“During Soviet times it was impossible to talk about empire, of the legacy of the Tsars. So now, it’s coming back, all this information. It’s not nostalgia exactly, rather it’s a curiosity. Someone who is 30 or 40 grew up in a family where there wasn’t this knowledge of the past.”
Victoria and George have sought out practical uses for the Romanov name in the 21st century. In 2012, the pair founded the food bank Rus, in cooperation with the Orthodox Church. Like the Romanovs, Russia’s religious institutions are another branch of the imperial state that has enjoyed rehabilitation since the fall of Communism.
Through philanthropy, ancient traditions have embraced technological innovations to fight Russia’s poverty crisis. Rus’s system for collecting and distributing food surplus from its point of manufacture has been recognised by various branches of the Russian government, including the Ministry of Industry and Trade and the Children’s Rights Commissioner of the presidential office. By piggybacking on the spirit of the welfare state, the Romanovs have created for themselves a position of relevance to a grateful public.
“The social policy of the modern Russian state is based on the traditions of pre-revolutionary times,” says George. “Then, financial assistance was provided to those in need, free hospitals and schools were built. In our charitable work, we try to support social programs and cooperate with the state in these areas.
“What can modern states learn from past times? It can learn the best practices and combine them with new technologies. To my mind that is the way to build a real welfare state.”
Victoria says over six million kilograms of food are distributed to the neediest parts of the country every year by the organisation. “We’re expanding and financing children’s hospices, which we took on because nobody else wanted to finance care for children with no hope of recovery,” she adds. “So that’s what we do.”
The family’s role today belies the popular anger that drove the last Tsar from power in March 1917. The last Romanov to rule Russia presided over a country wrecked by poverty, malnourishment and wretched living conditions. When the Communist Bolshevik Party came to power in November of that year, Tsar Nicholas and his family were mercilessly disposed of in the wilds of the Ural mountains to stamp out any last ember of the imperial flame, whilst the rest of the aristocracy were hunted down in the same pursuit.
One of those to escape was the Grand Duke Kirill, George Romanov’s great-grandfather. When the Tsar abdicated and the orchestrators of the Revolution took control, the 41-year-old Duke fled to Finland with his wife and two-month-old son Vladimir, George’s grandfather. The bloodline has been the loudest, though disputed, claimant to the headship of the House of Romanov ever since.
“History is history,” says George. “It is pointless to fantasise about what would have happened if there hadn't been a revolution, as history does not know the subjunctive form.”
Seig De Vater (C) and Rostislav Romanov (R) attend the Mayfair Times Indian Summer Party at Mandarin Oriental Hyde. Photo: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images for Mayfair Times
There are others too – “Prince” Rostislav Romanov was raised and lives in the UK. His grandfather, Prince Rostislav Alexandrovich, was a nephew of Nicholas II. An artist by trade – “am I an artist because of my name, or is my name making me an artist? There’s always this debate in my mind” – he has lived a life a little more recognisable to Britain’s millennial generation, with a notable exception.
“My relationship with Russia, it’s my spiritual home,” says the 36-year-old from his home in Rye, southern England. “In 1998 when I first went back, to Nicholas II’s funeral with my family, as soon as I got off the plane, I remember that sense of being spiritually at home.
“Then later when we did the re-burying of Nicholas II with my family, it was amazing to be part of history like that. But I didn’t want to base my viewpoint on Russia on that alone. It was very privileged. I wanted to walk the streets of Russia and see the people. I wanted to understand it all.”
Crown Prince Leka Zogu II, the grandson of self-proclaimed King Zog and his wife Elia Zaharia arrive to attend a dinner. Photo: OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP via Getty Images
Finding an identity as the head of a royal dynasty in the 21st century is all about finding ways to live with the past. Crown Prince Leka Zogu is the head of the former ruling house of Albania. His grandfather, King Zog I, was the first and only monarch to rule the former Kingdom of Albania (1928 – 1939).
After Zog came the iron-fisted rule of the brutal Communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, who was himself toppled in 1991 after inflicting considerable misery on his subjects. It opened the door to the rehabilitation of the former royal house.
“My father came back after some negotiations with the government in 1993,” says Leka. “He landed and was allowed into the country, he arrived at a hotel in Tirana. In the evening, the hotel was surrounded by tanks and secret police. He was told he had to leave the country.
“Albania went through 50 years of the worst Communism in the world. A single photograph of myself or my father or grandfather would have sent you to jail for 15 years.”
Today, like the Romanovs, Leka and his family are involved in civic work to try and modernise a country that, though they no longer rule, remains an intrinsic part of their family identity.
But unlike in Russia, the Albanian state has afforded the House of Zogu a quasi-official role in its work. In 2003, the Albanian parliament formally recognised the royal family. They are afforded certain privileges, which include their being included in state protocol. Leka even escorted the president to Monaco on an official visit. The royals are engaged in what he calls “soft power activities,” key in a country like Albania which has struggled to break away from its isolation.
“My grandfather is recognised by the Albanian constitution as the founder of the first Albanian state,” says Leka. “He made agricultural reforms that took land from landowners and gave it back to the poor; he banished slavery, everyone who touched Albanian soil was a free man; he has been recognised by the State of Israel for his role in saving Jews from the Nazis in the 1930s. He was a reformer under horrendous circumstances.”
Leka and the Romanovs have, with the consent of their respective governments, found practical roles within the organs of civil society, even if there remains a whiff of ceremony about their presence. But what of another question of dynastic heritage; what, if anything, does it mean on a spiritual level to have royal blood in a distinctly un-royal world? What still divides the former aristocracy from the common stock ruled over by their ancestors?
“It is completely normal,” says Davit Bagration, head of the former royal house of Georgia, now a tiny republic at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. “I work in my vineyards and winery in Mukhrani, lands historically belonging to my ancestors that I bought a few years ago.” It’s more than 200 years since Davit’s ancestors sat on the Georgian throne, before the former kingdom was absorbed by the Russian Empire in 1801.
Today, the family is stalked by intrigue; in 2019 it was reported that courts in the Georgian capital Tbilisi were considering exhuming the bodies of two medieval kings in order to settle a succession dispute with another branch of the family. His ex-wife is suing him in Tbilisi in a dispute over the succession. Yet Davit, seemingly alone amongst Europe’s former royals, dreams of a return to the throne for him and his heirs.
“It is a great responsibility that you have to live with,” says Davit. “It is easy to convince some people [it’s a bad idea], since they have never seen a King of Georgia with a jacket and a tie. So they use words like ‘a return to feudalism’.
“There are many people who see the benefit of a reinstitution. The current president of Georgia has declared himself pro-monarchy and in favour of re-institution, but for the moment the opponents of the idea are a little better organised. We will see in the next few years. It must be decided by the people.”