Grand Duchess Maria of Russia succeeded her father, the Grand Duke Wladimir, as head of the Russian Imperial House upon his death in April 1992. Guy Sainty, the scholar of European dynasties, summed up the subject of the Russian succession well when he wrote, “The position of the Grand Duchess Maria Wladimirovna as Head of the Imperial House has been acknowledged by most serious Russian monarchist organizations and by most of those Heads of Royal Houses which continue to maintain relations with the Imperial House.” The heir of the Grand Duchess Maria is her only son, the Grand Duke George of Russia. At present, they are the only living members of the Russian Imperial House.
The Russian succession laws applicable to the dynasty from 1797 to the present specified that the right of succession passed first to male dynasts in order of primogeniture. Should the male dynasts die out (which happened in 1992, when the last male dynast of the male line of the dynasty died), the succession would then pass to the female line.
Eighteen Russian dynasts were murdered during the revolution (twelve males and six females). When Kirill made his declaration of succession in 1924, there were nineteen male dynasts who had survived the revolution and were still alive in the West. They obviously were the individuals with the most direct interest in who the head of the Russian dynasty was. In the 1920s, and especially in the months following the 1924 declaration, when there was still a belief that the Soviet regime might be of limited duration, fifteen of these nineteen male dynasts recognized Kirill as head of the dynasty and Wladimir, his only son, as Kirill’s heir. Here is a list of the names of the fifteen who supported Kirill as head of the dynasty and Wladimir as his heir, followed by their place in the line of succession as of 1924:
- Grand Duke Kirill of Russia (first in line)
- Grand Duke Wladimir of Russia (second in line)
- Grand Duke Boris of Russia (third in line)
- Grand Duke Andrew Wladimirovich of Russia (fourth in line)
- Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich of Russia (fifth in line)
- Prince Vsevolod of Russia (sixth in line)
- Prince Gavriel of Russia (seventh in line)
- Prince George Constantinovich of Russia (eighth in line)
- Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich of Russia (twelfth in line)
- Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich of Russia (thirteenth in line)
- Prince Andrew Alexandrovich of Russia (fourteenth in line)
- Prince Feodor of Russia (fifteenth in line)
- Prince Nikita of Russia (sixteenth in line)
- Prince Dmitry Alexandrovich of Russia (seventeenth in line)
- Prince Rostislav of Russia (eighteenth in line).
Thus, we see that in the 1920s, with the exception of this one small cadet branch of the dynasty (the so-called “Nikolayevichi line” consisting of just three male dynasts, Nicholas Nikolayevich, followed as always by his younger brother Peter and nephew Roman), the overwhelming majority of male dynasts of the Imperial House supported Kirill as dynastic head and Wladimir as his heir.
Aside from the members of the Imperial House who survived the revolution, the institution with perhaps the strongest interest in knowing the identity of the head of the dynasty was the Russian Orthodox Church. Although the identity of the head of the dynasty is solely a legal matter determined exclusively by the succession laws, it is interesting to note the strong legitimism of the church. As Emperor Paul I stated in his declaration of 5 April 1797, the day of his coronation, the Orthodox faith is “inseparable” from the Russian throne “because the sovereign in Russia is the Head of the Church.” After the revolution, the Russian Orthodox Church splintered into two principal branches. The Russian Orthodox Church in Russia, headed since November 1917 by a patriarchate in Moscow restored after the fall of the monarchy, was subject to the pressures of the Communist state during the Soviet period and had no contact or association with the dynasty. In exile, however, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR), headed by a Synod of Bishops with its headquarters first in Yugoslavia and later in New York City, ministered to the spiritual needs of the emigration. From the formation of ROCOR in 1922 until the last days of the Soviet Union in 1991, the senior dynast of the day (first Grand Duke Kirill and then his son) was recognized as the dynastic head by the four successive First Hierarchs (Metropolitans Anthony, Anastasy, Philaret, and Vitaly) of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. At the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia, headed by Patriarch Alexei II and with its headquarters in Moscow, asserted its independence from the state. Alexei II acknowledged the Grand Duke Wladimir as head of the dynasty and in 1992 delivered the eulogy during the Grand Duke’s funeral liturgy, formally describing him as "head of the Russian dynastic house". Both Patriarch Alexei II (died 2008) and his successor, the current Patriarch Kirill I also recognized Grand Duchess Maria as head of the Russian dynasty.
A male dynast had the imperial title either of Grand Duke of Russia or Prince of Russia (technically, “Prince of the Imperial Blood”), depending upon his seniority. Similarly, female dynasts were either Grand Duchesses of Russia or Princesses of Russia. The children of morganatic marriages had the right to neither imperial title.
Emperor Alexander I promulgated the equal marriage rule in unambiguous language in 1820, language never revoked: “... We consider it good, for the firm maintenance of the dignity and tranquility of the Imperial Family and of the Empire itself, to add to the existing enactments of the Imperial Family the following additional regulation: if any person of the Imperial Family enters into a marriage alliance with a person of a status unequal to his, that is, not belonging to any royal or ruling house; in such a case the person of the Imperial Family cannot pass on to the other person the rights which belong to members of the Imperial Family, and the children issuing from such a marriage have no right of succession to the Throne. Expressing this Our Will to all present and future members of Our Imperial Family and to all Our faithful subjects, in accordance with the exact right established in article 23 of the Statute on the Imperial Family, We, in face of the King of Kings, make it incumbent upon one and all whom it may concern solemnly and inviolably to maintain for all time this Our additional enactment.”
First, Article 188 of the succession laws in effect in 1917 provided:
Fourth, the heads of the Russian Imperial House from 1918 to the present, that is, the Grand Duke Kirill of Russia (head of the dynasty from 1918 to 1938), the Grand Duke Wladimir of Russia (head of the dynasty from 1938 to 1992), and the Grand Duchess Maria of Russia (head of the dynasty from 1992 to present), each reiterated that these morganatic descendants are not and cannot be members of the Imperial House. The Grand Duke Kirill gave them morganatic titles and the surname of Romanovsky, to denote kinship to but not membership of the dynasty. His son, the Grand Duke Wladimir, did the same. The Grand Duke Wladimir’s daughter, the Grand Duchess Maria, has in 2012 made clear that there are now only two living members of the Imperial House, herself and her son and heir.
It is useful to read the 11/24 October 1938 declaration in its entirety:
The Grand Duke’s message stated in essence that, at his death, his daughter, the Grand Duchess Maria, would act as curatrix of the dynasty and that, when the last of these male dynasts had died, she would become head of the dynasty in her own right. The message stated in the relevant portion:
Meanwhile, certain morganatic descendants within the so-called Romanoff Family Association continued to push themselves forward. The RFA, although privately organized without the approval of the Head of the Imperial House, had an official sounding name which misled several journalists into thinking incorrectly that it was the dynasty or at least the mouthpiece of the dynasty. In the 1990s, this grouping of numerous morganatic descendants using the Romanoff surname interspersed with two elderly female dynasts increased the confusion of those who viewed the RFA as being synonymous with the dynasty. Nicholas Romanoff’s elected position as its president in the 1990s also gave him a kind of platform to purport to speak for the “Romanoff family.” Although the RFA expressed criticisms of the Grand Duke Wladimir and attacked his 1969 declaration, nobody challenged his position as head of the dynasty. Instead, they bided their time and awaited his passing. Thus, Nicholas Romanoff (1922-2014), flanked by six other morganatic sons of dynasts, held a press conference in Paris shortly after the April 1992 death of the Grand Duke Wladimir, during which Nicholas Romanoff called himself by the dynastic title of Prince of Russia and purported to have succeeded the Grand Duke Wladimir as head of the dynasty.