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A Georgian Prince at Cambridge?

The strange story of Michael Grousinsky

AFTER THE YEARS OF PERSIAN AND TURKISH DOMINION, a new Georgian kingdom was created in the 18th century by two members of the ancient Georgian Royal House of Bagration: Teymuraz II, King of Kakheti, and his remarkable son, Irakli II. When the Persian tyrant, Nadir Shah, embarked on his invasion of India, he took Teymuraz and Irakli with him; ostensibly as honoured volunteers, in fact as hostages; for he feared that the heavy taxes levied throughout the Persian Empire for the Indian expedition would provoke a rising in Georgia. Teymuraz, whose portrait shows an impassive bearded face with a suggestion of worry in his eyes, was shrewd and calculating. He and his son managed to remain in Nadir's favour, and both fought for him when he went to war against the Turks in 1743. As a reward for this, and in order to secure the north-west of his empire – not just against the Turks but also against the more powerful and aggressive northern neighbour, Russia – Nadir appointed Irakli to rule Kakheti and conferred on Teymuraz the other Georgian kingdom of Kartli. Teymuraz already had a right to Kartli by virtue of his marriage to Thamar, daughter of Kartli's former King, the talented by unfortunate Vakhtang VI, a poet, historian and lawgiver who was driven out of Georgia by the Turks and died in exile.

Teymuraz was duly crowned in the Cathedral of Mtzkheta in 1745; it was the first coronation with full regalia since Georgia was invaded by Shah Abbas the Great more than a century before. Two years later, Nadir won a great victory and immediately grew suspicious of Teymuraz and Irakli. In an attempt to put an end to their aspirations – and also to replenish his treasury – he imposed crushing taxes on Kartli and Kakheti. Teymuraz prepared to resist him by force of arms; but before he actually went so far as to revolt, Nadir was murdered by some of his own officers and Persia was plunged into anarchy.

With Nadir out of the way, Teymuraz and Irakli were able to consolidate their position. Irakli, during his father's absence in Persia, put down a serious Muslim insurrection in 1748; and in the years that followed, father and son engaged in a series of military operations beyond their south-eastern frontier. In spite of various reverses, notably a major defeat by the Khan of Shaki in 1752, the two Georgian Kings maintained their supremacy in the eastern Caucasus and extended their power; becoming famous for their courage in battle and their diplomatic skill. They were not, however, able to prevent their kingdom from being constantly devastated by marauding Kurds and Lazghis; in fact, in 1760, Teymuraz, now an old man of 80, went in person to the Empress Elisabeth of Russia to appeal for help against these fierce tribes. The Empress, though she received Teymuraz with full honours, was much too preoccupied with the Seven Years War to be able to help. Two years later, Irakli usurped his father's throne; the aged Teymuraz ended his days as a pensioner of the Russian Court.

Irakli thus united Kartli and Kakheti into a single Georgian kingdom; which he extended so that it stretched from the Daryal to Nakhchevan and from the Mountains of Likhi to the foothills of Daghestan and the sandy plains of Shirvan. With his lustrous if slightly worried eyes, his prominent nose, his tight mouth above a thick, square beard, Irakli was an impressive personage; as brave a soldier and as cunning a statesman as his father. His name became famous not only in Persia, Turkey and Russia, but also throughout the West; his contemporary, Frederick the Great, is credited with the remark: "Moi en Europe, et en Asie l'invincible Hercule". The Armenian soldier-of-fortune and some-time protégé of Edmund Burke, Joseph Emin, who acted for a period as one of his advisers, has left us the following portrait of him: "His common complexion was black, mixed with green; his stature was short... but he was well made and strong in bones and nerves. Heraclius had been one of the greatest men living if his mind could have been turned into the path of truth. In regard to character of the people... he was in every respect the first man among them, which enabled him to have the command over all. He was without the least pride, stiffness or domineering deportment which are so common to the Asiatic princes; and with such a quickness of apprehension, that at the opening of any subject, he understood the whole extent of it. His voice in pronouncing words, conversing or treating any topic, was so melodiously sweet that the hearer, without seeing his greenish brown complexion mentioned before, would have thought an angel was haranguing. Of pride he had not the least particle, he never perhaps boasted in his life". Emin also tells us how when Irakli was on campaign and, as was customary with Georgian armies, everybody in his camp fell fast asleep at night having eaten and drunk to excess, "the only watchful man... was the Prince himself, who sat up sometimes till one, sometimes till two in the morning, with his household servants, whom one might see often half-asleep standing upon their legs before the Prince till they dropped down upon the ground and afforded him great amusement".

Aware of the shortcomings of his levies, Irakli set about organizing a regular army on European lines; including a regiment of guards such as European monarchs possessed. He cast cannon, attempted to introduce conscription and built forts. His work of improvement and modernization was not confined to matters military; he also sacrificed his plate to give his kingdom a stable currency and he exploited his kingdom's deposits of gold and silver with the help of Greek miners from the Levant. He restored the ancient universities of Tiflis and Telavi.

If Irakli was devoid of pride, he was nevertheless fond of pomp and circumstance, as was his father also; both Kings endeavoured to restore the traditions and ceremonies of the old Georgian monarchy. As a result, the subject Muslim cities in the revived kingdom were oppressed by taxation. And if Irakli's rule was harsh as far as the subject peoples under his sceptre were concerned, it was too lenient in the case of his nobles, whom he was unable to control. "With all my care and pains, I cannot make anything of them", the King once lamented to Emin. "They are wicked to the soul, false to the very bone: in a word they were born twenty-four hours before the Devil. As for fighting, they do not want courage; but what of that? The wild beasts of the field have as much".

What with his turbulent nobles and ravaging tribesmen, Irakli's kingdom was never really stable; not just politically but also economically. The incursions of the Lazghis caused frequent famines, which were inevitably accompanied by epidemics of plague. The suffering peasants were unwilling to be conscripted, so that Irakli had to rely on mercenary troops. And while his kingdom is generally thought of as a revived Kingdom of Georgia, only half his subjects were actually Georgians; he ruled not over a nation but over a synthetic Caucasian state of his own making. In fact his kingdom never included the most historic homelands, some of which were under Turkish rule, while others made up a separate kingdom to the west, known as Imereti or "that side" and contended for by various warring potentates; the most important of whom was the Imeretian King, Solomon I, called the Great. Solomon, who descended from a different branch of the Bagratids, was brave, fiery and volatile; a man of charm with a fanciful wit. Irakli never succeeded in extending his rule over Imereti, though he frequently intervened in the internal conflicts of that kingdom; he married his daughter to a brother of Solomon the Great and subsequently engineered the deposition of Solomon's successor, David II, in favour of his own grandson, who became King Solomon II.

Irakli's kingdom depended too much on his own personality to endure. There was little that was solid about his achievement; rather, it was "the fine, futile gesture of the last king of a broken people", to quote a 20th century expert on Georgian affairs, W. E. D. Allen, who also describes it as "one of the most gallant gestures in history". By 1783 Irakli himself felt sufficiently pessimistic about the future of his kingdom to conclude a treaty with Catherine the Great, according to which he acknowledged the suzerainty of Russia in return for Russian protection. To Catherine, this was simply a move in her policy of expansion; and she failed to protect the Georgian kingdom when Persia once again put up a strong and aggressive ruler in the person of Aga Muhammad, the fierce eunuch who founded the Qajar dynasty. Aga Muhammad sought to revive Persia's former suzerainty over Georgia; and when Irakli refused to break his treaty with Russia, he suddenly marched on Tiflis in the early summer of 1795 when the weather was so hot that the Georgian King, now an octogenarian, was quite unprepared for campaigning. Irakli's grandson, Solomon II of Imereti, came to his help, though the Imeretian auxiliaries plundered the unfortunate inhabitants of Tiflis as they fled from the city; but no help was forthcoming from his own son and heir, the fat and timorous Giorgi, who was with the Kakhetian troops. Eventually Irakli and Solomon met the Persian horde of 35,000 with an army of only 2,500 and were routed, though not until they had repulsed the invaders three times. Deserted by all his sons, the old King fled into Mtiuleti with 150 faithful followers while Tiflis was horribly sacked by the Persians.

Faced with the threat of Russian intervention, Aga Muhammad opened negotiations with Irakli, who refused to treat; and in the following year the Russians drove the Persians back. Then Catherine died and was succeeded by the erratic Emperor Paul; the Russian troops were withdrawn, Aga Muhammad returned, bent on vengeance; but while he was on his way he was assassinated. Soon afterwards, Irakli died of dropsy and was succeeded by the fat King Giorgi XII, who at the time of his accession was middle-aged and dropsical himself. Weak, lazy, gluttonous and devout, Giorgi [known in Georgia as the "water-buffalo-calf-eater" – A.B.] was more concerned with having the miraculous icon of St George of Bodchorma restored by the jeweller Gabriel than with ruling a kingdom that was not only threatened by Persia but had been plunged into civil war. Irakli had tried to change the succession in favour of his younger sons, who consequently took up arms against Giorgi; one of them, Farnavazi, seized the citadel of Surami; another, Alexander; invaded Kakheti at the head of a horde of Lazghis. In an attempt to save his throne, the unfortunate Giorgi asked the Emperor Paul to incorporate the Georgian kingdom into Russia, while allowing him and his posterity to continue to bear the title of King. Having at first agreed to this, the Emperor then decided merely to annex the country; and published a manifesto to this effect on 18 December 1800. Within a month, before the news of the Emperor's manifesto had reached Tiflis, Giorgi died, having for some considerable time been unable to move, on account of his corpulence and dropsy.

Although there was resistance from various members of the Royal Family – notably Alexander and the two Queens, Irakli's widow, Daria, and her step-daughter-in-law, Miriam, who assassinated the Russian General Lazarev – the Russians were quickly able to put the decree of annexation into effect; and the Georgian kingdom ceased to exist. Except for the redoubtable Alexander, who stayed on the run and eventually took refuge in Persia, the Princes of the Blood Royal were deported to Russia. Their descendants were assimilated into the Russian aristocracy; being styled the Princes Grouzinsky, which means simply "of Georgia" [in Russian – A.B.].

When Giorgi XII's great-great-grandson, Prince Alexander Grouzinsky, died at Toulon in 1931, it was assumed that the male line of Irakli II had become extinct; though there was the possibility that some male descendants of his were still living in Russia or Georgia under the Soviet regime.

IN THE 1960S AN UNDERGRADUATE AT CAMBRIDGE who was the adopted son of an English clergyman named Coward claimed to be a grandson of one of Prince Alexander Grouzinsky's brothers and therefore a lineal male descendant of Giorgi XII and Irakli II; styling himself Prince Michael Grouzinsky, or, as he preferred to spell the name, Grousinsky. His claim, though he was never able to assemble sufficient documentary evidence to substantiate it, was accepted by a circle of friends that grew ever wider and more varied during the years that followed; for Michael Grousinsky was a truly remarkable – as well as being a very loyal – personality. In appearance, he was certainly Georgian; and he bore a striking resemblance to portraits of King Irakli; he had the same eyes, at once fiery and worried, of a colour that was hard to define. Emin's quaint description of Irakli's complexion as being "greenish brown" could have applied to him too; moreover the "quickness of apprehension" which enabled Irakli "at the opening of any subject" to understand "the whole extent of it", was also one of Michael Grousinsky's outstanding characteristics. Whether his voice could be called, like Irakli's, "melodiously sweet", it was certainly memorable; powerful and fluent, suggesting an inherited talent for leadership.

As well as possessing a resemblance to Irakli, Michael Grousinsky had an unmistakably royal bearing; he could have played the part of a King on the stage or screen far more convincingly than most present-day professional actors. One was also inclined to believe his royal ancestry for the reason that he differed in some important respects from the majority of self-styled princes and pretend pretenders. Whereas those other people tend to use their alleged royal blood as a social asset, a short cut to a life of luxury, Michael Grousinsky considered that his descent from the Georgian Kings imposed on him stern obligations. Through chronically impecunious, he would never consider marrying a rich wife unless she was a princess as well as rich; believing that he could only marry a bride who was suitably royal and regarding what he called "morganatism" as an unforgiveable sin. He dedicated his life to no less an object than regaining the Georgian throne; and to that end he made himself extremely well versed in the art of war, strategy and tactics – he was for a time an officer in the Royal Yemeni Army and also military adviser to the late Emperor of Ethiopia – as well as in international politics; his knowledge of Central Asian and Middle Eastern affairs would impress and astonish even the experts. He was also familiar with the subversive methods of communism, to which he was an implacable foe; attributing it, along with terrorism, drug-taking, promiscuity and other present-day evils to the machinations of the Devil: "Satan, Satan!" he would exclaim, when asked what, in his opinion, was wrong with the world. Though nobody enjoyed good food and wine more than he did, he was willing to live austerely for the sake of the monarchical and anti-communist cause; and as he was a romantic and an incurable optimist, he always lived in the hope of one day winning for himself a turbulent and primitive kingdom in the Caucasus. He was also prepared to live dangerously, accepting the likelihood of a violent end. In the event, his end was as sudden and as dramatic as he had envisaged; though its setting was commonplace enough. One night in the late summer of 1977, a fire broke out in the London hotel where he was staying. He climbed through a window on to an adjoining roof and edged along it towards a fire-escape; but the gutter which he was using as a foothold gave way and he fell to his death. He is remembered and mourned by his multitudinous friends as an entrancing companion who would talk wittily and knowledgeably about everybody and everything all day and all through the night – one was put in mind of Irakli staying up when the rest of the camp slept soundly – and also as a person who, for all his fierce denunciations of those whose morals or political views met with his disapproval, was at the back of it very kind-hearted. He is also remembered for his openhandedness; when in funds, he was a generous host. If his dedication to the pursuit of a long-defunct kingdom seemed to some people highly eccentric, to others it seemed, like that kingdom itself, a gallant gesture.

Mark Bence-Jones

in Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd (ed.), Burke's Royal Families of the World (Volume II: Africa and the Middle East), London: Burke's Peerage, 1980, pp. 59-60

BOOK REVIEW / Within curtseying distance: 'Crowned Heads: Kings, Sultans and Emperors—A Royal Quest'—Veronica Maclean: Hodder, 25 pounds

A student contemporary of mine was a Georgian prince. While waiting for the good people of Georgia to throw off the Communist yoke, which they did, and summon him back to the royal palace, which they didn't, he reigned in his college room over a government-in-exile. He designed Ruritanian uniforms, rewarded his courtiers with decorations of his own devising and explained to them why it was that the wrong side had won the Second World War.

Real monarchs are much the same, except that in their case they have a real country on which to practise their fantasies. They have also had Veronica Maclean, a diplomat's wife, visiting them in her largely successful quest to interview all 27 of the world's reigning monarchs. One, King Moshoeshoe II of Lesotho, was deposed while she was fixing a date to see him, and he turned up in person at her flat.

Her background gave her a big advantage in getting her foot inside palace doors; at his Scottish castle, her father had provided 'a roof and a hot meal' to several guests who later occupied thrones. ('We had not seen King Birendra since his Eton days,' she remarks of the Nepalese autocrat who has banned political parties.) Unfortunately, her background also prevented her from asking impolite and interesting questions.

Does Emperor Akihito miss anything since his family was demoted from being divine—immortality, for instance? Does the King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand think, as do millions of Hindus, that he is a god? If he is, how come he remains, after a car accident, one-eyed? Instead, Lady Maclean merely simpers that 'he is talented in so many ways'. How does His Serene Highness, Prince Hans Adam of Liechtenstein ('articulate . . . considerable charm') feel about being the big cheese in a tiny tax haven and does he want John Birt to run his TV station?

One argument against royalty is the damage it does to an interviewer's prose style. Lady Maclean describes her journeys with some competence but as soon as she comes within curtseying distance of a person of the regal persuasion, her brain turns to royal jelly and she writes as if for an upper-class Hello. As for taking assertions at face value, she raises this to an art form.

Despite the gush, something of these monarchs still shines through. The Queen is fluent in five languages and can get by in Faroese—not our queen, that is, but Queen Margrethe of Denmark. King Harald V of Norway also appeals to me, not because he is 'lively and has considerable charm' but because he and his queen live on a dairy farm. King Carl XVI Gustaf ('tall, good-looking . . . very blue eyes') of Sweden is an archaeologist. On the other hand, Sultan Qaboos of Oman—'The gleam in his eye was more that of the eagle than the gazelle'—is not someone you'd want to meet on a dark night in the desert. His sinister photo, apparently taken underwater like most of the book's pictures, doesn't help.

Will royalty surface again in countries that have, over the years, given it the bum's rush? Lady Maclean hopes that it will. My advice to the people of Georgia is that they should pay a king's ransom to avoid being ruled by anyone like my student prince. He himself is not in the running: the poor deluded soul died when a fire broke out in his Earls Court bedsit and he went into the flames to rescue his home-made decorations. God knows what the rest of the family is like.

Johnathan Sale

in The Independent, Sunday 11 April 1993; (retrieved 17.01.2012)

Opinion—Letter: Georgian 'royal' was a fraud

I am dismayed that Jonathan Sale's review of Lady Maclean's book Crowned Heads, which has no mention of my country in it, begins and ends with an attack on my family and Georgia, which is at this moment experiencing political and social unrest.

Firstly, Mr Sale states that his fellow Cambridge student and the adopted son of an English clergyman (whom he does not mention by name), Michael Grousinsky, was the Head of the Royal House of Georgia. This has never been the case and Grousinsky was yet another bogus individual, who during the Cold War years abused our family name for his own social and economic gain. He was never able to produce any documentary evidence to even suggest that he was of the blood royal.

Furthermore, Mr Sale's advice to the Georgian people, that in view of his relationship with Grousinsky they should avoid at all costs the return of the monarchy, is most unfair. Our family has served the Georgian people well and were removed not by the Georgians, but by the Russians.

It should therefore be the Georgian people and not the likes of Mr Sale who should decide what form of government it wishes to have.

From HRH Prince Guiorgui Bagrationi, Head of the Royal House of Georgia, Madrid

in The Independent, Sunday 18 April 1993; (retrieved 17.01.2012)