Portrait of a Duke

Tom Segev
Tom Segev

Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich was not a nice guy; in fact, the man whose name is perpetuated in Jerusalem on the building the Israeli government this week decided to return to Russian ownership was apparently a real jerk. Arrogant and emotionally insensitive, he was responsible for the expulsion of tens of thousands of Moscow's Jews. It was not easy to be born and grow up as the son of one czar, the brother of another and the uncle of a third.

Sergei was raised in line with the family tradition: he was forced to steel his body and learn French. Like his mother, he was introverted, religious and deeply conservative. He married the granddaughter of Queen Victoria. A favorable biographer saw fit to note that the grand duke and his wife slept in the same bed, but the couple had no children and St. Petersburg was rife with rumors that the duke was gay. He knew a few languages, read many books and once met with Dostoevsky. It is possible that his status as the patron of the Russian presence in Jerusalem afforded him greater satisfaction than the other tasks he was charged with.

In the spring of 1891, his brother, Czar Alexander III, appointed him governor of Moscow, and it was there that his name was tainted with opprobrium. Just before his arrival in the city an order was issued to expel its Jews. Within a year almost all of them - between 25,000 and 30,000 people - were evicted. The expulsion from Moscow is one of the greatest disasters to befall Russian Jewry.

Alexander III died in 1894 and was succeeded by his son. As governor of Moscow, Sergei was in charge of organizing his nephew's coronation festivities. On the occasion of the celebrations a tremendous innovation was introduced in Moscow: electrical street lighting. On May 16, 1896, a million or more people crowded in an open area on the city's outskirts called Khodynka. They expected to get free beer and all kinds of souvenirs. But the security arrangements were faulty and the police were not properly deployed. In the ensuing mass hysteria people were trampled to death; all told, about 1,300 people died in one of the greatest disasters recorded until then.

In the afternoon of February 17, 1905, the duke was on his way back from his office to his official residence in the Kremlin. A revolutionary terrorist was waiting for him at the gate and lobbed a bomb into his carriage. It landed in the duke's lap and ripped him apart. Hearing the blast, his wife rushed to the gate. She started to gather the body parts, but there wasn't much left to collect. Some time later, one of the duke's fingers, with a ring on it, was found on a nearby roof. Sergei was laid to rest in the Kremlin monastery.

His widow joined the order and devoted her life to charitable work. She, too, was assassinated by revolutionaries, together with her nun-maid. Their bodies were smuggled to China and after a series of adventures reached Jerusalem. This was at the outset of the British Mandate period. The city's deputy governor, Sir Harry Charles Luke, described two simple wooden coffins that arrived at the small railway station. Two weeping nuns broke into a sweet song of lament and the little group wended its way to the Church of St. Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives. Suddenly Luke received a report that a group of Jewish pioneers, newly arrived from Russia, their eyes still aglitter with revolutionary fervor, intended to disrupt the funeral of the duchess. The governor diverted the procession to a side path.

The Kremlin monastery in which Sergei was buried was demolished in 1928 and the site became a parking lot for the members of the Supreme Soviet. His grave was discovered after the fall of the Communist regime, and 12 years ago the duke was reinterred in a Moscow church.