General Count Alexander Nikolaevich Grabbe (1864-1947)

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General Count Alexander Grabbe, Commander of His Imperial Majesty’s Own Convoy,
in parade uniform (1917)

General Count Alexander Grabbe (1864-1947), served as Major-General of His Imperial Majesty’s Own Convoy from 1914 to 1917

Alexander Nikolaevich Grabbe was born in the Caucasus on 12th February 1864. The son of Count Nikolai Pavlovich Grabbe (1832-1896) and Countess Alexandra Feodorovna Orlova-Denisova (1837-1892).

In 1901, he was allowed to add the name of his grandmother Elisaveta Alekseevna Nikitina (1817-1898), who was the only daughter of the cavalry general Alexei Petrovich Nikitin, to his last name and became known as Count Alexander Nikolaevich Grabbe-Nikitin.

Like many other members of his family, he attended the prestigious military academy, the Corps des Pages, quartered in the Vorontsov Palace in St. Petersburg, where he graduated in 1887. It was the custom to select outstanding students in their final year to serves as pages to members of the Imperial Family on state occasions, of whom Grabbe was among those chosen. 

Grabbe had wanted to study engineering, but his wealthy grandmother, the Countess Elizabeth Orlov-Denisov, insisted that he join her husband’s Cossack regiment. As he had no means of his own, he had no choice.

Between 1889-1891, Grabbe served as an adjutant to the Grand Dukes Alexander (1866-1933) and Sergei Mikhailovich (1869-1918). They embarked on a world cruise, where Grabbe met Tsesarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich (future Nicholas II) in Ceylon. From June 1897 to 1910 he served as adjutant to Grand Duke Mikhail Nikolaevich (1832-1909).

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Alexander with his wife Maria and their son George

In 1893 he married Maria Nikolaevna Bezak (1864-1951), a lady-in-waiting to the Empress, and daughter of a cabinet minister of Tsar Alexander III. The couple had three sons: George (1895), Nicholas (1897) and Paul (1902).

In 1911, following the death of the grand duke, he was promoted aide-de-camp to Tsar Nicholas II with the rank of colonel. During the following years he was invited to accompany the Imperial Family to the Crimea and cruised with them on the Imperial yacht Standart in the Finnish Skerries.

On 2 January 1914, he was promoted to Major General, appointed commander of His Imperial Majesty’s Own Convoy – the Cossack unit which served as the Tsar’s elite guard. He served the Emperor until the Tsar’s abdication on 15 March 1917.

According to Romanov historian Margarita Nelipa, Grabbe abandoned Nicholas II immediately after the abdication to wait for Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich (1856-1929) to return as Supreme Commander.

During the February Revolution, fearing arrest, Grabbe left for the Caucasus. On 22 March 1917, he was dismissed from service due to illness with a uniform and pension. He went into exile, eventually immigrating to the United States in 1940.

General Count Alexander Grabbe who served as the last Commander of His Imperial Majesty’s Own Convoy, died on 5th July 1947 in the United States. He was buried at the Congregational Church Cemetery, in Kent, Litchfield County, Connecticut.

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Alexander Grabbe with Nicholas II at Kozmodemyansk in Crimea. 1914

Paul Alexandrovich Grabbe (1902-1999) writes about his father: “Father lasted as long as he did at an intrigue-ridden court because the Tsar appreciated his abilities as a raconteur and his tact. Significantly, he never proffered advice. My brother Nicholas, four years older than I, was aware of some of the difficulties our father encountered, and told me about them: a growing coolness in Father’s relations with the Empress Alexandra, his disapproval of the governments’ use of Cossack troops to quell disorders and to repress minorities. Father’s greatest difficulty was remaining neutral in a politically charged atmosphere. He served the Tsar until his abdication on March 15, 1917.”

Protopresbyter Georgy Ivanovich Shavelsky (1871-1951) shares a very different impression of Grabbe in his memoirs: Воспоминания последнего протопресвитера Русской армии и флота (Memoirs of the last Protopresbyter of the Russian Army and Navy), published in 1954:

“From his appearance, Convoy commander Count Alexander Grabbe betrayed himself. A face swollen with fat, small, cunning disagreeable eyes; a smile that almost never left his face; with a special manner of speaking – as if in a whisper. Everyone knew that Grabbe liked to eat and drink, and he was not at all platonic. I heard that his favorite readings were self-effusive novels, and I personally watched how he, at any convenient and inconvenient occasion, translated the words into spicy conversations. The Sovereign was his favorite partner in the game of dice. Of course, he could entertain the Tsar. But he could hardly have turned out to be a good adviser in serious matters, for this he had neither the necessary intelligence, nor experience, nor interest in state affairs. In addition to a narrow personal life and meeting the needs of the “flesh,” his attention was always riveted on his Smolensk estates, the management of which he gave a lot of care.”

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In 1984, his youngest son Paul and his wife Beatrice Grabbe published ‘The Private World of the Last Tsar’ – a stunning pictorial, based on the private photographs and notes of Paul’s father.

The book is an extraordinary collection of some 200 never-before-published photographs of Tsar Nicholas II and his family during the last years of the Russian monarchy. It is the only collection of pictures taken by a single individual. General Count Alexander Grabbe was one of Imperial Russia’s early amateur photographers. His candid photographs – taken with a Kodak Brownie box camera –  together with pertinent notes from his journal add dimensions to a period important to us even today.

A brief historical introduction sets the stage,. We then see the Tsar and his family in those informal settings that only a very few intimates of the Imperial Family were privileged to observe: relaxing in the Crimea, sailing on the Imperial yacht, vacationing off the Finnish coast. We see the last years of the Romanov dynasty through the eyes of Count Grabbe as he travels with Nicholas II to the Eastern Front and to Army Headquarters at Mogliev, where he was present for the dramatic days leading up to the abdication. This is a poignant, fascinating, and human glimpse of Nicholas, Alexandra, and their children during the last years of their lives.

Identification of persons, places and dates derives from Count Grabbe’s notes accompanying the negatives. His own eyewitness comments were recorded in his diary and later in his journal. Captions and historical background have been added by the editors. It is interesting to note that Count Grabbe was able to include himself in many of the photos by using a rubber tube that worked the camera shutter. 

Nearly 40 years after its publication The Private World of the Last Tsar remains one of the finest pictorials published to date on the Imperial Family. Prior to the year 2018, the year marking the 150th anniversary of Nicholas II, I approached the original publisher Little, Brown & Company with the idea of issuing a reprint of the book. Sadly, however, they showed no interest. The book has been out of print for decades, but second-hand copies are easy to find on eBay, Amazon, Alibris, Bookfinder, etc. – PG

Paul Grabbe is also the author of Windows on the River Neva, published in 1977.

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General Count Alexander Grabbe (1864-1947)

© Paul Gilbert. 24 May 2020

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