The Exiled Duke Who Turned Desert to Paradise

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1867 Nicholas Konstantinovich (top) in the circle of relatives. From left to right sit his sister Olga and her fiancé Georg Greek, mother, Alexandra Iosifovna. Bottom row: Great princes Konstantin Konstantinovich, Vyacheslav Konstantinovich and Dmitry Konstantinovich, younger brother of Nicholas Konstantinovich.

Grand Duke Nicholas Konstantinovich of Russia (1850 – 1918) was the first-born son of Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich who was the younger brother of the Russian emperor Alexander II, and Grand Duchess Alexandra Iosifovna of Russia. He was also the grandson of Tsar Nicholas I and cousin of Tsar Alexander III.

Born into the Romanov dynasty in St Petersburg during the middle of the nineteenth century, he had a very privileged childhood. Most royal children were brought up by nannies and servants.

He graduated from the Academy of the General Staff, which he entered on his own initiative in 1868. He became the first of the Romanovs to graduate from a higher educational institution, and his education resulted in his being declared among the best graduates with a silver medal. After completing his studies, he travelled abroad, where he began his collection of Western European paintings.

After travelling through Europe, he entered Imperial Russia’s Life Guards Cavalry Regiment and at the age of 21 became a squadron commander.  It was during a masquerade ball that he met American dancer Fanny Lear (Harriet Blackford), who was the same age as him, but had already been married and had a young daughter. The two began a romance that concerned his parents. His father Konstantin Nikolaevich soon found a ploy to remove his son from St. Petersburg.

Khiva campaign of 1873 through the barren wilderness to the water wells of Adam-Krylgan (Karazin N. N., 1888)

In 1873, Nicholas Konstantinovich set off as part of the Russian Expeditionary Forces on the Khivan campaign of 1873. The outcome of the Russo-Khivan War of 1873 was that Imperial Russia gained control over the Khanate of Khiva. Throughout the campaign, the Grand Duke headed the Kazalinsky detachment, which suffered the greatest losses, followed one of the most difficult routes through the Kyzyl-Kum desert. His first reconnaissance group fell under such dense artillery fire that it was thought the entire detachment would be annihilated. This turned out not to be the case and for this action, he was awarded the Order of St. Vladimir of the 3rd degree.

The most popular western gate of Khiva – Ata-Darvaza

Upon his return from Central Asia, a region which fascinated Nicholas Konstantinovich, he became interested in Oriental studies. It was during this period he began to take part in the work of the Imperial Russian Geographical Society. Its mission was to study the region and to expose its potential to detailed scientific analysis. In the Geographical Society, of course, they were glad of the duke’s attention. Nicholas Konstantinovich was elected an honorary member of the IRGO and appointed to head the expedition.

Meanwhile, Nicholas Konstantinovich again travelled to Europe in the company of his beloved, Fanny Lear. There he continued to replenish his art collection.


In April 1874, his mother, Alexandra Iosifovna, discovered the loss of three diamonds taken from one of the icons in the Marble Palace, with which Emperor Nicholas I blessed her marriage. Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich called the police, and soon afterwards the diamonds were discovered in a St. Petersburg pawnshop.

The search for the thief led to the adjutant of Grand Duke E. P. Varnakhovsky.  During the officer’s interrogation on April 15, 1874, the adjutant categorically denied involvement in the theft. He disclosed that he had merely transported the stones to the pawnshop previously given to him by Grand Duke Nicholas Konstantinovich.

But Grand Duke Nicholai, who was present at the interrogation, swore on the Bible that he was not guilty, which, as they said, aggravated the duke’s sin. Nicholas told his father that he was ready to help his comrade Varnakhovsky and he wanted to take the blame to himself. Emperor Alexander II, who took the case under his personal control, instructed Count P.A. Shuvalov to appoint a chief of the gendarme corps to head the on-going investigation.

For three hours, Shuvalov interrogated the arrested Nicholas Konstantinovich in the Marble Palace in the presence of his father, who later wrote in his diary: “No remorse, no conscience, except when denial is impossible, and then I had to pull out his confession word for word. Bitterness and no tears”.

Fanny Lear

In the end, it was concluded that the diamonds had been stolen by Nicholas Konstantinovich, and the proceeds from the theft given as a gift to his mistress, the American dancer Fanny Lear.  During a family council, a general meeting of members of the royal family, after long debates (as options were offered: to exile with the army, to bring to the public court and thereafter be sent into penal servitude).  A decision was made that caused minimal harm to the prestige of the royal family. It was decided to recognize Grand Duke Nicholas as mentally ill, and then, by decree of the emperor, he was to be exiled from the capital forever.  Fanny Lear was expelled from Russia with a ban on her ever returning and she was never to meet the Grand Duke again.

There is another oddity in this matter. Despite the fact that the parents of Nicholas Konstantinovich and his relatives agreed that Nicholas Konstantinovich was ruined by the love of a courtesan and the lack of funds to satisfy her whims, the mystery was to become far greater than the recovery from a pawn shop of several stolen diamonds.

Nicholas Konstantinovich has actually pronounced two sentences. The first, for the public, was to declare him insane. From which it follows that from now on and forever he will be in custody, on compulsory treatment, in complete isolation. The meaning of the second sentence, the family one, was that it was forbidden to mention his name in the papers relating to the Imperial House, and the inheritance earmarked for him was transferred to the younger brothers. He also lost all ranks and awards and was deleted from the regiment lists. He was expelled from St. Petersburg forever and obliged to live under arrest in the place where he will be indicated.


The much disgraced Nicholas Konstantinovich was taken from Petersburg in the autumn of 1874. Before moving to Tashkent in the summer of 1881, during seven years the exiled aristocrat changed at least 10 residences. His nomadic existences was due to his being denied a permanent home where it was thought he might acquire connections or otherwise settle down. The exiled Duke rode his mount across Russia: Vladimir Province, Uman (now Ukraine), Tyvriv (now Ukraine), and so on.

The exiled Duke Nicholas lived for many years under constant supervision in the area around Tashkent in the south-eastern Russian Empire and made a great contribution to the city by helping to improve the local area. He busied himself building dams, irrigation and transport canals, schools and hospitals and paid for it with his own money.

Grand Prince Nicholas Konstantinovich with his wife Nadezhda Alexandrovna in Tashkent

In 1890 he ordered the building of his own palace in Tashkent to house and display his impressive and valuable collection of works of art. This collection is now in the management of the Museum of Arts of Uzbekistan. Nicholas Konstantinovich was also renowned in Tashkent as a competent engineer and irrigator, constructing two large canals, the Bukhar-aryk, which was poorly aligned and had soon silted up, and the much more successful Khiva-aryk, later extended to form the Emperor Nicholas I Canal, which he built in honour of his grandfather, irrigating 12,000 desyatinas, 33,000 acres (134 km²) of land in the Hungry Steppe (Mirzacho’l) between Jizzakh and Tashkent. Most of this was then settled with Slavic peasant colonisers.


Grand Duke Nicholas Romanov was finally exiled to Turkestan by the decision of the royal family in 1877, where he lived until his death in 1918. In Turkestan (Uzbekistan), the Grand Duke lived first under the assumed name of Colonel Volynsky. Later he began to call himself Iskander. This surname was legalized by the Imperial family and is carried by his descendants, the Princes Iskander.

Despite his disgrace, Nicholas Konstantinovich gained fame by carrying out many noble deeds. Having received from the Emperor of Russia 300 thousand rubles for the construction of the palace, he spent the money on the construction of a Theatre in Tashkent.

Here it is known that Nicholas Konstantinovich established ten scholarships for immigrants from Turkestan, who were unable to pay for their studies at the main educational institutions of Russia. In his testament, his estate, the Golden Horde, he brought a million rubles of income into ten regions, half of which was donated for public use. These included the Tashkent City Council for disabled veterans and the Office of Turkestan to maintain irrigation facilities, although a revolution had already occurred and the Duke did not know what the administration would be like. Part of the inheritance was used for the creation of Tashkent University, and also Turkestan Teacher’s Seminary for training teachers in rural schools. He divided the remaining five parts among his remaining living children.


The Grand Duke was the owner of a number of enterprises in Tashkent. He started a soap factory, photographic workshops, billiards, selling kvass, rice processing and cotton manufactories. He far-sightedly registered all the enterprises organized as belonging to his wife, in order to avoid the wrath of the royal relatives. With the money received from the businesses, he built the first cinema in Tashkent ‘Khiva’, and used his own money to build irrigation canals in the Hungry Steppe.

It sometimes seemed the disgraced exile could turn a profit at whatever project he involved himself in. He was one of the first to turn Turkestan into the most profitable area of ​​industry in the region, including the construction and operation of cotton-processing plants. At the same time, he used the most advanced technical methods. A waste-free production cycle was used at his factories, cotton seeds remaining after processing the raw material into a press cake or oil cake, were used as raw materials in oil mills and the oil cake went both for fertilizer and for animal feed.

Nicholas Konstantinovich was much engaged in the improvement of the city of Tashkent. Using his private wealth he built the streets, assigned by the Imperial family for the construction of his palace, a theatre, built a club, a hospital for the poor, a poorhouse, a circus and even a brothel.

Tashkent. Cinema Khiva.

They were situated near the railway market, where merchants had the right to use only the weights of the owner. The Grand Duke’s Bazaar in the Hungry Steppe imposed price control tariffs: for every pound of potatoes sold, a merchant charged 1 penny, for each watermelon or melons, 30 penny.

Up to one and a half million rubles a year was generated from his income from entrepreneurship. This was an impressive amount. For comparison: from St. Petersburg, the prince asked only of 200 thousand rubles each year.

The favourite inspiration of the Grand Duke was the project of restoring the old flow of the Amu Darya River to the Caspian Sea and Irrigation of the Hungry Steppe. In Samara, as early as 1879, he organized a society to study the Central Asian routes. These aimed to choose the direction of the Turkestan railway and to study the restoration of the waters of the now arid Amu Darya River.

The duke’s first irrigation project was the removal of a canal from Chirchiq along the right bank of the river, which he named Iskander-aryk. At that time, on these lands, there were only a few settlements of impoverished dekhkans tribes people who had been resettled from Gazalkent. After the Iskander-aryk, the grand-princely village of Iskander was built here. Outside the village itself, the Grand Duke laid out a large garden. During the construction work on Iskander-aryk, Nicholas Konstantinovich produced an archaeological analysis of a large treasure discovered in a barrow located on the bed of the channel, from which weapons and other items were removed.

In 1886, the Grand Duke began to draw water from the Syr Darya River, for the purpose of irrigating at least part of the Hungry Steppe between Tashkent and Jizzakh. During this project, he invested profits from his other enterprises and also used his personal funds. The work related to the canal, cost the duke more than a million royal rubles. On the coastal cliff near the river, at the head structure near Bekabad, a large-sized letter N in honour of his name, topped with a crown, was carved.

The indigenous locals weren’t enthusiastic about farming and so Nicholas Konstantinovich attracted the Ural Cossacks, expelled in 1875 to Turkestan, and those workers familiar with irrigation construction.  Along the canal, there were seven villages strongly favoured by Nicholas Konstantinovich. The communities were peopled by various factional sects, alienated both by the local Muslim population and the Orthodox Russians.

Kaufmann Avenue

The Urals passively resisted many orders of the central government and, on the contrary, seeing the good attitude of the exiled Grand Duke, they turned to him on various issues affecting their lives, earning him the sobriquet the Father-Prince.

“My desire is to revive the deserts of Central Asia and to facilitate to the government the possibility of their settlement by Russian people of all classes,” wrote Nicholas Konstantinovich. By 1913, 119 Russian villages had already been created on the newly irrigated lands around the 100-km-long Romanov irrigation canal, which revived 7 thousand desyatinas, from 40 thousand desyatinas, of the Hungry Steppe. It was solemnly opened on the anniversary of the 300th anniversary of the House of Romanov, in 1913.

100-km-long Romanov irrigation canal

In Central Asia, the work associated with irrigation has always been highly valued, especially for new lands not previously used as agricultural crops. Therefore, the mentioned irrigation measures of Nicholas Konstantinovich, the largest for their time and, moreover, not realized by force, but with the remuneration of labour of all participants, contributed to the rapid spread of the popularity of the Grand Duke among the local population.


Tsar-Martyr Nicholas II did not abdicate, nor did he ever resign; the so-called resignation letter was the fabrication of two treacherous Generals, Michael Alexiev and Alexander Lukomsky, even his supposed signature was a tracing of his signature from the 1915 ‘Order to the Fleet’.

The ousting of the Emperor on March 2, 1917, was received with delight by the Grand-Duke: he raised a red flag over his house and sent a welcoming telegram to the Provisional Government. The head of the Provisional Government, A. F. Kerensky, personally knew Nicholas Konstantinovich in Tashkent, since for almost 10 years they lived next door.

In the last years of his life, Nicholas Konstantinovich suffered from asthma. During the First World War, there were problems obtaining drugs and treatment. After the February Revolution in 1917, Nicholas Konstantinovich regained his civil liberty and went to St. Petersburg to visit relatives. But life in the capital had meanwhile become more and more difficult. The Grand Duke, who finally became a Romanov (the name was returned), returned to Tashkent with all the household members while his sons fought on the various fronts of the Great War.

Shortly after the October Revolution and the establishment of Bolshevik Soviet power in Turkestan on January 14 (27), 1918, Nicholas Konstantinovich Iskander-Romanov passed away at a dacha near Tashkent, the cause being pneumonia. The Duke was buried in Tashkent found in the square situated near the cathedral, and located across the street from his palace. The cathedral was demolished in 1995. The investigation following his death considered the established fact of the death of Nicholas Konstantinovich Romanov unrelated to any repression by the authorities.

Nikolai died in January 1918. But the picture says: The Grand Duke in a coffin on February 2, 1918

Related books: Trotsky’s White Negroes, Slaughter of a Dynasty and The Exiled Duke Romanov Who Turned Desert Into Paradise

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1 reply »

  1. What a fantastic story about a Romanov I had never heard of. The human qualities of the man outshone his ¨misstep¨ to an unfathomable adegree. Strange and tragic that during that time emperors (Nicolas, Wilhelm 2nd, and the english royals – no exceptions) ruled who would not have qualified to shine this man´s boots, never mind his faults.

    Liked by 1 person

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