Prince David Chavchavadze: Descendant of Czar Nicholas who became a CIA officer recruiting and interrogating Cold War Russian agents

‘I would be the only Romanov working actively against the Bolshevik regime’

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David Chavchavadze was an American spy and a great-great-grandson of Czar Nicholas I of Imperial Russia. He became a CIA case officer specialising in clandestine communications and surveillance in matters affecting his ancestral homeland. He did much of his work in Berlin in the years after the Second World War and at the start of the Cold War, his assignments including recruitment of Soviet agents. As he later observed, “I would be the only Romanov relative actively working against the Bolshevik regime.”

By blood, he was connected to the Romanov dynasty that ruled Russia for 300 years. His mother, Nina, was a Russian princess and a great-granddaughter of Nicholas I, who was czar from 1825 to 1855. His father was Prince Paul of Georgia, a direct descendant of the former Caucasian kingdom’s last monarch, George XII, who died in 1801.

At the CIA, Chavchavadze fought the political heirs of the Bolshevik revolution that brought down the Romanovs in 1917. In 1918, the Bolsheviks executed Czar Nicholas II, his wife and their five children by firing squad in the cellar of a house at Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains.

Chavchavadze’s grandfather, Prince Alexander Chavchavadze, a regimental commander in the czar’s army during the First World War, was shot in a Georgian prison in 1931 by the Bolsheviks, who had overrun Georgia more than a decade earlier. His maternal grandfather, Grand Duke George Mikhailovich, a grandson of Czar Nicholas I, was shot in 1919 at the Fortress of St Peter and St Paul in Leningrad.

His espionage career, he wrote in a memoir, Crowns and Trenchcoats: A Russian Prince in the CIA, was spurred by a desire to “do something about the dangers of international communism.” He was born in 1924 in London, where his parents, as members of the Russian nobility, had sought refuge from the revolution. His father was a fiction writer and a translator of writing from Georgian into English. He also worked for the Cunard shipping line, which in 1927 transferred him to New York.

In the US, the family had social connections in the “white Russian” émigré community but little money. David attended the private Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts on a scholarship and then Yale. In addition to his Romanov forebears, and ties to the Georgian monarchy, he was also descended from the royal families of Britain, Denmark and Greece.

His education at Yale was interrupted by Army service in Alaska during the Second World War. He was a US liaison officer to Red Army forces stationed in Alaska in those years but, more than three decades after the Russian Revolution, the Soviet soldiers bore him no overt antipathy for his aristocratic ancestry. According to his memoir, they addressed him as “Comrade Prince”, though he doesn’t record whether there was a measure of sarcasm in their appellation.

In 1943, he became interpreter to the Soviet ambassador, later foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, a leading figure in the subsequent Cold War. Chavchavadze  served in the Army in Berlin after the war, then returned to Yale and graduated in 1950. He soon joined the CIA, having been recruited by an old Yale friend.

As a case officer in the field, he wrote in his memoirs, “the work is just about endless... After an agent [informant] meeting, the case officer writes up a contact report, time and place of meeting, next meeting, what was said, agent morale and family situation, possibilities of access to new information, securities difficulties real and potential, passing of money or operational entertainment, etc.”

Those duties were usually in addition to the work required for the case officer’s “cover job”, such as employment in a commercial or agricultural mission. He retired in 1974, having spent the last nine years of his career travelling around the world to meet Soviet defectors.

In addition to his interests in singing and playing guitar, he worked on his memoirs and traced the history of Russian nobility in a 1989 book, The Grand Dukes. He lived in Washington in a house so often frequented by Russian émigrés and dissidents that it became known informally as “Dissident Arms”.

Not until 1966, when his son Michael, was born at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, was there a male Chavchavadze heir, necessary under protocols of nobility to carry the family name into the next generation. “‘Hurrah,’ said my mother on the phone,” Chavchavadze, who died of kidney failure, wrote in his memoir. “‘The dynasty is saved.’” Michael succeeds to the title.

David Paul Chavchavadze, CIA agent: born London 20 May 1924; married firstly Helen Husted (marriage dissolved; two daughters), secondly Judith Clippinger (marriage dissolved; died 1997; one daughter, one son), 1979 Eugenie de Smitt (one stepson); died Potomac, Maryland 5 October 2014.

© The Washington Post

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