Big in Russia: the prince who brings the tsar back to life

Oligarchs lined up to meet him in Moscow. He was a star attraction at the glittering White Nights ball in St Petersburg. At Perm, in the remotest part of the Siberian steppes, there was prolonged applause when it was announced that "Prince Michael Kentski" was in the audience.

Back in Britain, Prince Michael of Kent may be eclipsed in the news by his wife, "Princess Pushy". But in Russia this descendant of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, enjoys iconic presence.

There is little doubt that the prince's astonishing physical resemblance to Nicholas is part of the reason. During his frequent visits to Russia, he draws double-takes almost every time he appears in public. Shown around the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, he stopped in front of a painting of the last Tsar, and the officials around him muttered and shook their heads.

Among some of the elderly, the reaction can be more extreme. Outside the Moscow metro, a woman almost fell over herself genuflecting to him. When he visited Ekaterinburg in the Urals, where the Tsar and his family were executed, a group of men exclaimed that a miracle had taken place, although, on that occasion, their belief had been reinforced by a large quantity of vodka.

The appeal, to a degree, extends to those who are too young to have much of a link with the Romanovs. The main hall at the university in Perm was packed for the prince's visit, and the students' association invited him to become a patron. Speaking from the floor, the students also made it very clear, however, that there was no place for monarchy in modern Russia.

But the real puzzle, perhaps, is why those in supreme political and economic power have so much time for this minor British royal. At last year's White Nights ball, held at Catherine the Great's Ekaterinski Palace, Vladimir Putin made a point of seeking out and greeting Prince Michael. Among those meeting him this time was Valentina Matvienko, the governor of St Petersburg, the first and only female governor in Russia, and tipped as the first female president in the future.

Prince Michael also met the billionaire industrialists Vladimir Potanin and Vladimir Evtushenkov. He has been close to other oligarchs - Mikhail Khodorkovsky, not so long ago the richest man in Russia, now on trial for alleged fraud and tax evasion, and Boris Berezovsky, who also fell foul of Mr Putin's government and took asylum in Britain.

But the prince's associations with such people do not appear to have caused any permanent damage to his relations with the elite. On his current visit he travelled, as usual, in official motorcades with police outriders and members of the Russian secret service, accompanying the Scotland Yard detective providing close protection.

Relations with British representatives in Moscow, however, appear to be more strained. During 12 years of visits to Russia, the prince has not been invited once for lunch or dinner at the embassy, and the current ambassador, Sir Roderic Lyne, was less than effusive about the latest trip. At an embassy briefing for journalists accompanying Prince Michael, he talked caustically about the royal leading yet another media "caravanserai" across the country.

Prince Michael is the patron of the Russo-British Chamber of Commerce, and the costs of the visits - including journeys within Russia on a private jet - are funded by Russian business. Their aim is to attract both publicity and investment, and the prince is regarded as a sound ally.

The obvious question is, what is in it for him? Michael receives nothing from the civil list, earning his income from business ventures. But, he insists, he does not receive a penny from these visits. When a British newspaper suggested that he had a "business link" with Mr Khodorkovsky and that this was tied to one of the trade promotion trips, it was forced to apologise in the High Court.

Prince Michael says his visits enable him to raise funds and the profile of several charities he runs in Russia. Suggestions that he may have hopes of restoring the Romanov line are dismissed. "That does not seem very likely, does it?" he said on a flight over Siberia. "Even if the monarchy was restored, there are others with better claims than I have. It is true I have a higher profile here than back in Britain. Of course there is a family resemblance to the late Tsar. I have Russian blood in me, and I have great empathy with the Russian people. They havea great resilience which we in Britain seem to have lost.

"You cannot ignore the Russian point of view, and all I'm trying to do is to create a greater understanding."