In this international bestseller investigating the murder of the Russian Imperial Family, Helen Rappaport embarks on a quest to uncover the various plots and plans to save them, why they failed, and who was responsible.
The murder of the Romanov family in July 1918 horrified the world, and its aftershocks still reverberate today. In Putin's autocratic Russia, the Revolution itself is considered a crime, and its anniversary was largely ignored. In stark contrast, the centenary of the massacre of the Imperial Family was commemorated in 2018 by a huge ceremony attended by the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.
While the murders themselves have received major attention, what has never been investigated in detail are the various plots and plans behind the scenes to save the family—on the part of their royal relatives, other governments, and Russian monarchists loyal to the Tsar. Rappaport refutes the claim that the fault lies entirely with King George V, as has been the traditional view for the last century. The responsibility for failing the Romanovs must be equally shared. The question of asylum for the Tsar and his family was an extremely complicated issue that presented enormous political, logistical and geographical challenges at a time when Europe was still at war.
Like a modern day detective, Helen Rappaport draws on new and never-before-seen sources from archives in the US, Russia, Spain and the UK, creating a powerful account of near misses and close calls with a heartbreaking conclusion. With its up-to-the-minute research, The Race to Save the Romanovs is sure to replace outdated classics as the final word on the fate of the Romanovs.
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About the Author
Helen Rappaport studied Russian at Leeds University and is a specialist in Russian and Victorian history. Her books include Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 - A World on the Edge, A Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert, and the Death That Changed the British Monarchy and The Last Days of the Romanovs. She lives in West Dorset.
Read an Excerpt
In April 1894 the last of a succession of royal dynastic marriages engineered by Queen Victoria as 'Grandmama of Europe' took place in Coburg, the capital of the German Duchy of Hesse and by Rhine. The bride and groom were two of her grandchildren: Ernst, the reigning Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine, and Princess Victoria Melita, a daughter of Victoria's son Prince Alfred. It was a union that epitomised the close intermarriage of first and second cousins that had been a regular feature of Queen Victoria's family since the 1850s. By the time she died in 1901, her royal descendants in Europe had been drawn into a network of complex and often antagonistic dynastic ties and loyalties that would continue to be made right up to the eve of war in 1914.
This latest family marriage at Coburg, between first cousins Ernst (better known as Ernie) and Victoria Melita, was, however, almost upstaged by the behind-the-scenes drama surrounding the ten-year-long on–off romance between Nicholas Alexandrovich, heir to the Russian throne, and Ernie's sister, Princess Alix (as she was then known). Everyone thought Alix a great beauty and a desirable match, as a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Nicholas had carried the torch for her for several years, but she had stubbornly resisted his entreaties to marry her. The seemingly insurmountable stumbling block was that, despite being deeply in love with Nicholas, the pious Alix steadfastly refused to give up her Lutheran faith and convert to Russian Orthodoxy. But at the Coburg wedding, and somewhat unexpectedly, the match was given the impetus it required by the intervention of one of the couple's least-likely relatives – the difficult and often antagonistic Wilhelm, Kaiser of Germany. Here, as German emperor on a par with his grandmother Victoria, who was Empress of India, Wilhelm revelled in presiding over this 'august reunion of the oldest dynasties in Europe'. He had worked hard to persuade Alix to agree to convert, in order to cement further royal dynastic expansion in Europe, and on 21 April she had finally relented. Nicholas recorded in his diary that this was the 'most wonderful, unforgettable day of my life – the day of my betrothal to my dear beloved Alix'. For ever after, Wilhelm would congratulate himself that he had acted as the deus ex machina behind the engagement of his Russian and German cousins. They owed their good fortune to him, and this unshakeable belief in his own magisterial powers would remain an integral part of the 'mythomania' of Wilhelm's eccentric world.
Queen Victoria, however, had very serious apprehensions about what the future might hold for her beloved granddaughter Alix if she married into Russian royalty. 'My blood runs cold when I think of her so young most likely placed on that very unsafe throne,' she wrote to Alix's sister Victoria, for 'her dear life and above all her husband's' would be 'constantly threatened'. As in many things, history would prove Queen Victoria right.
In earlier years, Wilhelm had himself held aspirations to marry one of the four beautiful Hesse sisters: Alix, Ella, Victoria and Irene. He had visited them frequently from his home in Berlin when they were growing up in Hesse and had always looked on Alix's older sister Ella as his 'special pet'. By the time he was nineteen, Wilhelm hoped to make her his wife. She was a first cousin, a match that, despite the genetic risks of consanguinity, Queen Victoria might nevertheless have encouraged. But Wilhelm's mother, Crown Princess Victoria, had other thoughts. She favoured a Princess of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg, who was less closely related.
Wilhelm never liked being thwarted, especially by his mother, and persisted in visiting the Hesse sisters at Darmstadt. But just as Ella began to relent, the notoriously unpredictable Kaiser-in-waiting switched his affections to his mother's preferred candidate, Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein, with what his own father described as 'outrageous rapidity'. Yet Wilhelm never forgot his early love for Ella and developed an obsessive hatred for the man she went on to marry in 1884 – Grand Duke Sergey Alexandrovich. Ella might have married a Russian, but in Wilhelm's eyes she was, and would remain, a German.
Privately it was clear that Crown Princess Victoria had feared that haemophilia – the 'Hesse disease' – might be passed by Ella into the German royal family. For Ella's mother, Princess Alice, the Grand Duchess of Hesse and the Crown Princess's sister, had been a carrier of the potentially fatal gene, passed on to her unknowingly by their mother, Queen Victoria. The closeness of the blood ties that bound the European royal families was thus, by the end of the century, increasingly being called into question. Still, at the wedding at Coburg in 1894 everyone tried to shut out these fears. It was such a happy time: 'No one seemed to remember all those horrid things which were said about cousins marrying,' Alix had reassured a friend about her engagement to Nicholas, 'look, half our cousins have married each other'. And besides, 'who else is there to marry?'
The marriage in November 1894 of Nicholas and Alix (who now took the Russian names of Alexandra Feodorovna) forged new Russian–German–British family alliances. These would ensure that the Russian Imperial Family made regular family visits, with their five children – Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia and Alexey – to their relatives in Europe over the coming fifteen years. The favourite venue was Alexandra's home state of Hesse and by Rhine – usually the Neues Palais in the city of Darmstadt, where she had been born a princess of the ruling house in 1872. So regular were Romanov family visits that in the late 1890s Nicholas paid for a Russian Orthodox chapel to be specially built for Alexandra's use there, for she had become as devout in her Russian Orthodoxy as she had been in her Lutheranism. But the place in Hesse that the Romanov family loved most was Ernie's summer retreat, the hunting lodge known as Schloss Wolfsgarten, to which his and Alexandra's father, Grand Duke Louis, frequently retreated after the untimely death of their mother, Princess Alice, in 1878. Situated not far from the capital, the house was brick-built and modest, but it was set in beautiful, dense beech woods, with a sweet-smelling rose garden, ornamental fountain and orchards. Here the Romanovs enjoyed reunions with Alexandra's sisters Irene, married to Prince Henry of Prussia, and Victoria, married to Prince Louis of Battenberg and now resident in England. Ella joined them from Russia when she was able. These relaxed family holidays often went on for several weeks, with many happy hours of riding, games of tennis and picnics, much music and singing. They were in marked contrast to the tense atmosphere that prevailed when Wilhelm was present at family gatherings.
Like most of their European royal cousins, the Hesse and Romanov families always found Wilhelm abrasive and systematically coldshouldered him; many held him in utter contempt. He had – as Count Mosolov, head of the Russian Imperial Court Chancellery, noted – 'a special gift of upsetting everybody who came near him'. Nicholas could not bear Wilhelm's overbearing manner and held him always at arm's length, as his father Alexander III had done before him. Alexandra too had always had 'an innate aversion' to her cousin and often contrived a 'bad head' when a lunch or dinner with Wilhelm loomed. She was scathing in her view of her cousin: 'He's an actor, an outstanding comic turn, a false person,' she told a member of her entourage.
Wilhelm's English cousin, George – who had become Prince of Wales after the old queen's death in 1901 – and his wife, the half-German Mary, got on with the Kaiser rather better. Although privately Mary thought Wilhelm's erratic behaviour at times 'made royalty ridiculous', she and her husband showed a greater natural tolerance of his eccentricities. This was partly out of loyalty to the strong ties with Prussia that had been promoted by George's grandfather, Prince Albert, during his lifetime, when his and Queen Victoria's eldest daughter Vicky had married Wilhelm's father, the future Prussian emperor. For a time an inherent sense of a 'deep dynastic commitment' to all things German, based on a century or more of Hanoverians on the throne of Britain prior to Victoria, had existed between the two royal houses. This was confirmed by a relative, Princess Marie of Battenberg (a daughter of Prince Alexander of Hesse and by Rhine), who remarked that she had 'never felt more German' than with Queen Victoria. During the Queen's lifetime, 'it was taken as a matter of course that German was widely and fluently spoken in the family'. But after Victoria's death it was a struggle for Wilhelm to gain the approval of his uncle Bertie, now King Edward VII; Wilhelm's hectoring and bellicose manner did nothing to promote the alliance with Britain that his mother and father had long cherished. His aggressive colonial expansionism further antagonised the British and, by the end of the century, a chill political and diplomatic air between the two countries prevailed. During the reign of King Edward VII 'there was always a feeling of thunder in the air' whenever he was obliged to meet with his nephew the Kaiser.
In contrast, the Danish royals, according to Queen Victoria, had always been the 'one remarkable' exception to the disharmony among so many of her other European relatives. They enjoyed warm relations with their British and Russian relatives, thanks to the marriage into those royal houses of the Danish sisters Alexandra and Dagmar, in 1863 and 1866 respectively. As young parents, Nicholas and Alexandra made a few informal summer trips to 'amama' and 'apapa' (as they referred to the Danish king Christian IX and his wife Queen Louise) at Fredensborg. It was here that the cousins – Dagmar's son, Nicholas the Tsarevich, and Alexandra's son, George, Prince of Wales – had first developed a firm friendship. Indeed, it was as far back as 1883, on a family holiday at Fredensborg that George's sister Maud had first taken note of the fifteen-year-old 'darling little Nicky'. Like everyone else, she had noted how enamoured he was of Alix of Hesse and teased Nicholas about the fact that the object of his admiration was taller than him. Nonetheless, when Nicky and Maud were seen together at Prince George's wedding to Princess Mary of Teck in London in 1893, his father (then still Prince of Wales) had asked his mother-in-law Queen Louise whether there might perhaps be hope of a match between Nicky and Maud. The queen had thought this a bad idea; Maud was 'very sweet but far too headstrong'.
Dynastic alliances were thus as much in the mind of the future King Edward VII as they were in that of the Kaiser, although Wilhelm's matchmaking ambitions had been part of a grandiose plan for the creation of a powerful new Zollverein – a continental alliance of Germany, Russia and France. Steering Alix of Hesse in the direction of Nicholas of Russia had been one way of shoring this up. Perhaps, in the wilder reaches of his vivid imagination, Wilhelm nursed visions of being another Frederick the Great, the Prussian monarch who had been instrumental in brokering the marriage of his German relative Sophie van Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, and with it her rise on the Russian throne as Catherine the Great. The new Tsaritsa Alexandra would, however, never demonstrate any of Catherine's breadth of vision and energy as Empress. If anything, she inherited the prosaic, domestic Victorian values of her mother Alice – of example, duty, morality and a sense of service. But in one thing at least Alexandra would later demonstrate an instinct that she shared with her cousin Wilhelm: an entrenched belief in absolutist autocratic power.
Wilhelm's mother, the Dowager Empress Victoria, had certainly hoped that her niece Alexandra's succession to the Russian throne in November 1894, on the sudden death of Alexander III, might foster improved relations between Russia and Germany. In the years up to 1908 Nicholas and Wilhelm made frequent visits to each other for army manoeuvres, reviews of the fleet or simply to enjoy the shooting at their respective hunting lodges in Prussia and the Russian imperial game reserves in Poland. They had even gone yachting together – the Romanovs on the imperial yacht, the Shtandart, the Kaiser on the Hohenzollern – at Kiel and around the Finnish skerries. But far too often the prickly, meddlesome Kaiser had succeeded in upsetting those around him. Despite this, in his letters to Nicky, Willy repeatedly assured him of his love and devotion; after all they shared the same fundamental belief in their divine right as sovereigns. 'We, Christian Kings and Emperors have one holy duty imposed on us by Heaven,' he told Nicky. 'That is to uphold the principle "von Gottes gnaden" [by the grace of God].'
The Tsarevich Alexey's christening in 1904 would be the culmination of a period of rapprochement with Wilhelm, when he was asked to be godfather, in what may well have been an act more of diplomatic flattery than of familial affection. Wilhelm had been impatiently anticipating the birth of a 'nice little boy' since Nicholas and Alexandra's marriage in 1894, but had had to wait almost ten years – interspersed with the arrival of four baby girls – before the longedfor Tsarevich was born. He was delighted to be honoured in this way, and hoped that little Alexey would 'grow to be a brave soldier and a wise and powerful statesman' and a 'ray of sunshine to you both during your life'.
A year later, at the time of Russia's war with Japan, and in light of the 1902 alliance between Britain and Japan, Wilhelm worked hard on Nicholas's political loyalties. His longterm ambition had always been to keep his Russian cousin preoccupied with war in the East and Central Asia, leaving the way clear for his own ambitious German dominion-building in Europe. He had spent years lecturing Nicholas by letter on his political and military options. Now, in July 1905, he took advantage of the Tsar's low morale at a time when he was worn down by a disastrous war, badgering him into a secret meeting at Björkö in Finland. Here Wilhelm talked the impressionable Nicholas into signing 'a little agreement' of their own, a defensive treaty under which Russia and Germany would come to each other's aid in the event of attack, an act clearly designed to undermine Russia's 1894 alliance with France. Thankfully Nicholas's advisers refused to endorse his signature and the treaty was aborted.
Thereafter, and in the long, slow burn towards the outbreak of war in 1914, it became increasingly evident that Nicholas and Alexandra's relationship with their German relative was 'tinged with a measure of latent and almost instinctive animosity' – a fact that would have a crucial bearing on events later in this story. As for Nicholas, it was one thing for the two rulers to refer to each other by their pet domestic names, Willy and Nicky, but quite another for him 'to bow the Slavic head to German benevolent assimilation'. As the US ambassador to Denmark, Maurice Egan, observed, 'The Czar might call the Emperor by any endearing epithet, but that did not imply political friendship.' Neither Nicholas nor Alexandra was impressed by Wilhelm's brand of bombastic militarism, or by his manic sense of Hohenzollern grandeur. Egan's conclusion was that 'Germany and Russia will fly at each other's throats as soon as the financiers approve of it.'
In contrast, and much to Wilhelm's disgust, there had been a marked and growing closeness in recent years between the Russian and British royal families. People had always remarked on Nicholas's good manners and impeccable English, the result of having grown up with an English tutor, Charles Heath, who had educated him in the traditional public-school values of fair play and gentlemanly behaviour. Ever since Nicholas first visited Queen Victoria at Windsor in 1894 he had referred to her with great affection as 'granny', writing to his cousin George when the Queen died in 1901, 'I am quite sure that with your help ... the friendly relations between our two countries shall become still closer than in the past ... May the new century bring England and Russia together for their mutual interests and for the general peace of the world.' From now on, the Prince of Wales (and future king George V) made repeated assurances in letters that he was 'Ever, dearest Nicky, your loving and truly devoted cousin and friend'. They had much in common, notably an unostentatious domestic life and a love of the quiet of the countryside.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Race to Save the Romanovs"
Copyright © 2018 Helen Rappaport.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations
Glossary of Names
By Way of a Beginning
1 Happy Families
2 'Some Catastrophe Lurking in the Dark'
3 'Alicky Is the Cause of It All and Nicky Has Been Weak'
4 'Every Day the King is Becoming More Concerned'
5 'Port Romanoff by the Murmansk Railway'
6 'I Shall Not Be Happy till They Are Safely out of Russia'
7 'The Smell of a Dumas Novel'
8 'Please Don't Mention My Name'
9 'I Would Rather Die in Russia than be Saved by the Germans'
10 'The Baggage Will Be in Utter Danger at All Times'
11 'Await the Whistle Around Midnight'
12 'It Is Too Horrible and Heartless'
13 'Those Poor Innocent Children'
14 'His Majesty Would Much Prefer that Nothing...Be Published'
Postscript: 'Nobody's Fault?'
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Not being a Russophile, I was unaware of the blame game going on as to whose fault it was that the Romanov family was killed. With all of the royal families in Europe being related, one of them should have whisked the family to safety. England’s King George gets the biggest rap, but Germany’s Emperor Wilhelm seems to have been in a better position, since Germany was dictating terms in the war with Russia. Plus, most of the Romanov women had been German princesses. Helen Rappaport points out so many factors making escape difficult, if not impossible: the war, the political alliances, personal antipathies, logistics, geography, and the weather. The Soviets wanted the tsar to pay for centuries of despotism; they weren’t going to let him go. When one throne toppled, the others felt shockwaves. The kings had to protect their own thrones rather than assist the disposed. In any case, there was really only one window of opportunity for the Romanovs to leave, and that was before Nicholas abdicated. The Romanovs didn’t want to leave Russia, in any case. They would have preferred death to being rescued by Germany. Brutal as it was, that’s what they got.
Author Helen Rappaport continues her fascination with Russia and delivers another interesting read about the Imperial Family, this time focusing on the events leading up to their murder and the somewhat feeble attempts made by foreign governments and royal relatives to save them. The Race to Save the Romanovs analyzes the events leading up to that fateful night in July, 1917 when the entire Romanov family was brutally murdered in the basement of a home in Siberia. What led up to that night is a tangled series of events that, interwoven together, would see the Bolsheviks seize power and decide to eliminate the Imperial Family to quell any hopes of reviving the dynasty. Rappaport begins her journey by introducing the royal family, and its many relatives, by following Queen Victoria, the 'Grandmama of Europe,' and the marriages she arranged throughout Europe (and there's a chart of all these marriages included which the reader may refer to often while reading). It soon becomes apparent that the future Tsar and his future wife have many close relatives spread throughout the various royal households of Europe. But it's not just blood that ties them together, but shared experiences as the author relates numerous occasions where they interacted and where we get to see a bit of their feelings for each other. Onward from the first chapter we travel to the years leading up to the tragic events of 1917. Relatives warned Tsar Nicholas that he needed to implement reforms in order to avoid revolution, while others saw that the Russian people viewed Tsaritsa Alexandra as a German spy, as well as a woman given to superstition. Repeatedly warned, the couple ignored all pleas to change their ways and soon found themselves at the mercy of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. The author chronicles the time the Romanovs spent under house arrest at Tsarskoe Selo, shortly after Nicholas's abdication, through their last hours at the house in Ekaterinburg. While we see what the family was doing during those long days, the author closely follows the planning, or lack of planning in some cases, that was being done to rescue them during each point in their captivity. Helen Rappaport has exhaustively researched the events leading up to the murder of the Romanovs in 1917. There have been many unanswered questions that the author tackled, such as why Germany didn't take advantage of its stronger hand with the Bolsheviks at the Brest-Litovsk peace talks and insist that the Romanovs be released. The author has uncovered numerous new documents that shed light on these questions. While it becomes clear that Nicholas and Alexandra were not willing to leave their beloved Mother Russia, it also becomes clear that there was a lot more going on that kept their rescue from happening. While the book did not have the "can't stop reading" appeal of her book The Romanov Sisters, I still found it one that I wanted to read in order to discover more answers to the questions of "why" surrounding the end to the Imperial Family. For those with a deep interest in Russian history, this is a rewarding read. Quill says: For fans of Russian history, Helen Rappaport's newest study on the Romanovs is definitely one to be added to the book shelf.