THE RACE TO SAVE THE ROMANOVS: The Truth Behind the Secret Plans to Rescue Russia’s Imperial Family
Hutchinson, 2018, 372 pages
Review by Phil Shannon
Who would be the first to save the Romanovs (Tsar Nicholas and family) from the newly triumphant Reds in Russia? Would salvation come from extreme right groups such as the ‘Union of the Russian People’ with their thirty Tsarist military officers armed with poisoned darts to pick off the guards before hurling diversionary grenades as they made their escape via getaway cars, engines gunning?
Or perhaps the British army officer had the right plan by getting his Nicholas-look-a-like manservant to enter the Romanov’s palace of detention as the Tsar’s barber, shave off the emperor’s beard, stick some false whiskers on himself, swap uniforms (the Tsar usually wore military officer duds, even under house arrest) and escape in a waiting field-ambulance?
As the historian, Romanov-buff and all-round royalty nut, Dr. Helen Rappaport, writes in The Race to Save the Romanovs, all such rescue plots were naïve, hare-brained, B-grade movie fantasies. None were credible logistically: the armed guards were plentiful, their machine-guns deadly, the distances to evacuation through Russia’s ports were vast, and the Russian populace were hostile to any attempt to flee by autocrats who were “widely reviled” for the economic distresses, military miseries and political indignities they had endured for decades under Tsarism.
The Tsar’s would-be Russian rescuers did not help their own cause – they were all boastful talk, much of it loose and therefore easy to nip in the bud. They were riven with rivalries and infested with glory-seeking adventurers and opportunists “intent on siphoning off money from the rescue funds”. The plotters had no leadership, organisational skills nor aptitude for the technical details of rescue. If implemented, their schemes would have risked the lives of the Romanovs in deadly shootouts.
That left only diplomatic intervention as the means of deliverance. This was the aim of Alexander Kerensky, the Prime Minister of the moderate, pro-war, pro-capitalist Provisional Government of landowners and industrialists that had assumed formal political power in the February revolution of 1917 after the Tsar was forced to abdicate by mass protests and crippling strikes.
To placate the real power in the land - the makers of the revolution, the Russian people as represented through the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ deputies – Kerensky had assured the Soviets that his government was not about to let the Romanovs scarper. He was, at the same time, however, “talking with England about precisely that”.
Kerensky wanted to transport the Romanovs 846 miles by train to the northern city of Murmansk where they would be spirited to refuge by a British Navy cruiser. This idea, however, was dead in the water, as would have been the royal passengers, from German submarines and mines but it was Russian political reality that effectively sunk the proposition. Because the unions, soviets and Red Guards controlled the railways, there would, conceded Kerensky later, ‘have been a strike the moment the Tsar was entrained for Murmansk and the train would never have left the station’.
British political reality was also against offering safe haven in England for the Romanovs. The natural class instincts of the British political elite had initially kicked in with an offer of asylum but it came with the caveats that the Romanovs must not become a ‘public charge’ (Russia must pay for their upkeep in Britain), and that there was a shortage in the royals housing market.
These were, however, excuses, not reasons - the British government had no in-principle objection to supporting a large, expensive, taxpayer-funded royal family (they willingly stumped up for their own) whilst there were more than enough royal palaces available (Sandringham, Windsor, Buckingham and Balmoral) for both monarchies.
The real reason the conservative Liberal government and the British King (George V – Nicholas’ cousin) did not want to receive ‘Nicholas the bloody’, ‘Nicholas the hangman’, Nicholas the ‘bloodstained vampire’, as a house-guest was for fear of the ‘undesirable agitation’ that the Tsar’s presence may trigger in England where Romanov asylum was being discussed ‘not only in [gentlemen’s] clubs’ but (gasped an alarmed King’s Private Secretary) ‘by working men’.
Political pragmatism won the day, with Whitehall withdrawing its offer of asylum. Supping from the poisoned chalice of the Romanov cup wasn’t worth the opportunity cost of opening up the Russian market, even under the dreaded Bolsheviks, to “British commercial, financial and industrial objectives”.
The rest of Europe’s elites were of a similar view. As much as Kaiser Wilhelm, for example, detested the Bolshevik ‘swine’ and ‘Jew boys’, he ruled out including the Romanovs’ release in the Brest-Litovsk treaty negotiations with Soviet Russia to end the war on the eastern front, preferring to consolidate the considerable “German industrial and economic interests” in the Russian territory the Germans had extracted under the treaty.
Nevertheless, the British government kept a watching brief on the Romanovs but although its spies pitched various rescue schemes, all of them were impractical and thus stillborn, especially after the Bolshevik-led Soviets took full power from the grandly disappointing Provisional Government in the October revolution and moved the Romanovs to detention in the Bolshevik stronghold of Ekaterinburg in the Urals.
Two final rescue prospects did open up, however, in July 1918. Seventy monarchist officers planned a night raid to spring the Romanovs just ahead of the advance of the counter-revolutionary White Army consisting of former Czech prisoners-of-war who had declared they were ‘fighting for and in the name of the Czar’. The Bolshevik leadership had favoured a public trial of the Romanovs but extreme military urgency forced the local Bolsheviks’ hand and the “magnets for counter-revolution” were executed prior to the Bolsheviks’ hurried retreat from Ekaterinburg.
The Romanovs’ extended family throughout Europe was distraught at this outcome but, as the US ambassador in Russia noted, the Romanovs’ deaths ‘aroused no resentment whatever’ amongst the Russian people.
Europe’s antique monarchies were all now on notice in the wake of the Romanovs’ demise - “socialism and democracy were the new watchwords everywhere”, writes Rappaport, as Sweden’s King Gustav led a monarchist retreat, capitulating to a centre-left government, followed by the Kings of Denmark, Belgium and Norway ceding their constitutional powers to civilian governments (the latter declaring with faux democratic sensibility that ‘I am also King of the Communists’ now). After a Republican and socialist landslide in the Spanish municipal elections in 1931, Spain’s Catholic King Alfonso was chased from his Madrid palace to refuge in Rome.
As an obsessively fervent anti-Bolshevik and awe-struck royalist, Dr. Rappaport pines for “the last of the Tsars” but all those working people who want to see an end to a society divided inequitably into Royals and Commoners, into rulers and subjects, should be glad that the ‘race’ to save the Romanovs never really left the starting blocks.