The Race to Save the Romanovs: The Truth Behind the Secret Plans to Rescue the Russian Imperial Family
Revolution and terror usually go hand in hand. Revolutionists seek to make a new world and frequently resort to terror and murder to eradicate the remnants of the old world. The Bolshevik revolution—more accurately described as a coup d’etat—followed this familiar path. Among its most famous early victims was the Russian imperial family.
July 17, 2018, will mark the 100th anniversary of the brutal murder of Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, their five children, the family’s doctor, and three servants by Bolshevik forces at the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg. It is a well-known story that has been told in books and film. Less well known are the futile efforts to save the Romanovs by Russian monarchists, foreign diplomats, and European monarchs.
British actress turned historian Helen Rappaport in her new book The Race to Save the Romanovs combed through the archives of the major European powers of the time and many other sources to shed light on the reasons why such rescue efforts failed. The result is an intriguing work of investigative writing that answers some but not all of the lingering questions surrounding plans to save the Russian imperial family.
This is familiar territory for Rappaport. She had authored previous books on Russia’s last imperial family, a biography of Lenin, and a study of the Russian Revolution. But unanswered questions prompted her to, in her words, “bring closure to this story.”
Her book tries to answer the following questions: “Why was nobody able to save the Romanovs? Why did the Imperial Family’s many royal cousins in Europe collectively fail them? Why did the Allied governments . . . all let them down? Why did the Russian Provisional Government prove impotent in effecting a prompt and safe evacuation out of Russia? Why did Germany . . . at the Brest-Litovsk peace talks [not] . . . insist that the Romanovs be released? And why was everyone so easily taken in by the duplicitous game played by [the] Soviet government about the true circumstances of the . . . murder?”
The historical context is crucial. The First World War was still raging, with Russia on the Allied side against Germany and Austria-Hungary. Defeats on the battlefield, soldiers’ mutinies, workers’ strikes, food shortages, and gross mismanagement of the government led to the Tsar’s abdication in March 1917 and the rise to power of a weak Provisional Government in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) that faced fierce opposition from the Petrograd Soviet.
Early after his abdication, the more radical elements in Russia called for Nicholas’ imprisonment or execution. The Provisional Government, in an effort to placate the radicals, placed the ex-Tsar and his family under arrest. Rappaport notes that within Russia and abroad in Europe “an outburst of popular left-wing sympathy for the revolutionary cause was spreading.” This factor affected the approaches of the Russian government and other governments to the fate of the imperial family.
The Provisional Government’s first priority was to maintain its authority in Russia in the face of increasing challenges by the Petrograd Soviet. The fate of the Romanovs mattered only insofar as it affected the struggle for power within Russia. Within a week of the Tsar’s abdication, Rappaport explains, forces loyal to the Petrograd Soviet had effectively blocked all feasible routes of evacuation or escape.
Nicholas and Alexandra wanted to remain in Russia, preferably in the Crimea, but if that was impossible they hoped to go to England. But as Rappaport shows, the British government equivocated about whether to offer asylum to the ex-Tsar and his family, despite the fact that England’s King George was Nicholas Romanov’s cousin.
Rappaport discerns two principal reasons for Britain’s reluctance in this matter. First, both the king and his ministers did not want to do anything that would negatively affect the war effort both at home and with its ally Russia. Second, Britain’s leaders feared the domestic political consequences of liberal and radical reaction to an offer of asylum to an unpopular Russian autocrat and his German wife.
The French government, Rappaport notes, was “actively hostile” to allowing the Romanovs safe haven there. The author’s efforts to access Danish and Swedish royal archives related to the position of their respective royals on this issue ended in failure. Only King Alfonso of Spain, it seems, continuously made inquiries about the wellbeing of the Romanovs.
“[I]t is obvious,” Rappaport writes, “that Nicholas and Alexandra were a political hot potato that nobody wished to handle.” They were, despite the ties of blood, “personae non gratae across Europe.”
The Provisional Government moved the ex-Tsar and his family to Tobolsk. When the Bolsheviks seized power, the prisoners were moved to Ekaterinburg.
The author details the various and mostly implausible schemes of Russian monarchists still loyal to the ex-Tsar to rescue the imperial family even after the Romanovs’ custody had been transferred to Bolshevik forces in the Ural Mountain region. Lenin’s seizure of power effectively sealed the fate of the Romanovs.
Rappaport criticizes Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm, another of Nicholas’ cousins, for failing to use the leverage of the Brest-Litovsk negotiations to bargain for the release of the Romanovs, especially the children. But Kaiser Wilhelm, no less than the leaders of the other warring European powers, placed his own country’s interests above the wellbeing of his blood relatives.
Rappaport uncovered the fascinating memoir of British consul Thomas Preston in American journalist Isaac Don Levine’s archive at Emory University in Atlanta. It describes a Bolshevik reign of terror in Ekaterinburg in June–July 1918, where “thousands were being brutally murdered” by Red Army soldiers and Chekists.
Victims—so-called “enemies of the people”—were taken from their homes, forced to dig their own graves, then shot or bayonetted to death. The Russian Civil War was raging, and Czech and White forces were heading toward Ekaterinburg, supposedly with the intent of rescuing the Romanovs.
It was then that Lenin ordered the Ural Regional Soviet to murder the imperial family then imprisoned inside the Ipatiev House. Lenin insisted, Rappaport notes, that all must perish, including the children so that “no ‘living banner’ . . . survive[s] as a possible rallying point for the monarchists.”
After what Rappaport describes as the “ugly, crazed and botched murder” of the imperial family, their doctor and servants in the basement of the Ipatiev House, the Soviets began “a hideous, cruel and protracted game of deception” to persuade other European governments that the Tsaritsa and the children were still alive. “It was a cynical ploy,” Rappaport writes, “to buy the Bolsheviks breathing space from the inevitable worldwide condemnation and to keep any monarchist counter-revolution at bay.”
The Soviet regime did not admit to killing the entire imperial family until eight years later. Meanwhile, the governments of the other European powers who did nothing to save the Romanovs pointed the finger of blame at each other. In Britain, the government engaged in what Rappaport calls the “deliberate bowdlerization and redaction of the official record” to shift blame and protect reputations, especially the king’s.
In the end, Rappaport concludes that there was no realistic and viable escape or evacuation plan for the Romanovs once the Petrograd Soviet “tightened the net around them” about a week after Nicholas abdicated. Moreover, she believes that Nicholas and Alexandra would have refused to leave under any circumstances, “preferring to die together in the country they loved.”
None of this, however, excuses the moral cowardice of Nicholas’ royal relatives throughout Europe who feigned interest in but acted indifferent to the fate of the Romanovs.