Review by Karen Langley
The fate of the last of the Romanov Tsars and his family has exerted a fascination over the public during the century since their violent death in a basement in Ekaterinburg. Over the decades since there have been books and documentaries; investigations and conspiracy theories; and perhaps most famously a whole series of pretenders claiming to be the youngest princess, Anastasia. With the discovery of the remains of the Romanovs and their subsequent canonisation and burial, perhaps it would seem that there isn’t really anything left to say about the tragedy. However, a new book by Helen Rappaport covers an angle that’s caused much speculation over the years – the failure of the royal relatives of the Romanovs to come to their aid in their time of need.
At the start of the twentieth century, the relatives and the descendents of Queen Victoria had a finger in pretty much every royal pie in Europe. Cousins, siblings, aunts, uncles – you name it, if you were a European monarch you could find a relation in every dynasty going. This made for a complex mix of allegiances, and the useful family tree at the front which shows the Romanovs’ relatives is quite an eye-opener. Indeed, the first chapter adroitly negotiates the complexities of the relationships and alliances between these various monarchies, most of which would be ripped apart by WW1, and that in itself is a useful exercise. However, after that the book rattles on through the problems faced at home by the Romanovs at a fairly rapid pace before getting to the crux of the matter – could that doomed royal family have been saved?
Rappaport is the first to acknowledge, in her introductory “By way of a beginning”, that she’s already written extensively on the subject of Russia, and specifically on the last Tsar. Therefore it might be a surprise that she would consider producing another book on the subject, but this one focuses on that very specific angle mentioned above; and Rappaport delves in great detail in the diplomacy of the time, trawling records to find out what efforts were made to save the Russian royal family after Nicholas abdicated, and why those efforts failed. Like many people who’ve read pretty widely on the period and events involved, I probably subscribed to the opinion that Nicholas’s cousin George V could have rescued them but didn’t; however, as Rappaport makes clear, just about any other monarch in Europe at the time was related and could have pitched in to help – one prime candidate being Britain’s enemy during the First World War, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II.
By the end of chapter two of the book, the Russian Revolution has broken out and Nicholas has abdicated. Therefore the rest of the book traces those various diplomatic and clandestine attempts to get the family out of Russia, while relating their final journey to their eventual fate. Here again Rappaport draws on a wealth of research material, from archives all over the world to books by a number of luminaries, including Anthony Summers and Tom Mangold (whose “The File on the Tsar” I recall devouring back in the day). In many ways, after all these years it’s actually hard to be sure which plans and plots were serious attempts, and which were just pie in the sky (and as related here, there were a lot of plans about). What is clear from Rappaport’s narrative, however, is that once Nicholas had abdicated, there was very little chance of getting the family to safety; if, during a narrow window, the Tsarina had made a run for it with her children then she might have made it out of Russia. However, Rappaport argues convincingly that it is very unlikely, at the end of the day, that the Romanovs would have agreed to leave their country, such was their blind loyalty to it; and so as we know, they perished in a brutal execution.
“The Race…” is perhaps unusual in that its focus assumes that you have the basic knowledge of the Romanovs’ life and death, as well as some understanding of the situation in Russia. The country was in thrall to an absolute monarchy, which believed in the divine right to rule, and it’s staggering to realise how backward Russia was when compared to other European countries who had revolted decades (or in some cases centuries) ago. Despite the emancipation of the serfs, the country was still near feudal, and the numerous workers in the towns and cities had no rights at all. Rappaport is not uncritical of the royal regime and recognises Nicholas’s weaknesses; he was a man patently unfit to lead – indecisive, subject to his wife’s whims and will, increasingly distanced from his people and from politicians who might have helped him; really, the biggest tragedy is that the last Tsar was a very ordinary family man caught up in extraordinary times and events. Had Russia made the transition to constitutional monarchy, the Romanov dynasty might have had a chance of surviving as many other royal houses did – but that was something to which Nicholas would never have agreed. With their breathtaking arrogance and heads buried in the sand, Nicholas and his wife Alexandra really were the architects of their own downfall.
As a historian who’s written about this period extensively, Rappaport is sensitive to all of this and the fact that the regime was a doomed one. She teases out beautifully the links between the royal houses, the issues each country was facing, and the fact that in the end it became a case of survival for many a king or queen. Diplomatic efforts died on the vine. Monarchs changed their minds back and forth about offering asylum. No doubt several countries were remembering the treatment meted out to rulers during any number of French revolutions… Rappaport is to be applauded therefore for making it clear that the field of possible royal houses and countries which could have saved the Romanovs actually comprised a large part of Europe – indeed she seems at times to be on a mission to save George V from the charge of neglecting his cousin! But in most cases, the choice came down to blood ties vs. political and financial alliances; and royalty everywhere was under threat from discord of one kind or another, so the various European royal families were actually busy watching their own backs. And as Rappaport reminds us, even in exile the Romanovs could have been seen as a rallying point for royalists everywhere; so to those who were fighting for a more constitutional country, they would always be a danger.
Although I found “The Race to Save the Romanovs” fascinating, I do have to add a caveat or two. The narrative structure of the book struck me as highly unusual; Rappaport regularly interrupts the flow with italicised paragraphs to signpost particular new revelations, and relate where she found the material she’s about to present. This is something I would have expected to see addressed in footnotes, endnotes, or perhaps a section specifically telling how and where she sourced new information. Having it suddenly appear in the middle of the main text this way was rather jarring and perhaps surprising from a professional historian.
Rappaport has drawn on a wide range of resources and archives (the six pages of thanks to the many people who assisted in research and accessed many of these for her attest to that). She has gleaned some new and undeniably interesting details from those archives; however, as she herself states at the end of the book, when commenting on Kaiser Wilhelm’s declaration that the Romanovs’ death should not be laid at his door, “What written records may or may not have existed in their private archives to enlighten us have either been destroyed or are still – 100 years later – off-limits.”
“The Race….” is therefore more of a ‘state of play at the moment’ work than a definitive final statement, as the implication is that there is more that these archives could disclose; and it’s this that leads me to think that this material would have been better presented in a scholarly journal or monograph, rather than showcasing these new finds over 300 pages of popular history which risks losing those without background knowledge of the situation. This may seem a slightly harsh judgement, and I would never want to belittle the massive amount of research undertaken by Rappaport and her colleagues and contacts. However, I’m not convinced the general reader, with no particular knowledge of the Romanovs, would get all they need to know from this book; and a more specialist reader, with a history of reading in the subject, might prefer a more succinct and scholarly approach.
Nevertheless, “The Race to Save the Romanovs” is an interesting and beautifully presented book with copious notes, sources and bibliography, as well as two excellent plate sections. Rappaport undoubtedly brings new information to the table concerning the diplomatic efforts behind the scenes to save the Romanovs, and it was intriguing to see how interlinked those royal dynasties were. I’m sure that the fate of the last Imperial Russian family will continue to exercise a fascination over us in years to come and it will be interesting to see what other information Rappaport and historians like her can uncover to enhance our understanding of the past.
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings.
Helen Rappaport, The Race to Save the Romanovs (Hutchinson, 2018). I9781786331045, 372pp, hardback.
BUY at Blackwell’s in pbk, via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)