The Race to Save the Romanovs by Helen Rappaport (St. Martin’s Press, 2018)
On July 18, 1918, amidst the backdrop of the First World War and violent revolutions occurring within Russia, the entire Imperial Romanov family was executed while in captivity. As the 100th anniversary of the horrific murder of the Imperial Family approached in the summer of 2018, author Helen Rappaport felt compelled to investigate the nagging historical question, “Why was nobody able to save the Romanovs?” (p. 5)
In the days leading up to the murder of the Romanovs, the Russian people, caught up in the misery of an unstable revolution, had forgotten about the gentle, but ineffective Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, the German princess known as Alexandra, their four daughters, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and the crown prince, Alexey. That is why when Lenin gave the order to dispose of the Romanovs imprisoned in Ekaterinburg,, he admitted to the public that only that the Tsar was dead, but kept the rest of the world guessing as to the fates of the Tsarina and the children. He did not reveal the full truth about the family for years, thus putting off the scourge of Europe once the murder of the entire Romanov family came to light.
Rappoport’s book is meticulously researched as she was able to uncover new source material that had been previously overlooked with regards to the inability of other governments to save the royal family. In order to locate those sources, the historian, who has written several books on the Romanovs, including The Romanov Sisters and Caught in the Revolution, realized that “the key to new perspectives lay in foreign-language sources that had been virtually untouched in English-language studies till now.” (p.299)
The uncanny resemblance between King George V of England and Tsar Nicholas II, seen in the pictures that remain of the two of them together in happier times, underscores the inability of King George V to rescue Nicholas, Alexandra, and the children. When King George V first heard about the abdication of the Tsar, he made a move to offer asylum to the deposed Tsar. In fact, he sent the following telegram to his cousin:
Events of last week have deeply distressed me. My thoughts are constantly
with you and I shall always remain your true and devoted friend as you
know I have been in the past. (p.58)
However, the more King George V thought about inviting his unpopular cousin to live in England, the less appealing the idea seemed. England still needed Russian support to win a victory against Germany in World War I, so the King was forced to maintain some sort of balance with the provisionary government of Russia. Unfortunately, Milyukov of the provisional government refused to give Nicholas the telegram that King George had sent because it could have been construed as evidence of “a British plot to save the Tsar.” (p.59)
Once King George V had learned that Nicholas had never received the telegram, he did not resend it to him. Despite warnings that the Tsar and his family were in increasing danger, King George V did not offer asylum as he should have. British officials continued to try to negotiate a rescue. By the time a formal communication from British ambassador Buchanan was received at the Russian embassy that the King and His Majesty’s Government “are happy to offer asylum to the late Emperor and Empress,” the provisional government of Russia had lost power to the Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Soldiers Deputies.” The Soviet government, which was now in control of the destiny of the royal family, saw little reason to set the Tsar and his family free. Even a leader in captivity can someday return to reclaim his throne. Thus,negotiations with the British were no longer on the table to save Nicholas and Alexandra. Rappaport reports, “They must all perish, in order to ensure, as Lenin insisted, that no ‘living banner’ (that is the children) survive as a possible rallying point for the monarchists. But the murder of the children, which the Bolsheviks knew would provoke international outrage, must be kept secret for as long as possible.” (p.241)
There were many reasons why the Romanovs had become a political hot potato among the other nations of Europe as well. For example, Alexandra was a cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm II and many Europeans assumed that she was a German sympathizer during the war. Why would they want to save a champion of a king with whom they were at war? There were some half-hearted attempts made to save the family by King Alfonso of Spain, but nothing came of those appeals. Ironically, King Alfonso was not related to the Romanovs, though most of Europe’s monarchs had familial ties to one of the noble couple, so his attempts to save them were ironic , but fruitless..
Aside from the fact that once imprisoned, the royal family was doomed, even if a plan was hatched to get them out of Russia, and as Rappaport writes, there were few exits available to them, especially once they were taken to Siberia, the Romanovs could not bear the idea of leaving Mother Russia. Little Alexey was too weak and sick to attempt any kind of escape, and even if Nicholas had been provided with the opportunity to leave alone, he could never have deserted his beloved wife and children in such a turbulent environment.
Now, as we have just passed the century mark since the tragic death of the last royal family of Russia, it is only fair to consider how the Tsar and his family are remembered today. It was only after the discovery of the bodies of Olga, Tatiana, Anastasia, and their parents in 1991 that the Russian people began to show collective remorse as to the final disposal of the family that had ruled Russia for over 300 years. In July 1998 the remains of the five Romanovs, who had been recovered by that time, were interred in a great ceremony at the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg. President Boris Yeltsin spoke at the event, saying, “We all bear responsibility for the historical memory of the nation. The Yekaterinburg massacre was one of the most shameful episodes in Russian history.” (p.295) According to Rappaport, the ceremonies and remembrances each year continue to grow, especially in Ekateinburg, the place where the Romanovs were butchered in the dark basement of the Ipatiev House.
The people of modern Russia seem to empathize with the undignified and frightening ending with which their King and Queen were dispatched, to say nothing of their collective grief for the five children. Rappaport poses this question for us, “And so we continue to ask ourselves: did they, in those final moments, when the guards came and woke them at 2:15 a.m. on the morning of the 17th and led them down the dingy stairs to the courtyard and across to the basement, have any inkling that this really was the end?” (p.241) This is the essential question that plagues students of history as we ponder the last minutes of the Tsar Nicholas, the Tsarina Alexandra, and their five children.