The Race to Save the Romanovs: The Truth Behind the Secret Plans to Rescue Russia's Imperial Family by Helen Rappaport

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The Race to Save the Romanovs: The Truth Behind the Secret Plans to Rescue Russia's Imperial Family by Helen Rappaport

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Category: History
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: Although the main facts about the murder of the Russian imperial family in 1918 are familiar enough, knowledge about how hard their relatives in Europe tried to rescue them is less certain. Using a wealth of sources, some recently rediscovered, this book investigates the efforts made on their behalf during the revolution and their sixteen months of captivity. Several other books have examined the subject, but this is the best so far and unlikely to be bettered.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: June 2018
Publisher: Hutchinson
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1786331045

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The basic facts about the deaths of Nicholas and Alexandra, some of which were deliberately obscured at the time for various reasons, have long since been established. For the last few months of their lives in Russia the former Tsar and Tsarina, their children and few remaining servants, were held in increasingly squalid, humiliating captivity. To prevent them from being rescued, in July 1918 the revolutionary regime had them all shot and bayoneted to death in circumstances which, once the news was confirmed beyond all doubt, horrified their relatives in Europe.

However, the truth about who was responsible for abandoning 'Citizen Romanov' as the bolsheviks called ex-Tsar Nicholas, his family and their entourage to their fate by denying them a safe haven elsewhere, has taken much longer to emerge. One hundred years later, it still seems like a huge jigsaw in which the pieces are only gradually being fitted together. The traditional villain of the piece was David Lloyd George, who became British Prime Minister in 1916, a radical whose lukewarm views about royalty were no secret. He has long since been exonerated.

To name the person or persons whose prevarication and failure to act decisively, until it was too late, would be tantamount to identifying the murderer in a review of a thriller. Moreover, all things considered, the blame has to be shared – by some more than others. But Helen Rappaport has diligently pursued her research into dark corners previously left untouched, and presented us with a remarkably full, thoroughly engrossing picture of events.

An introductory chapter begins with the betrothal in 1894 of Nicholas and Alexandra, who had expected several years of apprenticeship before the former ascended the Russian imperial throne. Fate had other ideas, for a few weeks later his middle-aged and previously healthy father, Tsar Alexander III, became seriously ill. By the end of the year, the diffident and sadly unprepared Nicholas was Tsar. The story of the next twenty years makes dispiriting reading, when almost everything that could possibly have gone wrong for the Tsar and Tsarina did go wrong, apart from their marriage, the strength of which which remained the one firm rock in their ever-shifting existence. Just when it seemed their situation could get no worse, Russia and her European neighbours went to war, with brothers, sisters and cousins on opposite sides.

There has been no shortage about books on Nicholas, Alexandra, their family and the revolution. Ms Rappaport has done us all, and her hapless subjects, a service in uncovering yet more documentary evidence on the events of 1914-18. I was fascinated to read that King Haakon VII of Norway, born a Danish prince and therefore a distant cousin, gave the Tsar some shrewd advice about forestalling the need for revolution by giving different sections of the Russian empire their freedom and autonomy. Only now do we know, thanks to the discovery of an interview published by an American reporter in a long-defunct and almost forgotten newspaper that has come to light recently thanks to the digitization of such obscure treasure trove. Sadly, Nicholas (and particularly Alexandra, who to use a cliché always wore the trousers) was too obstinate to listen to or take advice from anyone.

Nicholas was clearly pitied by most of his relatives abroad. This did not extend to Alexandra, who as one of her husband's cousins angrily told her to her face, 'had no right to drag them all down a precipice'. She was a very sick woman, desperately worried about their haemophiliac son and heir Alexey, but she was also neurotic, infuriatingly stubborn and, as the author puts it bluntly, 'a crashing snob with an unshakeable sense of her superiority'. Having lost both her parents at an early age, she always regarded her grandmother Queen Victoria as her mother. After the latter died in 1901, she would listen to nobody who did not tell her what she wanted to hear. Her cousins rightly regarded her as the major architect of the family's eventual doom. In retrospect, it also becomes clear that if only she had acted decisively and got her children, who had measles at the time, away to safety immediately after revolution had broken out in Petrograd, she might have saved them.

Nicholas abdicated in March 1917. Once the family's captivity entered a spiral which began in relative comfort thanks to the moderate socialist leader Kerensky and ended in misery and violent death sixteen months later under his ruthless bolshevik rivals, they were cut off from the outside world. At first they believed they might be rescued, but soon gave up hope. Nicholas himself lost hope after what he saw as the utter humiliation of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, by which the Bolsheviks took Russia out of the war. Alexandra's religious faith sustained her as they resigned themselves to their inevitable fate, accepting that they would rather end their days in Russia than flee abroad. During the first few months there had been brisk exchanges – always against the background of an increasingly bitter war - between Kings, Emperors and their ambassadors. Were King George V and Queen Mary in England to blame? Could the beleaguered Emperor William in Germany have saved his cousin, her husband and their children? The role of King Alfonso XIII in Spain, one of the few neutral countries, is a fascinating one. Although he was not directly involved, a sense of monarchical solidarity as well as distant kinship drove him on to try and help, and I finished this book with a good deal of respect for him and his well-intentioned if unsuccessful efforts.

There will surely be several more books about the decline and fall of the Romanovs during this centenary year, but this one sets the bar very high indeed. The author is to be congratulated for her endeavours and yet another engrossing read.

For further reading, one cannot but recommend her equally masterful biography of the tragic four imperial daughters themselves, Four Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Romanov Grand Duchesses, or her chilling account of the gruesomely botched massacre and the events that led up to it, Ekaterinburg: The Last Days of the Romanovs. A shorter, accurate enough but less incisive account can also be found in The Murder of the Romanovs by Andrew Cook. For the historical background, there is also The Russian Revolution by Alan Moorehead, with the caveat that as a straight reissue of a title published in 1958 it has been superseded by more recent works.

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