Could George V have saved the Romanovs?

Doomed dynasty: a 1902 portrait of the Romanovs by Elena Samokish-Sudkovskaya - This content is subject to copyright.

Review by Gareth Russell

The Imperial Tea Party by Frances Welch ★★★★☆

The Race to Save the Romanovs by Helen Rappaport ★★★★★

In 1983 Kenneth Rose, on publishing his biography of George V, found himself crossed off the Queen Mother’s luncheon party invite list, a blow she dealt with the vim and vigour usually reserved for people with the first name Wallis. Her private secretary later allegedly told Rose: “Your chances of an MVO [Member of the Victorian Order] have just floated out to 50 to one.”

What had Rose done to deserve such opprobrium? He had uncovered irrefutable evidence that it had been King George, and not David Lloyd George, who in 1918 had rescinded the British government’s proposal to receive Nicholas II, his wife, and their five children as refugees from the Russian Revolution. Even in 1983, this act of familial betrayal was judged sufficiently sensational that courtiers attempted to halt Rose’s access to the relevant papers, submitting their arguments to the current Queen who, with her compulsive honesty, wrote back: “Let him publish.”

These anecdotes feature in The Imperial Tea Party, a fascinating book that explores the close, if increasingly fraught, links between the Russian and British royal houses. Author Frances Welch examines the relationship through three prolonged visits – to Balmoral in 1896, which Queen Victoria described as having been plagued by “terrible pouring wet” weather; Reval (now Tallinn) in 1908; and the Isle of Wight in 1909.

Welch is an excellent writer,  though one sometimes feels the need for more on certain issues (such as Russian attitudes to the Tsarina’s British sympathies). This is not the case with her superb account of the exiled Russian socialist community in Britain, whose reactions to the imperial visits were, by turns, despairing and enraged.

Alexei, the young Tsarevich in 1911 Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty

The book’s final section, detailing King George’s refusal to help, is the primary focus of Helen Rappaport’s The Race to Save the Romanovs. Like Welch, Rappaport has written about the Romanovs before. Both new books prove that, even as the centenary of their deaths by firing squad at Ekaterinburg approaches next month, there remain fresh angles and, crucially, unused evidence pertaining to the Romanovs. They also speak to our continued fascination with them. In Russia itself, the house where they were slaughtered in the early hours of July 17 1918 was bulldozed on the orders of the Soviet government in 1977. With the collapse of the USSR, the vanished “House of Special Purpose”, as the Bolsheviks had chillingly named it, has been replaced by a golden-domed church, to which thousands of Christians process every year, praying for the intercession of the Tsar’s family, now unambiguously apotheosised by the Russian Orthodox churches. 

Rappaport is particularly strong on ordinary Russian reactions to the approaching centennial, noting that, far from being “rapidly swallowed up in a much more hideous catalogue of savage fighting and murder that saw 11 million Russians die during the years of upheaval and the civil war of 1917-22”, the extrajudicial butchering of Nicholas II’s family has taken on a totemic value to many Russians as reflective of what Communism would do over and over again in the succeeding decades. The dead Romanovs are now subject to the projected dreams of Russian monarchists, nationalists, conspiracy theorists and the sincerely devout.

In the Anglosphere, the imperial tragedy has been transfigured into an aching, depoliticised “what if”, in which George V’s overturning of his government’s decision to offer sanctuary features prominently as a moment when the entire family might have been saved. The deposed Kaiser, who had privately been shown documents confirming the latter’s confusion over helping the Romanovs, judged the decision “an abyss of personal and political infamy”.

In critiquing this long-accepted version of events, The Race to Save the Romanovs is a groundbreaking book that presents a convincingly alternative account from the scenario in which their chances of survival flourished or perished on George V’s decision. Of particular interest is Rappaport’s use of hitherto unpublished Scandinavian sources emphasising that the attempts to get the Romanovs out of Russia were made by the governments of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Romania, Spain, and even Germany, at war with Russia since 1914. Through these documents it became clear that no amount of international goodwill was sufficient to rescue them. 

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The impact of this is that the further one looks at the debate on how the Romanovs might have been saved by their foreign relations, the more it becomes an exercise in fantasy rather than in historical possibility. Opportunities to evacuate the Romanovs were, in fact, minimal after a 48-hour window in the opening week of the February Revolution in 1917, during which time the Tsarina gave the order for a lady-in-waiting to “quietly pack my bag to be able to start with [the children] at any moment, should this prove necessary”. She was delayed by the fact that three of her children caught measles and before she could move them from their sick beds, she, and they, were trapped by the news that Nicholas had abdicated, removing Alexandra’s ability to command her way out of the situation and get their children to safety. 

Their father does not emerge well from either account, offering little to refute Edward VII’s assessment of the Tsar as “deplorably unsophisticated, immature and reactionary”. Nothing here upsets the traditional image of Nicholas as a man who deeply loved his family. Yet he often patriotically resisted the possibility of flight. Even as the net tightened around his family following the Bolshevik seizure of power, he refused to approve escape plans unless the monarchists organising them guaranteed that there would be no bloodshed. 

This focus on Nicholas II’s own attitudes towards escape and the actions of other royal relations who tried to help does, to some extent, exculpate George V. But that is not the main contention of Rappaport’s book, which instead offers the potentially more painful and certainly more chilling conclusion that “their murders were Everybody’s – and Nobody’s – fault”. That they were destroyed by a combination of human weakness, poor judgment, a deliberately depraved policy of terror, and historical change is perhaps the most tragic component of the Romanov saga.

The Imperial Tea Party by Frances Welch is published by Short Books (£12.99). To order your copy from the Telegraph for £10.99 plus p&p, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.

The Race to Save the Romanovs by Helen Rappaport is published by Hutchinson (£25). To order your copy from the Telegraph for £20 plus p&p, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.