“The Blood of the Unhappy Tsar”: On Helen Rappaport’s “The Race to Save the Romanovs”

September 30, 2018   •   By Douglas Smith

The Race to Save the Romanovs

Helen Rappaport

THE ROMANOVS REFUSE to die or, more accurately, we refuse to let them. Despite incontrovertible DNA evidence that the last tsar, Emperor Nicholas II, and his entire family — Empress Alexandra, Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia, and their brother, the Tsarevich Alexei — were brutally murdered in Yekaterinburg 100 years ago, the stubborn notion that someone, somehow, escaped the bloody carnage of the Ipatiev House alive keeps being revived.

In March of this year, Doubleday published I Was Anastasia by the American novelist Ariel Lawhon, which asks its readers to take seriously the possibility that Anna Anderson was actually Anastasia, despite the awkward fact that her true identity as Franziska Schanzkowska, a mentally deranged Polish factory worker, was established long ago. A few years earlier John Boyne, author of the international blockbuster The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, penned The House of Special Purpose, the Bolsheviks’ name for the Ipatiev House, about a Russian émigré with a mysterious past named Zoya, who lives in England and, it turns out after a myriad of improbable plot twists, is none other than the youngest daughter of the tsar.

If for most of the past century it was Anastasia everyone seemed convinced had survived, in the first year or so following the murder of the imperial family, another name was most often mentioned by the Russians themselves as the lone survivor. I convinced myself of this while working with the seven-volume collection of documents on the murder compiled by Nikolai Sokolov not long after Yekaterinburg fell to the Whites, now housed at Harvard University’s Houghton Library. The Russians Sokolov interviewed spoke of having seen the tsarevich with their own eyes and insisted the Bolsheviks had failed to do away with the last of the Romanovs.

Part of the confusion owed to the fact that the Bolsheviks had publicly admitted to the killing of the former tsar that summer, but for years, until as late as 1926, insisted that no harm had come to the rest of the family. The obfuscation, not surprisingly, gave rise to all manner of gossip, fed by a clinging hope, that one of the Romanov children was still alive. Equally important, however, was a sense of guilt, shared by many inside and out of Russia, that not enough had been done to save the family. The possibility that someone had survived helped to ease, if only a bit, a collective guilty conscience.

Just why it was that Nicholas and his family fell victim to the Bolsheviks has also been a source of constant debate. How could the tsar have let this happen? How could he not have understood the danger and gotten his family out of Russia to safety? Why didn’t the leaders of the Provisional Government do more to protect them? What was Alexander Kerensky, then minister of justice of the Provisional Government, thinking when he packed them off to Siberia in the late summer of 1917? And what about Nicholas’s royal relations in the West? Didn’t his cousin King George V of England feel an obligation to save him? Or what about his other cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm? True, Germany was then at war with Russia, but didn’t he too recognize some familial duty to come to Nicholas’s aid? Why, in short, didn’t somebody do something to prevent this tragedy?

Few historians are better prepared to clear away the fog of confusion, error, and self-serving dishonesty that has kept these questions unanswered for so long than Helen Rappaport, one of today’s leading experts on the last Romanovs. Rappaport has dug deeply in archives around the world and uncovered a wealth of new information that is certain to make The Race to Save the Romanovs the definitive work on the subject.

The story is both fascinating and tragic, but it certainly was no race. Quite the opposite, in fact, as Rappaport herself acknowledges. If universally hated at home, the Romanovs were not exactly popular abroad either. “It is obvious that Nicholas and Alexandra were a political hot potato that nobody wished to handle,” she notes. “By the end of April, barely six weeks after the revolution had toppled them from power, the former Emperor and Empress of Russia were personae non gratae across Europe.”

Within days of Nicholas’s abdication on March 15, 1917, the leaders of the new Provisional Government were trying to find someone in Europe willing to take him off their hands, but were met with hemming and hawing and the dragging of feet. Part of the problem lay with the imperial couple themselves. No one particularly liked them, not even their royal relations across Europe. During their reign, the last Romanovs had done little to endear themselves and now, when they needed a friend the most, they were hard pressed to find one.

Rappaport does away with the mistaken notion that it was all somehow King George’s fault. The English king felt a duty to his cousin, but was terribly conflicted about just what to do. So, too, was the British government. On March 18, new Russian authorities sent a telegram to the British requesting that they offer asylum to Nicholas and his entire family. But George’s reign had witnessed growing labor unrest and the rise of socialism. The last thing the country’s political leaders wanted was to stir the pot by offering refuge to the likes of “Bloody Nicholas.” Lenin had been spirited by Germany into Russia as the bacillus of revolution, and Nicholas presented a similar threat to Britain.

The king’s fears of mass, anti-monarchical riots were being stoked by Lord Stamfordham, whom Rappaport calls “his invidious advisor.” It was Stamfordham’s “Machiavellian influence,” in Rappaport’s estimation, that held the king back from pushing more decisively for offering Nicholas asylum. In this the king was not alone. Feelers were put out to King Christian X of Denmark and King Gustaf V of Sweden, but neither cared to stick his neck out for Nicholas and risk upsetting his own people. The only European monarch who seemed truly worried about the situation was King Alfonso XIII of Spain. Alfonso had already been the target of several assassination attempts and so perhaps understood better than his peers the threat facing the Romanovs. But in the end his attempts to help proved as ineffectual as everyone else’s.

Eight days after Nicholas’s abdication, and five after being pushed to make a decision by Petrograd, King George and his government finally wrote to say that they would be happy to offer asylum to the royal family for the duration of the war. But by then the window had closed. When the news reached Pavel Milyukov, Russia’s new Foreign Minister, he sighed: “Alas I fear it is too late.”

If the Romanovs were by now the official prisoners of the Provisional Government, they were at the same time subject to the rising power of the Petrograd Soviet. Rappaport is correct in pointing out that by the beginning of April, even if the Russian government had wanted to get the family out of the country, and had a clear plan on how to do it, it was no longer possible. The soldiers, workers, and especially railway men, whose cooperation would have been necessary to spirit the family to the border, were by now adamant that the deposed rulers not leave the country and be put on trial.

The best Alexander Kerensky could do to keep the family safe from the vengeful mobs of the capital was to ship them off into Siberian exile. There, first in Tobolsk and later in Yekaterinburg, the family would become the focus of what she rightly calls “hare-brained plots” by a series of monarchist groups, each one more ridiculous and doomed to fail than the next.

One important factor the plotters failed to consider adequately is whether the family even wanted to be saved. In June 1918, the Romanovs snuck a letter out to their would-be saviors that read, “We do not want to and cannot ESCAPE.” As he had been throughout his ill-fated reign, Nicholas was wishy-washy after abdicating. At one point he expressed a willingness to leave for England until the end of the war, at other times he said he wanted to go to Livadia, his summer retreat in Crimea, or to the monastery at Kostroma, where the Romanov dynasty had been founded three centuries before.

Whatever it was Nicholas wanted, it didn’t make a bit of difference. To save his own life and that of his family would have required bold, decisive action on Nicholas’s part in the first days following the February Revolution. He had been incapable of such action his entire life. It had cost him the throne. This time, it cost his family their lives.

Later, all the players involved did their best to absolve themselves of any blame. Kaiser Wilhelm, who had rebuffed the Danish king’s plea to help the family in March 1918, echoed the sentiment of everyone when he said, “I did all that was humanly possible […] The blood of the unhappy Tsar is not at my door; not on my hands.” This “endless game of buck-passing,” as Rappaport calls it, dragged on for decades. Now, thanks to her excellent book, she has put to rest the fallacy that any one person could have saved the last Romanovs, either from the Bolsheviks or from themselves.


Douglas Smith’s books include Former People and Rasputin. He is currently writing a book on US famine relief to Russia in the 1920s titled The Russian Job: The Forgotten Story of How America Saved Russia from Ruin.