The last days of the Romanovs

King George V has long stood accused of withdrawing an offer of asylum to Tsar Nicholas II, and abandoning him to his dreadful fate 100 years ago. It’s an alluring theory, but does it stand up to scrutiny? Could the British really have saved the Romanovs? Helen Rappaport explores

Happier days: The tsar and his family pose for a portrait in c1910, years before he was swept from power and murdered. Maria, Olga and Tatiana (left to right) are at the back. Alexandra and Nicholas are seated with Alexey at their feet. Anastasia is far right. (Photo by Getty Images)

This article was first published in the August 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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On the night of 16–17 July 1918, in the bare and dingy basement of a house in Ekaterinburg in the foothills of the Urals, the Bolsheviks brutally murdered the seven members of Russia’s last imperial family.

This ignominious end to the Romanovs, a dynasty that had ruled Russia for more than 300 years, was far from being a neat and expeditious execution. There was no trial, no due process of law, no chance of appeal, nor any mercy shown to the five innocent children of Russia’s former tsar and tsaritsa, Nicholas and Alexandra. Olga (22), Tatiana (21), Maria (19), Anastasia (17) and Alexey (13) were all brutally slaughtered with their parents in an act of revolutionary vengeance that is still chilling today.

What makes the murders all the more horrifying is the inefficiency of the squad of Bolshevik guards that carried them out. Nicholas died the quickest, but the rest of his family and the four servants who accompanied them to Ekaterinburg all died horribly. Professional marksmen would have completed their gruesome task in seconds but it took a 20-minute frenzy of shooting, screaming, acrid smoke and fumes, blood and gore before ferocious bayonetting finally finished off those victims still alive. Soon afterwards, the 11 corpses were flung into the back of a Fiat truck, taken to the Koptyaki Forest nine miles outside Ekaterinburg, and there dumped in a shallow, muddy grave.

From the moment the Romanovs were murdered, Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik government began spreading a web of disinformation about whether they had killed the entire family, especially the women. This prompted the rise of a whole mythology surrounding what really happened, as a result of which the true facts were increasingly obscured in a fog of conspiracy theories. People clung to the hope that somehow one or even all of the family might have miraculously survived the bloodbath. But the emergence of Anna Anderson – claiming to be the tsar and tsaritsa’s youngest daughter, Anastasia – in Berlin in 1920, served only to divert attention away from burning questions surrounding the circumstances of the murders and, more pointedly, the failure to get the family out of Russia to safety.

Exploring those final 18 months – and what really went on behind the scenes of the failed initiatives to help the Romanovs – for a new book, it was shocking to see how so much of the supposed ‘evidence’ was based on hearsay, conjecture and even blatant misinterpretation of the facts. Most Romanov books have deferred to the same few, unchallenged sources without attempting a systematic analysis of what bona fide efforts there were to save the family.

Too often, people have stuck to the knee-jerk response that it was all George V’s fault. After all, it’s widely believed that the British king offered his relatives asylum in Britain before pulling the plug on the offer. Even now readers repeatedly ask me: “Why did George V betray his Romanov cousins?”

George might have been a moral coward in changing his mind about the family being given sanctuary in Britain, but this in itself is too simplistic as an explanation of what happened. Rather, one needs to explore the true extent to which anyone – let alone the king and his government – was in a position to wave a magic wand over the fate of the Romanovs. Granting asylum was one thing, getting them out of Russia quite another.

Combing the archives

We cannot apportion blame without first going back to the specific political circumstances of 1917–18, and examining the evidence from as many angles as possible. In order to do this, I have searched for new and previously uncited material across archives in the UK, USA and Russia, as well as obscure published sources in eight languages. My searches resulted in inevitable dead ends, but they also turned up material that showed that the failure to save the Romanovs was never, ever a simple case of one king’s loss of nerve.

In the run-up to 1914, relations between Nicholas II and King George V had been close and cordial. The threat of growing German naval power had only served to strengthen the good relations established jointly with France under the Triple Entente of 1907. The two monarchs also shared family ties via the Danish royal family: their mothers, Dagmar and Alexandra, were sisters, making George and Nicholas first cousins.

One might have expected such close family ties to solicit an immediate, positive response from Britain when the chips were down. But by early 1917, Britain and Russia were in the fourth year of a debilitating conflict with Germany. The political exigencies of wartime were now taking precedence over old dynastic loyalties. Russia was convulsed by two revolutions in 1917. When the first of these broke in February, and in the face of Bolshevik demands for a separate peace with Germany, the Allied governments’ primary concern was keeping a demoralised and exhausted Russia in the First World War. Getting the former imperial family out of Russia to safety came a very poor second.

After his abdication in March, Nicholas and his family were placed under house arrest at the Alexander Palace near the Russian capital of Petrograd, hoping – indeed expecting – to be allowed into internal exile. But Russia’s new Provisional Government quickly dismissed Nicholas’s longing for a quiet life on the Romanov estate in Crimea. Much as the government wished to protect the family, to allow the Romanovs to remain in Russia might well encourage a counter-revolution.

The Provisional Government was also hamstrung by the need to maintain its fragile relationship with the hard-left workers and soldiers of the Petrograd Soviet. This rival, radical political organisation was demanding nothing less than the trial – and by implication, execution – of the tsar and was totally opposed to the Romanovs being allowed out of Russia to live out their days in the presumed ‘comforts’ of exile. There was a high price to pay for the Romanovs’ despotism – the revolution demanded it.

A common misconception is that King George V offered the Romanovs asylum. No, he did not

One of the most common misconceptions in the Romanov story is that King George V himself offered them asylum. No, he did not. It was not in the king’s gift, as a constitutional monarch, to do so. And while George might instinctively have wished to help his royal relatives, his government made no voluntary offer. It was in fact Pavel Milyukov, the foreign minister of the Provisional Government, who made the first move. He pressed the British government hard, via its ambassador to Petrograd, Sir George Buchanan, to offer asylum. It was days before a response came from David Lloyd George’s government, making a somewhat grudging offer of asylum – and it did so, very specifi-cally, for the duration of war only. The British government stood by its ally (to Milyukov’s huge relief) but previously unseen documents confirm that, contrary to general thinking, it was no more eager to have the Romanovs in Britain than King George, who within two weeks of the offer was panicking and wished that it had never been sent.

A fear of unrest

Why did the king change his mind? Quite simply, there was a war on. George V worried that to bring the controversial tsar and tsaritsa to England might cause unrest among the working classes sympathetic to the new revolutionary regime in Russia, a population he needed to keep on side in the war effort. ‘Nicholas the Bloody’, notorious for his repressive response to peaceful protestors in St Petersburg on Bloody Sunday 1905, was much reviled in Britain, as was his wife. And to make matters worse, the Germanborn Alexandra was a ‘boche’. Hostility towards Germany was at an all-time high, so much so that the British royal family changed its name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor that July. Fear of losing his own throne at a time of heightened political tension prompted the king to renege on his support for the asylum initiative.

But George was not alone in this. My research shows that many of the Romanovs’ European relatives believed that Nicholas and Alexandra had brought their throne crashing down entirely through their own folly, and in so doing had endangered the thrones of royal families across the continent as well.

Refused sanctuary

An alternative place of refuge was urgently sought: neutral Denmark was deemed too close to Germany to be suitable. Norway and Sweden offered help with an evacuation but declined to take the Romanovs in. France and Switzerland both refused asylum. Put simply, the Romanovs were a political hot potato that no government wished to handle in wartime. Except perhaps King Alfonso of Spain, who turns out to be one of the unlikely heroes of this tale, the only royal relative who made concerted efforts on behalf of the family from March 1917 right through until after they were murdered, in July 1918.

Much as we would like to believe otherwise, the fate of the Romanovs was never the most pressing political issue in 1917. Once they were moved to western Siberia – Tobolsk in August 1917 and then Ekaterinburg in April 1918 – they were out of sight and out of mind. This led to a fatal complacency about their safety and the need to get them out of Russia.

In the foothills of the Urals, the Romanovs were out of sight and out of mind. This led to complacency about their safety

Meanwhile, rumour and gossip abounded over various Russian monarchist plots to spring the family from captivity and spirit them away. Sadly, these were at best half-baked, the stuff of Boy’s Own Paper derring-do and were doomed to failure. The sad reality is that the numerous disparate monarchist groups in Russia were incapable of uniting to organise any kind of viable rescue plan. When they did try, they were always stymied by a lack of funds and the difficulty of effecting a rescue without it resulting in a bloodbath.

Stories of British secret service operatives being involved in a mission to rescue the Romanovs have also surfaced regularly, but most of these remain nebulous in the extreme. Like the monarchist plots, they fell at the first hurdle: the logistics of actually getting the Romanovs out of Ekaterinburg. Would-be rescuers were faced with the enormous problems of distance, geography and climate – of getting seven people long distances via railways controlled by belligerent revolutionaries, and after that by sea through the treacherous ice floes of the Arctic and safely past German submarine patrols.

This is not to mention the absurdly fanciful suggestion of airborne rescue. During the short period that the family was held under house arrest at the Alexander Palace, it might just have been possible to effect a safe and speedy evacuation – but only if the Provisional Government had been able to get a train beyond Petrograd to Finland and from there to the border with Sweden.

One hundred years later, on 17 July this year, the Russian Orthodox faithful will gather in Ekaterinburg to mark a centenary that for them is proving far more significant than the 2017 anniversary of the revolution that preceded it. The Russian people are desperate for closure and forgiveness, and we too must let go of the idea that Anastasia somehow survived the massacre – and the idea that George V could have clicked his fingers and saved the Romanovs.

Russia’s last imperial family all died at Ekaterinburg. There were no miraculous escapes. It is time to put the lid on the coffin of this mythologised story, and allow the Romanovs to rest in peace.

Dr Helen Rappaport is a specialist in Victorian and late Russian imperial history. Her books include Four Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Romanov Grand Duchesses (Pan, 2014)

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Helen Rappaport is discussing the fall of the Romanovs at BBC History Magazine’s History Weekend in York. Find out more here.