We caught up with historian Helen Rappaport to find out what we can expect from her talk, How Europe Failed the Romanovs, at our York History Weekend 2018…
Q: What can audiences look forward to in your talk?
A: Most people think they know the story of what happened to the Romanovs in July 1918. For a century people have believed that it was a case of King George V rescuing them and that he then lost his nerve. My talk will show that the British king was far from being the only player in this story, that the whole issue of asylum/rescue was far more complex, and that getting the Imperial family out of Russia presented enormous logistical difficulties.
Q: Why are you so interested in this area of history?
A: As a historian I thrive on shedding new light on old stories and accepted lines of historical interpretation. The whole Romanov story is full of, if not bogged down with, a lot of unsubstantiated myth, rumour and poorly sourced referencing. I felt that too often the story of Russia’s last imperial family had been told with too much sentiment and through rose-tinted spectacles, and that it was time to put the whole thing under the microscope and bust some of the myths and legends surrounding their story. But also more importantly to search for more substantial evidence of what really happened.
Q: Tell us something that might surprise or shock us about this period of history…
A: The level to which the story is infested with unsubstantiated rumours, gossip and wrong-thinking shocked me when I researched it in detail. Far too much has been taken for granted without challenge or close examination for far too long.
Q: What is your favourite ‘little-known fact’ from history?
A: I don’t like that kind of terminology – nothing ‘blows my mind’. I am not out to sensationalise, but to get at the truth. There are many issues where I have found that the details had been misconstrued, misinterpreted and at times misrepresented. The whole story of the Romanovs in captivity 1917–18 is a minefield of error and false assumptions, for example.
Q: Which three historical figures would you invite to a dinner party and why?
A: None – I would feel far too in awe of those I admire to feel comfortable and I hate cooking.
Q: If you had to live in any historical time period, which would you choose and why?
A: There is a difference between visiting a particular moment in history and actually living in it. I don’t think I would like to have lived in any other time than now – though there is something rather elegiac and beautiful about the golden Edwardian years leading up to the First World War – the sunset of the old order. I would love to have seen Dickens’s London – and no doubt been appalled at the poverty and impact of industrialisation and overcrowding, etc. But I also would love to have walked the streets and soaked up its sights, sound and smells as he did. And yes, to drop into an old Russian country estate in the heart of Turgenev or Chekhov country – just for sight of the great expanses of ‘old mother Russia’ – that would be rather alluring.
Q: Which history books would you recommend?
A: I don’t actually read much straight history per se. But I like and admire the work of Anthony Beevor and Clare Tomalin, who writes historical biography in particular. I also rate the work of Clare Mulley, Antonia Fraser, Anne Sebba and Alison Weir.
In general though I prefer to read contemporary memoirs, diaries and letters rather than historical analyses of a particular time. I became particularly absorbed in accounts of Russia in 1917 when writing my book, Caught in the Revolution (2017). But I am also fascinated by accounts of early foreign travellers to Russia earlier in the 19th century. These include Lady Londonderry, the Marquis de Custine and some early American diplomats.
Helen Rappaport will be speaking about the Romanovs at our York History Weekend on Sunday 21 October 2018.