Review: The Race to Save the Romanovs, by Helen Rappaport

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the murder of the Russian imperial family by the Bolsheviks. Among those killed were not only the hated Tsar Nicholas and his wife Alexandra, but also their five children and the servants. It is now generally accepted that the murder was a barbaric act, and these days it is marked by pilgrimages of many thousands of Russians to the site of the crime.

Helen Rappaport’s book, completed just in time to mark the anniversary, is the latest attempt by a historian to discover the truth about the fate of the Romanovs. We now know with certainty that they all died; the discovery of their graves and DNA evidence is quite convincing on these points. All those men and women who claimed to be Anastasia or Alexei were frauds. What we do not know is if they could have been saved, and if so, by whom.

Rappaport has done an extraordinary job of research in archives, including some of the most unlikely places, to try to discover the truth behind stories of attempts by the British royal family, or the German Kaiser, or local Russian monarchists, to whisk the imperial family away from their captors. She concludes that there really never was much of a chance, once the Tsar had abdicated, of this happening, not least because he and his wife had no desire to go into exile.

She also makes it abundantly clear that the British royal family made no effort to intervene in part for fear that hosting the hated former Tsar on British soil could trigger a republican revolution that would have brought down the House of Windsor.

The book is punctuated with italicised paragraphs going into great deal about things like the mis-filing of documents in the National Archives in Kew — which interested me tremendously though I doubt a general audience would enjoy these as much.

The only failings in the book which I could see — and this is something every historian deals with — is when she leaves the familiar ground of the imperial family and comments on something else. For example, she describes historian N. Sukhanov as a Bolshevik when he was not; in fact, he was tried as a Menshevik and eventually executed on Stalin’s orders. Or her reference to “the new official newspaper, the Bolshevik-run Pravda” in early 1917 — a time when Pravda was the party organ of Lenin’s Bolsheviks. It would not have any “official” status until the Bolshevik coup in November of that year. She may even have gotten it wrong in referring to “railway lines largely controlled by hostile Bolshevik revolutionaries” in April 1917 — a time when the Bolsheviks were a fairly small party, one among many, and without Lenin yet on the scene, not much more militant than any of the others.

That having been said, the book is not about the Bolsheviks — it’s about the fate of the Romanovs, and it’s excellently researched and well-written and may, perhaps, turn out to be the final word on the subject.