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

As the last Emperor of Russia, Tsar Nicholas II’s twenty-three-year reign came to an abrupt end when he abdicated on 15 March 1917. Those tumultuous years of his reign were defined by the Russo-Japanese War that saw the annihilation of the Russian Baltic Fleet, Bloody Sunday and an estimated 3.3 million Russians die during World War I. The relatives of Nicholas’s extended family tree insisted catastrophe was looming. Due to social divisions, extreme poverty, lack of a modern state, Russia was on the brink of collapse. While Nicholas II was on the war front, Empress Alexandra’s involvement with Rasputin indirectly had an impact on an already deteriorating Russia.

In her new book, The Race to Save the Romanovs, Helen Rappaport researched historical sources throughout Europe to decipher why no one could save the Russian Imperial Family. For Rappaport, this book is the culmination of her previous work, which includes a biography on Lenin, a study of the Russian Revolution, and a look at Russia’s last imperial family. This book marks the 100th anniversary of the murder of Tsar Nicholas II, along with the lives of his wife and children.

From the beginning, it’s clear her investigation tries to identify why was nobody able to save the Romanovs, especially considering their relations to other royal families in Europe. In doing so, Rappaport identifies the key players, which included King George V, Russian Monarchists, the Danish Royal Family, King Alfonso XIII of Spain and Kaiser Wilhelm II, all of who wanted nothing to do with the Imperial Family.

Another argument presented in the book was, why did talks about the then imprisoned Romanovs not occur at the Brest-Litovsk convention? Also, how could Provisional Government not formulate an effective safe escape out of Russia? Lastly, why were other leaders so ignorant of the deceptive nature of the Soviet government when it came to the state of the Russian Imperial Family?

King George V’s indecisiveness regarding the Romanovs has always been a point of contention for historians, as there is no real evidence that demonstrated his position as King would be threatened if the Russian Imperial Family were given asylum in England. In the summer of 1917, George even changed the English royal house name to Windsor, in an attempt to dissociate England from Russian conflict. For Rappaport, King George’s involvement, or lack thereof, is a substantial part of her book. At one point, she even refers to him as a “moral coward,” generally implying his guilt over the death of the Romanovs.

King Alfonso’s attempts to help the Romanov’s went nowhere. Kaiser Wilhelm’s negotiations to secure the safety of the Russian Imperial Family appeared futile, a fact that Rappaport downplays. Wilhelm continued discussions even after the conclusion of the Bret-Litovsk convention. The author continues with the French government, who sources say was “actively hostile” at the idea of giving sanctuary to the Romanovs.

Rappaport stressed the importance of the geographical landscape, along with the impact of WWI when contemplating safe escape routes out of Russia. With the Soviets in charge, always changing the location of the Romanovs, it became impossible to save them without cooperation from their captors. As chaos unfolded in Russia, Nicholas’s former ill-intentioned subjects were disorganised and squabbled amongst themselves, leaving the Tsar and his family prisoners.

This book does a great of job of highlighting historical content, without failing to recognise the complicated family relationships, political landscape, the global impact of World War I, and religious preferences of the time. Helen Rappaport concludes much of the blame for the inability to save the Romanovs should be given to George V but still acknowledges the lack of seriousness within the other power players of Europe.

One important take away from this book is how vital the timeline was for the Romanovs. Regardless of the fact that England retracted their invitation for sanctuary, or Alfonso’s inquires about the safety of the Russian Imperial Family, Rappaport makes it clear that Nicholas and Alexandra would have never left Russia. Although there are some contradictory sources, which claimed they were packing for England, none of that mattered. Within a week of Nicholas’s abdication, Petrograd Soviet’s seized power from the Provisional Government and tightened security making it impossible for them to flee, ultimately sealing their fate.

The Race to Save the Romanovs by Helen Rappaport is published by Hutchinson.