13 November 2018

Could the British have saved the Romanovs from execution?

We understand the very close connection among the three principal monarchs of the early C20th.

1. British King George V and Russian Tsar Nicholas II’s mothers, the princesses Alexandra and Dagmar, were sisters, the daughters of King Christian of Denmark and his wife Queen Louise. The king and tsar were thus first cousins.

2. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and King George were first cousins (via Wilhelm’s mother and George’s father), while Wilhelm and Nicholas were third cousins.

It was common for European royalty to promote each other into the other’s defence forces.  In the photo below, Tsar Nicholas II was in the uniform of the German Westphalian Hussars and King George V was in the uniform of the German Rhenish Cavalry. King George V was appointed Colonel-in-Chief of the German regiment in Jan 1902 and served in this role until the two countries declared war in 1914. If their grandmother Queen Victoria had still been alive, said the Kaiser, she would never have allowed Britain or Russia to go to war with Germany.

Britain and Russia’s closeness was also important. The threat of growing German naval power had only strengthened the good Anglo-Russian relations established jointly with France under the Triple Entente of 1907. What a shock to Kaiser Wilhelm II when, at the outbreak of war in 1914, his cousins allied against him.

As the combined royal portrait showed a close bond, why were Nicholas II’s relatives in Britain reluct­ant to save the Russians? Did the British king sell the Russian family down the river to preserve his own power base? Or was he put under pressure by the British government to ignore his cousins in the midst of a catastrophic and costly WWI?

George V and Tsar Nicholas II 
Almost identical cousins in German Military Uniforms 
Berlin 1913

Clearly the Tsar and his family did not arrive in Britain. A number of reasons have been proposed. Firstly worsening conditions for the British people, and fears that revolution might come to the Brit­ain, led King George to think that the Russian royals’ arrival would be inappropriate. And in the Russian empire, where many citizens experienced extreme poverty and brutal royal rule, Nich­olas II found himself caught between WW1 and the discontent of his own people. Neither the British nor the Russian peoples would have wanted to support the Russian royal family.

The price for preserving King George V’s throne was high, given the tsar’s brutal reputation as a monarch might have sparked a similar worker revolution in Britain. This was no time for a constitut­ional monarch, anxious about his own position, to be extending asylum to an autocrat, however close they were.

Secondly the logistics in getting the Romanovs safely away from the Urals failed. There were enormous problems of distance, geography and climate. It would be almost impossible getting 7 royals over very long distances via railways controlled by revolutionaries, then by sea through treacherous ice floes and safely past German submarine patrols. Rescue via aircraft was of course impossible.

Thirdly if Britain could not welcome the Russian cousins, perhaps an­oth­er nation could be found. At the outbreak of the WW1 the royal descendants of British Queen Victoria and of Danish King Christian IX occupied the thrones of Denmark, Greece, Norway, Germany, Romania, Russia, Spain and the United Kingdom. But neutral Denmark was too close to Germ­any. Norway and Sweden were prepared to help with an evacuation but not to offer asylum. And France and Switz­erland would not be invol­ved at all. Only King Alfonso of Spain tried very hard to help his cousins.

Fourthly would the Russians let their own royal family leave? Init­ially the Russian government that deposed the tsar was definitely open to his leaving the country alive. Pavel Milyukov, foreign min­ister in the Provisional Russian Government, made the first move. It was facilitated by Sir George Buchanan, Britain’s am­bas­sador in wartime Petrograd, a man who saw and spoke to Nicholas II often. Milyukov was taken immediately to the British Embassy and begged the British to offer the Romanovs asylum. David Lloyd George’s government agreed, albeit grudgingly and only for a limited time.

Royal cousins Wilhelm II and King George V
Potsdam, 1913

But later the Bolsheviks were less interested in facilitating safe passage. The British govern­ment apparently had designs on allowing the stricken tsar to gain asylum from a rising underclass and a Bolshevik Party that wanted his entire family eliminated.

Following the February Revolution of 1917 Nicholas, along with his son Alexei, abdicated in favour of his brother. But Grand Duke Mikhail refused the crown, bringing to an end three centuries of the Rom­anov dynastic rule. The family was transferred to Tobolsk in late summer 1917 and had no further choice but to remain in Russia. Help never arrived and the exit gate was firmly shut! 

In April-May 1918, the family was moved from Tobolsk to the local council in Ekaterin­burg, both east of the Ural mountains. The Rom­an­ov murders in 1918 by a Bolshevik firing squad in Ek­aterinburg raised major questions about George V’s inertia. War between the cousins should have been impos­s­ib­le, or at least the royal families should have been able to save each other. Yet no rescue came from the tsar’s British cousin, or from any other cousin. 

Grand Duke Mikhail was arrested in 1918 and imprisoned in St Petersburg, then sent to Perm in the East where he was executed in June. Tsar Nicholas’ younger sister, the Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, wrote 52 letters to her sister  during this era and they now provide a fascinating insight into the Romanovs' perilous existence. After the executions, Olga’s anger at the Allies was intense, although she later escaped with husband and sons in Feb 1920 and settled in Denmark. Grand Duchess Xenia moved firstly into exile in Crimea, then King George V sent a warship which brought Xenia to Britain.


Deb said...

If they could not or would not save the Tsar and Tsarina, why didn't the British at least save the children?

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Although I don't normally feel waves of sympathy toward the Russian royal family, you do bring up interesting questions involving the intricate web of interrelationships among the various monarchies. I wonder at what point it was certain that the Russian royals were in dire peril--although certainly their situation didn't look safe. Of course, one could also ask why other European royalty didn't intervene when the Russian monarchy was committing the acts that made their subjects hate them so much.

Hels said...


Good question... the five children were innocent.

If you believe the story, nobody in Europe knew that anyone other than the Tsar died in Ekaterinburg on that fateful day in 1918. In 1919, the British sent a ship to Crimea to save the children and other family members, but only Nicholas' two sisters had survived.

Hels said...


Another good question. As I understand it, the Russian royal family only understand the need to flee to the west in Feb 1917. But Nicholas was off fighting the revolutionaries and Alexandra wouldn't leave without him. By the time Nicholas gave up the throne, it was too late for the whole family.

I didn't like the Tsar either.. my entire family was committed to the revolution.

bazza said...

I would have thought that the first of your three possible explanations is the more likely one. History is full of "why didn't theys". Why didn't Churchill do more to save the Jews of Europe, for example. After all, politics has been called The Art of the Possible.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s serpentine Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - interesting post - there's so much to those times ... and Bazza's comment about politics makes me think. While the history and answers you've given tells us more of those times - not easy at all ... cheers Hilary

Hels said...


the Allies must have been devastated when Russia turned its attention to the Revolution at home and stopped fighting the Central Powers. The Russians signed a truce (Treaty of Brest-Litovsk) in March 1918.

The entire British Empire lost a million servicemen, France 1.3 million and Italy .5 million, whereas Russia lost 2 million men by itself! Not only had Russia's contribution been vital - once the Central Powers had no war to fight on the eastern front, they could turn all their guns onto Western Europe.

I would have thought the British would have done anything to help their most important ally i.e Russia.

Hels said...


Not only was Russia arguably Britain and France's greatest military ally, but King George V and Tsar Nicholas II were first cousins and very close. King George must have been outvoted by the decision-makers in the UK or he was a cold-hearted man to his family.

Deb said...

Helen, it is me again. Thanks for the Barbara Maranzani paper (History Today, 17 July 2018). Here is the best section.

Great Britain needed to tread lightly with the new Provisional Government in Russia; it would be a disaster for the Allies if Russia succumbed to internal pressure and withdrew from World War I. That new Russian government, however, faced its own looming threat: what if pro-monarchist groups try to restore Nicholas to the throne? Because of this, they wanted to Romanovs out of Russia—and fast. They asked other Governments to grant the Romanovs asylum, and as you said, the British agreed.

Britain regretted the offer almost immediately. The government was nervous having the Romanovs on British shores, while George V’s private secretary, Lord Stamfordham, feared an uprising against the monarchy. The king soon urged the government to rescind the offer, leaving him open to claims that he abandoned his family for politics.

Helen Rappaport wrote The Race to Save the Romanovs: The Truth Behind the Secret Plans to Rescue the Russian Imperial Family. It tells the whole story.

Hels said...


Two thoughts are very important in that argument. Firstly that in 1918 the British government feared an uprising against the monarchy, reflecting the Russian experience. Secondly that the British government was convinced _by the king_ to change its agreement with the Russians.

Both these points are not as convincing as the paper suggested.

CALVIN said...

Late to the party but the Empress was also a cousin of King George through her mother Princess Alice as well as to the Kaiser via the same route. I always wondered why they couldn't stash them at Osborne House since the Royal family wasn't using it and it was secure being on an island. We'll never understand all of it. Great post.

Hels said...


Osborne House would have been perfect... or perhaps on a more secluded royal estate in Scotland. In fact the choices were endless.

And other countries were available, as suggested. Princess Vera Constantinovna, for example, was invited by Queen Victoria of Sweden to seek safe haven in Sweden. Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna travelled to Turkey, then to Denmark where the maternal side of her family originated. Tatiana Konstantinovna and her two children fled to the safety of Switzerland.

mem said...

None of this stopped Queen Mary swooping o the surfeit of cheap desperation sale diamonds which came on the market as a result of the revolution . So it want all doom and gloom!!
Apparently there are quite a few pieces in the royal collection which have a morally dubious provenance due to Queen Mary's magpie tendency's

Hels said...


There were so many rumours about Queen Mary deciding to keep the Romanovs out of Britain, apparently in retaliation for the Empress Alexandra's rudeness or snootiness. _I_ actually think her husband King George made the final decision to leave the Romanovs in Ekaterinburg, not Queen Mary. But what you say about Queen Mary's collecting makes perfect sense.