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Review: Race to Save the Romanovs by Helen Rappaport

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Tzar Nicholas II, for all his faults, deeply loved his wife, Alix [Alexandra] and their five children. The couple wrote sweetly passionate letters when apart and when together they lived in modest simplicity among the splendor of their various palaces and homes. Helen Rapport has written a series of books on various aspects of the Romanov story. This book, The Race to Save The Romanovs, sorts fact from fiction and even down right fantasy regarding the tragic end of the family in the cellar in Ekaterinburg in July 2018. In the 100 years since that night much has been lost, misfiled, misinterpreted or, best of all, finally made available from all angles of the story. Rapport has done an extremely commendable job of searching archives worldwide–some with tremendously bad cataloging systems, to unearth new information or information that allows for a better understanding of the circumstances.

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Britain’s King George V (grandfather of the current Queen) is usually accused of failing to save his look-alike maternal first cousin, Nicholas. (Alix was his fraternal first cousin). Rapport shows how unlikely it was that George could have affected any change in what happened to Nicky and his family. (Imagine having George and his “twin” Nicky both in England–the confusion that could have caused in a fun way!)

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King Alfonso XIII and Queen Ena

The surprise hero here was King Alfonso XIII, the husband of another first cousin of both George and Alix, Princess Ena of Battenberg–one of the Grandchildren of Queen Victoria via her ninth child, Princess Beatrice. Alfonso, whom this book claims, had never met Nicholas, still worked tirelessly to have Nicky, Alix and the children released.

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Queen Elizabeth II as a child with her paternal grandparents, King George V and Queen Mary

One interesting note. When Kenneth Rose published his biography of George V in the 1980s, Queen Elizabeth reviewed and signed off on the first inclusion of some previously denied information on the Romanov story. One thing missing here, to me, was the influence of Prince Phlip. He is known to have said on visiting Russia fort the first time, when asked if he was glad to be there, “Yes, they murdered most of my family, but yes, I’m happy to be here” [paraphrase]. For Alix was his mother’s Aunt and so, too, was Ella–the former Princess Elizabeth of Hesse, (aka Grand Duchess Serge Mikhailovich Romanov)– a woman regarded as a near Saint in the Russian Orthodox Church. Unlike Nicky and his family, Ella and a few other Romanov’s were thrown alive down a mine shaft and left to die over several days. A few grenades were dropped to speed the process but she was not killed by them. Philip’s dna was used in testing the bodies to positively identify the Romanovs.  I think this likely had a huge bearing on the Queen releasing sensitive information from the royal archives.

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Statue errected in Russia in 2017 in memory of Ella

This is a very well-told story of both the end of the Romanovs and of what tenacious, thorough, research can uncover.  My only complaint is with the reader of the audio version Damian Lynch. His voice was often a dull monotone and he seemed to hesitate at many Russian words, names or place names (or perhaps they were badly dubbed by someone else?). This detracted from the excellent work Rapport has done.

My rating

4 Stars

Just for fun, here’s another George/Nicky look-a-like, George’s grandson,  Prince Michael of Kent, who is widely revered in Russia due to his uncanny resemblence to his martyred relative. His maternal grandmother was first cousin to Nicholas II. Prince Michel’s dna has also been used in testing remains of the Romanovs.

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You can read my reviews of two other of Helen Rappaport’s Romanov books. Click title to read my review:

Caught in the Revolution

Romanov Sisters

 

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Review: Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport

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If you know anything of Russian royal history, you likely recognize the acronymn OTMA.  It stood for the first initials of the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia–the four daughters of Tzar Nicholas II and his Empress, Alexandra. But what do we know OF them, beyond the cute collective name? Until this book, we knew little beyond what was told of the family as a whole. We knew, for example, that with their mother, they nursed wounded soldiers in World War I and, of course, we knew of their tragic end. While historian Robert K. Massie brought us the harrowing story of their parents and their little brother, Tzarevich Alexi–the hemophiliac whose genetically transmitted illness brought the family to the edge of disaster when Alexanadra befriended Rasputin, little has been written about each of the girls.

Author Helen Rapport writes with the help of documents released after the fall of the Soviet Union and beyond. She brings OTMA alive collectively and individually. The spectre of hemophilia–inherited from Alexandra, thru her mother Princess Alice and Alice’s mother Queen Victoria, was a factor in the plans for their future lives. Would they achieve the marriages a Tzar’s daughter should have? Would things be changed so that Olga, the eldest, would be a regent or, even a become Empress in the tradition of Catherine the Great? Or, if Alexi died, would the throne pass to male relatives.

In the book we learn of the young officers who charmed and entertained the Grand Duchesses. We learn of their daily life, their studies, their devoted and close family life. (Had Nicholas’ “twin” first cousin, George V, learned from his cousin’s devoted fatherhood, British history could have been changed for the better.) I found myself aching for these girls who were forced to live in such strict isolation. I thought instantly of today’s over-shleted, extremely isolated far-right homeschooled girls as I read of this part of their lives. But nature marches on and no matter how isolated the girls grew into young women–young women who liked young men and dreamed of love and happy marriages. And, how amazing for Grand Duchesses, to have grown up with parents who were devotedly in love with each other?

The war, the revolution and the horrible end, showed that these young Grand Duchesses were not mere hot house flowers. They coped, they faced, the endured–dare we say #theypersisted? Yes. Sadly, one daughter (no spoilers) could have survived had she accepted King Carol of Romania. That actually made me cry even though he was certainly no prize as a husband.

Happily, while politics does enter into the story, as does the war, neither takes over the story. Nor are we dealt endless pages of royal history at the start. This is a very good thing for the casual reader.

How do they relate to current royals?

 

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Queen Elizabeth’s Uncle David (later King Edward VIII and later still Duke of Windsor) is at the left next to Tzar Nicholas II, the Queen’s gradfather, King George V has his hands on Tzarevich Alexei at the right. (The Queen’s father was ill and not able to take part in this last State Visit)

To put these girls into a historical perspective that modern royal watchers can grasp, think of this:  Had the war not come, any of the four–in fact more than one, could have married Queen Elizabeth’s father and uncles. The Queen’s grandfather was first cousin of both Nicholas and Alexandra. Her grandmother, Queen Alexandra was the near-twin sister of Nicholas’ mother, Empress Maria Feodorovoa.

Had the war not come, King Edward VIII might have reigned until his death in 1972 with Queen Olga or Queen Tatiana by his side.  Wallis Simpson would never have been heard of. They would likely have visited with their cousin Emperor Wilhelm III of Germany and his Empress Anastasia, say. The royal sisters would have been like Queen Alexandra and her sister, Empress Marie.  And, Prince Louis Francis of Battenberg might have won the beautiful Maria–the cousin he dreamed of marrying long before any thought had to be given to changing Battenbergs into Mountbattens.

When visiting Russia for the first state visit since before World War I, Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth’s husband,  is supposed to have replied to the question of if he was happy to be in Russia: “Yes, they killed most of my family, but I’m happy to be here.” His  grandmother was Alexandra’s big sister. Philip’s DNA was used to identify the remains of OTMA and their parents. His grandmother’s other sister, Ella [Elizabeth], is now an Holy Martyr of the Russia Orthodox Church–a step on the ladder to Sanithood. [His mother is included in the Rightous Among Nations for sheltering a Jewish family in World War II in Greece,  but I’m digressing].

My Verdict

4 Stars

Possibly the most readable Romanov book since Nicholas and Alexandra in 1967. This would make a fabulous period drama-miniseries! And, I’d love to see Jessica Findlay Brown as one of the Grand Duchesses.

The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport