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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.








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