The Race to Save the Romanovs; The Truth Behind the Secret Plans to Rescue the Russian Imperial Family by Helen Rappaport. Penguin, 2018.

            Czar Nicholas II of Russia abdicated his throne in March 1917, to be succeeded by the Provisional and then Revolutionary (Bolshevik) governments. In this eventful year, Nicholas, his family, and his entourage were imprisoned in several towns along the Trans-Siberian Railway. They were eventually taken out into the woods near their last prison in the town of Ekaterinburg, shot and then bayonetted by their guards under the supervision of a band of Bolsheviks.

            By 1917, European royalty were one large, unhappy family. Much of the royalty were cousins: or uncles, aunts, second cousins. They would show up for family reunions but not always enjoy each other’s company. Though occasionally those connections had been useful in keeping the peace in Europe.

But another political structure, republicanism, had arisen in Russia, Britain, Scandinavia, Greece, Spain, and elsewhere. It represented a challenge to the influence of these royals.  This complicated the diplomacy surrounding a rescue of the czar. Complicated also by the fact that since 1914 these countries were at war with each other.

This was the fate of the Russian royal family. Nicholas II, his German wife – Alexandra, and their five children – four sisters and their brother, Alexey who was heir to the Russian throne.  Alexandra’s concerns about her son’s health and the influence that Rasputin had over her generated critical public opinion. But also she was German and not popular with the Russian aristocracy.


            Those who have already read several books about the Romanovs will be surprised at how little time Helen Rappaport spends describing Rasputin’s influence on the royal couple. He was believed to have healing powers that would help with Prince Alexey’s health problems. Alexey had hemophilia.

Among many complaints Alexandra was blamed for the Czar’s ignoring Russia’s ills. Things were not going well. Nicholas had hoped that the war in Europe would bring some reprieve from the disorder of Moscow and St. Petersburg (Petrograd). But if anything, the strikes and workers’ protests and the mutinies within the Russian navy were complicating any political resolution and certainly any collective wisdom about what to do about the growing anarchy. Nicholas had reconciled himself to abdication, but he did not want to leave Russia.

The rest of Europe, however, was looking for a place that would provide a satisfactory exile. Britain was the most likely location. The British Government had long welcomed deposed monarchs and welcomed the idea of extending an invitation to Nicholas and his family. But the British royalty were less welcoming. Their being in the midst of World War I, the British thought they should consult with their ally, France. The latter was definitely uninterested. The Germans might have been willing to accept a dethroned Russian monarch, but they were presently at war with the Russians.

It would seem that no one wanted to compete for the role of saving the Czar’s family. Or bolstering the Provisional Government and the radicalism that arose in the Duma.  Or further spreading of the Russian Revolution elsewhere in Europe. Or using the Czar’s alleged funds “stashed away in European banks” to fund a return of the Russian autocracy.

Rappaport takes us back and forth on the Trans-Siberian railway, to the frozen harbors of the Barents, to the dusty plains of Russian Asia. Nicholas agreed to become a prisoner of the Provisional Government if it meant any guarantee about the safety of his family. Talk of a Crimean exile. Had Nicholas and Alexandria agreed early on to an exile that would have opened up other possibilities?  Murmansk and Archangel would have been likely ports for their departure.

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 1918) ended the war between Germany and Russia but failed to mention the fate of the Czar. Though likely the Russian royal family would have been mortified with the idea of being rescued by the Germans. 

What triggered the “murder” as Helen Rappaport called it? Likely it was the growing success of the Bolsheviks and the fear that the Czar would escape and lead a counter-revolution. But can we pronounce with any certainty about the outcomes: what might have been done, but wasn’t.  

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