All at Sea With the Russian Royal Family
A Book Review by Peter Lewis
The Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna and Grand Duke Nicholas Nicholaievich on board
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All books about the fall of the Romanovs leave one with an uneasy doubt that we have ever heard the full story.
It was complicated for decades by doubts about the murder of the Tsar and his family, the supposedly missing remains, the unanswered questions about whether George V did or did not attempt or even want to rescue them.
This addendum to the story concentrates entirely on the rescue mission that was sent on the King’s initiative to evacuate the Tsar’s mother, the dowager Empress Marie and her entourage, from the Crimea.
It was carried out in the nick of time before the Bolsheviks reached Yalta, where the surviving Romanovs were confined to their summer estates. It was entirely successful. In April, 1919, HMS Marlborough carried off the Empress and 17 members of her family at the head of a small fleet of vessels rescuing White Russian refugees who had swarmed to the port.
An intimate diary of the voyage to Malta has been constructed by Frances Welch from the diaries and memoirs both of the passengers and the crew, especially the Marlborough’s first lieutenant, Francis Pridham, who found himself in the anxious position of purser to the crews. His was the worry of finding suitable cabins for a quarrelsome set of relatives acutely conscious of status and protocol - by no means a united family.
Besides soothing their temperaments, sorting out their luggage and overseeing their menus, he found time to keep a diary of events, the prime source for this close-up of this weird, quirky family party, thrown together by events they still did not comprehend. Dark but tantalising photographs give us glimpses of them.
By the end of the short voyage one does feel a certain sympathy for them, tempered by an impatience that such an inadequate family happened to exercise supreme power over an empire.
The leading characters on the voyage were first and foremost the dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna, mother of the Tsar. She was an awkward customer for two reasons: she refused to believe that her son and his family were dead, and strongly objected to leaving Russia under the impression that the revolution could soon be over and she would be going back to St Petersburg.
At that time, 1918, it was still possible for her to believe this. The execution of the Tsar, but not of his family, had been tersely announced. But rumours abounded of their secret removal to a hiding place - possibly a Siberian monastery. Meanwhile the uncertain grip of the Bolsheviks on the country was hotly disputed by White Russian armies in civil war.
George V, as we now know, changed his mind about the original invitation to the abdicated Tsar to come to Britain.
He feared it would cause unrest - the Russian revolution had many sympathisers. Unfairly he later laid the blame on the Prime Minister, Lloyd George. But this time he had no choice.
His Danish mother, Queen Alexandra, was the Empress Marie’s sister. She wanted her rescued without delay. Eventually the King sent instructions through the admiralty that the Empress and her family ‘should be embarked whatever their personal desires’.
The Empress still refused to go except on a promise that the ships would also evacuate loyal subjects in the Crimea, of whom there were hundreds seeking to escape.
They included the Grand Duke Nicholas on the neighbouring estate, with whom the Empress was in a long-standing feud. She was very small but stately in an English toque.
The Grand Duke was immensely tall - 6ft 4in - and wore an astrakhan hat that made him even taller. He had been commander-in-chief of the huge Russian Army until Rasputin’s influence persuaded the Tsar that he should take over command himself.
The Tsar was only 5ft 4in and spent long periods standing on his toes. The Empress knew how unsuitable he was for the task. She hated Rasputin, like everyone else except the hysterical Tsarina.
As it happened one of their fellow passengers now was Rasputin’s murderer, Prince Felix Youssoupov. He dressed as an Edwardian gentleman in an English cap. His family had been Russia’s largest landowners - they used to visit their 17 estates in their private train. Now he carried a long tube with him which he said contained two rolled-up Rembrandt portraits that he had saved from his walls.
In the evenings he entertained the company by singing gypsy songs to his guitar, which he did rather well.
The other leading member of the cast was the Grand Duchess Xenia, daughter of the Empress, with five of her sons about her. Although a grandmother at 44, she looked very young. Estranged from her husband, who was in Paris, she led a complicated love life. One of her lovers, the Empress’s equerry, was among the company.
Lieutenant Pridham admired her greatly, ‘an extremely charming and capable woman, worth half a dozen of their men’. She also spoke the best English and helped him settle the cabin problems successfully.
The 72-year-old Empress much impressed him too: ‘Although small, her bearing was so majestic that when she entered all eyes were riveted - a superb picture of stately grace.’
Despite her stateliness, in private she was a chain smoker. If a servant came in she would hide the cigarette behind her like a guilty schoolgirl, oblivious that the smoke continued to rise behind her.
Her rescue voyage, until now a footnote to history, was well worth exploring and Frances Welch has thoroughly unearthed its fascinating details. If coming new to the Romanovs and their complicated family relationships, the reader will need frequent recourse to the list of characters given at the outset (20-strong, all of them Princes or Grand Dukes). Out of these she brings into focus the Empress as a brave patriotic woman, however stubborn and difficult, who engages our sympathy.
After so much virtual imprisonment at home, she enjoyed the Marlborough and the hospitality of the Navy so much that when they reached Malta she didn’t want to disembark. She sent a telegram to the King asking for it to take her onto England. Unfortunately, said the King, it was wanted elsewhere.
Marie reached Portsmouth on another ship where her sister Alix was waiting. The King greeted her at Victoria Station and she went to stay with Alix at Marlborough House - but not for long. They got on each other’s nerves and Marie went home to Denmark for the rest of her life. She died in 1928, possibly still firm in her belief that her son was living, for it was long before his bones were discovered.
Source: The Daily Mail
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