The Russian Court at Sea
A Book Review by Virginia Blackburn

HMS Marlborough was responsible for rescuing the last of the Romanovs from a certain death in 1919

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There is nothing amusing about exile but the title of Frances Welch’s engrossing account of the flight of the surviving Romanovs after the 1917 Russian revolution cannot help but contain a pun.

Yes, they were on the ocean waves but at the same time didn’t have a clue what was going to happen to them. All at sea indeed.

The story starts in 1919 when most surviving members of the Royal family had been banished to the Crimea to eke out a very reduced living on their estates.

Even there it wasn’t safe so Britain stepped in to help. HMS Marlborough was sent to rescue Tsar Nicholas II’s mother, the Dowager Empress Marie (aunt of the reigning George V), as well as various Grand Dukes and Duchesses and what seems like a cast of thousands, including Prince Felix Youssupov, the man who murdered Rasputin and dined off it for the rest of his life.

The venture was fraught from the start. Despite the danger, the Dowager Empress did not want to leave her country and insisted that she stay until all the other White Russians to be rescued were also at sea. When everyone was finally on the ship there were renewed tensions with various members of the Royal party not speaking to one another, namely the Dowager Empress and the Grand Dukes Nicholas and Peter.

The trouble was that the dukes’ wives and sisters, a couple of Montenegrin princesses known as the Black Peril, had introduced Rasputin to the Imperial court, thus setting in motion all the trouble to come.

Even worse, Grand Duke Nicholas had got on board before Marie, bagged the best accommodation and thus was in her very bad books.

This strangely loaded ark made its way to first Constantinople and then Malta, the Empress scheming all the way about how to get rid of Nicholas and co, before scattering its cargo all over Europe.

The Grand Dukes ended up in the South of France and quite a few of the rest of them came to Britain, including the Empress, until she fell out with her sister Alexandra, the Queen Mother, and returned to her native Denmark.

This is a fascinating tale, albeit one that does assume a greater knowledge of the subject matter than that possessed by an ignoramus like me, which conveys not only the Romanovs’ shock at what was happening to them but the way the British crew grew to worship their difficult charges.

It was First Lieutenant Francis Pridham who formed the strongest bond. In later years the Dowager Empress even became godmother to his child. She gave him various gifts, including what the family thought was a Faberge egg. When it turned up on the Antiques Road Show it turned out to be a lesser creation.

Source: The Sunday Express
9 January, 2011