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The Romanovs afloat

‘I have to do everything myself, I who have all my life been so spoilt.’ So lamented the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna, mother of Tsar Nicholas II, in the diary she kept aboard HMS Marlborough, the British warship carrying her and 16 other Romanovs, in April 1919, from Yalta into perpetual exile.

29 January 2011

12:00 AM

29 January 2011

12:00 AM

The Russian Court At Sea Frances Welch

Short Books, pp.224, 14.99

‘I have to do everything myself, I who have all my life been so spoilt.’ So lamented the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna, mother of Tsar Nicholas II, in the diary she kept aboard HMS Marlborough, the British warship carrying her and 16 other Romanovs, in April 1919, from Yalta into perpetual exile.

‘I have to do everything myself, I who have all my life been so spoilt.’ So lamented the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna, mother of Tsar Nicholas II, in the diary she kept aboard HMS Marlborough, the British warship carrying her and 16 other Romanovs, in April 1919, from Yalta into perpetual exile.

These remnants of the imperial family had already fled to the relative safety of the Crimea, but now, 17 months after the Revolution, nine months after the assassination of the Tsar, his wife and five children, George V ordered the Marlborough to remove the Dowager (his aunt) and her retinue from the Bolshevik threat. The Dowager resisted rescue until the last minute. With a mixture of grand courage and pigheadedness, she refused to acknowledge the scale of her family and national tragedy. ‘Nobody saw Nicky killed,’ she maintained till the end of her life.


The grandeur, pathos, pettiness and comedy of life aboard the overloaded ship would provide rich material for a novel, but Frances Welch has subtly pieced together a deeply interesting non-fiction account from the letters, memoirs and diaries of passengers and crew. Particularly memorable are the young sons of Grand Duchess Xenia, hurrying aboard each clutching a bag of soil from Ai-Todor, the beloved estate they would never see again; Grand Duke Nicholas, 6’7” in his towering Astrakhan hat, once master of the million-strong Russian army, reduced to squabbling with the Dowager about who should have which cabin; the English nannies, Miss King with her ‘distinctly alcoholic nose’, Miss Coster, who in happier times had invented a flannel mat to take the chill off palatial marble bathtubs, possessed of a bosom so prominent that little Alexis, the doomed Tsarevich, asked, ‘Why don’t you place your coffee cup there?’; the thoughtful British crew, who painted Easter eggs for the children and cordoned off part of the deck for the use of the royal dogs. There was mutual affection between the Russian masters and their servants; Grand Duchess Xenia slept on the floor so that her maid, who had a bad back, could have the bed. The Dowager was guarded by two lavishly bearded Cossacks who slept across her cabin door. One was such a man-mountain that he used specially enlarged cutlery.

The ‘Black Peril’, terrifying sisters, both Grand Duchesses, who had introduced Rasputin to the Tsar, were passengers. One of them, rebuked for failing to return a greeting when out in her carriage, had protested that the rebuker couldn’t have seen her because she was sitting with her psychic, who wore a magic hat that rendered him and his companions invisible.

Even odder was Prince Felix Youssoupov, scion of the richest family in Russia and murderer of Rasputin. Oxford-educated Felix had been resolutely dressed as a girl by his mother ‘for longer than was wise’. In this guise, the Prince attracted the roving eye of Edward VII (‘Tell me, who is that lovely young woman?’). Felix may have hoped that party tricks like providing exploding cigarettes for his already nerve-wracked guests, or displaying a polar bear skin stained with Rasputin’s blood to Emmeline Pankhurst, an unlikely houseguest, would make a man of him, but his Oxford contemporary Duff Cooper, meeting him soon after his escape on the Marlborough, remarked, ‘He seemed in no way altered by having murdered Rasputin but rather sillier.’

This is more than a scrapbook of oddities. Welch illuminates one of the most extraordinary episodes in recent history. One minute we see an undignified dowager in the Crimea, burying her jewels in cocoa tins and marking the spots with dogs’ skulls, the next moment we see her standing alone on deck to acknowledge the tribute of the last of her loyal soldiers. On their way to certain death, 170 White Russians paused to sing the Russian national anthem to her; truly, the moment when an era passed.

There are faults — hackneyed phrases (‘the icing on the cake’); false inferences, as when Welch uses George V’s watching cricket three days before the Tsar’s murder as evidence of reluctance to help his cousin (George, no clairvoyant, could hardly be expected to cancel Lords to mourn in advance). There’s the occasional historical lapse — the Dowager’s sister is described as ‘Queen Alexandra’ in 1863, but she doesn’t become queen until 190l; similarly, to refer to ‘Edward VIII’ in 1934 is jumping the gun. But the book’s readability and telling use of detail are splendid. The starstruck first lieutenant Francis Pridham, who wrote, ‘We are all in love with [the Romanovs], from the Empress down to the one-year-old baby’, was rewarded with gifts of jewelled eggs; his grandson, proudly displaying them on Antiques Roadshow some 70 years later, was told that they were not Fabergé after all.


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