In the early 1900’s, England was ruled by King George V and Russia ruled by Tsar Nicholas II, George’s cousin. The two cousins were extremely close, calling each other “Georgie” and “Nicky” in their letters, and in fact they looked so similar, “the same blue eyes, same beard...when they were at events together...relatives would come up from behind with the wrong name,” author Dana Schwartz tells us. “They were cousins who looked more like twins.” But when a peasant revolt was brutally put down in 1905, public sentiment turned against the tsar, and the Russian people started to rise up against the royal family. The tsar abdicated his throne, but it wasn’t enough for the Bolshevik extremists who had overthrown him; they wanted blood. The murders of the tsar and his entire family have inspired movies, TV series, and books, mainly about one daughter, Anastasia, who was rumored to have escaped the Bolsheviks. “But if you look to history, there was another...alternate reality in which the Romanov family was saved at the 11th hour. For a brief moment in time, it seemed that their savior would be King George V.” On this episode of Noble Blood, Dana examines the relationship between the two cousins, the two countries, and the political machinations that led to the bloody end of the tsar.
After the peasant massacre by the Imperial Guards, the tsar was given the nickname “Nicholas the Bloody,” and things only got worse from there. His wife, Alexandra of Hesse, was a German princess, and the outbreak of World War I led to even greater dislike of the royal family: “According to the people in Russia, Alexandra was almost certainly a German spy, and that's to say nothing of the way she cavorted about with the dubious character Rasputin,” Dana relates, “the two of them lovers, no doubt, or probably manipulating the tsar to their nefarious, German-loving ways.” Anti-German sentiment ran so high, in fact, that over in England, King George V was compelled to change his family name from “Saxe-Coburg and Gotha” to the more British-sounding “Windsor.”
Finally, after years of unrest, revolution broke out in Russia in 1917, and the tsar was forced to abdicate his throne and go into hiding with his family, in the custody of the provisional government. “The imperial family presented a massive problem for the provisional government,” Dana says; they didn’t want them in the country where they could inspire loyalty, but the Bolshevik extremists wanted the tsar imprisoned and tried. “It was about this time when the provisional government's foreign minister, a man named Pavel Milyukov, approached the British ambassador and requested that the imperial family might be allowed to come to England.” But that request presented its own problems. Firstly, the British public were mainly on the side of the revolutionaries, instead of the aristocrats: “News of the Russian's tsar being overthrown was met in England with cheers, with celebrations in the street for the common people who rose up to take down an autocrat,” Dana says. “Hosting the tsar and his wife would be nothing short of a PR nightmare.” And while the king was worried for his cousin and friend, he also had to be cautious. “Revolutions can be like dominoes, and threats to one monarchy are threats to all monarchies. His own crown began feeling a little loose.”
But the British didn’t want to turn down the request outright, either, since Russia was still an important ally. “They would need to stay in Russia's good graces for trade and for continued support in World War I,” Dana points out, “but there was no way around the fact that bringing ‘Bloody Nicholas’ and his German empress to England would look bad...Regardless of what the political situation actually was, the truth is it would look like a move of family loyalty, and not diplomacy.” Plus, Britain was a constitutional monarchy, where “a king's power is at the mercy of the people. Nicholas II was radioactive, and George needed to protect himself. He wasn't 'Georgie.' He was King George V. He put England - and himself - first.”
Although it seems like King George turned his back on his family when they needed him most, the truth is it might not have made any difference even if he had ordered the entire household brought to England at once and installed in Buckingham Palace. “By the time it became clear that the tsar and his family were in danger, it was probably already too late.” And no one could have predicted the gruesome way the royals would be murdered, in a dank basement in Ekaterinburg, their last sights the barrels of Russian rifles, the screams of their children echoing in their ears.
Listen to find out how the Romanov family met its end, the hard decisions King George V had to make, and the true villain of the story, in this episode of Noble Blood.
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