Magazine article The Spectator

The Romanovs Afloat

Magazine article The Spectator

The Romanovs Afloat

Article excerpt

The Russian Court At Sea

by Frances Welch

Short Books, £14.99, pp. 224,

ISBN 9781906021788

'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 pig - headedness, 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. …

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