03 June 2009

An imperial requiem

Ann Morrow’s 2006 book, Cousins Divided: George V and Nicholas II, paints an interesting picture of the long-standing relationship between two imperial cousins, which was curtailed by the Bolshevik Revolution’s overthrowing of the Russian Empire in 1917, and was finally exterminated by the Bolsheviks’ assassination of Nicholas, the Tsarina, all their children and key royal servants in Ekaterinburg in July 1918. 
George (1865-1936), the grandson of Queen Victoria, and Nicholas (1868-1918), the husband of Victoria’s favourite granddaughter, bore a striking resemblance to one another.  Their immaculately-groomed beards and handlebar moustaches, similar heights and predilection for military garb often found them being mistaken for one another when on royal visits.  Each monarch was dedicated to the duty of their birthright and doted on their wives (Mary of Teck in George’s case; Alix of Hesse in Nicholas’).  Both also struggled to come to terms with rapid social changes in their countries that called into question the validity of their reign.  But while George managed these challenges and emerged as a successful and admired king, Nicholas retreated into the rarefied and almost absurdly privileged isolation of his immediate family and failed to adapt when his country slid into anarchy, which ultimately led to his death and the deaths of his family.
Morrow, a former royal court correspondent for the Telegraph, gained widespread access to royal correspondence to inform her book.  It charts the long course of the cousins’ relationship, which was sustained through lengthy correspondence and much-cherished extended family gatherings.  The often charmingly unaffected letters provide strong evidence of the warmth of the relationship between the King and the Tsar, which was in stark contrast to the rather chilly links with that other grandson of Victoria, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany (1859-1941).  But the fact remains that when imperial Russia was dissolving in a riotous panic during the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, which led to Nicholas being forced to abdicate his throne, George failed to offer a lifeline of refuge to the Russian imperial family, despite earlier indications from Britain that this would occur.  Ultimately, it seems, the King put the security of his own kingdom as the highest priority above the safety of his Romanov relatives: fearful of a British workers’ uprising akin to that in Russia, the Romanovs were not offered safe haven in Britain. 
The last ten chapters of the book are the most stirring and insightful, chronicling the ever-increasing chaos in Russia before and after Nicholas’ abdication, the fallout from the brutal government-ordered murder of not only Nicholas but also his wife and children, and the much later exhumation of their remains in the post-Soviet era for reburial in the chapel of the St Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg.  Here Morrow describes the reburial ceremony on 17 July 1998, the eightieth anniversary of the murders:
The imperial requiem epitomised all the lusciously emotional extravagance of the Russian Orthodox Church; the music had never sounded more poignant, as the bearded priests in gold and cream-embossed silk robes recited the canticles in deep, resonant voices.
As Nicholas II’s coffin was lowered into the earth to the sound of muffled drums, the entire Romanov family [the remnants of which had returned from around the world for the ceremony] sank to their knees.  His simple coffin was placed in a vault in the whitewashed crypt, the traditional resting place of the Romanov ancestors, and a nineteen-gun salute was fired across the Neva.
As the Romanovs left after the ceremony, a press of people crowded around them, saying “Forgive us, forgive us…”  This recurring lament was almost too much for some of the Tsar’s more elderly relatives.
The only criticisms I have to offer about the style of Morrow’s book is that the first two-thirds is devoted to a rather dense, spillikins-jumble of royal anecdote and parenthetical observations about obscure members of both families, which is at times hard to follow.  Morrow’s willingness to write about important events in George and Nicholas’ lives simultaneously when the events being discussed actually occurred years apart also ran the risk of confusing the overall narrative and placing events in a misleading historical context.  These caveats aside, Cousins Divided is still an interesting project and is worth reading, particularly for those with an interest in Russian history and the demise of the Romanovs.
Below, pictures taken on my July 2008 trip to Russia: the Romanovs’ graves and the chapel in which they reside, in the St Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg.
1   3
Post a Comment