By Eric Vandenbroeck 21 July 2019
Widely watched also in countries like Russia and the UK Netflix’s "The Last Czars" alternates acted scenes with talking head explanations from British and US academics and popular historians. At the beginning of each episode, Pierre Gilliard (former tutor to the five children of Emperor Nicholas II) visits today known as Anne Anderson (the latter is a subject I covered here) thought to be Princess Anastasia in hospital. In the series, Gilliard is trying to identify if the woman claiming to be Anastasia is the real Princess (see underneath the picture on the right).
One newspaper in the UK referring to the Netflix’ series even likened Prince Harry to the last Tsar:
Historically speaking here was indeed a bit of an English connection during this period in the form of a halfhearted British attempt to move the Tsar and his children out of Russia that at this point might be worth mentioning.
After the Royal family were placed under virtual house arrest Nicholas told the head of the British military mission with the Russian Stavka John Hanbury-Williams that if he had to leave the country, he would want to go to England.
Thus Hanbury-Williams and British Ambassador George Buchanan had both been urging the British government to take in the Romanovs, but the Foreign Office was still instructing Buchanan to act with caution: "As regards future movements of the Emperor we would, of course, be glad to see him leave Russia, if only in the interests of his personal safety." But, as Meriel Buchanan would later mention in her book Ambassador’s Daughter, 1958,p.152; Sir George was informed, "no invitation has, however, been sent to His Majesty to come to England, and it seems very doubtful whether such a course would be desirable".
Also the Russian provisional government made several urgent requests to the British about taking the royal family into exile. But the British government dragged its feet and even worried about how the tsar would be supported financially in the UK by the new Russian (Leninist) administration not to mention that the Tsarina was German a country Britain was at war with.
A German and British plot to take the Tsar
This started to change when British Intelligence had learned of a German plot to kidnap the tsar and use him as a puppet to gain a foothold in Russia in Russia by promoting anti-Bolshevik feeling.
The plan involved Jonas Lied who having previously been the Norwegian Consul for Siberia visited Russia in November 1917, where he met Lenin and Trotsky and also saw Sir George Buchanan shortly before the ambassador's recall. It may have been then, that the idea of a rescue mission was raised.
On 8 March Lied had dinner with Henry Armistead head of the Hudson Bay Company and the head of Naval Intelligence, Sir Reginald Hall, who worked closely with British Intelligence MI1c and whose involvement would be essential to getting the Romanovs away at sea.1
Having been granted honorary Russian citizenship by the Tsar, British intelligence was well aware of his valuable Russian experience also because; he was “understood to be on good terms with the Bolshevik regime, and would therefore perhaps stand a fair chance of securing good relations with the Soviets” on their behalf. After extensive consultation, Hudson’s Bay Company director Charles Sale advised that such an expedition "would involve many risks and high cost", but that "Mr Lied, who is now in London on a very brief stay [i.e. his March 1918 visit] … has expressed his willingness to carry out such transactions in co-operation with the Canadian Hudson’s Bay Company that was managing the majority of all shipping and storage into and out of Archangel and Murmansk.2
With the recent usurpation of power by Lenin and his hardliners, the British had been following their peace negotiations with Germany through intercepted telegrams from Russian military and naval advisers at the talks, forwarded by British attachés in Petrograd. A different concern had taken over: that the Bolsheviks, now gaining a foothold in Siberia, would seize control of the Tsar and his family at Tobolsk and use them as political pawns in a game of power play with the Germans over a separate peace deal.
At the invitation of the British Foreign Office, the experienced journalist Robert Wilton, who after serving as Russia correspondent of The Times since 1903 had returned to London in September 1917, submitted a confidential report to the government. Headed "Russia Still the Greatest Factor in the War. German Plans – The Need of Urgent Measures", warned that if the Germans "took forcible possession of the country", they might restore the Romanovs to a puppet monarchy – "a possibility that is by no means excluded even under Bolshevik auspices". Wilton's fifth and final point, however, was perhaps the most significant in terms of this story and he emphasized its importance by underlining it: "5. Secret and expeditious measures should be taken to prevent the Bolsheviks from capturing the ex-Tsar and his family or any of the Romanovs."3
During early 1918 evidence suggests that there were tentative plans to shelter the family at Murmansk. Under the protection of the Allies already established there, the Romanovs would once liberated from Tobolsk, wait at the port till an opportune time came to get them out by sea to either Britain or Scandinavia. The project to construct a house to accommodate them is confirmed in a telegram from the British consul at Archangel to the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) offices at Bishopsgate on 9 October. The house was to be assembled first in Archangel, as the telegram explicitly states, the consul confirming that he had "placed order for immediate construction of the house which we intend shipping to Murmansk with the last steamer for erection in-ground allotted to us by Government." But time was against them and the consul explained that he had had "to act promptly as otherwise no possibility of getting the house ready in time and now only under great pressure"4
According to an account submitted to the HBC by the Russian contractor P. S. Kuznetsov the sum of 50,000 rubles had been set aside for the purpose.5 Here the record breaks off. But there is one crucial piece of surviving evidence. On 10 August 1918 –note the date –the house’s original purpose was confirmed, albeit retrospectively, in a Royal Navy telegram found in Admiralty records. Addressed to the senior naval officer at Murmansk and sent by Francis Cromie, the British naval attaché in Petrograd, it states: Following received via Christiania [now Oslo] from Naval Attaché Petrograd for SNO Murmansk begins: I have received from Mr Browd on behalf of the Murmansk Scientific Industrial Co[ mpan] y the offer of the building to be erected on the Dived Company’s land near the British Consulate Murmansk formerly intended for the late Czar and now offered for occupation by General Poole or Admiral Kemp. Buildings complete with heating Light [sic] utensils etc. and now in charge of Kambulin Engineer erecting them.6
Thus it would appear that around mid-November 1917 work had indeed begun on the wooden house, which was cut and prefabricated at Solombala sawmill outside Archangel, after which it was dismantled, shipped in sections across the Dvina estuary to Khabarka Island opposite and stacked in storage there.7
This was done under the supervision of the above mentioned Henry Armitstead, the Hudson’s Bay Company agent based at Archangel, and from there the sections were to be shipped to Murmansk. The location chosen for the house was the best Murmansk had to offer; the British consulate next to it, although wooden and single-story, had been built to look as "imposing" as a construction of squared logs could. The house for the Romanovs would be "in close proximity to branch offices of several Petrograd banks, and close also, to Government buildings and to the Cathedral", according to a description of the town at the time, and would be of even better quality.
Nearly two weeks after his arrival in London, and after he had been vetted carefully by this assortment of key officials and had discussed his idea of the Romanov rescue with them, Lied was invited to a meeting. On 20 March he met Sir Francis Barker, director of the famous engineering and armaments firm Vickers, which had “made millions out of imperial Russia” during the war.
Quoted in Anthony Summers and Tom Mangold, File on the Tsar, 2nd edn, 1987, Jonas Lied later confide the true story of his rescue plan to an English friend, Ralph Hewins, who for many years had been a specialist Scandinavian newspaper correspondent and is best known for his biography of the Norwegian traitor, Quisling. In private conversation, Lied told Hewins that: he was asked by Metropolitan-Vickers … to berth a British boat at his sawmill depot [this must be Maklakovo] at the mouth of the Yenisey and to transport the Imperial Family from Tobolskdownriver in one of his cargo boats. The plan was feasible. The torpedo boat [i.e. a British RN or a Vickers one sent especially] was to take a course far north into the Arctic, through Novaya Zemlya, so as to avoid wartime minefields and possible Bolshevik pursuit.
But then in the spring of 1918, British officialdom was not anymore preoccupied with a Romanov rescue. It now was far more concerned with the bigger commercial, financial and industrial objectives of opening up the Russian markets after the Bolshevik takeover. And their efforts were intensified when, on 3 March 1918 –the very day that Jonas Lied arrived in London for his series of meetings –after three and a half months of diplomatic wrangling at Brest-Litovsk, Trotsky signed a peace treaty with Germany. In so doing he pulled Russia out of the war and ceded great swathes of Russian territory to Germany.
On 10 March the Bolshevik government moved the capital back to Moscow. Most foreign diplomats decamped soon afterward for the safety of Vologda, leaving the British embassy in Petrograd with only a skeleton staff. With an ailing Sir George Buchanan sent home to England at the beginning of January (and not replaced as ambassador), who was there left in Russia to speak for the Romanovs via official British channels?
Fact is that the British government were not really interested in saving the tsar’s family, and as explained above, the initial plan was to keep the Tsar and his family out of the hands of Germany. In fact ahead of the London meetings, the Hudson’s Bay Company had already expressed doubts about Lied’s abilities to head the economic mission, being of the mind that he was "inclined to minimize the difficulties and exaggerate the possibilities," and concluding that "it will be necessary to regard both Mr Lied and his organization as instruments rather than as the controlling element."8
Hence also the construction of this house was kept so secret that when Lloyd George wanted to publish a book about Russian events during the First World War, parts of it were censored by George V. The king also insisted that the chapter about British involvement in northern Russia be removed from the published work and forbade any reference to a house for the tsar at Murmansk.9
Meanwhile in Moscow, Lenin’s government had been discussing what to do with Nicholas, and indeed the whole family. It had become increasingly apparent that the civil war now spreading to Siberia would make it impossible to bring the former Tsar back to Moscow for the long-mooted trial, but Lenin had prevaricated on making a decision until counter-revolutionary forces were on the verge of taking Ekaterinburg. In early July, knowing that sooner or later the city, an important strategic point on the Trans-Siberian Railway, would fall to the Whites and Czechs approaching from the east, a decision was taken that when the time came, the Ural Regional Soviet should “liquidate” the Imperial Family rather than have them fall into monarchist's hands. And they must all perish, in order to ensure, as Lenin insisted, that no “living banner” (that is, the children) survive as a possible rallying point for the monarchists. But the murder of the children, which the Bolsheviks knew would provoke international outrage, must be kept secret for as long as possible. At midday on 17 July, the detailed log of Lenin’s official life recorded that he received a telegraph message from Ekaterinburg and wrote on the envelope: “Received, Lenin.” The contents confirmed that the Ekaterinburg Bolsheviks had carried out the liquidation, acting on Lenin’s and the Central Executive Committee’s preordained decision.
Finally on the 31th of August a Foreign Office memorandum confirmed the long-awaited news from Archangel: We have just received a very distressing telegram from the Intelligence Officer serving under General Poole at Murmansk to the effect that there is every probability that the Empress of Russia, her four daughters, and the Czarevitch were all murdered at the same time as the late Czar. The information reached the Intelligence Officer from a source which he has no reason to doubt. I am much afraid, therefore, that the news is only too likely to prove true.10
The King confided a sad little note to his diary that night: "It’s too horrible and shows what fiends these Bolshevists are. For poor Alicky, perhaps it was best so. But those poor innocent children!" 11 He broke the news in person that day to his widowed aunt, Princess Helena, who lived on the Windsor Estate at Cumberland Lodge. It was a Sunday, and the Princess and her daughter Marie Louise were due to have lunch with the King and Queen at the castle, as they often did. But on this occasion they had been kept waiting in the corridor. George and Mary finally emerged half an hour late, looking "grave and deeply upset". Indeed, the King seemed so anguished that Helena thought there must have been a major military defeat on the Western Front. Finally, and in a state of deep shock, George told her he had just received confirmation of what they had all dreaded: "Nicky, Alix, and their five children have all been murdered by the Bolsheviks at Ekaterinburg."12
It was a report in the “German Wireless” that first pointed the finger of blame, at Britain, for having failed the Tsar: If England now fulfills the kindred duty of her Court by wearing mourning … she ought to have fulfilled her duty of granting at least personal protection to the fallen Czar, who was too weak to maintain his position and too weak to take a hand again in the fate of Russia … Even in the last few weeks, she could have. protected the Czar if she had so desired. The Czar has been sacrificed to British policy, just like everything else that comes in its way … Now that Nicholas can no longer do any harm, mourning is worn for him. The English Court makes use of his death, which was welcome to them and for which England herself is partly responsible, in order to make of it before the world a melodramatic spectacle.13
1. Shay McNeal, The Plots to Rescue the Czar, 2001, pp.46,80.
2. The National Archives of the United Kingdom (TNA), 1 March 1918 memorandum in Foreign Office 368/ 1970.
3. Robert Wilton, confidential report: ‘Russia Still the Greatest Factor in the War. German Plans – The Need of Urgent Measures’, 27 December 1917, TNA 371/ 3018, 3, 4.
4. Hudson’s Bay Company (HBCA), London, HBCA RG 22/ 26/ 5/ 10, telegram 520, 9 October 1917.
5. It can be found in HBCA RG 22/ 26/ 10/ 6.
6. The British National Archive ADM 137/ 1714f 138.
7. Telegram no. 358 of 29 October, Hudson’s Bay Company, London, HBCA RG 22/ 26/ 10/ 16
8. According to a letter from an HBC accountant, 18 February 1918, TNA RG 22/ 4/ 2.
9. Coryne Hall, To Free the Romanovs, 2018, p.125
10. Director of Military Intelligence to Lord Stamfordham, War Office, Whitehall, 31 August 1918.
11. Report from Intelligence Coordinator for British Forces and Missions in Russia and Siberia, 28 August 1918, TNA FO 800/ 205; George V diary, 31 August 1918, in Kenneth Rose, King George V, 2000, 216.
12. Princess Marie Louise, My Memories of Six Reigns, London: Evans Brothers, 1956, 186.
13. German Wireless, 4 August 1918, RA PS/ PSO/ GV/ C/ M/ 1344a/ 13.