Romanov conspiracy theories

Between 1918 and 1991 no one knew for sure what had happened to the Romanovs. The Russian government admitted that Tsar Nicholas had been executed but they were close-lipped about the fate of the others. It’s little wonder that conspiracy theories sprang up and imposters stepped forward. Apart from anything else, the Romanovs were worth what would be $300 billion in today’s terms, much of it rumoured to be deposited in foreign bank accounts.

Nicholas II had been a disastrous ruler, quite willing to order his troops to fire on his own people; Alexandra was suspected (unfairly) of sneaking state secrets to her native Germany during the First World War and there was that ill-considered relationship with Rasputin. But no one had any evidence of wrongdoing by the children, the youngest of whom were just seventeen (Anastasia) and thirteen (Alexei). Who could have been barbaric enough to massacre these innocents? It was hard to accept that any government would sanction such a thing. Thus the world’s readiness to believe some or all had survived.

The best-known Romanov imposter was Anna Anderson, who turned up in a Berlin asylum

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Anna Anderson

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Grand Duchess Anastasia

in 1920 and claimed to be Anastasia. Loads of people believed her, including the children of the family physician Dr Botkin, who had died with them in the Ekaterinburg house, their cousin Grand Duke Andrei, and even the composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. Anna Anderson died in 1984, still maintaining that she was the Romanovs’ youngest daughter. DNA tests ten years later showed otherwise, but as recently as 2014, Russian historian Veniamin Alekseyev claimed that the tests had been flawed, the DNA contaminated. He thinks that Anastasia probably did escape and Anna Anderson could well have been her. French historian Marc Ferro goes further by suggesting that Alexandra and her daughters might all have survived, with only the tsar and his son Alexei murdered.

There were several claimants for each of the Romanov children, and the story that particularly fascinates me is that of Larissa Tudor. She made no claims herself but after her death in 1926 rumours began to circulate that she had in fact been Grand Duchess Tatiana. Where did the large sum of money she left her husband come from? Why did he take flowers to her grave every year on the date of Tatiana’s birthday? And why did he have ‘Feodorovna’ carved on her gravestone (Feodorovna was her Alexandra’s patronymic) when according to Larissa’s marriage certificate her maiden name was Haouk?

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Grand Duchess Tatiana

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Larissa and Owen Tudor

Larissa made several contradictory claims about her own background, most famously that she was a belly dancer living in Constantinople when Owen Tudor, an officer in the King’s Own Hussars, met her in 1921. They married in London in 1923 and lived a very quiet life near Lydd in Kent. Larissa died of tuberculosis three years later but after her death rumours began to spread. When neighbours who had known her were shown portraits of Tatiana by author Michael Occleshaw, they all exclaimed “That’s her!”

There are a number of theories about how Tatiana could have escaped from Russia but Occleshaw thinks she was flown out of Ekaterinburg in early July 1918 by British agents and made her way east through Canada and hence to Britain.

What do I think happened? You’ll have to read my new novel The Secret Wife to find out.

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Could the Romanovs have been rescued?

If only JFK had been in a bulletproof limo in Dallas in November 1963. If only von Stauffenberg’s plot to kill Hitler had been successful in July 1944. And amongst history’s other ‘if only’ moments are the various attempts to rescue the Russian royal family in 1917 and 18.

After they were arrested on the 16th of March 1917, the family hoped that they would either be sent into exile in their beloved Livadia Palace on the Crimean coast, or transported to Britain, where Alexandra was closely related to the British royal family (she was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria). Another plan was that they go to Denmark, birthplace of Nicholas’s mother, or perhaps Switzerland, which was neutral in the Great War.

Telegrams began whizzing between European foreign offices as every foreign secretary tried to offload the political headache onto another country. One thing was clear: they had to move quickly because the situation in Russia was volatile. An offer of asylum was sent by Britain on the 23rd March and a plan was drawn up to get the Romanovs to Murmansk, where a British cruiser could collect them. But at that point, King George V got cold feet. Where would they live? Who would subsidise them if they couldn’t get their own money out of Russia? Would his subjects rise up in protest? On 30th March, the offer of asylum was quietly rescinded. It had been their best chance of survival.

The Romanov girls in captivity in Tobolsk

The Romanov girls in captivity in Tobolsk

In August 1917, the family were moved to Tobolsk in the heart of Siberia. Hundreds of miles from the sea it was going to be much harder to rescue them, but still there were several plans. Two businessmen, Jonas Lied and Henry Armistead, proposed to the British Foreign Secretary that they would whisk the Romanovs out of Russia in James Bond style, using a fast motorboat to take them along the river systems to the ocean. However, this had to wait till spring because Tobolsk’s rivers were frozen throughout the winter months.

In October 1917 Lenin seized power and straight away took a hard line against the erstwhile royals. Alexei, the Tsar’s haemophiliac son, injured himself during the winter and could no longer walk, while Alexandra was mostly bedbound with sciatica, making rescue increasingly problematic. A Russian commissar, Yakovlev, tried to divert a train and get the family to Omsk, a town not yet under Bolshevik control, but this plan was scuppered by militant railway workers.

Instead the Romanovs were taken to Ekaterinburg and placed in the ‘House of Special Purpose’, where they were much more heavily guarded than at any previous accommodation. The net was closing, but still the intrepid Armistead was plotting to get them out in his motorboat. Others had their own schemes but any rescue would have involved a shoot-out with armed guards, which was risky.

Ironically, it was rumours of these rescue attempts, combined with the approach of around 40,000 Czech troops, that forced Lenin’s hand. At around 3am on the 17th of July 1918 the Romanovs were brutally murdered in a dingy basement.

If only George V had been more charitable. If only Henry Armistead had got them out of Tobolsk before winter set in. If only…