The Journal of Historical Review

Reviews

Seasoned British Journalist Names Names in Account of Massacre of Russia’s Imperial Family

Reviewed by Mary Ball Martinez

This tragic historical record was to become a treasure almost as soon as it was published in 1920. Even then, a few voices were already sounding the alert about the threat of Bolshevism, which had just recently taken power in Russia. This book was one of the first writings that attempted to tell the true story of how the Bolsheviks had come to power, and just who was behind the phenomenon.

Robert Wilton, The Times of London’s man-in-Moscow from 1902 through 1919, in chronicling the cold-blooded murder in Ekaterinberg, Siberia, of the last Tsar, his wife, four daughters, son, physician, three servants and little pet dog, was fully aware of the true facts and faced them in a text he managed to get published in England and the United States. However, only a French edition carried appendices in which the author, citing Soviet sources, alleged the Jewish origin of 17 among 22 members of the Council of People’s Commissars (furnishing their real, non-slavic names), of 23 among the 36-member Cheka (secret police), and 41 among the 62-member Central Executive Committee.

Wilton was not the only informed person to make such statements. Winston Churchill, then Britain’s secretary of state for war and air, was likewise warning that the new regime in Moscow was largely the creation of “international and for the most part atheistical Jews.” More than one western ambassador in Russia echoed similar concerns in reports to officials back home.

Wilton’s insistence that the assassination order to murder Russia’s imperial family was telegraphed to the Jewish tough, Yakov Yurovsky, by Yankel Sverdlov (né Solomon) – the “Red Tsar” who then wielded at least as much power as Lenin – helps to explain why The Last Days of the Romanovs was soon hounded off the shelves of bookstores and libraries. Now, 73 years afterward, the IHR is to be thanked for presenting us with a handsome new edition complete with a set of rare photographs and the elusive appendices.

Few foreigners were as close to the scene during the tumultuous early twentieth century years of Russian history as Robert Wilton. His long assignment took him through the country’s shock-defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05, through all the ups and downs of internal Russian politics, the violent Potemkin and Bloody Sunday events of 1905, and the ominous rumblings, from exile and in the underground, of Trotsky and Lenin. As a leading journalist Wilton had already been chronicling the oncoming collapse of Imperial Russia for some years, and was thus eminently well prepared to follow objectively the country’s hopeless role in the “Great War” of 1914–1918, the abdication of Nicholas II, his arrest and transfer to Siberia just as anti-Marxist “white” forces had begun to gather in significant strength, opening the tortured nation to civil war.

It was an ephemeral local victory by “white” forces that provided Wilton the bulk of material for his book. Pushing into Ekaterinberg just four days after the slaughter of the Romanovs was an old acquaintance, Ural-region army commander General Diterichs, who promptly opened a commission of judicial inquiry, bringing Wilton into each step of the process during the year the Whites held out there.

Because the protagonists of the crime had already fled to the Soviet zone and because, as Wilton says, “there had probably not been another instance in the whole history of crime of precautions to escape detection half as elaborate as in the Romanov case,” much of the work done during the first months was wasted, and even in the end no real justice was achieved. However, the brilliant investigator, Nicolai Sokolov, had acquired telegrams proving the order to kill had come from Moscow, and Wilton had enough for his book. In addition, simple local folk – peasant farmers, villagers, sentries and servants – provided Sokolov and Wilton with a long stream of testimony that gives this book an unusual flavor of intimacy regarding the royal family. During the first months before the Bolsheviks solidified their takeover and the screws were steadily tightened on the family imprisoned in the villa in Ekaterinberg, we see the former ruler of All the Russias at a carpenter’s bench fashioning a platform to make sitting in the garden more comfortable, his wife helping the children with religion and German lessons, the girls inventing theatricals in French and English, and the sick son, 14, studying history to prepare himself for ruling an empire.

As vigilance was stepped up, and most of the servants were dismissed and rations severely reduced, we admire the quiet courage of the victims. Coming to the last scene we see the family, their faithful physician, Dr. Botkin, and three servants, all roused from bed at midnight, gathered in the half-cellar-room, utterly silent, waiting for death. Yurovsky has announced it. Nestled quietly in the arms of Anastasia, the youngest daughter, is the tiny spaniel, Jemmy.

Despite his sensitivity, the author eschews sentimentality, something to be grateful for in light of the exaggerations that overtook the Romanov story as years passed. The wonderful ogling of Lionel Barrymore as Rasputin would have gone down poorly with Wilton, who describes the “mad monk” as a fairly pragmatic character, a willing tool in the hands of the Empress. Concludes Wilton: “Rasputin the monster is a fiction, bred in the busy brains of politicians and elaborated by the teeming imagination of sensational novelists. Rasputin the saint is the imaginary product of a woman’s diseased mind.”

As a Britisher who had just come through four years of First World War propaganda in an Allied country, Wilton is surprisingly mild in his Germany-bashing. This may be due to the fact that General Ludendorff’s sobering war memoir came out in 1919, the year Wilton was writing this book. Noting correctly that Berlin’s decision to ship Lenin from Switzerland to Petersburg (Petrograd) in a sealed train was of enormous help to the Red cause, he adds the little-known fact that the deal also included transporting more than a hundred Jews from the United States to Russia.

The last Empress of Russia was a Princess of Hesse, that ancient German house linking half the old nobility of Europe and some of the present-day “royals” as well (Queen Sofia of Spain, for instance). One prominent Hesse descendent is reported lately to have made a move which ties in with the Ekaterinberg story. Prince Philip (Battenberg turned Montbatten), husband of Queen Elizabeth (Saxe-Coburg-Gotha-turned-Windsor) eager to carry the Sokolov inquiry to a modern conclusion, arranged for specialists to see if DNA probes on the scarred remains of the Tsaritsa match tests on living members of the Hesse clan. They do. The murdered Empress was the sister of Victoria, wife of Ludwig von Battenberg (turned Marquess of Milford-Haven), and the grandmother of Prince Philip.


Source: Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 14, no. 1, p. 36.


Published with permission, courtesy of the Institute for Historical Review (IHR).

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