Book review: The Russian Court at Sea by Frances Welch

When the British battleship HMS Marlborough was dispatched to rescue what remained of the Russian royal family in 1919, it marked the beginning of a sea change in their lives.

Bowed but not broken by the revolution that saw the slaughter of the Tsar, his wife and their five children, 17 members of the imperial family, their entourages, six dogs and a canary gathered on an ornate jetty in the Crimea waiting for an escape into the unknown.

Within the previous nine months, another 17 members of the family had died at the hands of the Bolsheviks ...the Tsarina’s sister had been thrown down a mine, buried alive with five other Romanovs.

Chief among those now facing permanent exile on that April evening were the Dowager Empress Marie, mother of the dead Tsar and aunt to George V, the Tsar’s sister Grand Duchess Xenia and five of her six sons who had all packed small bags of soil as mementoes of their Russian heritage.

Also on board was the late Tsar’s 6ft 7in uncle and former Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Army, Grand Duke Nicholas, in full Cossack uniform, and Prince Felix Youssoupov, the man who murdered the ‘mad monk’ Rasputin and dined off the story for the rest of his life.

Frances Welch’s account of the flight of the Romanovs is a tale as engrossing and entertaining as the now famous anecdotes of their volatile and colourful pre-revolution lives at the court of St Petersburg.

Revealing, fascinating and by turns, shocking and amusing, Welch’s extraordinary book introduces us to a bizarre assortment of warring characters and their priceless cargo of treasures which included rolled-up Rembrandts and Fabergé eggs.

We also meet the crew of the Marlborough and discover how the imperial family won them over with their exoticism and charm.

As they boarded the ship, tensions were high, mainly due to the presence of the wives of Grand Duke Nicholas and his brother Grand Duke Peter. The Montenegrin princesses, known within the family as the ‘Black Peril,’ had never been forgiven by the Dowager for introducing Rasputin to the Russian court.

One of the most spirited members of the party was 11-year-old Sofka Dolgorouky from a wealthy Russian aristocratic family. She had once dined with the Dowager and dared to reprimand her for holding her biscuit in the wrong hand.

Sofka settled in England and later scandalised her Russian family and friends by joining the Communist party, working for a ‘red’ travel firm and happily taking factory workers and trade unionists around the Russian palaces in which she’d grown up.

One of the royal relatives was Prince Nicholas Orloff, a fluent English speaker who prided himself on his obscure idioms and amused the Wardroom crew by announcing that he ‘must pop off to bye bye’.

The voyage ended in Malta from where the family scattered over Europe, the two Grand Dukes to France and the Dowager and her daughter Xenia to Britain where they were met at Victoria Station by King George and Queen Mary.

In a moment of embarrassment all round, one of the Dowager’s servants mistook George for his cousin the dead Tsar (their likeness was quite remarkable) and threw himself at the king’s feet.

After a brief and fractious spell with her sister, the former Queen Alexandra, the Dowager left for her native Denmark. She never gave up hope that her son was still alive somewhere, declaring: ‘Nobody saw Nicky killed.’

Most of the details of the historic flight to freedom were gleaned from the diaries of the Marlborough’s First Lieutenant, Francis Pridham, who formed a lasting friendship with the imperial family and was honoured when the Dowager agreed to be godmother to one of his daughters.

Pridham’s grandson, Lieutenant-Commander David Gould, visited the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow with the family’s prized jewelled eggs, donated by the Russian royals, only to learn that they were not, after all, Fabergé. Only the gleaming eyes of presenter John Benjamin over their provenance restored the family pride!

Welch’s superb book is a voyage of delight, full of brilliant asides, evocative photographs and a story so extraordinary that it reads like a novel.

A jewel in the crown of Russian royal history.

(Short Books, hardback, £14.99)