Written by Vladimir Moss



     Since the beginning of the century, Britain had been gradually coming out of her “splendid isolation”. The fact that Germany and America were catching up with her industrially, that her imperial commitments were creating a huge strain on the exchequer, and that her role in the Boer War was almost universally despised, led her to seek out allies. At first France and Russia were considered, but rejected. There was a brief flirtation with Germany; but the Germans did not respond. Finally, Japan was chosen…[1] Britain’s alliance with Japan set her even more at odds with her traditional enemy, Russia, who in February, 1904 found herself at war with Japan. In that month there was a dangerous incident in the North Sea when the Russian fleet steaming to the Far East got entangled with a British trawler fleet and killed two men, bringing the two countries to the brink of war.

     However, the Japanese, while useful allies in the Far East, were no use to the British in Europe, and especially in countering the rising power of the Germans, who had begun a naval building programme that was quite clearly directed against Britain. So in 1904 the British concluded the Entente Cordiale with France. Since the French were already in alliance with the Russians, it was natural to speculate on the possibility of a rapprochement between Britain and Russia in spite of their recent – and not so recent - enmity.

     Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, and the Tsar’s concession of some elements of a parliamentary system after the abortive revolution of 1905, combined to soften the image of Russia in British minds: the bear no longer looked quite so powerful or threatening. Moreover, there were powerful geopolitical reasons why the two empires, both over-stretched in their different ways, should seek some kind of accommodation with each other. Talks on Tibet and Afghanistan had started already in 1903, and resumed with much greater hope of success after the crisis years of 1904-05.

     Finally, in 1907, the two empires, supported eagerly by France, signed an agreement on their respective spheres of influence in Tibet, Afghanistan and Persia, which was divided into northern (Russian) and southern (British) spheres of influence. From the British point of view, the key advantage gained was unhindered access to the recently discovered oil reserves in Southern Persia. This would prove very important in the world war, because the decision had been taken to run the British fleet, not on coal, but on oil… But from the Russian point of view, “the core of the Convention”, as Foreign Minister Izvolsky put it, was the prospect of British support for improved Russian access to the Straits.[2] For Russian foreign policy, having suffered a major defeat in the Far East, was now reorienting itself back towards the Balkans…

     The agreement was sealed by a meeting in 1908 between King Edward VII and Tsar Nicholas in Revel and by visits to England by a parliamentary delegation and then the Tsar himself in 1909.This latter visit was accompanied by huge security. Frances Welch explains why: “During the preceding months, there had been outcries in the Commons, where the visit of the Tsar was described as ‘repulsive to multitudes of our people’. The Tsar was repeatedly lambasted for his poor record on civil liberties and for state censorship. Radicals called for his assassination. On the day of his arrival, seventy MPs and two bishops made formal complaints.

     “The Standart arrived at Cowes [on the Isle of Wight] on schedule, on 2nd August. The Isle of Wight County Press reported a fond greeting. ‘The two monarchs embraced with great affection.’ But in private Edward VII had been complaining that the Tsar was ‘deplorably unsophisticated, immature and reactionary’. Meanwhile, the Tsar was visiting under duress, his ministers having warned him that it might antagonize other European leaders. One minister had even insisted that Britain would never be a loyal ally.

     “At their last meeting Edward VII had been rather critical of the young Romanovs, tut-tutting that they spoke English with a ‘déclassé accent’. The mortified Tsarina had sacked their tutor, the unfortunate Mr. Epps, forthwith. But the Isle of Wight County Press preferred to take a sunnier view: ‘The five beautiful Romanov children formed an interesting portion of a happy domestic picture.’

     “Of the royal party the future George V entered best into the spirit of the occasion, writing in his diary. ‘Dear Nicky, Alicky [the Tsarina] and their children received us. Dear Nicky looking so well and Alicky too. I had not seen him for twelve years…’ George’s famously acquisitive wife, the future Queen Mary, was equally enthusiastic, the Tsarina had given her a trinket, ‘which for years I had wanted to have!!!!’

     “The Tsar’s review of the British fleet was hailed as a triumph, the King paid tribute to the biggest gathering of warships he had ever seen, and George wrote in his diary that ‘each ship cheered as we passed her’. In fact, the review had suffered a narrow squeak. At the end of the inspection of the first row of ships, the leading Russian cruiser had almost smashed into a British dreadnought. Lord Suffield, who was on board the King’s ship, wrote of ‘unprecedented turmoil’…”[3]

     In fact, the whole visit, while deemed a success, served to underline the fact that the new agreement was still felt to be unnatural by many people on both sides…

     Although the Russo-British agreement was a “convention” and not a formal alliance, it had an important psychological and political effect; people now saw Europe as divided into two alliance systems, with the central powers of Germany, Austria and (possibly) Italy on the one side, and England, France and Russia on the other. The effect was especially important in Germany, whose fear of encirclement was strengthened…

     Tsar Nicholas was still trying to patch up relations with Germany and “Cousin Willie”. But he could not afford to go too far now for fear of disrupting the important alliances with France and Britain. “For Russia to move towards Germany,” writes Margaret Macmillan, “would mean abandoning the French alliance and, almost certainly, access to French financial markets. It was also certain to be opposed by the liberals who saw the alliance with France, and perhaps in the longer run with Britain, as encouraging progressive forces for change within Russia. And not all conservatives were pro-German; landowners were hurt by Germany’s protective tariffs on agricultural produces and foodstuffs…

     “As soon as the Anglo-Russian Convention had been signed, Izvolsky reached out to the Triple Alliance, signing an agreement with Germany on the Baltic and proposing to Austria-Hungary that they work together in the Balkans. Britain, likewise, continued to hope for a winding down of the naval race with Germany. In the end, however, it proved to be beyond the capacity of Russia’s leaders to bridge the growing chasm between Britain and France on the one hand and Germany and Austria-Hungary on the other, or to keep Russia out of the mounting arms race. By 1914, in spite of periodic struggles to escape, Russia was firmly on one side. Bismarck had warned of this many years earlier: in 1885 he had written to Wilhelm’s grandfather that an alliance of Russia, Britain and France would provide the basis for a coalition against us more dangerous for Germany than any other she might have to face’…”[4]

     Meanwhile, writes Miranda Carter, “British attitudes to Russia had shifted. By 1912 the country had become fascinated by its would-be ally. In January 1912 The Times published a ‘Russian number’, and a group of liberal MPs visited Russia, a trip which Sir Charles Hardinge described as ‘the pilgrimage of love’. Russian literature was everywhere – not just Tolstoy but Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Turgenev had all been recently translated into English. Beef Stroganov had insinuated itself on to fashionable British menus. The Ballets Russes had brought a fantasy of Russian exoticism, wildness and modernity to London; [King] George went to see them on the eve of his coronation in 1911. But cultural fascination was not matched by political sympathy…”[5 

     “Russian high life,” writes Max Hastings, “exercised a fascination for Western Europeans. That genteel British magazine The Lady portrayed Nicholas II’s empire in romantic and even gushing terms: ‘this vast country with its great cities and arid steppes and extremes of riches and poverty, captures the imagination. Not a few Englishmen and Englishwomen have succumbed to the fascinations and made it their home, and English people, generally speaking, are liked and welcomed by the Russians. One learns that the girls of the richer classes are brought up very carefully. They are kept under strict control in the nursery and the schoolroom, live a simple, healthy life, are well taught several languages including English and French… with the result that they are well-educated, interesting, graceful, and have a pleasing, reposeful manner.’”[6]

     Personal sympathies at the highest level helped: the Tsar and Tsarina got on much better with their English relatives than with their German ones. “Nicky” and “Georgie” not only looked alike: they seemed genuinely to like each other. And they both detested “Cousin Willie”, the German Kaiser.

     Moreover, the English ambassador in St. Petersburg, Sir George Buchanan, was “wonderfully devoted” to the tsar, declaring that “His Majesty had such a wonderful charm of manner that when he received me in audience he almost made me feel that it was as a friend, and not the Emperor, with whom I was talking. There was, if I may say so without presumption, what amounted to a feeling of mutual sympathy between us.”[7] And yet it was precisely Sir George’s embassy that would turn out to be the nest of the February revolution; for cultural fascination and personal sympathies were swept away by the most powerful and enduring force in world politics – differences in faith, the fundamental collision between Orthodox Christianity and the democratic-socialist revolution.

     The reason for the lack of political, as opposed to cultural sympathy was twofold: first, the increasing democratization of British society, as witnessed by the huge struggle for Lords reform, and secondly, the wildly inaccurate reporting of Russian affairs by the Jewish press inside Russia and their western followers. The fact was – which very few recognized – that Russia was far from being a despotic country. [8] Moreover, while some restrictions on the Jews remained, it was by no means true that the State was foully and unjustly persecuting them. The vast wave of anti-Russian pogroms, with thousands of Jewish political murders, was not reported objectively…

     In retrospect, the new European alliances created in 1904-07 - the Anglo-French Entente of 1904 and the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 - seemed to some commentators (for example, the French diplomat Maurice Paleologue) to foreshadow and even cause the subsequent aggressiveness of the Triple Alliance and hence the cataclysm of 1914. However, as Clark writes: “It was still far from clear in 1907 that the new alliances would take Europe to war. The weakness of Russia after the disaster of 1904 obliged the policy-makers in St. Petersburg in the first instance to seek good relations with Germany, and it was widely accepted in St. Petersburg, for the time being at least, that Russia’s domestic frailty ruled out any focus of international adventurism. It was hard to imagine the circumstances in which France might be willing to chance its arm for the Russians in the Balkans and even harder to imagine Russians marching to Berlin for the sake of Alsace and Lorraine. In 1909, Paris underscored its independence by signing an accord in Morocco with Germany, a ‘striking instance of the crossing of lines’ between the Alliance blocs. Then, in November 1910, Russian and German leaders met in Potsdam and Berlin to reconcile German and Russian interests in Turkey and Persia. There was no question of loosening the Franco-Russian bond, to be sure, but this was a significant gesture in the direction of détente. As for the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, it may have muted the tensions between Russia and Britain but it did not remove their cause, and right through until 1914 there were voices in the Foreign Office warning of the Russian threat to Britain’s far-flung empire…”[9]

     In spite of these fears and tensions, the Convention held, and in 1914 Britain and Russia entered the First World War on the same side. By the beginning of 1917, although Russia had suffered great losses in men and territory, the chances looked good, as the British military attaché admitted.  for a successful counter-offensive in the spring. At that moment, however, the British government – now led by the liberal Lloyd George – allowed its leftist tendencies to get the better of military logic and, still more, of simple loyalty to a valuable and faithful ally.

     In January, there arrived in Petrograd an Allied Commission composed of representatives of England, France and Italy whose purpose was to plan combined Allied strategy for the coming year. After meeting with A.I. Guchkov, who was president of the Military-Industrial Committee, Prince G.E. Lvov, president of the State Duma Rodzyanko, General Polivanov, Sazonov, the English ambassador Buchanan, Milyukov and others, the mission presented the following demands to the Tsar:

(i)             The introduction into the Staff of the Supreme Commander of allied representatives with the right of a deciding vote.

(ii)           The renewal of the command staff of all the armies on the indications of the heads of the Entente.

(iii)          The introduction of a constitution with a responsible ministry.

     The Tsar replied to these demands, which amounted to a demand that he renounce both his autocratic powers and his powers as Commander-in-Chief of the Russian armies, as follows 

(i)          “The introduction of allied representatives is unnecessary, for I am not suggesting the introduction of my representatives into the allied armies with the right of a deciding vote.”

(ii)           “Also unnecessary. My armies are fighting with greater success than the armies of my allies.”

(iii)          “The act of internal administration belongs to the discretion of the Monarch and does not require the indications of the allies.”

     When this truthful and courageous reply was made known to the plotters, they assembled in the English Embassy and decided: “To abandon the lawful path and step out on the path of revolution”…[10] For, as Princess Paley writes, “the English Embassy, on the orders of Lloyd George, became a nest of propaganda. The liberals, and Prince Lvov, Milyukov, Rodzyanko, Maklakov, etc., used to meet there constantly. It was in the English embassy that the decision was taken to abandon legal paths and step out on the path of revolution.”[11]

     When Tsar Nicholas abdicated in February, 1917, Kerensky suggested that he take refuge with Cousin Georgie in England, a suggestion that the Royal Family did not reject - at first…

     But Cousin Georgie betrayed Cousin Nicky; in August, 1917 he withdrew his invitation for fear of a revolution in England. As Roy Hattersley writes, in view of the failure of rescue attempts from within Russia, “the future of the Tsar and his family grew ever more precarious. It was the [British] Prime Minister who initiated the meeting with George V’s private secretary at which, for a second time, ‘it was generally agreed that the proposal we should receive the Emperor in this country… could not be refused’. When Lloyd George proposed that the King should place a house at the Romanovs’ disposal he was told that only Balmoral was available and that it was ‘not a suitable residence at this time of year’. But it transpired that the King had more substantial objections to the offer of asylum. He ‘begged’ (a remarkably unregal verb) the Foreign Secretary ‘to represent to the Prime Minister that, from all he hears and reads in the press, the residence in this country of the ex-Emperor and Empress would be strongly resented by the public and would undoubtedly compromise the position of the King and Queen’. It was the hereditary monarch, not the radical politician, who left the Russian royal family to the mercy of the Bolsheviks and execution in Ekaterinburg.”[12]


     The result was that, as Frances Welch writes, “eleven months later, the Tsar, the Tsarina and their five children were all murdered. But when the Tsar’s sister finally reached London in 1919, King George V brazenly blamed his Prime Minister for refusing a refuge to the Romanovs. Over dinner, he would regularly castigate Lloyd George as ‘that murderer’…”[13]


May 22 / June 4, 2016.

Holy Martyr Basiliscus of Comana.




[1] Margaret Macmillan, The War that Ended Peace, London: Profile, 2014, chapter 2. See also Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War. 1914-1918, London: Penguin, 1999, pp. 45-55.

[2] Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, London: Penguin, 2013, p. 158.

[3] Welch, “A Last Fraught Encounter”, The Oldie, N 325, August, 2015, pp. 24-25.

[4] Macmillan, op. cit., pp. 185, 196.

[5] Carter, The Three Emperors, London: Penguin, 2010, p. 401.

[6] Hastings, Catastrophe: Europe goes to War 1914, London: William Collins, 2014, p. 13.

[7] Carter, op. cit., p. 402.

[8] As regards freedom, it is a paradoxical but true fact that Russia in the last decades before the revolution was one of the freest countries in the world. Thus Duma deputy Baron A.D. Meyendorff admitted: “The Russian Empire was the most democratic monarchy in the world” (Lebedev, Velikorossia, St. Petersburg, 1999, p. 405). This view was echoed by foreign observers, such as Sir Maurice Baring: “There is no country in the world, where the individual enjoys so great a measure of personal liberty, where the ‘liberté de moeurs’ is so great, as in Russia; where the individual man can do as he pleases with so little interference or criticism on the part of his neighbours, where there is so little moral censorship, where liberty of abstract thought or aesthetic production is so great.” (in Eugene Lyons, Our Secret Allies, 1953).

[9] Clark, op. cit., pp. 166-167.

[10] Armis (a Duma delegate), “Skrytaia Byl’” (A Hidden Story), Prizyv’ (Summons), N 50, Spring, 1920; in F. Vinberg, Krestnij Put’ (The Way of the Cross), Munich, 1920, St. Petersburg, 1997, pp. 165-166.

[11] Paley, Souvenir de Russie, 1916-1919, p. 33.

[12] Roy Hattersley, The Great Outsider: David Lloyd George, London: Abacus, 2010, p. 472.

[13]Welch, op. cit., p. 26.

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