The Secret Aristocrats: Russians in hiding

Image via Wikimedia

Image via Wikimedia

Our British aristocrats are lovely, but oh, so predictable.

You know what they’re going to wear, what they’re going to say, when they’re going to wave. And what they have done in the annals of history: even Henry and his wives lead like an anti-fairy tale. I know what’s coming next.

Those Russian Romanovs, not so much.

History of the indistinct type swirls round their origin and if you peer past the propaganda it seems they may just have started as custodians of the Tsar’s horses. But nothing advances a family’s fortune as well as a pretty face. Look at the Middletons.

A very beautiful ancestor of the Romanovs swept Ivan IV off his feet. And she married him and became the first Tsarina, and had a son. But their misfortune was to be in competition with Boris Godunov, who fought them and won, and sent each member of the Romanov family to distant  parts of Russia to die.

All bad things must come to an end, and Godunov was no exception. And the people of Russia, to all intents and purposes welcomed the Romanovs warmly to the Russian throne because after all, were they not Ivan the Terrible’s in-laws?

That was in 1612. On July 17, 1918, the remaining Romanovs were lined up against a wall and shot. The girls did not die from the first shots, the story goes, because the bullets rebounded off their jewels.

The White Army got there too late. They bundled the bodies into coffins and carried them around with them to prevent desecration.And last I heard, they  are underneath a car park in Beijing.

You didn’t see that coming, did you? In 2006 there were noises about disintering them and bringing them home, but I can’t trace anything after that.

See, that’s the thing. Those Romanovs, even in death, they keep you guessing.

I think I have mentioned before that there are Russian aristocrats walking around in many, many countries. They fled far and wide after the revolution.  But if they went by their real names in the early days, when they first got off the boat, chances were they’d end up with an ice axe in their back.

As the boat arrived in the port, they’d cast around for some shop name or advertisment or factory label, and they’d use that.

So that by the time they reached immigration, they were someone else entirely.

You know anyone with a history like that?


37 thoughts on “The Secret Aristocrats: Russians in hiding

  1. Hmmmm

    I teased someone about his mother teaching him to run a still, and he sheepishly confessed his mother was Russian and had home-brewed Vodka from potatoes.

    . As he is 70 I’m wondering…..

  2. Something infatuates me with this historical period and my favorite films remain Dr. Zhivago and Nicholas and Alexandra. The story of how Lenin was able to extort so much money from Germany to finance his cause is of interest and even more remarkable was Germany’s willingness to pay and its’ own effort to give even more.

  3. I think I shall start a claim to the Portuguese throne. Grandfather’s name was Frank so that obviously infers that he was in direct line to take over for Franco.

  4. I know this woman. She floats around the grocers at the same time I do. I watch for her to see what she is wearing and how she moves, effortlessly, across the produce and over to the wine section with her hint of aristocracy. Loved this, Kate.

    1. She sounds just like someone I know, Penny. A young beauty who told me the snippet about her ancestors arriving on the boat from Russia in the early years of the twentieth century and adopting a very prosaic name from one of the billboards – one which she still carries. But her genes betray her. She is an absorbing person to be with.

  5. No, I surely did not know about the Beijing parking lot! 🙂 I have had a fascination with the Romanov’s since high school and my first reading of Massie’s “Nicholas and Alexandra.” At that time we were still hearing rumors that Anastasia was still alive. I devoured everything I could read, and recently was about to clean out the shelves that still hold some of these books and couldn’t bring myself to part with them. I think we are all so fascinated with Russian aristocracy and what happened to the Romanov line. There are a lot of imposters in Hollywood. They could blend in so well. I’ll be on the lookout!

    1. Yes, Gale, she was. Grandaughter to Victoria, she was born Princess Viktoria Alix Helena Louise Beatrice of Hesse and by Rhine, a Duchy of the German Empire. The last tsarina of that great land.

    1. What a wonderful clip, Belle. It’s good the children got to keep their heritage. i’d love to hear the heritage joke, but you might need to add footnotes 😀

    2. Thank you for this interesting bit of Irish immigrant history I’d never heard before. My ancestors are up in Canada, and along the eastern coast here in the US. I will ask the family archivist to ask of our Canadian Cousins if any of this is known to him and his family. I don’t know why this is stunning me so. I’m floored.

      1. I am from New Brunswick and we have a large immigrant irish population. My great grand parents on both sides of my Mother’s side were from Ireland and they settled in Miramichi. Most ill travelers from Ireland were quarantined at a small place called Middle Island

        If you are interested in Irish heritage and Genealogy the Miramichi has one of the best Irish festivals in Canada

  6. If you believe what you see on TV adverts, a lot of meerkats came from Russia too!
    Alexander Orloff will tell you about the saga!

  7. There’s a thriving Russian community in my town, and a lovely little market where the produce is varied and cheap and any matter of fascinating pickled and smoked bits and bobs line the refrigerator case, along with a vast assortment of dry goods from Eastern Europe, Israel, North Africa, and Russia.


    I confess, whenever Sasha, with his ice blue eyes and sharp cheekbones, rings up my salad, I end up wondering if he’s descended from displaced nobility…

  8. In time to come, car parks may be visited in a similar way to Stonehenge, with people guessing as to why folk temporarily, but regularly, left their personal transport, for short periods of time, on top of the last resting place of their leaders. They will not that they also left money as part of this homage.

  9. Read this to Rover. He went all enigmatic on me. Now I know he’s not a Russian; Grand-daddy was a Norwegian Forest, but even he seemed to hint there’s more buried under car parks than you’d initially think….

  10. When I was an itty-bitty boy growing up in Hong Kong in the fifties (it’s a long story, don’t ask) I was taught the piano by a Mrs da Motta. She had married a Portuguese who, presumably, had lived in Macao but they had settled in the British Crown Colony.

    She was a strict teacher who encouraged me with the help of a ruler to the knuckles and an injunction to always in future play ‘Bach, Bach and more Bach!’ She would occasionally play canasta with my mother whilst teaching me, barking out a guttural ‘B flat!’ or ‘Fourth finger!’ when I went wrong. She also taught my mother (and the amah how to make piroshkis which I very much enjoyed eating.

    From which you will gather that she must have been a Russian émigré. I never knew either her first name or her maiden name, but your post has made me wonder if she was in fact one of those minor aristocrats to escape the Revolution. I guess I’ll never know now.

  11. Boris Godunov?? Now I know where the character Boris Badenov came from. (The Bullwinkle Show cartoon that ran from 1961 – off and on thru the 1980s.)

    Who’s keeping score of how many famous people are buried beneath the tarmac? It’s rumored union organizer, Jimmy Hoffa, is buried beneath the goal lines at some football stadium.

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