Book Review: The Romanov Rescue

25 Apr

The Romanov Rescue

by Tom Kratman, Justin Watson, Kacey Ezell

“I can [speak to your father that way, Anastasia],” Chekov said, quietly maintaining eye contact with Nicholas. “I can because he isn’t the emperor anymore, and he isn’t the emperor anymore because he refused to hear the things he didn’t want to hear.”

(Fair Warning: Spoilers.)

The First World War, and the collapse of the Russian Empire and the civil war that ended in a communist victory, is not a very common stamping ground for published alternate history, although there are quite a few essays and timelines wondering what might have happened if the war had been avoided or if the Tsar and/or the Russian Whites had come out on top.  I suspect that owes much to a sense of historical inevitability surrounding both events – 1914s Europe was a tinderbox, waiting for someone to light a match, while 1917s Russia had reached and passed the breaking point quite some time ago.  The Provisional Government that took over, in the first heady days after the Tsar abdicated, was unable to either satisfy its British and French allies nor tend to the legitimate demands of the Russian population, leaving a gap for Lenin and the Bolsheviks to take power themselves.  The Bolsheviks took the calculated risk of conceding defeat in the war, making huge concessions to the Germans so Russia could step out of the fighting and concentrate on internal affairs.  This might have seemed insane in London and Paris, and would have been if the Germans hadn’t lost the war, but it paid off.  The Bolsheviks secured their power, executed the Tsar and his close family, won the civil war and unleashed a regime every bit as awful as their enemies claimed.

A second reason for the shortage of novels set in this period is a certain awareness that just about everyone involved was bad, from the imperialists of Imperial Germany to the weak and foolish Tsar, the opportunists who surrounded him, the various social classes who finally wanted to get theirs and, of course, the Bolsheviks themselves.  It is hard not to look at the era and think there are few good guys, certainly in any position of power.  Nazi apologists who argue Versailles was an unwarrantedly harsh treaty should take a good look at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which was even more harsh to the losing side.  The only true innocents in the affair were the Tsar’s children, who were murdered with the adults of their family, and even they had their flaws.  But they did not deserve their fate.

But what if they’d been rescued before they could be murdered?

The Romanov Rescue starts with the premise of the Germans, under pressure from the near-powerless Kaiser (who was actually a relative of the Tsar, as was true of most European royalty of the time), mounting a bid to rescue the Tsar and his family from the Bolsheviks before their time runs out.  Realising that an openly German rescue force would be unlikely to work (and it would be easy to brand the Tsar a German puppet), the Germans hunt through POW camps and recruit a force of Russian loyalists who can be relied upon, with a little help from the Germans, to liberate the Tsar and take him to safety.

The book effectively splits into three separate storylines before closing up again near the end of the story.  The first section focused on the recruitment and training of the infantry, something that plays very well to Kratman’s strengths as an author.  The second follows a team of infiltrators sneaking into Russia to locate where the Tsar is being held, allowing them to call the infantry force down on them.  The third follows the Tsar and his family themselves, seen through the eyes of Grand Duchess Anastasia (who is popularly thought to have survived the slaughter in OTL).  Kratman does a very good job of keeping the three separate and interesting; the first focused on solving technical challenges, the second explores 1917/8 Russia as the country slips into chaos, the third studies how the captives adapt themselves to their situation, and how some of their guards become sympathetic to them while others remain implacable foes.

The storylines then converge again, with the Tsar located … just in time.  The Bolsheviks have finally decided to kill the Tsar and his family and have dispatched a force to carry it out.  The rescue party lands – I don’t know how plausible it is for the Germans to send a troop-carrying airship so far into Russia, but it is pretty cool as well as AH-themed – attacks the Bolsheviks and tries to rescue the Tsar, with mixed results.  The Tsar and his son, the haemophilic, are both killed in the attack, with the crown descending on the senior survivor – Grand Duchess Tatiana.  At that point, the story ends … leaving plenty of room for a sequel.

The book works as well as it does, partly, because it doesn’t gloss over issues that need to be mentioned.  The Germans are not rescuing the Tsar out of the goodness of their hearts and that’s fairly clear, even from the start.  The Bolsheviks may be monsters who will get more monstrous as history rolls on, but the Russian aristocracy brought most of their troubles on themselves.  This is pointed out fairly bluntly by one of the ‘friendlier’ guards, who argues that Russian mistreatment of the Jews explains why so many Jews joined the Bolsheviks:

“Come now,” Nicholas said, taking Chekov’s queen with his own. “You mustn’t think I hate all Jews, there are many who contribute to Russia, but clearly there are a larger proportion of malcontents amongst them than in the Christian, or Mohammedan populations. Surely, you’ve noticed the raw number of Jews among the Bolsheviks!”

“I think perhaps you’re confusing cause and effect, Citizen Romanov,” Chekov said as he removed Nicholas’s queen from the board with his own rook. “For generations Jews have been brutalized and murdered and you and your ancestors have done little but scapegoat them, eat away at their rights and reduce the sentences of the bastards who prey upon them, then you have the audacity to wonder why revolution might appeal to some of them.”

This problem is also noted by a communist subversive, a former Russian POW who finds himself attached to the rescue force and enduring sermons on religion (which Marx called the opiate of the masses):

“And as long as we’re on the subject, could there be any better proof that this Christ was a charlatan than that he forgave a tax collector? I don’t bloody think so …”

These are issues that will hopefully be explored in future books, as they plagued the Russia of OTL and will need to be solved by the new Tsarina (assuming she survives the inevitable civil war.)  Indeed, it is difficult to see why anyone would support Nicolas making a bid to retake the throne and his death at the end of the novel makes sense, from a practical point of view.  (King John was a monster, during the Magna Carta War, but his son Henry III was blameless and that worked in his favour.)

The book has too large a cast of characters for any of them to get much screentime, certainly as much as they deserve, but they play their roles fairly well.  (Mostly – I was expecting the communist subversive mentioned above to do more, particularly when the Tsar is finally close to being rescued.)  In some places, the characters are tissue-thin; in others, there is a surprising depth to them.  Stockholm syndrome runs both ways.  Prisoners can get very close to their captors and convince them, in some ways, that they deserve to live.  The book also touches on the greater matters, from the reason Russia came to terms in 1917 to the decision to finally execute the Royal Family and crack down on the peasants.  It makes sense from their point of view, although much seems monstrous or irrational from ours. 

Quite how things will develop from the endpoint is hard to say.  Tatiana might well be a better rally point than anything the whites had in OTL, but – as a daughter of the Tsar – she would certainly find it hard to appeal to Russians who were heartily sick of the aristocracy (with reason); indeed, she’d be expected to uphold the aristocracy, which would be an absolute gift to her enemies.  It might be possible, of course, to push reform with so much of the aristocracy dead or in exile, but it would be tricky.  And we know, even if she doesn’t, that Imperial Germany is not going to see 1919.  Will she get help from the British and French, more enthusiastic than OTL?  Or will she be sidelined as part of a family that brought much of its troubles on itself?

Kratman is known for having firm political opinions which colour his writing, for better or worse, but they are largely absent here.  What little there is fits in well – the book points out, for example, that the Jews are often a boon to their host countries, but hated and resented despite it.  (The Protocols of the Elders of Zion came out of Imperial Russia.)  It also points out that the monarchy is bad, but so are the Bolsheviks and many of the more reasonable people would be minded to be reasonable if a reasonable alternative existed. 

The book’s greatest weakness, however, is that it spends too much time on recruiting, training and preparing the rescue force.  While this is interesting in and of itself, it comes across as padding in places and really should have been reduced (giving room for more action and adventure – for example, the Tsar is rescued, but the Bolsheviks give chase and have to be fought).

Overall, though, The Romanov Rescue works very well.  It may never be seen as a classic of the AH scene, but it is both a good action-adventure and a poke into less-explored regions of alternate history.  I give it eight out of ten.

Read a Free Sample, then purchase here.

4 Responses to “Book Review: The Romanov Rescue”

  1. peterrhodan April 26, 2022 at 9:45 pm #

    I have to admit I thought it was a well crafted story yet one that left me feeling rather let down and unsatisfied at the end.

    • Matthew Stienberg April 26, 2022 at 11:21 pm #

      There are more stories coming I have heard. This is merely the beginning, so don’t worry about feeling down about the ending! Much more to look forward to in the future.

  2. Scott Osmond April 27, 2022 at 3:14 am #

    Don’t underestimate the effects now that the characters have the orders to murder the family. Ordering the killing of kids is a massive own goal. Especially when how the young prince died comes out. It wouldn’t surprise me if both the allies and Germany agree to help the Russians. Lots of captured Russian troops to be released from prison camps? All that captured military material to be handed back? As for me I liked the book and do like reading about the prep and training. For me it shows that the flash bangs for example didn’t just appear, they were created after thought and several training accidents. So were the head lamps. Hostage rescue used by special forces evolved across many decades and many hostages deaths so for the story to be believable for me anyway this believability issue needed to be explained.

  3. Joaquin Castillo Escoriaza April 28, 2022 at 12:37 pm #

    DUDE! When are we getting more AR!

    Regards form Spain

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