I’m watching every episode of The Crown, not only because of my love and appreciation of the monarchy in all its complexity but mainly for its entertainment value. For obvious reasons, I never take the content of the series at face value since there are many aspects which differ from reality.
Nevertheless, episode 6 of The Crown’s Season 5, titled “Ipatiev House”, brought many questions to my mind. For one, Russian President Boris Yeltsin never went to Buckingham Palace to meet Queen Elizabeth II, which makes the whole diatribe in which he insulted the Queen in Russian fictitious and potentially misleading for anyone believing that the series is an accurate portrayal of reality.
I therefore decided to ask Sir Rodric Braithwaite, Her Majesty’s Ambassador in Moscow between 1988 and 1992 and the author of an excellent recent book about the history of Russia, to shed some light on the relationship between the Crown and the two-headed eagle.
Here are the comments Sir Rodric generously offered me:
The murder of the Tsarist family did indeed weigh on the Royal family, perhaps in part because George V was apparently involved in the decision not to give them asylum. Prince Michael of Kent became popular in Russia in the 1990s in part because of his physical resemblance to Nicholas.
As far as I remember the Queen had encounters with Soviet or Russian leaders. She gave tea to Khrushchev when he visited Britain in 1956. She gave lunch to Gorbachev at Windsor in April 1989. Gorbachev invited her to visit the Soviet Union, and she accepted in principle, saying (according to my diary) she would come “in due course”. Gorbachev was gone two years later, but when Yeltsin visited the UK in January 1992, he too invited the Queen to Russia. She accepted: the decision was presumably easier because the regime was no longer the one that had killed her relatives. The visit took place in October 1994.
The story in The Crown that the Queen made it a condition of her visit that Yeltsin organize the reburial of the remains of Nicholas II and his family seems to me unlikely in the extreme.
Khrushchev, Gorbachev and Yeltsin had been on “official visits” which do not necessarily involve an encounter with the Queen. The first Russian leader to come here on a “State visit” since Nicholas I in 1843 was Vladimir Putin, who was here in 2003.
Yeltsin did indeed demolish the Ipatiev House in 1977 on the orders of the Kremlin when he was the local party secretary. Though I have no evidence, the story in The Crown that the Queen made it a condition of her visit that Yeltsin organize the reburial of the remains of Nicholas II and his family seems to me unlikely in the extreme.
The remains were found in 1991, and the question of what to do with them was a matter of controversy within Russia. They were reburied in St Petersburg in July 1998, but the Orthodox Church remained worried that they had been wrongly identified, and Nicholas and his wife were exhumed in 2015 for further DNA testing. This time round, the church was satisfied with the results, and the controversy seems to have been laid to rest.
The Crown is an excellent avenue if you are seeking a relaxing moment in front of your TV. If you seek true historical content, it’s always better – although perhaps less glamorous – to rely on historians.
Sir Rodric Braithwaite’s latest book, Russia: Myths and Realities, is published by Pegasus Books.