BOOK REVIEW / How the revolution squandered a fortune: The Lost Fortune of the Tsars - William Clarke: Weidenfeld, pounds 18.99

Hamish McRae
Sunday 14 August 1994 23:02

WHAT happened to the wealth of the world's richest family? In 1913, when they celebrated 300 years of ruling Russia, the Romanovs had more wealth at their command than any other family in the world. Even after their fortune had been diminished by the First World War, it was still in 1917 estimated to be dollars 9bn, or pounds 30bn in present-day money. By comparison, current estimates of the Queen's wealth hover at 'only' pounds 5bn.

Yet within a few years of the revolution, virtually everything had gone. The Tsar and his children were dead, and the few valuables they still had with them when they were shot (such as the jewels his daughters had sewn into their bras) had been plundered by the murderers. As for the rest, well, most of it seemed simply to disappear.

This has inevitably led to stories of hidden bank accounts, stocks of gold lying in some vault, or hoards of jewellery in private collections. William Clarke, a former financial journalist who made a second career in the City, has written a real-life detective story, piecing together what actually happened to each part of the fortune.

The starting point was to try to distinguish what was personal wealth of the Tsar and his family, and what belonged to the state. Any ambiguity of ownership was settled very simply after the revolution, for all the Romanov assets in Russia itself were seized by the Bolshevik government. It took over the physical assets which remained: the palaces, the art collections, the jewels. The palaces of course remain, as does a fair part of the art collection. But other assets, in particular the gold reserves, had within three or four years virtually disappeared. Why?

The basic answer seems to be that Communist economic mismanagement was just as spectacular in the 1920s as it was in the 1980s. The gold reserves were run down to buy essential imports; art treasures were sold at knock-down prices; state assets abroad were ravaged by (among other things) the great German inflation. Occasionally even today we are reminded of the country's pre-revolutionary wealth, as when some of that gold dug out of the Tsar's mine recently appeared on the international markets. But the bulk of the state's assets, including any funds taken from the family, were squandered.

And the family money outside Russia? The remaining 29 members of the Romanov family today, scattered around the globe, are well enough off, but they are not among the world's seriously rich.

Several Romanovs who did manage to escape were able to finance a life of reasonable comfort by selling the personal effects they had brought with them, but others had to rely on the charity of friends. Much of the jewellery of the Romanov family was sold in the 1920s and 1930s; some is worn today by our own royals. Thus a pearl and diamond collar which originally belonged to Empress Marie, the mother of Tsar Nicholas II, for example, has been spotted on both the Queen and Princess Anne.

And the tales of wealth in the bank vaults? Clarke meticulously tracks down each lead, finding among other things that there are, probably, some Romanov accounts in a private bank in Switzerland. But it seems that, with some limited exceptions, the family did not move its money out of Russia when the revolution threatened. That may seem odd to us now, and certainly contrasts with the way in which the new rich of Russia today are squirreling money abroad. But if your family has run a country for 300 years it is hard to come to terms with the fact that that glittering era is about to close.

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