Death or exile was royalty’s choice under communism, as the new rulers eradicated the decadent, feudal, and bourgeois features of the old order. When totalitarian rule collapsed, none of the five ex-monarchies (Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Russia, and Yugoslavia) abandoned their republican status. But all the newly liberated countries of the Soviet empire yearned for royal visits.
The first reigning monarch to cross the former Iron Curtain was Sweden’s Carl XVI Gustaf, who visited the Baltic states in April 1992. I was editing a newspaper in Tallinn then and was initially dubious about the event’s news value. My colleagues soon put me right, with an article headlined “Royal Magic Amidst Everyday Grey”. Swedish officials said no previous trip abroad by their royal family had ever attracted such interest. It was not just that Estonians remember Swedish rule (1561-1710) as a “golden age”. The dignity and mystique of a centuries-old hereditary institution were the antithesis of the grim artificialities of communism, and assuaged the trauma of its aftermath.
But Elizabeth II was the real show-stealer. Ten of the British Queen’s 36 state visits after 1989 were to the ex-communist world. Each had a political point. In newly unified Germany in 1992 she prayed for peace at the Kreuzkirche in Dresden, a city obliterated by British bombing. In 1993 she visited Hungary, underlining support for what then seemed a poster-child for reform. Her 1994 trip to Russia, where the Bolsheviks murdered her Romanov cousins only eight years before she was born, highlighted what then seemed like an irrevocable break with the Soviet past. In 1996 in Warsaw she acknowledged Poland’s feelings of “injustice and resentment” at its post-war fate. Days later in Prague, she sought to lay the ghosts of the 1938 Munich betrayal. In her 2006 visit to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — perhaps the strongest Anglophiles in the region — she underlined Britain’s abundant, long-standing ties with the Baltic states.
Her acute sense of history, honed by decades of diplomacy, made her relish these trips’ significance. Britain’s friendly relationship with its former colonies — her great personal mission — also offered a thought-provoking alternative to Russia’s post-1991 drift towards revanchism. The nine-country Commonwealth of Independent States, founded in 1992, is a Kremlin-dominated failure. By contrast, the 54-member Commonwealth, headed by the monarch in person but not run by Britain, has attracted Cameroon, Mozambique, and Rwanda: countries never ruled from London.
At the start of her reign, she spearheaded British government efforts to support the Yugoslav communist leader, Marshal Josip Broz Tito, following his break with Stalin. Tito accepted a British invitation with such alacrity that his visit was in March 1953, three months before the new monarch’s coronation ceremony.
Similar thinking was behind an unhappier episode in 1988, when she had to host the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena at Buckingham Palace. The aim was to stoke division in the Soviet block, though the Bucharest regime’s rebellious foreign-policy stance was coupled with brutal domestic repression. The French president, Giscard d’Estaing, had warned the Queen of the gruesome duo’s abominable behavior on a previous visit to Paris, when they had stolen items from their living quarters and hacked holes in the wall in the search for listening devices. At one point the Queen hid behind a bush in the Palace gardens rather than make small talk with her unwelcome guests; they had “blood on their hands”, she told her staff.
Britain’s monarch epitomized both the discreet, selfless dedication to public service at the highest level, incisive personal judgment, and the profound strength of the constitutional monarchy. Readers in many countries will share my grief.